A PBS Space Time video does an unconvincing job of discussing free will

I found this video from PBS Space Time, featuring Australian astrophysicist Matt O’Dowd expatiating on free will, to be singularly unenlightening.  While he seems to know his physics, and tries to use it to answer the question of free will—bringing in  both determinism and quantum mechanics—he winds up punting, saying that it’s a semantic issue and depends (of course!) on your definition of free will. But at the end, without having defined free will, he says that we can still say we have it because it’s an “emergent phenomenon” of our brain (“the most verifiably real phenomenon we can observe”), and, as such, is not an illusion.

But he mistakes what people like Sam Harris and me mean when we say free will is an illusion. Of course we feel we have choices, and often act as though we could have chosen otherwise—but it’s not clear if that’s what O’Dowd means by the “emergent phenomenon.” If it is, then it’s an illusion in the sense that it’s not what we think it is. Yes, we have that feeling of freedom, and that feeling is certainly real, but the illusion is that, as even compatibilists admit, we could not have done other than what we did at any moment in time. And, except for the action of any quantum events, the future is completely determined by the past.

Remember that, according to a survey of four areas by Sarkissian et al. (Hong Kong, U.S., India, and Columbia) between 65% and 85% of people believe that, at any moment, a person could have decided to do other than what she did. That is, a solid majority of people believe in a fundamentally indeterministic cosmos. Further, between 65% and 85% of the respondents say that if the Universe weren’t like that—if it were fully deterministic—people would have no moral responsibility for their actions.  It is these predominant beliefs that we must address if we’re going to have a sensible public discussion of free will. It won’t do to pretend that nobody believes in an indeterministic universe and its consequent libertarian free will, for that’s not true. And, of course, libertarian free will is an underpinning of all Abrahamic religions.

But I digress. I will add only this: O’Dowd seems hung up on predictability as an important part of free will. But all of us, including hard determinists like me, realize that we will never be able to predict human behavior with 100% certainty. Not only do too many factors impact our brains and behavior, but, as O’Dowd points out, the uncertainty principle bars us from even knowing certain fundamental properties of quantum-behaving particles (although those may have a negligible effect on behavior). But whether or not we can predict behavior seems to me irrelevant about whether or not we have free will.

At any rate, O’Dowd knows his onions, but I don’t consider this 13-minute video to be any advance in the question of free will.

h/t: Paul

The Discovery Institute goddies go after determinism again

Those who claim that hardly anybody believes in “contracausal” free will, in which the human mind alone can affect the body, giving one the ability to make any of several decisions at a single instant of time, forget how deeply embedded contracausal free will is in the Abrahamic religions. After all, if you can’t “freely” choose your religion or your savior, but are at the mercy of the laws of physics, of what use is Heaven or Hell? The whole Christian myth involves your ability to freely choose what to believe.

And if you believe in contracausal free will, then you must reject physical determinism, for physics is the “cause” to which your decision is “contra”. That’s why so many fundamentalist believers reject determinism, and why the creationist Discovery Institute (DI), peopled with true believers, is lately on an anti-determinism kick, going after determinists like me who attribute all behavior and decisions to the laws of physics rather than some immaterial “will” that interacts with matter. (I’m assuming that virtually all the readers here who espouse compatibilism are also determinists.) Since the DI has failed to overturn the teaching of evolution, they’re turning their attention to free will. But their arguments against determinism are no better than their arguments against evolution.

I pretty much ignore the DI’s bloviations on free will, for there’s a religious motivation for their denial of determinism, but when physicist Sabine Hossenfelder made a no-nonsense post and a video arguing that there was no free will because we’re subject to physical law, that was too much for the DI. (See my take on Hossenfelder’s views, with which I pretty much align, here.) The DI, along with many devout believers, absolutely detest that kind of materialism—I call it “naturalism”, but it’s the same thing—and so they’ve been going after both of us. The latest attack came from the DI’s Evolution News site, with a post by David Klinghoffer called “Science as Oracle—where it gets weird“. And they enlisted Cornelius Hunter, DI Fellow, creationist, and adjunct professor at the evangelical Christian school Biola University, to make a 24-minute video going after both Hossenfelder and me. Klinghoffer simply repeats Hunter, so I’ll deal with the video.

Watch and enjoy! I’ll have a few remarks below. But Hunter really should learn how to pronounce my name. It’s not “Cohen” but “Coyne,” pronounced like “coin.”


Hunter goes off on all kinds of antievolution tangents in this video, failing to stick to the promised critique of determinism. That’s probably because his critique can be summed up very simply: “There’s no evidence for determinism—it’s just a weird and bizarre pronouncement of scientists like Cohen, and constitutes “scientism.”

And that’s pretty much it. Hunter considers determinism “anti-empirical” because of the supposed lack of evidence for it, and, curiously, argues that it also “demolishes epistemology”. Why? Because there’s no guarantee that the laws of physics acting on humans would guarantee that we’d find the truth (is he referring to Jesus?). Ergo we’re not only determined by the laws of physics to say that we have no free will, making that claim unreliable, but we’re liable to make all kinds of false statements because the laws of physics have no obvious connection to finding truth.

I can rebut both of these claims very briefly.

There’s no evidence for determinism. This claim is absurd. The response is that everything on Earth, and, as far as we can tell, in the solar system, in the Milky Way galaxy, and in Universe, has uniformly obeyed the laws of physics since the Big Bang. That’s not a speculation, but an empirical conclusion (see here for some of the evidence). And if everything we know obeys physical laws (we need confine our observations only to Earth, since that’s where God’s Creatures live), then there’s no reason to think that our brains don’t as well. End of rebuttal.

What is odd is that these guys attack physical determinism on the false basis that there’s no evidence for it, but then pull ancient mythologies out of their nether parts and not only claim that they’re true, but base their whole lives and belief systems on them. Biola University is founded on unevidenced but comforting Christian superstition from ancient, redacted, and contradictory scriptures. Well, I’m much more comfortable thinking that the speed of light in a vacuum is the same everywhere in our solar system than I am thinking that Jesus rose from the dead.  I find it vastly amusing that people like Hunter are slaves to religious superstition and yet use a supposed lack of evidence to attack determinism.

Oh yes, and Hunter says that there’s plenty of evidence for contracausal free will! What is it? Merely the observation that we make what looks like “free” decisions!  I don’t need to rebut that, because these “free decisions” are illusions; they don’t rebut determinism.

We can have no confidence that we can find truth if determinism be true. The rebuttal of this can be conveyed in two words: natural selection. Animals, including us, could hardly survive if we had sensory systems that didn’t give us a fairly accurate representation of reality: where the dangers lie, where the food is, what happens if we jump off a cliff. But of course we can be fooled as well: I give plenty of examples in Faith Versus Fact of how our evolved sensory systems, or our beliefs, can be fooled by things we didn’t encounter during our evolution. (A lot of people think, for example, that if you whirl an object around your head on a string, it will continue to travel in a spiral when you let go. And of course there are optical illusions.)

After making a few tepid attempts to rebut determinism, Hunter goes off the rails and takes out after evolution instead, giving two examples of convergent evolution: similar toxic peptides in a tree and in some animals, as well as the possibility of the independent origin of synapses and neurons in ctenophores on the one hand and cnidarian/bilaterians on the other.

I’ve put the two articles he cites below so you can see them (they’re free; click on the screenshots).

In one of the more ludicrous claims that Hunter makes (he doesn’t accept evolution), he argues that convergent evolution—the independent evolution of similar features in independent lineages—is not consistent with evolution, for evolution supposedly claims that structures are “lineage specific”. If features evolve several times independently, he argues, we don’t need the theory of evolution. This is arrant nonsense. There is nothing in evolutionary theory that bars similar features from appearing in two or more independently evolving lineages.

Of course he ignores the copious evidence that the independent lineages EVOLVED as independent. For example, marsupials and placentals, which, according to both molecular evidence and the fossil record had a common ancestor, have nevertheless evolved several examples of convergence in their descendants. The marsupial flying squirrel or mole, for example, bears striking similarities to the placental flying squirrel or mole.

In other words, Hunter’s claim about what evolution is “supposed” to do rests on denying evolution in the first place. He also ignores the idea that common ancestors constrain the materials that can be used for evolution in their descendants, as well as the notion that there are physical and biological niches that often evoke similar responses in independent lineages, like the resemblance of shape and fins in three independent lineages: fish, marine mammals like porpoises, and ichthyosaurs.

Finally, in the paper on neurons, Hunter attacks one sentence because it’s supposedly violates evolutionary theory as well:  “animals frequently use different molecular toolkits to achieve similar functional outcomes”. He gloms onto the word “achieves”, arguing that the word implies that evolution has goals, and of course evolution isn’t goal oriented—which is true. But “achieves” in that sentence simply means that natural selection uses different molecular pathways when a similar adaptation arises. The scientists in the second paper are certainly not talking about teleology!

But the connection between free will and evolution is tenuous here, and I’m not sure why Hunter goes off on a siding, with the Numinous Express, apparently bound for Naturalism Town, suddenly takes the track towards Evolutionville.

Hunter’s mask slips at the end when he tries to explain out why so many smart people—I’m flattered that he puts both me and Hossenfelder in that class—believe in weird and bizarre things like determinism. His answer? He cites 2 Corinthians 4, verses 3 and 4, to wit (from the King James Bible):

But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost:
In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.

Yep, Hossenfelder and I, along with every other physicist and determinist on the planet, have been blinded to the truth of free will because we don’t believe in the Christian God. I’m not sure if Hossenfelder is Jewish—though I suspect from her name she’s of Jewish ancestry—but if she is, well, that explains why both she and I might be particularly blind to the truth of the Gospels, and susceptible to Satan’s blandishments about free will.

Jebus, what an argument! Now since the DI people read this website, desperately wanting to discredit me, they’ll see this post as well. They will have an answer to it, too, for their God has given them the truth, and they can’t let a couple of upstart cultural Jews overturn it.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


h/t: Andrew

Gregg Caruso on free will, the justice system, prisons, the meaning of life, and the good life

The New Philosopher has a long interview, “On Purpose,” with Zan Boag speaking to the philosopher Gregg D. Caruso, Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Corning, Honorary Professor of Philosophy at Macquarie University, and Co-Director of the Justice Without Retribution Network (JWRN) at the University of Aberdeen School of Law.

Although I’ve never met Caruso, I consider him a philosophical confrère, as he’s a hard determinist who has no truck with notions of contracausal free will (classical you-could-have-done otherwise free will that’s the basis of Abrahamic religion). Not only that, but he thinks, as do I, that the rejection of conventional free will should absolve us of moral responsibility and therefore lead to big changes in the justice system.

He’s thought a lot harder about this than I have, and has written about the issue in several books, which you can see here. He’s debated free will with Dan Dennett, a compatibilist who thinks that you can have both determinism and free will; and Gregg tells me that he has a book coming out next January called: Just Deserts: Debating Free Willin which he and Dennett “debate our respective views on free will, moral responsibility, and punishment.” I’m looking forward to that one! He’s got yet another one coming out about the implications of “no free will” for criminal justice: Rejecting Retributivism: Free Will, Punishment, and Criminal Justice. 

Definition of free will: Caruso has a unique way of defining free will, as he says many philosophers “define free will in such a way that it directly follows that we either have it or we don’t.” Instead, he limns the concept by whether or not it gives us moral responsibility, which is, to most people, the essential concomitant of free will. And so he comes up with this:

I’ve long argued that the variety of free will that is of central philosophical and practical importance is the sort required for moral responsibility in a particular but pervasive sense. This sense of moral responsibility is typically set apart by the notion of basic desert and is defined in terms of the control in action needed for an agent to be truly deserving of blame and praise, punishment and reward. Understood this way, free will is a kind of power or ability an agent must possess in order to justify certain kinds of basically deserved judgments, attitudes, or treatments – such as resentment, indignation, moral anger, and retributive punishment – in response to decisions or actions that the agent performed or failed to perform. These reactions would be justified on purely backward-looking grounds, that is what makes them basic, and would not appeal to consequentialist or forward-looking considerations, such as future protection, future reconciliation, or future moral formation.

I contend that there are several distinct advantages to defining free will in this way. First, it provides a neutral definition that virtually all parties can agree to. Unlike some other definitions, it does not beg the question or exclude from the outset various conceptions of free will that are available for disputing parties to adopt. Second, by defining free will in terms of basic desert moral responsibility, this definition captures the practical importance of the debate. Third, this definition fits with our everyday understanding of these conceptions. There is, for instance, growing evidence that ordinary people not only view free will and moral responsibility as intimately tied together, but that it is precisely the desire to blame, punish, and uphold moral responsibility that motivates belief in free will. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, rejecting this understanding of free will makes it difficult to understand the nature of the substantive disputes that are driving the free will debate.

This of course winds up with a view of free will as will that is free from determinism: contracausal free will, which, despite Dan Dennett’s compatibilism, is really the kind of free will that most people “want.” Because Caruso, like me, sees no way that we can have the kind of agency that gives us true moral responsibility, he rejects the idea of moral responsibility.

As an aside, Caruso claims that, in his book with Dennett, Dan reveals himself as someone who also rejects moral responsibility. Now since I once argued with Dan about that very point for three hours in a car, with Dan asserting that we do have moral responsibility, with me disputing it, I’ll be curious how Greg can discern this:

As to how my view compares to Dan Dennett’s, I’ll just add one final point. While Dennett’s compatibilism appears to be fundamentally at odds with my free will scepticism, when you actually drill down into what Dan means by free will, you’ll find that he too rejects what I’m calling basic desert moral responsibility. For that reason, I think he’s more of a free will sceptic than he admits – although he would resist that characterisation.

Crime and punishment.  Caruso is even more of a penal reformer than I. While we agree that punishment can and should be levied even without moral responsibility, I see the punishment as basically consequentialist, and useful for not only reforming bad guys and keeping them away from others until they’ve reformed, I also think punishment is necessary as a deterrent.(We both reject retributive punishment out of hand, as it’s based on punishing someone because he made the wrong choice.) Caruso, though he doesn’t discuss deterrence in this interview, rejects it because he thinks it has philosophical and moral problems.  However, I’m not sure what you do to deter people from, say, cheating on their income taxes or running red lights, and I’ll be curious to see how Gregg deals with this in his new book on retribution. You can’t just let people drive their cars without regulation and without the threat of some punishment!

At any rate, Caruso has what he calls a “public health” view of punishment, which seems quite progressive—though I still worry about the absence of a deterrent aim:

. . . . If we reject retributivism, either because we come to doubt or deny the existence of free will or for other reasons, we need an ethically defensible and practically workable alternative. In Rejecting Retributivism: Free Will, Punishment, and Criminal Justice, I develop and defend what I believe is the most promising, humane, and justified alternative: the public health-quarantine model. The core idea of the model is that the right to harm in self-defence and defence of others justifies incapacitating the criminally dangerous with the minimum harm required for adequate protection. Yet the model does not justify the sort of criminal punishment whose legitimacy is most dubious, such as death or confinement in the most common kinds of prisons in our society. In fact, the model is completely non-punitive and requires special attention to the wellbeing and dignity of criminals that would change much of current policy. Perhaps most importantly, the model also develops a public health approach that prioritises prevention and social justice and aims at identifying and taking action on the social determinants of health and criminal behaviour.

. . . Analogously, on this model the use of incapacitation should be limited to only those cases where offenders are a serious threat to public safety and no less restrictive measures were available. In fact, for certain minor crimes perhaps only some degree of monitoring could be defended. Secondly, the incapacitation account that results from this analogy demands a degree of concern for the rehabilitation and wellbeing of the criminal that would alter much of current practice. Just as fairness recommends that we seek to cure the diseased we quarantine, so fairness would counsel that we attempt to rehabilitate the criminals we detain. Rehabilitation and reintegration would therefore replace punishment as the focus of the criminal justice system. Lastly, if a criminal cannot be rehabilitated and our safety requires his indefinite confinement, this account provides no justification for making his life more miserable than would be required to guard against the danger he poses.

This model would have the effect of eliminating the grossly inhumane types of punishment imposed by countries like the U.S. and India, replacing it with one along the lines of Norway, which has a much lower rate of incarceration as well as a much lower rate of recidivism than the U.S. (see my earlier post on this). The other day I watched this video about the country’s most secure prison, the ADX Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado where, as the show below notes, “America sends the prisoners it wants to punish the most”. I was absolutely horrified at the treatment of the prisoners, who are in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day and have one hour of solitary exercise. Note that the “punishment” goes to prisoners who may not be especially dangerous to guards or other prisoners, but they are being punished retributively.

And here’s a Supermax cell. Note the barred door behind the main door. It’s 7 feet wide and 12 feet long.

There’s a lot more, but I’ll add just that Caruso lards his discussion with a lot of social justice talk, but not of the woke kind: he says that hand-in-hand with punishment reform must go an attempt to prevent crime by eliminating “racism, sexism, poverty, and systematic disadvantage as serious threats to public safety.” This of course is useful and necessary, but it won’t of course eliminate crime completely.

I strongly agree with Caruso that penal reform is a huge priority for the U.S., and that taking the no-free-will “public health” approach—which basically sees criminals as individuals with an infectious disease that needs to be cured humanely—is essential in spurring such reform. But I’ve said that many times before.

The meaning of life and the good life. Caruso goes on to speak about the meaning of life, and what he considers a good life (he has a fascinating digression on one of his hobbies that gives his life meaning), and once again we agree on this:

[Interviewer] In philosophy, and for many people throughout history, a common quest has been the search for the meaning of life, or perhaps just for meaning in life. Is there a meaning of life? And how can one find meaning in life – a purpose to our lives?

[Caruso]: The search for the meaning of life is a fool’s errand. There is no singular, universal, all-encompassing meaning to it all. There is, however, meaning in life. We create meaning through our roles as players in the game of life.


If you have a spare hour or so, have a read. Even if you reject Caruso’s hard determinism, there’s a lot to think about in the interview.

h/t: Tom

George Ellis responds to my criticism of his argument for free will

Yesterday I posted a critique of an Aeon article by physicist George Ellis, arguing that science itself gives evidence for true libertarian free will. This rests on his claim that psychology exerts a “top-down” effect on molecules, and those top-down effects, because they stem from our thinking, our experiences, and our personalities (all subsumed under “our psychology”), constitute libertarian free will. (He didn’t say exactly how the top-down stuff gives a non-physical “agency” to people, but merely suggests that it’s a way to think about it.)

For once most readers agreed on my take, mainly because those readers who aren’t hard determinists like me still accept the laws of physics, while Ellis seems to argue that the “top down” influence on our molecules, and hence our behavior and “choices”, cannot be reduced to physics, and in fact is free of the laws of physics.

My response was brief. Your personality and character—the “top”—are formed by changes in your brain induced by your genes, your environment, and all the experiences you have. And those changes are ultimately molecular changes that affect neurons.  And those changes obey the laws of physics. There is no “top” free from the laws of physics. (I add here that Ellis won the Templeton prize for harmonizing science and religion, which may go some way towards his promotion of a free will that seems quasi-religious, but certainly seems dualistic.)

Reader Steve commented on that post, saying “I asked Ellis to read your post and reply. Here’s what he said: https://aeon.co/essays/heres-why-so-many-physicists-are-wrong-about-free-will?comment_id=33240″

I consider this an inadequate answer, but I won’t engage with Ellis’s ad hominem argument that “it’s a typical Jerry Coyne response.” I’ll address his comment on the “core issue.” And that is Ellis’s claim that physical things like electrons and “psychological” things like feelings, emotions, and behaviors, are two different things; in fact, they are two entirely different things, and you can’t understand “psychology” using molecules.

Perhaps we’re not at the stage where we can predict the effects that the environment or brain molecules have on behavior, but we’re not completely clueless, either. Should Ellis doubt this, ask him to imbibe a few stiff bourbons and see if there aren’t predictable results. Or give him a course of testosterone and see how it affects his behavior. As many people, including me, have indicated, there are plenty of experiments showing that one can affect one’s decisions, one’s beliefs,—and, indeed, one’s sense of agency—through physical manipulations of the brain, whether they be by experimenters or disease.

In contrast, as Sean Carroll has emphasized repeatedly (see the article and tweet below) not only that there’s no evidence for physics-free top-down causation, but, indeed, there’s evidence against it from the laws of physics. There is no way we know of for nonphysical thoughts to influence physical processes.

The solution, of course, is the parsimonious and evidenced idea that thoughts and feelings are the results of the laws of physics, combined, of course, with the evolution that helped program our brain to (usually) behave adaptively.  When Ellis says “the true statement is that electrons interacting allow and enable the thoughts to take place at the psychological level,” he might as well say, “the electrons (and other particles and molecules) are what make the thoughts take place at the psychological level.” Then the influential “top” goes away.

Here are some writings by Sean Carroll on the intellectual vacuity of downward causation. Click on screenshot below.


Another paper claiming (but failing) to give evidence for libertarian free will

UPDATE: Reader Coel pointed out in the comments—this had escaped my notice—that the author of this piece, George Ellis, won the Templeton prize in 2004 for efforts in harmonizing science and religion. This may be relevant to the article below.

Part of his citation says this:

Beyond ethics, Ellis contends that there are many areas that cannot be accounted for by physics. “Even hard-headed physicists have to acknowledge a number of different kinds of existence” beyond the basics of atoms, molecules and chemicals, he said in his prepared remarks. Directly challenging the notion that the powers of science are limitless, Ellis noted the inability of even the most advanced physics to fully explain factors that shape the physical world, including human thoughts, emotions and social constructions such as the laws of chess.


A lot of people sent me this link to an article in Aeon by physicist George Ellis, with some of them telling me that his piece deals the death blow to determinism and pumps life into the idea of free will. It doesn’t—not by a long shot. And anyone who has such a take doesn’t understand either determinism or Ellis’s arguments. For once you understand them, you see that they’re invalidated by a big fallacy.

First, here’s Ellis’s bona fides from the site (his Wikipedia bio is here):

George Ellis is the Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Complex Systems in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He co-authored The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time (1973) with Stephen Hawking.

First, let us be clear that although Ellis doesn’t define what he means by “free will”, it’s clear that he’s talking about libertarian, contracausal, “you-could-have-chosen-otherwise” free will”, not the compatiblist free will that accepts physical determinism. No, Ellis thinks that determinism is simply wrong.

And by “determinism”, I don’t mean that “with perfect knowledge of the present, or of the moment after the Big Bang, we could predict what would happen with 100% accuracy”. I don’t believe that, as there are some fundamentally non-deterministic processes—to our best knowledge at present, quantum mechanics comprises some of these fundamental unpredictabilities—that could, at a given time, act to create different futures. (Evolution might be one of these if the fuel for the process—mutation—is affected by quantum unpredictability. In that case, “rerunning the tape of life” from a given point could yield different outcomes.)

By “determinism”, I mean that the future is determined only by the laws of physics, not by some nonphysical “will” or “agency” that we can exercise. (Throughout his piece, Ellis conflates physical determinism with predictability, an odd stance for a physicist.)

The article, at six printed pages in Word in 9-point type, is very long, and larded with descriptions of the Schrödinger equation, ion channels, gene regulation, and biochemistry, all fancy science that could bamboozle the reader into thinking that Ellis’s view is backed by science. But it isn’t. In fact, his argument can be stated very simply, and I’ll try to paraphrase it:

Free will acts by human psychology changing the constraints that act on our brain molecules.  Although physical processes are constrained by physical laws, psychology can override and change these constraints. Therefore, our minds, or our psychology, can somehow “reach down” to affect the molecular processes occurring in our brains and bodies. And these psychological processes, which are apparently themselves physically unconstrained, constitute free will.

Now that is my paraphrase, but I’ll support it with quotes from Ellis (any bolding is mine):

In the case of the biomolecules that underlie the existence of life, it’s the shape of the molecule that acts as a constraint on what happens. These molecules are quite flexible, bending around joints rather like hinges. The distances between the atomic nuclei in the molecules determine what bending is possible. Any particular such molecular ‘conformation’ (a specific state of folding) constrains the motions of ions and electrons at the underlying physical level. This can happen in a time-dependent fashion, according to biological needs. In this way, biology can reach down to shape physical outcomes. It changes constraints in the applicable Schrödinger equation.

. . . So what determines which messages are conveyed to your synapses by signalling molecules? They are signals determined by thinking processes that can’t be described at any lower level because they involve concepts, cognition and emotions in an essential way. Psychological experiences drive what happens. Your thoughts and feelings reach ‘down’ to shape lower-level processes in the brain by altering the constraints on ion and electron flows in a way that changes with time.

The phrase that our thinking “reaches down” to affect our molecules recurs often in this essay, implying a psychological “invisible hand”—”thinking processes”—that is the crux of Ellis’s argument. But wait! There’s more!

How does any of this happen? As the Austrian-American doctor Eric Kandel explained in his Nobel Prize Lecture from 2000, the process of learning at the mental level leads to changed patterns of gene expression, and so specific proteins being produced, which alter the strengths of neural connections at synapses. This changes the strength of connections between neurons, thereby storing memories.

Such learning is a psychological happening. You might remember your pleasure on eating a delicious meal, the details of a Yo-Yo Ma rendition of a Bach sonata, or the painful memory of the car crash. Once again, these are irreducible psychological events: they can’t be described at any lower level. They reach down to alter neuronal connections over time. These changes can’t be predicted on the basis of the initial state of the neural connections (your neurons did not know that the car crash was about to happen) – but, afterwards, they constrain electron flows differently, because connections have changed. Learning changes structure at the macro scale (we have a ‘plastic brain’), which reaches down to alter micro connections and the details of electron flows at the bottom.

(Note the allusion to classical music; people love to show off in this way. They never talk about the moving saxophone solo of Lester Young or the poignancy of a Frank Sinatra song; it’s always Bach or Beethoven, isn’t it?)

If it’s not too early in the morning, you’ve already spotted the flaw in Ellis’s argument. First, he’s conflating predictability with physical determinism, and he’s also arguing, falsely, that a “change in constraint” means “libertarian free will”. Most important, he’s pretending that psychological phenomena are not physical.

I’ll cite just two more bits:

What these instances show is that psychological understandings reach down to shape the motions of ions and electrons by altering constraints at the physics-level over time. That is, mental states change the shape of proteins because the brain has real logical powers. This downward causation trumps the power of initial conditions. Logical implications determine the outcomes at the macro level in our thoughts, and at the micro level in terms of flows of electrons and ions.

. . . Genuine mental functioning and the ability to make decisions in a rational way is a far more persuasive explanation of how books get written. That this is possible is due to the extraordinary hierarchical structure of our brain and its functioning. And that functioning is enabled by downward causation from the psychological to the physical levels, with outcomes at the physics level determined by constraints that change over time. No violation of physical laws need occur.

That should be enough to show that Ellis’s argument is bogus. Why? Because it argues that the “psychological level” (“mental thoughts”) is somehow different from the “physical level”: that our experiences, our cogitation, and our interactions with others and with external events, are different from physical processes that shape our actions. After all, they are “top down” phenomena.

But they’re not. We can be influenced by internal and external events to so that our behaviors and actions would differ from how they’d be if those events were different.  The example I often use is kicking a dog, though I would never do that. If a dog is friendly, but you repeatedly kick it when it approaches you, it’s not going to be nearly as friendly as it would have been had you petted it instead. Your actions have rewired the dog’s brain in such a way that it regards you as an object of fear rather than affection. It’s as simple as that. And in a similar way, our experiences reprogram our brains—our onboard meat computers—in a physical way that affects our behavior, but that we don’t yet understand. There is no psychology independent of physics that can “reach down” to affect our molecules, because, in the end, our psychology is based on molecules, even if we can’t yet (or ever) predict our future behavior with a deep knowledge of our brains.

Ellis’s Big Flaw: to claim that there is an Invisible NonPhysical Psychological Hand that “reaches down” and “changes our constraints”. Rather, there are external stimuli and inputs into our brains that alter their workings. We don’t need the palaver about “constraints” and “reaching down”, which is simply literary prestidigitation that is obscurantist.

Remember, Ellisis not talking about compatibilist free will here. He’s talking about contracausal free will. Ellis rests his case on a human psychology that is independent of physics. And that is pure dualism.

In the end, perhaps his mask slips a little, for in his ending he appears to find determinism distasteful because it absolves us of the ability to make “genuine choices” or to be “accountable for our behavior”. (I’ve argued that we are still responsible for our behavior in the sense that we are the entities who behave, but that we are not “morally responsible” because we could not have acted otherwise. But this is irrelevant to his argument.)

Ellis’s ending:

Physics has made huge strides since the days of Laplace; indeed, it would be completely unrecognisable to him. Yet there are still physicists today who confidently proclaim that we can’t have free will because physics determines everything, including brain functioning – entirely ignoring the complex context and the power of constraints.

If you seriously believe that fundamental forces leave no space for free will, then it’s impossible for us to genuinely make choices as moral beings. We wouldn’t be accountable in any meaningful way for our reactions to global climate change, child trafficking or viral pandemics. The underlying physics would in reality be governing our behaviour, and responsibility wouldn’t enter into the picture.

Well, he’s wrong about “responsibility” if you conceive of it as I do—in a way that still allows for and, indeed, asks for approbation and disapprobation,  punishment and reward. After all, those are external stimuli that can alter our brains.

But one gets the sense here that Ellis’s misguided screed in favor of free will is motivated in part by his distaste for determinism and his need for all of us to be “responsible”.  But, as a scientist, Ellis should realize that wanting something to be true has no effect on whether it is true.

Sapolsky interview redux (and SpaceX launch/docking)

Most of the issues plaguing this website were resolved by WordPress yesterday, but the site was inaccessible for much of the day. I thus invite you to comment on yesterday’s post about Robert Sapolsky’s Scientific American interview on free will. Comments were few for this kind of post; the paucity is either due to reader fatigue about free will (you needn’t tell me if you have it), or people not having time to listen or to see the post. It’s worth hearing (and perhaps responding to what he or I said about it), so if you missed it, try again and comment here or there.


I was sad that the site was down yesterday, because I wanted to watch the SpaceX launch to the ISS, and I simply forgot about it. Here’s a short video of the launch.  The Dragon is scheduled to arrive at the ISS this morning, docking at 10:29 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, so be sure you’re tuned in well before that. NASA TV has it at the screenshot below this first video.

Click here in at most two hours to see the docking. I’ve set my alarm. You can read what’s going to happen at the New York Times. As I write this at 7:30 a.m. Chicago time, all is copacetic.

Right now the Dragon capsule is only 400 meters below the International Space Station. Do not miss the docking. Again, click below to see it.

Robert Sapolsky on (the lack of) free will and its consequences

Here’s a 43-minute Scientific American podcast in which Stanford biology professor, author, and atheist Robert Sapolsky is interviewed by Robert Mirsky. Many of us have read Sapolsky’s recent book Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst, and Mirsky centers the talk on one of Sapolsky’s chapters from that book on behavior and free will. Here’s that chapter:

“Oh, why not?” That phrase shows that Sapolsky knows what a minefield is the issue of free will. But nevertheless, he persists. Like me, he’s a hard determinist; unlike me, he doesn’t seem to even consider compatibilism; and he feels that the most important implication for determinism is in reforming the justice system. But, as he notes in the podcast, this will be a hard thing to accomplish, since it means first dispelling the notion that most people have of libertarian free will and attendant moral responsibility for what they do.

Sapolsky, as you may know, is a brilliant and eloquent polymath, so what he says must be correct, right?  Click on the screenshot to hear the podcast, which has a digression about an award between 16:00 and 22:37.

Most of Sapolsky’s eloquent take on free will relates to the concept of humans as “broken cars.” When your car is broken, you don’t say it deserves to be punished. You either “rehabilitate” it by taking it to a mechanic, or if it’s a car that won’t ever work well again, you “sequester” it by putting it in the junkyard or letting it rust in your front yard. And since Sapolsky, like me, sees criminals as “broken humans” who simply reflect in their criminality the influence of their genes and environments, he sees no sense in putting people away because they made the “wrong choice” or “deserve” retribution. (Some readers here think these two ideas are not part of our penal system, but I would disagree strongly.)

Since libertarian free will doesn’t exist, Sapolsky looks at our criminal justice system and sees it severely wanting—in fact, broken beyond immediate repair:

“I am of the stance that the entire criminal justice system, top to bottom, makes no sense whatsoever because it is predicated on 200-year-old biology. We have no control, ultimately, over anything we do.  When we say ‘I’ve changed my mind’ about doing this or that, we are in fact saying ‘circumstances have changed my mind.’ We have no agency, and the criminal justice system does not make any sense at all.”

One function of criminal justice isn’t mention by Sapolsky: deterrence. That’s a reason why you don’t go to jail for a parking ticket but do for shooting somebody, and it seems to me that this, too, should be considered by determinists when weighing how to fix the justice system.

Another analogy used by Sapolsky is epilepsy. In the Middle Ages and even later, epileptics were thought to be possessed by demons, and were often punished or burned at the stake. But now we’ve discovered that epilepsy is a disease that one has no control over: a screw-up in the brain’s potassium channels. Now that epilepsy is medicalized, we don’t punish people for being epileptics, but instead try to alleviate their disease. And so should we do with criminals.

Another minor difference I have with Sapolsky is his view that determinism completely gets rid of the idea of “responsibility” for bad acts. I would disagree in the sense that someone who commits a crime is the responsible person—the person who has to be reformed, treated, or “punished”.  All that means is “this is the person who did the act.” But Sapolsky seems to construe “responsibility” as “moral responsibility”—that the person had a free choice to act good or ill, and makes one choice or another that comports with or contravenes societal morality.  In that sense, yes, I agree with him—we should deep-six that notion of responsibility. But there are different ways to define “responsibility.”

At the end, Sapolsky answers two of Mirsky’s questions. First, does he think that neuroscientists will drive philosophers out of business? That is, will empirical studies of volition make philosophical lucubrations about free will obsolete? Sapolsky says “no”, that we should simply “force dead white male neurobiologists and philosophers to talk to each other more.” I mostly agree, for we need philosophers to clarify the concepts of “will” and “agency.”

Second, given the success of Behave, is Sapolsky writing another book? His answer is “yes,” and it sounds like an interesting one. He’s writing a book about how the world is supposed to function if everyone is a determinist and nobody accepts libertarian free will.  (He doesn’t address compatibilism in his entire interview, which I suspect reflects his view—and mine—that compatibilism is just a semantic game that distracts from the real issue: the hegemony of determinism.) What he wants to happen is a big change in the penal system to reflect our knowledge that everyone’s behavior is “biological luck” flowing from the nexus of our genes and our environments. And that, he says, is almost an insuperable task. In fact, he’s right, for the first step is to convince people of determinism, and only then can we do the hard, empirical-based changes in, say, the judicial system.

Likewise, how we view “rewarding” people will change, he argues. Praising someone for their beautiful cheekbones, he says, is ludicrous: they have no “responsibility” for their cheekbones. (He means that the zygomatic arches are, like behavior, a product of genes and environment.) But neither do they deserve encomiums for their praiseworthy behavior like being generous, so why even laud people who do good?  Sapolsky doesn’t seem to consider here that praising good behavior is an environmental input into others’ behavior that can change it—even if we are predetermined to praise people for the good things they do.

One can see Sapolsky’s whole interview as the logical consequence of his determinism, which leads to an immediate consideration of how screwed up our penal system is. You don’t see many compatibilists, even though they’re determinists, worrying much about penal reform. But such reform is far more important and consequential than trying to redefine “free will” so people won’t get freaked out if they don’t think they have it.

Yes, I know some readers say that you can still favor penal reform if you’re a compatibilist, and that’s true. But then why do you see hard determinists like me, Sapolsky, and others being the determinists most concerned with penal reform, compared to compatibilist/determinist philosophers, who argue semantics ad infinitum and claim, falsely that their efforts aren’t directed toward keeping the Little People convinced that they have free will?

If you don’t like Sapolsky’s views, don’t take them up with me; take them up with him! (That, of course, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t comment on them below; and anyway, I’ve said that I largely agree with him).

The great man

h/t: Bob

Another ludicrous “Thought of the Day” from the BBC: The Bishop of Manchester assures us that we have libertarian free will

I’ve long known that BBC Radio 4 broadcasts a religious homily every day at a bit before 8 a.m. I’ve heard it many times, and grumble loudly at each homily. Yesterday, reader Neil called my attention to a particularly galling homily given yesterday by the Right Reverend Dr. David Walker, the Bishop of Manchester. It especially irked me because it was about free will—his idea that we have it in the libertarian form.

Click on the screenshot below to hear the three-minute dollop of religious blather (I’m not sure whether the BBC leaves these things up, so listen soon):

As you heard, Walker rejects determinism, claiming that if we have no “choice” whether or not to commit an offense (i.e., the future is preordained), then humans beings “have no moral responsibility for what we do.”  He claims that his own Christian faith accepts a God “who has created a universe that maintains a beautiful balance between the predictability of mathematical laws and the liberty and responsibility which comes with free will.”  Now that’s some god!

And to Walker, as with the bulk of the respondents in the Sarkissian et al. study I’ve mentioned several times, you can’t have moral responsibility in a world without libertarian free will.  Of course, without moral responsibility, you can’t be held accountable by God for your sins, sins that may include choosing the wrong savior, or no savior at all. Those who deny that libertarian free will is prevalent must reckon with the vast number of believers who are true libertarians.

(I’ll mention again that I believe people must be held responsible for their acts, but not  “morally responsible” if you construe that, as I do, as meaning “you could have chosen to do a different thing”. But of course I still believe in reward and punishment, though I won’t reiterate my reasons for the umpteenth time.)

Now you may try to tortuously parse the good Reverend’s words to say what he really means is a compatibilistic free will that, deep down, accept determinism of our actions. But I think you’d be dead wrong, for Walker states at the outset that he clearly rejects the mathematically-based determinism of science. No, he’s talking about pure libertarian free will—the kind that his sheep accept.

I’m surprised that, in a country where—although there’s a state church—Christianity is on a precipitous decline, the BBC still emits a “thought for the day” that is invariably religious. Seriously, my UK friends, why does this persist? Why don’t you write en masse to the Beeb demanding either that it ceases dispensing this goddy pabulum or give nonbelievers a chance to say something not only substantive, but bracing and true? Wouldn’t it be nice to hear some words that came from science, for instance?

In fact, this happened once. Richard Dawkins was invited to give the Thought for the Day. He didn’t mince words: goddy explanations were the stuff of toddlers. After that, a humanistic thought was never broadcast again. Neil reported this:

Any mainstream faith may provide the piece, but humanists are excluded, apart from on one occasion when Richard Dawkins was allowed 3 minutes to say his piece, prior to being banned forever for saying we should be more adult in our understanding than accepting simple explanations of the world.  You can read his words here:

And here’s one bit of Richard’s talk that surely irked the BBC:

Nerve cells, too, branch like trees. They are so numerous in the teeming forest of your brain that, if you stretched them end to end they would reach right round the world 25 times.

In the face of such wonders, do you fall back, like a child, on God? “It’s so wonderful, so complicated, only God could have done it.”

It’s tempting, isn’t it. But it’s not a real explanation. Not the kind of explanation that actually explains anything. And it’s nowhere near as poetic as the true explanation.

Because the beauty is that humanity has grown up. We now know the true explanation. It’s gloriously simple once you get it, and more wonderful than our forefathers could ever have imagined. It makes use of yet another tree. The family tree of life. It began with something smaller than a bacterium, and it branched and branched to give all the species that have ever lived, whether extinct like the dinosaurs, or still hanging on like our own. Evolution really explains all of life, and it needs no supernatural intervention of any kind.

The adult response is to rejoice in the amazing privilege we enjoy. We have been born, and we are going to die. But before we die we have time to understand why we were ever born in the first place. Time to understand the universe into which we have been born. And with that understanding, we finally grow up and realise that there is no help for us outside our own efforts.

Humanity can leave the crybaby phase, and finally come of age.

Now there’s a thought for more than just a day!

The crybabies are actually at the Beeb, which apparently cannot stand the idea that there may be no God, or at least don’t want to endanger public morals by promulgating such a Dangerous Idea.

Look, I know Britain has a state religion, lacks the equivalent of our First Amendment, and that the BBC is owned and run by the government. But they seem curiously immune to religious freedom and the rising tide of secularism in their land.

If you’re in the UK, have you ever complained about this daily insult to our ears and intellect? If not, why not? If a lot of people objected, would they stop it?

Here: have a libertarian free-willer:

The Right Reverend Dr. David Walker, the Bishop of Manchester

Sean Carroll on the shows “Westworld” and “Devs”: free will, simulations, and multiverses

In the May 4 New York Times, culture reporter Reggie Ugwu interviewed Sean Carroll about the recent television series “Westworld” (HBO) and “Devs” (FX on Hulu). Sean watched both shows and gives his reactions, then discusses the premises of the shows.  Since I’ve seen only two episodes of one show (“Westworld”), and none of the other, I’ll let you read Sean’s take. Instead I’ll concentrate on one of the big topics of the interview as well as a pet interest of mine: free will.

Sean is a “compatibilist”: someone who, while admitting that our behaviors are determined in the sense that that laws of physics “fix the facts”, as Alex Rosenberg claims, including the facts of our behaviors, still avers that we can sensibly speak of “making a choice”. That is, while we could not have “chosen” other than what we did, we can still talk about “making a choice” and even pretend to ourselves that we really did make a “libertarian” choice where, at a given point, we could have made several alternative decisions.

I have no objection to saying that we have “free will” in the sense that we behave as if we did, though what rankles me are two things. First, philosophers dealing with the issue tend to concentrate on the “we really have a free will” part and downplay the determinism part, which to my mind is the part that has real ramifications for human behavior. Second, I think they do this (Dan Dennett has said so explicitly) because they think that if people realize that they don’t have a “free” choice and could not have made other choices, society will fall apart, with all of us, feeling like automatons or puppets, becoming nihilists unable to rise from our beds. That, of course, is false. I’m a “hard determinist” and get out of bed every day, and I realize that my “agency” is illusory even though I feel that it’s real. And if you’re a philosopher who argues for compatibilism in this way, it is condescending, for it tries to buttress most peoples’ feelings that they have libertarian free will. It’s exactly like those cynical theologians who don’t really believe in God, but think that it’s good for people to do so, as it keeps them on the straight and narrow. It’s odd that Dan Dennett, who’s demolished the theological argument as “belief in belief”, does nearly the same thing with free will.

There are a few more issues that compatibilists like to bring up.

Nobody really accepts libertarian I-could-have-chosen-otherwise free will.  That may be true among non-theological philosophers, but not among the public, with 60-85% of people surveyed in four countries saying that we live in a universe that has libertarian free will. And ask a religionist, one who thinks that one has a free choice to accept Jesus, God, or Allah, if they are really determinists at bottom. With the exceptions of Calvinists and a few other sects, they’ll say “Hell, no!” (Well, they’d probably leave out the “hell.”)

Even if our behaviors are determined, it wouldn’t make a difference to society if we espouse some form of free will. This is palpably untrue. Although some philosophers as well as some readers here say, “there are no consequences of determinism”, I think that’s cant and, indeed, somewhat disingenuous. Our whole legal system has a retributivist bent that comes from punishing people because we think they could have made a better choice than they did. Likewise, poor people are often held responsible for their own circumstances (viz. Reagan’s “welfare queens”), so that people ultimately get what they deserve. This is called the “Just World” view of life.

And if you don’t believe that, look at the Sarkissian et al. study of those four countries: 60-75% of people surveyed thought that if they lived in a deterministic universe and could not have chosen other than they did, then people would not be morally responsible for their actions. This, I believe, is the reason why some philosophers like Dan Dennett, though avowing otherwise (but contradicting himself in other places), espouse compatibilism: if you tell people they have free will, they consider themselves morally responsible for their actions. And, said Dennett, if they don’t, then society will fall apart.

My response to that is that we can have more justifiable and more ethically based systems of reward and punishment if we don’t accept that people could have done other than what they did. They can be held responsible for their actions, and rewarded or punished (the latter on the basis of deterring them, sequestering them from the public, or reforming them), but not morally responsible for their actionsFor “moral responsibility”, as with the people surveyed above, implies libertarian free will and can justify retributive punishment. (That said, I don’t object to the use of “moral” to characterize” what comports with human ethics”. But I dislike the term “morally responsible”, which smacks of free choice.

Compatibilists have not settled on a definition of “free will”. To one compatibilist, free will means freedom from obvious coercion. To another, it’s that we have complex processing in our brain that spits out a decision that’s gone through an involved (and evolved) program. To a third, it’s somebody who’s sane enough to understand the consequences of their actions. There are as many definitions of “free will” as there are compatibilist philosophers. So when you say “we have free will”, you better be damn sure that you add exactly what you mean, explain why your compatibilistic “free will” is not only different from others, but is better than others.

Enough. In his interview, Sean not only admits that he’s a determinist (and a compatibilist, which he lays out in his book The Big Picture), but comes surprisingly close to saying that determinism should affect our view of human behavior. I’ll quote a few of his answers (indented) and make a few comments:

First, Sean’s definition of determinism:

A common thread between the two shows is the conflict between free will vs. determinism. Can you explain what determinism is?

Determinism is basically the idea that if you knew everything that was happening in the universe at one moment, then you would know, in principle, everything that was going to happen in the future, and everything that did happen in the past, with perfect accuracy. Pierre-Simone Laplace pointed this out in the 1800s using a thought experiment called Laplace’s Demon.

Well, that’s his view of determinism, but I would rather use the world “naturalism”. For, if quantum mechanics be true, there are things that we couldn’t predict even if we had perfect knowledge of the Universe—like when a given radioactive atom will decay. And this means that even if we knew everything happening in the universe at one time, predictions might be inaccurate. I myself have argued that perhaps even evolution is unpredictable with perfect knowledge if mutation involves quantum processes. If that’s the case—and we don’t know—then the fuel for evolutionary change is unpredictable, and hence so is evolution.

Below is Sean’s compatibilism. Most readers here probably agree with it, and I don’t disagree unless one emphasizes the free will part and not the determinism part. All the following emphases in bold are mine, in which Sean makes it clear that we could not have done other than what we did.

Let’s talk about free will. Do we have it?

It’s complicated, and I apologize for that, but it’s worth getting right. The very first question we have to ask is: Are we human beings 100 percent governed by the laws of physics? Or do we, as conscious creatures, have some wiggle room that allows us to act in ways that are outside of the laws of physics? Almost all scientists will tell you that of course it’s the former. If you jump out of a window, the laws of physics say that you are going to hit the ground. You can use all of the free will you want, but it’s not going to stop you from hitting the ground. So why would you think that it works any differently when you go to decide what shirt you’re going to wear in the morning? It’s the same laws of physics. It’s just that one case is a more crude prediction and the other case is a more detailed prediction.

Good, Dr. Carroll! We obey the laws of physics when we “choose” a shirt to wear.

Did I make the choice to pick up the phone and call you?

Short answer: yes. Long answer: It depends on what you mean by “you” and “make the choice.” At one level, you’re a collection of atoms obeying the laws of physics. No choices are involved there. But at another level, you are a person who pretty obviously makes choices. The two levels are compatible, but speak very different languages. This is the “compatibilist” stance toward free will, which is held by a healthy majority of professional philosophers.

I think this is a bit confusing given that most people think that the words “you are a person who pretty obviously makes choices” means “FREE” choices. Now Sean takes care to make the distinction between determinism and the illusion of free choice, but I couch the distinction in a way very different from Sean, emphasizing the determinism. The rest is semantics, often (not with Sean!) constructed to fool people into behaving morally.

Here Ugwu asks a good question, and Sean answers with the traditional form of compatibilism.

But isn’t that a rhetorical sleight of hand? If our choices are fully predetermined by physical processes outside of our control and beneath our consciousness, are they really choices? Or is that just a story we’re telling ourselves?

I think it’s the same as the chair you’re sitting on. Is it an illusion because it’s really just a bunch of atoms? Or is it really a chair? It’s both. You can talk about it as a set of atoms, but there’s nothing wrong with talking about it as a chair. In fact, you would be dopey to not talk about it as a chair, to insist that the only way to talk about it was as a set of atoms. That’s how nature is. It can be described using multiple different vocabularies at multiple different levels of precision.

At the level of precision where we’re talking about human beings and tables and chairs, you just can’t talk that way without talking about people making choices. There’s just no way to do it. You can hypothesize, “What if I had infinite powers and I knew where all the atoms were and I knew all the laws of physics.” Fine. But that’s not reality. If you’re reality based, then you have to talk about choices.

In his response below, Sean comes about as close as he ever has to saying that there are tangible social effects of accepting determinism (again, the emphasis in the third paragraph is mine).

On both shows, the laws of physics are used to reframe the idea of morality. On “Devs,” Forest makes the argument that determinism is “absolution.” And there’s an idea in “Westworld” that humans are just “passengers”; forces beyond our control are behind the wheel. When you see people on the news, or even when you think about the people in your own life, does your belief in determinism affect the way you judge their behavior?

Not really, no. As long as you’re talking about a human-scale world. This idea that we are just puppets is clearly a mistake. It’s mixing up two different ways of talking about the world. There’s a way of talking about human beings going through their lives and making choices. There’s another way of talking about the laws of physics being deterministic and so forth. Those are two different ways — pick one.

[Carroll] Now, there are situations where we might learn that the choices that we thought people had are more circumscribed than we knew, either because of their biology or because of mental health issues, or what have you. By all means, take that into consideration. But that’s very human-scale stuff. If a person could not have acted otherwise, then you don’t hold them responsible in the same way. It’s not a matter of cutting edge science, it’s ancient law.

Well, ancient law isn’t that clear cut! For law, ancient and modern, is largely based on the premise that in some cases people could have acted otherwise. But they couldn’t—not ever! So we shouldn’t hold people responsible as if they could have acted otherwise. And that has enormous ramifications for the legal system. We already have “not guilty by reason of insanity”, but we should have “guilty of doing an act, but punished in light of the knowledge that they couldn’t have acted other than what they did.”  I’ve always thought that the court should determine responsibility, but another agency should determine “punishment”, and in light of determinism.

I wish that Sean would discuss the ramification of that “human-scale stuff”, because that’s what’s important to society. Sean clearly implies that the law under determinism would be different from the law under libertarianism (or perhaps even compatibilism). And in that he does differ from people like Dennett and many of the readers here. I’d love to have a discussion about all this with Sean some day.