LA Times: Philosopher critiques Sapolsky’s book on determinism, touts free will

October 27, 2023 • 9:35 am

I’m reading Robert Sapolsky’s new book Determined now and like it a lot, but of course I’ve always agree with him about the hegemony of naturalism. Because Sapolsky is a hard determinist, and many people, even philosophers, won’t accept the form of unrelenting naturalism that both Sapolsky and I accept, we can expect a lot of uninformed criticism of the book But now we have uninformed criticism by somebody who’s informed, for the book has been negatively reviewed in the L. A. Times by John Martin Fischer, identified by the the paper as ” a professor of philosophy at UC Riverside [who] has written widely on free will and moral responsibility.” Fisher has also been characterized on Wikipedia as “a leading contributor to the philosophy of free will and moral responsibility.”

So I was pretty appalled to see Fischer, in a critical review of Determined, saying some things that seemed deeply uninformed, even to a philosophical tyro like me. It may be because he’s trying to summarize complex arguments for the public in a short review, but if that’s the case, Fischer’s concisions have led to mischaracterization of the book (I’ve read about 100 pages of Sapolsky’s 450-page book, but he’s advanced his thesis in other writings as well). Click on the screenshot to read:

Here are a few statements by Fischer (indented) and my comments about them (flush left).

Perhaps surprisingly, these views — which seem so unintuitive — have become more influential in contemporary philosophy and even legal theory. They are, nevertheless, a minority opinion. Although philosophy isn’t about majority rule (nor should it be!), many of us inside the field — and likely outside it, too — find this skepticism toward free will and moral responsibility deeply problematic.

Most philosophers aren’t libertarian “you-could-have-done-otherwise” believers in free will, but are determinists who accept, like Sapolsky, the idea that at any time, there is only one behavior possible (with the exception of behaviors that could be changed by the fundamental indeterminism of quantum mechanics; see below).  Yet they are determinists who say that their view of free will is not a libertarian view, so that free will is compatible with determinism. That’s why these philosophers (who hold the majority view on free will) are called “compatibilists”.

While Fischer may be right in that most philosophers accept moral responsibility, he misleads the reader, most of whom take free will to mean that you could change your mind at a single moment and do or choose more than one thing. (Without that ability, the “free” in “free will” is meaningless.)  Here Fischer plays into the popular libertarian conception of free will—the one that Sapolsky spends the whole book attacking—but may be referring to compatibilist free will (“yes, we’re determined, but we can semantically construct another form of “free will”). The problem is that Fischer never defines what he means by free will, while Sapolsky starts off his book with definitions to avoid this kind of muddle. The onus was on Fischer to define “free will”, but he dropped the ball.

Here’s more:

Some neurobiologists, including Sapolsky, hold that neurobiology supports determinism — that the brain activity science has uncovered reveals essentially mechanical procedures that cause human decisions. Other neuroscientists believe that at a fundamental level the brain works indeterministically, perhaps in accordance with quantum mechanics, which allows for randomness and unpredictability. In other words, whether the past and laws of nature dictate my choices and actions remains scientifically controversial.

There’s only one form of pure indeterminism in nature (I’m not talking here about “unpredictability”): quantum mechanics. And if our behaviors and choices are unpredictable because they are affected by quantum phenomena (note: WE DON’T KNOW THIS), that gives us randomness and unpredictability, but does not give us libertarian free will. (We can’t move electrons via our “will”.) And doesn’t Fischer realize that the laws of nature happen to include quantum mechanics?  Sapolsky and I are both naturalists: we accept that behaviors proceed only from the laws of nature: laws that can have acted eons ago to produce a behavior we evince today.  No, determinism is not scientifically controversial, at least among the majority of philosophers who accept that the laws of nature dictate our choices and actions.

Further, unpredictability can result from absolute, pure determinism, simply because, though determinism be true, we don’t know enough to be able to predict with great accuracy. It is a fundamental error to say that determinism is incompatible with unpredictability.  It’s just a matter of not knowing enough!  Let me put it in caps:  “UNPREDICTABILITY IS NOT THE OPPOSITE OF DETERMINISM”.

But wait; there’s more! You also get a free set of Ginsu knives!:

But let’s say determinism were true. Why exactly would it follow that we lack free will? Even if our choices and actions are shaped heavily by external factors, couldn’t they still be caused in a way that involves the human capacity for reasoning? Coughs, sneezes, seizures — these behaviors are easy to dismiss as beyond our control. Not all causal chains, however, are like those that trigger involuntary movements. Equating all human behavior to a cough is an egregiously hasty generalization.

Consider, as a simple example, my decision to sit down at my computer to write these sentences. Yes, my past and the laws of nature may have crucially led me here. But I did so also because of deliberation. I weighed the pros for writing against the cons and chose to do it. It wasn’t like a sneeze; it was a process that involved reasoning. Determinism helps explain why I started typing, but it does not in itself rule out my free will.

Well, that depends on what Fischer defines as “free will”, doesn’t it? The problem with the two paragraphs above is that Sapolsky’s entire book is devoted to showing exactly why a decision to sit down and write is precisely like a cough or sneeze: both depend on a concatenation of causal events that extend way back to the past, well before you’re born.  Reasoning is just a brain process, and is itself conditioned by the past history of the neurons in one’s brain and of the body that carries them. That history includes genetics, environment, and experience, things that extend way back into the past since there are long chains of causation. Fischer is showing here that he either hasn’t read Sapolsky’s book or doesn’t understand it.


The “why” might additionally involve exercises of free will that confer responsibility — and thus we cannot dismiss moral responsibility because we are machines. We are biological machines, but the biology does not get in the way of free will. It enables it, just as our neurobiology enables our thoughts and feelings.

Yes, Sapolsky (and I) do dismiss “moral responsibility” (but not “responsibility”) because it violates determinism (I call it “naturalism”, which equals determinism plus fundamental indeterminism caused by quantum mechanics.) And what does Fischer mean by “the biology does not get in the way of free will”?  Since he hasn’t defined “free will”, we don’t know what he means, nor what he means by saying free will is “enabled by biology”.  Here Fischer is misleading the reader. Even if he’s a compatibilist, Fischer is responsible for not only defining free will, but explaining his critique.  By the way, Sapolsky’s book is largely about neurobiology, and Fischer shows no evidence of having read Sapolsky’s neurobiological argument for determinism.

And even if Fischer is accepting a compatibilist form of free will, he then goes way off the rails by implying that determinism, by absolving us of “moral responsibility,” completely lets us off the hook when we do something bad. Like most ignorant critics of determinism (but Fischer shouldn’t be that ignorant!), he argues that without a notion of free will, we can rape, pillage, plunder, and murder at will, without fear of punishment. To wit:

We live in a world with horrors almost too terrible to imagine. That no one could fairly be blamed or punished for anything is a view as disturbing as it is radical. It would entail that Vladimir Putin could not be morally blamed or punished for documented war crimes; he would not deserve such treatment. Moral responsibility skepticism implies that Hitler did not deserve to be morally blamed or punished, nor did Stalin or any mass murderer.

The skeptical view asks us to do what is almost humanly impossible: to let even our worst actors off the hook. Of course, the same point applies to good behavior: Heroes such as Sully Sullenberger would not deserve our gratitude, and your friend who sacrifices her plans so she can pick you up at LAX wouldn’t merit it either. (Sometimes, though, even this requires heroism!)

Yes, Sapolsky says that determinism means that people don’t deserve what happens to them, whether it be good or bad, but he doesn’t argue that people don’t need to be blamed or punished! No rational determinist thinks that.  Blame and punishment are social tools for encouraging good behavior and discouraging bad ones, and we can confer praise or opprobrium without having to think that a person had a choice of showing good or bad behavior. As a determinist, one can praise someone to elicit further good behaviors (another mistake of critics is to think that behavior is unchangeable), or discourage bad ones. That’s why Sapolsky thinks that judicial punishment is still needed.  Again, Fischer shows no sign of having read Sapolsky’s book, for he’s constantly misrepresenting Sapolsky’s views.

Fischer does that one last time at the end, when he levels what seems like a gratuitous swipe at Sapolsky, managing to argue that his views justify—wait for it—the cheating scheme of Sam Bankman-Fried!

In a beautiful vision of the no-responsibility world, people are liberated from forces over which they have no control. But there is an ugly side too. Consider that Barbara Fried, a professor emerita at Stanford Law School, has argued against free will and moral responsibility. Right now her son, Sam Bankman-Fried, is on trial for allegations that he looted billions from customers of his collapsed crypto exchange FTX. Under the skeptics’ view, Bankman-Fried deserves no blame or responsibility. How convenient, but deeply wrong.

Here Fischer is not only wrong, but stupid as well. Sapolsky does not think that criminals should get off. The sentence argues that those who criticize free will, like Barbara Fried, whose views he mischaracterizes—read the link, which goes to an essay written, of course, by Fischer himself—also think that nobody should be punished. (Fried says we should “move past blame,”, which is a reasonable view and does not say we should not punish.)

In the end, here we have a philosopher who doesn’t define his terms (isn’t that de rigueur in philosophy?), doesn’t explain himself, and appears not to have read the book he’s reviewing. It’s a horrible review of a very good book, and I continue to highly recommend Determined. 

Oh, and Fischer should be kept away from popular writing until he can understand what he’s writing about and be honest in his criticism.


Scientific American on a philosophical grift: panpsychism

October 1, 2023 • 9:30 am

Well, Scientific American has published an article that, while on a subject of questionable interest, is at least neither woke nor wrong. The topic is panpsychism, which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines this way:

Panpsychism is the view that mentality is fundamental and ubiquitous in the natural world. The view has a long and venerable history in philosophical traditions of both East and West, and has recently enjoyed a revival in analytic philosophy.

The old and new forms of panpsychism were advanced because of our present failure to completely understand where consciousness comes from. Thus panpsychism offers an easy way out: we’re conscious because everything is conscious.  That, of course, doesn’t solve the “hard problem” of how a brain-carrying organism can be conscious. Our failure to completely understand where consciousness comes from, say the panpsychics, is because we’re working on the wrong level: we just need to show that all bits of the universe are inherently conscious. Problem solved!

No, not solved!

First, a failure to understand something doesn’t mean that we’re taking the wrong approach; it could just mean that the problem is a difficult one. We don’t know where and how the first self-replicating organism evolved, but we don’t say that every bit of the universe has a form of replication, and thus the problem is solved.

In the “revival” forms of panpsychism (about which I’ve written many posts), promulgated most vociferously by Philip Goff, the claim is that every bit of the universe has some form of consciousness, however rudimentary.  This includes particles like electrons.  (They never specify the form of consciousness enjoyed by, say, electrons.) When the particles, though evolution, are assembled into a creature like a human, this assembly somehow makes the entire creature “conscious” in the way we think of (go here for a discussion of what consciousness is; I’m just referring to the common construal: self-awareness and the ability to perceive sensations).

But there has been no progress in understanding whether panpsychism could be true since it was proposed a long time ago, and that’s for several reasons:

  1.  We know no way of demonstrating that inanimate objects, like rocks and neutrons, have some form of consciousness.
  2. We know no way of showing that the combination of rudimentary consciousnesses, as in the constituent particle of our brain, will somehow, when assembled in an organism, make it conscious. This is called the “combination problem.”
  3. As far as we know, consciousness requires a complex nervous system in a living organism, which isn’t present in inanimate constituents of the universe or in dead individuals.
  4. We are making progress in the conventional view of consciousness, e.g, it’s either a byproduct of having a sufficiently complex nervous system or an evolved condition in which the brain was selected to create the phenomenon. (In both cases it’s a material phenomenon connected with how neurons are arranged.) We can change consciousness with brain stimulation, use psychological tricks to fool people into thinking they’re doing something consciously when they’re not, or vice versa, and we can take away or restore consciousness with drugs (e.g., anesthesia).

It’s because of these issues that panpsychism has made no scientific progress while the “materialistic” view of consciousness, the one that doesn’t assume that particles themselves are conscious, has made progress. Panpsychism, in my view, is promulgated by philosophical grifters, who crave the attention they get from propounding novel and counterintuitive theories. And surely on some level they must realize that there’s no way to go any further with their scientific program. They keep singing the same old tune without adding any words, i.e., evidence.

At any rate, the Sci Am piece below, by science journalist Dan Falk, gives an account of the arguments in favor of and against panpsychism made at a recent meeting at Marist College, a college founded as a Catholic school (but now denying any religious affiliation) in Poughkeepsie, New York. The meeting was organized by panpsychist proselytizer Philip Goff, who found it all too easy to get funding from the John Templeton Foundation, which loves stuff like panpsychism because it’s anti-materialistic and conjures up the numinous (“an electron is conscious?. Weird!”)

Goff, of the University of Durham in England, organized the recent event along with Marist philosopher Andrei Buckareff, [JAC: he seems to be a philosopher of religion as well as religious] and it was funded through a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. In a small lecture hall with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Hudson River, roughly two dozen scholars probed the possibility that perhaps it’s consciousness all the way down.

You can read the article for free, though if you know about panpsychism, you don’t need to. But if you don’t know about it, it gives a good summary of the arguments against it (there are no arguments for it except its claim that everything is conscious).  As usual, physicist Sean Carroll injects some sense into the discussion; he also had a big debate with Goff, as he has several times before (see below):

The crazy part of this all is that a lot of philosophers accept panpsychism, despite its numerous problems and scientific intractability. From the article (my emphasis):

Yet panpsychism runs counter to the majority view in both the physical sciences and in philosophy that treats consciousness as an emergent phenomenon, something that arises in certain complex systems, such as human brains. In this view, individual neurons are not conscious, but thanks to the collective properties of some 86 billion neurons and their interactions—which, admittedly, are still only poorly understood—brains (along with bodies, perhaps) are conscious. Surveys suggest that slightly more than half of academic philosophers hold this view, known as “physicalism” or “emergentism,” whereas about one third reject physicalism and lean toward some alternative, of which panpsychism is one of several possibilities.

How can philosophers fall for a panpsychic grift? I suppose it’s because they don’t really understand science, want to do down science (yes, some philosophers have that motivation), or apprehend the value of evidence in supporting or weakening a theory.  Here’s more (my bolding):

Many philosophers at the meeting appeared to share Goff’s concern that physicalism falters when it comes to consciousness. “If you know every last detail about my brain processes, you still wouldn’t know what it’s like to be me,” says Hedda Hassel Mørch, a philosopher at Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences. “There is a clear explanatory gap between the physical and the mental.” Consider, for example, the difficulty of trying to describe color to someone who has only seen the world in black and white. Yanssel Garcia, a philosopher at the University of Nebraska Omaha, believes that physical facts alone are inadequate for such a task. “There is nothing of a physical sort that you could provide [a person who sees only in shades of gray] in order to have them understand what color experience is like; [they] would need to experience it themselves,” he says. “Physical science is, in principle, incapable of telling us the complete story.” Of the various alternatives that have been put forward, he says that “panpsychism is our best bet.”

First of all, those philosophers seem to be ignorant about how real scientists (as opposed to philosophers) are attacking the problem of consciousness and understanding its physical basis. More important, I think Goff would (and believe has) said that panpsychism is a physicalist theory. We just don’t know, physically, how the consciousness of electrons works. If it’s not physicalist, then it’s supernatural. But if you claim it’s an inherent property of matter, that’s a physicalist assertion, for one then needs to show how it’s an inherent property of matter. If you can’t, find another line of work.

Here’s some critique of the theory from the article (there’s no evidence offered in support of the theory except that it sounds good):

But panpsychism attracts many critics as well. Some point out that it doesn’t explain how small bits of consciousness come together to form more substantive conscious entities. Detractors say that this puzzle, known as the “combination problem,” amounts to panpsychism’s own version of the hard problem. The combination problem “is the serious challenge for the panpsychist position,” Goff admits. “And it’s where most of our energies are going.”

Others question panpsychism’s explanatory power. In his 2021 book Being You, neuroscientist Anil Seth wrote that the main problems with panpsychism are that “it doesn’t really explain anything and that it doesn’t lead to testable hypotheses. It’s an easy get-out to the apparent mystery posed by the hard problem.”

. . . During a well-attended public debate between Goff and Carroll, the divergence of their worldviews quickly became apparent. Goff said that physicalism has led “precisely nowhere,” and suggested that the very idea of trying to explain consciousness in physical terms was incoherent. Carroll argued that physicalism is actually doing quite well and that although consciousness is one of many phenomena that can’t be inferred from the goings-on at the microscopic level, it is nonetheless a real, emergent feature of the macroscopic world. He offered the physics of gases as a parallel example. At the micro level, one talks of atoms, molecules and forces; at the macro level, one speaks of pressure, volume and temperature. These are two kinds of explanations, depending on the “level” being studied—but present no great mystery and are not a failure on the part of physics.

Bringing up the gas laws was a smart thing to do, showing emergent physical properties that do not demonstrate a failure of physicalism. The gas laws may not be predictable from the laws of physics, but are consistent with the laws of physics. One more critique:

Seth, the neuroscientist, was not at the workshop—but I asked him where he stands in the debate over physicalism and its various alternatives. Physicalism, he says, still offers more “empirical grip” than its competitors—and he laments what he sees as excessive hand-wringing over its alleged failures, including the supposed hardness of the hard problem. “Critiquing physicalism on the basis that it has ‘failed’ is willful mischaracterization,” he says. “It’s doing just fine, as progress in consciousness science readily attests.” In a recently published article in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, Seth adds: “Asserting that consciousness is fundamental and ubiquitous does nothing to shed light on the way an experience of blueness is the way it is, and not some other way. Nor does it explain anything about the possible functions of consciousness, nor why consciousness is lost in states such as dreamless sleep, general anaesthesia, and coma.”

It’s clear that I think panpsychism is a big philosophical grift, and although I could be more charitable, I get angry when a philosophical equivalent of creationism, which is what panpsychism is, gets popular. Perhaps Goff and his colleagues really believe it, but unless they’re thick-headed they surely realize that there is no evidence in its favor and they haven’t offered a solution to the most crucial part of their theory: the combination problem. I predict with some confidence that panpsychism will go nowhere. As the Encyclopedia notes, the theory has a “long and venerable history”.  I’d disagree with the “venerable” part, but the fact that its history is long, but yet no progress has been made in documenting or understanding it, shows that it’s an intellectual dead end.

Here’s a three-year old video, which I believe I put up before, giving an audio debate between Carroll and Goff.  There’s no doubt that the physicist is the winner; Goff comes out licking his wounds.

For another video dismantling of panpsychism by Carroll, go here, and you can also see a paper by Carroll on the phenomenon here.

When I first read the Sci Am piece, I had the following email conversation with Matthew, also a critic of panpsychism:

Me: Why not a symposium on flat-earthism?
Matthew: I bet Templeton funded it.  Good guess. I mean, it’s right up their street. Imagine the real good they could do with all their dosh if they funded sensible things!

I hadn’t read the article when I had this exchange, but, sure enough, Matthew was right: the sticky fingers of Templeton are all over this symposium. To wit:

But I’ve had some second thoughts about Sci Am publishing this article, and don’t oppose it now. Panpsychism is not precisely equivalent to “flat earthism”, but only because a lot of people still believe in panpsychism, and if you pay attention to intellectual currents you’ll have heard about it. In my view, though panpsychism is nearly as scientifically worthless as flat earth theory or the “Loch Ness Monster” hypothesis, the public needs a place to understand what panpsychism is. Author Falk fills that bill, also showing (necessarily) panpsychism’s profound weaknesses. In that sense, Falk has done a good job, and I can’t fault Scientific American for publishing his piece.

Dan Dennett: a new book and an interview in the NYT

August 27, 2023 • 12:00 pm

I recently finished Dan Dennett‘s new autobiography, I’ve Been Thinking (cover below; click to get an Amazon link), and I was deeply impressed by what a full life the man has had (he’s 81).  I thought he spent most of his time philosophizing, writing, and teaching philosophy at Tufts; but it turns out that he had a whole other life that I knew little about: owning a farm in Maine, sailing all over the place in his boat, making tons of apple cider, hanging out with his pals (many of them famous), and traveling the world to lecture or study. Truly, I’d also be happy if I had a life that full. And, as Dan says in his interview with the NYT today, he’s left out hundreds of pages of anecdotes and other stuff.

Although I’ve taken issue with Dan’s ideas at times (I disagree with him on free will and on the importance of memes, for example), you can’t help but like the guy. He’s sometimes passionate in his arguments, but he’s never mean, and of course he looks like Santa Claus. Once at a meeting in Mexico, I was accosted by Robert Wright, who was incensed that I’d given his book on the history of religion a bad review in The New Republic.  Wright plopped himself down beside me at lunch, so I was a captive audience, and proceeded to berate and harangue me throughout the meal. It was one of the worst lunch experiences I’ve ever had.

Because of Wright’s tirade, I was so upset that, after the meal was done, I went over to Dan, jumped in his lap, and hugged him (telling him why). I was greatly relieved, for it was like sitting on Santa’s lap. Now Santa, who’s getting on, has decided to sum up his career. The book is well worth reading, especially if you want to see how a philosopher has enacted a life well lived.

In today’s paper there’s a short interview with Dan by David Marchese, who has been touted as an expert interviewer. I didn’t think that Marchese’s questions were that great, but read for yourself (click below):

I’ll give a few quotes, mostly about atheism and “other ways of knowing,” First, the OWOK. Marchese’s questions are in bold; Dennett’s responses in plain text. And there are those annoying sidenotes that the NYT has started using, which I’ve omitted.

Right now it seems as if truth is in shambles, politics has become religion and the planet is screwed. What’s the most valuable contribution philosophers could be making given the state of the world? 

Well, let’s look at epistemology, the theory of knowledge. Eric Horvitz, the chief scientist at Microsoft, has talked about a “post-epistemic” world.


By highlighting the conditions under which knowledge is possible. This will look off track for a moment, but we’ll come around: Andrew Wiles proved Fermat’s last theorem. 1990s, the British mathematician Andrew Wiles proved a theorem that had stumped mathematicians since it was proposed by Pierre de Fermat in 1637.

It was one of the great triumphs of mathematics in my lifetime. Why do we know that he did it? Don’t ask me to explain complex mathematics. It’s beyond me. What convinces me that he proved it is that the community of mathematicians of which he’s a part put it under scrutiny and said, “Yep, he’s got it.” That model of constructive and competitive interaction is the key to knowledge. I think we know that the most reliable path to truth is through communication of like-minded and disparate thinkers who devote serious time to trying to get the truth — and there’s no algorithm for that.

Note this bit: “the most reliable path to truth is through communication of like-minded and disparate thinkers who devote serious time to trying to get the truth.” This means that all knowledge, including the “other ways of knowing” of indigenous people, has to be vetted by like-minded and disparate thinkers. If it hasn’t been, it’s not another way of knowing, but only a way of claiming to know.

But wait! There’s more!

There’s a section in your book “Breaking the Spell” where you lament the postmodern idea that truth is relative. How do we decide which truths we should treat as objective and which we treat as subjective? I’m thinking of an area like personal identity, for example, where we hear phrases like, “This is my truth.” 

The idea of “my truth” is second-rate. The people who think that because this is their opinion, somehow it’s aggressive for others to criticize or reject them — that’s a self-defeating and pernicious attitude. The recommended response is: “We’d like to bring you into the conversation, but if you’re unable to consider arguments for and against your position, then we’ll consider you on the sidelines. You’re a spectator, not a participant.” You don’t get to play the faith card. That’s not how rational inquiry goes.

Marchese asks too many questions about AI and ChatGPT, topics which, while they may be important, bore me to tears. He also gets a bit too personal. He should have stopped inquiring after the first answer below.

There was something in your memoir that was conspicuous to me: You wrote about the late 1960s, when your pregnant wife had a bowel obstruction. 

Yeah, we lost the baby.

You describe it as “the saddest, loneliest, most terrifying” time of your life. 


That occupies one paragraph of your memoir. 


What is it indicative of about you — or your book — that a situation you described that way takes up such a small space in the recounting of your life? 

Look at the title of the book: “I’ve Been Thinking.” There are hundreds of pages of stories that I cut at various points from drafts because they were about my emotional life, my trials and so forth. This isn’t a tell-all book. I don’t talk about unrequited love, failed teenage crushes. There are mistakes I made or almost made that I don’t tell about. That’s just not what the book’s about.

Finally, the good stuff about atheism and religion. Although regarded as one of the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism” along with Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris, Dan has been the least demonized of them, probably because he’s not a vociferous anti-theist and regards religion as a phenomenon deserving more philosophical study than opprobrium. Nevertheless, he makes no bones about his unbelief:

We have a soul, but it’s made of tiny robots. There is no God. These are ideas of yours that I think a lot of people can rationally understand, but the gap between that rational understanding and their feelings involves too much ambivalence or ambiguity for them to accept. What is it about you that you can arrive at those conclusions and not feel adrift, while other people find those ideas too destabilizing to seriously entertain? 

Some people don’t want magic tricks explained to them. I’m not that person. When I see a magic trick, I want to see how it’s done. People want free will or consciousness, life itself, to be real magic. What I want to show people is, look, the magic of life as evolved, the magic of brains as evolving in between our own ears, that’s thrilling! It’s affirming. You don’t need miracles. You just need to understand the world the way it really is, and it’s unbelievably wonderful. We’re so lucky to be alive! The anxiety that people feel about giving up the traditional magical options, I take that very seriously. I can feel that anxiety. But the more I understood about the things I didn’t understand, the more the anxiety ebbed. The more the joy, the wondrousness came back. At the end of “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” I have my little hymn to life and the universe.  That’s my God — more wonderful than anything I could imagine in detail, but not magical.

So how do you understand religious belief? 

No problem at all. More people believe in belief in God than believe in God. [Marchese takes issue with this in a sidenote.] We should recognize it and recognize that people who believe in belief in God are sometimes very reluctant to consider that they might be wrong. What if I’m wrong? That’s a question I ask myself a lot. These people do not want to ask that question, and I understand why. They’re afraid of what they might discover. I want to give them an example of somebody who asks the question and is not struck down by lightning. I’m often quoted as saying, “There’s no polite way of telling people they’ve devoted their life to an illusion.” Actually, what I said was, “There’s no polite way of asking people to consider whether they’ve devoted their life to an illusion, but sometimes you have to ask it.”

There are better questions that could have been asked. For example, I would have asked Dan, “What do you think has been your greatest contribution to philosophy?” and “What has been your biggest error in your work on philosophy?”  Readers might suggest other questions below, though I’m not going to convey them to Dan!

A photo of Dan en famille, with caption, from the interview. I knew him only after his beard turned white, so I wouldn’t have recognized him:

Two of my photos of Dan. The first is in Cambridge, MA, on the way to the “Moving Naturalism Forward” meeting in 2016. We drove the three hours from Boston to Stockbridge, and Richard had to fly back early because of a hurricane warning. Ergo Dan argued with me about free will for three hours’ return drive on the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston (it was not covered with snow). That was something to remember, but I gave no ground:

And Dan at a symposium on religion at the University of Chicago in 2019.  It was tedious at times, and I think Dan is showing some impatience here with the annoying lucubrations of Reza Aslan.

Are insects sentient?

June 25, 2023 • 9:45 am

The Oxford English Dictionary gives three relevant definitions of the adjective “sentient”:

a.) That feels or is capable of feeling; having the power or function of sensation or of perception by the senses.

b.) Conscious or percipient of something.

c.) Physiology. Of organs or tissues: Responsive to sensory stimuli.

(“Sentience” itself is defined only as “The condition or quality of being sentient, consciousness, susceptibility to sensation.”)

The question that the Scientific American article below asks (and for once it’s written by a scientist in this field) is whether insects fit the definition of the first two definitions: do they have feelings and sensations experiencing qualia like pain, joy, pleasure, or the sensation of “redness”?  Or are insects merely chitinous robots that are programmed by evolution to act (to us) as if they have feelings—programmed reactions that we anthropormophize as similar to our own sensations? After all, you can be “responsive to sensory stimuli” (the third sense above) without actually feeling the sensory stimuli the way humans do.

Answering the question of whether a bee or a fly is sentient in the first two senses, or has consciousness (the ability to be sentient and perceive stimuli), is difficult. Some would say it’s impossible. After all, we all know that we ourselves have consciousness  and feel pain and joy, because we experience those things personally. But can I prove that, say, another person is conscious? Not directly, because we can’t get inside their brains. We infer that they’re conscious because they tell us they are; they are physically constructed with the same neurons that give us consciousness; and they act as if they experience qualia.  It’s inference, but of a Bayesian sort, and the question has high priors.

But can we extend this to other species?  Chittka uses the example of dogs:

Although there is still no universally accepted, single experimental proof for pain experiences in any animal, common sense dictates that as we accumulate ever more pieces of evidence that insects can feel, the probability that they are indeed sentient increases. For example, if a dog with an injured paw whimpers, licks the wound, limps, lowers pressure on the paw while walking, learns to avoid the place where the injury happened and seeks out analgesics when offered, we have reasonable grounds to assume that the dog is indeed experiencing something unpleasant.

This is a Bayesian approach to the question, and it’s really the only way to go. Yes, I think it’s highly probable that dogs, and most mammals, feel pain. But what about insects, reptiles and amphibians? They certainly avoid unpleasant stimuli and gravitate towards pleasant ones, which you could interpret as feeling joy, pleasure, or pain, but do they feel these sensations? If you say that the behavior denotes sentience, well remember that protozoans do these things, too (see below).

I’m fully aware that philosophers of mind have probably discussed this issue at length, and I haven’t followed that literature, so my musings here may seem childish to these philosophers.  But this Sci. Am. article (click below to read, or find it archived here) is not written for philosophers of mind but for people like me: folks interested in science and wanting to see what’s happening in other fields.  I found the article quite interesting, and for me it slightly raised the probability that insects can feel pain. But the answer remains far from settled—or even of having a high probability. And the author admits that. But he cites a number of cool studies.

Here are the lines of evidence that, to Chittka, raise the Bayesian probability that insects have sentience: experiencing pain, pleasure, and even joy.

a.) They learn and can do really smart things. (All quotes from Chittka are indented):

The conventional wisdom about insects has been that they are automatons—unthinking, unfeeling creatures whose behavior is entirely hardwired. But in the 1990s researchers began making startling discoveries about insect minds. It’s not just the bees. Some species of wasps recognize their nest mates’ faces and acquire impressive social skills. For example, they can infer the fighting strengths of other wasps relative to their own just by watching other wasps fight among themselves. Ants rescue nest mates buried under rubble, digging away only over trapped (and thus invisible) body parts, inferring the body dimension from those parts that are visible above the surface. Flies immersed in virtual reality display attention and awareness of the passing of time. Locusts can visually estimate rung distances when walking on a ladder and then plan their step width accordingly (even when the target is hidden from sight after the movement is initiated).

All of these responses, of course, could come from computers programmed to learn from experience, which is exactly what we and other animals are. Natural selection has endowed us with a neuronal network that will make us behave in ways to further our reproduction (or, sometimes, that of our group—like an ant colony). We can program computers to do this, too: robots that avoid aversive stimuli and gravitate towards good ones. And clearly we behave in such a way that furthers our reproduction, of which survival is one component. But do insects experience the world, with its pleasures and pains, by having qualia similar to ours?

A related question is this: is consciousness like we have (feeling pain and joy) something that’s merely an epiphenomenon of having evolved a sufficiently complex nervous system, or is consciousness itself a product of natural selection to further our reproduction? We don’t know the answer, but it’s pretty clear that some of our conscious experiences, like pain, have evolved by selection. People who can’t feel pain as a result of neurological conditions or disease (like Hansen’s disease) quickly start getting infections, hurting their bodies without being aware, losing fingers, and the like. If you didn’t experience pain when putting your hand in boiling water, you’d damage your body. But if consciousness is just an epiphenomenon of a complex evolved nervous system, then we can’t automatically say that bees that act as if they’re conscious really are conscious.

I’m prepared to believe, based on what I said above, that mammals feel pain.  Maybe even reptiles or amphibians, though there are suggestions that fish don’t feel pain, at least in the way we do. All these creatures gravitate towards adaptive things and avoid nonadaptive ones, but again, they could be programmed to do so without the ancillary conscious experience that we have.

More evidence from Chittka:

b.) Insects act as if they can alter their consciousness:

Many plants contain bitter substances such as nicotine and caffeine to deter herbivores, but these substances are also found in low concentrations in some floral nectars. Researchers wondered whether pollinators might be deterred by such nectars, but they discovered the opposite. Bees actively seek out drugs such as nicotine and caffeine when given the choice and even self-medicate with nicotine when sick. Male fruit flies stressed by being deprived of mating opportunities prefer food containing alcohol (naturally present in fermenting fruit), and bees even show withdrawal symptoms when weaned off an alcohol-rich diet.

Again, seeking out things that are good for you, like curing you of illness or infection, could be programmed, either directly or as part of programs involved in “learning what gets rid of harmful conditions”. Now if bees are partial to coffee and cigarettes because it gets them high, then yes, it seems to show that they want to alter their consciousness, which implies that they have consciousness. But these facts aren’t that convincing to me, because nicotine and caffeine may have other beneficial physiological effects.

c.) Bees appear to be “optimistic”. Here’s the experiment Chittka adduces to support  that:

We trained one group of bees to associate the color blue with a sugary reward and green with no reward, and another group of bees to make the opposite association. We then presented the bees with a turquoise color, a shade intermediate between blue and green. A lucky subset of bees received a surprise sugar treat right before seeing the turquoise color; the other bees did not. The bees’ response to the ambiguous stimulus depended on whether they received a treat before the test: those that got the pretest sugar approached the intermediate color faster than those that didn’t.

The results indicate that when the bees were surprised with a reward, they experienced an optimistic state of mind. This state, which was found to be related to the neurotransmitter dopamine, made the bees more upbeat, if you will, about ambiguous stimuli—they approached it as they would the blue or green colors they were trained to associate with a reward.

This is not a meaningless experiment, but to me shows only that bees conditioned to approach a color after a sugar reward are more likely to approach something like that color than those who weren’t conditioned.  To call this “optimism” seems to me hyperbolically anthropomorphic.

d). Bees appear to experience “joy”.  This experiment is more suggestive to me:

Other work suggests that bees can experience not only optimism but also joy. Some years ago we trained bumblebees to roll tiny balls to a goal area to obtain a nectar reward—a form of object manipulation equivalent to human usage of a coin in a vending machine. In the course of these experiments, we noticed that some bees rolled the balls around even when no sugar reward was being offered. We suspected that this might be a form of play behavior.

Recently we confirmed this hunch experimentally. We connected a bumblebee colony to an arena equipped with mobile balls on one side, immobile balls on the other, and an unobstructed path through the middle that led to a feeding station containing freely available sugar solution and pollen. Bees went out of their way to return again and again to a “play area” where they rolled the mobile balls in all directions and often for extended periods without a sugar reward, even though plenty of food was provided nearby. There seemed to be something inherently enjoyable in the activity itself. In line with what other researchers have observed in vertebrate creatures at play, young bees engaged more often with the balls than older ones. And males played more than females (male bumblebees don’t work for the colony and therefore have a lot more time on their hands). These experiments are not merely cute—they provide further evidence of positive emotionlike states in bees.

It’s hard to understand these results without thinking that bees, like panda cubs, are playful, messing around with balls that give them pleasure. And since bees don’t experience balls in their natural state, they could be enjoying the novelty. On the other hand, they could simply be encountering something they haven’t experienced, and are following neuronal instructions to manipulate it to see how it operates, which could be useful knowledge in the future. This second interpretation means that no “pleasure” need be involved. Remember, play behavior in animals is often there to prepare them for what happens when they become adults, and isn’t just there for pleasure.

Again, it’s hard to judge from such studies whether bees are feeling pleasure in the way we do. But to me this makes it marginally more likely.


e). Bees appear to weigh pain against pleasure, and change their behaviors when the balance is altered.  Here’s another experiment:

We decided to do an experiment with only moderately unpleasant stimuli, not injurious ones—and one in which bees could freely choose whether to experience these stimuli.

We gave bees a choice between two types of artificial flowers. Some were heated to 55 degrees Celsius (lower than your cup of coffee but still hot), and others were not. We varied the rewards given for visiting the flowers. Bees clearly avoided the heat when rewards for both flower types were equal. On its own, such a reaction could be interpreted as resulting from a simple reflex, without an “ouch-like” experience. But a hallmark of pain in humans is that it is not just an automatic, reflexlike response. Instead one may opt to grit one’s teeth and bear the discomfort—for example, if a reward is at stake. It turns out that bees have just this kind of flexibility. When the rewards at the heated flowers were high, the bees chose to land on them. Apparently it was worth their while to endure the discomfort. They did not have to rely on concurrent stimuli to make this trade-off. Even when heat and reward were removed from the flowers, bees judged the advantages and disadvantages of each flower type from memory and were thus able to make comparisons of the options in their minds.

To me, this really shows nothing more than that animals are attracted to adaptive stimuli and repelled by harmful ones, with the addition of being able to balance harms versus advantages. (This is like the “flight distance” of animals, with some individuals able to give more weight to attractive stimuli. That’s probably how cats got domesticated!) But it doesn’t tell us whether animals are feeling the pain or attraction the way we do.

And we should remember that even protozoans show avoidance of some external stimuli and can be induced by electrical shocks to avoid light. So these animals can be trained. Do they feel pain or pleasure? I doubt it—not protozoa!  They may not show “play” behavior, but perhaps they can be trained to weigh aversive versus adaptive stimuli, as in section “d” above.  I doubt anybody would conclude with confidence that protozoa feel pain the way we do (they don’t have a nervous system) or are even conscious.

Against the doubts that I’ve raised, Chittka offers a counterargument:

Critics could argue that each of the behaviors described earlier could also be programmed into a nonconscious robot. But nature cannot afford to generate beings that just pretend to be sentient. Although there is still no universally accepted, single experimental proof for pain experiences in any animal, common sense dictates that as we accumulate ever more pieces of evidence that insects can feel, the probability that they are indeed sentient increases.

The first sentence is what I have said already. And I’m willing to go along with the third sentence, too: as we learn more, the Bayesian probability that other species experience pain or pleasure can increase or decrease.

But I’m not willing to go along with the idea that “nature cannot afford to generate beings that just pretend to be sentient.”  What does he mean by “afford”? My interpretation is this: he’s saying that natural selection cannot produce organisms that act as if they’re sentient unless they really are sentient. And I cannot see any support for that, for we already know that protozoans act as if they experience qualia, but almost certainly don’t. And saying “pretend to be sentient” is pretty anthropormorphic! It implies, for example, that programmed robots that do what bees do are “pretending to be sentient” when in fact we know they are NOT sentient.

Finally, that leads to the Big AI Question: if we generate robots sufficiently complex that they respond exactly as humans do in complex situations requiring consciousness, does that mean that they have become conscious?  I say “no”, but others disagree.  After all, there are those panpsychists who say that even electrons and rocks have a rudimentary form of consciousness.

I’m writing this on the fly, so forgive me if my thoughts are half-baked.  I do think that Chtittka’s experiments are clever, and, over time, may give us a sense of sentience in other species. But I’m not yet ready to throw in with him on the claim that insects are conscious.  It’s enough for me now to realize that they do experience some aspects of the environment as things to be avoided. And that is why I have always anesthetized my fruit flies before killing them. (When I was an undergrad I used to take them to the biology department roof and let them go, but my advisor Bruce Grant nixed that on the grounds that I was polluting the natural gene pool of Drosophila.)

The last bit of Chittka’s paper is a thoughtful analysis of how these kinds of studies should condition our behavior towards insects. But even if they don’t feel pain, aversion or attraction itself should help us confect a philosophy of “insect ethics.”

h/t: Howard, who brought this paper to my attention and wanted my take on it. I’m sending him this link as my take.

More on free will from Sabine Hossenfelder

June 4, 2023 • 9:35 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the end Hossenfelder adds two points:

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

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

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

A short Forbes magazine interview with Peter Singer

May 24, 2023 • 1:00 pm

I’m posting this clip for two reasons. First, it’s a Forbes Magazine interview with a philosopher I much admire: Peter Singer. He’s admirable because he deals with philosophy’s original purpose: to figure out how to live a good life; because he deals with tough questions (one of them here: the euthanasia of terminally suffering newborns, which he discusses at 6:45); because, even when attacked he defends his ideas with tenacity; because he walks the walk, giving a lot of his income to others; and because does a lot of charitable work. Despite calls to get him fired because of his views on infant euthanasia, he maintains his equanimity and simply proffers a defense of his stand that I, for one, find convincing. And, of course, he spends a lot of time dealing with animal welfare, which a biologist has to admire (sadly, I’m too hypocritical to give up eating meat, but Singer abjures it).

Second, because he’s one of the founders of The Journal of Controversial Ideas, I was chuffed to hear that he talks about our paper recently published there, “In defense of merit in science” (between 9:30 and 13:00). I’m not sure who the interviewer is, but she seems to push on our merit thesis because in some ways it opposes racial diversity. Singer, in response, seems dubious about the idea of equity trumping merit.

They begin by discussing Singer’s new book (an update, actually): Animal Liberation Now: The Definitive Classic Renewed, which came out on Tuesday. I read the original book  (Animal Liberation), which was when he first came to my consciousness. I also admire his book The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress., which suggests how our evolved ethical system has been extended to all humanity.

p.s. Singer has compiled a list of charities where, he thinks, you can get the most relief of suffering for your dollar. I’ve used that list, which you can find here, to decide who will get my money when I die.

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

February 20, 2023 • 9:15 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Dan Dennett, “Reflections on Free Will” (

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

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

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

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

February 12, 2023 • 10:50 am

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

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

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

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

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

The trailer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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