Philip Ball says that physics has nothing to do with free will. Part 2.

January 11, 2021 • 9:30 am

Yesterday I discussed a recent article from PhysicsToday by Philip Ball, which you can access by clicking on the screenshot below.  I argued, and will continue to argue, that Ball’s attacks on free will are misguided for several reasons. He fails to define free will; does not seem able to distinguish between predictability and determinism; does not appreciate that naturalism (determinism + quantum uncertainty) absolutely destroys the libertarian notion of free will held by most people (and nearly all Abrahamic religionists); and has confused notions of “causation”. Today I’ll briefly discuss the last point, as well as Ball’s misguided claim that accepting naturalism has no implications for our behavior or ways of thinking.

First, let’s review. Ball accepts the laws of physics as being the underlying basis of all phenomena, and so he is a naturalist (or a “physical determinist” if you will; I’ll simply use “determinism” to mean “naturalism”). But he then argues that this kind of reduction of everything to physics renders behavioral science a straw man. I find that claim bizarre, for even we “hard determinists” recognize that we can’t say much meaningful about social behavior from the laws of physics alone. But our recognition of that doesn’t mean, as Ball asserts it does, that disciplines like history, game theory, and sociology become “pseudosciences”.

First, none of us think that: we recognize that meaningful analysis, understanding, and even predictions can be made by analyzing macro phenomena on their own levels. So this paragraph is arrant nonsense, attacking a position that almost nobody holds:

If the claim that we never truly make choices is correct, then psychology, sociology and all studies of human behaviour are verging on pseudoscience. Efforts to understand our conduct would be null and void because the real reasons lie in the Big Bang. Neuropsychology would be nothing more than the enumeration of correlations: this action tends to happen at the same time as this pattern of brain activity, but there is no causal relation. Game theory is meaningless as no player is choosing their action because of particular rules, preferences or circumstances of the game. These “sciences” would be no better than studies of the paranormal: wild-goose chases after illusory phenomena. History becomes merely a matter of inventing irrelevant stories about why certain events happened.

Ball is correct in saying that meaningful analyses in these areas can be conducted without devolving to the level of particles. But that’s nothing new! Further, he seems to misunderstand the meaning of “pseudoscience”. The Oxford English Dictionary defines pseudoscience this way:

“A spurious or pretended science; a branch of knowledge or a system of beliefs mistakenly regarded as based on scientific method or having the status of scientific truth.”

But in fact, all those areas above, from sociology to neuropsychology, often use the scientific method: the empirical toolkit also used by biology, chemistry, and so on. If they find “truth” by observation, testability, attempts at falsification, and consensus, then they are “science in the broad sense” and not pseudoscience. They are using methods continuous with the methods used by “hard” scientists to find truth.

Second, by his very admission of physical determinism, Ball already settles the issue of free will: we don’t have it, at least in the libertarian sense.  His statement below gives away the game:

Classical chaos makes prediction of the future practically impossible, but it is still deterministic. And while quantum events are not deterministic – as far as we can currently tell – their apparently fundamental randomness can’t deliver willed action.

In other words, physics, which Ball admits has to comport with everything at a “higher level”, can’t deliver willed action. Thus, if you construe free will in the libertarian, you-could-have-done-otherwise sense, then Ball’s arguments show that we don’t have it.

And that’s pretty much all I care about. I don’t care whether, given you’ve accepted determinism, you go on to play the semantic game of compatibilism (Ball doesn’t). For it’s determinism itself that, when accepted, has profound consequences for how we view life and society. Many disagree, but so be it. One of those who disagrees, though, is Ball (see below).

Ball makes three more points that I’ll discuss here. The first involves “causation”. Because we can’t understand social behavior, or, in this case, the evolution of chimpanzees, from principles of physics, one can’t say that physics “caused” the evolution of chimpanzees. We need another level of analysis:

What “caused” the existence of chimpanzees? If we truly believe causes are reducible, we must ultimately say: conditions in the Big Bang. But it’s not just that a “cause” worthy of the name would be hard to discern there; it is fundamentally absent.

To account for chimps, we need to consider the historical specifics of how the environment plus random genetic mutations steered the course of evolution. In a chimp, matter has been shaped by evolutionary principles – we might justifiably call them “forces” – that are causally autonomous, even though they arise from more fine-grained phenomena. To complain that such “forces” cannot magically direct the blind interactions between particles is to fundamentally misconstrue what causation means. The evolutionary explanation for chimps is not a higher-level explanation of an underlying “chimpogenic” physics – it is the proper explanation.

Again I assert that, at bottom, the evolution of chimps was “dictated” by the laws of physics: the deterministic forces as well as the random ones, which could include mutations. (I’ve argued that the evolution of life could not have been predicted, even with perfect knowledge, after the Big Bang, given that some evolutionary phenomena, like mutations, may have a quantum component.)

But if Ball thinks biologists can figure out what “caused” the evolution of chimps, he’s on shaky ground. He has no idea, nor do we, what evolutionary forces gave rise to them, nor the specific mutations that had to arise for evolution to work. We don’t even know what “caused” the evolution of bipedal hominins, though we can make some guesses. We’re stuck here with plausibility arguments, though some assertions about evolution can be tested (i.e., chimps and hominins had a common ancestor; amphibians evolved from fish, and so on). And yes, that kind of testing doesn’t involve evoking the laws of physics, but so what? My work on speciation, Haldane’s rule, and so on, is perfectly compatible with my hard determinism.  I would never admit that my career in evolutionary genetics, in view of my determinism, was an exercise in “pseudoscience.”

At any rate, Ball and I do agree that evolutionary scenarios like this require a level of analysis removed from that of particle physics, and also a language (“mutations”, “selection”, “environmental change”, and so on) that differs from the language used by physicists. Again, so what? We already knew that.

Second, Ball floats the idea of “top down” causation, something I don’t fully understand but, as far as I do understand it, it doesn’t show that macro phenomena result from the laws of physics, both deterministic and indeterministic, acting at lower levels. To me the concept is almost numinous:

There is good reason to believe that causation can flow from the top down in complex systems – work by Erik Hoel of Tufts University in Massachusetts and others has shown as much. The condensed-matter physicist and Nobel laureate Philip Anderson anticipated such notions in his 1972 essay “More is different” (Science 177 393). “The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe,” he wrote.

I’ll let readers argue this out, but if physicists like Sean Carroll and Brian Greene are not on board with this—and as far as I know, they aren’t—then I have reason to be skeptical.

Finally, Ball appears to think that understanding and dispelling the idea of free will has absolutely no implications for anything:

Those who say that free will, and attendant moral responsibility, don’t exist but we should go on acting as if they do rather prove that their position is empty because it neither illuminates nor changes anything about how we do and should behave.

This is not at all an empty position, not just because it shows that our feeling of agency isn’t what it seems to be (in that sense it’s an “illusion”), but also because the absence of libertarian free will changes a lot about how we view the world. As I’ve argued, it changes our view of how we see punishment and reward, how we regard those people who are seen as “failures in life,” and how we see our own tendency to regret our past behaviors, and wish we’d done otherwise. If you see that people aren’t really in control of their lives, at least in the sense of exercising a “will” that can affect how you decide at a given moment, then it makes you less retributive, more forgiving, and less hard on yourself.

Now I know some readers will say that to them it doesn’t matter. Whether or not we have libertarian free will, or compatibilist free will, they argue, doesn’t matter: the drive to reform prisons will be the same. I don’t agree. And the claim that how one sees libertarian free will affects one’s view of life is supported by statistics showing that if people thought they really lived in a world ruled by the laws of physics, with no libertarian free will, they would believe that moral responsibility goes out the window. (I sort of agree: I still think people are “responsible” for their actions, but the idea of “moral” responsibility is connected with “you-could-have-chosen-to-do-otherwise.”) At any rate, people know instinctively that the common notion of free will has important consequences for themselves and society.

And thus, brothers and sisters, friends and comrades, I endeth my sermon on the lucubrations of Brother Ball.

Philip Ball says that physics has nothing to do with free will. Part 1.

January 10, 2021 • 2:00 pm

I’m getting tired of writing about free will, as what I’m really interested in is determinism of the physics sort, and, as far as we know, determinism is true except in the realm of quantum mechanics—where it may still be true, but probably not. So let me lump quantum mechanics and other physical laws together as “determinism,” recognizing that predictability may be nil on the quantum level. If you wish, call determinism “naturalism” instead. So we can say that “naturalism”, physical law, is true.

Further, as we know, admitting some uncertainty on the particle level does not mean that, even if our behavior is governed by the laws of physics, we could have chosen to do something other than what we did.  For physical uncertainties have to do with particle movement, not with the amorphous “will”—the supposed ability of our mind to force our bodies to do different things—that’s essential to most people’s idea of free will.   

Anthony Cashmore defines free will “as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature”.  A simpler but roughly equivalent definition is this one: “If you could replay the tape of life, and go back to a moment of decision at which everything—every molecule—was in exactly the same position, you have free will if you could have decided differently—and that decision was up to you.”

If you pressed most people, you’d find that they agree with these definitions, though the second one is clearer to the layperson. These forms of “libertarian” free will are accepted by many, including of course, those religionists who believe that we are able to freely decide whether or not to accept Jesus or Mohamed as the correct prophet, and if you make the wrong choice, you’ll fry. Only a loony Christian would argue that God would still make you fry if a quantum movement in your neurons made you reject Jesus. No, your “decisions” have to be under your control.

At any rate, physics—naturalism—rules out this type of free will.

I’m pretty sure science writer Philip Ball would agree that the laws of physics are true. But he also argues, in a recent op-ed piece in PhysicsWorld (click on screenshot), that free will has nothing to do with physics. I was going to discuss his piece in one post, but it would be too long, and I hear that goldeneye ducks are disporting themselves in a pond over near Lake Michigan, and I must go see them. I’ll continue this analysis in a final post tomorrow.

Now Ball doesn’t really define “free will”, he says that it is “not a putative physical phenomenon on which microphysics can pronounce—it is a psychological and neurological phenomenon.”

There are two issues in that sentence. First, is free will a physical phenomenon or not? Yes, of course it is, in the sense that all human behaviors are physical phenomena that come from our evolved sensory system and neuronal wiring interacting with our environments, and all of this must ultimately be consistent with the laws of physics.

As far as “pronounce” goes, well, no, we can’t predict with complete accuracy what someone will do, for we lack that depth of knowledge. But we’re getting closer to the “pronouncement” part, as we can often predict with better than even accuracy, via physical interventions or brain monitoring, what someone will do or “choose”. And we can also affect one’s sense of volition by interventions (Ouija boards are a familiar example.)

But to say that psychological and neurological phenomena are different from physical phenomena is nonsense. The phenomena are viewed and analyzed in different ways and on different levels, of course. As Ball argues, we don’t use the laws of physics to help understand or predict human behavior—yet. But that doesn’t mean that determinism doesn’t operate, and that somehow one could have behaved, through one’s own “will”, otherwise than one did. If you could, then our will would truly be “free” of physical constraints.

Ball seems to think that although we can’t use physics to predict our behavior, determinism and “naturalism” are therefore irrelevant to our lives. But they aren’t, for, as many of us agree, including Sam Harris, Anthony Cashmore (read his paper), and many others, accepting determinism can have profound effects on how one sees and wants to structure society. I know many here will argue against that, but surveys of the public show that a). they don’t accept determinism, with most accepting libertarian free will, and b). they realize that accepting determinism affects one’s view of morality and responsibility. (Sadly, they usually think that in a deterministic world there can be neither morality nor responsibility; and they’re wrong.) But I’ll talk about that tomorrow.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Click on the screenshot below. I’ll just reproduce a few of Ball’s assertions (indented) and comment on them (my words flush left).

To start, I have to agree with Brian Greene, whose take on free will, which I see as correct, is denigrated by Ball:

In his new book Until the End of Time, the US theoretical physicist Brian Greene says that our choices only seem free because “we do not witness nature’s laws acting in their most fundamental guise; our senses do not reveal the operation of nature’s laws in the world of particles”. In his view, we might feel that we could have done otherwise in a particular situation, but, short of some unknown psychic force that can intervene in particle motions, physics says otherwise.

Greene, like many others who take this view, is upbeat about it: free will is a perfectly valid fiction when we’re telling the “higher-level story” of human behaviour. You can’t change anything that will happen, but you should merrily go on thinking and doing “as if” you can with all the attendant moral implications. Maybe this picture works for you; maybe it doesn’t. But in this view, you have no say about that either.

But is free will really undermined by the determinism of physical law? I think such arguments are not even wrong; they are simply misconceived. They don’t recognize how cause and effect work, and by attempting to claim too much jurisdiction for fundamental physics they are not really scientific but metaphysical.

Metaphysical? It’s metaphysical to say that underlying our behavior are unalterable laws of physics? (Screw “cause and effect” for the moment, as they nebulous, philosophical, and irrelevant to determinism.) If you are a determinist, then there’s no way you can accept libertarian free will. My goal is not to engage in semantic arguments about what free will can be in a deterministic workd, but to ask a scientific question: is there anything we know about science that tells us that we can “will” ourselves to behave differently from how we did? The answer is no. We know of nothing about physics that would lead to that conclusion.

Ball then proceeds to construct what I see as a strawman:

If the claim that we never truly make choices is correct, then psychology, sociology and all studies of human behaviour are verging on pseudoscience. Efforts to understand our conduct would be null and void because the real reasons lie in the Big Bang. Neuropsychology would be nothing more than the enumeration of correlations: this action tends to happen at the same time as this pattern of brain activity, but there is no causal relation. Game theory is meaningless as no player is choosing their action because of particular rules, preferences or circumstances of the game. These “sciences” would be no better than studies of the paranormal: wild-goose chases after illusory phenomena. History becomes merely a matter of inventing irrelevant stories about why certain events happened.

Perhaps that is the bitter truth. Why should we sacrifice physics just to save the face of other disciplines? But let’s consider the alternatives. Understanding decisions and behaviour through psychology allows us to form hypotheses and test them empirically. Some of these look as though they’re right: we can reliably predict what might make people change their behaviour, say. If, however, physics demolishes free will, this is just a peculiar coincidence. Forget all the “as if” gloss: reducing all behaviour to deterministic physics unfolding from the Big Bang offers us no genuine behavioural science at all, as it denies choice and puts nothing in its place that can help us understand and anticipate what we see in the world.

. . . It is not because of the sheer overwhelming complexity of the calculations that we don’t attempt to use quantum chromodynamics to analyse the works of Dickens. It is because this would apply a theory beyond its applicable domain, so the attempt would fail. Greene presents the matter as a hierarchy of “nested stories”, each level supplying the underlying explanation of the next. But that’s the wrong image. To regard every form of human enquiry, from evolutionary theory to literary criticism, as a kind of renormalized physics is as hubristic as it is absurd.

This is a strawman because none of us deny that there can be behavioral science, and that one can study many aspects of human biology, including history, using the empirical tools of science: observation, testing, falsification, and a search for regularities. It’s also a strawman because the issue is one of physics underlying human behavior, whether or not we can use it to predict that behavior.

Although the “laws” of human behavior, whether collective or instantiated in an individual, may not be obeyed as strictly  as the laws of physics, all of us determinists admit that it is fruitful to look for such regularities on the macro level—at the same time we admit that they must comport with and ultimately derive from the laws of physics.

But behavioral science isn’t necessarily “pseudoscience”. Regularities can be tested, confirmed, or refuted—as Ball admits. For example, I would predict that if a madman approaches a playground with a gun, a parent would first rush to save their own child rather than somebody else’s. That’s derived from kin selection theory. Or you can predict that if someone accumulates more desirable things in a lab experiment, like donuts, the value of an additional donut—its marginal utility—will diminish. That’s economics, but comes from selfish human behavior. And we can predict that if we show someone that their wife is having sex with another man, that person will get angry and jealous. That is NOT a “peculiar coincidence”, but also derives from evolution, as does much of human behavior that we see in our striving for repute, power, wealth, and status.

And history is surely not a “matter of inventing stories” about why certain events happened. True, we often don’t know for sure, as we can’t easily determine historical causation, but I’m sure historians wouldn’t see themselves as “making up stories”. If, for example, you think famous person A did X because he knew that Y was true, and you find out that that person A didn’t really know that Y was true but thought that Z was true instead, you’ve falsified a historical argument. Historical records exist to check assertions of fact. That’s why we know that the “Bethlehem census” of the Bible is wrong, and why the claim that the Holocaust was just prisoners dying of disease and not deliberate extermination is equally wrong.

To say that any behavioral regularities we see are mere “peculiar coincidences” is a claim that evolution itself has nothing to do with physics. For it’s evolution that’s at the base of so much of behaviorial science. And evolution results from the differential replication of different genes, which become different via mutations, which are of course physical phenomena.

It’s “not even wrong” to say that determinists who reject the idea that our “will” can interact with our bodies are at the same time claiming that history, game theory, economics, and other forms of “social science” are all pseudosciences. If you know what a pseudoscience really is: a belief system that rejects testing and falsification by the methods of “real science” and is buttressed by confirmation bias, then you wouldn’t make the statements that Ball does. He’s arguing against a view that nobody holds.

And now I must go see my goldeneye ducks. More tomorrow. Read Ball’s article.

h/t: David

 

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

December 20, 2020 • 11:00 am

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

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

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

Click to read:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

h/t: Jiten

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

November 15, 2020 • 11:30 am

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

October 24, 2020 • 11:15 am

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

October 11, 2020 • 1:00 pm

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.

QED!

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

September 1, 2020 • 12:45 pm

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.

QED.

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

June 15, 2020 • 9:30 am

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

June 14, 2020 • 9:00 am

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.

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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)

May 31, 2020 • 7:30 am

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.

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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.