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” (naturalism.org)

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

Julian Baggini on free will

May 19, 2022 • 10:45 am

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(That man can write!)

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

John Horgan on free will and superdeterminism

March 11, 2022 • 12:00 pm

John Horgan’s opinion piece on the physics theory of “superdeterminism” (which we’ve encountered before in a video by Sabine Hossenfelder), and its relevance to free will, appeared in the latest Scientific American. Click to read the short piece:

Although I had (and still have) trouble understanding superdeterminism, it is, as Horgan and Sabine explain, a way that quantum mechanics becomes deterministic rather than fundamentally indeterministic. To use the jargon of Bell’s Theorem, superdeterminism is a theory of “local hidden variables”, so that factors we don’t yet understand actually determine absolutely how particles behave. As Horgan notes:

A conjecture called superdeterminism, outlined decades ago, is a response to several peculiarities of quantum mechanics: the apparent randomness of quantum events; their apparent dependence on human observation, or measurement; and the apparent ability of a measurement in one place to determine, instantly, the outcome of a measurement elsewhere, an effect called nonlocality.

Einstein, who derided nonlocality as “spooky action at a distance,” insisted that quantum mechanics must be incomplete; there must be hidden variables that the theory overlooks. Superdeterminism is a radical hidden-variables theory proposed by physicist John Bell. He is renowned for a 1964 theorem, now named after him, that dramatically exposes the nonlocality of quantum mechanics.

As I wrote in response to Hossenfelder’s video:

I’m not quite sure what “superdeterminism” means is on the level of particles, but it appears to be something like this: “What a quantum particle does depends on what measurement will take place.” And once the measurement system is specified, somehow a quantum particle is determined to behave in a certain way. That’s what I don’t get.

And Horgan seems as puzzled as I am, even though Hossenfelder says that superdeterminism may be empirically testable. Back to Horgan:

I’m nonetheless baffled by superdeterminism, whether explicated by Hossenfelder or another prominent proponent, Nobel laureate Gerard t’Hooft. When I read their arguments, I feel like I’m missing something. The arguments seem circular: the world is deterministic, hence quantum mechanics must be deterministic. Superdeterminism doesn’t specify what the hidden variables of quantum mechanics are; it just decrees that they exist, and that they specify everything that happens, including my decision to write these words and your decision to read them.

Hossenfelder and I argued about free will in a conversation last summer. [JAC: this discussion is on YouTube and I can’t watch it from down here.] I pointed out that we both made the choice to speak to each other; our choices stem from “higher-level” psychological factors, such as our values and desires, which are underpinned by but not reducible to physics. Physics can’t account for choices and hence free will. So I said.

And now, what about the effect of superdeterminism on free will? Horgan says that the relevance of physics itself to the phenomenon of free will, much less the effect of superdeterminism, is irrelevant. That’s because, or so it seems from his piece, that he does believe in a form of libertarian (“you-could-have-done-otherwise”) free will.

But as most of us know, even if there are fundamental indeterminacies lurking in quantum physics, and while deterministic physics rules macro-level phenomena, there is still no such thing as libertarian free will. Whether or not an electron jumps in an indeterminate way, and that makes you decide to do one thing or another—this does not mean you have libertarian free will. To enable that, your conscious will must have made that electron jump and, as Sean Carroll has pointed out, that itself violates what we know about the laws of physics. So long as the laws of physics are obeyed, be they deterministic or indeterministic, we cannot have libertarian free will. Yet Horgan seems to think that that kind of free will can exist; we just don’t understand enough about nature to know how and why.

The analogy here is to our current lack of current understanding abut how neurobiology leads to the phenomenon of consciousness. This lack of understanding is taken by some, like Philip Goff, to mean that we’re missing something beyond current laws of physics: the ability of electrons, atoms, and so on, to have a form of consciousness (this idea is called “panpsychism,” and I consider it both foolish and untestable).

Likewise, the fact that we have emotions and consciousness and feelings that can alter the world (again, this is a fact regardless of the truth of superdeterminism) leads Horgan to the idea that there may be libertarian free will. He thinks that we just don’t understand enough physics yet:

. . . To my mind, the debate over whether physics rules out or enables free will is moot. It’s like citing quantum theory in a debate over whether the Beatles are the best rock band ever (which they clearly are). Philosophers speak of an “explanatory gap” between physical theories about consciousness and consciousness itself. First of all, the gap is so vast that you might call it a chasm. Second, the chasm applies not just to consciousness but to the entire realm of human affairs.

Physics, which tracks changes in matter and energy, has nothing to say about love, desire, fear, hatred, justice, beauty, morality, meaning. All these things, viewed in the light of physics, could be described as “logically incoherent nonsense,” as Hossenfelder puts it. But they have consequences; they alter the world.

Physics as a whole, not just quantum mechanics, is obviously incomplete. As philosopher Christian List told me recently, humans are “not just heaps of interacting particles.” We are “intentional agents, with psychological features and mental states” and the capacity to make choices.  Physicists have acknowledged the limits of their discipline. Philip Anderson, a Nobel laureate, contends in his 1972 essay “More Is Different” that as phenomena become more complicated, they require new modes of explanation; not even chemistry is reducible to physics, let alone psychology.

This, and the paragraph below, are truly begging the question of naturalism and free will: assuming the existence of a phenomenon we want to prove—libertarian free will. We are “intentional agents” with “the capacity to make choices”, What Horgan is ignoring here is whether or not those choices are determined by the laws of physics. They may look like true choices that could have been made otherwise via conscious will, but that’s an illusion.

And the last paragraph seems to show that Horgan truly is afflicted with confirmation bias.  To Horgan, the known and unknown laws of physics, and their relevance to free will, is a non-issue. Our wills must truly be free—and not deterministic—because  because the implications are just too depressing. Horgan:

. . . Why does the debate over free will and superdeterminism matter? Because ideas matter. At this time in human history, many of us already feel helpless, at the mercy of forces beyond our control. The last thing we need is a theory that reinforces our fatalism.

What we need is the truth, not a view of science that buttresses our emotional desires.

In the end, the debate between superdeterminism or quantum mechanics is irrelevant here. All that’s relevant is whether the known laws of physics apply to all matter. There is no evidence that they don’t, and some evidence (viz., Sean Carroll’s arguments) that they do, at least to “everyday life.”

In other words, Horgan wants there to be libertarian free will, and so he thinks that we’re simply missing the physics that allow this to be true. I happen to disagree, and I think that most physicists and philosophers will agree with me. Even compatibilist philosophers, after all, still think that libertarian free will is wrong, and our “choices” are absolutely determined by the laws of physics. They just conceive of free will in a manner that is compatible with the laws of physics.

h/t: Matthew

Massimo Pigliucci: “Free will is incoherent”

February 9, 2022 • 10:30 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Either way, no free will.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Massimo says this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Massimo ends his article this way:

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

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

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

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

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

“Luck” vs. genes: is there a moral difference?

January 29, 2022 • 11:00 am

Not long ago, I reviewed for the Washington Post Kathryn Paige Harden’s newish book on genome-wide association studies (GWAS) of human traits and how we can use the results to bring about social change. Click on the screenshot to read my take, or request a pdf:

Harden wrote the book with a social purpose that. she thought, could be implemented through the new technique of GWAS. I explain the method in my review, and so won’t reiterate it here, but it aims to identify many regions of the human genome responsible for genetic variation in a chosen human trait in one population. The trait she concentrates on is “educational attainment” (years of schooling), which is highly correlated with nearly every measure of “success” that you can think of—particularly wealth and income. And indeed, Harden, summarizing previous work, points out that over 1200 regions of the DNA can affect the value of this trait.

What this means is that even in a newborn child, you can predict how well a child will succeed. The predictability isn’t anywhere close to 100%, but still you can “rank” children by their GWAS scores in their likelihood of “success.”

Now this sounds like a hereditarian nightmare, with the possibility of ranking people as Aldous Huxley did in Brave New World: alphas at the top and the useless epsilons at the bottom. But although Harden is a hereditarian, her aims are not stratification or ranking, but equity. Her view is that once we know the genes responsible for academic achievement, we can use that information to help achieve equity in academic achievement.

And that’s where the big problem lies in her book: she couldn’t propose a good a way to use this information to achieve “equity”.  While her description of the genetic work in the book’s first half is excellent, the remedies she proposes in the second just aren’t there. In fact, I can’t see myself how to use this kind of genetic information to promote academic success. Suppose you know from genotyping an infant that that kid has an expected chance of graduating from high school that’s only 80% of the average value. What do you do with that information? Start tutoring the kid as soon as possible? Give more money to schools to boost everyone (this hasn’t worked)? There is no solution that doesn’t involve differential treatment, but Harden doesn’t want that, for it creates classes of “smarter” and “dumber” people, branding them from the outset.  It turns out that I wasn’t the only reviewer to spot this problem. And I’d claim that it’s easier to manipulate the school environment than to genotype a gazillion kids. (All genetically-based interventionsmust be tested empirically, anyway.)

But I’m not writing this to reiterate my review, but to bring up some stuff that I had to leave out of my review. So I’ll put below an argument that I thought was important but omitted from that review, both because I was severely limited by space and because a few people who looked at my draft saw this as superfluous. Now I regret not having written what I say here. Bolding below is mine.

These are quotes from my rough draft about Harden’s argument that we need to pay special attention to inequalities based on genetics because they’re a matter of “luck”.  I had to omit these bits (indented):

Harden’s motivation for using genetic differences to engineer equality comes from the fact that those differences are a matter of luck: the vagaries of how genes sort themselves out during egg and sperm formation. It’s unfair, she says, to base social justice on randomly distributed genes: “People are in fact more likely to support [wealth] redistribution when they see inequalities as stemming from lucky factors over which people have no control than when they see inequalities as stemming from choice.” [p. 206]

But is there really “choice”? Like many scientists and philosophers, I’m a determinist who rejects the idea of free will—at least the kind that maintains that there is something more to behavior than the inescapable consequences of your genetic and environmental history as well the possible indeterminate (quantum) laws of nature. In this pervasive view, at any one moment you could have chosen to do something other than what you did.

But there’s no evidence for this kind of free will, which would defy the laws of physics by enabling us to mystically control the workings of our neurons.  No inequalities stem from “free choice” and so everyone’s life results from factors over which they have no control, be they genetic or environmental.

Harden actually admits this dilemma: “If you think the universe is deterministic, and the existence of free will is incompatible with a deterministic outcome, and free will is an illusion, then genetics doesn’t have anything to add to the conversation. Genetics is just a tiny corner of the universe where we have worked out a little bit of the larger deterministic chain.”  [p. 200] And with that statement she pushes her whole program into that tiny corner.

But then Harden adds something like “I’m not going to get into the issue of free will.” By doing that, she punts on the most important issue of her book. Since our lives are completely the uncontrollable results of our genes and our environments, which even a compatibilist will admit, why should we see genes as a matter of “luck” but environment not? The family we’re born into, the people we meet, and all the influences of our lives are a matter of “luck”—and by “luck” I mean “naturalistic factors over which we have no willful control.”  It’s not pure “luck” which way a coin falls when you toss it: it’s actually determined by the laws of physics at play when you flip it (velocity, wind currents, and so on). The outcome, like that of our lives, are determined. Or, in some cases, not absolutely determined by the laws of physics (i.e., theoretically predictable if you had perfect knowledge) but are still absolutely produced by the laws of physics, since quantum mechanics, which so far as we know is inherently indeterministic, can affect some circumstances. But, as we know, quantum mechanics cannot support the common notion of free will: “I could have chosen other than I did.”

People will argue about this, but I don’t really want to argue about free will here; I want to make a point about determinism.  And that point is this. If you think that your genes, which partly determine your success in life, are the result of “luck” (I guess Harden means by “luck” those factors over which we have no conscious control), then so is everything else that determines your success in life.  In other words, as Harden suggests (but then dismisses) the idea that genetic “luck” is somehow physically an morally different from “environmental luck” is a bogus distinction.

And if that be the case, then people’s feeling that you need to be more concerned with fixing genetic inequalities than with fixing environmentally-based inequalities is unfounded.

The point isn’t really how we define “free will”, for all rational people are naturalists, accepting that our wills cannot change the laws of physics that really control our lives. And even if you are one of those rare libertarian free willers—who are largely religious people—I can’t see any rationale for being more concerned with genetically based inequalities than with environmentally based ones. (I note her that “environmental inequalities” can also have a genetic basis, so the distinction isn’t completely clear-cut. For example, we have evidence that there are genetic propensities to choose certain people as your friends, and your friends are immensely important in determining how you turn out.)

I applaud Harden’s motivations; who wouldn’t want to improve everybody’s chance of educational achievement? But by punting on the issue of determinism, it seems to me that Harden undercuts the whole social value of her genetic program. And because she’s a true progressive leftist, she’s more or less forced to evade that issue. But it’s fourth down and 25 yards to a first—what else can you do?

Sabine Hossenfelder on free will and “superdeterminism” of quantum mechanics

December 23, 2021 • 9:30 am

I had a bit of a hard time fully understanding this absorbing 20-minute video by physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, but I think I get most of it. The main problem I had was understanding the notion of “superdeterminism” in quantum mechanics (QM) and what it really means for things like the famous double-slit experiment.  But, like reader Darrell, who sent it to me, I think you need to listen. She might convince you that quantum mechanics isn’t really indeterministic!

Hossenfelder is intrigued by the notion of libertarian free will (which she rejects) and maintains that a belief in this sort of dualism was held by many physicists working on QM. As you probably know, interpretations of quantum mechanics have differed historically, with some having maintained that QM is truly indeterministic. (Hossenfelder defines “determinism” as the system in which “everything that happens is a result of what happens before”.) Most advocates of QM think that it is not deterministic, but inherently indeterministic. Einstein never believed that, rejecting that idea with his famous assertion that God doesn’t play dice with the universe.

As far as I knew, “Bell’s theorem” and subsequent tests of it completely rejected any determinism of quantum mechanics and verified it as inherently indeterministic. But, as Hossenfelder argues in this video, this is not so.  She argues that a sort of “superdeterminism” holds in quantum mechanics, so that, in the end, everything in the universe is deterministic according to the known laws of physics.

I’m not quite sure what “superdeterminism” means is on the level of particles, but it appears to be something like this: “What a quantum particle does depends on what measurement will take place.” And once the measurement system is specified, somehow a quantum particle is determined to behave in a certain way. That’s what I don’t get.

But my inability to understand it may be because the idea of superdeterminism is inherently mathematical (she gives a simply equation for “superdeterminism of quantum physics”). Like in QM itself, everyday interpretations of superdeterminism might not make sense. Any reader who understands the concept is invited to explain it below. (Briefly, if possible!)

At any rate, Hossenfelder agrees with Einstein: there is no dice-playing, and quantum mechanics is deterministic. But she still rejects libertarian free will (see here, here, and here).

But the part that especially interested me beyond superdeterminism is that many physicists rejected such deterministic interpretations of QM simply from their own emotional commitment to dualistic free will. For if determinism be true everywhere, say some physicists, then free will cannot be true. Indeed, Bell himself believed in libertarian, you-could-have-chosen-otherwise free will, while Einstein, a hardnosed determinist, didn’t. As I’ve reported before, physicist, atheist, and Nobbel Laureate Steve Weinberg also believed in libertarian free will. He sat next to me at the Moving Naturalism Forward meeting in Stockbridge, MA several years ago, and after I gave my spiel on the nonexistence of libertarian free will, Weinberg told me that he didn’t accept that his behaviors were determined by the laws of physics.

What I find fascinating is that physicists were conditioning their ideas and research directions on a philosophical belief that humans must have libertarian free will. Perhaps that impeded the ideas of “superdeterminism”.

I have no dog in the indeterminism vs. superdeterminism interpretation of QM; I don’t know enough.  That’s my fault, and it’s probably my fault that I don’t fully understand Hossenfelder’s explanation of superdeterminism in the video. She is a great communicator of science, and except for that puzzling bit, I greatly enjoyed her clear explanation.  (A transcript of her video is here.)

So I’m with Hossenfelder in our rejection of libertarian free will, which is the most common view of free will. I don’t give a hoot about compatibilism, which I see as a matter of semantics that is far less relevant than accepting the implications that pure naturalism—including any quantum indeterminism—has for society and for human behavior.

Weigh in below, but watch the video first. It’s excellent, especially in how it interweaves science with an a priori personal commitment to libertarian free will.

And if “superdeterminism” of QM is now widely accepted, let me know.

h/t: Darrell

A great Stephen Fry interview in the NYT (with free-will lagniappe)

May 6, 2021 • 12:45 pm

Is there anybody who doesn’t like Stephen Fry? He’s so genial, so learned, so witty, so open and honest, and so disarming that I can’t imagine not feeling affection for him. But he’s left Twitter from time to time because of nasty remarks, and I suspect that many religionists don’t like his atheism nor homophobes his homosexuality. But screw them; he’s great!

In this week’s New York Times Magazine, there’s a very good interview with Fry by David Marchese (click on screenshot). Every bit is worth reading, especially if you want to know what a polymath is like (Fry not only absorbs material like a sponge, but also has a compulsion to tell people what he learned).

There are tons of good and revealing things here: his view on the need for humor, his 15-year period of celibacy, an almost-unprintable story of Gore Vidal at the Savoy Hotel in London, and his view on free will. I’ll give just three quotes, one of which is actually pro-woke. Marchese did a great job on this interview; his questions are in bold and Fry’s answers in plain type.

Do you ever wonder where your old friend Christopher Hitchens would fit into things now? 

I do. I loved him. He was adorable company, but I was also quite scared of him. He was a much tougher figure than I. He didn’t mind being disliked. He didn’t mind being howled down even. He seemed to enjoy it. I can quite imagine Hitchens being on the same platform with a Ben Shapiro perhaps. But I can’t imagine him having come out on the side of Trump. Hitchens just had a style that suited America despite his Britishness. It was the swagger. I miss that the culture doesn’t have enough of these sorts of people. Toward the last year of his life, I would visit another one of them, Gore Vidal, in Los Angeles, where he had his house; it was so overgrown in the garden that it was dark inside. He would retell stories of his great rows with Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag and William Buckley. Their arguments could be mordant and full of venom, but they weren’t as unhappy as so many debates now. There was a kind of joy and pleasure in the fight. [Be sure to read Fry’s Gore Vidal story!]

Ben Shapiro? I would like to think that Hitchens deserves a worthier opponent. And so does Marchese:

You mentioned Ben Shapiro.I’m not sure that people would agree that he’s quite the right comparison for Christopher Hitchens.

I mean, yes, I find Ben Shapiro abrasive. This anti-woke nonsense that he — a lot of it is disingenuous at best and malevolently blind at worst.There are people who have been denied any say in the way the world goes or even allowed a voice in expressing their experience, their stories, their lives, and it’s great that this is slowly being put right. It’s a shame that people of my background so often take it in a moaning way, as if it’s an assault on our gender and race.

He has a point, but I don’t think Fry fully realizes the excesses of wokeness. What would he say about Kimono Wednesdays being picketed at Boston’s Museum of Fine Art, for instance? Or the demonization of the n-word to the point that you’re in trouble if you say a Chinese word that sounds like it? Or the accusation that yoga and lattes are aspects of white supremacy?

But let’s move on to free will.

You said earlier you’ve been reading philosophy. Is there a particular idea that you’re tickled by lately? 

I suppose the real biggie is free will. I find it interesting that no one really talks about it: I would say that 98 percent of all philosophers would agree with me that essentially free will is a myth. It doesn’t exist. That ought to be shocking news on the front of every newspaper. I’m not saying we don’t look both ways before we cross the road; we decide not to leave it to luck as to whether a car is going to hit us. Nor am I saying that we don’t have responsibility for our actions: We have agency over the body in which our minds and consciousness dwell. But we can’t choose our brains, we can’t choose our genes, we can’t choose our parents. There’s so much. I mean, look at the acts of a sociopath, which are performed with absolute will in the sense that he means to do what he’s doing, but he’s doing it because he has desires and impulses which he didn’t choose to have. Nobody elects to be a sociopath. The difference between us and them is one of degree. That certainly interests me. But, generally speaking, I suppose ethics is the most interesting. You do wonder if there are enoughpeople in the world thinking about the consequences of A.I. and technology.

Well, yes, lots of us talk about free will. But Fry, it seems, is misinformed, for he doesn’t seem to grasp the Dennettian view (common on this site) that we already have plenty of free will—the only kind worth wanting. Actually, Fry is of course is talking about determinism and contracausal free will here, and I suppose his emphasis on its being in the newspapers reflect the failure of the general public to fully grasp determinism, even though many commenters think that few people accept contracausal free will.

But don’t kvetch at me—Fry said it! Go tell him on Twitter that we really do have free will!

And read the rest of the interview; it’s a pure joy.

I met Fry only once: at the Hay Festival on the border of Wales and England, where I struck up a brief acquaintanceship with Tom Stoppard. I joined Stoppard at the table where he was having a smoke, and couldn’t resist the temptation to bum a smoke from the great playwright. Fry was sitting there, too, but didn’t know me, so I just basked in the Big Man’s greatness. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to such a table full of talent!

Why do we need free-will compatibilism?

April 30, 2021 • 10:45 am

The laws of physics dictate that, from time to time, random thoughts about the free-will debate cross my mind. The latest one, which popped into my brain for no reason this morning, was the question, “Why are we even bothering with compatibilism?”

As you know, “compatibilism” is the philosophical view that even though we cannot control our thoughts and actions beyond what the laws of physics dictate, and therefore have no “free will” in the traditional sense, we have free will in a nontraditional sense.  Those “compatibilistic” varieties of free will vary among different philosophers; Dan Dennett has expounded several versions, and other philosophers still more versions. (This all makes me wonder what we’re supposed to tell people what really constitutes our [compatibilist] “free will.”)

Opposed to compatibilism are the two forms of incompatibilism that see free will as incompatible with physical law:

a.) Contracausal free will. This is the traditional “you could have done/chosen otherwise” free will in which we are agents whose wills can effect, at a given time, two or more different behaviors or choices. It is the kind of free will that most people think we really have, and is certainly the basis of Abrahamic religions whose gods either save you or doom you based on whether you make the “right” choice about God or a savior.

b.) Free will skepticism (sometimes called “hard determinism”). As you must know, this is the view to which I adhere. Though it’s often called “determinism”, with the implication that the laws of physics have already determined the entire future of the universe, including what you will do, that’s not my view. There is, if quantum mechanics be right, a fundamental form of indeterminism that is unpredictable, like when a given atom in a radioactive compound will decay. It’s unclear to what extent this fundamental unpredictability affects our actions or their predictability, but I’m sure it’s played some role in evolution (via mutation) or in the Big Bang (as Sean Carroll tells me). Thus I prefer to use the term “naturalism” rather than “determinism.” But, at any rate, fundamental quantum unpredictability cannot give us free will, for it has nothing to do with either “will” or “freedom”.

And this question struck me, as my neurons chugged through their program this morning:

Why do we even bother ruminating about compatibilism, much less write long books about it?

To me the really important issues are a) vs. b) above, which in principle can be attacked with science, while compatibilism is more or less a semantic issue. If naturalism be true, then we should trumpet it from the rooftops, as it flies in the face of what most people think and (as I note below), does have real and important implications for society.

But why bother so much with compatibilism? The only reason I can think of—and it’s a reason often voiced by philosophers—is that people need to have a definition of free will that comports with their “feeling” that they have contracausal free will, even if the definition itself isn’t contracausal.

But why this need? Even I feel like I have contracausal free will, but I realize that at best it’s an illusion and, at any rate, I have no use for a philosopher-confected definition of some compatibilistic free will. I do just fine, thank you.

But why, according to philosophers, do people need this assurance? It always comes down to the same thing: if people think that their actions and behaviors are determined by the laws of physics, then society will fall apart. People will either become nihilists, refusing to get out of bed because their whole day is determined anyway, fatalists or pessimists, or criminals who think that determinism frees them from responsibility for their acts (it doesn’t, for social mores dictate that we adhere to a form of “agent responsibility” that justifies punishment (or “quarantine”) and praise). Dennett himself has repeatedly said this:

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” (naturalism.org)

That’s not true at all; you don’t need “moral responsibility” that, says Dennett is only provided by compatibilist free will, to have this kind of “responsibility”.

And then there’s the supposedly dire social consequences that flow from naturalism/determinism

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).

As I’ve argued, I don’t believe that a society inculcated in naturalism, and one that rejects contracausal free will, will be profoundly dysfunctional. After all, if nothing else we still retain the feeling we have free will. That alone would get us out of bed every day.

So if you can consider people responsible in some sense for their actions, as you can under naturalism, and there is no social downside to accepting naturalism, why do we need sweating philosophers to produce version after version of compatibilist free will? If you think we do, riddle me this: How would society be palpably worse if we didn’t have philosophers confecting versions of compatibilism?

Finally, I won’t dwell at length on the upside of naturalism, as I’ve mentioned it before. There is the deep-sixing of retributive punishment, a drive to reform the penal system (yes, people say that compatibilism and humanism dictate the same thing, but it’s the free-will skeptics who take it the most seriously), the elimination of the “Just World” theory in which people get what they deserve, and the elimination of the guilt that comes from thinking that you made wrong choices in the past. Naturalism breeds empathy.

In the end, I don’t think that we have a philosophical lacuna that needs to be filled with a variety of compatibilist versions of free will (which, ironically, are incompatible among themselves). To me, at least, there are better things for philosophers to worry about.

A Guardian “long read” on free will

April 27, 2021 • 9:15 am

Several readers sent me a link to a new Guardian piece on free will by journalist Oliver Burkeman (some added that I’m quoted a couple of times, which is true). It’s a “long read” for those with a short attention span, but I have to say that it’s a very good piece, covering all the bases: the definitions, the consequences of contracausal free will, the “solution” of compatibilism, the implications for moral responsibility and for judicial punishment; yes, it’s all there.  And although Burkeman’s personal take, given at the end, is a bit puzzling, it’s a very good and fair introduction to the controversies about free will.

Click on the screenshot to read:


As I said, I have mostly praise for Burkeman’s piece, as he’s clearly done his homework and manages to condense a messy controversy into a readable piece.  So take my few quibbles in light of this general approbation.

First, though, I must note Burkeman’s opening, which, surprisingly, shows the hate mail philosophers have received for promulgating determinism. (Burkeman notes, correctly, that even compatilists who broach a new kind of free will are still determinists.) Although I was once verbally attacked by a jazz musician who said I’d taken away from him the idea that he had complete freedom to extemporize his solos, I’ve never received the kind of mail that Galen Strawson has:

. . . . the philosopher Galen Strawson paused, then asked me: “Have you spoken to anyone else yet who’s received weird email?” He navigated to a file on his computer and began reading from the alarming messages he and several other scholars had received over the past few years. Some were plaintive, others abusive, but all were fiercely accusatory. “Last year you all played a part in destroying my life,” one person wrote. “I lost everything because of you – my son, my partner, my job, my home, my mental health. All because of you, you told me I had no control, how I was not responsible for anything I do, how my beautiful six-year-old son was not responsible for what he did … Goodbye, and good luck with the rest of your cancerous, evil, pathetic existence.” “Rot in your own shit Galen,” read another note, sent in early 2015. “Your wife, your kids your friends, you have smeared all there [sic] achievements you utter fucking prick,” wrote the same person, who subsequently warned: “I’m going to fuck you up.” And then, days later, under the subject line “Hello”: “I’m coming for you.” “This was one where we had to involve the police,” Strawson said. Thereafter, the violent threats ceased.

Good lord! Such is the resistance that people have to hearing that they don’t have “contracausal” (you-could-have-chosen-otherwise) free will. Regardless of what compatibilists say, belief in contracausal free will is the majority view in many places (see below).

There are only a few places where Burkeman says things I disagree with. One is how he treats the issue of “responsibility”. My own view, as someone Burkeman calls “one of the most strident of the free will skeptics,” is that while we’re not morally responsible for our misdeeds, which implies we could have chosen a different path, we are what Gregg Caruso calls “answerably responsible”. That is, as the agent of good or bad deeds, whatever actions society deems appropriate in response to our acts must devolve upon our own bodies. Therefore, if we break the law, we can receive punishment—punishment to keep us out of society where we might transgress again, sequestering us until we are deemed “cured” and unlikely to transgress again, and punishment to deter others. (Caruso, also a free-will skeptic, disagrees that deterrence should be an aim of punishment, since it uses a person as an instrument to affect the behavior of others.) Caruso holds a “quarantine” model of punishment, in which a transgressor is quarantined just as Typhoid Mary should be quarantined: to effect possible cures and protect society from infection. Burkeman describes Caruso’s model very well.

What is not justified under punishment (and most compatibilists, including Dan Dennett, agree) is retributive punishment: punishment meted out by assuming that you could have chosen to behave other than how you did. That assumption is simply wrong, and so is retributivism, which is largely the basis of how courts in the West view punishment.

As for praise or blame, or responsibility itself, Burkeman somehow thinks they would disappear even under a hard-core deterministic view of society:

Were free will to be shown to be nonexistent – and were we truly to absorb the fact – it would “precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution”, Harris has written. Arguably, we would be forced to conclude that it was unreasonable ever to praise or blame anyone for their actions, since they weren’t truly responsible for deciding to do them; or to feel guilt for one’s misdeeds, pride in one’s accomplishments, or gratitude for others’ kindness. And we might come to feel that it was morally unjustifiable to mete out retributive punishment to criminals, since they had no ultimate choice about their wrongdoing. Some worry that it might fatally corrode all human relations, since romantic love, friendship and neighbourly civility alike all depend on the assumption of choice: any loving or respectful gesture has to be voluntary for it to count.

But no, praise and blame are still warranted, for they are environmental influences that can affect someone’s behavior.  It is okay to praise someone for doing good and to censure them for doing bad, because this might change their brains in a way to make them liable to do less bad and more good in the future. (Granted, we have no free choice about whether to praise or blame someone.) The only thing that’s not warranted in Burkeman’s list is retributive punishment. Gratitude, pride, guilt, and so on are useful emotions, for even if we had no choice in what we did, these emotions drive society in positive directions, reinforcing good acts and discouraging bad ones.

Burkeman goes on, emphasizing the danger to society of promulgating determinism—a determinism that happens to be true. As the wife of the Bishop of Worcester supposedly said about Darwin’s view that we’re descended from apes,

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

This appears to be the view of not only Burkeman, it seems, but also of Dan Dennett. As Burkeman notes “Dennett, although he thinks we do have [compatibilist] free will, takes a similar position, arguing that it’s morally irresponsible to promote free-will denial.”

Morally irresponsible to promulgate denial of contracausal free will? Morally irresponsible to promulgate the truth? Or does he mean morally irresponsible to deny compatibilist notions of free will like Dennett’s? Either way, I reject the idea that we must hide the truth, or quash philosophical discussion, because it could hurt society.

Burkeman goes on about morality:

By far the most unsettling implication of the case against free will, for most who encounter it, is what it seems to say about morality: that nobody, ever, truly deserves reward or punishment for what they do, because what they do is the result of blind deterministic forces (plus maybe a little quantum randomness). “For the free will sceptic,” writes Gregg Caruso in his new book Just Deserts, a collection of dialogues with his fellow philosopher Daniel Dennett, “it is never fair to treat anyone as morally responsible.”

The operant word here is “deserves”—the idea of “desert” that’s the topic of a debate between Caruso and Dennett that I recently reviewed.  If you mean by “deserve” the fact that you’re deemed “answerably responsible,” and thus can undergo punishment for something bad you did, or can justifiably be praised, then yes, there is good justification for holding people answerably responsible for their good and bad deeds, and taking action accordingly.

There is much to argue with in the piece, not with Burkeman, but with some of the compatibilists he quotes. One of them is Eddy Nahmias:

“Harris, Pinker, Coyne – all these scientists, they all make the same two-step move,” said Eddy Nahmias, a compatibilist philosopher at Georgia State University in the US. “Their first move is always to say, ‘well, here’s what free will means’” – and it’s always something nobody could ever actually have, in the reality in which we live. “And then, sure enough, they deflate it. But once you have that sort of balloon in front of you, it’s very easy to deflate it, because any naturalistic account of the world will show that it’s false.”

Here Nahmias admits that determinism reigns, and implicitly that contracausal free will is nonexistent. But what I don’t think he grasps is that the naturalistic view of will, determinism, while accepted by him and his fellow compatibilists, is flatly rejected by a large majority of people—and in several countries (see the study of Sarkissian et al., though I note that when presented with concrete moral dilemmas, people tend to become more compatibilistic). Contracausal free will is the bedrock of Abrahamic religions, which of course have many adherents. Those who proclaim that everybody accepts pure naturalism and the deterministic behavior it entails—that denying that is “an easily deflatable balloon”—probably don’t get out often enough.

Likewise, though who say a society grounded on determinism will be a dreadful society full of criminals, rapists, and murderers are wrong, I think. This is for two reasons. First of all, know quite a few free-will skeptics, including Caruso, Alex Rosenberg, Sam Harris, myself, and others, and if free-will skepticism had a palpable effect on someone’s behavior, I can’t see it. It’s an unfounded fear.

The other reason is that there’s an upside in being a determinist. We still have our illusions of free will, so we can act as if our choices are contracausal even if, intellectually, we know they’re not. Hard determinists like myself are not fatalists who go around moaning, “What’s the use to tell the waiter what I want? It’s all determined, anyway.”

And there’s the improvement in the penal system that comes with accepting deteriminism: there’s a lot to be said for Caruso’s “quarantine” model, which is more or less in effect in places like Norway, though I still adhere to the value of deterrence. And, as Burkeman says eloquently, a rejection of free will paradoxially makes us “free” in the sense that we can be persuaded to give up unproductive retributive attitudes and overly judgmental behavior:

In any case, were free will really to be shown to be nonexistent, the implications might not be entirely negative. It’s true that there’s something repellent about an idea that seems to require us to treat a cold-blooded murderer as not responsible for his actions, while at the same time characterising the love of a parent for a child as nothing more than what Smilansky calls “the unfolding of the given” – mere blind causation, devoid of any human spark. But there’s something liberating about it, too. It’s a reason to be gentler with yourself, and with others. For those of us prone to being hard on ourselves, it’s therapeutic to keep in the back of your mind the thought that you might be doing precisely as well as you were always going to be doing – that in the profoundest sense, you couldn’t have done any more. And for those of us prone to raging at others for their minor misdeeds, it’s calming to consider how easily their faults might have been yours. (Sure enough, some research has linked disbelief in free will to increased kindness.)

. . . . Yet even if only entertained as a hypothetical possibility, free will scepticism is an antidote to that bleak individualist philosophy which holds that a person’s accomplishments truly belong to them alone – and that you’ve therefore only yourself to blame if you fail. It’s a reminder that accidents of birth might affect the trajectories of our lives far more comprehensively than we realise, dictating not only the socioeconomic position into which we’re born, but also our personalities and experiences as a whole: our talents and our weaknesses, our capacity for joy, and our ability to overcome tendencies toward violence, laziness or despair, and the paths we end up travelling. There is a deep sense of human fellowship in this picture of reality – in the idea that, in our utter exposure to forces beyond our control, we might all be in the same boat, clinging on for our lives, adrift on the storm-tossed ocean of luck.

I agree with this. And there’s one more benefit: if you are a free-will skeptic, you won’t always be blaming yourself for choices you made in the past on the grounds that you made the “wrong choice.” You didn’t have an alternative! This should mitigate a lot of people’s guilt and recrimination, and you can always learn from your past mistakes, which might alter your behavior in a permanent way. (This is an environmental influence on your neural program: seeing what worked and what didn’t.)

In light of Burkeman’s paean to free-will skepticism, then, it’s very odd that he says the following at the end:

Those early-morning moments aside, I personally can’t claim to find the case against free will ultimately persuasive; it’s just at odds with too much else that seems obviously true about life.

The deterministic case against contracausal free will is completely persuasive, and I think Burkeman agrees with that. So exactly what “case against free will” is he talking about? Is he adhering to compatibilism here? He doesn’t tell us. What, exactly, is at odds with what seems “obviously true about life”? But so much that “seems obviously true” is wrong as well, like the view that there’s an “agent”, a little person, sitting in our head that directs our actions. I would have appreciated a bit more about what, after doing a lot of research on the free-will controversy, Burkeman has really come to believe.

h/t: Pyers, David

Short take on a book: Dennett vs. Caruso in “Just Deserts”

April 19, 2021 • 10:15 am

This is not a book for everyone, for it’s rather hard-core philosophy (albeit written in an accessible way), and is about one question: do we have free will or not? Since a lot of us have engaged in free-will debates here over the years, it’s appropriate for many of us. I’m really glad I read it.

And so to the Rumble in the Ivory Tower:

In one corner is Gregg Caruso, described on his page as “Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Corning, Visiting Fellow at the New College of the Humanities (NCH London), and Honorary Professor of Philosophy at Macquarie University. He is also Co-Director of the Justice Without Retribution Network housed at the University of Aberdeen School of Law.”

In the other corner is Dan Dennett, whom most of us know; he’s “the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University.”

Both men have published extensively on free will. Caruso is a self-described “free will skeptic”; he thinks that because none of us can control our actions in a way that would change what we do at any given moment, we are not morally responsible for our acts, though we are “answerably responsible” or “causally responsible”. That is, if we do something good or bad, then we must be held accountable by society for our act in some way. Caruso adheres to a “pubic health” model of punishment: if you transgress, you are quarantined for possible cure and to keep you from hurting other people. You are not quarantined to deter others, as we don’t do that with carriers of infectious diseases. Ergo Gregg doesn’t see deterrence as a valid reason for “punishment” (or “quarantine”).  Caruso also sees no concept of “free will” that makes any sense, much less the historical one of “dualistic” free will—the one in which at any time we could have willed our choices and behaviors to be other than what we chose.

Dennett, like Caruso, is a determinist, agreeing that at any moment we have no free choice about what we do. However, he believes in a form of free will different from the traditional one; a form that, he argues, is the only kind of free will worth wanting. He thus sees his form of free will as compatible with determinism, so he’s a “compatibilist.”

What is Dennett’s form of free will? For him “freedom” consists of what we do when we’re members of the “Moral Agents Club”: that group of citizens who have been properly brought up and are responsive to reason and guidance by other responsible people. So for Dan, though free will isn’t “free” in the traditional sense, he sees it as “the concept of responsible, reliable self-control.”  In other words, people do things—make “choices”, if you will—that conform to the strictures of society. And so Dan says members of the Club have “moral responsibility.”

The screenshot below links to the Amazon order site.

I’ll briefly describe the Battle of the Heavyweights. You already know whose side I’m on! But let me say first that I greatly enjoyed the book, as it shows two top-notch philosophers arguing about a topic dear to my heart, and although the back and forth is civil (it’s a conversation, with each person writing between a paragraph and a few pages before the other person responds), it’s also hard-nosed, with each man querying and parrying the other, trying to find holes in their defense. 

As the title says, the argument is about “Just Deserts”, which to Dan means that people deserve to be praised or blamed for their actions because those actions are taken in a state of moral responsibility. Gregg sees no real reason for people to deserve their praise or blame, and so praise and blame must be allotted according to whether these actions help society or not (with some limitations). Blame should be limited, though, as it’s not really deserved; and “quarantine” rather than moral shaming is the best way to proceed.

In general, both Caruso and Dennett are consequentialists: they think the system of reward and (especially) punishment are largely justified by the consequences these systems have on society. To Dan, punishment is warranted by its effect on sequestering bad people and preventing them from hurting others, by its ability to help effect reformation of the criminal (if that’s possible), and to deter others from committing similar acts. Caruso, however, differs from both Dan and me in arguing that deterrence should not be a goal of punishment, because it uses people as means to control other people’s behavior, which he sees as fundamentally immoral. For example, one might say that in Dan (and my) society, even if someone is innocent of a bad deed that’s been committed, you might want to frame them to deter others from doing that deed. But that doesn’t seem right, does it? My answer would be that the consequences of punishing the innocent would be detrimental in general. But perhaps they need not be! The issue of deterrence is one I’m still thinking over.

So what is the difference between Dan’s views and Gregg’s? Gregg in fact spends almost all his time trying to answer that question, and he presses Dan on whether Dennett’s views are retributivist (which both men abhor: punishing someone simply to get back at them for bad deeds). But Dan sometimes comes close to saying that with his view of “moral responsibility”. At one point, frustrated by Dan’s apparent rapid changes of view during the conversation, Gregg compares Dan to a slippery eel. (There are moments of palpable frustration like this, though both guys behave civilly, like members of Dan’s Moral Agents Club.)

In the end, I would say Gregg won, simply because Dan doesn’t seem to make a good case for people deserving the punishment or praise they get just because they’re member of the “Moral Agents Club”. As Gregg (and I) have pointed out before, you have no choice about whether you’re a member of the Moral Agents Club: circumstances beyond your control have determined whether you are responsive to reasons and adhere to the social contract that makes you “morally responsible.” You might not have had the right upbringing, for instance.  Both Dan and Gregg agree, though, that strenuous prison reform is needed, and largely along similar lines. So to me, the debate either comes down to a difference in semantics or to an opacity of views on Dennett’s part that makes parsing his ideas very difficult.

But it’s great to see these two intellectual heavyweights slug it out. There are no knockouts, but I judge Caruso the winner on points.  And I have to do some thinking about deterrence. Right now I still think that deterrence is a valid aim of punishment.

Regardless of whether you’re a compatibilist or a free-will skeptic (or somewhere in the middle), this book will stimulate your thinking. Do read it if you’re interested in the free-will debate that’s occupied so much of our time. And I really do wish that we could have more debates like this: real back-and-forth conversations in more or less real time. That’s one reason I’m debating Adam Gopnik on whether science or its methods are the only way of gaining knowledge.

Oh, and after you read the book, you can vote on who you think made the best arguments; the voting site is here. Do not vote unless you’ve read the book!