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” (

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.