A Guardian “long read” on free will

April 27, 2021 • 9:15 am

Several readers sent me a link to a new Guardian piece on free will by journalist Oliver Burkeman (some added that I’m quoted a couple of times, which is true). It’s a “long read” for those with a short attention span, but I have to say that it’s a very good piece, covering all the bases: the definitions, the consequences of contracausal free will, the “solution” of compatibilism, the implications for moral responsibility and for judicial punishment; yes, it’s all there.  And although Burkeman’s personal take, given at the end, is a bit puzzling, it’s a very good and fair introduction to the controversies about free will.

Click on the screenshot to read:


As I said, I have mostly praise for Burkeman’s piece, as he’s clearly done his homework and manages to condense a messy controversy into a readable piece.  So take my few quibbles in light of this general approbation.

First, though, I must note Burkeman’s opening, which, surprisingly, shows the hate mail philosophers have received for promulgating determinism. (Burkeman notes, correctly, that even compatilists who broach a new kind of free will are still determinists.) Although I was once verbally attacked by a jazz musician who said I’d taken away from him the idea that he had complete freedom to extemporize his solos, I’ve never received the kind of mail that Galen Strawson has:

. . . . the philosopher Galen Strawson paused, then asked me: “Have you spoken to anyone else yet who’s received weird email?” He navigated to a file on his computer and began reading from the alarming messages he and several other scholars had received over the past few years. Some were plaintive, others abusive, but all were fiercely accusatory. “Last year you all played a part in destroying my life,” one person wrote. “I lost everything because of you – my son, my partner, my job, my home, my mental health. All because of you, you told me I had no control, how I was not responsible for anything I do, how my beautiful six-year-old son was not responsible for what he did … Goodbye, and good luck with the rest of your cancerous, evil, pathetic existence.” “Rot in your own shit Galen,” read another note, sent in early 2015. “Your wife, your kids your friends, you have smeared all there [sic] achievements you utter fucking prick,” wrote the same person, who subsequently warned: “I’m going to fuck you up.” And then, days later, under the subject line “Hello”: “I’m coming for you.” “This was one where we had to involve the police,” Strawson said. Thereafter, the violent threats ceased.

Good lord! Such is the resistance that people have to hearing that they don’t have “contracausal” (you-could-have-chosen-otherwise) free will. Regardless of what compatibilists say, belief in contracausal free will is the majority view in many places (see below).

There are only a few places where Burkeman says things I disagree with. One is how he treats the issue of “responsibility”. My own view, as someone Burkeman calls “one of the most strident of the free will skeptics,” is that while we’re not morally responsible for our misdeeds, which implies we could have chosen a different path, we are what Gregg Caruso calls “answerably responsible”. That is, as the agent of good or bad deeds, whatever actions society deems appropriate in response to our acts must devolve upon our own bodies. Therefore, if we break the law, we can receive punishment—punishment to keep us out of society where we might transgress again, sequestering us until we are deemed “cured” and unlikely to transgress again, and punishment to deter others. (Caruso, also a free-will skeptic, disagrees that deterrence should be an aim of punishment, since it uses a person as an instrument to affect the behavior of others.) Caruso holds a “quarantine” model of punishment, in which a transgressor is quarantined just as Typhoid Mary should be quarantined: to effect possible cures and protect society from infection. Burkeman describes Caruso’s model very well.

What is not justified under punishment (and most compatibilists, including Dan Dennett, agree) is retributive punishment: punishment meted out by assuming that you could have chosen to behave other than how you did. That assumption is simply wrong, and so is retributivism, which is largely the basis of how courts in the West view punishment.

As for praise or blame, or responsibility itself, Burkeman somehow thinks they would disappear even under a hard-core deterministic view of society:

Were free will to be shown to be nonexistent – and were we truly to absorb the fact – it would “precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution”, Harris has written. Arguably, we would be forced to conclude that it was unreasonable ever to praise or blame anyone for their actions, since they weren’t truly responsible for deciding to do them; or to feel guilt for one’s misdeeds, pride in one’s accomplishments, or gratitude for others’ kindness. And we might come to feel that it was morally unjustifiable to mete out retributive punishment to criminals, since they had no ultimate choice about their wrongdoing. Some worry that it might fatally corrode all human relations, since romantic love, friendship and neighbourly civility alike all depend on the assumption of choice: any loving or respectful gesture has to be voluntary for it to count.

But no, praise and blame are still warranted, for they are environmental influences that can affect someone’s behavior.  It is okay to praise someone for doing good and to censure them for doing bad, because this might change their brains in a way to make them liable to do less bad and more good in the future. (Granted, we have no free choice about whether to praise or blame someone.) The only thing that’s not warranted in Burkeman’s list is retributive punishment. Gratitude, pride, guilt, and so on are useful emotions, for even if we had no choice in what we did, these emotions drive society in positive directions, reinforcing good acts and discouraging bad ones.

Burkeman goes on, emphasizing the danger to society of promulgating determinism—a determinism that happens to be true. As the wife of the Bishop of Worcester supposedly said about Darwin’s view that we’re descended from apes,

“My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known.”

This appears to be the view of not only Burkeman, it seems, but also of Dan Dennett. As Burkeman notes “Dennett, although he thinks we do have [compatibilist] free will, takes a similar position, arguing that it’s morally irresponsible to promote free-will denial.”

Morally irresponsible to promulgate denial of contracausal free will? Morally irresponsible to promulgate the truth? Or does he mean morally irresponsible to deny compatibilist notions of free will like Dennett’s? Either way, I reject the idea that we must hide the truth, or quash philosophical discussion, because it could hurt society.

Burkeman goes on about morality:

By far the most unsettling implication of the case against free will, for most who encounter it, is what it seems to say about morality: that nobody, ever, truly deserves reward or punishment for what they do, because what they do is the result of blind deterministic forces (plus maybe a little quantum randomness). “For the free will sceptic,” writes Gregg Caruso in his new book Just Deserts, a collection of dialogues with his fellow philosopher Daniel Dennett, “it is never fair to treat anyone as morally responsible.”

The operant word here is “deserves”—the idea of “desert” that’s the topic of a debate between Caruso and Dennett that I recently reviewed.  If you mean by “deserve” the fact that you’re deemed “answerably responsible,” and thus can undergo punishment for something bad you did, or can justifiably be praised, then yes, there is good justification for holding people answerably responsible for their good and bad deeds, and taking action accordingly.

There is much to argue with in the piece, not with Burkeman, but with some of the compatibilists he quotes. One of them is Eddy Nahmias:

“Harris, Pinker, Coyne – all these scientists, they all make the same two-step move,” said Eddy Nahmias, a compatibilist philosopher at Georgia State University in the US. “Their first move is always to say, ‘well, here’s what free will means’” – and it’s always something nobody could ever actually have, in the reality in which we live. “And then, sure enough, they deflate it. But once you have that sort of balloon in front of you, it’s very easy to deflate it, because any naturalistic account of the world will show that it’s false.”

Here Nahmias admits that determinism reigns, and implicitly that contracausal free will is nonexistent. But what I don’t think he grasps is that the naturalistic view of will, determinism, while accepted by him and his fellow compatibilists, is flatly rejected by a large majority of people—and in several countries (see the study of Sarkissian et al., though I note that when presented with concrete moral dilemmas, people tend to become more compatibilistic). Contracausal free will is the bedrock of Abrahamic religions, which of course have many adherents. Those who proclaim that everybody accepts pure naturalism and the deterministic behavior it entails—that denying that is “an easily deflatable balloon”—probably don’t get out often enough.

Likewise, though who say a society grounded on determinism will be a dreadful society full of criminals, rapists, and murderers are wrong, I think. This is for two reasons. First of all, know quite a few free-will skeptics, including Caruso, Alex Rosenberg, Sam Harris, myself, and others, and if free-will skepticism had a palpable effect on someone’s behavior, I can’t see it. It’s an unfounded fear.

The other reason is that there’s an upside in being a determinist. We still have our illusions of free will, so we can act as if our choices are contracausal even if, intellectually, we know they’re not. Hard determinists like myself are not fatalists who go around moaning, “What’s the use to tell the waiter what I want? It’s all determined, anyway.”

And there’s the improvement in the penal system that comes with accepting deteriminism: there’s a lot to be said for Caruso’s “quarantine” model, which is more or less in effect in places like Norway, though I still adhere to the value of deterrence. And, as Burkeman says eloquently, a rejection of free will paradoxially makes us “free” in the sense that we can be persuaded to give up unproductive retributive attitudes and overly judgmental behavior:

In any case, were free will really to be shown to be nonexistent, the implications might not be entirely negative. It’s true that there’s something repellent about an idea that seems to require us to treat a cold-blooded murderer as not responsible for his actions, while at the same time characterising the love of a parent for a child as nothing more than what Smilansky calls “the unfolding of the given” – mere blind causation, devoid of any human spark. But there’s something liberating about it, too. It’s a reason to be gentler with yourself, and with others. For those of us prone to being hard on ourselves, it’s therapeutic to keep in the back of your mind the thought that you might be doing precisely as well as you were always going to be doing – that in the profoundest sense, you couldn’t have done any more. And for those of us prone to raging at others for their minor misdeeds, it’s calming to consider how easily their faults might have been yours. (Sure enough, some research has linked disbelief in free will to increased kindness.)

. . . . Yet even if only entertained as a hypothetical possibility, free will scepticism is an antidote to that bleak individualist philosophy which holds that a person’s accomplishments truly belong to them alone – and that you’ve therefore only yourself to blame if you fail. It’s a reminder that accidents of birth might affect the trajectories of our lives far more comprehensively than we realise, dictating not only the socioeconomic position into which we’re born, but also our personalities and experiences as a whole: our talents and our weaknesses, our capacity for joy, and our ability to overcome tendencies toward violence, laziness or despair, and the paths we end up travelling. There is a deep sense of human fellowship in this picture of reality – in the idea that, in our utter exposure to forces beyond our control, we might all be in the same boat, clinging on for our lives, adrift on the storm-tossed ocean of luck.

I agree with this. And there’s one more benefit: if you are a free-will skeptic, you won’t always be blaming yourself for choices you made in the past on the grounds that you made the “wrong choice.” You didn’t have an alternative! This should mitigate a lot of people’s guilt and recrimination, and you can always learn from your past mistakes, which might alter your behavior in a permanent way. (This is an environmental influence on your neural program: seeing what worked and what didn’t.)

In light of Burkeman’s paean to free-will skepticism, then, it’s very odd that he says the following at the end:

Those early-morning moments aside, I personally can’t claim to find the case against free will ultimately persuasive; it’s just at odds with too much else that seems obviously true about life.

The deterministic case against contracausal free will is completely persuasive, and I think Burkeman agrees with that. So exactly what “case against free will” is he talking about? Is he adhering to compatibilism here? He doesn’t tell us. What, exactly, is at odds with what seems “obviously true about life”? But so much that “seems obviously true” is wrong as well, like the view that there’s an “agent”, a little person, sitting in our head that directs our actions. I would have appreciated a bit more about what, after doing a lot of research on the free-will controversy, Burkeman has really come to believe.

h/t: Pyers, David

64 thoughts on “A Guardian “long read” on free will

  1. Leave your mind alone – James Thurber. ‘We know we are free, and there’s an end on’t.’ Samuel Johnson.

  2. I still think that Schopenhauer (or Einstein paraphrasing him) summed this whole debate up in one line: “a man can do as he wills but not will what he wills” (sorry for the slightly sexist phrasing ladies!).

    We are not un-caused causers who “will what we will” (the hard in-compatiblists are right about that), but we do indeed have a will and value being able to act as we will (the compatibilists are right that this is an important part of our nature and our social interactions).

    Beyond that, the debate is mostly semantics.

  3. Oliver Burkeman’s pieces are usually thoughtful and interesting – I enjoyed this one, but like our host was puzzled by how he pulled the rug from under his own feet at the end.

  4. I think one of the best consequences of recognizing the fact of determinism and the lack of free will is the greater compassion it tends to engender (at least in everyone I know who is convinced of it).

    1. I agree about compassion. Especially compassion toward people who have behaved badly toward me (but not in a criminal way). Forgiveness comes much more easily under determinism. And for me, with forgiveness of the other person comes an interest in understanding how the other person came to commit regrettable acts. So I think embracing determinism has helped me become a better (not a worse) person. The quote from Burkeman seems right to me.

  5. ” … the idea that he had complete freedom to extemporize his solos …”

    I like that model system, and I’d like to add a couple more I thought of ( perhaps others have too ):

    – musical improvisation
    – chess matches
    – driving a car to do a chore

    each case starts with rules, and unfolds in time in ways that might be roughly predictable but each step reduces the possible choices that follow it. Furthermore, spontaneous decisions in the moment can dramatically affect outcome.

    Just because an improvisation is perceived as spontaneous does not mean the musician is freely choosing anything. There are licks, riffs, ii V I’s, forms, idiosyncrasies of instruments, and on and on that limit the choices. Cecil Taylor or “out” musicians seek to smash these rules, but again that does not mean they freely choose what is played.

    I am reminded of Ginsberg’s Theorem (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginsberg%27s_theorem):

    0. There is a game (consequence of zeroth law of thermodynamics)
    1. You can’t win. (consequence of first law of thermodynamics)
    2. You can’t break even. (consequence of second law of thermodynamics)
    3. You can’t even get out of the game. (consequence of third law of thermodynamics)

    Lastly, with regard to music, I’d add Bill Evans’ pointed observation at 7:55 from insightful, short interview : https://youtu.be/xix9KVnPxPY

    7:55 “… be very selective about the feelings that you want to express because otherwise you could get as subjective as an infant that’s crying in his crib. And no one can deny that this infant is expressing himself, but no one would call it art.”

    The interview provides context, and is very interesting with regard to what improvisation is, and the dynamic between freedom and rules in that form.

    Thanks for allowing a long comment.

  6. I will read the Guardian piece later … If you are referring to the “jazz musician incident” at the end of the 2015 Imagine conference then I was a witness to that.

    It struck me at the time, fighting for “free will” on the sand hill of jazz as curious. I am not a musician, but I play a mean stereo. I would have thought that the improvisation in jazz is the least free willish thing. Born of hours of practice and just letting go of one’s will. Going where the music takes you.

  7. I agree that Burkeman’s piece is largely good. I do think there is a similarity between some compatibilist philosophers and so-called sophisticated theologians. You get the impression that neither group really believe in what they are defending (free will or god) in the sense that most ordinary people understand those concepts but they still (rather condescendingly) think that ordinary folk should believe for their own good. Did Dennett really say that promoting free will denial was morally irresponsible? I couldn’t find the source of that remark, but, if true, it seems a strangely prescriptive thing for such a smart man to say. If we can’t even talk about difficult ideas we really are in trouble.

    1. compatibilist philosophers … think that ordinary folk should believe for their own good.

      That’s not really it. *Everyone* (not just “ordinary folk”) needs notions of “choosing” and “deserving” for society to operate. We need to distinguish between a bank employee handing over money given a gun to their head, and a bank employee conspiring to rob a bank. And if you do that then you’re a compatibilist. (Just saying “neither had a choice” gets you nowhere.)

      1. I agree that many people think you need those things for society to operate, but I don’t think that free will is a necessary ingredient. Having a gun to your head is still best avoided. Intentions still matter. But neither the bank robber or the employee who secretly plots to steal from their employer can ultimately take pride in or feel shame for their actions. And if they were to swap places, atom for atom, experience for experience, then both would do what the other did. They really would have no choice.

        1. neither … can ultimately take pride in or feel shame for their actions.

          One problem with this debate is that people think that morality is only “morality” if it is objective, moral-realist morality. Ditto whether one “ought” to feel pride or shame. But all of these things are simply feelings we’ve evolved to have as part of our evolutionary programming enabling us to cooperate as social animals.

          So yes, we can, do, and should feel “shame” or “pride” for our actions (along with feelings of guilt, anger, moral approval, moral censure, etc). We are social animals and need to feel such things for society to work.

          1. “So yes, we can, do, and should feel “shame” or “pride” for our actions (along with feelings of guilt, anger, moral approval, moral censure, etc). We are social animals and need to feel such things for society to work.” How much have we really explored the possibility-space to determine how necessary these emotions are to the functioning of a society? There might even be better/different emotional states that we could develop/learn that comes from our new understanding of the lack of true free will.

      2. We need to distinguish between a bank employee handing over money given a gun to their head, and a bank employee conspiring to rob a bank. And if you do that then you’re a compatibilist.

        Nonsense. Distinguishing between culpability like that is simply selecting the right model for the right scale of phenomena. Just as we select NM (not QM) as an apt tool for cannonball trajectories, we select human agent models (not NM or QM) as an apt tool for economics, law, and the like. My selection of NM for cannonballs doesn’t mean I reject the quantum nature of the universe, and my selection of a human agent model for game theory or legal culpability doesn’t mean I think that there is some meaningful compatibilist notion of free will..

        1. But “selecting a human agent model for legal culpability” is all that there is to compatibilism and indeed sums up compatibilism in a nutshell!

          All that compatibilism is saying is that we do need that account of social interactions, and that we can’t just say — about both the dishonest bank employee and the one with the gun to their head — that neither “had any choice” and then make no distinction between them.

          1. Then why call it ‘compatibilist free will” at all? Is it just a marketing scheme? A “little people” argument?

            No scientist goes around telling people particles are governed by compatibilist Newtonian Mechanics. That would be dishonest, misleading. Yes? But that seems to be analogous to the ‘compatibilist free will’ label, the way you describe it.

          2. We call it that because the “contra-causal” meaning of “free will” is a theological interpretation, it is not the underlying concept.

            The underlying concept, much older and more basic than the theological interpretation, is about social interactions. If someone asks: “did you sign the contract of your own free will or were you coerced”, they are not asking whether he acted independently of the laws of physics.

          3. “If someone asks: “did you sign the contract of your own free will or were you coerced”, they are not asking whether he acted independently of the laws of physics.”

            Exactly! Incompatibilists would prefer that to be the issue but it isn’t.

    2. I don’t know where Burkeman got that quote from Dennett, but here’s two others I’ve seen for myself:

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

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

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

    3. I think Dennett would reply to this by saying that there’s a big difference between talking about free will and promoting free will denial. It’s the difference between researching cases of voter fraud and claiming without evidence that the election was stolen.

          1. Yeah … frankly I don’t care about compatibilist free will, it’s a distraction. Accepting a [hard] incompatibilist view of the universe is interesting. Once we accept determinism (or indeterminsim for that matter) then I would suggest we look carefully how the universe ticks … and not bother about semantic quibbles.

    1. I’d say “yes” if the many-world interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, as it would suggest a fully deterministic “multiverse”.

      1. So at some then quantum events stopped playing a role so if we were to reset to that point then everything will happen again, including me typing this line.

  8. I think it’s a well-written article that fairly covers both sides of the debate. Free will skeptics will be unhappy with the ending but it’s the author’s right to come down on one side or the other.

    Burkeman does something here that I don’t remember other free will articles doing so well. He covers in detail the mindset of both sides of the argument and even points out that it is easy to hold both mindsets in one head at different times.

    If you look at how you made a decision in detail, you will find that the atomic choice event dissolves into thin air. Everything has a cause, which has a cause, and so on indefinitely. The more we understand how the brain works and examine it in detail, the time and location we made a decision will disappear or, more accurately, become undefined. It’s like looking at the steering mechanism of your car in detail and asking which part (the steering wheel, the pinion, the rack, the wheels, the tires) actually does the steering. It’s a silly question.

    Although we sometimes can see that the choices we make don’t reside at a definite point in time and space, we still feel that we make them. I like the phrase “we’re the author of our choices” as it portrays decision-making as a process rather than some singular event. Although, like all processes, the choice process is part of a bigger process that started with the Big Bang, it is still meaningful.

  9. Even if we became hardcore determinists, I doubt much would change in our personal lives. How we act and feel is largely determined by our human nature, and it’d be hard for our psychology to change much from the abstract and remote notion that free will is an illusion. And of course all our natural urges, both physical and emotional, would remain intact.

    Imagine that someone, after rejecting free will, begins to be laxer in what they do, less scrupulous in their morals, negligent in their responsibilities. It won’t take them long to realize that that carries a penalty. The disapprobation of society (on whose acceptance and respect much of our psychological well-being depends) and all kinds of negative practical consequences will soon become apparent, and they will forget all about free will and adjust their behavior accordingly.

    This is anecdotal of course, but still: I realized very early in life that (libertarian) free will didn’t make any sense. Absolutely nothing in my behavior and general disposition changed. It’s true, though, that one potential benefit of rejecting free will is the mitigation of a lot of people’s guilt and recrimination, as Jerry says. I’ve occasionally applied that to myself. But it’s still remarkably rare that I find myself doing that.

    I do agree, though, with the positive consequences that rejecting free will should have on our criminal justice system. It should logically become less retributive and more utilitarian.

    1. Don’t we have more convincing arguments for the criminal justice system becoming less retributive and more utilitarian? It would certainly benefit from a frank discussion of its objectives and how it might better achieve them. The only role free will should play in this is a review of what excuses we accept for someone’s bad behavior not being of their free will. For example, perhaps someday medical technology will be able to tell us whether a certain kind of tumor can cause someone to commit a particular kind of crime.

      1. I don’t disagree that other arguments could be made in favor of a more utilitarian criminal justice system.

        While ultimately a tumor is not fundamentally different from a genetic predisposition or an environment that may predispose us to commit a crime, a useful distinction is clearly possible: In everyday speech, people are presumed to have free will when they are aware of what they’re doing, are doing it deliberately, and are unencumbered by any overwhelming force, whether physical or psychological, that might be dictating their actions. Or, put differently, a strong deterrent could make them reconsider an inclination to break the law, for example, whereas the same deterrent would have no such effect on someone who is insane (or compelled by the effects of a tumor).

        But that’s already pretty much how our legal system works. A non-(libertarian) free-will argument would take this a bit further, in that, even when free will (as described above) was present, the punishment would never have a retributive character. In other words, a given corrective measure (“punishment”) should never be harsher than needed for it to achieve the desired deterrent effect.

        1. I really don’t know why we need to consider libertarian free will. Most compatibilists reject it. This is the so-called “two-step move” mentioned in the Guardian article.

  10. “Those who proclaim that everybody accepts pure naturalism and the deterministic behavior it entails—that denying that is ‘an easily deflatable balloon’—probably don’t get out often enough.”

    Indeed. The denial of contra-causal free will is another slow, difficult step the culture might eventually take on the way to a consistent worldview naturalism, similar to the denial of God abetted by atheism. I’m not optimistic that most folks anytime soon will drop the essentially supernatural, anti-scientific notion of our being little gods that could have done otherwise in actual situations. But free will skeptics and determinists are coming out of the closet in increasing droves, so the long-term prospects for naturalism are looking brighter. As always, thanks for what you do here for that cause. I only wish compatibilists would do likewise.

  11. An analogy:

    I think anyone with a well cared-for dog can identify with the ‘no free will’ argument. We tend to accept that punishment and praise for a dog’s behavior is primarily to discourage and encourage, respectively, those behaviors. There’s a saying that goes, “There’s no such thing as a bad dog; just bad owners.”

    ‘Dog’ here is a proxy for a conscious being who acts on their instincts (or without the free will to have chosen otherwise). Likewise, ‘owners’ is a proxy for the environment into which a conscious being is brought up.

    I don’t think many people would argue that praising or punishing a dog is pointless because the dog is just doing what dogs do. I think they would instead identify with the idea that rewarding good behavior and punishing bad fosters positive change over time.

    1. Exactly. The dog analogy is perfect for people who object that if there’s no libertarian free will, any system that relies on punishment as deterrence would be an incongruity, since, after all, why would we be at all deterred by anything if all our actions are predetermined anyway? That objection has no merit.

      And if a dog is thought to have some sort of free will, we can think instead of a very advanced AI, a blind and unconscious program designed to react and adapt to changing conditions, to learn how to achieve a given goal as it attempts different approaches and sees what works and what doesn’t.

  12. The problem with incompatibilists is that they do not have one iota of understanding of Computer Theory. They model a causal world as a form of “combinational logic” ie that any effect is determined by a logical set of conditions(causes) treated by a fixed logical processing unaffected by change of state. The reality is that we are instead a “state machine” in which the combinatorial conditions resulting at time t subsequently becomes a parameter of the decisional process at t+1. Why does this matter? Well, one of the state inputs is the output of the “self” – the unique entity of our mental being (reflected in our “personality”). But that self is in effect self-programming (still a deterministic process) but endlessly recursive and self-modifying. And under the influence of factors of randomness and some computational indeterminism. This is influenced by some tremendous capabilities in the human mind- associative memory, learning, pattern recognition, multiprocessing etc etc. The self becomes the thing that then most influences our agency not just the combinational inputs of the time.. Unless Jerry argues that not only do we not have free will but we ourselves don’t actually exist, he has a hard job to justify that there is no such thing as free will.

      1. Very droll.
        And some incompatibilists grossly oversimplify causation. Let us examine what’s really going on. I’ve already shown in the computational model of the mind that the causal chain is seriously broken (the causal chain being the long chain of causes leading up to this desional juncture). Of course we both agree that sheer randomness is no way to establish anything we could classify as free will. But this is not pure randomness. It is a process that leads to the formation of an entity with agency – the Self. In a way that is analogous to Evolution, where a complex lifeform arises out of a mechanism having random mutation, the “self” arises out of computational processes having randomising influences. But it is indeed a complex entity, recursively formed by what can be seen as a form of self-programming.
        Let’s discuss a simple everyday model/conception of how a “self” is formed. A baby is born – it certainly is not considered a developed and mature Self. It can not be attributed as having moral responsibility. But as it ages, its experiences and its own internal endless recursive processing of those experiences (and not on an absolute causal chain) forms a mature Self. A self which we attribute to have moral responsibility. Kane would describe this as “self formed”. Dennett would say it has “the kind of free will worth having”.

        I do believe that many atheists dislike the concept of free will because of its association with religious dogma. Or they feel that the consequences of getting rid of this freewill concept will improve humanities moral behaviours. They are sadly wrong. The consequences of full acceptance of incompatibilism are dire. A Clockwork Orange world. But fortunately we never need apply consequentialist argument … for indeed we really do have free will.

        1. For me not being a computer scientist, analogies to computation while interesting are irrelevant. Being a chemist I wonder how we control our brain chemistry in a way that gives us free will.

          Answers on a back of a post card please.

          1. Some analogies to computer science are irrelevant but not all. It’s easy to argue against statements like “the brain is a computer”. However, a computer science point of view helps us understand the relationship between a complex computational entity and its behavior. Software systems are the most complex things humans have created and understand completely. While the brain is far more complex and much less understood, the analogy with computer programs is helpful. That we can imagine creating a program that performs some of the functions of a human brain is evidence of that.

            Another example is Searle’s Chinese Room, thought be Searle and other philosophers to be proof that Artificial Intelligence is impossible. Computer scientists generally find it a ludicrous argument.

    1. There are plenty of people who argue that the ‘self’ is an illusion and/or not a thing but a process. Rather like the lights and dials of a car dashboard reflect the state of the car but are not the car itself.

  13. I haven’t read all the literature on “free will” vs. determinism, but I have formed an opinion firmly on the side of determinism from reading Dr. Coyne’s comments here. There’s one thing that bothers me in the Burkeman article. He claims that determinism means that when pulling life’s tape back on picking the apple or the banana, the person would always pick the same one. I don’t believe we have “free will”, but having 40 years experience in econometric statistical methods, I also firmly believe that reality is stochastic. In fact Einstein published a paper demonstrating that by invoking “brownian motion”. I believe it is possible to believe in a deterministic reality while believing that if the tape is turned back and released again a different outcome is possible.

  14. Reading this and being familiar with your writings and your lectures on the subject (as well as Sam Harris) I am entirely in agreement with you.
    And it leads to an easier life philosophy.
    The very WORST part of the iron age fairy tales comprising the toxic monotheisms so many people believe in is their moralizing from the assumption that we have free will. We don’t.

    Not believing in free will, though, *doesn’t* satisfy the human striatum and its lust for punishment of others. Maybe that’s why a lot of people reject it. Righteous punishment is FUN!

  15. I believe the error is in the idea of ‘moral responsibility’ based on ‘contracausal free will’. If you presume that ‘evolution is true’ then why discuss this subject for we are social animals that live by moral rules. It is just one of the features of our species. It is natural to have moral rules in the first place. And then it becomes pointless to say that we shouldn’t have them because the universe may be deterministic. A similar argument is that we might as well stop breathing because life has no meaning.

  16. OK, excellent, most commenters agree “free will” doesn’t exist.
    But most commenters do start their comments with the words “I, me, myself… ”

    However, next week’s Guardian longread claims: “I, me, myself…” doesn’t exist either.

    But how do “I” sort out “my” position on that observation?

    1. Jaak …I would have to reread the article to get the context of your claim. In my experience free will skeptics will use language like “I is an illusion”. Illusion in the sense of “not as it seems.” So the “I” we refer to is not as it seems. I recommend Bruce Hood’s The Self Illusion as an easy starter.

      1. The “I is an illusion” and “free will is an illusion” ideas do have similar roots. If one looks inside the carrier of identity or free will and sees only gears, logic gates, causal links, or neurons, the identity and free will seem to disappear. This is to be expected as they are emergent properties. It’s like looking at the individual parts of a car and expecting them to each have the property of going from A to B. Some find this troubling.

          1. Molecular oxygen – which is necessary but insufficient for an ICE to function – is also invisible – when “visible” radiation impinges on it, and an appropriate detector – a human retina, developed properly – intercepts the scattered radiation.

            Pressure is also necessary but insufficient for an ICE to function as expected, and is invisible to human retinas properly developed.

            I don’t know how that helps anything, I just thought it was amusing to point out.

          2. I thought about deleting “seem”. All I mean by it is that, when we look closely, free will and identity are still there but we have trouble localizing them. They are implemented by the parts.

            By the way, there’s no such thing as contra causal free will. I’m talking about plain old everyday free will, the kind Dennett says is all we need and should want.

          3. Just as an aside, I recently read (without too much interest) Mele’s book where he dismantles several versions of compatibilist free will and promotes his own. Does Dennett’s plain vanilla everyday free will pass muster with Mele?

            So if we imagine free will is simply having the ability in coming to a choice out of several imagined possibilities, then fair enough. But then that is not what I mean by free will, or what most people mean from what I understand.

          4. What kind of free will do “most people” think we have? Incompatibilists claim that it is contra-causal free will which is how they justify setting it up and knocking it down. They even cite studies to show it. I’m skeptical. I suspect that they don’t ask the right questions, the subjects don’t understand them, or that they misinterpret the answers.

            For example, if a researcher asks someone who chose coffee for breakfast if they could have chosen tea, they’ll say “yes”. The researcher then claims that this means they believe in contra-causal free will. What the subject really means is that they could have chosen tea if they’d wanted tea. The researcher conveniently forgets to tell the subject that when making the choice, all states in the universe are to be held constant. Since this is a physical impossibility, it removes the question from everyday experience. It shouldn’t at all be surprising the subject gives the “wrong” answer.

      2. “Not as it seems”……. a pretty weak basis to set up as a measure for the existence or nonexistence of the self.
        I believe that I am a stylish skier. But this is an illusion. It is not as it seems to me. Yet I still exist as a skier.

  17. Maybe the more fundamental claim is that there is no “subject”, no “internal commanding officer”.
    If that is indeed the case, then free will as an attribute of the subject (that is, autonomously issuing decisions) automatically goes out the window to.
    The article refers to Sam Harris, David Hume… and Buddhism for making that more fundamental claim.
    All this stuff is intellectually interesting, in some sense liberating (stuff just happens), but we can’t live our lives this way. It’s a form of category error.

  18. I’m late to the party, but I want to note that there’s a disconnect between what most people believe about determinism, versus what physicists believe. And this disconnect breaks a crucial link of Jerry’s argument.

    the naturalistic view of will, determinism, while accepted by him and his fellow compatibilists, is flatly rejected by a large majority of people—and in several countries (see the study of Sarkissian et al.,

    But a naturalistic view of determinism does not match the view labeled “determinism” in the Sarkissian et al study. Physicists define “determinism” thus: “If we knew the precise state of every particle …, we could deduce the future as well as the past” (Sean Carroll, From Eternity to Here, p, 43.) But universal determinism does not imply universal causality. Causality is an emergent phenomenon, dependent on entropy (p. 41), another emergent phenomenon. Causality doesn’t go all the way down. The Sarkissian et. al. study, however, asks their subjects about scenarios specified to occur in a world with universal causality, not just determinism.

    If you want to know what a word or phrase refers to (or whether it fails to refer to any real thing), it’s not enough to just ask what people believe. If most people believe that whales are extremely large fish that breathe water, and you look at the things they are pointing to and see that they breathe air, you have not proven that there are no “whales”. You might simply have proven that most people have wrong beliefs about biology. Likewise, the Sarkissian et. al. study reveals something about people’s wrong understanding of physics – in this case, that of the philosophers who confused “determinism” with “universal causality” in the first place. (I don’t blame Sarkissian et. al. for pursuing a question the philosophers had already raised, and shedding better light on it. But if you want to find the actual implications of scientific naturalism, that’s not the place to look.)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *