Julian Baggini on free will

May 19, 2022 • 10:45 am

Tom Clark called my attention to this essay on free will published by philosopher Julian Baggini in Psyche, adding this:

If you’ve not already seen it, Baggini has about the best version of compatibilist free will I’ve come across, It’s explicit about determinism and how things change under it, including abandoning retribution.
And yes, this is one of the best articles around about free will in general, making a strong case for hard determinism and the abandoment of libertarian free will.

 

But I think Baggini comes a cropper on three issues, all involving compatibilism. First, he thinks that we need a notion of compatibilist free will to act as a form of social glue, because psychology studies show that abandoning the notion of “contracausal” free will makes people cheat more often (see below about that) and also may make them abandon the notion that they’re “responsible” for anything (more about that later, too). Second, I don’t think Baggini makes a good case why we need some form of “compatibilist” free will. I don’t think that with this he’s arguing here that we use the term “free will” as a shorthand even though we may be hard determinists, and that “compatibilist” free will is just a shorthand for this argot. Rather, I think he goes beyond this. Indeed, my third issue is that he formulates a form of “compatibilist free will” that, to me, is no different from hard determinism.

That said, I think that about 80% of this article is good, and is certainly worth reading. Baggini writes clearly, and for your friends who claim that determinism isn’t something anyone believes, point them to this piece. But even better, point them to Sam Harris’s short book Free Will, a book with which I have no major disagreements. (As usual, we tend to recommend books with which we have the most agreement!) Sam’s small paperback is only $8 on Amazon.  I should add that Baggini has also written a book on free will, Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will (2015), which I haven’t read but will.

Click to read Baggini’s piece. It’s not short, but worthwhile for free-will mavens and philosophers.

Baggini’s first point is to assert the hegemony of determinism and to reject libertarian “you could have done otherwise” free will. This is from his summary of major points:

  1. All your choices are in a sense inevitable. A lot of the time, you might feel as though you have freedom to act as you wish (a view known as ‘voluntarism’), but taking into account your history, personality, mood and other factors, there is in fact an inevitability to everything you do.
  2. There’s no escaping the chain of cause and effect. Even quantum physics and the randomness of quantum causation cannot offer us an escape because the ability to act randomly is not the same as having free will.

And that’s that. He also notes the increasing number of brain-monitoring studies showing that our “decisions” (granted, simple ones) are made before we’re conscious of having made them:

The final nail in free will’s coffin seems to come from neuroscience. Various brain studies have claimed to show that actions are initiated in the brain before we have any awareness of having made a decision. In other words, the thought ‘I’ll choose that’ comes after the choice is made. Actions are determined by unconscious, unchosen brain processes, and the feeling of having made a decision comes later. On this view, believing that these thoughts have any role in determining what we do would be like mistaking the noise made by an engine for the force that powers it.

People object to this, saying that the decisions studied are simple binary ones (add or subtract, decide when to move a finger), but they’re getting better and the results are still the same. To those who claim that more “complex” decisions are not made before we’re aware of them, or are the results of libertarian choice, the onus is on them to give evidence instead of carping about existing studies.

As do many compatibilists, though, Baggini tries to show that determinism is really the situation we want, for libertarian free will is “capricious”.  We should (and do) make decisions in line with what we really want, and that’s good.

Take the assumption that we would be robbed of an essential human capacity for choice if our decisions were in any sense inevitable. But imagine what would need to be true for your choice not to have been inevitable. It would mean that you had the power to override your settled preferences, personality and life history, and could decide to do something that is not determined by these but only by something we call your ‘free will’. Such a freedom would be gratuitous, since the only grounds for our choice would be the power to choose itself. Is pure caprice really a form of free will worth wanting?

To take a trivial example, we don’t want the capacity to choose any flavour of ice-cream but the one we think we’ll most enjoy. We don’t want the capacity to vote for any political party but the one that we think will most advance our values. Our freedom to choose matters precisely because it reflects our personalities, preferences and values, not because it can override them. Our moral and political commitments would mean nothing if they were things we could choose to change at will.

Although ice-cream choice (why do people always use ice cream as an example?) is determined, is it certain that it’s to your benefit that it be determined? Perhaps if you had a “capricious” desire to try a new flavor, you’d decide that you like it and then could have a new flavor in your panoply of preferences.  I haven’t thought much about this, but it seems as if Baggini is making a virtue of necessity, and that in some circumstances libertarian free will might be useful (i.e., a robber decides not to pull the trigger of a gun).  But given that this isn’t possible, we’re pretty much stuck with determinism.

I’ll highlight five other points in Baggini’s piece.

a.) Properly, Baggini notes that “praise and blame don’t depend on absolute freedom”. He notes, and I agree, that the concept of “responsibility” (as in “agent responsibility”: X did Y and was thus responsible for Y) still makes sense undeer determinism. As for judicial punishment, we’re also in agreement:

The idea that we need the concept of voluntarist free will for praise and blame, reward and punishment is also highly questionable. The major philosophical justifications for punishment are retribution, deterrence, reform of the offender and signalling societal disapproval. Of these, only the first requires voluntarist free will for its justification, and many find the notion of retribution repugnant in any case.

Note that philosopher Gregg Caruso, also a hard determinist who’s debated Dan Dennett (a compatibilist) also feels that deterrence is not a valid rationale for punishment, as it violate’s Kant’s imperative that people are to be used only as ends, not as means. I’m still pondering this for situations in which the perp really did the deed and is not some innocent person used as an example to deter people. After all, what other reason is there to give traffic tickets?

b.) Baggini says this: “It’s useful to feel you could have done things differently, even if it’s a fiction.” He uses Dan Dennett’s “putting” example:

To the extent that the idea of free will involves some fictions, this could be a good thing, as long as we are aware that they are fictions. Take the idea that we ‘could have done otherwise’, so central to the free will debate. There is a sense in which this is never literally true. But the thought that we could have done otherwise is neither meaningless nor useless.

In his book Freedom Evolves (2004), Daniel Dennett illustrates this with the example, borrowed from John Austin, of a golfer who misses an easy putt, and then thinks: ‘I could have holed it.’ If you think this means that, were time to be rewound to the moment the golfer played the shot, then she could have played it differently, you’d be wrong. The golfer herself probably doesn’t mean that either. Rather, she means that holing the shot was well within her skillset, and that this was the kind of shot she would usually pull off.

The thought ‘I could have holed it’ does not therefore serve to inform us of an alternative reality that didn’t come to pass. It is to focus the mind of the golfer on the mistake so that she doesn’t repeat it next time, perhaps by making her think about what it was that made her slip up.

This point of view, to me, does not mean that we have to think that “we could have done otherwise”. It means exactly what it says, “Perhaps I could have holed the putt if I had done Y.” And this is a simple function of our brain’s adaptive wiring to do things that bring us success (a surrogate for survival and reproduction). If we fail, our brain goes to work and runs over other possibilities, just like a chess-playing computer runs over possibilities, though it does this before it makes a bad move.  One can think about alternative actions without having to fool yourself into thinking that you could have performed them at the time.

c.) Bagginis’s concepts of “free will worth having”, or “compatiabilist free will, don’t make a lot of sense to me.  Here’s one of them, involving coerced choices versus uncoerced choices, with the latter seen as forms of compatibilist free will:

What we need is a ‘compatibilist’ conception of free will, one that reconciles human freedom with the causal necessity of the physical world.

Such a conception is hiding in plain sight, in the ways in which we distinguish between free and unfree actions in real life. We rarely, if ever, ground this distinction in a metaphysical thesis about causation. Rather, we distinguish between coerced and uncoerced choices. If no one ‘made me do it’, I acted freely.

Now Baggini does qualify this (see next point), but this is the most common way people find free will in everyday life. If you do something uncoerced, you’ve evinced free will. If you’re forced to do it, it wasn’t free will. (Remember, Baggini’s still a determinist but looking for everyday meanings of “free will” that make sense).

The problem is that this distinction doesn’t exist under strict determinism. As Sam Harris said:

“There isn’t, materially, anything more coercive about giving money at gunpoint than drinking milk when  you’re thirsty.”

And he’s right. You are coerced by the laws of physics, whether you feel coerced or not. And, of course, there are those cases in which you are pulled in both directions. If society urges you to use your savings to send your kids to college which you want to do, while you partly regret that because you’d really like a new Porsche or two.  But when you send your kid to college, are you doing that of your own free will or not? There are gazillions of such circumstances in which we do things when there are upsides and downsides of each possible alternative. That’s why the “coercion” trope isn’t useful.

But wait! Baggini qualifies this with seemingly more sophisticated philosophy:

It is not quite enough, however, to say that, as long as choices are not coerced, they are free. Bees are not forced to spread pollen at gunpoint but their behaviours are too automatic to be classed as free. Similarly, highly automatic or unreflective human behaviours, such as addictive consumption, don’t seem to be genuinely free either. So what elevates some human choices to the genuinely free rather than the merely unforced?

The best answer to this remains Harry Frankfurt’s influential theory about the difference between first- and second-order desires. Our first-order desires are the ones we just have: for a piece of cake, to have sex, to scratch our itching skin. Second-order desires are desires about these desires. I may not want to want to eat cake, because I’m trying to eat more healthily. I may not want to want to have sex because the object of my desire is not the person I am in a monogamous relationship with.

Frankfurt says that we have the kind of free will worth having when our first- and second-order desires are aligned and we act on them. When we choose to do something that, all things considered, we don’t want to do, we have failed to exercise our free will and have behaved compulsively. If we haven’t even thought about whether we desire a desire, we are not exercising our free will if we unthinkingly act on it.

This makes no more sense to me than the “coercion” argument. All that’s happening here is that our brain program is vetoing something else that we might have done: it’s the old “free won’t” trope. Granted, humans may have more sophisticated brain programs than, say, earthworms, but that doesn’t mean that just because we can override things that one might think we’d choose is no evidence for a type of free will.  We ALWAYS behave “compulsively” in the sense that all our behaviors, whether or not they fulfill “second-order desires” (a distinction I find pretty useless), are compelled by the laws of physics acting in our brain.  So if I give up the cake because it’ll make me fat, I am exercising free will, but if I eat it because it tastes good, that’s not exercising free will? This is a distinction without a difference. To me, this is not a “form of free will worth wanting”. It gives you no control over what you do, whether or not you eat the cake.

Even Baggini recognizes that he’s pulling a desperation move here:

Second-order desires do not escape the chains of cause and effect. At bottom, they are the result of a series of events that we did not choose. But nothing we can do can be freely chosen ‘all the way down’. No one can choose the things that most fundamentally shape them: their genes, society and family. Not even God would be free to change its nature, if it existed.

d.) The idea of free will is good for society.  This is the “little people argument,” maintaining that we must tell people that they have a form of free will, because if they’re determinists they will be nihilistic and become miscreants and cheaters.

All of this is based on short term (one day, usually) studies of undergraduate students asked to read either a “libertarian free will” passage or a “deterministic” passage, and then determining, on a test given almost immediately, whether they cheat more. The results are not replicable, and there are no long-term studies of this paltry experiment. Baggini admits the problems, but still maintains that embracing determinism means rejecting responsibility. I reject that wholeheartedly, and have bolded the relevant sections of Baggini’s argument below:

For example, studies have shown that the more people believe in free will, the harsher they judge not only criminals but their victims. When we fail to acknowledge the limitations of freedom, we become more punitive, less forgiving. Simply rejecting free will altogether would, of course, be one way to make us more forgiving. But it can also push us too far. Another famous set of studies suggested that when people are encouraged to believe that free will is an illusion, they are more likely to cheat. The reasoning seems to be that, if we don’t have free will, no one can be blamed for their actions, so it no longer makes sense to feel bad about doing wrong.

We should be suspicious of all such studies, since many have failed to be replicated. Studies aside, however, it is logical that belief in voluntarist free will would entail attributing too much responsibility to people, and rejecting free will completely would mean the end of responsibility altogether. Only the compatibilist approach gives us a framework in which we can hold people to appropriate account. It tells us we shouldn’t just let people off the hook, but we should also become more aware of what has shaped people’s behaviour and therefore be more understanding of it. The same should also be true of how we view ourselves.

I maintain, in contrast, that a pure determinist approach gives us a framework in which we can hold people to appropriate account. Baggini himself has shown us how: to sequester the baddies, give people a chance for reform, and deter others. You can do all that as a pure and hard determinist.

e.) The fact that how we think changes how we act gives credence to a form of free will. Baggini says this:

Compatibilism also allows for the undeniable fact that what we think changes how we act. Many assume that if all that we do is ultimately governed by cause and effect, then our actions are caused by brain processes that ‘bypass’ our thoughts and beliefs. But it cannot be as simple as that since, when we change what we believe, we change how we act. If I think that cake is poisoned, I won’t eat it. That is why it is important to think of our actions as being under a degree of control: what we think does change what we do.

To me, this is a no-brainer, so long as you realize that you have no choice about what you think, and that the environment also influences what you think. If you think a cake is poisoned, you must have received that information somewhere, and your adaptive brain program, evolved to keep you alive, will make you reject the cake. If you’re a dog and think someone’s friendly, but then they keep kicking you, that will change how you think and how you act: you will associate that person with an aversive stimulus and henceforth avoid them.

In the end, compatibilism always seems to be a semantic way around Baggini and my claim that we have no choice than to do whatever we do at a given time. Compatibilism is not necessary unless you think people can’t handle the truth of determinism (they can, just as they can handle the idea of atheism that was once unthinkable). Yes, we have shorthands for choice, but a serious determinism knows exactly what these are: verbal shorthands underneath which lies pure determinism. Evolutionists use the same kind of short hand when we say stuff like “Natural selection made the finch’s beaks larger.”

I’ll finish by closing with more words from Sam Harris:

Compatibilism amounts to nothing more than an assertion of the following creed: A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.

(That man can write!)

Let me reiterate, though, that on the whole I admire Baggini’s essay, and would love to discuss these issues with him over a pint of Landlord. As opposed to other proponents of compatibilist free will, Baggini seems open minded and amiable rather than tendentious and querulous.

60 thoughts on “Julian Baggini on free will

  1. For me, along with Sam Harris, Robert Sapolsky offers the most cogent refutation of free will I’ve yet encountered.

    1. I believe there was an article in The Guardian where Sapolsky said that he doubted he could live without feeling as though he had free will. If Sapolsky doesn’t feel he could live without it, it’s gonna take a while getting everyone else on board. And then when everyone else is finally on board, there still going to go through life acting as though they have agency. I’m not saying people could have acted differently either. Nor does being a puppet cause some existential crisis. The point is, humans have to love their strings. If you want to call it a delusion, that’s fine, but it’s a delusion that’s central to human’s reality.

  2. Indeed, my third issue is that [Baggini] formulates a form of “compatibilist free will” that, to me, is no different from hard determinism.

    It is indeed no different from determinism. “Hard” determinists always seem to think that compatibilism is attempting to get out of determinism, but it isn’t.

    Still, human will and choices and whether we are coerced are important to us and how we organise society.

    There is a difference between:

    (A) Owing to everything being determined by prior causes, the girl wants to wear a burka and so does so.

    (B) Owing to everything being determined by prior causes, the girl doesn’t want to wear a burka, but fears punishment for not doing so, so submits and wears the burka.

    Both are about our “will”, what we want to do, and the difference is about social coercion or whether we are “free” from social coercion.

    That difference is real and important to us, even though in both cases, A and B, absolutely everything is being determined by prior causes.

    The key point about compatibilism is that, even though absolutely everything is being determined by prior causes, concepts of agency and choice and responsibility still hold.

    And yes, that does end up with a conception that is identical to thorough-going determinism, that is indeed the whole point of it.

      1. All coercion is causation, but not all causation is coercion (as I think Coel’s burka example shows).

    1. Coel is obviously correct, but the ‘debate’ refuses to die. I guess we’re determined to argue about ‘free will’ until we go extinct, but I freely choose not to..

    2. Agreed, Coel.

      Combitilists are often accused of playing with semantics.

      Frankly, given the normal understanding of coercion as being something quite distinct from most of our actions – that is forced to do something against your will (usually forced by another person):

      https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/coercion

      https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/coercion

      …calling “everything” we do “coercion” (‘because physics’) sounds more like semantic games and muddying of waters rather than clarifying and keeping important distinctions, as you have done there.

  3. We have will. It is not free. Love, and do what you will. (Puts a new twist on the old Augustinian exhortation.)

  4. I think this is too philosophical. So, this is my take on the issue.

    The traditional idea of the will is that our will is a force of its own. Nothing else is causing it. It is rooted in the belief that we have a mind, a spirit or a soul separable from our bodies. This idea is at odds with scientific findings that our minds are chemical processes in the brains.

    We experience choices. These choices could be illusions, but the experiences are not. It is the experience of choice that we commonly understand as free will. For instance, if you go through a lengthy deliberation before buying a garden gnome, the outcome may be predetermined, but the accompanying emotions are real.

    Free will exists as experience, even when our choices are predetermined.

    1. I’m reminded of an anecdote about Wittgenstein. Apparently a friend of his once said: ‘You can see why people used to think the sun goes round the Earth, because it does look like that, doesn’t it?’ To which Ludwig replied: ‘what would it look like if it looked as if the Earth went round the sun?’

      Answer: exactly as it looks now, because the Earth does go round the sun and this is what it looks like!

      I think the same is true about determinism. People say ‘You can see why people believe in free will, because it does feel as if we have it.’ Question: ‘What would it feel like if determinism was true?’ Answer: ‘Like this, because determinism is true and this is what it feels like.’

      1. I guess so. Our daily experience is that the Sun rises and goes down, while the Earth spins around its axis. Our daily experience is that this world is real while it might be a simulation run by an advanced humanoid civilisation.

        Not having a free will does not imply determinism. That is my main objection. Without evidence, that remains philosophical speculation. It may appear to us or scientists that the laws of nature do not permit deviations, just like it appears that the Sun goes around the Earth.

        To prove such an assertion, you may have to do an experiment. For instance, you start a big bang, wait 14 billion years, and then look if you are back, doing exactly the same thing as you do now. There is no evidence. It is worse than woo. At least some people have ‘seen’ ghosts.

        Perhaps, there is evidence of this world being deterministic, for instance, the licence plate of the car in which Franz Ferdinand is assassinated, but that might imply that someone had foreknowledge of the end date of World War I before the war started, and that is also considered woo. But at least, it could be evidence.

        1. Determinism simply means that our brains and bodies, like all matter obeys the laws of physics. That eliminates the intangible force of libertarian free will.

          If you don’t know of evidence that the free world is “deterministic” (I mean “naturalistic”), then you don’t know an iota of physics.

        2. Not having a free will does not imply determinism.

          I think the question is, if the world is deterministic, then what does it mean to say that we have free will. There is language here that is hard to pin down, but the word ‘determinism’ is misleading and unnecessary; if the universe follows physical law, can we ‘choose’ to veto a natural process? Whether we can predict the evolution of a natural process is not at issue here. The question seems inextricably linked to the idea of self, which is where the language gets fuzzy — we can’t accomodate free will without woo-ish language and ideas.

          ​​Free will exists as experience, even when our choices are predetermined.

          It looks like you are a free will skeptic anyway.

          1. I also believe that the world is fully deterministic, but the argument is faulty. It works like so: all the underlying laws of physics are deterministic. Hence, everything that happens is deterministic too. I have seen my assumptions blown to smithereens far too often to trust this kind of reasoning. My job is a computer programmer. Assumptions are killing. The logic may be correct, but the presumption is doubtful. Think of it like so: perhaps we know 1 million laws to be deterministic. But there may be one law we do not know that is not. And then, you can throw chaos theory into the equation, and the outcome becomes unpredictable. So, I say, what is the evidence to show for it? There is none. Absolutely zero. The scientific method says that you have to test the assumption in an experiment. So you may have to kick off the universe again to see if we end up in the same position. A million laws being deterministic is not evidence for determinism because of chaos theory and the possibility of unknown laws. There is more evidence for ghosts. And so, I classify this kind of speculation as worse than woo.

            1. No, the “underlying laws” are not deterministic: some are stochastic and unpredictable.

              I guess you get up every morning wondering if the sun is going to come up. Frankly, your claim that we cannot proceed with science unless we can rule out every proposition that has never been seen is ludicrous.

    2. We experience choices. These choices could be illusions,

      For sure.

      but the experiences are not.

      I strongly disagree. All our experiences could plausibly be illusions, and I have concluded they actually are. Of course we experience our experiences as real, but that’s the illusion’s power: “I experience that I experience that I experience”.

      ISTM the ontological reality of experience is very much like that of consciousness, god, and mathematical objects: they are all well-structured illusions (AKA “Fictions”). The bad news is that solving the problem of free will also involves solving the Hard Problem Of Consciousness. The good news is that this seems doable (to some).

  5. I already commented on Aeon’s website / Julian Baggini’s post, pointing out that Baggini uses intuitive (and wrong) physics to characterize causality. Fundamental physical laws like Schrödinger’s equation don’t make anything happen, nor do they (directly) say anything about how some events make others happen. They simply say how events at one time relate to other times – without providing a causal “arrow”. Causality is an emergent phenomenon (Sean Carroll explains) at larger scales than that of fundamental fields or particles. It’s also inherently statistical, relying on the law of large numbers. And it tends to break down over longish times and distances, due to sensitive dependence on initial conditions, aka chaos. Which is why long term weather (not climate, weather) prediction is impossible, and this is not just a limit of our technology.

    I don’t accept Caruso’s claim that deterrence “uses people as a means”. If a judge decided a punishment based on how much the particular offender could be used as an example, punishing a famous actor especially harshly, that would be “using the actor as a means”. But that’s not how the law works – deterrence is considered by legislators when writing the laws, but then punishment is based strictly on whether the accused did the crime or not, along with mitigating factors.

    There is also some ambiguity, at least in real speech, about the word “retribution”. Some, I would say most, use it as a prettier word when they basically mean revenge. I agree with Baggini that revenge is a bad idea – not for metaphysical reasons about free will, but for moral reasons. But some legal scholars seem to interpret “retribution” as simply the backward-looking perspective that I mentioned in the previous paragraph. That is, did the person do it, how serious is the crime, and what if any mitigating factors were present.

    1. “And it tends to break down over longish times and distances, due to sensitive dependence on initial conditions, aka chaos.”

      No, chaos theory requires that an accurate model of a system approach the complexity of the system to some impractical (approaching infinite) degree. It does not mean that causal chains dissipate to nothing.

      1. What do you mean by “causal”? I mean what Judea Pearl means in his book Causality: that by intervening on variable A in a certain way, you significantly raise the probability for a particular outcome on observable variable B (and not vice versa). It’s the “significant probability” that goes away in chaotic systems.

        Now if you just mean by “causality” only that “scientific laws still apply”, I agree that it never goes away, but that’s not sufficient for what most people think of as “causality”. Causality according to human intuition is inherently asymmetric. And that feature is crucial for generating the traditional “free will problem”.

        1. “…that by intervening on variable A in a certain way, you significantly raise the *PROBABILITY* for a particular outcome on observable variable B…”

          But that’s not a part of chaos theory itself, which would still apply in a fully deterministic universe.

          But yeah, I’ve never understood how appealing to probabilities to ‘explain’ things doesn’t imply that information is being destroyed.

          “Causality according to human intuition is inherently asymmetric.”

          Don’t know what that means. My intuition is that what goes in must equal all that comes out.

          1. It sounds like your intuition has been schooled by lots of physics, which makes you unusual. Sure: in a deterministic world (as physicists define determinism) like ours probably is, physical information is never destroyed, and chaos theory still applies.

            The “probably” in the previous sentence refers to the evidence available to people, not to an objectively real randomness as in some interpretations of QM. “Probability” as used by Pearl is also about evidence.

            Bertrand Russell, who was well versed in physics and wrote a (good!) book on the theory of relativity, said (elsewhere):

            The law of causality, like much that passes muster among philosophers, is a relic of a bygone age

            His reason was that the laws of physics allow derivations of logical-mathematical consequences in either time-direction. They’re symmetric in that derivability. So there is nothing in the equations to appoint one set of events the master and the other the slave. Which, Russell thought, was part of the meaning of “cause” and “effect”. And insofar as he was commenting about how previous philosophers used “cause” and “effect”, he was right.

      1. Unless you go to traffic school instead of paying the fine. Of course, traffic school is probably not very effective at changing behavior but the intent is clearly there.

  6. “…many find the notion of retribution repugnant in any case.”

    Many more find the notion of retribution absolutely delightful. Getting those people to give up their good, swell fun is going to be a hard slog.

    L

  7. I wonder if a son who’s father paid him through college rather than buy Porches would be less appreciative and think less highly of dad if he thought about it in terms of determinism. Seems he might.

  8. Thanks for posting this Jerry. It’s great that Baggini, unlike most compatibilists, emphasizes that we don’t have libertarian free will and that we couldn’t have done otherwise in actual situations. Anil Seth in his terrific book “Being You” has a chapter on freedom in which he also denies we have the so-called “unconditional ability” to do otherwise, as opposed to the conditional or counterfactual ability.

    However, I think (as does Coel in #3) that the coercion/non-coercion distinction picks out an important concept of freedom. You write:

    “As Sam Harris said: ‘There isn’t, materially, anything more coercive about giving money at gunpoint than drinking milk when you’re thirsty.’ And he’s right. You are coerced by the laws of physics, whether you feel coerced or not.”

    One wonders: who or what is it that’s being coerced by the laws of physics? Sure, everything I do has to be *consistent* with said laws, and they limit my range of action and options, but it isn’t as they are forcing me to act against my will, as is the case with giving money at gunpoint. As a material being, my will (e.g., my desires to have a beer or write a book) is a function of various determinants, but fulfilling those desires is what I want, so is not plausibly characterized as coercive. In contrast, I’m being coerced by the gun to my head to give up money, which conflicts with my desire to keep my cash. So I think we can rightly say that we act freely, certainly *more* freely, when we act on our desires as opposed to being forced to act against them. Which is why it makes perfect compatibilist sense to say that you signed an agreement freely, of your own free will, if doing so conformed with your desires and no one coerced you into signing it.

    1. I don’t see the distinction you claim. Even at gunpoint you are not “forced” to act any particular way. You could, and some have in similar circumstances, refuse to give up your money. You are still faced with a desire to keep your cash and the desire not to be shot. You are always acting on your desires and are not at will to do otherwise.

      1. Presumably you could be forced to make a decision a certain way chemically or electrically if we had the technology. However, most people would consider someone threatening your life as a “forced” choice. You still could have chosen death.

    2. I don’t see a difference. You are being coerced into drinking the milk by various and competing incentives in you and your environment. Your thirst is effectively making you act against your ‘free will’ because ‘you’ didn’t previously prepare for a scenario where you might get thirsty.

      In your reasoning, making choices on you thirst does not go against your free will. You believe you are being provided with a situation and a choice, and have decided on a particular option of drinking milk. But this is no different from letting another person force you to do something. You didn’t decide your thirst did you?

      If you are presented with a situation where someone holds a gun to your head, you choose the most attractive option to you at the time. In this context, a gun at your head is no more a case of coercion than being thirsty is. When you’re thirsty you are in a situation where you would prefer to choose milk. When you have a gun against your head, you’re in a situation which incentivises you to do what the gun holder asks, i.e. you follow their instructions as they are the most attractive options to you at that time.

      There is no difference in principle between these scenarios – in both you are acting in accordance with the situation, and are making attempts to emerge from it optimally. Whether the incentive comes from thirst or a gunman makes no difference.

      1. It makes a difference because our culture (us collectively) has decided it matters. Yes, the processes inside the decision-makers head is similar but so what? We absolve the person who was coerced by threat of death.

        There’s really two kinds of free will in these discussions. There’s the cultural kind that is expressed in our legal traditions and in discussions about whether I could have made that golf shot, and then there’s the philosophical kind that involves determinism, internal brain processes and what it feels like to make a decision. If you combine the two kinds in a single discussion, you get a lot of nonsense.

  9. “Although ice-cream choice (why do people always use ice cream as an example?)”

    I like Robert Sapolksy’s example :

    Which row of teeth we “decide” to start brushing? Top or bottom?

    I can never remember, and I cannot remember even if I try.

  10. I am quite surprised that practically none of the people who argue about free will / determinism have any idea about the brilliant argument by David Deutsch on why a person’s free will is completely compatible with a deterministic universe. In my opinion it completely settles the debate…

    The argument goes something like this:

    a) A deterministic process is one for which we can physically construct a machine to predict the future state. Since the universe* is deterministic, the laws of physics mandate such a machine for any physical process.

    b) A person is a class of process whose future actions can only be predicted by a machine fungible with it, i.e. to predict what person X will do, the only machine we can create is one that is functionally indistinguishable from X.

    c) Ergo, we have to make X to predict X, and are stuck in infinite regress trying to guess what X will do next.

    [*] Deutsch like Everett, Dyson etc is a proponent of MWI, which is deterministic as it posits an ontological reality of the deterministically evolving wavefunction.

    1. “…we have to make X to predict X, and are stuck in infinite regress trying to guess what X will do next.”

      An inability to predict the future doesn’t mean it isn’t predetermined.

      1. Sure, but what good is pre-determination if you cannot, even in principle, know what it is that has been determined.

        1. “…what good is pre-determination…”

          The assumption that things have causal explanations has yielded rather spectacular results, to say the least. In contrast, the *only* evidence for free will is the subjective experience of choosing freely.

          “…you cannot, even in principle, know what it is that has been determined.”

          Seems pretty clear that *everything* is determined.

          A few animals have had their nervous systems mapped completely, and it’s not outlandish to think that we could account for all their behaviors, even if only after the fact. The inability to predict beforehand doesn’t mean that we’ve failed to understand their behavior. We can predict enough individual ‘pieces’ of their behavior to know that our understanding is mostly complete.

          Would Deutsch’s argument allow for compatibilist free will in eg. a nematode?

          1. The point isn’t that the universe is deterministic. That is trivially true (for the purpose of this discussion). The point is to understand what “free” means in free will.

            Free in the Deutsch’s view means an entity whose course of actions is predictable by a machine fungible with it. Such machines are completely mandated in a fully deterministic universe. And we are instances of such machines.

            Are my actions predetermined?
            Yes.
            Can they be known by anyone independently of {me}?
            No.

            1. “Can they be known by anyone independently of {me}? No.”

              Nor are they known be you yourself, really. Don’t see how that demonstrates the existence of free will.

    2. This assumes that we need to analyze human behavior down to the level of fundamental physics in order to predict it. That’s true if we are interested in that behavior down to that level of detail. In other words, we not only have to predict whether they will choose chocolate or vanilla but every movement and sound wave they produce in telling us that choice. For most practical uses, we would not need such high resolution. We would like to be able to predict someone will attempt to commit murder, for example, but we don’t need to know their movements down to each quark.

      Someday, when we know how the brain works, we may have the technology to predict behavior. That this will be a huge challenge for society is a gross understatement.

        1. Sure it does. Look at what “functionally indistinguishable” really means. It requires simulation at the finest possible granularity, that of fundamental physics, otherwise your machine would be distinguishable from the person. It is unlikely we need to simulate a person to that degree in order to predict most behavior we’re likely to care about.

    3. I would appreciate it if you didn’t imply in your first sentence that we’re all ignorant because we haven’t read what you read. So long as naturalism applies everywhere, we have no libertarian free will, no matter what Deutsch says. The argument above doesn’t convince me that we have libertarian free will, for you don’t show how the “laws” of physics can be violated by “will”

      1. Maybe we understand what “free” will represents differently. The concept of “free” that I am talking about has nothing to do with being able to break universal laws, but the idea of whether someone other than a person can simulate (to arbitrarily high accuracy) what task a free agent will perform next.

        That said, of course, we are bounded by natural laws as is everything physical. Is that even up for debate?

        PS: I was merely expressing surprise, not saying that people are generally ignorant. It wasn’t meant to be depreciatory.

  11. Baggini says this: “It’s useful to feel you could have done things differently, even if it’s a fiction.”

    Forget the “to feel” bit. It’s useful as a model of human-scale human phenomena. It doesn’t matter what rules govern the microscopic, if we have an accurate model of the macroscopic, then it’s useful, even if it’s fundamentally wrong.

    How is this hard? QM rules all, but we use NM to fire cannonballs. Because it’s a superb approximation on the scale of cannonballs, and we couldn’t run the QM calculations needed for cannonballs even if we wanted to. Determinism rules all, but we use (semi-)rational free agent notions to plan economics, society, law, etc., because it’s a superb approximation on the scale of humans, and because we couldn’t run the microscopic deterministic calculations needed for whole humans even if we wanted to.

    No time to read the Baggini piece now, but thanks for posting it. Hopefully I can get to it later.

  12. To me—a naive person on this topic to be sure—to believe in “free will” is to deny that outcomes have causes. The wheels of my car turn via a sequence of causes—fuel ignites, a piston is pushed, gears rotate, etc.—causes all the way through. I eat lunch or vote Democratic because of a different sequence of causes. To believe in free will is to believe that one can tear oneself away from causation, formulate a goal in a magical space of non-causal contemplation, and then rejoin the world of causality to conduct the action that was formulated while isolated away.

    Postulating two different worlds, one where causality is valid and another where causality can be suspended (the “free will” world where the mind does its planning) heaps unnecessary and unverifiable baggage onto what is fundamentally quite simple. Stuff happens, other stuff happens as a result, including the stuff that humans would like to attribute to “free will.” To use a mechanical analogy, it’s gears meshing with other gears, meshing with other gears all the way back and all the way forward.

    1. What you describe is the kind of free will that doesn’t exist. The kind that does exist is the causal chain representing decision making in the absence of coercion or impairment. The gear meshing IS free will, as long as there’s no spanner thrown into the works.

  13. I liked Baggini’s golfing analogy but I wish he had taken it a bit further. When someone says that they “could have made the shot”, they aren’t talking about doing the exact same attempt over again with everything being equal. First, that’s an impossibility as nothing can be done over exactly based on the laws of physics. Second, that’s not what the golfer meant anyway. Same for virtually all “could have done otherwise” scenarios. The Incompatibilist is asking a trick question, whether they know it or not. If the question isn’t accompanied by a full explanation that includes holding everything in the universe equal, the answerer will interpret the question in the mode of the golfer: if one had another chance, could the shot have been made?

    The other thing Baggini touches on but doesn’t drill down on is the physics and biology of decision-making within the brain. It’s a process, not a magical thing that happens in an instant. It seems to us that we make a decision in an instant, but that’s not how the brain works. That’s why the famous Libbet experiments don’t really tell us anything we didn’t know already. The results shouldn’t be a surprise but confirmation of the only way it could work. The only people who are surprised are those that thought decisions were magical or just didn’t think things through.

    All in all, the article seems reasonable but it doesn’t really represent any new thinking on the subject and won’t change any minds.

  14. Jerry requested to know about research on neural measurements on people in choice tasks different from Libet’s. Maoz et. al., Neural precursors of decisions that matter—an ERP study of deliberate and arbitrary choice fits that bill.

    The readiness potential (RP)—a key [Event Related Potential] correlate of upcoming action—is known to precede subjects’ reports of their decision to move. Some view this as evidence against a causal role for consciousness in human decision-making and thus against free-will. But previous work focused on arbitrary decisions—purposeless, unreasoned, and without consequences. It remains unknown to what degree the RP generalizes to deliberate, more ecological decisions. We directly compared deliberate and arbitrary decision-making during a $1000-donation task to non-profit organizations. While we found the expected RPs for arbitrary decisions, they were strikingly absent for deliberate ones. Our results and drift-diffusion model are congruent with the RP representing accumulation of noisy, random fluctuations that drive arbitrary—but not deliberate—decisions.

    It’s open source, at least with Chrome unpaywall.

  15. Beyond fascinating. Carefully done study. Free here, too.

    Following their reference Deutschländer 2017 into PubMed I came to Marcel Brass, Ariel Furstenberg, Alfred R Mele, Why neuroscience does not disprove free will, 2019. In the abstract they undertake to argue in the text (not available free) that the readiness potential (RP) observed in Libet experiments of arbitrary decisions represents the thinking that resulted in the decision and is not merely the outcome, the final common pathway to the observed motor behaviour that announces the awareness of having made the decision. I’m not endorsing the title of their paper — the whole free will controversy is above my pay grade other than to agree that the laws of physics must be obeyed in every decision — just pointing out that they dispute the popular characterization of what the RP actually is. This says to me that we don’t really know exactly what the brain is doing when it generates an RP.

    The important point of Maoz et al. is that the RP is not observed before deliberate, “ecological” decisions. But they, too, point out that RP, even when it is observed in arbitrary decisions, could be an artifact, a pseudo-cause. OK, we retrospectively discover in our Libet experiment that an RP occurred before each conscious act. But we only look back two seconds on the EEG trace for an RP when we see a conscious act. We don’t look prospectively for RPs and see how many are followed by conscious acts. If every RP was followed by a conscious act, great. But if only 1 in 10 are, or 1 in 10,000, what role does the RP even have in the process of making a conscious decision? I realize the challenge in addressing this. You run an EEG for, say, six hours and find thousands of RPs. For each one, you have to ask the subject, “At 11:03:42 did you make a decision?” Even if your signal processer could follow the EEG in real time and go Ping! every time it found an RP, you’d still have to ask, “Did you just decide something?”.

  16. To those several people who say that “readiness potential” experiments provide some support for free will if they don’t predict a complex decision, pray think in the bowels of Christ that you may be wrong. You don’t need to measure RPs to show free will is untenable. All you have to show is that everything is naturalistic, and nothing has been shown to violate it. Read Sean Carroll for a non-RP base refutation of free will, or Robert Sapolsky. It’s not just me you’re arguing with.

    1. I suspect that Maoz et al. may have just shown that readiness potential isn’t as meaningful a signature of brain activity as it appeared to be in simpler experiments of automatic decision. After all, if something supernatural can’t exist, and it can’t, then any experiment that shows it might is almost certainly wrong. That doesn’t mean it was incorrectly or sloppily done. It just means that the detected phenomenon has nothing to do with with what it purports to prove and the inference is false. To be fair to Maoz et al., (and especially to poor Al), I don’t think they were arguing for free will, only that they couldn’t find an RP before ecological decisions and asked, What does that mean?

      It seems reasonable on its face that decisions requiring a lot of thought, —in the Maoz experiments they were about which charities to donate to, not with the subjects’ own real money though—would prove to involve different brain activity than making snap arbitrary decisions. But I can’t see how this difference would be probative for the existence of free will.

      Logically, imagine you are testing for the existence or non-existence of phlogiston. You do a lab experiment that, you argue, could produce the results it did only if it didn’t exist and you claim victory. But then someone else shows some flaw in your experiment or in your reasoning. This doesn’t prove phlogiston exists, only that some other type of evidence must be brought to the dispute.

  17. re the “putting” example:

    This point of view, to me, does not mean that we have to think that “we could have done otherwise”. It means exactly what it says, “Perhaps I could have holed the putt if I had done Y.”

    I don’t see the distinction. The notion of “I could have done otherwise” in the putting example incorporates just that implication. Not “I could have done otherwise if everything including me was precisely the same” but rather “If something relevant, something I can normally achieve, were changed.” There is always a reason why one didn’t make the put he can normally make – could have been distracted, maybe didn’t have his normal grip, tried something different, etc. So “I could have done otherwise” naturally entails “I could have holed the putt if I did something differently (that is, something I know I can normally achieve).”

    “And this is a simple function of our brain’s adaptive wiring to do things that bring us success (a surrogate for survival and reproduction). If we fail, our brain goes to work and runs over other possibilities, just like a chess-playing computer runs over possibilities, though it does this before it makes a bad move. One can think about alternative actions without having to fool yourself into thinking that you could have performed them at the time.”

    Given the logic of physical determinism, every outcome is determined and in that sense inevitable. Only one outcome at any time is going to happen – the one already determined to happen, hence no actual “alternatives.” So what is meant by these terms “possible” and “alternative actions” in a hard deterministic/incompatibilist context?

    (That is: if not what the compatibilists mean by those terms, which is the counterfactual and if/then reasoning on which “I can do otherwise” is based?)

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