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!

Sam Harris: his last thoughts on free will

March 14, 2021 • 12:15 pm

Here we have Sam being quite eloquent on the subject of free will, and if you didn’t read his book with that title, this is a good substitute. But if you don’t subscribe to his “Making Sense” podcast (and I don’t, mainly because I can’t listen to many podcasts), you’ll hear only the first 43 minutes. (I have no idea how long the entire program is.)

In the part I listened to (link below), Sam offers some “final thoughts” on free will. I suppose this means that he, like me, is pretty much done discussing the subject, as we haven’t changed our ideas much after having listened to a lot of counterargument. I agreed with what Sam said in Free Will, and I still agree with it; and he says in this podcast pretty much what he said in his book.

After defining what he means by free will, which is contracausal (non-material) free will (the common notion of free will), Sam then asserts that he will show that free will is not even an illusion, and will then show how jettisoning that idea, well, frees us from a lot of our bad behaviors. (If you’re asking, “Why is he trying to persuade me to give up the idea of free will if there is no free will; for doesn’t that mean we can’t be persuaded?”, then he answers that in this segment, too.)

Sam further explains, as he does in his book, why the form of free will to which most people adhere—libertarian or contracausal free will, what I call “you-could-have-done-otherwise” free will—is bogus, since our actions and thoughts are purely the result of deterministic processes, with perhaps a soupçon or quantum randomness thrown in.  He adds,  “Neither determinism nor randomness, nor any combination of the two, justifies the feeling that most people have that goes by the name of ‘free will’. . . People don’t want to believe that they are in any sense like a wave breaking on the shore, but this is how causes propagate, or seem to propagate.”

He notes that the idea of free will is inseparable from our feeling of “being a self”, which means that we feel we’re the source of our intentions and actions, all initiated by our conscious minds.

Here’s the issue: “we don’t feel that we are free to beat our hearts or causing our cells to divide. . but we do feel that we are the source of our thoughts and voluntary actions, and at any moment we feel we are free to think or do something else.” But how can that happen if our thoughts have material origins and material causes?

Then he moves to what I see as the most interesting part of the discussion: why there is no illusion of free will because there is really no experience of free will. His argument for this appears to come from his experience of Buddhism: the view of mindfulness—paying attention to your thoughts and how they arise.

As Sam says,  “Thoughts appear in consciousness and we don’t know what we’re going to think next if we pay attention to them. Our thoughts determine our goals, what we do or say. We feel that we are the author of our thoughts, but there is no thinker to be found in the mind, just thoughts themselves. If we pay attention, we see that thoughts arise, we see that they simply appear out of nowhere, and we can’t choose what we are going to think next. And if we can’t control our next thoughts, where is our freedom of will?” (These quotes may be somewhat off, as I was typing quickly.)

So, he says, if we pay attention to what we’re thinking—and of course what we’re thinking is translated into our actions, views, and entire life—we will see that our thoughts seem to arise at random, coming out of nowhere, and we can’t control what we’re thinking or what our next thought will be. He gives us a demonstration of this by asking us to pick and name a movie. This exercise goes on at length, and it’s pretty convincing.

Sam then dispels some of the many misconceptions about determinism, e.g., how can you convince people that they don’t have free will if our views and ideas are all determined by physics? How can anybody change their minds? (I’ve discussed the answers at length.)

Although lots of people get upset when you tell them they cannot make “free decisions” or think “free” thoughts (I have personal experience of this pushback), Sam asserts that the realization that we don’t have contracausal free will actually rids us of arrogance and hatred, provides a profound basis for compassion as well as a basis for real forgiveness, and is “the only view of human nature that cuts through the logic of retribution: the notion of punishment as justified vengeance.” I agree with this, too.

At least in this segment of the podcast, Sam doesn’t discuss compatibilism (the view that we can still maintain a form of free will despite the fact that we are victims of determinism and randomness), nor does he do more than touch on the notion of moral responsibility. (My own view, which I’ve expressed often, is that rejecting contracausal free will rids us of the notion of moral responsibility, but not of responsibility. Ergo we still need punishment and reward, but not punishment of the retributive sort.)

If you’re new here, and haven’t followed my own arguments on free will, they align almost completely with Sam’s, so you can get up to speed by listening to this bit.  As always, he’s quite eloquent and (at least to me) persuasive—except when it comes to the view that morality is objective!

Click below to go to the first 43 minutes of the podcast:

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

January 11, 2021 • 9:30 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 10, 2021 • 2:00 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

h/t: David


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

December 20, 2020 • 11:00 am

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

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

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

Click to read:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

h/t: Jiten

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

November 15, 2020 • 11:30 am

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

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

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

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

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

h/t: Paul

The Discovery Institute goddies go after determinism again

October 24, 2020 • 11:15 am

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

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

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

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


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

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

I can rebut both of these claims very briefly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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