Massimo Pigliucci: “Free will is incoherent”

February 9, 2022 • 10:30 am

I’ve had my differences with Massimo Pigliucci, but when he says something I agree with, I give him praise (see my kudos here for his admirable critique of panpsychism). So I’m always puzzled when he has to work in a slur against me when we do have our differences.

In this case we don’t seem to have any differences on the topic of free will, but he still insists on characterizing Sam Harris and me as “philosophically naive anti-free will enthusiasts”.  Massimo’s insults usually come in such a form: asserting his superior credentials in either biology or philosophy.  I’m not going to respond by calling him names. It is the argument I want to deal with.

That aside—and the “naive” bit did upset me a tad—Pigliucci argues in the article below that the concept of free will is “incoherent”.  By “incoherent”, he apparently means that “free will in the pure libertarian sense cannot exist because it violates the laws of physics.”  But of course that’s the argument I’ve been making all along, so in fact we agree.  Perhaps the word “incoherent” has a philosophical meaning I don’t fathom (I am, after all, philosophically naive)’ but if people do realize that the libertarian (“I-could-have-chosen-otherwise”) concept of free will adhered to by most people and a large proportion of religious believers cannot be true, I will be happy.

Do note that for a long time I’ve lumped physical determinism together with pure indeterminism (as in quantum mechanics) as “naturalism”. It’s naturalism that puts paid to the libertarian concept of free will, not just determinism.  “Contracausal” free will (another name for “libertarian free will”) would violate the laws of physics, and so can be dismissed. As Sean Carroll showed, there is no way that immaterial “will” can influence physical objects, and we already understand the physics of everyday life. Libertarian free will is not part of everyday life.

Anyway, click below to read Pigliucci’s short essay in “Philosophy as a way of life”:

Massimo’s argument seems no different from one I’ve been making for years (it’s not of course my argument; I’m parroting the naturalists who preceded me). A quote:

“Free” will, understood as a will that is independent of causality, does not exist. And it does not exist, contra popular misperception, not because we live in a deterministic universe. Indeed, my understanding is that physicists still haven’t definitively settled whether we do or not. Free will doesn’t exist because it is an incoherent concept, at least in a universe governed by natural law and where there is no room for miracles.

Consider two possibilities: either we live in a deterministic cosmos where cause and effect are universal, or randomness (of the quantum type) is fundamental and the appearance of macroscopic causality results from some sort of (not at all well understood) emergent phenomena.

If we live in a deterministic universe then every action that we initiate is the result of a combination of external (i.e., environmental) and internal (i.e., neurobiological) causes. No “free” will available.

If we live in a fundamentally random universe then at some level our actions are indeterminate, but still not “free,” because that indetermination itself is still the result of the laws of physics. At most, such actions are random.

Either way, no free will.

Note that, as I’ve also maintained (but some readers here don’t) that the popular view of free will is wrong because it violates the laws of physics, including both the deterministic ones and the truly indeterminate but statistical quantum-mechanical ones. (Note that Newtonian mechanics is a special case of quantum mechanics, but determinism suffices for much of everyday life, like sending rockets to the Moon.)

So where is the incoherence here? Massimo’s argument appears to be this (my take):

a. The universe is governed by the laws of physics. The brain is part of the universe and behavior (including “choice”) comes from our brain

b. If the laws are deterministic, we can’t have free will

c. If the laws are indeterministic, we can’t have free will, either, because, according to libertarians, our behaviors are not completely “random” or capricious.

d. Since deterministic and indeterministic laws are all we have, there is no free will, which is seen as independent of the laws of physics.

If that’s “incoherent”, I don’t see why. It’s not a purely philosophical deduction, because determinism and indeterminism are empirical phenomena..  And I’m happy that Massimo agrees that there’s no free will the way most people use the term. At least he doesn’t assert, as compatibilists do, that the popular notion of free will is really a sophisticated Dennett-ian one. Surveys show that that is not true: it’s the libertarian one that both Pigliucci and I say is nonsensical. (Or, in his case, “incoherent.”)

In the rest of the article, Pigliucci discusses the meaning of the Libet experiment as well as interesting newer experiments in which brains are monitored when more complex decisions are made. It turns out that for a simple random decision, like pressing a button or deciding whether to add or subtract, as in Libet’s study, the brain gives a signal before the actor consciously decides what to do. And that signal predicts with substantial accuracy what the actor will do. The predictability has increased as brain monitoring has improved.

Massimo says this:

Libet also asked participants to watch the second hand of a clock and report its position at the exact moment they felt the conscious will to move their wrist. The idea was to explore the connection between the RP [the “readiness potential” detected in the brain before the actor’s decision comes to his/her consciousness] and conscious decision making.

The results were clear, and have been confirmed multiple times since, using different and improved experimental protocols. Unconscious brain activity, measured by the RP, preceded the conscious decision to move the wrist by at least half a second, with more recent studies putting that figure up to two full seconds.

This was interpreted as to mean that the participants had in fact decided to move their wrist quite some time before they became conscious of their decision. The implication being that consciousness had nothing to do with the decision itself, but was rather an after-the-fact interpretation by the subjects.

Philosophically naive anti-free will enthusiasts like Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne, among others, eventually started using the Libet experiments as scientific proof that free will is an illusion. But since free will is incoherent, as I’ve argued before, we need no experiment to establish that it doesn’t exist. What Libet’s findings seemed to indicate, rather, is the surprising fact that volition doesn’t require consciousness.

I don’t in fact remember using the Libet experiments as “scientific proof that free will is an illusion.” You can rule out libertarian free will, as I do when I talk about the subject, from the laws of physics alone, using exactly the same argument that Pigliucci does. What I do say is that insofar as the popular conception of free will requires a conscious decision, it doesn’t seem to work, as consciousness is temporally  decoupled from choice, which can be predicted  with substantial but not perfect accuracy from brain scans before the conscious choice is made.. Again, we have pilpul: a distinction without a difference.

The stuff in Massimo’s piece that interested me was his discussion of a paper that I haven’t read for a while:

Enter a pivotal paper published by U. Maoz, G. Yaffe, C. Koch, and L. Mudrik in 2019 in the journal eLife Neuroscience and entitled “Neural precursors of decisions that matter — an ERP study of deliberate and arbitrary choice.”

The authors set up a series of conditions that allowed them to distinguish between what was happening in the brains of people asked to engage in arbitrary decision making (similar to the original Libet experiment) or in deliberate choices (the latter characterized by different degree of difficulty).

The results were highly informative. They did detect the RP, but only in association with arbitrary, not deliberate decision making. In other words, Libet’s results do not extend to situations when people engage in conscious decisions, and therefore it has nothing to do with the debate on volition.

Maoz and collaborators also built a theoretical model that was able to nicely match the experimental results. On the basis of their model, they suggest that — contra the common view regarding the RP — where arbitrary decisions are concerned “the threshold crossing leading to response onset is largely determined by spontaneous subthreshold fluctuations of the neural activity.” That is, the RP goes up and down randomly until it crosses a threshold that leads to action, in the case of the original experiment, the flicking of the wrist.

Maoz et al.’s model also suggests that two different neural mechanisms may be responsible for arbitrary vs deliberate decision making.

That’s interesting, though Maoz et al., while able to make a model of what happened, couldn’t suss out what the “decision” would be using their models or the measurement methods (EEG). That doesn’t of course mean that researchers with more knowledge of the brain, couldn’t eventually find a way to predict what decision a person could make before it’s made.

But even if it’s made at the very last second, it doesn’t matter. The whole process of deliberation and “decision” in complex tasks is analogous to the working of a giant computer made of meat. There are inputs, they work through the neurons, and we spit out an “output”: a decision. That decision is still not “free” in the sense that it could have been “made” (via volition) in a different way. That decision still reflects the deterministic or fundamentally indeterministic laws of physics, and is not made independently of them. If the decision could have been otherwise, it could only be because an electron jumped a different way, not because the actor willed a different outcome. (We still don’t know, and I doubt, that quantum-mechanical indeterminacy really does show its effects in the way people behave.)

But the end, as Massimo says, “Either way, no free will.”

Neuroscience and our understanding of how we act as we do is a hard but fascinating subject, and experiments like the one above are essential in understanding behavior. But we’re a very, very long way from working out the physical basis for “choice.”

Massimo ends his article this way:

Research like the one conducted by Maoz and colleagues opens fascinating insights into a real scientific question: how do human beings make conscious decisions? The other question, regarding free will, is a non-issue because free will cannot possibly exist in a universe with laws of nature and no miracles. It follows that there is nothing at all that neuroscience can say about it.

I don’t agree. Free will is not a non-issue, and we know that because many people accept it. For them it is an issue! They accept it because they don’t understand physics, because they embrace duality, or because they believe in God and miracles. You can’t dismiss all those people, for they are the ones who make and enforce laws and punishments based on their misunderstanding that we have libertarian free will. They are the ones who put people to death because, they think, those criminals could have chosen not to pull the trigger.

I agree that there’s little that neuroscience can say about free will, but it can say this: Because neurons are material objects that obey the laws of physics, we cannot have free will. That is not “nothing”!

The rest is commentary—and a lot of hard work.

Oh, and Massimo, if you’re reading this, could you just be civil and lay off the insults? I may be philosophically naive, but I can still understand what you’re saying and can still learn from your arguments.

56 thoughts on “Massimo Pigliucci: “Free will is incoherent”

    1. It does seen that Massimo, being someone with a track record in both science and philosophy, tends to see scientists who discuss “philosophical” matters as being naive. Hence any mention of our host, Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, et al, usually contains a put-down. I think he’d do better to omit them. Partly because it’s not good style, and partly because the discussion of such matters by the scientists is usually just as sensible as that by credentialed philosophers.

  1. All philosophers are naive – no matter how expert they believe themselves to be – because there is always another philosopher somewhere that disagrees with them.

  2. I’ve had my differences with Massimo Pigliucci, but when he says something I agree with, I give him praise ,,,

    So it’s back to modus vivendi time for you two?

  3. One reason for thinking that “free will” is incoherent is that people mean different things by those words.

    Everyone’s free will, no matter how defined (I think), is limited in the way it can be exercised, by context. But as Stephen Fry points out, within whatever context, people have what he calls “agency.”

    “Agency” means that people have choices they can make. They are not driven to a specific choice, because they have the ability to reason. And because of reason, they can reprogram their decision making.

    Here’s how I think it works:

    It’s well established that a tennis player makes his decision about how to respond to a serve, and responds, prior to being conscious that he is making that decision. So this looks like he has not exercised “free will” in – it’s an illusion.

    But what the tennis player does have is the ability to recognize the outcome of his response, judge it, consider what else he might have done, and based on reason, direct himself about how to make the same or different choice in responding to the next similar serve.

    In other words, there’s a feedback system that informs the next decision, and in using that feedback system, the tennis player is exercising his agency.

    I think that this is how agency works to generate what most people regard as “free will.”

    But here is the thing – in using the agency feedback system, a human being, as opposed to a non-human animal, can integrate the communicated experience of other human beings into the process. And the feedback system can be used prospectively – the tennis player can imagine situations he hasn’t actually experienced, and program himself about how to respond.

    I think that it is reason, applied through our feedback system, that permits people to break the chains of both determinacy and indeterminacy, and exercise free will, at least in the sense of having agency.

    1. It really all boils down to whether one traces all causes back to their first cause, the fundamental laws of physics, or stops at the last cause which relates to human behavior. When regular folk talk about the decisions they make, they don’t talk about the movement of fluids, electrical fields, or even neurons firing. Most believe those things do affect their decisions but don’t talk about them because they are out of their control and can’t even inspect them in most cases. Even if we had a record of all the neural activity that contributed to a decision, we can’t understand it in any way relevant to human behavior. To talk about free will and physics determinism in the same breath is a waste of time.

  4. Prof. Coyne, I want to put two of your positions together and get your comment. Would you say that your support of free speech is increased as a result of your understanding of free will? My thinking is that given that there is no free will, the only way to change decisions/choices/actions is to have fresh inputs. So, is open discourse a necessary response to determinism?

  5. Tough question. I would say “no”. You can be a determinist and still be against free speech, for you can change behaviors in ways other than speaking (like punishing or ostracizing speakers). I don’t see a clear connection between the two, but I’m just typing off the top of my head here. BTW, everyone calls me “Jerry” here. Prof. Coyne is okay, but “Coyne” by itself is off limits because it’s rude. “Jerry” or “the proprietor” is fine

  6. I wonder if by “naive,” he meant something along the lines of “not familiar with the enormous amount of ongoing research in this area.” I have an MA in philosophy and can tell you that there is an enormous amount of research concerning what the folk notions of free will and moral responsibility really are. One can’t just say that the folk notion is a contra-causal one without engaging with some of that research and backing it up.

    It’s possible that you’re right—that the folk notion is a contra causal one. But it’s also possible that it’s much more nuanced than that, as some of the above papers would suggest. And besides, folk notions are only so useful. The folk have incorrect conceptions of all sorts of philosophical issues (for example most folks will have incorrect views about, say, personhood, justice, and so on, but that doesn’t mean we are stuck with those simple conceptions or that those are the right ones). When I first began studying philosophy, I thought compatibilism was ridiculous and couldn’t understand why anyone would accept it. But while I’m not a compatibilist, exactly, Ive come to appreciate that the view is a lot more attractive than I once thought.

    Anyway, love your blog and your discussion of free will (I’m still sympathetic or hard incompatibilism myself).

    1. Yes, good point. I’m basing the folk notion mainly on the paper of Sarkissian et al., who surveyed four populations and all of them had the majority of people adhering to contracausal free will. But I haven’t read every paper on this. But you would agree, wouldn’t you, that those religious where your eternal fate depends on making a “free” decision to accept the faith or Jesus Christ as your personal saviour are implicitly libertarian, no? For if your choice is determined and not “free”, it’s INCOHERENT 🙂

      1. I would agree with that, yes. The contra-causal notion is certainly the notion that I (and I think everyone I knew) had prior to exposure to compatibilist conceptions. And I still suspect it’s the notion that most people have. I’m still a friend of hard-incompatibilism and sometimes think that’s probably still my view. But I’ve also come to appreciate that compatibilism isn’t entirely ridiculous either. We do often say that a person acted on their own free will when they weren’t coerced by someone else or under the influence of a compulsion or drug, etc. And that’s compatible with determinism.

        But generally speaking I agree that we’d be much better off as a society if we gave up the belief that we possess contra-causal free will and uses that insight to inform our criminal justice system, etc.

        1. Compatibilism still seems to me like goalpost shifting. Not a rhetorically dishonest shifting where one is confusing an issue to try and win an argument, but a more benign goalpost shift where one attempts to insulate some germ of an idea from the prior bad parts of it. But still, it’s goalpost shifting. “Oh we don’t believe in that free will, no no no, don’t be silly. We believe in this much more reasonable definition of free will” sounds an awful lot to me like “oh we don’t believe in young earth creationist Christianity, no no no, don’t be silly. We believe in a God that is fully compatible with everything science has discovered.”

          In both cases, we can accept that there are sincere modern believers who reject the old version for the new one. But at the same time, we can step back from the issue and recognize that the overall movement is backpedaling to protect an idea from counter-claims.

          1. I think that the natural of the term free will is like anything else—its use is going to evolve over time as our body of knowledge grows. Consider that until recently people only used the term ‘marriage’ to refer to heterosexual couples. Some of course still do, and maybe many religious people do. But we wouldn’t argue that there is no such thing as same-sex marriage because most folk don’t use the term ‘marriage’ in this way. We outgrew the old concept and its limited use. We disagreed with its limited use. The same is true of ‘parent’, which of course includes someone who adopts or an uncle who fills the role of caregiver, etc. Or consider moral terms like ‘wrong.’ Most of us still think that some acts are wrong even when we don’t think that ‘wrong’ means ‘forbidden by God.’ We don’t just accept that since most people use the term ‘wrong’ to mean ‘forbidden by God’, then nothing is wrong since there is no God. My point is just that this is the nature of language and it’s the nature of philosophy to examine concepts as well as the use of our terms in light of novel information. Compatibilist conceptions of free will should, I think, be seen in this spirit—an attempt to examine freedom and responsibility in light of novel discoveries (physics) that is consistent with some of the ways in which we use the terms and some or the distinctions that we already make. It’s an attempt to do some justice to these concepts even as it turns out that the contra-causal concept of free will is incoherent. This is the nature of philosophy—to examine concepts and see if they hold up under scrutiny and then salvage what might remain.

            Anyway, I’m still probably a hard incompatibilist, but I don’t think that compatibilists are up to anything out of the ordinary in terms of goalpost shifting.

          2. we can step back from the issue and recognize that [compatibilists are] backpedaling to protect an idea from counter-claims.

            I don’t think that’s entirely fair. You see, we disagree with you that the un-caused, libertarian conception of “free will” is the original or the primary one. Rather, we see that as a wrong-headed commentary that is being made about concepts of “choice”, “will” and “freedom” that are actually more basic.

            Those concepts are indeed needed for understanding human society (just for example, one can’t understand issues such as “free speech”, and lots of other things, without them). Compatibilism is then an attempt to make sense of notions of “choice”, “will”, “freedom”, “agency”, “morality”, “responsibility”, in a world where all of those things are caused by the prior state of the system.

            Incompatibilists — once they have finished railing against the religious and anyone else invoking dualistic souls — will have to develop that same understanding of notions such as “choice” in a deterministic world, and will thus end up pretty much being compatibilists, even if they want to use different language.

          3. (I’m not going to re-capitulate the arguments for compatibilism here but..)

            —- “Oh we don’t believe in that free will, no no no, don’t be silly. We believe in this much more reasonable definition of free will” sounds an awful lot to me like “oh we don’t believe in young earth creationist Christianity, no no no, don’t be silly. We believe in a God that is fully compatible with everything science has discovered.” —

            People have a notion of “solid.” E.g. “Solid matter, water in solid form – ice, etc.”
            As with almost every such inference, there will be some level of error in those notions.
            For instance, it *seems* to us that “solid” matter is essentially unbroken, contiguous matter. However, a physicist will point out “Actually, it’s not quite like that – when you examine “solid” material at a fundamental level, it turns out to have lots of “empty space,”
            but nonetheless here is how those particles hold to create what we usually refer to as “solid.”

            The question then is, does this mean the physicists has “explained AWAY the folk notion of “solid” – that “solidity was therefore only a folk illusion we have to do away with?” Is he “goal post shifting” if his explanation for solidity doesn’t validate every single part of the folk intuition?

            Hasn’t the physicist instead simply given a better explanation for “solidity” – which both explains the observations we make about the real world differences in matter (e.g. water in liquid vs solid form) plus how it is they appear as they do to us, iin a way that is actually more accurate?

            This seems to me the better analogy to compatibilism, which can I think explain both WHY we have the feeling of “really having a choice to do X or Y” while giving the more accurate naturalistic explanation over the supernatural one. To think a naturalistic account “throws away the real common notions of freedom” is like saying a scientific account of “solidity” does away with the reality of “solidity” rather than explains the reality of “solidity.”

        2. The compatibilists would say that people’s conceptions of “free will” tend to be an inconsistent mix.

          If people are asked about “free will” in an abstract, theological or philosophical context, then they tend to answer in terms of un-caused libertarian free will.

          But, if people use the concept in everyday life, then they tend to be using a de facto pragmatic and compatibilist conception of free will. The standard example of this is a question such as “Do you wear the hijab of your own free will?”. The question is about social coercion. It is not asking whether the decision to wear the item is un-caused or not (which is actually a rather weird question).

          Thus the underlying concept of “free will” is about the social freedom to act as one wills, and is simply not about the supposed “freedom” to will what one wills. (To echo Schopenhauer.)

          Thus, the libertarian conception seems to be an interpretation of how our brains make choices that is reached for in theological/philosophical contexts, but is not necessarily the underlying meaning in everyday life.

      2. It’s important to note that Sarkissian et al gave people a choice between two descriptions of hypothetical universes. In one, Universe A, “everything that happens is completely
        caused by whatever happened before it.” People picked the other universe as being “more like our own” and more compatible with “full moral responsibility”. But Universe A is not equivalent to “determinism” in the sense most physicists use “determinism”, because causality can be emergent in a deterministic universe. According to Sean Carroll (who favors Everettian QM – a deterministic interpretation), causality doesn’t apply at the level of fundamental particles/fields. The actual universe is not “completely caused” even though it may be deterministic.

        And “a universe correctly described by laws of nature” is not even close to implying Universe A.

  7. Libertarian Free Will is functionally indistinguishable from “magic,” which makes it convenient to “explain” anything someone wants to “explain” (though only in a facile way).

    Theists like William L. Craig seek to establish an eternal cause of the Universe that is outside time itself. The problem: if there was a cause of the universe that was outside time and eternal, there is no time “T” that you can point to at which “X was NOT causing the universe.” Which would imply there was no point at which the universe was not caused in to existence, hence the universe would have existed eternally. But since, per Craig’s Kalam arguments, the universe had a beginning (he’ll point to the big bang among other things), he’ll say “this problem demonstrates the cause of the universe MUST have been a Personal Being Endowed With Libertarian Free Will.” That is the ability to have “refrained from causing the universe” (hence the universe wasn’t eternally caused) but then “decided to bring the universe in to being”…and being Libertarian Free Will, it requires no “previous cause” for such a decision to arise. Viola, “problem solved.”

    My reply is that I propose that a Magic Beaver created the universe. Which is met with: “That’s Ridiculous. Beavers aren’t the type of entity that could create a universe.”

    But I said it was a “magic” beaver. Given I’m proposing it has magical powers, I don’t have to explain HOW those powers work. The moment the Theist explains to me HOW these magical Free Will powers work, I’ll feel inclined to explain how my Beaver’s magic works. I’m still waiting. Until then, we are even, and equally vapid in our “explanations.”

  8. “b. If the laws are deterministic, we can’t have free will”
    By the same reasoning, we can’t have ‘free fall’, or free anything for that matter.

  9. I dislike Massimo Pigliucci’s personality, he acts like a prima donna sometimes. But regarding his thinking, I agree with him that the Libet experiments don’t have any bearing on the issue of free will. I also agree with him that the concept of free will is incoherent.

  10. I’m doubtful about relating the advance timing of subconscious processes (preparing to move the wrist) to a “decision.” This more likely has to do with the complex activities needed to do something in time, or synchronously, with the something else (a clock). You would see the same thing in a drummer keeping the 2 on a snare, though he’s already “decided” to hit it.

    The article example might just be a bad one. I believe Pinker shows better examples where an actual yes/no decision has to be made, and there is a subconscious trigger, but much closer in time to the action.

    Oh yeah, and Pigliucci needs some manners.

    1. “Oh yeah, and Pigliucci needs some manners.”

      I concur.

      At the same time, in the spirit of congenial intellectual curiosity and free inquiry, is it disrespectful/rude (whether the appelation is deserved or not) to refer to/address him as “Pigliucci,” as opposed to, say, “Doctor” or “Professor” Pigliucci? (Or any other Ph.D. academic for that matter.)

      Also, is there any meaningful difference between “Professor” and “Prof.” when addressing/referring to someone in writing? Is there a difference between addressing/referring to someone only by their last name directly to them as a “second” person, as compared to referring to them by last name as a “third” person who is the topic of a conversation with a “second” person?

  11. The conclusion I have come to is not so much that I have a sense of free will but more of a complete ignorance (or lack of awareness) of the myriad mechanisms in play that cause my will, choices and actions. I might have an awareness of but a handful of factors that inform my will and choices, and many of those are likely confabulations.

    A mechanism for free will is an oxymoron.

  12. While we may view a decision as something that occurs at a single point in time, this is just an approximation to how we experience it. It’s obviously a process which occupies time and space. If we had the technology to really see how a decision is made in the brain, how should we describe it? Would we be interested in a description in terms of neurons firing? But neurons have complex states that affect how they fire. Should we look deeper? If so, how far do we have to go? Do we go right down to quantum state descriptions? We have to, if we want to see determinism at work. But how useful would that be really? To discuss free will and determinism in the same breath is a waste of time. No one but philosophers do it.

  13. Every choice we make is based on the function of the brain, a biological organ which operates according to the laws of physics (whether deterministic or indeterministic). As far as we can tell, there is no immaterial spirit that makes our choices- or the choices of any other biological organism, e.g., to turn left vs right, to choose this mate over that mate.

    Nonetheless, there is still a real physical difference in the nervous system between voluntary (‘free’) and coerced or involuntary (‘not-free’) actions. This is the sense of ‘free will’ that compatibilists have in mind. I doubt that most people on the street even know what ‘libertarian’ free will is- a term that is predominantly derived from the lexicon of philosophers.

    1. You may be right in saying that Joe & Jane Sixpack may not know the term “libertarian” in the context of free will, but ask them to define free will and, more often than not, you’ll get a definition that closely matches the basic idea of libertarian free will. It is the more common view. Ask the Sixpacks to define “compatibilism” and you’ll get crickets.

      1. How do the Six-Packs actually describe libertarian free will. Undoubtedly some of them believe that some sort of divine spark is the source of their decisions but I think it is important to see how they put it to be sure that’s what they really mean.

    2. No, I’m sorry but you’re wrong. Different compatibilists have different notions of what free will means. To some it’s about lack of coercion, to others, like Dennett, it’s acting in accord with your character and history. There are a gazillion forms of compatibiilism, and they’re incompatible with each other! You can’t just say that “we compatibilists” believe this.

      In contrast, there’s only one form of hard determinism.

      1. I’ve recently listened again to Dennett on a Center For Inquiry podcast from several years ago. He gives signing contracts as an example of free will. (Or at least “agency,” I gather.)

        I congenially confess that I have the perception – however subjective – of exercising free will when one, after unhurried, thoughtful deliberation, makes a decision to put a sum of money in a given investment instrument, as opposed to otherwise differently (and perhaps recklessly) handling/spending it.

  14. I commented on M. Pigliucci’s article (on Medium) before reading this. I questioned his “naive” line. He’s since removed it.

    This was my comment (M.P.’s reply is further down):

    For some reason I was bracing myself to be greatly annoyed by this article, and ended up nodding in agreement paragraph after paragraph. It’s not that I had reason to doubt Massimo Pigliucci’s “rationality quotient”; it’s just that I’m used to reading all kinds of nonsense regarding free will even from prominent intellectuals. It’s like the notion short-circuits our brains.

    Only this, though: Harris’s and Coyne’s views on free will seem to me, on the whole, far more coherent and defensible than those espoused by other thinkers. It isn’t fair, nor does it do them justice, to call them “naive anti-free-will enthusiasts”. At any rate, I’m not sure whether Coyne thinks scientific experiments have any relevance regarding free fill (I entirely agree with you that they don’t), but Harris seems to agree with you, too. This is from a tweet he wrote a while back:

    QUOTE: I have always regretted mentioning the Libet work in my book “Free Will” because it was never integral to the argument. When/if it is fully debunked, the case against free will remains unchanged. Free will makes no sense even if our actions arise exactly when we feel they do. UNQUOTE. Source:

    All this gets so muddled that people who correctly reject libertarian free will (as you, Harris, and Coyne do) sometimes conclude that, consequently, a more pedestrian notion of free will (what one might call “compatibilism”, though I dislike the word) is neither sensible nor relevant. But it is relevant: There’s still value in the concept of (non-libertarian) free will. The value arises from considering that one can be thought to have lacked free will if he’d have acted no differently than he did if different incentives or deterrents had been present.

    The degree to which strong incentives or deterrents can have in influencing someone’s actions reflects the degree of free will he has.

    For example, if a person commits a murder having full certainty that he is going to get caught, and that the penalty to be imposed on him will largely exceed whatever benefit he intends to derive from the murder, one could argue that he is not in full possession of his faculties, or that he is insane, or incapable of self-control—that he barely has free will. On the other hand, if a person commits a murder because he thinks the chances of his getting caught are slim, or because he anticipates the penalty to be lenient enough, he can be thought to have acted consciously and deliberately—”of his own free will”. Of course, this is already pretty much the way culpability is determined in our criminal justice system, and it makes sense. However, some free-will deniers may erroneously assert that it doesn’t make sense because (libertarian) free will is an illusion.

    M.P’s reply:

    Cristobal, thanks for your kind words and comments. I’m completely on board on your version of compatibilism, and I often use similar examples.
    As for Coyne and Harris, I’m going to delete that reference from the essay, because its getting too distracting. Lots of people are focusing on that single sentence at the detriment of the rest of the article. My bad.

    1. A problem I have with Sam’s rejection of the Libet stuff is that Sam still goes on to make similar arguments, except from “the revelations of meditation” etc as insight for how our thoughts arise.
      The “nobody is really there” hence in control argument, it seems.

      Sam will say that once you reach a certain state of mediation you can “observe” how thoughts merely arise. They are “things happening” not things which we direct. There is no “me” doing this. Nobody can truly “account” for WHY any particular thought arises. And he makes leaps from this to part of his arguments against free will.

      But this is an example of taking an observation under certain conditions, and leveraging it too far as if it is the case in all conditions. It’s like saying “We can do an experiment showing how your vision is fooled by illusions” and inferring from there “therefore vision is wholly unreliable for apprehending the real world.” Which of course wouldn’t explain how we successfully navigate the world using our vision.

      I remember Sam doing a talk about this and asking the audience to “simply think of a restaurant.”
      Then “notice how that thought just popped in to your head” and claimed how people could “not truly account for why THAT thought, among any other possibilities, happened to pop in to their head.
      But that is setting up NON-DELIBERATIVE conditions, like meditation, for people to simply “watch” what pops in to their head. But if Sam had asked instead “think of your favorite restaurant” that is a more deliberative contemplation and surely most will be able to give an account for why that is their favorite restaurant, hence why that is the thought that arose.

      My perspective is that it doesn’t in the end matter if my awareness of my decision to “eat less pizza today” comes before or after some unconscious process. It’s still “me, an agent with desires and rationality” making those decisions, and while we CAN be mistaken about our reasons for doing things, very often we are not – our conscious representation of our motivations and reasoning IS very often the best explanation for “why I did X” and that’s all we need.

  15. As I see it, the notion of libertarian free will is incoherent because it just doesn’t mean anything. It’s not possible to conceive of a way in which it would make sense. An action must logically be the result of either pre-existing conditions or quantum-like randomness (or some combination thereof). There are no other options. No need to invoke the laws of physics. As I’ve said elsewhere, if an omnipotent God existed, even he couldn’t have free will.

    1. I suggest you start discussing your issue with your friends, and seeing if they give up ideas of contracausal free will when you tell them it’s “incoherent”! In fact, it would make sense if there were magic and bizarre forms of unknown physics. Plenty of people think it holds because they believe in magic and superstition.

      1. It seems to me that an argument for the coherency of libertarian free will as a concept would require an explanation of why and how those “bizarre forms of unknown physics” or “magic and superstition” could make sense of it? Saying that people will find the argument from incoherency unconvincing is hardly an argument for the coherency of the term. When I say it’s incoherent I mean precisely the current lack of a coherent description of the idea, I have never heard one. It’s not a claim that the term or concept couldn’t possibly be coherent, maybe it can, it’s just that no coherent definition seems to be available.

  16. Pigliucci is a proponent of stoicism, an ancient and ridiculous stuffed-shirt mode of thought, so he has no business calling people “philosophically naïve.”

    1. ” . . . stoicism, an ancient and ridiculous stuffed-shirt mode of thought . . . .”

      Would you care to support that claim? Should one rather rather respond to the vissicitudes and slings and arrows of life with “drama queen” histrionics?

  17. “… for a long time I’ve lumped physical determinism together with pure indeterminism (as in quantum mechanics) as ‘naturalism’. It’s naturalism that puts paid to the libertarian concept of free will, not just determinism.”

    What you’re calling “naturalism” here – that free will is incompatible with both determinism and indeterminism – is called “hard incompatibilism” by philosophers such as Derk Pereboom and Gregg Caruso. Naturalism is more typically used to refer to a science-oriented, empirically grounded worldview or approach to understanding reality, as opposed to approaches using non-empirical “ways of knowing” such as faith and revelation that often end up in supernaturalism. Your “Faith vs. Fact” is more or less a justification of the basis for naturalism thus defined.

  18. You don’t even need to know the laws of physics, or any neuroscience research, to note that the notion of libertarian free will is incoherent, as Sam Harris points out (far from naively, but concisely) in his book on the subject. To choose (freely) what to do and how to act, you have to choose (freely) what to think, which could in some ways imply that you decide (freely?) which thought you’re going to have before you have it, and you’d have had to have thought about and decided that already, too, which would lead to an endless recursion. In reality, thoughts, urges, drives, impulses, arise in our minds from whatever their causal structure is, and it makes no sense to imagine that we’ve decided ahead of time what we were going to decide to decide about deciding. Or something like that.

    1. The argument from determinism assumes the premises, doesn’t it? It’s turtles all the way down.

      The illusion is that we use free will in the moment of decision. I think that our ability to use reason as part of a feedback loop to program our future behavior provides a way out.

      1. Reason has to start somewhere, though, doesn’t it? Also, when we use reason we are quite far from “free”…if we are swayed by a perfect, logical argument, we are not free to disagree except to the extent that we’re not being rational. Which seems no freer than the most random version of quantum mechanics. Even if time is a closed loop and the future will ultimately determine the present, that would not allow any freedom. I think.

        In any case, as I always say, I either have free will or I don’t, but it’s not as though I have any choice in the matter.

    2. To choose (freely) what to do and how to act, you have to choose (freely) what to think

      This isn’t a good premise. A choice is a (series of) mental act(s) involving at a minimum two thoughts and a preference. E.g. Pizza for lunch? Rice and Beans? I prefer pizza to rice and beans. Ideally, the agent should also at least be capable of reacting intelligently to additional urgent relevant information (the pizza is decaying!) but often there isn’t any, so no worries. There’s no need to go off on an infinite regress.

          1. In the “two thoughts and a preference” model, though, does freedom have a meaningful part to play? You could say that someone with the choice to eat rice & beans vs. pizza for dinner and a preference for pizza really has no choice at all — they prefer pizza and so pizza they shall have.

              1. You could say it’s a choice in the sense that more than one option exists, but isn’t the chooser still “forced” to obey their preference? They may not be unhappy about it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean their choice reflects an act of contracausal free will.

  19. The *only* evidence for free will is our subjective experience of choosing ‘freely.’ Since the Libet experiment demonstrates that the experience can be detached from the act of choosing, it’s entirely relevant to the issue of free will.

  20. Good post. The primatologist and neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky is apparently writing a book about free will. I am eager to see what he has to say. He also does not think it exists. On a second note, I never found Libet’s experiment’s convincing because they only seem to measure knee-jerk, involuntary responses. That hardly proves anything about complex decision-making.

    1. I don’t think Libet was trying to make a statement about a complex decision-making process; he was making a statement about the neurobiology between a simple all or non choice. I may be wrong, but you’ll have to document your assertion.

  21. Jerry’s “take” on Massimo’s argument, given by points a through d, is too generous. Instead he seems to be stating a tautology: Libertarian free will is defined by independence from natural law, therefore it can’t apply in a universe where everything happens in accord with natural law. Absolutely true, and absolutely not news!

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