Once again we’re told we have free will, and once again it makes no sense.

December 20, 2020 • 11:00 am

The fact that articles keep coming out assuring us that we do have free will, yet each assurance is based on a different premise, tells us that the philosophical debate will never end. Yet I consider it already ended by science: we do not have libertarian free will because our thoughts and our actions are decided by the laws of physics and not by some numinous “will” that interacts with matter in ways that physicist Sean Carroll has said are impossible. Ergo the appearance of compatibilists, who admit that yes, determinism rules, and at any one moment we can behave only one way—a way determined by physical law—but nevertheless we have other kinds of free will compatible with determinism.

That, of course, won’t satisfy the majority of people who do believe in libertarian you-can-do-otherwise free will, among these the many religionists whose faith absolutely depends on our being able to choose our path of life and our savior, and your salvation depends on making the right choice (Calvinists and their analogues are an exception). Compatibilists, when they tell us that nobody really believes in libertarian free will, are simply wrong: surveys show otherwise, and there are all those believers . . .

At any rate, Oliver Waters, writing at Medium, assures us that we do have a form of libertarian free will—or so it seems. I say “seems” because he presents an argument based on “critical rationalism” that makes no sense to me. I’ll criticize it a bit, but I can sense some flak coming of this type: “You need to read many volumes about critical rationalism before you can criticize my argument.” Sorry, but I won’t, for if an author can’t give a sensible argument in a reasonably long piece, it’s hopeless.

Click to read:

I can’t find out much about Oliver Waters save his Medium biography, which says this: “Philosophy, psychology, economics and politics. Tweets at @olliewaters.” But that doesn’t matter, for it’s his arguments for free will that are at issue.

Right off the bat Waters defines free will in a wonky way—one I disagree with. It implies—and this is fleshed out in the rest of the article—that he believe that determinism is not mandating our decisions: that there are “real choices” independent of the laws of physics, and not just the fundamentally indeterminate bits like quantum mechanics, either. No, we can really make choices, choices constrained by physics, but not determined by them. But I digress. Here’s how Waters defines “free will”:

Roughly speaking, ‘free will’ denotes our capacity to think in ways that no other known creature can. We alone are capable of considering reasons (as you are doing right now) rather than merely reacting to the world via genetically fixed mechanisms. As philosopher J.T Ismael phrases it, we humans enjoy ‘metacognitive awareness’ and an ‘extended autobiographical self’. We are therefore able to consciously imagine future possibilities and play a role in causing which become our reality.

No, what he means is that humans are the only species that can say and articulate that they have reasons.  In fact, our “reasons” are simply the weights that our neural computer programs give to various environmental and endogenous inputs before they spit out a decision. Animals do the same thing: they take in inputs, run them through the brains, and decide whether to flee, to pursue a prey, to mate with a member of the opposite sex, and so on. They have reasons, though they can’t articulate them. When a crow caching food sees other crows watching, and then digs up the food and reburies it elsewhere, does it not have a “reason”: other crows could steal their food. Does it realize that? Well, we don’t know, but it looks exactly like the reasons we humans adduce for our actions.

Or a mallard hen might take a male as a mate because he has particularly bright feathers. Is that not a “reason” she chose? Maybe she can’t ponder it, but so what? Our ponderings are merely post facto rationales for adaptive brain programs instilled in us by millions of years of natural selection. It’s the program that decides, and we can pretend that we decided independent of our determined outputs.  No, “considering reasons” is, to me, a ludicrous definition of free will, and certainly not one necessarily limited to humans. (Do we really know what goes through the mind of an ape or a fox when it does something?)

In addition, just because we say we have reasons does not mean that those reasons are the real impetus behind what we do, or are reasons that could, at the time, be contradicted by different reasons. We can consider alternatives (or rather, our brains can “weigh” them by letting the dominant pathway “win”), but the one we wind up doing or thinking is not “free” in the sense that one could at the time use different reasons to arrive at a different output.

Enough. Waters then defines “critical rationalism” in a way that comports with his definition of free will, but also in a way that doesn’t at all distinguish it from the weights that an evolved and plastic system of neurons gives to different inputs before spitting out an output: a “decision”, a behavior, a thought, or a statement:

The core of critical rationalism is that all knowledge progresses via a process of ‘conjecture and refutation’. Thinking agents face problems, which are conflicts among their existing ideas, and seek to resolve these problems by detecting and eliminating cognitive errors. Overcoming these errors requires creatively generating new, better ideas.

As such, critical rationalism rejects ‘empiricism’, the notion that we derive our knowledge from sensory information. Empiricism depends on induction, the notion that learning about reality is akin to ‘curve fitting’ from given data points, which we can then extrapolate to predict the future or postdict the past. Popper rejected the principle of induction as logically invalid. We cannot assume the future will be like the past: instead we must conjecture testable explanatory theories about how reality works.

The second paragraph is arrant nonsense, because of course the brain takes in all kinds of sensory information before it executes its programs. When you see a lion coming, you run. When you see it’s raining, you put up an umbrella. Much of evolution, in fact, like bird migration, is based on the assumption that the future will be like the past. But lt us forget the nonsense about not getting information from the environment and concentrate on the first paragraph.

That, too, seems absolutely the same as “running a brain program evolved to increase your fitness” (brain programs can of course be fooled, as with optical illusions, plastic surgery, and so on). The “resolution” is not something that your “will” does independently of the laws of physics; it’s something that your brain does according to the laws of physics and the natural selection—also operating according to the laws of physics—that has molded our brain programs to buttress our survival and reproduction.  While “creatively generating new, better ideas” sounds like we are free to generate those ideas, we’re not. It’s your brain working things out according to the laws of physics.  So far I haven’t seen anything about Waters’s will that is free. What I see is a post facto description of brain programs treated as if they instantiated libertarian free will.

Waters then makes the common mistake of saying that the laws of physics can’t explain everything because it’s not the level of description we use when giving reasons.  We say, “The U.S. and U.K. won World War II because they had bigger populations and better factories—and developed the atomic bomb.” And yes, that’s true, but those underlying reasons themselves are the result of the laws of physics, and must be compatible with the laws of physics. Only a moron would try to explain why we won the war on the basis of molecules. But that’s not the issue. The issue is whether it was inevitable that we won the war because the laws of physics interacted to make that result happen.

Here’s Waters’s example in which the “wrong level of explanation” is used to support libertarian free will and refute determinism:

Notice that this conception of explanation is ‘scale-invariant’ in that it doesn’t arbitrarily privilege low-level explanations over high-level ones, or concrete phenomena over abstractions. For instance, explaining Brexit via the movement of atoms according to the physical laws of motion is clearly a bad idea. This is because the best explanations for Brexit must invoke ‘emergent’ phenomena like ‘nationalism’ and ‘democracy’ , which are consistent with many different atomic arrangements.

One way to think about this is to ask whether Brexit would have occurred differently if God went back and messed with the atoms in Nigel Farage’s tea every morning. It turns out that the precise locations and momentums of these atoms didn’t matter at all in influencing the outcome. Indeed, you can say the same thing about the atoms in his brain. After all, our brains only work as they do because the chaotic motion of their constituent atoms are locked into groups of molecules, cells, and circuits. These processes allow for coherent thoughts about the future of Britain to persist long enough to communicate with other brains.

In short, micro-physical fluctuations didn’t cause Brexit. Ideas did. ‘Physical reductionists’ rule out such higher-level causes by fiat, and so must deny this reality, but critical rationalists need not. They can be perfectly comfortable with the notion that many of our actions are truly caused by our consciously held ideas, not by neuronal firings to which we’re completely oblivious.

But what are “ideas” except the output of neurons, which themselves are chemical and physical entities that emit electrical signals. You can say the “cause” is those signals, which gave rise to the ideas, or the “cause” is a misguided campaign by Brexiteers, but the latter comes down to the former. The last sentence about “critical rationalists” is just a flat assertion without evidence. Ideas are patterns of neuronal firings that come to consciousness, and any idea corresponds to one or more patterns of neuronal firings.

This is where Waters goes astray when asserting that determinism isn’t so great because there are many different underlying molecular events that could give rise to the same large-scale outcome—like Brexit. It may indeed be true that changing the molecules in Nigel Farage’s tea doesn’t affect his views on Brexit, but that’s because many different molecular configurations and physical events might map onto the same macro result.  I may drive to the grocery store via Cottage Grove, or perhaps via 59th Street, but the groceries I buy will be the same.

Waters’s closing is completely confusing to me, for he seems to accept determinism and libertarian free will at the same time:

We need not think about the fundamental laws of physics as rails directing reality along a rigid trajectory. Rather, we can think of them as constraints on what kinds of physical transformations are possible and impossible. This richer notion of physical explanation is currently being developed by Deutsch and Chiara Marletto in the project of ‘Constructor Theory’.

Famous ‘free will sceptics’ like Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris are rightly worried about ditching the concept of physical determinism. In their view, the only alternative is a mysticism allowing for all kinds of silly miracles and supernatural beings. But such concerns are not warranted under the ‘constructor theoretic’ conception. According to this, we still live in a universe governed by timeless, fixed laws — it’s just that these laws do not dictate by themselves how exactly the future will unfold.

The physical laws that make it possible for us to be conscious and creative human beings, making real choices about what will happen next, are the very same laws that rule out Jesus spontaneously converting water into wine, or rising from the dead.

Given this alternative way of thinking about fundamental physics, we don’t need to accept the notion that the universe evolves according to some predetermined plan, set in stone from the beginning of time. Our best theories of physics don’t require it, and our best ethical, psychological, and political theories must reject it.

So if the laws of physics are merely constraints, and decisions can stray outside them, what makes those decisions jump the rails of physics? Waters gives us no clue, but it must be something mystical or non-physical, regardless of his claim that he doesn’t think that. If “the laws of physics do not dictate by themselves how exactly the future will unfold,” then what must we add to them to understand how the future will unfold? What is the sweating professor trying to say?

Waters doesn’t clarify. And I’m not sure if even he understands. All I know is that I don’t, and that’s not my fault.

h/t: Jiten

67 thoughts on “Once again we’re told we have free will, and once again it makes no sense.

  1. I think a question is closely related to free will is :

    Can an individual operate 100% independent of 100% of everything else?

    Answer obviously is no, but I think the fractions might make it more difficult to evaluate, even if that is tenable.

    Can an individual make a 90% free choice to brush the top row of their teeth on a Tuesday? Mostly yes.

  2. Determinism is, of course, how it is, an inescapable conclusion.
    Nevertheless, the illusion of some kind of free will is very strong. I could have eaten that chocolate 4 seconds later, or earlier, or not at all.
    I like to think that ‘free will’ is some kind of ’emergent property’, because of all the complex levels between molecular interactions and ‘the deed’, but that does not really release us from the tyranny of our molecules.
    And yes, although free will is an illusion, I still think it is useful in a kind of ‘house and garden’ sense. The illusion is simply too strong. Note that this is not some kind of accommodationalism, because it keeps in mind free will is an illusion.

    1. “… free will is an illusion.“

      Sam Harris asserts the illusion of free will is, itself, an illusion and I agree for the same reason that animal cells, black holes, or mathematics aren’t illusions.

      1. Maybe better examples are :

        “… for the same reasons that phlogiston and luminiferous aether are not illusions.”

    2. I think I get your point. For your consideration, I put it this way: The illusion of free will is like the Moon Illusion, wherein the moon appears larger near the horizon than higher up in the sky. Try as we might to think our way out of this illusion while viewing the moon, we can’t see the moon’s size as it really is throughout its course because of the way our brains process visual input. We have to rely on external technology–a camera, cardboard with holes cut in it–to prove to us that the variation in size is illusory. In the same way, try as we might to disabuse ourselves of the Free Will Illusion while we’re deliberating and making choices, we can’t do it by our thinking alone. We need the external matrix of science to prove to us that we are deluded. This, as you say, is not accommodationalism or compatiblism, merely a description of the way our brains work.
      I believe this conception of mine goes a long way in providing the background to Christopher Hitchens’s famous quip: “Yes I have free will; I have no choice but to have it.”

      1. That Hitch quip is brilliant indeed. D*g, how do we miss that man!
        It is already more than 9 years ago since he died, seems like yesterday….

      2. That is an interesting analogy to the problem. Illusions like the one about the moon, or other visual illusions, can be “broken” by various means, where we can suddenly see behind the curtain. In the case of the moon, one simply needs to see a double exposure picture taken at different times, showing the moon both low and high in the sky. Bam. The moon illusion is broken.
        But I don’t know of an analogous way to break the illusion of free will.

        1. Similar to Sam Harris, I have found that a meditative technique is useful in dispelling the notion of the ghost in the machine, a separate self who is an independent, autonomous agent.

          1. Thinking further about how to disabuse ourselves of the notion of the separate self who has free will, I wonder if a linguistic solution might be in order. Perhaps all human languages need to develop from this point forward as more verb-centered or verb-based languages like some Native American languages, such as Navajo and Cree. How would English be trained to grow along this line? 🤔

    3. “but that does not really release us from the tyranny of our molecules.”

      Exactly. As the neuroscientist C. Hoppe puts it: “But if all parts are not free, the overall system cannot be free.”

      1. Since a good portion of the confusion around this subject is spawned by semantics, I would point out that there is no “us” that is the victim of “the tyranny of our molecules.” Us=our molecules

    4. It is not an illusion, because we objectively observe other people, as well as ourselves, making choices for themselves every day. We watch someone go into a restaurant, browse the menu, and place an order. We didn’t see anyone holding a gun to their head, so we witness that they were free to order what they wanted. If free will were an illusion then what was it that we saw?

      Free will distinguishes the empirical case where a person decides for themselves what they will do versus the case where a choice is imposed upon them by someone or something else.

      1. How independent is any one individual’s action? It is not 100% – the restaurant example in use abounds with factors even drawing a boundary at the door.

        1. We’re subject to a variety of influences every day. But few of these influences are strong enough to compel us to do something that we would not normally do. A gun to the head or a tumor on the brain are extraordinary influences that are sufficient to take control of our choices out of our hands.

          If by 100% you mean “absolute freedom”, then I would agree that there is no such thing as “absolute” freedom. There are some things that it is impossible to be free from, like ourselves, or like cause and effect.

          But causal necessity/inevitability is not a meaningful constraint. What I will inevitably do is exactly identical to me just being me, doing what I do, and choosing what I choose. And how is that a constraint? No one experiences reliable causation as a constraint. But if you try to tell someone in the restaurant what to order they will object to your interference.

          Universal causal necessity/inevitability is not experienced as a constraint. Only specific causes, like the guy holding a gun, are experienced as a constraint, something to be free of. But not causal necessity.

          1. “If by 100% you mean “absolute freedom”, then I would agree that there is no such thing as “absolute” freedom”

            “Independent” means precisely what it means, as in “independent motion”.

            If a choice can be shown to have a relationship to more than one factor then it is _dependent_ on that factor. If the factor is an individual, that’s a total of two individuals and the premise of free will is that it cannot hold for more than one individual.

            Coercion and brain tumors are strongly compelling by their nature, but it has not been shown how they are so special from any other factor that can be identified to explain an individual’s choice.

            1. The nature of the cause suggests the nature of the correction. The bank teller who hands over the bank’s money because the bank robber is threatening to shoot her is not held responsible for the bank’s loss. Correcting the bank teller’s behavior is a simple matter of removing the threat. But the bank robber, who deliberately planned his robbery to obtain some quick cash, will require correction that changes how he thinks about these things in the future.

              Free will is the notion that distinguishes the bank teller’s actions from those of the bank robber. And that is a meaningful distinction.

              But causal necessity makes no meaningful distinction between any events. All events are equally causally necessary. So we can’t use causal necessity to excuse the thief who stole your wallet without also excusing the judge who cuts off his hand.

              1. “Free will is the notion that distinguishes the bank teller’s actions from those of the bank robber. And that is a meaningful distinction.”

                Meaningful how? Not to explain anything – it seems meaningful only for free will itself.

      2. REPLY TO Marvin Edwards /

        ‘Determinism-controls-everything,’ I could understand, but not the idea that we still have some influence over certain things. (‘We should be against the death penalty- which I am- because the the offender could not have done otherwise.’)

        So those advocating for it? Isn’t determinism controlling their actions, too?)

        “But determinism can be rescued if it asserts that every event is caused by some combination of physical, biological, and/or rational causal mechanisms.”

        This makes sense to me.

        And I loved the example I just found from your (Marvin Edwards) website, if I may repost:

        The Single Possibility Paradox

        It is impossible to choose between a single possibility.

        Waiter (a hard determinist): “What will you have for dinner tonight, sir?”
        Customer (hungry): “I don’t know. What are my possibilities?”
        Waiter “In a deterministic universe, there is only one possibility.”
        Customer (disappointed): “Oh. Okay then, what is my one possibility?”
        Waiter “How should I know? I can’t read your mind!”

  3. “So if the laws of physics are merely constraints, and decisions can stray outside them, what makes those decisions jump the rails of physics?”

    I’m not sure Waters is saying that anything at the higher level contradicts the laws of physics, only that physics alone isn’t in principle sufficient to predict and explain events at the higher level. I’m always looking for a formal proof of the claim that one need not, in principle, invoke higher level generalizations (for instance about how I make decisions) to predict, say, the exact position of a molecule in my left hand 24 hours from now. Is there one? (honest question)

    Whether or not in principle we need invoke higher level laws to predict and explain macro phenomena, there’s no reason to suppose that such laws are indeterministic, as Waters seems to think. Plus, whatever indeterminism exists in nature can’t help confer additional origination, control, or responsibility beyond what we already have under determinism (what free will libertarians want). So it’s irrational to want to escape determinism, unless, as Dennett says, you’re playing rock-paper-scissors with an omniscient being.

    1. I agree. There are at least three separate levels of causation: physical, biological, and rational. Each is a different class of causal mechanism. And they each appear in a different class of objects.

      Objects behave differently according to how they are organized:

      Inanimate objects behave passively in response to physical forces. Place a ball on a slope and it will always roll downhill. It’s behavior is controlled and explained by the force of gravity.

      Living organisms behave in a purposeful or goal-directed manner, driven by biology to survive, thrive, and reproduce. Place a squirrel on a slope and he may go up, or down, or in any direction that he hopes to find an acorn, or perhaps a mate. His behavior is not controlled by gravity, but by his biological need to find food or to mate.

      Intelligent species can behave deliberately in response to physical forces and their own biological needs. They come with a brain that organizes sensory data into a model of reality consisting of objects and events. They can imagine different ways to satisfy their needs, evaluate their options, and choose what they will do. This is where free will shows up in the physical universe.

      Determinism cannot validly ignore whole classes of causal mechanisms and limit itself to just physics. But determinism can be rescued if it asserts that every event is caused by some combination of physical, biological, and/or rational causal mechanisms.

      And this would be a compatibilist determinism, because rational causal mechanisms include the choices determined by purpose and reason, which is what free will is about.

      1. Glad we agree on the autonomy of higher level explanations, and that they are deterministic. As Jerry points out, lots. perhaps a majority, of folks think free will means being able to choose otherwise in an actual situation, even given the purposes and reasons that obtained at the time. As determinists, we are thus contradicting the majority view of human agency, one which helps to justify retribution and vast socio-economic disparities, while deflecting attention from the actual causes of human behavior. Determinism will likely not be well received any time soon, but it’s worth promoting, which Jerry does here on a regular basis, bucking the libertarian tide.

        1. The “ability to do otherwise” is logically required by the choosing operation. For choosing to happen, (1) we must have at least two options, say A and B, and (2) we must have the ability to choose either one. If either condition is false, the choosing process halts.

          After considering our options and making our choice, we end up with a single inevitable “I will do” and at least one “I could have done”.

          For example, suppose we need to decide whether to have pancakes or eggs for breakfast. We check the refrigerator and find we have eggs, so “I can fix eggs” is true. We check the cupboard and find we have also have pancake mix. So “I can fix pancakes” is also true.

          We consider our both options, and remember that we had eggs yesterday and the day before. So the eggs no longer seem as appealing and we decide that we “will” fix pancakes instead.

          If anyone were to ask if we “could have” done something different, we would say “yes, I could have fixed eggs instead”. And that is logically a true statement, because the “could have fixed eggs” is simply the past tense of the “I can fix eggs” that was true at the beginning of our choosing process.

          Whenever a deterministic causal chain includes a choosing operation, there will be a single inevitable event that “will” happen, and at least one event that “could have” happened, but which did not happen.

          So, when someone claims they “could have done otherwise”, they are not suffering from any illusions, they are simply reporting what they objectively observed to happen. An “I can” happened as well as an “I will”.

          1. Yes, this is a good analysis of the conditional sense of could have done otherwise. Counterfactually, had I wanted eggs, I could and likely would have made them. But it looks like lots of folks believe they have the unconditional ability to have done otherwise: that given the exact circumstances that held some other choice might have ensued, which is what determinists deny. And any indeterminism wouldn’t help make a choice more up to them, rather less.

            Nadelhoffer et al., Folk intuitions and the conditional ability to do otherwise. https://philarchive.org/rec/NADFIA-2

            1. I dislike the term “counterfactual”. I understand that it means a reference to something that did not in fact happen. But I consider the statement “I could have fixed eggs instead, if I had wanted to” to be a statement of fact. It is true to say that, given those conditions, that would have happened.

              The notion of what I “could have done” always carries the implication that I “did not do it”. However, the fact that I “did not do it” never implies that I “could not do it”. Fixing eggs for breakfast was never an “impossibility”. For example, if there were no pancake mix in the cupboard, then I would have fixed eggs again. So, fixing eggs was a real possibility, even though I fixed the pancakes instead.

              I haven’t read the article, but it looks similar to one that I read a while ago, in which the researchers own biases likely colored the results. The studies that more accurately nail down the man in the street’s notion of free will attempt to exclude people who have been exposed to a particular notion of determinism. You see, if you infect people with the paradox by your phrasing of the questions, then their notions will reflect that distortion.

              The correct perspective is this: In a world of perfectly reliable cause and effect, free will means that the person’s own purposes and reasons were the most meaningful and relevant cause of their deliberate action.

              As radical as this may sound to you, universal causal necessity/inevitability has no meaningful implications to any practical real life scenarios. It is always true of every event, and so it offers us no meaningful information as to any specific events. All of the practical meaning of reliable causation comes from knowing the specific causes of specific effects. But the general fact of causal necessity/inevitability tells us nothing useful.

              Freedom requires a deterministic universe. Free will is a deterministic operation. But this determinism is nothing more than plain ol’ reliable cause and effect, something that everyone is already familiar with and takes for granted every day. There is nothing “deep” or earth-shaking here.

            2. Thanks for the Nadelhoffer et al article. Note that they define “determinism” as a causal thesis:

              Imagine Jim lives in a causally closed universe. In this universe, given the physical state of the universe, the laws of the universe, and the fixity of the past, at any given moment the universe is closed,

              But the suggestion of universal causality isn’t implied what physicists usually mean by “determinism”, for example in deterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics (Everett’s or Bohm’s). Determinism in such theories only implies one-to-one correlations given by natural law – anointing one of the relata “cause” and the other “effect” is a further step. For related reasons the “fixity of the past” isn’t implied by actual scientific theories either.

              Another experimental philosophy/psychology paper on free will we’ve discussed on WEIT is by Sarkissian et al. That one also uses “cause and effect” to define determinism in its survey questions.

  4. I appreciate it when an author gives me reason right up front to stop reading:

    “Roughly speaking, ‘free will’ denotes our capacity to think in ways that no other known creature can. We alone are capable of considering reasons (as you are doing right now) rather than merely reacting to the world via genetically fixed mechanisms.”

    The idea that we humans operate by completely different principles than other animals is a non-starter for me. Don’t waste my time, Oliver Waters!

  5. For most people “free will” is simply the ability to make a decision. Forget about all those philosophical definitions. If you decided to go on a diet, are you capable of making the decision to take your coffee black instead of with cream and sugar? Are you able to make a decision to cut down drinking even though both sides of your family were alcoholics and you probably have a predisposition towards addictive behaviors? For most people, the answer is yes, but to varying degrees. While I do agree that some things are innate (who you are attracted to/pheromones,) what kinds of things you might be interested in (brain structure,) and what kinds of things you like to eat, those things CAN BE CHANGED, if the will and desire is there. Even a complete determinist would agree that people make different decisions under different circumstances and depending on external factors as well as internal ones.

    Also, don’t forget that free will is a concept specific to HUMANS and not animals. I’m sure that animals with more complex brains/behavior might also be more capable of these “free will” kind of choices. HUMANS act against their instincts ALL THE TIME. Think about how many gay men used to get married to keep up appearances, and even had sex in order to produce children. People eat food that they hate in hopes of gaining some health benefits. They work jobs that they can’t stand because they like the money. Humans are much more complicated than ants or even mallards.

    1. 1. Studies of free will have shown that people don’t just think it’s just the ability to make a decision.
      2. Things can be changed by outside or inside influences, but at a single time you are capable of doing only one thing.
      3. Nobody is arguing that people can’t make different decisions under different circumstances.
      4. There is disagreement about whether “free will” of your type (ability to make a decision) is present in animals. I discuss this in the articles.
      5. Humans may act against general instincts, but that doesn’t prove they have free will.

      It doesn’t seem that you know much about my arguments. CAPSLOCK doesn’t make your points any more convincing.

      1. Well, to be clear, we “will” do only one thing, even though we are “capable” of doing any number of things. An ability to do something constrains what we will do. But what we will do never constrains what we can do.

        The conflation of what we “can” do with what we “will” do is what creates a logical problem that leads people to object to determinism. While determinism can safely assert that, given the same circumstances, the same issue, and the same person, their choice “will” always be the same. They will balk at the claim that they “could not have done otherwise”.

        Whenever choosing is involved, a person will start out with at least two things that they “can” do. They have no problem with the notion that there will be only one thing that they “will” do. But every time they engage in choosing they will see right there in front of them at least two different things that they “can” do.

        And it is logically necessary that they must see at least two things, because it is impossible to choose between a single possibility.

    2. “HUMANS act against their instincts”

      And animals do the same. In the dry season, when an antelope finally approaches the targeted waterhole after wandering for hours, it might pick up the scent of a predator, with the result that it suppresses its instinct to drink to quench its thirst because it knows danger is nearby. This is the simple expression of conflicting “instincts” and it is no different from humans. People suppress their instinct to eat for other reasons: not because of the predator behind the bushes but it is the pointer of the weigh scale and the knowledge of the dangers of obesity that makes them act against their instinct to eat.

      1. You bring up an interesting point about obesity and suppressing eating instincts. The two main reasons to lose weight (and they somewhat overlap) are health and vanity. Some people stay trim for health reasons, some for reasons of vanity (which encompasses the professions of models/actors and perhaps even athletes…assuming, as I do, that athleticism has some basis in vanity). It probably depends on the individual’s age as well…as a child/adolescent/teenager/young adult, I was never overweight and didn’t think about it. Then, in my 30’s, I started gaining lots of weight. A decade later, I lost a lot of weight for health reasons, but my vanity was also rewarded, and that created a positive feedback loop. Now, I try to stay at a good weight because of health and vanity. The question for me now is: do I restrain from gaining weight because of health, or because of vanity? Probably a mixture of both.

        This is just an observation based on your comment, and doesn’t address the larger discussion of free-will. I consider myself a closeted determinist. I have no problem telling someone I’m an atheist, but when I discuss determinism, people in my orbit, even atheists, aren’t on board…or haven’t thought much about the implications of determinism. So I keep determinism on a short leash in my interactions with friends and family. It seems to me that people are more willing to accept there is no god(s) than there is no free-will.

  6. Science cannot yet explain consciousness, yet nobody doubts that it exists. Free will could be a manifestation of consciousness. If consciousness can exist, so can free will.

    1. This reminds me of something Martin Gardner wrote, and I quote: “For me, free will and consciousness are two names for the same thing. I cannot conceive of myself being self-aware without having some degree of free will.” (The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener. St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999, p. 367.) Gardner counted himself among the “mysterians,” like Colin McGinn and Noam Chomsky, who “believe that the human brain, at this stage of evolution, is not sufficiently powerful to understand free will and consciousness.” (Ibid., p. 368.)

    2. I doubt that consciousness exists. For certain definitions of consciousness anyway. So it is untrue to say that nobody doubts that it exists. Make of that what you will.

      Like many sterile debates in philosophy, theology, and parts of science, much of the debate is a language game. If proponents of an idea keep throwing in assertions and distractions and subtle re-purposing of words, eventually there is bound to be a crack in which their prized value can be said to exist – but that is just an exercise in rhetoric, not science.

      If you have the necessary fortitude, try having a debate about consciousness, or free will, using the restricted language of E-Prime (see Wikipedia). It’s a lot tougher to sneak ambiguity through.

      1. So what do you call it when you wake up or when you come out from under anesthesia? It is an identifiable thing and needs a name. What is wrong with consciousness?

    3. I’m not convinced science cannot explain consciousness, some ethologists (from Trivers and Alexander to De Waal) made some great advances there. How it (consciousness) could and would have evolved.
      Regardless, ‘consciousness’ and ‘free will’ are two very different things. Consciousness does not imply ‘free will’ at all on the one hand, and ‘free will’ might not even need consciousness on the other.
      I think conflating consciousness (an obvious phenomenon) and the illusion of free will is not really illucidating.

    1. I presume you are asking seriously so I’ll essay an answer. Some physical reaction made it itch (I’m not sure what causes itching, but it is something that sets of a neural receptor in your ear. That message is then conveyed via electrochemical impulses to your brain (laws of chemistry; laws of physics), and your brain, which has an evolved program to alleviate an unpleasant sensation like an itch, senses the itch on your ear and directs your hand to scratch it. All determinstic.

      You didn’t “choose” to scratch your ear: your neurons and brain made that decision independent of your illusory “will to scratch.”

      1. It’s interesting to consider how people who are deeply asleep can still react to bodily cues, rolling over, eye movements, pulling up the covers… let alone breathing and pumping blood etc. In the absence of (awake) consciousness behaviours still occur.

        So… when awake do you scratch your ear because you are ‘conscious of the itch’, or do you explain your scratching behaviour by retrospectively reviewing what caused that reaction?

        1. There are experiments in which neurosurgeons stimulated certain areas of the brain, causing people to raise their left or right arm. When asked why they lifted their arm, the patients always gave a reasonable explanation (they did it because they wanted to stretch or something like that). The stimulation made people laugh involuntarily, and again the patients always gave reasonable reasons why they laughed, for example, because the doctor said something funny, or something looked funny. In my opinion, these stimuli on the brain, with which predictable (!) reactions of the subject can be triggered, and where these subjects always assume that it is they themselves who have willed “their” actions, are very good experimental proof for the illusion of free will.

          1. Right. A person can be manipulated. And a person who is unaware of the manipulation (such as a hypnotist’s subject who is given a post-hypnotic suggestion) will confabulate an explanation for their behavior.

            However, a person who is manipulated is not usually judged to be acting of their own free will. Here’s a study of how ordinary people interpret neuroscience prediction versus neuroscience manipulation and the notion of free will. While people generally do not see prediction as compromising free will, they do see manipulation removing free will.


  7. The question of consciousness and free will seems to be an easier issue than the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything (in this case, as everyone knows, the answer is “42”)

    Referring directly to the subject of “free will”, I once spoke to Someone who I thought might provide a definitive answer to this question.

    I hope that one day this Person will visit this forum or invite to his own forum the first-class minds found on this website.


  8. Animals can indeed reason, as Jerry points out, but not everyone has realized this. Aristotle defined humans as “the rational animal,” implying other animals aren’t rational. And Descartes even denied that animals had experiences. But in any case, thanks to metacognitive awareness and language, it’s clear that humans are capable of a lot more reasoning than any other animal.

    Oliver Waters is basically saying the same thing Christian List said about free will. They’re actually on the right track, but they’ve left out the most important part: the explanation of what is wrong with the main argument against free will. By the “main argument” I mean Jerry’s, and its twin in mainstream philosophy, the Consequence Argument.

    And what’s wrong with that argument is its assumption that all of the microscopic past, down to positions of electrons and photons, is fixed. “Fixed” meaning “independent of what you do now”. But physics as we know it implies that only the entropy-increasing events of the past – roughly corresponding to macroscopic features – are fixed. See the PBS Space Time video The Arrow of Time and How to Reverse it and Sean Carroll on Do Cause and Effect Really Exist?

    In our human-scale world there are causes, there are effects, and there are things which are independent of one another. In the micro-world there are also things at different times which are mutually dependent on one another. The latter are not “causes” as we normally understand that word. They can’t constrain you – only things which are independent of your choices can constrain you.

    1. Sorry, but you’re not only distorting my argument, but also Sean Carrolls argument in the video, which doesn’t depend on a “cause and effect” philosophy, but only on the consistency of the laws of physics. Carroll accepts those, and he’s a determinist, and that’s all you need to say that free will in the libertarian sense is nonexistent. Moreover, Carroll accepts that determinism as well.

      Your argument doesn’t give anyone free will in the libertarian sense, and I believe you know that. And that’s the only kind of free will that I can say with reasonable certainty doesn’t exist. As for compatibilist free will, that’s just semantics.

      1. I accept determinism too! So of course I don’t claim to show people have free will in the libertarian sense. But it’s not just semantics. The libertarian definition is built on cause-and-effect reasoning. It’s only because people equate determinism with causality that they embrace the libertarian analysis of how free will “must” work.

  9. As far as we know from physics, only two types of behavior can occur at the fundamental level of reality: determinism and randomness (assuming that quantum mechanical random behavior is actually so – no super-determinism or things like that).

    Evidently determinism excludes any kind of free will. So the only type of loophole left for free will to operate would be randomness. But there the proponents of free will would have to show that conscious thought can actually modify the probability profile of a random event: good luck with that

    1. Actually, if my choice is causally inevitable, then so is my choosing. Every event would be causally necessary, starting with my encountering an issue that required me to make a choice, and then my having at least two real possibilities to choose from, and then my weighing of my options according to my interests, and finally my choosing what I will do. That series of causally inevitable events is what we empirically observe, and what is commonly referred to as “free will”. So, determinism would not exclude free will, but instead guarantees it.

    2. I find it decidedly non-evident that “determinism excludes any kind of free will.” A lot depends on what kind of determinism you mean. If you mean what most people understand by “determinism”, a universal cause-and-effect arrow with an exclusively past-to-future direction, then yes, I can see how that would interfere with the existence of genuine options. (But science doesn’t support that “determinism”.) If you just mean what Jerry means – there are laws of nature (i.e. perfectly reliable correlations) for everything, never mind cause and effect – then inferring lack of free will would be a non sequitur.

      1. But what is a “genuine option”? Isn’t an option an idea? And isn’t the fact that the idea shows up in the causal chain of events running through our brain make it as “genuine” as any option ever gets to be?

        A possibility only exists within the imagination, and nowhere else. You cannot drive a car across the possibility of a bridge. But you cannot build an actual bridge without first imagining a possible bridge. So the idea of a possible bridge serves a critical function in the string of events that eventually brings about an actual bridge.

        The idea of a bridge cannot be formed by a neuron. The idea of a bridge is a collection of memories and associations consisting of images, functions, and feelings related to the bridge. The idea is a process, an event that takes place over a short time within the brain, for a duration controlled by our attention.

        If we were to look at the occurrence of that event with an fMRI, we would see multiple areas of the brain light up with the activity that sustains the idea in our mind. The fact that we can witness that activity proves that it is an empirical event taking place in the real world.

        And we could do the same with the choosing event. We could observe each option as it arrives in its logical order within our thoughts. We could observe the activity related to evaluating each option. We could observe the activity related to our certainty that we had made a choice.

        Choosing happens in physical reality, but it is not controlled by the laws of physics. The operation is a macro event brought about by other macro events related to the process of thinking. It is like hitting a baseball with a bat. We do not know the atoms that make up the ball or the bat. Instead, we simply know of the two macro objects, the ball and the bat. And that knowledge is sufficient to learn how to hit the ball with the bat.

        If physics were in charge, then there would have to be at least one neuron for each atom in the ball. But physics is not in charge. We are. Our brain creates a simple logical model consisting of objects and events. It manipulates these objects in our imagination to estimate how to hit the ball with the bat.

        1. A genuine option is an idea plus a way to implement it. If I’m in jail, I might have an idea to bend the bars and slip out, but that isn’t a genuine option because I have no way to implement it. The free will skeptics are going to use their same old argument, about atoms and molecules in the past before you were born and laws of nature that stretch from then to now, to claim that we had no way to implement our options other than the one we went with.

          1. Right, Paul. A real possibility is one that we could actualize if we chose to do so. The fact that we never choose to do so does not imply that it was ever impossible, but only that it did not and will not happen.

            Reliable causation, in any case, is not a meaningful constraint. What I will “inevitably” do is what I would have done anyway. 🙂 And that is not a meaningful constraint.

          2. “The free will skeptics are going to use their same old argument”

            Not me, and not anyone else as far as I can tell — but since it was suggested, I’ll say the arguments for the fantasy of free will, on this page alone, appear to be a mile wide and an inch thick – really, just look at it – volume is not precision. That’s a sign of something for sure.

            1. But what precisely is the argument from “laws of nature apply to all processes” (determinism as defined by Jerry) to “you could not have done otherwise”? All that follows is: if I do A, certain things are implied about both the future and the past, and if I do B, certain other things are implied about the future and the past. Yes – so? See Betting on the Past by Arif Ahmed for why this is no obstacle to having the ability to do either of two things.

              1. “But what precisely is the argument from “laws of nature apply to all processes” (determinism as defined by Jerry) to “you could not have done otherwise”?”

                What does this suggest – if the ^^^^^ that cannot be answered then we must accept free will?

              2. No, you need to look at all the evidence. You would start with “why do some people think we do have free will” and “why do some think we don’t” and “how do they actually use those words?”

                Right now I propose to focus on “why do some people think we don’t have free will.” Starting with Jerry’s argument, then strengthening it if needed. The scientific premise, that everything in our universe proceeds in accordance with natural laws, is very well supported. But premises are needed that connect to the core features of whatever people mean by “free will”. Jerry has cited a study by Sarkissian et. al. that is potentially relevant, but Sarkissian et. al. studied the relation between people’s ideas of free will and causality.

          3. “The free will skeptics are going to use their same old argument, about atoms and molecules in the past before you were born and laws of nature that stretch from then to now, to claim that we had no way to implement our options other than the one we went with.”

            Love it! Good line.

  10. Sabine Hossenfelder is a physicist who has a broad compass of YouTube tapes on (hmmm 👉🏿) Physics but she also has one on free will and from her (physics) perspective – it can not be so.
    Title of talk/lecture

    “You don’t have free will, but don’t worry”

    1. I believe the kind of free will Hossenfelder claims we don’t have is the one where some outside-of-physics cause is behind a decision. She says “don’t worry” because we’re still free to make decisions. Their causes are the usual ones.

  11. Empiricism depends on induction, the notion that learning about reality is akin to ‘curve fitting’ from given data points, which we can then extrapolate to predict the future or postdict the past.

    That is [19th century] theology, or at least what they used to posit.

    Observation and test, fact and theory, are a lot of things but they don’t depend on simplistic naive models such as that.

  12. Today, I read about constructor theory to try and get a sense how seriously to take it. Deutsch is a pretty smart guy. I found it either inchoate or above my pay grade. Basically, it introduces “slack” into physical phenomena. Of course that opens the door to all sorts of unrecognized phenomena including the possibility of downward causation, which seems to be the point of Waters’ article. Of course it also opens the door to all sorts of woo. Interest about it in physics seems concentrated at Oxford around Deutsch. There is a website. Templeton is providing funding, which is not a good sign.


  13. Free will is a deterministic event. It is deterministic because choosing is a deterministic operation. Choosing inputs two or more options, applies some criteria of evaluation, and selects the option that scores best. That’s deterministic.

    Operationally defined, free will is an empirical event in which someone decides for themselves what they WILL do, while FREE of coercion and other forms of undue influence (mental illness, hypnosis, manipulation, authoritative command, etc.).

    That’s the definition used when we assess someone’s moral or legal responsibility for their actions. It is commonly understood by ordinary people outside of academic philosophy. And it is correctly applied to most practical scenarios.

    It requires nothing supernatural. It makes no claims of being “uncaused”. It simply does its job. It works.

    The notion of “freedom” assumes a world of reliable cause and effect, where events are deterministic. Freedom is the ability to do what you want to do. But you cannot do anything at all without reliable cause and effect.

    So, the philosophical definition of free will, as a choice we make that is “free of causal necessity”, is a paradoxical notion. Causal necessity is reliable cause and effect. Reliable cause and effect are essential to every freedom we have, including choosing. So, the notion of “freedom from causal necessity” is a self-contradiction, an oxymoron, and cannot be rationally used as the definition of anything.

    The solution to the determinism “versus” free will paradox is simple: stop using the paradoxical definition of free will, and use the operational definition instead.

  14. Everything we think, experience, and do has a neural correlate. No brain is ‘informationally’ adiabatic, which implies that no neural process in any brain at any one time is essentially and logically attributable to a prior process within the same brain. Sometimes yes, but not necessarily always.

    This implies that within the same brain it cannot always be true that a subsequent neural process, or correlate, must be precisely extrapolable from a current one.

    Determinism therefore fails to completely explain thought and action on the basis of neural correlation in and between brains in general as exceptions to any and all patterns/options of behaviour can be proved to exist (in principle – most importantly) using the same principles Turing developed when proving both the impossibility of universal computation and the essential unpredictability and undecideability of the simplest of choices: Halt or continue – or, in upscaled human cognitive/behavioural terms – to do or not to do: to be or not to be.

    1. It’s not clear to me what you mean by “No brain is ‘informationally’ adiabatic” (you suggest what it implies, but not what it means). But I would think that every thought could be accounted for by some combination of physical, biological, and rational causal mechanisms.

      Like a broken connection between transistors, a physical impediment, perhaps a blow to the head, could alter thought processes. Or the introduction of some chemical, perhaps alcohol, could disable or interrupt the functioning of a number of neurons biologically. Or a logical error could distort ones reasoning processes. On the other hand, all three causal mechanisms may be operating reliably.

      What I’m suggesting is that every thought and feeling could be accounted for (at least in theory) by some combination of physical, biological, and rational causal mechanisms. Thus the mental processes could remain perfectly deterministic and, at least theoretically, predictable, even if the thoughts appeared to be random.

      I would suspect that the rational causal mechanisms would be the most reliable, as they could be made so by redundant and multiple neural pathways, as when one recovers from a brain injury.

      But the key remains that the phenomenon we experience as free will is not an illusion, but an actual mental event that takes place in physical reality. Choosing happens and it is an operation that is routinely performed by intelligent species. Free will is simply when we make that choice ourselves, for our own purposes and reasons and interests. The lack of free will is when a choice is imposed upon us by someone or something else. Both events, free will and its lack, are equally causally necessary, as are all events.

      Thinking is just as real as walking. And we may stumble over a distraction just as we stumble when we stub our toe. But we can also recover from a stumble of either sort.

      The determinism “versus” free will paradox, is, like all paradoxes, a stumble.

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