More on free will from Sabine Hossenfelder

June 4, 2023 • 9:35 am

Several readers, knowing of my interest in free will, sent me the link to the video at the bottom by physicist Sabine Hossenfelder. Thanks to all, and to Adrian, who sent the link first. My summary and analysis precede the video.

In October of 2020, Hossenfelder declared that libertarian free will—i.e., the “I-could-have-done-otherwise-using-my-volition” form—didn’t exist. I agree with her, of course, for we’re both “naturalists” and “hard determinists.” If you think matter obeys the laws of physics, which is universally accepted in science,  then there’s no room for mental lucubrations that could somehow tweak the laws of physics (Mental lucubrations are instantiations of physical law!) That’s why she (and I) think that, as far as libertarian free will is concerned, “it’s obvious that we don’t have it.”

Hossenfelder notes that some find the “freedom” in “free will” via occasional quantum jumps of particles on top of deterministic physical determinism. It’s possible that these jumps could, at any given moment, produce different outcomes in the next moment, but that of course depends on whether our behavior or thoughts are affected by quantum phenomena. (We have no idea.) But even were that true, those quantum jumps can’t come from “will”, so there is no “freedom” from physical determination of behavior. Volition is an illusion.

However, Hossenfelder is dubious about whether quantum jumps are really random phenomena: she appears to be a full-on determinist who thinks that the wave function, which includes quantum behavior, itself behaves deterministically. (This bit is way above my pay grade, but still leaves no room for some numinous “will”. I’ll let physicists argue about the “randomness” of quantum mechanics.)

Hossenfelder goes on to describe “emergent properties” like conductivity, which makes no sense unless you talk about a collection of electrons. This, however, doesn’t do away with determinism, for it is the laws of physics that produces emergent properties as the consequence of underlying laws. Emergent properties may not yet be predictable from the laws of physics, but they are all absolutely consistent with the laws of physics.

Finally, she goes on to discuss compatibilism: the view that free will and determinist can coexist happily and without contradiction. Like me, she regards this view as simply an exercise in philosophical semantics that does noting to dispel the fact that we lack libertarian free will in the classical sense. (Remember, that brand of free will is the one most accepted by people in several countries, and is of course a mainstay of Abrahamic religion as well as other forms of religion.)  Compatibilism, to me, is like religion: a “little people’s” view confected with the idea that unless people believe certain creeds, society will fall apart.

Here are the forms of compatibilism Hossenfelder presents (I note with some amusement that different philosophers find many different ways to make free will compatible with the laws of physics, and some of the forms of compatibilism are incompatible with each other).

a. ) Some philosophers say that “Human decisions are to a large extent independent from external factors and are dominantly determined by internal deliberation.” This seems confusing to me because “internal deliberations” are simply examples of “external factors,” i.e. the laws of physics acting on our bodies and brains. If you say that they aren’t, then you are a dualist who accepts libertarian free will.

b.) Hossenfelder’s chracterization of Dan Dennett’s compatibilism:  “Our ability to see probable futures–futures that seem like they’re going to happen, and then to take steps to make something else happens instead.” Those steps, of course, are also determined by the laws of physics.

c.) Another brand of free will is due to “The large degree of autonomy that our brain has from environmental factors.” This has the same problems as (a) above.

d.) Free will occurs because “our decisions follow from what we want”. And yes, we do make decisions according to what we want, because what we want is simply the result of our genes and environment and is and thus coded in our brain.  People generally act consistently with their character, because their character is consistent with their evolved and structured brains.

Hossenfelder presents the results of a 2020 survey about philosophers’ acceptance of libertarian free will vs. compatibilism vs. determinism (what I call “naturalism”). The results of the survey are given in the screenshot below, which I lifted from her video.

Most philosophers are compatibilists, which is a view that, I think, people hold because although these philosophers really do accept Hossenfelder’s claim that there is no libertarian free will, they think that some notion of free will is essential for people to be able to function without drowning in nihilism. (That’s not true.) But at least more philosophers are compatibilists than are “regular people”.  What is disturbs me is that nearly 1 in 5 philosophers (probably the religious ones) are free-will libertarians: more than are “hard determinists” like Hossenfelder and me.

She does take up the question (one I’m often asked when I lecture on why we lack free will), “Why don’t you just kill yourself since everything is more or less determined?” Her answer is a good one: those people should see a psychologist. I manage to hang onto being a hard determinist, though of course I act as if I can make free decisions. We can’t live without feeling that way because that’s just the way our brains are constructed. Perhaps the illusion of libertarian free will is an evolved trait. I can think of several reasons why natural selection, for instance, would drive us to think we make free choices, or perhaps it’s just an epiphenomenon. But I won’t wade into those waters here.

In the end Hossenfelder adds two points:

1.) The free-will problem arises because “the way we think our brain works is not compatible with the facts of science”. But the way we think our brain works is an illusion.

2.) Why does this issue matter? Because, says Hossenfelder, “free will is an inaccurate description of reality” and “makes people believe that they have more control over what goes on in their head than is really the case.”  Example: “Our brains will process input whether we want to our not; once it’s in and we can’t get it out. That’s why trauma is so hard to cope with and misinformation so hard to combat”. This, she says, is a result of our physically-mandated and evolved neuronal processing of inputs. I would add that perhaps it’s possible, through therapy, to mitigate trauma. That, of course, would be the deterministic result of a traumatized person going to a therapist skilled in this art. But no determinist claims that such external influences cannot have an effect.

Sabine closes by declaring that she’s a hard determinist and that we have no free will in the commonly-accepted sense of “libertarian” free will. It’s good to hear from a kindred spirit, though this video is fairly similar to the one she put up several years ago. Still, determinism is like atheism: you have to keep emphasizing it to get the truth before new generations of people.

Sapolsky’s free will book out this fall; and a few thoughts from PCC(E)

February 20, 2023 • 9:15 am

Biologist Robert Sapolsky is a polymath, having done research ranging from neuroendocrinology to the behavior of baboons in Africa. That’s reflected in his academic titles: he’s “the John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor at Stanford University, holding joint appointments in several departments, including Biological Sciences, Neurology & Neurological Sciences, and Neurosurgery”. And, of course, he’s an excellent and prolific writer. His 2017 book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Their Best and Worst, was a bestseller and gets 4½ stars on Amazon out of over 6,000 reviews.

Now he’s written a new book (below) which I am much looking forward to. It’ll be out October 17, so remind me shortly before that. You can click on the cover to go to the Amazon link, but of course it’s nearly bare this early. You can read more at the publisher’s website (Penguin Random House, my own publisher):

This is what the publisher has to say about it (their bolding):

It’s clear from the summary that the “free will” Sapolsky’s attacking is dualistic or libertarian free will (“some separate self telling our biology what to do”). And although some readers think that kind of free will is passé, that eveeryone already rejects it, that’s wrong. I suspect those who say that are compatibilists who don’t get out much.  According to surveys in four countries, most people accept libertarian free will, i.e., if you repeated an episode with everything exactly the same, a person could have decided or behaved differently. They also think that a naturalistic universe (or “deterministic” one, if you will) robs people of their moral responsibility. As I’ve long argued, yes, the concept of “moral” responsibility loses meaning in a naturalistic universe, but the concept of responsibility  (i.e., X did action Y) still makes a lot of sense, and that alone gives us justification for punishment—although non-retributive punishment.

If you doubt the pervasiveness of belief in dualistic free will, just look at religion: the Abrahamic religions and many other faiths are absolutely grounded in free will. They are, after all, predicated on you choosing the right religion and/or savior. This means that you do have a free choice, and woe be unto you if you choose wrong. (Calvinists or any religion that believes in “the elect” are exceptions.)

I’ve also experienced the hegemony of libertarian free will repeatedly. Here are three of my anecdotes, two of which I’ve described before:

a.) At the “Moving Naturalism Forward”, the late physicist Steve Weinberg professed to me a belief in libertarian free will. See the story I told here (scroll down). In our conversation I ascertained that yes, although Weinberg was a Nobel Laureate in physics, he was resolutely wedded to the idea that he could, at any time, have behaved other than how he did. (I gave a talk on free will there.)

b.) A story I told here in 2015 when I gave a talk on free will at the Imagine No Religion meeting in Kamloops, British Columbia. (Sadly, those delightful meetings are extinct.)

After my free will talk, which I think at least made many people think about the hegemony of behavioral determinism (I don’t care so much whether they accept compatibilism or incompatibilism so long as they accept determinism), I was accosted by an angry jazz musician. He said that I had basically ruined his life (I am not exaggerating) by telling him that his “improvisations” were not really improvisations in the sense that he he (in a dualistic way) “decided” what riffs to play, but that they were were the determined product of unconscious processes. I tried to reassure him that they were still the product of his own brain, his own musical background, and his training that allowed him to improvise around what his fellow musicians were playing, but he didn’t find that reassuring. (Even Dawkins jumped in and tried to explain that this didn’t devalue the man’s art or abilities.)

I still remember the anger of that musician (a big man) and my fear that he was going to hit me. Richard saved the day! Such is the anger of people told that they’re deprived of their agency.

c.)  I haven’t told this story yet, but I will now. When I went to Massachusetts a few months ago, I visited an old friend on Cape Cod, whom I hadn’t seen for years. He’d recently remarried, and I was going to stay there for two days touring the area before heading up to Boston.  While eating Wellfleet oysters, somehow we got onto the subject of free will. My friend and his wife were absolutely astounded when I told them they had no dualistic free will and could never behave other than the way the laws of physics dictated, even taking into account quantum randomness. They couldn’t let the topic go, and as I explained my point of view (and yes, I mentioned compatibilism), they got angrier and angrier, and the argument went on into the night. I kept my cool because I’d thought a lot about the subject and they had just encountered it, so I had to explain things as calmly as carefully as I could.  The anger on their part continued, and I went to bed.

When I got up the next morning, set for another day of sightseeing, I went down to breakfast to find no coffee made and no people in evidence. Eventually my friend appeared and said, “You have to leave.”

“WHAT?”, I said, “I have a return ticket to Boston for tomorrow.” He replied that he’d buy me a ticket for that morning (I did it myself), but I had to get out of their house.  This was, of course, because they were totally angry at me for my views on free will. My friend had stayed up all night, consuming a whole bottle of wine, trying to find out people who believed in libertarian free will (he mostly found compatibilists like Dennett to support his case, but they didn’t, for the issue was naturalism).

Needless to say, I was dumbfounded.  I’ve gone over this in my mind repeatedly, and I am absolutely sure that I didn’t raise my voice or say anything offensive. I was being booted out of a friend’s house because I had the wrong stand on a metaphysical argument!

Again, such is the rage of those who hear others tell them they have no agency.  Of course that ended the friendship, and I’ll never see the guy again, nor do I want to. But the couple couldn’t resist getting in one last shot. When I hugged his wife goodbye and thanked her for her hospitality, she said, “Have a nice predetermined life.”  How rude can one get? I still haven’t gotten over this, as nothing remotely similar had ever happened to me, and I can’t fathom how a friendship could be scuppered over an argument like this. Fortunately, I called my friends in Boston and they were glad to put me up for an extra night, and also appalled that I got the heave-ho because I’m a hard determinist!

So it goes. Back to Sapolksky. He espoused his determinism in Behave, but this is a full-length treatment, and a book I would like to have written. My main fear about the book was that Sapolsky would take the Dennett-ian stand towards free will, saying that we really have the only kind worth wanting, and downplaying the naturalism that, Dan believes (with other compatibilists), leaves us only one course of thought and action open at any one time. As I’ve argued, while hard determinism leads immediately to a discussion of the consequences for our world, how we judge others, and the justice system, compatibilism seems to me the “cheap way out,” reassuring us that we have free will and not going far beyond that—certainly not into the consequences of naturalism, which are many. It is the hard determinists, not the compatibilists, who follow the naturalistic conclusion to its philosophical conclusions.

I’m glad to see that Sapolsky will be writing about those consequences.  Remember that several compatibilists, including Dan, have argued that unless we believe in some sort of free will—compatibilist or libertarian—society will fall apart. That’s bogus, of course, and Sapolsky argues that below. I reprise the section of his book précis I’m talking about (bolding is mine)

[Sapolsky] shows us that the history of medicine is in no small part the history of learning that fewer and fewer things are somebody’s “fault”; for example, for centuries we thought seizures were a sign of demonic possession. Yet as he acknowledges, it’s very hard, and at times impossible, to uncouple from our zeal to judge others, and to judge ourselves. Sapolsky applies the new understanding of life beyond free will to some of our most essential questions around punishment, morality, and living well together.By the end, Sapolsky argues that while living our daily lives recognizing that we have no free will is going to be monumentally difficult, doing so is not going to result in anarchy, pointlessness and existential malaise. Instead, it will make for a much more humane world.

Here are two quotes from Dan that I use in my free will talks to show the attitude Sapolsky says is wrongheaded:

If nobody is responsible, not really, then not only should the prisons be emptied, but no contract is valid, mortgages should be abolished, and we can never hold anybody to account for anything they do.  Preserving “law and order” without a concept of real responsibility is a daunting task.

—Dan Dennett, “Reflections on Free Will” (

and this (basically identical to the published version; I got this from an earlier version).

This is a scare tactic used to bully people into accepting compatibilism!

I’ve never met Sapolsky, but I’d like to. He sounds like a guy worth knowing.

A new movie about free will, and it’s worth watching

February 12, 2023 • 10:50 am

It must have been at least two years ago when a group of young but eager filmmakers came to my lab in Chicago to spend several hours filming my lucubrations about free will for a movie they were making. I didn’t hear much about the project after that, and assumed that it had died, but no: I just heard that the movie, “Free Will? A Documentary” was out. It’s two hours long, very absorbing for those of us interested in this question, but you’ll have to pay to see it. (As an interviewee, I got a free viewing.)

You can watch the short trailer on YouTube by clicking below; the notes say this:

Free Will? A Documentary is an in-depth investigation featuring world renowned philosophers and scientists into the most profound philosophical debate of all time: Do we have free will?

Featuring physicist Sean Carroll, philosopher Daniel Dennett, writer Coleman Hughes, neuroscientist Heather Berlin, and many more.

The website for the film is here; it was directed by Mike Walsh, produced by Jeremy Levy and Mitch Joseph, and the cinematography is by Matteo Ballatta. They did an extremely professional job, complete with animations, movies, photos of the relevant scientific papers, and so on. You can rent it from either Vimeo or Amazon for only $2.99 (“rentals include 30 days to start watching this video and 48 hours to finish once started”), or buy it to watch permanently for ten bucks. I enjoyed the hell out of it, and if you want to watch it via rental, three bucks is a pittance, especially because it’s as long as and as well produced as any documentary you can see in theaters. And it has a lot of food for thought. I put a few notes below.

The trailer:

The movie is largely a series of talking heads: nearly everyone who’s ever weighed in on free will is here (a notable exception is Robert Sapolsky). You can see physicist Sean Carroll, Massimo Pigliucci, Trick Slattery, Gregg Caruso, Derk Pereboom, Coleman Hughes (new to me on this topic, but very good), and neuroscientist Heather Berlin (also new to me, and also very good). And of course there’s Dan Dennett, who gets more airtime than anyone else, perhaps because he’s the most well known philosopher to deal with free will (he’s written two big books about it), but also because he speaks with vigor, eloquence, and his trademarked confidence. I appear in a few scenes, but the concentration is on philosophers.

On the whole, the film accepts naturalism, giving little time to libertarian “you could have done otherwise” free will.  There are two libertarians shown, though: psychologist Edwin Locke (an atheist) and Rick Messing (an observant Jew and, I think, a rabbi). I don’t find them convincing, for, as Carroll points out, the laws of physics have no room for an immaterial “agency” that interacts with matter (our brains and bodies). I would have liked to see a full-on religious libertarian, some fundamentalist who insists that we all have free will because God gave it to us. (Remember, most people are libertarians.)

But everyone else interviewed is a naturalist, all believing that at any one moment you have only one course of action. Whether that can be made compatible with some conception of free will, as do “compatibilists” like Dennett, is a subject of some discussion in the film. But there are also hard determinists like Caruso and me who spurn compatibilism. In fact, at the end of the film several people, including Dennett, suggest that the free will “controversy” between naturalists one hand (i.e., “hard determinists” who accept quantum indeterminacy as well) and compatibilists on the other is a purely semantic issue, and perhaps we should jettison the idea of free will altogether. With naturalism settled as true and libertarianism held only by a few philosophers and a lot of religious people, getting rid of the term would make the debate purely philosophical. That’s fine with me, for once you accept naturalism, one can begin dealing with the important social consequences, including how to judge other people in both life and the legal system.

There’s a good discussion of the science, including the Libet and more recent Libet-like experiments (I find them fascinating, and a good argument for naturalism, but libertarians try to find ways around them). The filmmakers do neglect a wealth of information and neurological phenomena that also support naturalism (e.g., confabulation explaining actions caused by brain operations on conscious subjects, the fact that we can remove and restore consciousness, or trick people into thinking they are exercising agency when they aren’t, and vice versa). That’s one of only three quibbles I have with the film. Another is the failure to connect libertarian free will to Abrahamic religions, of which it’s an essential part—a connection that accounts for why more than half of people surveyed in four countries accept libertarian free will. Finally, the philosophers talk a lot about “desert”, which means that, in a retrospective view of your actions, you deserve praise or blame, but the film never defines the term (if they did, I missed it).

But I think they’ve done as good a summary of the issues involved as is possible in two hours, and have neatly woven together in “chapters” the conflicting ideas of people from all camps, letting the academics do all the talking. (There’s a wee bit of necessary narration.) I would recommend that those of you who like to talk about free will on this site ante up the measly three bucks and rent the movie. (The site for renting or buying it from Amazon or Vimeo is here.)

There are eleven “chapters” of the film, which I’ll list to whet your appetite:

  1. What is free will?
  2. The problem of free will
  3. Libertarian free will
  4. Compatibilism
  5. Free will skepticism (includes “hard determinism”)
  6. The great debate: responsibility
  7. Neuroscience
  8. Physics
  9. The “morality club” (i.e., do we need free will be to morally responsible?)
  10. Free will and the law (I think this section should have been longer, but I do get some say in the movie about this issue)
  11. Should we stop using the term “free will”?

Now if you go to the movies for escapism or to see happy endings, this isn’t the film for you. It’s aimed at people who want to see a serious but eloquent intellectual discussion that involves philosophy, physics, ethics, and neuroscience. And the filmmakers did a terrific job, amply fulfilling their goals. Remember, you can’t even get a latte at Starbucks for three dollars, but for that price you can have a heaping plate of brain food!

Does “free will” comprise the things you do that aren’t coerced?

January 4, 2023 • 12:15 pm

One commenter on my last post on free will asserted that free will consists of the set of things you do without being coerced. This is a very common claim, and indeed, it sounds sensible. If someone puts you in jail, you’re not going in “of your own free will.” If someone demands your wallet at the point of a gun, you hand over the dosh because you have no sensible alternative.

This all sounds, good, but I think it’s wrong.

Except in the extreme cases where someone frog-marches you into a cell, you always have a “choice” in the common usage. (That is, there are alternative behaviors possible. I’m still sticking with my conception of free will as “libertarian free will”, and remain unconvinced that we have it.)

But do we have “free will” in the sense mentioned above: are we at least showing compatibilist free will when we do things without coercion?

No, because the idea of “coercion” is nearly always a matter of dispute. Here are two examples; you tell me if the guy is showing free will or not.

Mr. Jones wants to stay home and watch football on Sunday evening, but his wife insists that they go to a party at a friend’s house. It wouldn’t look good, she says, to not show up after they were invited. Mr. Jones decides to go. Is he doing so of his own free will? Or is he being coerced by his wife and their friends’ expectation? After all, he could have refused his wife’s request and stayed home. She might get angry, and their friends disappointed, but he could watch his game. (I’m playing a compatibilist here, not the hard determinist that I am.)

A second example.  Mr. Smith has some savings that he wants to use to buy a spiffy sports car (he’s having a mid-life crisis). But his daughter needs money to go to college. Smith gives up his idea of a fancy car and buys a junker instead so that daughter doesn’t have to work her way through school. Is his decision made “of his own free will”? Or is he coerced by the societal expectation that you make sacrifices for your kids’ education?

Finally, even if a robber has a gun to your head and demands your money, there is an alternative behavior that you can “choose”: resist him and fight. Remember the old Jack Benny joke in which a robber puts a gun to his head and says “Your money or your life!”  Benny hesitates. The robber says, “Well?”  Benny replies, “I’m thinking it over.” (Part of his shtick was being stingy.) See—he did have a choice.

I would claim that in nearly all cases involving “coercion”, the compatibilist would ultimately agree that you do indeed have a choice. It’s just that the alternatives have different consequences that can put you in a bind. In this sense, then, cases of true, uncoerced “free will” are not the norm.

In one sense, though, I would agree with the healine above, for I think that everything is coerced: coerced by your neurons and brain, which are the product of your genes and your environment. They leave you no room to do other than what you did. As Sam Harris said in his book Free Will,

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

In that sense, and I agree, everything is coerced, so there are no decisions ever made via compatibilist free will—even if you see the “free” as meaning “free from coercion.” The people who claim that you have free will only when you’re not being coerced are unwittingly correct, for because we’re always coerced, we never have free will.

Sean Carroll on free will

January 2, 2023 • 11:30 am

Below is a fairly new and short (7 minute) video by the Official Website Physicist® Sean Carroll on free will. As ever, he argues that we do have free will, but it’s a compatibilist form of free will. That is, he accept “physical determinism” as totally underlying our behavior (he means “the laws of physics, which can include purely indeterminate quantum mechanics”), but says that because we cannot predict the future or what we are going to do, the laws of physics aren’t useful in helping us understand or predict our behaviors. The word “determinism” seems to be playing a big role here, conflating prediction with reality, which is why I prefer to use the word “naturalism” now.

As Sean’s said before, his view of “free will” invokes a level different from that involving the laws physics: it’s the fact, as he says, that  “We can talk about human beings as agents making choices, while also agreeing that we don’t violate the laws of physics.” That is, we can’t use those laws to decide what we’ll choose in a restaurant. He argues that each human is a collection of desires, preferences, and values, which are useful in both discussing our behaviors and predicting them, but we’re also  “a collections of neurons and obey laws of physics.” Thus we get the compatibility between physics and “free will”, which of course is not “libertarian” I-could-have-chosen-differently free will.

In that sense, every organism also has free will, although some lack values.

Sean, then, sees his form of free will as an emergent property of neuronal organization and evolution that has given us brains that secrete our behaviors. But he also admits that if we were able to predict perfectly what we would do, then “free will would go away.”

It is that last sentence that lays bare what I see as the problems with Sean’s argument. That’s because one thing is for sure: over the coming decades and centuries, as we learn more about the brain, we will be able to use measures of physics independent of “values and desires” to predict more and more of what we do. Already brain-scan experiments using MRI and similar crude techniques can predict what we will choose (in very simple binary-choice experiments) seven to ten seconds in advance. Does this mean that some of our free will has been taken away? This is a kind of free will destined to disappear when we learn more about science.

I do agree with Sean that we talk as if we have free will, and that we act as if we could have done things differently from what we did. As he says, this is because, “given the actual information you have about yourself, you could have acted differently, because the information you have yourself is wildly incomplete”.  And that is true as well. But what is also true is that, at bottom, what we do does depends completely on the laws of physics, and our actions are “emergent” only in the sense that at bottom they rest on those laws. Any “emergence” of behavior isn’t based on some non-physical phenomenon like “will”; it is simply our inability to presently extrapolate from lower to higher levels. But there’s nothing new happening at those higher levels.

So if we’re talking about everyday paralance, I have no real problem with Sean’s conception of compatibilist free will. But I think he avoids the question that obsesses me, which I’d pose to Sean like this:

“Yes, Sean, we don’t know enough about our constituent particles and cells to make complete predictions about our behavior. But, on the physical level, isn’t it true that we could not have done other than what we did?”

I think he’d have to agree with me, because he sees no form of non-physical “will” that, given an exact rerun of physical circumstances, could somehow change the resulting behavior. Ergo I think Sean overly neglects libertarian free will, which, after all, is the form of free will that most people envision. Indeed, when I debate the issue with friends and acquaintances, they are astounded to hear that they could not have done otherwise, even if we feel we could have. Most people do seem to adhere to a form of nebulous, un-physical “will”. And if you tell them “well, given what you know you could have made a choice but you really couldn’t have,” that wouldn’t satisfy them.

Nor would it satisfy the many religionists who absolutely believe in libertarian free will. If you accept Jesus as your savior because that’s compatible with your feelings and desires, but your choice could actually be predicted if you had perfect knowledge about your body and the universe, I don’t think that Christians would say that this alone will bring you to God! For that turns every Christian into a Calvinist!

I also agree with Sean that “we have a responsibility for what’s going to happen next.” It’s a mistake to think that hard determinists like me don’t agree with the notion of responsibility. I just don’t agree with the concept of moral responsibility, for that form of responsibility rests on whether someone could actually have done otherwise, not on whether someone feels they could have done otherwise.

In the end, I think Sean is evading an important question—the one I raised above. Sure, we feel as if we could have chosen differently because we don’t have enough information to make an accurate prediction, but he doesn’t come to grips at all with the idea that given the laws of physics that underlie our behavior, there is no way we could have chosen differently. With complete information, everything is either predictable, or, if unpredictable, rests on quantum indeterminacy that has nothing to do with our will.

And that makes a ton of difference when you think about crime and punishment and when you take people to task for saying “they could have chosen otherwise”. Much of our legal system depends on an assumption of libertarian free will, not compatibilist free will. Certainly all retributive punishment does. And recognizing this fact can and should create big changes in both our judicial system and how harshly we judge other people.  Under hard determinism, people can be viewed as broken cars. When our car is broken, we don’t think it had a choice, but we do things like repairing it or, if it’s dangerous, taking it off the road. You don’t beat it with a sledgehammer for acting badly in line because its nature was to have a wonky carburetor and and broken transmission.

Recognizing the falsity of libertarian free will also leads to a lessening of self-rebuke. Telling yourself “If I had done X, Y wouldn’t have happened” is useful only in rewiring your brain so you wouldn’t do X again. It is not useful in beating yourself up for behaving in a way that you couldn’t have helped.

I wish Sean would take on the issue in all its fullness. Compatibilist free will is different in important ways from libertarian free will, and those differences have huge consequences. (For those who think that there’s no material difference, remember the surveys in which people who are asked whether we have moral responsibility in a deterministic universe mostly answer “no”.) Well, it’s time that they know that we do live in a deterministic universe. I wish Sean would tell people that we could not have behaved differently, even if we feel we could have!

Again, he’s right when he’s talking about everyday notions, but if at bottom libertarian free will is a total illusion, I wish Sean would say it straight out.

I’m not psychologizing Sean here, but I think the big love of compatibilist free will among philosophers comes from a fear of naturalism and a fear (expressed by Dan Dennett, among others), that if we abandon libertarian free will, as we should do explicitly, society will become totally immoral. In other words, the notion of compatibilism is there to keep us in line.

h/t: Barry

Julian Baggini reviews a new book on agency that ignores the issue of free will

December 7, 2022 • 1:00 pm

Philosopher and author Julian Baggini, a nonbeliever who wrote the Very Short Introduction to Atheism for Oxford University Press (and about 20 other books), has a nice review in the Wall Street Journal of a new book on cognitive and behavioral autonomy, with a thesis that touches on issues of free will. The book is Freely Determined: What the New Psychology of Self Teaches Us About How to Live, by Kennon M. Sheldon.

You can read Baggini’s review by clicking on the screenshots below; if it’s paywalled, I’ll quote enough to give you the tenor of the piece:

Sheldon himself is a professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri in Columbia, and uses the book to push his own pet theory: Self-Determination Theory (SDT). SDT has been around for about fifty years, and is about people’s motivations and self-determination. Sheldon asserts that your wellbeing is higher if you think you are the agent who produces your own actions, and, apparently, that you have the ability to freely will your actions, or to will one of several possible actions. The latter, of course, bears on contracausal (“I-could-have-done-otherwise”) free will.

As Baggini notes:

Mr. Sheldon’s interest in free will is rooted in his work in Self-Determination Theory, which he calls “the world’s most comprehensive and best-supported theory of human motivation.” A core tenet of SDT is that “people need to experience themselves as the causal source and origin of their own behavior rather than feeling controlled and determined by external forces.” When people feel autonomous, they are more content and successful. When they feel they have no control, they become morally cynical. After all, if we’re not in control of what we do, how can we be blamed for wrongdoing?

Most of Mr. Sheldon’s 10 chapters constitute a compelling and clear introduction to what SDT teaches us about nurturing a sense of autonomy. The theory gives us a rich and powerful understanding of motivation—how to harness it and avoid undermining it. Most notably, the theory points to the importance of intrinsic motivation: the desire to do something for its own reward, not for any instrumental benefit.

And indeed, Sheldon may be right: we may do best if we feel that we are deciding our own actions rather than being compelled by the desires of other people or, ultimately, by forces beyond our control.  If you’re a hard determinist, like me (and I think Baggini, though I’m not sure), you realize that we aren’t really able to decide one course of action versus another: that is decided for us by the laws of physics. Still, I have no beef with the idea that we feel better entertaining the notion that we can indeed choose one course rather than another. Indeed, natural selection may have favored, for various reasons that lack the will, time, and space to discuss, the feeling that we are making free choices. But what makes us feel good isn’t necessarily true; we can have our feeling of agency and feel better for it, even if that agency is illusory.

The problem, which Baggini homes in on, is that author Sheldon seems to think that SDT and contracausal free will are incompatible. That is, if you feel that you have agency, then it must be true that you have agency:

When it comes to the metaphysical realm, Mr. Sheldon’s mistake is to think that SDT and the philosophical denial of ultimate free will are incompatible. That is only true of the most popular, if simplistic, threat to his model of human freedom: the extreme reductionism claiming that reality can be completely described in the language of physics; that consciousness is just the humming of the neural machine; and that everything is strictly predetermined.

Mr. Sheldon sees off this crude challenge with skill and clarity. A key to his argument is the idea of a “grand hierarchy of human reality”—a scale of human understanding and its modes, from micro to macro. Physics sits at the bottom, with the sciences of chemistry, microbiology and neuroscience stacked above it. Every time you ascend a level you encounter reality at a different order of organization. As Mr. Sheldon writes: “There is a kind of ‘functional autonomy’ at each new level, which builds upon what is given below. This means that each new level affects the world in a way that is partially independent of the levels below.”

Ascend the hierarchy further and you get to the social sciences: varieties of psychology, sociology and anthropology. (He might have added philosophy.) You can’t understand human societies, he observes, without reference to their values, or human actions without desires and intentions. The reductionist assumption—that thoughts and feelings are causally inert—is invalid.

The issue is that evoking “reductionism” doesn’t touch the issue of libertarian free will. A “grand hierarchy” must still show that each level is compatible with the one below it, even if it couldn’t be predicted from the one below it. And at the bottom sit the hard laws of physics, which ramify upwards to produce psychology and anthropology. Just because you can’t predict how human societies work from the laws of physics doesn’t mean that those societies aren’t the ineluctable results of the laws of physics. It’s a fundamental error to deny reductionism just because we can’t predict how phenomena ramify. What would overturn reductionism is the observation that new phenomena arise at higher levels that aren’t COMPATIBLE with what’s going on at lower levels. And to a determinist, this just doesn’t happen.

And so, argues Baggini—and I agree—this palaver about the benefits of feeling empowered to decide (which is a real feeling and may be beneficial), combined with the denial of reductionism, leads Baggini not just to reject libertarian free will, but to ignore it completely.

This is all persuasive, but it leaves the deeper metaphysical problem of free will untouched. Human beings may make choices that are not predictable or even completely determined. [JAC: I presume that Baggini’s referring here to a fundamental indeterminacy, as far as we know, of quantum mechanics.] The hard question of free will is whether, at the time of making a choice, we could have done otherwise (leaving aside randomness or chance). The most popular position in philosophy today is compatibilism: It says that, although we can’t do other than what we do, we still have a valuable form of free will that allows us to maintain ideas of autonomy, control, responsibility and blame. In short, we may not be as free as we think we are, but we are free enough.

Note that Baggini explains that compatibilism accepts the fact that we lack contracausal free will. What is “compatible” in compatibilism is the absence of “true” (what I call “contracausal”) free will with another definition of free will that’s confected by whichever philosopher is pushing compatibilism. But Sheldon doesn’t even mention compatibilism, though he alludes to a form of it—a form that, to me, seems to deny contracausal free will entirely:

In “Freely Determined,” compatibilism doesn’t get a single mention. Instead Mr. Sheldon leans heavily on a recent book by Christian List (“Why Free Will Is Real”) in which it is argued that free will requires three capacities: considering the possibilities for action; forming an intention; and acting on a chosen possibility. But whereas Mr. List delves into the complexities behind these seemingly simple check-boxes, Mr. Sheldon merely helps himself to the comforting conclusion that, since human beings possess all three capacities, we are free.

In the end, Baggini recommends the book but criticizes the author for eluding a truth that really bothers people: our inability to decide or behave other than the way we do:

Fortunately, what Mr. Sheldon has to tell us about motivation and human action remains valuable, however we resolve the philosophical problem of free will. Readers will get a lot out of his book—as long as they recognize that it doesn’t so much solve the problem as deftly swerve around it.

Ironically, what first got me thinking about determism, and ultimately rejecting contracausal free will, was a paper by biochemist Anthony Cashmore in PNAS, written as a freebie when he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. I think it’s well worth reading, and it has the word “swerve” in it, referring to the Lucretian swerve. Read “The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system.” (It’s free online.)

Sabine Hossenfelder disses the multiverse

September 11, 2022 • 10:30 am

In this 17-minute video, physicist and science popularizer Sabine Hossenfelder discusses the concept of the multiverse, one that’s popular with many physicists (and laypeople)—but one, she says, for which there’s no evidence. (It’s also a topic of her latest book; see an excerpt here and get a link to the book below)

Reader Steve sent me the video link with the note (reproduced below with permission), referring to Sean Carroll, who’s an advocate of the multiverse.

The latest from our friend, Sabine. As much as I like and admire Sean Carroll, I am convinced by Sabine’s argument…for now.

I’m putting her new book on my reading list.

The video is pretty clear, so I’ll just give the take-home message briefly.

To Hossenfelder, the problem with mulitverse theories is that they all “Postulate the existence of unobservable entities”.  That is, although the multiverse is an outcome of some mathematical physics, there is no way physicists have found to test it—to make observations that would make its existence more or less likely.  If it ultimately can’t be tested, she says—and I agree—then it can’t be considered a scientific theory. (This is also true of string theory.)  Now we don’t know if somebody in the future will come up with a clever way to see that the universe keeps splitting into more and more universes every time something happens, but until they do, to quote Laplace, “we have no need of that hypothesis.” I’m glad, however, if some physicists are working on a way to test it. However, Hossenfelder says that there is no observation even in principle, that physicists can make to test the existence of the multiverse. That may change. And of course a failure to find ways to detect multiverses does not mean that they do not exist, of course. Like the idea of an unobservable God, we simply can have no confidence in their existence.

Hossenfelder then considers whether the multiverse theory is science, religion, or pseudoscience. She’s already dismissed science, but argues that the theory either pseudoscience or religion, depending on how you use it. One quote:

“If you assume that unobservable universes exist, and write papers about them, then that’s pseudoscience. Because this is exactly what we mean by “pseudoscience”—pretends to be science, but isn’t. If you accept that science doesn’t say anything about the existence of those universes, one way or another, and you just decide to believe in them, then that’s religion. Either way, multiverses are not science—they’re like Tinker Bell, basically: they exist if you believe in them. 

Hossenfelder thinks that the fundamental error that physicists have made is thinking that multiverses exist because they’re an outcome of mathematical physics.  In other words, “The big problem with the multiverse idea is that physicists are confusing mathematics for reality.”

Finally, she takes on four objections to her own view, but dispels all of them.

Adjudicating this argument is above my pay grade, but I do know that no physicist has found a way to test the predictions of multiverse theory. It’s still a theory widely discussed (Sean Carroll talks about it quite often, and I believe it’s discussed with approbation in his 2017 book The Big Picture). But if scientists, after arduous effort, eventually can’t see a way to find evidence to test it, it will eventually disappear as a matter for serious discourse in physics.

Hossenfelder is an excellent presenter of physics, and passionate about her views. The only flaw in her presentation is that she seems a bit nervous—or perhaps she’s just being very serious and passionate.  A more relaxed presentation would be a better one, but not a lot better.

I also like her because, as I discussed exactly two years ago, she’s a hard determinist with respect to free will. She doesn’t seem to be a compatibilist, either, though she does agree with some compatibilists in thinking we shouldn’t worry about our lack of libertarian free will.  But I don’t think she’s dug deeply enough into the consequences of rejecting “naturalism” (my new word for “determinism”. There are serious social implications, notably in the judicial sphere, to rejecting libertarian free will. Below the fold you can see some of what I wrote about her video on free will.

Wouldn’t it be lovely to see a debate between Hossenfelder and Sean Carroll (who’s a bit of a compatibilist) on the multiverse, on free will, or both?  In such a debate both sides would be smart, rational, quick, and, of course, polite. It would be a delight to watch.

Enough—watch this:

Here’s Sabine’s new book (click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon site), and you can get a peek inside at that site:

Click on “continue reading” to see some of my discussion of Hossenfelder’s take on free will.

Continue reading “Sabine Hossenfelder disses the multiverse”

Attack of the Lilliputians: Casey Luskin and Michael Egnor put misleading words and sentiments about free will in my mouth

July 14, 2022 • 1:30 pm

Why would two members of the ID creationist Discovery Institute keep attacking me for rejecting libertarian free will? After all, that issue has very little to do with evolution.  But they keep on trying to land blows, for the real object of the Discovery Institute goes way beyond the promotion of ID creationism in schools. Their goal is the elimination of materialism and naturalism as the basis of Enlightenment Now. (Read about the Wedge Strategy.) They’re upset at me because I adhere to views that don’t require or are associated with a God—and determinism (I’d call it “naturalism”) does just that. If we don’t have spooky free will, and, as I claim, all our behaviors and decisions occur according to the laws of physics, then you can’t “choose” whether to be good or evil, and choice of that sort is essential for the Abrahamic religions to function.

I’m not going to waste my time rebutting these clowns at length, as I’d simply have to reiterate what I’ve said before many times on this site, and since they clearly either don’t know, don’t understand, or deliberately ignore what I’ve said many times over, I just want to point out their article (one of several) to underscore a.) the mental thickness of the protagonists, b.) the religiosity of the protagonists, c.) the real reason why the Discovery Institute operates, and d.) to satisfy Egnor’s eternal desire to get attention by engaging in a dialogue with me. But they’re not going to get their wish on the last one, as I’m just going to show you what they say and let you, the reader here, figure out how I’ve already rebutted it.

Click to read—or hear, as there’s a link to a podcast.:

Here are some of their assertions. Now imagine that you were Professor Ceiling Cat (Emeritus). How would you respond?

Quotes are indented; I may be forced by the laws of physics in making a few remarks:


. . . These arguments have, of course, popped up in the legal system where the famous Darwin-defending lawyer, Clarence Darrow, the famous case back in the 1920s of the two boys who killed somebody just for fun. He argued in court that, “Hey, you can’t blame these boys for this sport killing that they undertook. They were just acting upon what their genes, and maybe their environment, forced them to do.” And he really argued that there is no free will. … Does Jerry Coyne have the right to condemn the Nazis if he denies free will?

Michael Egnor: The fact that Coyne’s denial of free will leaves him incapable of coherently accusing the Nazis of moral evil is enough to discard his denial of free will. That is, it is such a bizarre viewpoint that the Holocaust was not a moral evil — because there are no moral evils — that it really puts the denial of free will almost into a category of delusion.

Darrow wasn’t trying to free Leopold and Loeb: they had already pleaded guilty. He was trying to spare them the death penalty. But yes, Darrow was a “determinist”. But there are a gazillion reasons why a determinist like me would condemn the Nazis. And of course I do.

Michael Egnor: The fact is, we all know that it was horrendously evil. We all know that evil things really happen and that they really are evil. And if there is real evil, just as if there’s real good, then free will must exist. Because if we’re all just determined chemical bags, meat robots, there is no good or evil — we’re simply acting out our chemistry.

And of course, Coyne’s response to this has been that, although he believes that things such as the Holocaust were not morally evil — because there is no such thing as moral evil — he certainly believes that they weren’t… salubrious, is the term he uses. Which means that they didn’t work for the common good and should be condemned on that basis.

If you consider “morality” to be a subjective set of guidelines about what things are good and bad for society or individuals, as I do, then yes, the Nazis were immoral. However, I prefer to avoid the term “moral responsibility”, which presumes, as Luskin and Egnor believe, that people always have a choice between acting morally or immorally at any given moment. They don’t. I prefer the word “responsibility,” which means “the person did it; caused it to happen.” And you can be responsible in ways that mandate punishment, including imprisonment. “Moral responsibility” adds nothing to “responsibility” construed in this way.

Casey Luskin: I think that the Nazis probably believed that what they were doing was for the “common good.” So how do you define common good? On what basis do you condemn something if somebody believes what they’re doing is for the common good?

Of course, Dr. Egnor, all of this flows out of Jerry Coyne’s scientism. If you can’t scientifically prove that something is good or evil, then scientism dictates he can’t condemn it as good or evil. Obviously we have ways of determining whether things are good or evil that go beyond science. Jerry Coyne has to reject those ways of knowing because of his scientism.

Well, morality is a rather subjective set of beliefs, but one can use empirical evidence to bear on some questions of morality, depending on which version you adhere to. If you’re a consequentialist, as I am, then one might argue that the death penalty is “immoral” because it has net bad consequences compared to good ones. And I’m pretty sure that one could show that society (and its constituents) would be better off if murder remained illegal and was considered immoral (there are plenty of downsides and almost no upsides). But of course some people use other criteria besides utilitarian ones, like the Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” or even the Divine Command theory. In most cases, it is preference that dictates what people see as moral or immoral, and preferences differ. And these preferences—your basis for morality—cannot be subject to scientific test.

Egnor and Luskin, of course, think that good and evil are things that comport with what God wants or does not want. And if they cannot prove there’s a God, which they can’t, then they’re on even shakier ground than I!

One more before I grow ill:

Michael Egnor: Well, one of the points about Coyne’s denial of free will that I find in some ways the most frightening is that Coyne has suggested in several of his posts that, because he believes that there is no actual free will, we should change our approach to criminal justice — so that the approach to criminal justice does not entail retribution, but instead entails correction. That basically sort of like training animals. You’d want to train people to do better.
Of course, how one could define “better” in a world with no moral good or evil is a question Coyne doesn’t address.

But what is genuinely frightening about applying Coyne’s determinism and denial of free will to our society is that the most important consequence of the denial of free will is not that there therefore is no guilt. The most important consequence is that there is no innocence. It encourages, an approach to law enforcement that deals with people based on predictions of what they might do.

We ARE animals, and can be influenced by environmental circumstances—like jail. Sadly, our criminal justice system is, by and large, not set up to reform people, but to punish them. It’s also set up to deter others and to keep bad people out of circulation. And yes, there is “guilt”: it means “you did something deemed a crime.”

What a pair of morons! It’s even worse, though, if they knew how I’d respond to these things but have distorted my views to convince people that a secular Jewish evolutionist is, yes, EVIL.

I see I’ve offered some rebuttal after all!  But I couldn’t help it: it’s those damn laws of physics!


Brian Greene: We don’t have free will: one idea in a wide-ranging book

July 8, 2022 • 9:20 am

Physicist Brian Greene published the book below in 2020, and it appears to cover, well, just about everything from the Big Bang to consciousness, even spiritually and death. Click image to go to the Amazon site:

Some of the book’s topics are covered in the interview below, and its breadth reminds me of Sean Carroll’s book The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. I’ve read Sean’s book, which was good (though I did disagree with his free-will compatibilism), but I haven’t yet read Greene’s. If you have, weigh in below.

I’ll try to be brief, concentrating on Greene’s view of free will, which is that we don’t have it, we’re subject only to the laws of physics, and our idea of free will is an illusion stemming from our sense that we have a choice. The interview with Greene is in, oddly, the July 1 issue of Financial Review, and is paywalled, but our library got me a copy. (Judicious inquiry may yield you one, too.) You might be able to access it one time by clicking below, but otherwise ask or rely on my excerpts:

Greene also dwells on the fact that we’re the only creatures that know that we’re going to die, an idea that, he says, is “profoundly distressing” and in fact conditions a lot of human behavior. More on that below. Here are a few topics from the interview:

Free will:  Although Greene, as I recall, has floated a form of compatibilism before (i.e., our behaviors are subject to natural laws and that’s all; we can’t have done otherwise by volition at any given moment, but we still have free will), this time he appears to be a rock-hard determinist, which I like because I’m one, too. Excerpt from the interview are indented:

What’s more, beyond thoughts of death, my colleagues, according to Greene, are mistaken in their belief they are making their own choices to change their lives. Thoughts and actions, he argues, are interactions between elementary particles, which are bound by the immutable laws of mathematics. In other words, your particles are doing their thing; we are merely followers.

“I am a firm believer,” he says, “that we are nothing but physical objects with a high degree of order [remember these words, “high degree of order” – we’ll circle back to that], allowing us to have behaviours that are quite wondrous, allowing us to think and feel and engage with the world. But our underlying ingredients – the particles themselves – are completely, and always, governed by the law of physics.”

“Free will is the sensation of making a choice. The sensation is real, but the choice seems illusory. Laws of physics determine the future.”

So then, free will does not stand up against our understanding of how the universe works.

“I don’t even know what it would mean to have free will,” he adds, “We would have to somehow intercede in the laws of physics to affect the motion of our particles. And I don’t know by what force we would possibly be able to do that.”

Do you and I have no more options than say, a fish, in how we respond to the world around us?

“Yes and no,” says Greene. “All living systems, us included, are governed by the laws of physics, but the ways in which our collection of particles can respond to stimuli is much richer. The spectrum of behaviours that our organised structure allows us to engage in is broader than the spectrumof behaviours than a fish or a fly might engage in.”

He’s right, and there’s no attempt, at least in this interview, to be compatibilistic and say, well, we have a form of free will worth wanting. 

Death: From the interview:

“People typically want to brush it off, and say, ‘I don’t dwell on dying, I don’t think about it,”‘ says Greene via Zoom from his home in New York, where he is a professor at Columbia University. “And the fact that we can brush it off speaks to the power of the culture we have created to allow us to triumph over the inevitable. We need to have some means by which we don’t crumble under the weight of knowing that we are mortal.”

. . . Greene believes it is this innate fear of death twinned with our mathematically marching particles that is driving my colleagues to new horizons, and driving my decision to write this story, and your choice to read it, all bolstered by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Greene’s view appears to be that a substantial portion of human behavior is driven by a combination of two things: the “naturalism” that deprives us of free will, combined with our learned (or inborn) knowledge and fear of death. The death part is apparently what, still without our volition, forces us into action. I’m not sure why that’s true, as the explanation’s not in the interview but perhaps it’s in the book. After all, some people argue that if you’re a determinist doomed to eternal extinction, why not just stay in bed all day? Why do anything?  If we do things that don’t enhance our reproduction, it’s because we have big brains and need to exercise and challenge them. Yes, we know we’re mortal, but I’m not sure why this makes me write this website, write books, read, or do science. I do these things because they bring me pleasure. What does mortality have to do with it?

Natural selection:  According to the writer and interviewer Jeff Allen (an art director), Greene thinks that the promulgation of our mortality, as well as much of our communication, comes from storytelling, which has been instilled into our species by natural selection. Things get a bit gnarly here as the interview becomes a bit hard to follow. I’m sure Greene understands natural selection better than Allen, but Greene’s views are filtered through the art director:

Natural selection is well known for driving physical adaptation, yet it also drives behavioural change, including complex human behaviours such as language and even storytelling. Language is a beneficial attribute that helps us as a species succeed, as is the ability to tell stories, which prepare the inexperienced with scenarios that may benefit them in the future.

“Evolution works by tiny differentials in adaptive fitness, over the course of long timescales. That’s all it takes for these behaviours to become entrenched,” says Greene. “Storytelling is like a flight simulator, that safely allows us to prepare ourselves for various challenges we will face in the real world. If we fail in the simulator, we won’t die.”

Darwin’s theory of evolution is one of the recurring themes of Greene’s book.

Note in the first paragraph that evolved language and storytelling “helps us as a species succeed”. That’s undoubtedly true—though I’m yet to be convinced that storytelling is anything more than an epiphenomenon of evolved language—but whatever evolved here was undoubtedly via individual (genic) selection and not species selection. Traits don’t evolve to enable a species to succeed; they evolve (via selection) because they give their bearers a reproductive advantage. I’m sure Greene knows this, but Allen balls things up by throwing in “species success”.

Consciousness: If you’re tackling the Big Issues that deal with both philosophy and science, it’s consciousness, defined by Greene (and I) as both self-awareness and the presence of qualia, or subjective sensations (Greene calls it “inner experience”).  I’ve written about this a lot, and don’t propose to do more here. We have consciousness, we don’t know how it works, but it’s certainly a physical property of our brains and bodies that can be manipulated by physical interventions. The two issues bearing on Greene’s piece are where it came from and how will we figure out how it works. (Greene implicitly rejects panpsychism by asking “”How can particles that in themselves do not have any awareness, yield this seemingly new quality?”. That will anger Philip Goff and his coterie of panpsychists.)

I’m not sure about the answer to either., We may never know whether consciousness is an epiphenomenon of having a big brain or is partly the result of natural selection promoting the evolution of consciousness. I suspect it’s partly the latter, since many of our “qualia” are adaptive.  Feeling pain is an aversive response that protects us from bodily damage; people who lack the ability to feel pain usually accumulate substantial injuries. And many things that give us pleasure, like orgasms, do so because they enhance our reproduction. But this is just speculation.

Greene also thinks that natural selection has something to do with human consciousness, but it’s not clear from the following whether he sees consciousness as an epiphenomenon of our big brain and its naturalistic physical properties, or whether those properties were molded by natural selection because consciousness enhanced our reproduction:

“My gut feeling,” says Greene, “Is that the final answer will be the Darwinian story. Where collections of particles come together in a certain kind of organised high order ‘brain’, that brain is able to have particle motions that yield self-awareness. But it’s still a puzzle at this moment.”

Where Green and I differ is in what kind of work might yield the answer to how consciousness comes about. Greene thinks it will come from work on AI, while I think it will come, if it ever does, from neurological manipulations. Greene:

“That’s perhaps the deepest puzzle we face,” says Greene. “How can particles that in themselves do not have any awareness, yield this seemingly new quality? Where does inner experience come from?”

Greene’s suspicion is that this problem will go away once we start to build artificial systems, that can convincingly claim to have inner awareness. “We will come to a place where we realise that when you have this kind of organisation, awareness simply arises.”

In June this year, Google engineer Blake Lemoine said an AI he was working on, named LaMDA (Language Models for Dialogue Applications), got very chatty and even argued back.

I suppose this is a version of the Turing test, but it will be very, very hard to determine if an AI bot has “inner awareness”.  Hell, I don’t even know if my friends are conscious, since it depends on self-report! Can you believe any machine that says it has “inner experiences”?

With that speculation I’ll move on. Greene also muses on the origin and fate of the universe, and whether it might “restart” after it collapses, but cosmology is above my pay grade, and I’ll leave you to read about that yourself.

h/t: Ginger K.

A meta-analysis of many studies shows no long-term consequences of giving up belief in free will

June 13, 2022 • 9:45 am

One of the reasons that compatibilism is so popular, besides buttressing the comforting idea that we can make a variety of conscious choices at any time (well, that’s the way we feel), is that there’s a widespread belief that if you accept determinism (“naturalism”) as opposed to free will, it will be bad for society. (I prefer to use “naturalism” to mean “one’s actions purely reflect the laws of physics” rather than the more common “determinism”, because some of the laws of physics are indeterministic.) If you think you can’t make more than one choice at any one time, so the argument goes, you become mired in nihilism and irresponsibility, bound to act on your merest impulse, immoral or not.  In other words, the argument for keeping free will claims that naturalists who ascribe our actions solely to physical laws become irresponsible cheaters who cannot be trusted, and free will is thus a vital form of social glue that keeps society cohesive.

Here, for example, are two statements by the doyen of compatibilism, my pal Dan Dennett (sorry, Dan!):

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

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


If nobody is responsible, not really, then not only should the prisons be emptied, but no contract is valid, mortgages should be abolished, and we can never hold anybody to account for anything they do.  Preserving “law and order” without a concept of real responsibility is a daunting task.

—Dan Dennett, “Reflections on Free Will” (

But you can be a “hard determinist” and still believe in responsibility!

These views are often based on an early study by Vohs and Schooler (2008), which “primed” students by reading them an anti-free-will passage written by Francis Crick, with another group reading a “control” passage that was neutral.  Not only were the anti-free-will readers less likely to accept free will right after the readings, but they also tended to cheat more in a psychological test given immediately thereafter. To me, this is a thin basis on which to make a blanket statement about the long-term effect of denying free will on society.

Since that  2008 study, however, there have been many similar experiments testing whether such “priming” can not only affect belief in free will, but whether it can promote a variety of antisocial behaviors. Some studies have attempted to replicate the results of others and failed to do so; these, ironically, include the landmark study of Vohs and Schooler.

I should note that, as the authors of the paper below show, there are many people (including me, though I’m not cited) who feel that there are healthy effects of naturalism, including having more empathy for others and a reduced feeling of “retributive justice” (i.e., people should get punished because they made the wrong choice).

The present study by Genshow et al. (click on screenshot below; pdf is here, reference at bottom) is an attempt to combine all existing studies of this type using meta-analysis. They had two big questions:

  • Research Question 1: Can belief in free will be experimentally manipulated?
  • Research Question 2: Does this have any downstream consequences?

“Downstream” means “after the manipulation”, and not “permanent”!

The answers, as you can see if you read the long paper are yes, belief in free will can be experimentally manipulated, though the effects aren’t large, and no, the consequences of such manipulation, if any, don’t last long.  The authors thus conclude this:

Taken together, there is a debate about whether anti–free will viewpoints should be discussed in the public media. Our findings suggest that the influence on society may be weaker than previously assumed. In this respect, we would like to argue that discussions about the implications of believing in free will should distinguish between scientific facts and philosophical speculations (Schooler, 2010) as well as acknowledge methodological limitations of the cited research (Racine et al., 2017).

In other words, you can promote compatibilistic free will for a variety of reasons (i.e., it comports with our personal understanding of what “free will” means), but not because belief in naturalism will somehow erode society.

First, some clarification.  The authors analyzed 84 studies. Of these, 72 were subject to meta-analysis to see if “priming” affected belief in free will. (These studies included 124 experiments, of which 31 were published and 93 unpublished.) Further, 44 of the studies that showed successful manipulation of free will were tested to see if there were effects that lasted (these comprised 67 experiments, 43 published and 24 unpublished.)

What do the authors mean by “free will”.  Apparently the classic contracausal or libertarian “you-could-have-chosen-otherwise” free will:

. . . belief in free will reflects a much broader belief about choice and freedom (e.g., “Do I have a choice? Can I freely choose to do otherwise?”).

They construe the opposite of free will to be “determinism” though, as I said above, purely physical indeterminism, like quantum effects, could affect what one does at any given moment but still not reflect conscious choice and not be part of classical “free will”. (You can’t “choose” to affect the movement of an electron.) I will use “naturalism” instead of the authors’ “determinism”. Though they don’t talk about pure physical indeterminism, it doesn’t affect the results of their studies.

They used two methods to measure the effect of reading on free will belief; both gave the same results.

They also analyzed two other aspects of experiments. The first involved four ways of conducting the “priming’ : reading two statements alone, doing that as well giving a verbal reprise, seeing a video about free will or a neutral one, or reading a variety of statements that were either “control” or “anti-free will”. None of the experiments involved reading any pro-free will statements, probably because most people already accept libertarian free will and there’s not much room to manipulate that belief. It turns out that the most effective way to erode belief in free will is a combination of the two readings plus a verbal summary by the experimenter.

Second, the authors analyzed experiments in which the subjects were asked themselves to summarize or rewrite the messages given to them right after they were primed. It turned out that this form or conscious repetition also increased the erosion of belief in free will due to the experimental manipulation.

The results. 

a. “Can belief in free will be experimentally manipulated?” The meta-analysis showed that over all the experiments, priming did significantly erode acceptance of free will, though not by a huge amount. So yes, beliefs can be affected.  When acceptance of “naturalism” (what the authors call “determinism”) was also tested, it increased, though not as much as acceptance of free will declined.

b. “Does this have any downstream consequences?” But how long do these effects last? When erosion of belief in free will occurs in these studies, is it permanent, or does it last only over the experimental period? The “experimental period” appears to last between a day and a week, so it’s by no means permanent. And by “downstream” effects they include experiments where antisocial tendencies were tested right after the priming studies, and where the priming was separated from the measurement of antisocial behavior by another, unrelated test. I didn’t look at every experiment, but most appear to do the antisocial tests right after priming, so the effects can only be said to be temporary—a few hours to a week.

The social behaviors tested are shown in Table 1 of the paper, and include measurements of cheating, helping, aggression, conformity, gratitude, punishment, prejudice, moral actions, cooperation, punishment and moral judgments, victim blaming, and other tests. Again, this was a meta-analysis, so all these “antisocial” behaviors were taken into consideration in a single analysis.

Finally, their main method of seeing if there was an effect over all the studies on social attitudes involved “p curve analysis”, which I’ve never used but the authors describe like this:

In the first step, we ran a p-curve analysis across all dependent variables. While the aim of estimating a population effect size makes a meta-analysis unsuited to evaluate diverse sets of dependent variables, this is not the case for p-curve. Rather than estimating a population effect size, p-curve investigates whether a set of statistically significant findings contains evidential value by testing whether the distribution of p-values is consistent with the existence of a true effect (Simonsohn et al., 2014). Importantly, if confirmed, this does not mean that all included studies show a true effect. Instead, it merely implies that at least one study does (Simonsohn et al., 2014). As such, p-curve can be applied to diverse findings as long as they form a meaningful whole (Simonsohn et al., 2015).

And they analyzed a subset of the results involved “anti- or prosocial behaviors”:

In a second step, we ran meta-analyses on internally coherent sets of dependent variables. Upon reviewing the literature, one clear set arose—namely, antisocial versus prosocial behavior (for an overview, see Table 1). Hence, we pooled together the studies in this set and subjected them to a meta-analysis testing whether manipulating belief in free will influences social behavior. However, pro- and antisocial behavior is still a relatively broad and unspecific dependent variable. Therefore, in a third and final step, we also ran meta-analyses on three specific dependent variables that have been used in at least five experiments: conformity, punishment, and cheating.

The upshot: there was no statistically significant effect in either analysis. The p-value distribution suggests that not a single study had a “true effect.” Now if you use the psychologists’ way of measuring significance (p < 0.1), there is an overall level of significance for the effect on behavior, but using the biologists’ p value for significance (p < 0.05), the overall result became nonsignificant. And using either criterion, when you eliminate the single experiment that had the largest “downstream” effect, the whole effect on behavior becomes nonsignificant (p = 0.128).  The effect on anti-social behavior appeared to be significant, but was seen only in published and not unpublished studies, as might be expected. Further, when those studies were eliminated that showed no effect on manipulating free will, the “downstream” effect disappeared, so it may have been some kind of artifact.


I should add that there was no attempt to correct for multiple tests of significance, which increases the chance that something will appear significant when it’s really not. Experimenters vary in how they do this correction, but some correction is always needed, and none was done in this study. That means that even the close-to-significant results, of which there were few, were probably not statistically significant. 

The authors conclude this:

In sum, the analysis showed that the effect of anti–free will manipulations on antisocial behavior was no longer significant after controlling for publication and small sample biases. This was true even when we only included studies that found a significant effect of the manipulation on belief in free will and indicates that there is insufficient evidence for the idea that manipulating belief in free will influences antisocial behavior.

Now there are caveats about all these results (i.e., the downstream effect could have been significant but missed, or there might be an unknown third variable that affected the results, and so on); and the authors describe these in detail. The profusion of caveats means that the authors look as if they’re almost apologetic for finding no effect given the widespread view that denying free will will ruin society.

But given that the effect of priming on eroding free will was weak, that there was no meaningful “downstream” effect of trying to make people reject free will, that there was no attempt to correct for multiple tests of significance (a statistical no-no), AND, especially, the “downstream” effects were measured within a week of the initial priming (usually on the very same day), there’s simply no reason to play Chicken Little and say that we must believe in free will because otherwise society will fall to pieces. How can one possibly make statements about the long-term effects on society of rejecting free will and embracing naturalism without a proper test of that hypothesis? I repeat what the authors say above:

Taken together, there is a debate about whether anti–free will viewpoints should be discussed in the public media. Our findings suggest that the influence on society may be weaker than previously assumed. In this respect, we would like to argue that discussions about the implications of believing in free will should distinguish between scientific facts and philosophical speculations (Schooler, 2010) as well as acknowledge methodological limitations of the cited research (Racine et al., 2017).

And even if pure naturalism be true, and that most people’s belief in libertarian view be wrong, should we really hide that truth from people for the good of society? It reminds me of the Little People’s Argument for Religion: “we of course aren’t religious, but society needs religion to function properly.” It also reminds me of The Little People’s Argument for Creationism, encapsulated in what might be an apocryphal anecdote. It recounts how the wife of the Bishop of Worcester reacted when told that Mr. Darwin suggested that people had descended from apes. Mrs. Bishop of Worcester supposedly said:

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

And that is the same argument many make for the prevalence of the laws of physics, which to many of us rules out libertarian free will. Further, if you think that nobody attacks naturalism or supports some form of free will because they decry naturalism’s supposedly bad social consequences, you’re wrong. I quoted Dan above, and I could give more quotes. To me, it’s almost never of value to hide the truth about reality as a way to preserve social harmony.

Yes, you can embrace compatiblistic free will even if you think libertarian free will has no consequences for society, but if that’s the way you think, I ask you this: “Why did the authors of this paper go to all the trouble to do the analysis?”


Genschow O, Cracco E, Schneider J, et al. 2022. Manipulating belief in free will and its downstream consequences: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review. June 2022. doi:10.1177/10888683221087527