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

Under pressure from the benighted, Rhodes College refuses to disinvite Peter Singer but issues a “free speech but. . . ” statement

December 1, 2021 • 9:15 am

There are two main parties to this story (besides Rhodes College itself): Peter Singer, the famous ethical philosopher at Princeton, and Rebecca Tuvel, associate professor and Chair of Philosophy at Rhodes College. We’ve encountered them both before as parties to attempted cancellations.

Backstory: Singer got into big trouble when he proposed that under extreme circumstances it might be not only permissible but morally justifiable to euthanize newborns. Here’s what I wrote in July of 2017:

The question of whether one should be able to euthanize newborns who have horrible conditions or deformities, or are doomed to a life that cannot by any reasonable standards afford happiness, has sparked heated debate.  Philosopher Peter Singer has argued that euthanasia is the merciful action in such cases, and I agree with him. If you are allowed to abort a fetus that has a severe genetic defect, microcephaly, spina bifida, or so on, then why aren’t you able to euthanize that same fetus just after it’s born?  I see no substantive difference that would make the former act moral and the latter immoral. After all, newborn babies aren’t aware of death, aren’t nearly as sentient as an older child or adult, and have no rational faculties to make judgments (and if there’s severe mental disability, would never develop such faculties). It makes little sense to keep alive a suffering child who is doomed to die or suffer life in a vegetative or horribly painful state. After all, doctors and parents face no legal penalty for simply withdrawing care from such newborns, like turning off a respirator, but Singer suggests that we should be allowed, with the parents’ and doctors’ consent, to painlessly end their life with an injection. I agree.

Note that both Singer and I restrict this action to newborns who are doomed to die soon, probably painfully, or will live without any prospect of a meaningful or sentient existence. It was not meant to apply to disabled people who could live reasonably or happily (e.g. children with Down Syndrome or cerebral palsy), but only for extreme cases. But it didn’t matter. Disabled people demonized Singer, saying that his views cancelled or dehumanized all disabled people, and would put us on a slippery slope to euthanizing any unwanted child. This was not the case we were making, and of course we’d both put strictures in place: parents as well as several doctors would have to consent, and so on.

I wrote this in 2020, when Singer had been deplatformed in New Zealand, Germany, and Canada for his “inhumane” stand on euthanizing doomed infants:

It seems to me that an enlightened philosophy would allow people to be able to end their lives in a humane way if they’ve undergone proper medical and psychiatric vetting. Some form of this “assisted suicide” is already legal in Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Colombia, Switzerland, Victoria in Australia, and and in some states of the U.S. (California, Colorado, Washington state, Oregon, and—by court order—in Montana).

I further believe—and I’ve gotten into trouble for this—that we should also allow newborns afflicted with incurable conditions—conditions from which they will suffer and die young—to be euthanized humanely. The conditions under which I think this is not only allowable, but ethical, were first laid out in this post of mine.  I was aware at the time that philosopher Peter Singer had agreed with and defended this view, but I can’t remember whether I arrived at it independently or read it in some of his writings. No matter, for it’s a view that people need to consider, and of course Singer has defended this view far more extensively and ably than I.

For his views, Singer has undergone considerable pushback, and has been not only deplatformed, but subject to calls for his resignation from Princeton (he splits his time between Princeton and the University of Melbourne). I, too, was subject to a surprising amount of publicity, nearly all negative, for my one website post about this. On her own website Heather’s Homilies, Heather Hastie defended my views, summarizing and answering some of the pushback I got (thanks, Heather!),  I also wrote about the surprising opposition to my views here and here.

See also Russell Blackford’s defense of Singer here.  I have to say that this topic elicited a fair number of very nasty emails and comments, with people accusing me of wanting to kill babies of all kinds. Since a newborn cannot make a decision for itself, someone has to step in—especially in the case of impending death—and I think Singer, a deeply humane and moral man—made the right call.

Now for Rebecca Tuvel. She’s a woman of extraordinary courage, which she demonstrated in the Hypatia transracialism controversy, in which she published a paper in that journal questioning whether there was a meaningful difference in seeing yourself as a member of another sex or seeing yourself as a member of a different race (Caitlan Jenner exemplifies the former; Rachel Dolezal the latter). For reasons that defy me, this was regarded as a taboo question (I see it as very meaningful), and Tuvel was attacked. There were calls for her to be fired, for the journal to retract the article, and Hypatia even apologized. But Tuvel didn’t back down, and the article still stands (you might want to read Tuvel’s piece, “In defense of transracialism“).

These two academics intersected in September when a group of philosophers, including Tuvel, invited Singer to be part of a panel at Rhodes College. The topic was “Pandemic Ethics”. Note that this had nothing to do with euthanizing infants. (That reminds me of Dorian Abbot’s cancellation at MIT not because he was talking about a verboten area, but because he had criticized DEI initiatives on his own, and privately, before his scheduled talk.)

But that didn’t stop the faculty and students at Rhodes College from calling for Singer’s disinvitation, and indeed, Rhodes College itself issued a “free speech but. . . ” statement defending Singer’s right to speak but deploring much of what he said previously.

The fracas is described in two pieces, which you can see in the screenshots below.

From The Daily Nous, a philosophy site:

From Inside Higher Ed:

Three incidents are of special interest.

The faculty objects and urges Singer to be disinvited (from Inside Higher Ed):

Faculty in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology and the Africana Studies Program sent out an email to the college community that said, in part:

We, the faculty in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology and the Africana Studies Program, wish to express our deepest dismay at the invitation of Professor Peter Singer to our campus. We believe that proceeding with this event as currently structured could further alienate students, faculty, and staff, particularly after the unresolved racist “incident” [story here] against African Americans that occurred in early September. 

Professor Singer’s longstanding advancement of philosophical arguments that presume the inferiority of many disabled lives is dehumanizing and dangerous. The creation of a hierarchy of lives as a justification for the allocation or denial of limited resources (whether “pleasure,” medical care, insurance, etc.) is a logic that has a long and violent history. It is a logic that underlies eugenicist arguments marking various marginalized populations as unfit to be a part of the advancement of the human race…

Disability scholars have critiqued Singer’s body of work across a range of themes, and we encourage anyone who reads Singer to also read this rich scholarship. Salient among these themes for the purposes of a panel on pandemic ethics is the denial of some disabled people’s full humanity and the premise that certain disabled people have lives that are less worth living than “normal” people (with whom they might be competing for medical resources). Given that COVID is one of the most profound disability rights issues of our lifetimes, it would seem that any panel on pandemic ethics would include disability scholars (especially given their significant challenges to Singer’s credibility in this area). 

Rather than suggesting an alternative structure to the event such as the inclusion of one of the aforementioned disability scholars, though, the faculty instead says:

[W]e affirm our dedication to disability justice and urge the college to withdraw the invitation. We stand next to our students who are working hard to fight for their ideals of equality, fairness, and diversity, not as lip service, but as the basis of reflection and action. We cherish and advocate for freedom of speech and expression as long as it does not deny others their humanity. 

Note the erroneous characterization of Singer’s views as “denying some disabled people’s full humanity.”  That is simply hyperbole claiming that newborns doomed to suffer and die soon are “denied their humanity.” No, they are denied needless suffering. If your baby was born without a brain and would die within days, and was in great distress, would you be showing “full humanity” to let it suffer until it passes away?

These people either haven’t read Singer’s work or are signaling their virtue with or without understanding what Singer has to say.  I have had doctors and nurses write me privately by email saying that they’ve encountered situations like the one Singer envisions and absolutely agree that putting the infants out of their suffering is the right thing to do. I have had no medical professionals write me and say that they disagree with me. The letters I get are from people who are disabled but have meaningful lives, and accuse me, wrongly, of denying their humanity, or saying that I would have killed them had I had the say.

Some history faculty at Rhodes also sent out an email objecting to the event:

As historians, we the undersigned condemn Prof. Peter Singers’ abhorrent views that some humans have less value than others. We object to inviting him to Rhodes College to speak as part of a “Pandemics Ethics” panel. Positioning him as an expert on ethics only legitimizes his reprehensible beliefs that deny the very humanity of people with disabilities. Hypothetical philosophies on morality cause real violence. We historians are all too familiar with ideas that justify labeling marginalized, vulnerable, and minority populations as “life unworthy of life,” and the murderous consequences for those deemed “unfit” to live. Adhering to the College’s own IDEAS Framework that seeks to foster “a sense of belonging” and embrace “the full range of psychological, physical, and social difference,” we historians assert that Prof. Peter Singers’ blatant inhumanity has no place in serious academic exchange here at Rhodes.  

“Positioning him as an expert on ethics?” Give me a break—he’s the world’s expert on practical ethics. Note as well that they play the race card, mentioning “marginalized, vulnerable, and minority populations.” That is what’s really reprehensible, as race plays no role in Singer’s views on this issue.

The university gives hedged support for Singer.  Rhodes College issued this statement (my bolding):

Yesterday a member of our faculty informed us of his profound disturbance caused by the invitation of Princeton University Prof. Peter Singer to speak on a Rhodes “Pandemic Ethics” virtual panel next week.

We are writing to acknowledge that our institution’s spirit of supporting expressive speech does not prohibit Professor Singer’s participation in this virtual panel. At the same time, our community’s values compel us to denounce some of the views he has expressed repeatedly over years through various addresses, writings, and media interviews.

Fundamentally, Rhodes College is deeply committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. These values extend to every member of our community, including individuals with disabilities. While we view the invitation to Peter Singer in light of our commitment to free and open dialogue at a liberal arts college, his views on disability are unequivocally antithetical to our institutional values of diversity, equity and inclusion. We reject and condemn in the most forceful manner possible any views that call into question the value and worth of all human life. It is within this context that we make the following affirmations:

    • We affirm our strong belief in an inclusive, diverse, equitable, and accessible community – as outlined in the College’s IDEAS framework – one in which the worth and dignity of all persons is championed and supported.
    • We affirm particular support for disabled members of our community who, justifiably, have expressed anger, outrage, and offense at some of Prof. Singer’s writings. Not only does Rhodes not tolerate discrimination on the basis of disability, the College also strongly believes that disabled people enrich our community by their presence on our campus. We affirm this while recognizing that we still have much work to do as an institution to support individuals with disabilities.

As an academic institution, we re-affirm our Statement on Diversity, which expresses our commitment to providing an “open learning environment,” where “freedom of thought, a healthy exchange of ideas, and an appreciation of diverse perspectives” are fundamental. It is this commitment to freedom of expression that allows academic departments to invite a variety of speakers to campus to enrich the educational experience of our students. Nevertheless, they should do so with responsibility, as well as with careful attention to our values as a diverse, equitable, and inclusive institution.

Note how weaselly this statement is. they should have just issued the first sentence in the second paragraph: “We are writing to acknowledge that our institution’s spirit of supporting expressive speech does not prohibit Professor Singer’s participation in this virtual panel.”  Period.  To affirm “institutional values” that many people doubtlessly disagree with is a view that chills speech.  First, they don’t understand what Singer has said, or willfully misconstrue it to get virtue points with disabled students. Second, people like me (and perhaps Tuvel) disagree with the “institutional values” that call for a doomed infant to suffer needlessly. But with that official position, which student or untenured faculty member would dare stand up to the Rhodes administration? If Rhodes adhered to Chicago’s Kalven Principles, it would not be making official statements on contestable and debatable moral issues.

Finally, although Rhodes pretends to favor free speech, they are giving succor to those people who don’t want free speech—who don’t want this fraught but ethically important subject to even be discussed.

The Rhodes Philosophy Department holds their ground. After that single faculty member (Charles Hughes, Director of the Lynne and Henry Turley Memphis Center at Rhodes College) objected to Singer’s appearance, the philosphers who organized the event this email to the College:

We write in response to one of our colleagues, who has publicly expressed concern about the Philosophy department’s invitation to Peter Singer—and he has every right to do so. The objection raised is apparently not to the topic, but to the speaker. We are of course aware that Professor Singer has advanced philosophical arguments on bioethical issues that many find not only disturbing but deeply offensive, a reaction by no means confined to members of the disabled community. Indeed, the organizers also take issue with some of Dr. Singer’s views.

Serious intellectual exchange about matters of significance cannot avoid sometimes causing anger, offense, and pain and no one should be cavalier about that fact. It is not clear to us, however, what follows from our colleague’s understandable expression of disturbance at some of Professor Singer’s views. Do those views disqualify Singer from participating in the exchange of ideas that ought to occur at a liberal arts college? If that is the conclusion, we respectfully disagree, for its premise is that ideas that cause anger and dismay ought not, for that reason, be part of the exchange and that premise, we think, is incompatible with our mission to teach students how to engage in productive dialogue even, and indeed especially, with thinkers with whom they vehemently disagree. 

That is an excellent letter—civil but firm. Tuvel then offered to run a reading group on the issue:

I realize that now is not the time to get into the weeds of Singer’s utilitarian ethics. Should there be interest at some point down the line, I would be more than happy to organize a reading group and/or zoom event where myself and other members of the Philosophy department can clarify Singer’s views on these incredibly sensitive topics. At some point, I think our community would also benefit greatly from an event devoted to discussing these delicate matters. On pains of intellectual and moral failure, such an event would absolutely need to include experts in disability rights (such as Professor Charles Hughes), parents of children with disabilities, and relevant others…

The Daily Nous also has a letter from philosophy postdoc Eric Sampson clarifying Singer’s misunderstood views.

Here’s a video of the whole Singer event—a Zoom panel. In Turvel’s first question (3:03), Singer responds to the controversy, and does a great job.

Rhodes College needs to get with the program and stop truckling to the mob. Disinviting someone of the stature of Singer, who is talking about a subject unrelated to the other controversy, is a cowardly thing to do. The administrators of Rhodes are simply invertebrates.

What contemporary philosophers believe

November 2, 2021 • 11:15 am

In this article at the Daily Nous (click on screenshot below), a survey of a large group of philosophers revealed what they believe in a number of areas.  I put the data for the questions and answers below, but if the figures are too small, click on the chart, wait a tick, and then click it again to make it big. (Alternatively, just drag the chart onto your desktop.)

From the Daily Nous page:

Results from the 2020 PhilPapers survey, with responses from nearly 1,800 philosophers (mainly from North America, Europe, and Australasia), to questions on a variety of philosophical subjects and problems, have now been published.

In their commentary on the survey, David Bourget (Western University) and David Chalmers (NYU) explain the its value:

Surveys like this can play at least three roles within philosophy. First, today’s sociology is tomorrow’s history, and these results
may be of some use to future historians of philosophy. Second, philosophers often appeal to sociological claims about the distributions of views among philosophers, for example in justifying which views should be taken seriously, and it makes sense for these claims to be well-grounded. Third, if philosophy has any tendency to converge to the truth, then philosophers’ views might provide some guidance about the truth of philosophical views. It is not clear whether philosophy tends to converge to the truth, so we don’t make the third claim about guidance, but surveys can clearly play the first two roles in philosophical practice.

The survey asked 40 “main” questions and 60 “additional” questions.

Here are the results of the main questions:

JAC: “Inclusive” means those philosophers that checked multiple options of what they believed in, while “exclusive” includes data only from those who checked only one box. I’ll use the “inclusive data”, though the figures for that can add up to more than 100%.

Because I’m not a philosopher, I can’t comment on everything, or even know what everything means, so below the chart I’ll comment on just a few items I know about.


Eating meat:

48% of philosophers think it’s okay to eat meat, while about 45% think it’s wrong and prefer to be vegans or vegetarians. I don’t know what “other” is. Many predict that in the future, “omnivorism” will be seen as immoral.

The trolley problem.  Five people on one track, one on the side track. The train is headed towards the five. Do you throw the switch, putting the train on the track that will kill only one person?

Almost two-thirds say “switch”, killing one person instead of five. That seems to be the sensible (as well as utilitarian) solution. But 13.3% favor killing all five. And what is “other”?

The Fat Man trolley problem. Here there’s no switch to throw, but you’re asked whether you’ll throw a fat man off a bridge over the trolley, stopping the train but killing the fat guy. The net result is the same if you heave Mr. Big versus throwing the switch, but this requires that you do something more intimate, in effect killing someone with your own hands (of course throwing the switch does that more indirectly).


Free will.

Most philosophers are compatibilists, ergo defining “free will” differently from how most people (and nearly all religionists) see it. This figure has increased since the last survey. Poor misguided philosophers. . .

Why didn’t they ask about determinism? Well, they sort of did (see below).

Gender: They didn’t ask about sex (e.g. biological sex) but gender.

The typical use of “gender” is “how somebody identifies”, which to me means it’s either psychological or social, and “social” is what most philosophers think. I’m not sure about those 29% who think gender is biological when I think it’s defined as a sexual role.

Belief in God:

Uh oh: 18.09% of philosophers believe in a theistic (interactive) god, so nearly one out of five is either deluded or doesn’t follow the evidence. But 2/3 of “thinkers” are atheists, so that should give you some consolation.

Meaning of life:

Well, it’s both subjective (you make your own meaning) or “nonexistent” (meaning that you don’t believe in a “meaning of life”). Either answer seems sensible to me, but 32.1% of philosophers think that there is indeed an objective meaning of life. These far outnumber the theists, who usually say that the meaning involves God, so why don’t they tell us what the objective meaning of life is? After all, how do they know there is one without discerning it?


Oops, only slightly more than half of philosophers are physicalists (i.e., believe that there’s nothing other than the physical), while the rest are, apparently, not very scientific!

We have some philosophy mavens/experts here, so feel free to comment on the answers to other questions.

h/t: Robert

Peter Boghossian hangs it up at Portland State

September 8, 2021 • 9:15 am

I’m having a new operating system installed on my computer today, so posting will be light (these things take time!).

But I just got this news from reader Larry, and then from a half dozen others, and thought I’d pass it on. I’ve known Peter Boghossian for some years, and I’ve found him a smart, friendly, and decent guy as well as a great person to discuss philosophy with. But he’s also a big critic of wokeness (in the pejorative sense), and was one of the three perpetrators of the “grievance studies affair” in 2017 and 2018 that exposed the intellectual vacuity of some humanities journals (which, by extension, says something about the intellectual rigor of the fields those journal draw from).  And since he was untenured at Portland State University, with Portland, Oregon being the Mecca of Wokeness, he always told me that he was sure he’d be fired some day, or at least never get tenure. (He’s an untenured assistant professor of philosophy.) He’s also been disciplined by PSU (see below) for a ridiculous reason.

And by all accounts he’s a terrific teacher. He gets a 4.7 out of 5 rating at Rate My Professors, with 95% of applicants saying that’s take a course from him again.  I can believe it: he’s even-tempered, kind, and uses the Socratic method when teaching, his goal always being to get students to think rather than agree with a preordained conclusion. And that’s what having a conversation with him is like, too. When I visited PSU to give a talk to his class, we had a lot of discussion on the side, and he was always challenging my views in a Socratic way. I could barely get him to tell me what he thought!

Well, PSU didn’t fire him. He decided to quit.

You can read about it by clicking on the screenshot below, which takes you to a letter of resignation Peter sent to his provost this morning. It’s published on Bari Weiss’s Substack site:

Here are just a few quotes from the eloquent but sad letter. He begins by describing all the diverse speakers he invited to his classes: flat-earthers, creationists, climate-change skeptics, and of course me (I talked about the incompatibility of science and religion). In every case he was trying to challenge the “conventional” ideas his students had absorbed before college.  And so he describes why he can no longer fulfill his mission as a philosophy teacher.

I never once believed —  nor do I now —  that the purpose of instruction was to lead my students to a particular conclusion. Rather, I sought to create the conditions for rigorous thought; to help them gain the tools to hunt and furrow for their own conclusions. This is why I became a teacher and why I love teaching.

But brick by brick, the university has made this kind of intellectual exploration impossible. It has transformed a bastion of free inquiry into a Social Justice factory whose only inputs were race, gender, and victimhood and whose only outputs were grievance and division.

Students at Portland State are not being taught to think. Rather, they are being trained to mimic the moral certainty of ideologues. Faculty and administrators have abdicated the university’s truth-seeking mission and instead drive intolerance of divergent beliefs and opinions. This has created a culture of offense where students are now afraid to speak openly and honestly.

And, over the ten years he was there, he discovered that PSU was uber-Woke and had no patience for a Socratic-style teacher who questioned not only ideas in general, but the University’s own dictates in particular. One might call it Structural Intolerance:

. . .I began networking with student groups who had similar concerns and brought in speakers to explore these subjects from a critical perspective. And it became increasingly clear to me that the incidents of illiberalism I had witnessed over the years were not just isolated events, but part of an institution-wide problem.

The more I spoke out about these issues, the more retaliation I faced.

He describes some of the retaliation he experiences, which continued right up to the present, but he doesn’t want to dwell on it because, after all, victimization is not his thing.. The Grievance Studies affair was the beginning of the end:

I continued to believe, perhaps naively, that if I exposed the flawed thinking on which Portland State’s new values were based, I could shake the university from its madness. In 2018 I co-published a series of absurd or morally repugnant peer-reviewed articles in journals that focused on issues of race and gender. In one of them we argued that there was an epidemic of dog rape at dog parks and proposed that we leash men the way we leash dogs. Our purpose was to show that certain kinds of “scholarship” are based not on finding truth but on advancing social grievances. This worldview is not scientific, and it is not rigorous.

Administrators and faculty were so angered by the papers that they published an anonymous piece in the student paper and Portland State filed formal charges against me. Their accusation? “Research misconduct” based on the absurd premise that the journal editors who accepted our intentionally deranged articles were “human subjects.” I was found guilty of not receiving approval to experiment on human subjects.

Meanwhile, ideological intolerance continued to grow at Portland State. . . .

You can read about the harassment, which included graffiti and disruptions of his classes and panels, none of which was ever investigated nor were any students disciplined. Finally, he had enough, and resigned out of frustration due to the inability to maintain his own principles (he’d been silenced to some extent):

This isn’t about me. This is about the kind of institutions we want and the values we choose. Every idea that has advanced human freedom has always, and without fail, been initially condemned. As individuals, we often seem incapable of remembering this lesson, but that is exactly what our institutions are for: to remind us that the freedom to question is our fundamental right. Educational institutions should remind us that that right is also our duty.

Portland State University has failed in fulfilling this duty. In doing so it has failed not only its students but the public that supports it. While I am grateful for the opportunity to have taught at Portland State for over a decade, it has become clear to me that this institution is no place for people who intend to think freely and explore ideas.

This is not the outcome I wanted. But I feel morally obligated to make this choice. For ten years, I have taught my students the importance of living by your principles. One of mine is to defend our system of liberal education from those who seek to destroy it. Who would I be if I didn’t?

So he’s voluntarily given up his job and his income. I hope some other school snaps him up, but things being what they are, he’s surely been tainted by opposing the Woke. And the Woke run nearly all the universities.

I doubt PSU realizes what a great professor it’s losing. I’m sure they’re relieved that they’re free of an anti-Woke faculty member who challenged their ideas and was subject to complaints.  Well, it’s their loss. PSU is going the way of Evergreen State, purging “dissident” professors and enforcing intellectual conformity. I know there are some parents and prospective college students who still want a challenging education—who want to learn to think and analyze rather than absorb and parrot whatever dogma their professors feed them.  Those people should avoid PSU like the plague.

Peter Boghassian

The absence of objective morality

June 21, 2021 • 9:25 am

What does it mean to say that there’s an “objective morality”? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy reports this view as “moral realism” and characterizes it like this:

Moral realists are those who think that, in these respects, things should be taken at face value—moral claims do purport to report facts and are true if they get the facts right. Moreover, they hold, at least some moral claims actually are true. That much is the common and more or less defining ground of moral realism (although some accounts of moral realism see it as involving additional commitments, say to the independence of the moral facts from human thought and practice, or to those facts being objective in some specified way).

This is the stand taken by Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape, and it’s a view with which I disagree. Although some philosophers agree with Sam that morality is “factual” in this way—and by that I don’t mean that the existence of a moral code is a fact about society but that you can find objective ways to determine if a view is right or wrong—I can’t for the life of me see how one can determine objectively whether statements like “abortions of normal fetuses are wrong” are true or false. In the end, like many others, I see morality as a matter of preference. What is moral is what you would like to see considered good behavior, but as different people differ on what is right and wrong, I see no way to adjudicate statements like the one about abortion.

I’ve said all this before, but it came to mind last night when I was reading Anthony Grayling’s comprehensive book The History of Philosophy. (By the way, that book has convinced me that there is virtually no issue in philosophy that ever gets widespread agreement from nearly all respectable philosophers, so in that way philosophy differs from science. That is not to say that philosophy is without value, but that its value lies in teaching us how to think rigorously and to parse arguments, not to unearth truths about the cosmos.)

It’s clear that empirical observation can inform moral statements. If you think that it’s okay to kick a dog because it doesn’t mind it, well, just try kicking a dog. But in the end, saying whether it’s right or wrong to do things depends on one’s preferences. True, most people agree on their preferences, and their concept of morality by and large agrees with Sam’s consequentialist view that what is the “right” thing to do is what maximizes “well being”.  But that is only one criterion for “rightness”, and others, like deontologists such as Kant, don’t agree with that utilitarian concept. And of course people disagree violently about things like abortion—and many other moral issues.

One problem with Sam’s theory, or any utilitarian theory of morality, is how to judge “well being”. There are different forms of well being, even in a given moral situation, and how do you weigh them off against one another? There is no common currency of well being, though we know that some things, like torturing or killing someone without reason, clearly does not increase well being of either that person or of society. Yet there is no objective way to weigh one form of well being against another. Abortion is one such situation: one weighs the well being of the fetus, which will develop into a sentient human, against that of the mother, who presumably doesn’t want to have the baby.

But to me, the real killer of objective morality is the issue of animal rights—an issue that I don’t see as resolvable, at least in a utilitarian way. Is it moral to do experiments on primates to test human vaccines and drugs? If so, how many monkeys can you put in captivity and torture before it becomes wrong?  Is it wrong to keep lab animals captive just to answer a scientific question with no conceivable bearing on human welfare, but is just a matter of curiosity? Is it moral to eat meat? Answering questions about animal rights involves, if you’re a Harris-ian utilitarian, being able to assess the well being of animals, something that seems impossible. We do not know what it is like to be a bat.  We have no idea whether any creatures value their own lives, and which creatures feel pain (some surely do).

But in the end, trying to find a truly factual answer to the statement, “Is it immoral for humans to eat meat?”  or “is abortion wrong?”, or “is capital punishment wrong?” seems a futile effort. You can say that eating meat contributes to deforestation and global warming, and that’s true, but that doesn’t answer the question, for you have to then decide whether those effects are “immoral”. Even deciding whether to be a “well being” utilitarian is a choice. You might instead be a deontologist, adhering to a rule-based and not consequence-based morality.

You can make a rule that “anybody eating meat is acting immorally,” but on what do you base that statement? If you respond that “animals feel pain and it’s wrong to kill them,” someone might respond that “yes, but I get a lot of pleasure from eating meat.” How can you objectively weigh these positions? You can say that culinary enjoyment is a lower goal than animal welfare, but again, that’s a subjective judgment.

By saying I don’t accept the idea of moral claims representing “facts”, I’m not trying to promote nihilism. We need a moral code if, for nothing else, to act as a form of social glue and as a social contract. Without it, society would degenerate into a lawless and criminal enterprise—indeed, the idea of crime and punishment would vanish. All I’m arguing is that such claims rest at bottom on preference alone. It’s generally a good thing that evolution has bequeathed most of us with a similar set of moral preferences. I hasten to add, though, that what feelings evolution has instilled in us aren’t necessarily ones we should incorporate into morality, as some of them (widespread xenophobia, for instance) are outmoded in modern society. Others, like caring for one’s children, are good things to do.

In the end, I agree with Hume that there’s no way to derive an “ought” from an “is”. “Oughts” have their own sources, while “is”s may represent in part our evolutionarily evolved behaviors derived from living in small groups of hunter-gatherers. But that doesn’t make them evolutionary “oughts.”

I’m not a philosopher—and I’m sure it shows!—and I know there are famous philosophers, like Derek Parfit, who are moral realists, but my attempt to read the late Parfit’s dense, two-volume treatise On What Matters, said to contain his defense of moral realism, was defeated.

Dennett on consciousness and other stuff

June 16, 2021 • 2:15 pm

In this 36-minute episode of Closer to Truth, host Robert Kuhn grills Dan Dennett about his views on consciousness, panpsychism, and artificial intelligence. (Click on screenshot below to hear the episode, though you’ll have to register or use your Facebook account.)

The summary of the episode, assuming this is the only one, is a bit misleading:

Daniel Dennett discusses the nature of consciousness, if consciousness is an illusion, artificial intelligence and virtual immortality, and how he covers all of this in his book, Just Deserts: Debating Free Will, co-authored with Gregg D. Caruso.

In act, there’s no reference to free will or to Dan’s book with Caruso, which I briefly evaluated here.

I won’t summarize this, as most readers like to watch the videos, but will say that Dan takes up—and peremptorily dismisses—the idea of panpsychism, the view that every bit of matter in the Universe, from electrons on up, has a form of consciousness. Dan says this theory is “regressive and unfortunate” but “just what one should expect” in a world where “You gotta be different; you gotta have your own theory, so lots of young philosophers are trying to figure out what radical thesis might springboard them into notoriety, which is a path to fame.”

He further characterizes panpsychism as “almost embarrassing” because it doesn’t explain anything at all. In the end, he says it’s not even a theory but “a labored definition of mentality or consciousness.”

Kuhn then asks Dan to explain why he, Dennett, considers consciousness an illusion, and I think Dan’s answer is too quick in this short video to be fully comprehended, but has to do with a collections of neurons collaborating to give an illusion of a single decider, with the whole business having evolved to give us “self control.”

The rest of the conversation is about whether one could download consciousness, or back it up at night, and, if so, what would be the implications. There’s talk of zombies, artificial intelligence, and so on, but, sadly, not a peep about free will.

I’ve had my differences with Dan, especially about free will, but there’s no denying that the guy is a force—a really smart philosopher who has the chops to make his ideas intelligible to the public. And he clearly hasn’t slowed with age. And despite out differences, we both agree that panpsychism is “not even a theory”, but a desperate attempt for its adherents to get attention by standing apart from the pack.

h/t: Paul

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

A time-travel game

April 26, 2021 • 11:00 am

I was reading Anthony Grayling’s new (2019) history of philosophy last night. I’m only 70 pages in, and had to plow through all those boring pre-Socratic philosophers (he deals at the end with philosophy outside the Western tradition), but Anthony is smart enough and a good enough writer to make it all interesting. I’m looking forward to reading all 500-odd pages (click below to see the Amazon link):

And while I was reading about the early conception of atoms, I fantasizd about going back and telling people like Democritus that yes, there are atoms, but they are different from what he thought they were, and that they combined in molecules, and so on.  And then I thought about how much I could impart to the ancient Greeks if I had just one day to tell them what we’d learned by the 21st century. But then I realized that it would be useless, for I don’t speak ancient Greek and they wouldn’t understand English. It would be a futile exercise, and they’d probably kill me as a demon. Besides, there’s that effect of altering the future by imparting such stuff, an effect that was the subject of a science-fiction story I read as a kid but whose name I can’t recall.

But I also thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to be in the agora in Athens and actually see Socrates engaged in a dialogue with someone?” He was described by Grayling as ugly, snub-nosed, and with bulging eyes, but I’d want to see that for myself. And I’d want to see Pericles and the whole of Athens in full flower. I’d love 24 hours in Athens around 440 B.C.

And so I propose a game, similar to one I’ve proposed before, but this one restricted to human history. Here are the rules:

1.) You are given 24 hours to be any place in the world during human history, but you have to specify a place and a date (or an event). You cannot go further back than ancient Egypt.

2.) You will be invisible, so you can run around at will and observe everything, but you cannot interact or communicate with anyone.

3.) You cannot have a tape recorder or a camera, but you are allowed a notebook and a pen to record what you want. You will not be able to understand the language unless you’ve learned it beforehand or already know it.

4.) At the end, you’re transported back to the present.

There are two ways to regard your journey: as a way to gather information about the past that is missing to historians, or as a way to satisfy your own curiosity. What you do is up to you.

Now think of all the choices! Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (how did his voice sound?). The death of Julius Caesar! Charles Darwin, either on the Beagle or at home in Downe. Watch Michelangelo paint the dome of the Sistine Chapel. See Shakespeare at work! The possibilities are endless.

Think about this for a few minutes, and put your answer below. Although I’m drawn to Darwin, I couldn’t talk to him but could only see and hear him. And the idea of seeing Socrates (would I be able to know who he is?) still entices me. . . .