Sabine Hossenfelder says we don’t have free will, but its nonexistence shouldn’t bother us

Here we have the German theoretical physicist, author, and science popularizer Sabine Hossenfelder giving an 11-minute talk called “You don’t have free will, but don’t worry”. (My own talk on the subject is the first five words she uses, and I think we should be concerned—though not in the sense she means.)  The video and a written transcript are on her website Backreaction.

If you’ve read this site, you’ll know that my own views are pretty much the same as hers, at least about free will. We don’t have it, and the fundamental indeterminacy of quantum mechanics doesn’t give it to us either. Hossenfelder doesn’t pull any punches:

This means in a nutshell that the whole story of the universe in every single detail was determined already at the big bang. We are just watching it play out.

These deterministic laws of nature apply to you and your brain because you are made of particles, and what happens with you is a consequence of what happens with those particles. A lot of people seem to think this is a philosophical position. They call it “materialism” or “reductionism” and think that giving it a name that ends on –ism is an excuse to not believe it. Well, of course you can insist to just not believe reductionism is correct. But this is denying scientific evidence. We do not guess, we know that brains are made of particles. And we do not guess, we know, that we can derive from the laws for the constituents what the whole object does. If you make a claim to the contrary, you are contradicting well-established science. I can’t prevent you from denying scientific evidence, but I can tell you that this way you will never understand how the universe really works.

QED!

She adds this about quantum mechanics, which used to be a life preserver used to rescue the notion of “freedom”, but has largely been abandoned because with two seconds of thought you see that it doesn’t give us any freedom of the will:

What about quantum mechanics? In quantum mechanics some events are truly random and cannot be predicted. Does this mean that quantum mechanics is where you can find free will? Sorry, but no, this makes no sense. These random events in quantum mechanics are not influenced by you, regardless of exactly what you mean by “you”, because they are not influenced by anything. That’s the whole point of saying they are fundamentally random. Nothing determines their outcome. There is no “will” in this. Not yours and not anybody else’s.

Taken together we therefore have determinism with the occasional, random quantum jump, and no combination of these two types of laws allows for anything resembling this intuitive idea that we can somehow choose which possible future becomes real. The reason this idea of free will turns out to be incompatible with the laws of nature is that it never made sense in the first place. You see, that thing you call “free will” should in some sense allow you to choose what you want. But then it’s either determined by what you

Now note that she hasn’t actually defined free will so far, but later on she dismisses the concept that most people, including me, adhere to (my emphasis):

Taken together we therefore have determinism with the occasional, random quantum jump, and no combination of these two types of laws allows for anything resembling this intuitive idea that we can somehow choose which possible future becomes real. The reason this idea of free will turns out to be incompatible with the laws of nature is that it never made sense in the first place. You see, that thing you call “free will” should in some sense allow you to choose what you want. But then it’s either determined by what you want, in which case it’s not free, or it’s not determined, in which case it’s not a will.

Now, some have tried to define free will by the “ability to have done otherwise”. But that’s just empty words. If you did one thing, there is no evidence you could have done something else because, well, you didn’t. Really there is always only your fantasy of having done otherwise.

I don’t agree here, for the “could have done otherwise” definition of free will is the one that most people adhere to, and the “otherwise” comes not from physical randomness but from will. In fact, Hossenfelder doesn’t even agree with herself, for shortly thereafter she implicitly defines free will this way—after having disposed of a few varieties of compatibilism (again, my emphasis):

I also find it unenlightening to have an argument about the use of words. If you want to define free will in such a way that it is still consistent with the laws of nature, that is fine by me, though I will continue to complain that’s just verbal acrobatics. In any case, regardless of how you want to define the word, we still cannot select among several possible futures. This idea makes absolutely no sense if you know anything about physics.

Here she implicitly defines free will as whatever facility enables us to “[select] among several possible futures,” and that’s the notion she refutes. I’m not sure why this idea is any more “empty words” than  is “the ability to have done otherwise”.

At any rate, she goes on to conclude that the absence of free will doesn’t mean that our moral behavior will erode. I agree, of course. I think it means our “moral responsibility” disappears, for to me “moral responsibility” comes with the notion of “having an ability to make the ‘right’ choice”, an ability that doesn’t exist. I think we are responsible for our acts in the sense that it is our brains that have produced them, and thus for many reasons we should either be punished or rewarded. If you want to say “we are responsible because we have either transgressed or supported the acts society considers ‘moral'”, I’m not going to beef.

Hossenfelder concludes by reiterating that free will is “nonsense” and that “the idea deserves going into the rubbish bin.”  True, that. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be happy, for we have the illusion of free will, and we can use that as a crutch to go through life. She even suggest a psychological trick for being happy:

If it causes you cognitive dissonance to acknowledge you believe in something that doesn’t exist, I suggest that you think of your life as a story which has not yet been told. You are equipped with a thinking apparatus that you use to collect information and act on what you have learned from this. The result of that thinking is determined, but you still have to do the thinking. That’s your task. That’s why you are here. I am curious to see what will come out of your thinking, and you should be curious about it too.

Why am I telling you this? Because I think that people who do not understand that free will is an illusion underestimate how much their decisions are influenced by the information they are exposed to. After watching this video, I hope, some of you will realize that to make the best of your thinking apparatus, you need to understand how it works, and pay more attention to cognitive biases and logical fallacies.

I’m not sure how it helps to realize that “you have to still do the thinking”, when in reality the thinking is doing itself! Just because we don’t know what will happen—that our predictability is not so hot—doesn’t make us any less a bunch of meat robots who are slaves to the laws of physics. I know this, and yet I’m tolerably happy (for a lugubrious Jew). We know our “choices” are illusions, and my realization that these illusory choices come from a brain embedded in the skull of one Jerry A. Coyne does not give me the consolation Hossenfelder promises. But I still beat on, a boat against the current.

One more point: I’m not sure why compatibilists don’t just admit what Hossenfelder does instead of trying to find a definition of free will that people do have. The physicist Sean Carroll and philosopher Dan Dennett have taken that route, which I call the Definitional Escape rather than Hossenfelder’s There’s No Escape but Isn’t it Cool to Not Know what Comes Next.

The one thing I think Hossenfelder neglects comes from her last paragraph. If we do understand that free will in the Hossenfeldian sense is illusory, that has enormous consequences for the judicial system and for how we think about people who are either more or less fortunate than we are. I won’t dilate on this as I’ve discussed it to death. But yes, realizing that our brains are particles and obey the laws of physics should cause us worry—worry about how we treat prisoners and those who are mentally ill, and worry about how some people hold others responsible for making the “wrong choices.”

That aside, I applaud Dr. Hossenfelder for realizing the truth, which, as she says, is the ineluctable outcome of science, and for saying it so straightforwardly. I’m a big fan of hers. And I applaud myself for agreeing with her.

 

h/t: Andrew

115 thoughts on “Sabine Hossenfelder says we don’t have free will, but its nonexistence shouldn’t bother us

  1. I’m not sure why compatibilists don’t just admit what Hossenfelder does instead of trying to find a definition of free will that people do have.

    Compatibilists generally *do* admit what Hossenfelder does, that we don’t have any free will of that sort, not the tiniest scrap of it.

    But then, having done that, and accepted that we’re in a deterministic universe, we then have to try to understand concepts that we use all the time and do need, concepts of agency and choosing and selecting and of responsibility and morality. Compatibilism is about properly understanding those in a deterministic world.

    1. “do need, concepts of agency and choosing and selecting and of responsibility and morality”

      Correct that we need those things but that’s not what compatibilism is. Compatibilism is specifically about saving one term. “Free will.”

      We do not need that term. So compatibilists are wrong about that and appeals to a need for concepts of “agency” and “choice” and “responsibility” and “morality” are all moot. We accept all of those terms. Just not the term “free will” which is the only term we are rejecting, and compatibilism is only about saving that one specific term. A useless term.

      Incompatibilist do not reject any of those other terms you mention.

      1. “Correct that we need those things but that’s not what compatibilism is. Compatibilism is specifically about saving one term. “Free will.””

        I beg to differ. Compatibilism is wider, its about understanding a deterministic world. The central part is understanding what it is to “choose”. We choose to have chicken rather than beef, or choose sugar in our coffee, and we still do that if we accept determinism. From there, accepting the concepts “freedom” and “will” are just consequences. You willed chicken, but were free to choose beef (no-one would have stopped you).

        “Incompatibilist do not reject any of those other terms you mention”

        Well, there I’m not sure. The OP rejects the concepts of “choosing” and “selecting” except as illusions.

        1. “We choose to have chicken rather than beef,”

          That’s freedom of action not freedom of will. You were offered a selection and you ordered the one you desired. Free will would be if you could choose to desire the beef over the chicken. You can’t. When offered a selection you will take the one that you desire over the rest and you did not chose to desire it over the rest.

          To call this “free will” is a language game you can play but it’s not a coherent or useful description of reality.

          1. “You were offered a selection and you ordered the one you desired. Free will would be if you could choose to desire the beef over the chicken.”

            And yet, if we ask: “are you wearing a burka of your own free will, or because you’re required to”, then “free will” is freedom of action.

            We compatibilists know full well that we’re not willing what we will.

            1. If you don’t will what you will then your will is not free. Free will is a bad description of reality. And completely unnecessary.

              1. Yes, the will is not free. There is no dualistic willing of the will. Compatibility are 100% clear on that. But in the above question about a burka, “free will” is clearly referring to freedom of action.

            2. Coel,

              It’s possible we have a bit of disagreement here, but I’m not sure.

              “We compatibilists know full well that we’re not willing what we will.”

              I’m not sure we can’t, in a sense, “will what we will.”

              Take a basic claim about having freedom of choice, or real options. I’m capable of raising either my left or right arm.

              I demonstrate I can raise my right arm.
              Could I have raised my left arm instead?
              Yes, if I had wanted to. How can I give evidence? I simply raise my left arm.
              This is me showing that in a relevantly similar situation, with the relevant change in brain state (change of desire), I “could do/could have done otherwise.”

              I think we are on the same board with that?

              Ok, then the incompatibilist says “but that’s not good enough! Because you may be able to do what you will to do, but you couldn’t have willed differently!”

              Now, it is weird that this isn’t seen to be just obviously and immediately falsified under the compatibilist paradigm. Of course I can will differently. The act of taking a different deliberative action ENTAILS being able to will differently. If after raising my right arm I raise my left, I’m simultaneously demonstrating I can both will and act differently.

              But then we come to the question “Ok, we can will differently….but We can’t WILL what we will!

              Well, what would this claim actually mean?
              In rejecting that we can will what we will, might we be falling in to exactly the same “mistake” as incompatibilists?

              Back to demonstrating my freedom to choose raising either of my arms.

              What explains my raising my left arm? It’s because I willed to raise it.

              But what explains why I willed to raise it? Is it just some purely random occurrence?

              No. My specific will to raise my left arm was caused by my current overriding will to demonstrate my concept of free will. Just as the will to screw this shelf-to-that-panel and any number of similar actions arises from my willing to “put together my new IKEA shelf,” which itself derived from my will to buy the IKEA shelf which was derived from my will to buy an affordable shelf, etc. You can’t really explain where one will comes from without understanding another will from which it arose. I willed to raise my arm BECAUSE I willed to provide demonstrations of my free will.

              So if many instances of what we will are explicable as arising from other things WE WILL, that arise from our personal concerns and goals, “my will to do Y arose from my will to do X” how is this not a relevant sense of “willing what we will?”

              To deny this understanding of willing what we will, it seems we’d have to engage in saying “Ok, but why did you will THAT? Ok, then why did you will THAT?” and on and on until you are doing exactly what the incompatibilist is doing, asking for an account that extends to the unknown, and to outside the agent, as a way of denying human choice and agency. The same thing compatibilists identify as being fallacious.

              What do you think?

              Cheers.

              1. Hmmmm. Why has no one committed suicide by simply willing themselves to not breath anymore? Surely it would be easier than jumping in front of a train or getting a gun and blowing your head off.

                What about those annoying songs you hate but can’t get out of your head. Why not just will yourself to desire hearing Achey Breaky Heart in your head repeatedly?

                And why go through heart ache over a break up when you can just will yourself to desire being dumped?

                Is it not delusional to think you can just will yourself to desire different things than what you desire?

              2. Tim,

                It’s fallacious to appeal to “we can’t will X and Y therefore we can’t will anything.”

                That’s like me using an example that I can decide whether to take a drive or not, and you saying “but you can’t decide that your body stops metabolizing, or you can’t decide the weather, can you?!!”

                Well, no, neither can I will to jump to the moon, but how does that rebut that I can decide, under a great many suitable circumstances, to drive my car?

                So the issue isn’t whether you can find things utterly out of our control, or that are mysterious in terms of not being able to trace back to some other act of will. The issue are the types of examples I’ve given were it seems we CAN trace one act of will as instantiated by another desire/will.

                In terms of the actual examples I gave, if you are a hard incompatibilist, I suspect you will want to challenge them by saying “but how did THAT will come about? Ok, then how did THAT one come about?”…until you reach a point of mystery.

                But this is to engage in an untenable game of infinite regress. Literally every explanation we have for anything terminates in mystery when this game is played, which is why we seek the relevant proximate causes in our explanations, without demanding some complete account of all possible chains of causation.

                But this is why I addressed my post to Coel, to see how he thinks about it as a compatibilist.

              3. Ultimately, all “will” mental states must arise from lower-level brain-circuitry processes that we would not label as “will”, and those are also the product of the prior state of the system.

                Thus will arises from non-will (as opposed to from dualistic “pure thought” or whatever). So we should accept that our wills are not themselves “freely willed” (or, if they are, as one step in the chain, ask where *those* wills arise from).

  2. “The result of that thinking is determined, but you still have to do the thinking. That’s your task. That’s why you are here. I am curious to see what will come out of your thinking, and you should be curious about it too.”

    I am mostly a fan of Hossenfelder and I do read her blog regularly. She has the physics right, of course, but, like our host, pretends that physics has something to do with “free will” as the phrase is normally used.

    Sure, there are some people that believe that humans have some sort of magic spark that allows them to make decisions with “free will”. That’s just woo and those people are wrong.

    As she points out in her conclusion quoted above, and hints in her post’s title, the fact that we don’t have the kind of free will she’s talking about shouldn’t bother us. We still have to do the thinking which means we still have to make decisions. Nothing changes! As Dennett says, we still have all the free will we need and we have the same responsibilities we always had. So what if we don’t have physics free will. We have common sense free will.

    1. I am not bothered by not having free will.

      And I don’t need to pretend to have some other kind either.

      But I do find that by looking for a compatibilist type definition of free will it allows us to chase the shiny baubles of things like morality.

    2. You don’t wash your hands before you eat thanks to common sense. You do so because of physics (chemistry more specifically).

      Point being that the scientific image changes how we act in monumental ways and for very good reason. As I said in my comment, physical and biological determinism have virtually eliminated my ability to rationalize hatred towards anyone. Belief in “free will” used to cause me to hate people who do bad things which is only rational if I believe they have free will. That hatred in no way helps me to mitigate those bad things. But knowing that they had no free will does indeed help me mitigate bad things, like my own hatred and the irrational actions caused by it.

      1. There are reasons to avoid hatred but dislike is justifiable. I dislike Trump greatly for what he’s done to the country, more so because he does it solely for his own benefit. Because of determinism, perhaps he couldn’t have behaved differently. On the other hand, perhaps I couldn’t have behaved differently in disliking him and voting against him. Knowing this really changes nothing. Humans still have to play their respective roles, including making choices. If a choice is made consciously by a healthy mind that is not coerced, we call that acting of our own free will. We are responsible for the choice and its consequences.

        1. I can believe tRump has no free will. A necessary condition for free will (compatibilist, of course) is the capacity for self regulation. tRump has demonstrated no capacity for that.

    3. Sorry, but I find your comment that I’m “pretending” to think that physics has something to do with free will offensive and wrong. In fact, it has everything to do with free will as it’s conceived by most people, who accept that “free will” is libertarian free will.

      I’m not pretending anything; I’m addressing the form of free will that the majority of people think we have. And physics refutes it.

      1. I don’t think it is free will as conceived by most people. Even if everyone agreed with your thesis that determinism controls our every move, I predict nothing would change. We would continue to make choices as we always have. It’s a truth that matters not a whit to the doings of mankind. Except for the physicists of course.

        Let’s imagine you were to win your argument and everybody agreed that determinism rules. Everyone would understand that, though we think we make choices, we really couldn’t do otherwise. I can’t imagine people being able to live in such a world without ignoring this truth. Everything we do, both good and bad, would really not be our fault, not our doing. No awards, no merit, no punishment, nothing. Even love would be relegated to a robotic working out of the laws of physics. I just can’t see it ever happening. It’s not that I am denying that truth, just insisting that it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t affect how we behave. If we were to embrace that truth fully, all behavior would come to a standstill. If we embrace this truth partially, using it as the basis for a criminal justice system for example, it would be a travesty.

        1. You haven’t read the data I’ve adduced showing that 60% to 80% of people conceive of free will (in a survey in four countries) as pure libertarian I-could-have-done otherwise free will. You are making an assertion that is untrue because you “think” it’s true. And don’t forget all those religious people who accept libertarian free will–a bedrock of Abrahamic religion. If you think most people are really determinists, please give us the data.

          As for saying, “It wouldnt affect how we behave,” how do you know that? If people realized that, they might very well effect reforms of the judicial system, as I advocated after I became a determinist.

          It sure mattered to me.

          And, as I said above, I did not “pretend” to think anything; I said what I actually did think. Your comment was, in my view, insulting, and I think you should retract the bit implying that I and others are not saying what we really think.

          1. I feel confident that I could pick apart those surveys you talk about quite easily. My reasoning is based on how much the pollee would have to understand about determinism and physics to consider the question at the level of detail necessary. There’s just no way that 60-80% of regular folk are going to understand we’re talking about playing reality back with absolutely NO changes in any state in the whole universe. That’s the only conditions under which “couldn’t have chosen otherwise” is true.

            If the questioner spends the time making the person understand these conditions, they’ll probably say that they couldn’t have chosen otherwise. If they say they still could have chosen otherwise, then they can be asked how that is possible when every state of the universe, including all their brain states, has been duplicated. Some may give a woo-ish explanation. They’re just wrong. Others may choose to change their answer.

            1. I’m sorry, but you don’t know about the survey I highlighted, and you’re wrong about how you can pick it apart.The people said they agreed in a world that, with all else equal and going back to the moment of choice, yes, they could have chosen otherwise. And they said in a purely deterministic world, people didn’t have moral responsibility.

              It’s telling that you know nothing about that survey but are so confident that it doesn’t express people’s opinions. And you seem to think that those people are so dumb that they couldn’t understand the question. We’re not arguing about who’s right, we’re arguing about what the survey said.

              Finally, your earlier comment was rude, as I pointed out twice, and you’ve ignored that. Nobody was pretending to believe anything.

              And you haven’t addressed my statement that you were rude.

  3. I freely admit that I really don’t have a grip on this stuff, despite the previous posts about it, and that the whooshing sound you hear is both the concept and PCC(E)’s patient explanations flying over my head.

    Hossenfelder writes, “Well, of course you can insist to just not believe reductionism is correct. But this is denying scientific evidence. We do not guess, we know that brains are made of particles. And we do not guess, we know, that we can derive from the laws for the constituents what the whole object does. If you make a claim to the contrary, you are contradicting well-established science. I can’t prevent you from denying scientific evidence, but I can tell you that this way you will never understand how the universe really works.” But if my brain particles are beyond my conscious control then how can I “insist to just not believe” anything? Apologies in advance for the stupidity of this question!

    1. I don’t think it is a stupid question at all. In fact, I think it brings up an issue of inconsistency/hypocrisy on the part of many who claim to accept determinism, yet attribute the beliefs of people they disagree with to a matter of willfullness.

      I know that though I accept determinism, I’m determined to think in non-deterministic terms quite frequently. It is difficult to be as consistent with my beliefs as I would like. (Which of course provides further support for determinism.)

      1. Pretty much exactly what I said in a comment somewhere in this thread – if no one has any option what to think why is she so “determined” haha – to tell us? This argument could drive us nuts…

        I thought Jez studied Philosophy at uni, but he was probably sleeping through lectures!

  4. Everything that Hossenfelder and our host say about lacking free will is convincing. But where my thinking breaks down is in discussing the implications of this insight: norms (how one should act on this realization) and aspirations (what one hopes will come from this realization).

    Jerry writes, “I think we are responsible for our acts in the sense that it is our brains that have produced them, and thus for many reasons we should either be punished or rewarded.”

    But if determinism plus quantum unpredictability is real then norms like “should be punished” don’t seem meaningful: punishment or reward will be meted out regardless, because whether anyone expresses those norms, and whether anyone else learns those norms and acts on them is all predetermined.

    Hossenfelder writes, “After watching this video, I hope, some of you will realize that to make the best of your thinking apparatus, you need to understand how it works.” But that hope or aspiration seems predicated on the idea that a viewer of her video could have understood or not understood her ideas, and that this outcome depends on whether or not Hossenfelder chooses to post the video. And it seems that Hossenfelder has already shown that this choice does not happen: whether or not she makes and posts that video, and viewership and responses to it, is all predetermined.

    Again I’m convinced about the non-existence of free will. I just don’t understand how one can think about norms and aspirations given that one agree with the propositions.

    Indeed I originally wrote the preceding sentence using a normative form: “…how one SHOULD think about norms and aspirations…” Just goes to show how pervasive this form of thinking is, at least in my own head. Maybe others have better insights into how to think and talk about this?

    1. Exactly! We are so constrained by language, it is impossible to unravel this in a meaningful way – unless one uses mathematical language?

      But as we have no choices all punishment & reward is irrelevant, & there is nothing that is good or bad, & the whole idea of evil either moral or religious, is pointless. We cannot have it both ways – either we are responsible or we are not.

      1. “We cannot have it both ways – either we are responsible or we are not.”

        But a moments reflection will show that many people do have it both ways (and yes that is a philosophical contradiction).

        It seems to be a matter of how far back in events you can trace your involvement… At one time in the UK part of a defence against a driving offence was that you were drunk at the time and not in full control of your faculties. Being drunk while driving has now been made into an aggravating factor which adds to the seriousness of your lawbreaking. Pushing your responsibility back by a few hours.

    2. The challenges posed by language are easier to deal with by assuming that when determinists say something like, “You should do X and Y and Z,” that they’re not speaking to “me” but are talking directly to my brain. They’re telling my brain what it ought to do and, oh, by the way, to let the self-aware body know after the fact.

  5. Does a roller coaster ride become meaningless because you are not driving it? Quite the opposite! Enjoy the ride folks!

    The better question is not “do we have free will” but rather, does the term “free will” best describe our reality? Who could think that it does?

    I used to hate a lot of people when I believed in free will and rightly so if they indeed had free will. Learning the science and biology of determinism has relieved me of all that hatred. I now see it as completely irrational, unhelpful, and unnecessary.

  6. I love your analogy that living our lives is like riding on a roller coaster – excellent mental imagery. Also excellent is the concept that hating people makes no sense if there is no free will.

  7. Sabine Hossenfelder needs to go read some Bertrand Russell. Specifically the part where he says “The law of causality, I believe, like much that passes muster among philosophers, is a relic of a bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously supposed to do no harm.” He said this not because of quantum mechanics, but because the charge-parity-time-reversibility of fundamental physical laws made “causality” obsolete (he thought).

    Russell was not quite right: causality can still have physical meaning in large-scale systems with a definable entropy. But Russell was right to point out that fundamental physical laws do not have a preferred direction in time. You can derive past conditions from present ones, just as easily as derive future conditions. And so, causality in physics does not agree with our intuitive notions of causality. Causality does not flow from past to future, as human intuition would have it. It flows from low-entropy to high-entropy configurations. However, any fully microscopically detailed description of the entire physical state of the universe takes entropy out of the picture. (S = k log W; do the math.)

    A macroscopic description of the past doesn’t suffice to guarantee what you will do in the present (too many chaotic processes). A fully microscopically detailed configuration does correspond to your present, but doesn’t cause it, because the physical relationship lacks the necessary asymmetry.

    It turns out that not only can you select among several possible futures – you can also select among several possible pasts! With careful specification of those pasts in terms of their relation to what you do now.

    1. Our scientific laws are descriptions of what is observed; so, it is irrelevant to me that these descriptions are reversible.

      If we in some way deny causality, then I don’t cause anything to happen, it is just happening or perhaps things just are. I do not any freedom in this world either.

    2. “It turns out that not only can you select among several possible futures – you can also select among several possible pasts!”

      This is lovely.

      The above is my choice for this timeline.

    3. Lightcone causality is the basis of all current successful, broad physics – on all scales.

      I think you confuse detailed balance of elementary processes (equilibrium between reverse processes) with the large scale entropy increase (“arrow of time”) that is caused by the expanding universe. “Entropy can be defined for any Markov processes with reversible dynamics and the detailed balance property.” [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entropy ] Having so defined entropy, the total entropy of the universe must increase due to its expansion (the TS term of the expansion thermodynamics, with T slowly changing).

      It also seems that you don’t consider the difference between ordinary systems and the universe which they export entropy to.

      1. The entropy of a fully-specified (at the micro-level) state is 0, because W (omega in the Wiki page) is 1. In order to talk about the entropy of the universe increasing, we have to move to a larger-scale description (such as temperature) which abstracts away from microscopic details. I wrongly implied that entropy is not defined for microstates themselves. It’s defined, but trivial.

        Lightcones restrict interactions in both temporal directions. I’m taking it as part of the definition of “causality” that if A causes B, then B does not also cause A. I.e. asymmetry is part of the definition of “causality”. If you drop this requirement, then yes, “causality” applies wherever light-cone restrictions do. That doesn’t change the absence of time-directedness at the microscopic level in the succession physical states.

        When discussing determinism, Jerry often jumps immediately to the idea of a complete physical description, down to the last detail, of all the states related by natural law to human action. Phenomena like heat dissipation into the environment, as suggested in your last paragraph, are already included.

  8. Here is a chance for Jerry to take free money off of me, by way of a bet that is very easy to win. All I ask in return is your reasoning for why you took whichever bet you did. I will ask one pretty simple question about it.

    Located below is a proposition P. You can take either of two bets (or neither). Bet 1 is a bet on P at 10:1 for a stake of 5 dollars (you win $50 if P is true, and lose $5 if P is false). Bet 2 is a bet on P at 1:10 for a stake of 50 dollars (win $5 if P is true, lose $50 if P is false). You get to see what P says before betting. You can also assume that determinism as defined by Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is true.

    Proposition P: The past state of the universe, one year ago, was such as to correspond, by the laws of nature, to your taking Bet 2 today.

    In case it is needed (but it won’t be) you can nominate any other commentator who posted to this thread by Oct 11 at 3:30 Central Time, as judge.

    And if Jerry doesn’t take the bet within 24 hours from this comment posting, anyone who agrees with him about free will can take it.

      1. If he doesn’t take the bet by 24 hours after I posted it, you can buy yourself a beer – by taking the bet and winning. It’s a straightforward simple logic problem with a clear winning answer. There are no hidden tricks. It’s free money, Jake!

  9. I said what she said here, several times in the past –
    “If you did one thing, there is no evidence you could have done something else because, well, you didn’t. Really there is always only your fantasy of having done otherwise.”

    Exactly – unless you posit many worlds continually splitting into new parallel worlds, there is only one outcome of any choice. We cannot re-run to see what might have happened. This is why free will is meaningless.

    I will say in a determinist universe it is already pre-ordained whether or not people will accept that or argue for free will, so why bother explaining this to people? Oh, because it was determined that you would…

    I wonder if that just does not just mean determinism is equally as meaningless as free will… ???

    1. This is a typical incompatibilist argument! They almost define free will as that which follows from determinism. Conveniently ignored is the fact that, at the level of human interaction, it is impossible to know what determinism (ie, the laws of physics) dictates at any instant at the level of human behavior and affairs.

    2. Jumping in here with some thoughts.

      When only one of a number of options is selected, there are questions such as :

      • are the options independent
      • are selections irreversible

      Irreversibility seems to me to sound related to determinism – one option is selected, and the selection cannot be reversed. However, it also seems to me that not every branch point in a decision tree is necessarily irreversible, such that one outcome might seem determined – however, reversing the decision would, by definition, un-determine it. … or… something like that… “could have done otherwise” becomes true. Yet overall, of course, there is no freedom to this – the reversal is determined, but the outcome is temporarily indeterminate.

      That took way more words than I thought!

    3. Hi uninterestingthings aka Dominic

      “If you did one thing, there is no evidence you could have done something else because, well, you didn’t. Really there is always only your fantasy of having done otherwise.”

      Why? Is this because, in your view, determinism rules out the concept of “possibilities?”

      How consistent will you be?

      Let’s say you and your partner are sitting home and you ask “Do you want to go out for a stroll?”

      Your partner replies: “But we are sitting in our house. There is no evidence we could do something else. Really, in raising the idea of our going for a stroll, there is always only your fantasy of our being able to do otherwise than we are doing now.”

      Oh well. I guess going for a stroll isn’t *really* possible now. Because to talk about different possibilities doesn’t make sense given determinism.

      Does that reply make sense to you?
      Because it’s essentially the logic you are using to do away with saying “I could have done otherwise.”

      Cheers.

      1. I think you’ve misunderstood the quote. In any case your scenario is not at all equivalent or consistent with the quote.

      2. The problem with the “couldn’t have done otherwise” argument is that most people don’t consider the question at the detailed level necessary to make it true. When the incompatibilist asks whether I could have chosen coffee or tea for my breakfast, they mean if we could run the reality tape again, duplicating every state in the universe and time itself, could I have chosen something different. Of course not!

        Of course, I could still have chosen otherwise if I’d wanted to. “If I’d wanted to” is the operative phrase here. It means that if my brain was in a different state, such that my desire was for tea instead of coffee, I could have and would have chosen tea.

        1. “… if my brain was in a different state, such that my desire was for tea instead of coffee, I could have and would have chosen tea.”

          What explains the existence of the tea and coffee on offer, how do we know each branch if the decision tree “tea” or “coffee” is of equal probability, is the path down “tea” or “coffee” irreversible, and after all those simple premises, how much of the outcome is left to be explained by the experience of one person, and how much weight is placed on the experience?

  10. Free will is a choice you don’t have!
    Wrap that around your ‘will’ and smoke it.
    I dare say the effect is the same, for some it means a headache.
    If you follow Sean Carroll down the ” many-worlds interpretation” of quantum mechanics and I understand the implications correctly, NO choice needs to be made, all possible choices are made!
    As far as you as an individual goes you are left with one, the one you seemingly made. The illusion is a warm gun…

  11. “But yes, realizing that our brains are particles and obey the laws of physics should cause us worry—worry about how we treat prisoners and those who are mentally ill, and worry about how some people hold others responsible for making the „wrong choices.“”

    That is true, of course, on the one hand. But on the other hand, the social recognition of the lack of free will can have completely opposite effects:
    Indifference towards convicts, or the mentally ill. They could not do otherwise? Then they should be locked away, forever, just as one locks away aggressive dangerous dogs, of which one also always knew that they have no free will. After all, rehabilitation is an extremely high cost factor and the success of the therapeutic measures is uncertain.
    One should not underestimate that the knowledge of the lack of free will also has the potential to lead to a reduction in humanity and compassion.

  12. I guess I will have to chime in on the side of those who probably don’t completely understand the debate, even though I try to read these posts carefully.

    I have to admit that from my perspective, it seems a bit like a theological debate, like a couple of rabbis debating the implications of some arcane passages in the Talmud.

    As I understand it, we are sort of discussing whether a roll of dice is really random, because if another universe were constructed atom for atom identical to ours, your exact duplicate would also roll the dice, and the result would be identical. But the knowledge of that fact will not help you win in Vegas, nor will it be much consolation when you are being loaded onto the rail cars that the fellow with the clipboard and truncheon could not have done otherwise.

    I am sure that I am probably seeing this from a flawed and shallow perspective. I look forward to further posts along these lines, hoping that I will gain a more nuanced understanding of the subject.

  13. Well, you had no choice – you *had* to agree with her! 😉 So are you justified in “applauding yourself” for agreeing with her? Oh wait – you had no choice but to applaud yourself.

    And so on. Makes me dizzy. But it was a good talk.

      1. I must admit I don’t like the phrase “I had no choice.”

        A coin toss chooses who kicks off first. I can get a computer to choose a pseudo random number for me. These choices like mine are not free … I have no free choice.

        We make choices all the time, we are just blind to the underlying mechanism.

        1. Yeah, I don’t get this “no choice” business, either. Having a choice is separate from the outcome. If I put two different plates of cat food down, my cat has a choice. It eats one, or both, but it has a choice, separate from the deterministic process that determines the outcome. If I put only one plate down, it has no choice. Can’t quite figure why people argue about this.

          1. I get why Jerry might say “we have no choice”.

            I think in context I understand where he is coming from, but it does lead to a lot of extraneous discussions about waiters and menus.

        2. I must admit I don’t like the phrase “I had no choice.”

          Yes, this is the throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater language game that is partly why I simply can not get on board with the hard incompatibilist stance. If a “determined” choice means “we had NO choice” then it means you’ve ruled out ever having a “choice.”

          But clearly this can’t work in real life.

          If I am asked by the waiter at the end of a meal “would you like desert or just the bill?” the consistent incompatibilist reply would be “I don’t have a choice!”

          Clearly this is untenable.

          The fact no one, including hard incompatibilists, never actually speak like that isn’t because it’s some hard truth we can’t face. It’s because that type of answer doesn’t make sense. The waiter is not asking a metaphysical question that involves “can you make either choice in precisely the same brain state if I rewind the universe to the same point for you?”

          He’s simply using the normal language of “options and possibilities” to gain information. “IF you want X it is possible for me to do X.” There is no anti-determinism inherent in such concepts.

          This incoherence in how the hard incompatibilst approaches the term “choice” – accepting it all day long to make rational sense of contemplating between two actions, but upon making the choice denying the very logic she used to make the choice, *should* indicates she has gone off the road somewhere in analyzing what we normally mean by “choice” and “possibilities” and “options.”

          And it’s exactly where Sabine Hossenfelder goes off the road early in her video, IMO.

          1. Once again you think people are going off the road because we can speak as if we had a choice, or feel as if we had a choice (the illusion of free will), but realize that we could not have chosen other than we did, is some kind of horrible dertailing of thought.

            Just because it’s normal language, and in fact many people BELIEVE that normal language, doesn’t mean it’s true. We couldn’t have chosen otherwise, we pretend we have, and that’s that. The waiter is simply asking “what do you want for dessert?” And no, I don’t think Hossenfelder’s use of that language, or mine, is “incoherent.”

          2. And yet, I am a hard incompatibilist.

            The free will debate is not about whether we make choices or not, but more about the nature of those choices. And even more on point, the discussion is about how our various wills are formed.

            If soft and hard determinists agree, “I could have not done otherwise”, then this aspect of existence I think requires closer examination. If a compatibilist believes they could have done otherwise, as opposed to imagining having done otherwise, then I don’t think they are a determinist of any flavour.

            1. Hi rom,

              If a compatibilist believes they could have done otherwise, as opposed to imagining having done otherwise, then I don’t think they are a determinist of any flavour.

              But the issue of debate is hiding in what you mean by “imagining” having done otherwise.

              Take any empirical claim you think you have good reason to be true. For instance:

              If you hold your hand in your oven’s flame for long enough your skin will burn.

              Now, in a sense you may be “imagining” this event to consider this empirical claim. But does that mean that the empirical claim – “IF I took that action I’d burn my skin” is not “true?”

              Sure it’s true. You are just putting together past experience and other knowledge you have about the nature of your skin, the nature of fire, wiggling a condition – IF I do X – to understand that truth.

              Saying “I could have done X if I’d wanted to” is doing the same thing. It’s not saying “under precisely the same conditions” but wiggling conditions “If I had wanted to, I was capable in such a condition to do X.”

              This is the sense in which I “believe” I could have done otherwise (if I’d wanted to).
              Imagination may be involved in picturing such an event, but that doesn’t entail any falsehood in the claim, any more than imagination is involved in contemplating the truth of what WOULD happen IF you place your hand in fire.

              So, yup, we’re good ol’ determinists in the same way you are when thinking about what is possible in the world.

              Does this clarify?

              1. rom,

                Do I infer correctly you are suggesting that I’ve merely argued an uninformative tautology? That is, you think all I’ve said is “if things were different, things would have been different?”

                That would be wrong.

                Tautologies in being purely self-referential are always true and non-falsifiable.

                Whereas I have described normal empirical claims that can be true or false, and which can have evidence, or not, in their favor.
                They are information-yielding structures.

                To say “IF you place your hand long enough in your stove’s flame, you will burn your skin” is informative, not a tautology, and is either true or false, and it can be tested. (E.g. point to the nature of fire, the nature of skin, and previous evidence of skin burning in fire – or do an experiment and hold your hand in the fire).

                Similarly, to say “I could ride my bike IF I want to” is the same type of claim. It’s informative, can be true or false, can be justified via evidence or experiment.

                If I walked to the end of my street and back, and then claimed “I could have done the same path riding my bike IF I’d wanted to” this is the same If/then structure. It’s informative about my capabilities under such conditions, can have evidence in it’s favor (e.g. you’ve seen me ride my bike before), and it can be tested: I can ride my bike tracing the same path to provide evidence for my claim.

                (Because, the claim is not “under precisely the same circumstances at the same time of the universe”, but given certain changes in conditions – EXACTLY the type of assumptions you will make in any other truthful empirical claim, scientific or otherwise. We are always talking about “given condition X or Y” when understanding what is possible in the world).

  14. In the spirit of the season, I would like to encourage all the Americans to be sure to vote, and vote for your preference for every office and measure. You know you must!

  15. Thanks for amplifying Sabine’s post — her website/Utube channel is well worth checking out.

    She does music videos as well — it was a pleaure to re-watch her Galaxy Song [from Monty Python’s MoL]!

  16. Try TELLING people that, though, particularly the “faith community” – who are imprinted (with no way out, it is predetermined) with all sorts of notions of free will and agency and an obsession with right and wrong as we supposedly choose it.

    The more religious the more they believe in the illusion of free will I’ve found.

    Also, successful people – they get scratchy when told their success isn’t ALL their own creation.

    I’ve sent one of your Free Will concerts to many people and usually they just don’t get it.

    D.A. NYC

    ps You might have the Midwest there, professor, but *I* am the most lugubrious Jew here in New York. So that’s THAT, then.

  17. The “model-switching problem” yet again. The intuition of most people comes from our mind weighing different options and picking one. The one we took is determined, as are all mental processes preceding it. Our apparent behaviour then goes on to form the input for whatever happens next, also deterministically following along the track.

    That’s clear. But then, bizarrely, hard determinists take this to philosophise tremendously about oughts and moral problems and implications that follow from this insight. But if you agree to the first paragraph, you will see that this is silly. The philosophising as well as whatever comes out of it is also determined, but part of the process.

    And as a result, two different mental models clash. Which I will now just dub “model-switching problem” because the discussions arise out of mixing and switching two incompatible models, the inside view of a mind figuring out what it will do next, and the outside view of a universe that is deterministic and where every figuring-out was determined aeons ago.

    We cannot truly pretend we have no free will, because our internal sense is about figuring out what we’ll do next, and this is evident even for diamond-hard determinists who switch to the intuitive sense of volition with ease the moment they leave the hard-deterministic office, and are allowed to let their hair down. It even comes through when philosophising, because they casually try to persuade others of their view as if readers could think otherwise.

    It’s an interesting question at first, with the same puzzling appeal as Zeno’s paradoxes, but after the pieces are all on the table, it’s like watching a cat chase her tail, where the model-switching comes down to inconsistent semantic quibbling.

    1. It would be better to avoid model-switching, by using actual modern physics as your model instead of intuitive “physics”. Dispense with the idea of a fundamental “flow of time” with a unique and universal direction. Educate yourself in relativity theory and its denial of an absolute present, and in how thermodynamics explains the perceived “arrow of time”. Dispense with Aristotle’s notion that everything which moves is naturally at rest and must be made to move. Etc.

      If you pick and choose determinism from among scientific discoveries, while ignoring the above, you will misunderstand determinism.

      1. I don’t believe this is practical or even possible. I’d go as far and say that our mind does not have a consistent overarching understanding, but creates myriads of small models that deal with a local prediction. I think the models are core of cognition and built by analogy and called “category” or “things”.

  18. I am perfectly happy to accept that fundamentally we are products of a deterministic universe and everything we do is ultimately determined by chains of events, at all levels from the macro to the sub-atomic, that stretch back through time. What I struggle to grasp is how this has particular implications for the administration of justice.

    I presume that those (e.g. religious) people who believe in free will nevertheless believe that each of us is susceptible to having our behaviour influenced by others. The evidence indicates that such people endeavour to teach their children ‘right’ from ‘wrong’ and to influence society in general about ‘moral’ issues as they see them so presumably they believe that we each have free will but can be persuaded (ultimately through threats of eternal damnation or promises of eternal salvation) to use it ‘wisely’.

    Given this it is possible to conceive of Professor Coyne and a religious person both confronted by the same criminal, guilty of a some crime. Professor Coyne believes the criminal has no free will and could not have done otherwise whilst the religious person believes that he had free-will and could have chosen to act differently. Nevertheless coming from these two opposed positions the Professor and the religious believer *could* arrive at the same conclusion about how best to treat the criminal: e.g. locking him away for the safety of the rest of society, seeking to rehabilitate him whilst in prison so that he does not re-offend on his release.

    I accept that some believers in free will would not be interested in rehabilitation and would simply clamour for vengeance but my point is that rejection of free-will is not a necessary condition for espousing the kind of approach to criminal justice that Professor Coyne (and I) argues for. Indeed, the idea of rehabilitation seems to me to require that the criminal has some sense of personal agency as, in practice, we all do.

    If we stop and think about it, it is quickly clear that the laws of physics insist that there is no real free will but in order to get through our daily lives we surely all have to go along with the illusion that we are ‘at the wheel’ of our person, making our own choices at every step of the way from what we have to breakfast to how we should vote, how we interact with others and so on.

    1. Yes, you can advocate criminal reform without being a determinist, but the fact is that determinists see it as an almost ineluctable consequence of determinism, and are big exponents of prison reform. This is one truth that can change your mind about how people should be treated: rehabilitation becomes more important, retributive punishment is out.

      Just saying that you can confect a philosophical compromise between prison reform and libertarian free will doesn’t meant that acceptance of determinism doesn’t make a difference in practice. As one friend of mine who went to a conference of judges heard, the American legal system is largely based on the assumption of libertarian free will.

      As for your claim that “we all have to go along with the illusion,” well, I don’t agree. We can feel as though we have free will, but when you think about it, as I often do, I don’t go along with the illusion. It’s the realization that it IS an illusion that can mandate useful changes in society. If you go along with the illusion and don’t think about it, then those changes don’t get made.

      And of course free will is an absolutely essential part of the Abrahamic religions, and has led to a lot of bad things.

      1. I don’t doubt at all that you think about this a lot and recognise the illusion for what it is whenever you do. But does this really mean that – except when you stop to think about it specifically – you don’t go along with the illusion that you are in control of what you do? In your life as a researcher, educator, citizen and public intellectual you have evidently taken countless important decisions as well as many, many more trivial ones. You are clearly a moral person who takes such decisions seriously; surely in virtually every one of these you have considered the pros and cons of alternative courses of action *as if* you have a genuine choice of action? It seems to me psychologically necessary to do this in order to avoid becoming prey to a mental paralysis.

    2. I agree with all you say here but I wouldn’t call our sense of making choices an “illusion”. It’s no more an illusion than seeing that an apple is red. Our brains produce outputs based on their internal state and input from the environment. We call some outputs “decisions” and, if made without coercion or illness, the exercising of our “free will”.

      1. And yet seeing an apple as red is an illusion … in the sense “it is not as it seems”.

        It is very hard to stop thinking of the apple as red, on the other hand for everyday purposes it is not necessary either.

  19. “And we do not guess, we *know* that we can derive from the laws for the constituents what the whole object does.” (2:35)

    This seems a pretty strong claim. Has it been proven? (honest question) Has it been ruled out that there might be higher level laws, which if you didn’t know them, might prevent you from predicting the next state of a complex system like a brain in a body that’s behaving in an environment? This wouldn’t be to deny determinism, only to suggest that some causal regularities might only be captured at the system level, not the level of the laws governing the constituents.

    1. I must admit on rereading her blog, I thought that was a bit over the top.

      Funnily enough, in a previous blog on differentials, she understands that the brain is chaotic (ignoring quantum phenomena for the moment) and as such we can’t be accurate, ie she reference Poincare

      1. But as she says, chaos theory is deterministic. All it says is that if you make small perturbations in initial conditions in some systems, you get wildly divergent outcomes. It has nothing to do with either free will or refuting determinism.

        1. In her blog Sabine says:

          … if you have an initial condition at one moment in time, for example the exact details of the particles in your brain and all your brain’s inputs, then you can calculate what happens at any other moment in time from those initial conditions.

          She is assuming a deterministic universe at this point in her discourse. I would argue even in a fully deterministic universe, chaos theory would prevent us from any kind of certainty. Of course those skilled in the art could go through the calculation.

          I think this is actually an unnecessary step, saying given enough information we can predict what the brain will do. Simply assuming cause and effect are true, this is enough to disqualify ‘hard’ free will in a deterministic world.

          Ditto for an indeterministic world.

      2. I agree it’s over the top, but I also don’t think the kind of higher-level laws that Tom Clark is asking about are at all plausible. We can’t literally prove that there are no such laws without doing an absurd number of experiments. But low-level laws have been shown to be reliable guides to high-level behavior in many cases, while no exceptions have been yet been found such as “electrons are attracted to positive charges EXCEPT in brains.”

  20. Though I left comments already, I only just started listening to this – how refreshing to hear such a clear cut talk.

  21. Can I not choose whether to believe in free will?

    I have been on either side of this fence many times. Most of the time, I sit on it.

    But isn’t that really where free will lies, if it does at all? In the ability to choose belief?

    1. In what sense do we choose our beliefs?

      For example, if you are a nonbeliever, then for the next ten minutes please choose to believe in God. vice versa If you are a believer.

    2. Of course philosophically it is possible not to believe free will is true and not believe believe that free will is false. ie you are agnostic on the subject, but I can’t help thinking one is forced to come down on onside of divide.

      Using the same classical agnostic analogy … I’m agnostic, therefore I do not believe God exists but I don’t believe God does not exist. Having said that I am an atheist to the vast majority of Gods that I can think of.

  22. I don’t care for the philosophic discussion – it’s superstition – but Hossenfielder has a lot of fringe ideas and I usually don’t read her so this will make an exception. This stands out:

    This means in a nutshell that the whole story of the universe in every single detail was determined already at the big bang. We are just watching it play out.

    But later she admits that there are random outcomes of non-random state changes.

    Moreover, even if we would be simply watcing non-random state changes we would have to watch since chaos prevents is from knowing every single detail.

    So there are lots of real and apparent freedom in nature for any observer.

    1. This is intriguing but I’m lost – can you help me out?

      Is it the notion of everything being determined at the big bang? It is not very clear to me precisely what that means either, I took it to mean all the processes we know about – even probabilistic ones – somehow all spin until they peter out at the heat death of this universe.

  23. Aren’t Calvinists, Presbyterians and Muslims all determinists? Fate? Or am I confusing fatality and determinism?

    My own, perhaps rather naive, view is pseudo-Camusian. Camus thought the world was absurd, but proposed rebelling against it. I think the world is determined, but we have to rebel against that to the extent that we have to live our lives almost as tho it weren’t so.

    As for the justice argument, I don’t think people — other than the ones I mentioned at the beginning — will accept it any time soon. Fortunately, there are other reasons for modifying the legal system, especially for abolishing the death penalty.

  24. I am really fond of all things “Evolutionistrue”,from ducks, cats, food, country/pop music and wildlife to atheism, dumping Trump (fingers crossed) and fighting new woke ethnociders. All my love, admiration and respect Pr Ceiling Cat.

    However there is an issue where I cannot follow you at all: It is determinism. Everything I read on the topic is non convincing, to my mind.

    The proper words seem to be lacking to describe and understand consciousness as well as “free will”. How could there exist universal and eternal causation of events when relativity tells us an “instant” has no absolute existence, and quantum theory says the same about particules, positions, and speeds, adding fundamental uncertainty in the balance. And determinism is so contrary to every day’s subjective experience.

    For the present time I consider non-determinism as the default position, just as no-god is on the issue of religion. Or we could use a parallel Dawkins scale, on which I position myself at 6.9 non-believer.
    “I cannot know for certain but I think determinism is highly improbable”.

    Do I miss something ?

    1. You certainly missed something–the laws of physics. Since are known, and we have no evidence for a nonmaterial “will” that can move matter, the idea that our brains obey the laws of physics is the default position. And that means no “free will.”

      1. Well, I don’t see any reason why our brain would not comply to the laws of physics. And see no need nor evidence of any soul or other spooky entity. But for me it does not prove that determinism is true in any comparable way that you and many others prove that evolution is true.

        This issue is so murky and questions so poorly formulated that I don’t feel the need to really bother with that.

        May be someday a significant progress will change the minds of people of my ilk.

    2. “And determinism is so contrary to every day’s subjective experience.”

      Tide goes in – tide goes out.

      Sun rises – sun sets.

      It is deterministic. We see them and can even touch them. How is that “contrary to … subjective experience”?

      1. Counter-example 1 : the weather
        Counter-example 2 : You decide to reply to my comment or not
        Counter-example 3 : Today I choose chocolate ice-cream instead of coffee

        1. What are these examples showing?

          And how is “every day’s … experience” not begging the question – assuming the operation of free will in precisely the conditions where the hypothesis of free will arises?

  25. I don’t disagree with anything Professor Hossenfelder says. I think, however, she could have been a tad more clear (albeit less pithy) if she had said not just “we still cannot select among several possible futures” but also added “because there are no ‘several possible futures’ but always only one future, the one that actually occurs (except as quantum randomness might provide, and that is entirely beyond our influence).”

    However, I do think that Prof. Hossenfelfer’s locution is preferable to “could (not) do otherwise” or the like. The problem with the word “can/could” (and synonyms) is that it is misleading: It is used most often when, due to incomplete knowledge, we are not certain which of several conceivable futures will, in fact, occur. So we say various ones “can” occur. In such cases, however, the only future that ever “will” occur is always the one that “must” occur. That is, given there is only one possible future, it follows that if something truly “can” happen then it “must” happen, so “can” = “must”. (I thank the philosophers G.E. Moore and A.M. Honoré for this point).

    (The last paragraph is, of course, all “subject to quantum randomness.”)

    I fully agree, of course, that no matter much the belief in free will may make us “happy,” we should not use it as a pretext for treating others badly. They are only playing out their roles in the grand cosmic drama. But alas, our society can do no other–at least for now.

    1. JAH43,

      I agree about the talk of selecting among futures. As Dennett has pointed out, it doesn’t really make sense to talk of selecting or changing the future. The future is “whatever happens.” The future is going to be whatever it’s going to be.

      So it makes better sense to just talk about out capabilities and competencies in navigating the world – when we can get what we want and how, or not.

      “The problem with the word “can/could” (and synonyms) is that it is misleading: It is used most often when, due to incomplete knowledge, we are not certain which of several conceivable futures will, in fact, occur.”

      More than that: they are words by which we speak and conceive of “possibilities” in the world, especially “what we are capable of doing” or not. If someone is bilingual (French/English) saying I “can” speak both English and french is an important way we convey information. The information doesn’t go away or become false if I happen to choose to speak only English at the moment. Like “Oh, now that we’ve found out you didn’t choose to speak French, it turns out it’s false that you ‘can’ speak French or English.” That would be a total misunderstanding of how people usually use such words.

      The only problem you’ve run in to is freighting “can” with metaphysics, where it can’t be consistent with a single determined outcome, and hence you have to struggle to recast it as a claim made in states of ignorance about the future. Just un-freight the word of such metaphysics and the problem goes away, and you’ll notice you are using “can” in the way we all normally do: simple statements about what it’s possible for us to do given certain relevant circumstances.

  26. Two thoughts – unrefined and improvised in haste as usual :

    [ 1 A ] . Everyone knows this, but I think for me, the time has come to address it, as it bears on the punching bag of “free will”. The color of objects depends on the light source, and the meaning of “color of object”. The *proverbial* red apple appears black in a sodium vapor lamp light, because the apple absorbs all the light impinging on it. No light is reflected back. I think this is precisely what question begging is – the *proverbial* red apple is question begging. And we all know what use that is for understanding anything.

    [ 1 B ] The “red” object is absorbing all light except red. How, precisely, can the object be red? It is everything but red.

    [ 2 ] The argument from “everyday purposes/experience”. I think this is also question begging – because the proposal of “free will” is supposed to explain how individuals choose among possible pathways – and these pathways, once enumerated, exist nowhere else except in “everyday experience”. What good is such an argument for understanding anything, and what special alternate place is this apparent “anti-everyday experience”?

  27. Free will is when we decide for ourselves what we will do, while free of coercion and other forms of undue influence, such as significant mental illness, hypnosis, deception, authoritative command (parent/child, commander/soldier), etc. Whether you have this freedom in a given scenario is a question of objective evidence. The reason people believe they have free will is because they empirically observe themselves and others making decisions for themselves every day.

    Another thing that we empirically observe every day is reliable cause and effect. I press the “H” key on my keyboard and an ”h” appears here in the text. If some other letter appeared I would conclude my keyboard had a problem that needed fixing. And, if each time I pressed a key, some unpredictable, random letter appeared in the text, then I could no longer control what I was typing, and I would lose my freedom to write what I want.

    Every freedom we have, to do anything at all, requires reliable cause and effect. Choosing what I will do, for example, requires my brain to function reliably. So, free will presumes a deterministic world, a world of reliable causation. My choices will be reliably caused by my purposes and reasoning, by my thoughts and feelings, by my genetic dispositions and prior life experiences, etc. In short, my choices are both reliably caused (deterministic) and reliably caused by me (free will).

    Thus, the two concepts, free will and deterministic cause and effect, are compatible.

    Therefore, determinism cannot assert that I have no control over my choices, because that would be a false claim. All that determinism may say is that my choices will be reliably caused.

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