Below is a fairly new and short (7 minute) video by the Official Website Physicist® Sean Carroll on free will. As ever, he argues that we do have free will, but it’s a compatibilist form of free will. That is, he accept “physical determinism” as totally underlying our behavior (he means “the laws of physics, which can include purely indeterminate quantum mechanics”), but says that because we cannot predict the future or what we are going to do, the laws of physics aren’t useful in helping us understand or predict our behaviors. The word “determinism” seems to be playing a big role here, conflating prediction with reality, which is why I prefer to use the word “naturalism” now.
As Sean’s said before, his view of “free will” invokes a level different from that involving the laws physics: it’s the fact, as he says, that “We can talk about human beings as agents making choices, while also agreeing that we don’t violate the laws of physics.” That is, we can’t use those laws to decide what we’ll choose in a restaurant. He argues that each human is a collection of desires, preferences, and values, which are useful in both discussing our behaviors and predicting them, but we’re also “a collections of neurons and obey laws of physics.” Thus we get the compatibility between physics and “free will”, which of course is not “libertarian” I-could-have-chosen-differently free will.
In that sense, every organism also has free will, although some lack values.
Sean, then, sees his form of free will as an emergent property of neuronal organization and evolution that has given us brains that secrete our behaviors. But he also admits that if we were able to predict perfectly what we would do, then “free will would go away.”
It is that last sentence that lays bare what I see as the problems with Sean’s argument. That’s because one thing is for sure: over the coming decades and centuries, as we learn more about the brain, we will be able to use measures of physics independent of “values and desires” to predict more and more of what we do. Already brain-scan experiments using MRI and similar crude techniques can predict what we will choose (in very simple binary-choice experiments) seven to ten seconds in advance. Does this mean that some of our free will has been taken away? This is a kind of free will destined to disappear when we learn more about science.
I do agree with Sean that we talk as if we have free will, and that we act as if we could have done things differently from what we did. As he says, this is because, “given the actual information you have about yourself, you could have acted differently, because the information you have yourself is wildly incomplete”. And that is true as well. But what is also true is that, at bottom, what we do does depends completely on the laws of physics, and our actions are “emergent” only in the sense that at bottom they rest on those laws. Any “emergence” of behavior isn’t based on some non-physical phenomenon like “will”; it is simply our inability to presently extrapolate from lower to higher levels. But there’s nothing new happening at those higher levels.
So if we’re talking about everyday paralance, I have no real problem with Sean’s conception of compatibilist free will. But I think he avoids the question that obsesses me, which I’d pose to Sean like this:
“Yes, Sean, we don’t know enough about our constituent particles and cells to make complete predictions about our behavior. But, on the physical level, isn’t it true that we could not have done other than what we did?”
I think he’d have to agree with me, because he sees no form of non-physical “will” that, given an exact rerun of physical circumstances, could somehow change the resulting behavior. Ergo I think Sean overly neglects libertarian free will, which, after all, is the form of free will that most people envision. Indeed, when I debate the issue with friends and acquaintances, they are astounded to hear that they could not have done otherwise, even if we feel we could have. Most people do seem to adhere to a form of nebulous, un-physical “will”. And if you tell them “well, given what you know you could have made a choice but you really couldn’t have,” that wouldn’t satisfy them.
Nor would it satisfy the many religionists who absolutely believe in libertarian free will. If you accept Jesus as your savior because that’s compatible with your feelings and desires, but your choice could actually be predicted if you had perfect knowledge about your body and the universe, I don’t think that Christians would say that this alone will bring you to God! For that turns every Christian into a Calvinist!
I also agree with Sean that “we have a responsibility for what’s going to happen next.” It’s a mistake to think that hard determinists like me don’t agree with the notion of responsibility. I just don’t agree with the concept of moral responsibility, for that form of responsibility rests on whether someone could actually have done otherwise, not on whether someone feels they could have done otherwise.
In the end, I think Sean is evading an important question—the one I raised above. Sure, we feel as if we could have chosen differently because we don’t have enough information to make an accurate prediction, but he doesn’t come to grips at all with the idea that given the laws of physics that underlie our behavior, there is no way we could have chosen differently. With complete information, everything is either predictable, or, if unpredictable, rests on quantum indeterminacy that has nothing to do with our will.
And that makes a ton of difference when you think about crime and punishment and when you take people to task for saying “they could have chosen otherwise”. Much of our legal system depends on an assumption of libertarian free will, not compatibilist free will. Certainly all retributive punishment does. And recognizing this fact can and should create big changes in both our judicial system and how harshly we judge other people. Under hard determinism, people can be viewed as broken cars. When our car is broken, we don’t think it had a choice, but we do things like repairing it or, if it’s dangerous, taking it off the road. You don’t beat it with a sledgehammer for acting badly in line because its nature was to have a wonky carburetor and and broken transmission.
Recognizing the falsity of libertarian free will also leads to a lessening of self-rebuke. Telling yourself “If I had done X, Y wouldn’t have happened” is useful only in rewiring your brain so you wouldn’t do X again. It is not useful in beating yourself up for behaving in a way that you couldn’t have helped.
I wish Sean would take on the issue in all its fullness. Compatibilist free will is different in important ways from libertarian free will, and those differences have huge consequences. (For those who think that there’s no material difference, remember the surveys in which people who are asked whether we have moral responsibility in a deterministic universe mostly answer “no”.) Well, it’s time that they know that we do live in a deterministic universe. I wish Sean would tell people that we could not have behaved differently, even if we feel we could have!
Again, he’s right when he’s talking about everyday notions, but if at bottom libertarian free will is a total illusion, I wish Sean would say it straight out.
I’m not psychologizing Sean here, but I think the big love of compatibilist free will among philosophers comes from a fear of naturalism and a fear (expressed by Dan Dennett, among others), that if we abandon libertarian free will, as we should do explicitly, society will become totally immoral. In other words, the notion of compatibilism is there to keep us in line.
Why would two members of the ID creationist Discovery Institute keep attacking me for rejecting libertarian free will? After all, that issue has very little to do with evolution. But they keep on trying to land blows, for the real object of the Discovery Institute goes way beyond the promotion of ID creationism in schools. Their goal is the elimination of materialism and naturalism as the basis of Enlightenment Now. (Read about the Wedge Strategy.) They’re upset at me because I adhere to views that don’t require or are associated with a God—and determinism (I’d call it “naturalism”) does just that. If we don’t have spooky free will, and, as I claim, all our behaviors and decisions occur according to the laws of physics, then you can’t “choose” whether to be good or evil, and choice of that sort is essential for the Abrahamic religions to function.
I’m not going to waste my time rebutting these clowns at length, as I’d simply have to reiterate what I’ve said before many times on this site, and since they clearly either don’t know, don’t understand, or deliberately ignore what I’ve said many times over, I just want to point out their article (one of several) to underscore a.) the mental thickness of the protagonists, b.) the religiosity of the protagonists, c.) the real reason why the Discovery Institute operates, and d.) to satisfy Egnor’s eternal desire to get attention by engaging in a dialogue with me. But they’re not going to get their wish on the last one, as I’m just going to show you what they say and let you, the reader here, figure out how I’ve already rebutted it.
Click to read—or hear, as there’s a link to a podcast.:
Here are some of their assertions. Now imagine that you were Professor Ceiling Cat (Emeritus). How would you respond?
Quotes are indented; I may be forced by the laws of physics in making a few remarks:
. . . These arguments have, of course, popped up in the legal system where the famous Darwin-defending lawyer, Clarence Darrow, the famous case back in the 1920s of the two boys who killed somebody just for fun. He argued in court that, “Hey, you can’t blame these boys for this sport killing that they undertook. They were just acting upon what their genes, and maybe their environment, forced them to do.” And he really argued that there is no free will. … Does Jerry Coyne have the right to condemn the Nazis if he denies free will?
Michael Egnor: The fact that Coyne’s denial of free will leaves him incapable of coherently accusing the Nazis of moral evil is enough to discard his denial of free will. That is, it is such a bizarre viewpoint that the Holocaust was not a moral evil — because there are no moral evils — that it really puts the denial of free will almost into a category of delusion.
Darrow wasn’t trying to free Leopold and Loeb: they had already pleaded guilty. He was trying to spare them the death penalty. But yes, Darrow was a “determinist”. But there are a gazillion reasons why a determinist like me would condemn the Nazis. And of course I do.
Michael Egnor: The fact is, we all know that it was horrendously evil. We all know that evil things really happen and that they really are evil. And if there is real evil, just as if there’s real good, then free will must exist. Because if we’re all just determined chemical bags, meat robots, there is no good or evil — we’re simply acting out our chemistry.
And of course, Coyne’s response to this has been that, although he believes that things such as the Holocaust were not morally evil — because there is no such thing as moral evil — he certainly believes that they weren’t… salubrious, is the term he uses. Which means that they didn’t work for the common good and should be condemned on that basis.
If you consider “morality” to be a subjective set of guidelines about what things are good and bad for society or individuals, as I do, then yes, the Nazis were immoral. However, I prefer to avoid the term “moral responsibility”, which presumes, as Luskin and Egnor believe, that people always have a choice between acting morally or immorally at any given moment. They don’t. I prefer the word “responsibility,” which means “the person did it; caused it to happen.” And you can be responsible in ways that mandate punishment, including imprisonment. “Moral responsibility” adds nothing to “responsibility” construed in this way.
Casey Luskin: I think that the Nazis probably believed that what they were doing was for the “common good.” So how do you define common good? On what basis do you condemn something if somebody believes what they’re doing is for the common good?
Of course, Dr. Egnor, all of this flows out of Jerry Coyne’s scientism. If you can’t scientifically prove that something is good or evil, then scientism dictates he can’t condemn it as good or evil. Obviously we have ways of determining whether things are good or evil that go beyond science. Jerry Coyne has to reject those ways of knowing because of his scientism.
Well, morality is a rather subjective set of beliefs, but one can use empirical evidence to bear on some questions of morality, depending on which version you adhere to. If you’re a consequentialist, as I am, then one might argue that the death penalty is “immoral” because it has net bad consequences compared to good ones. And I’m pretty sure that one could show that society (and its constituents) would be better off if murder remained illegal and was considered immoral (there are plenty of downsides and almost no upsides). But of course some people use other criteria besides utilitarian ones, like the Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” or even the Divine Command theory. In most cases, it is preference that dictates what people see as moral or immoral, and preferences differ. And these preferences—your basis for morality—cannot be subject to scientific test.
Egnor and Luskin, of course, think that good and evil are things that comport with what God wants or does not want. And if they cannot prove there’s a God, which they can’t, then they’re on even shakier ground than I!
One more before I grow ill:
Michael Egnor: Well, one of the points about Coyne’s denial of free will that I find in some ways the most frightening is that Coyne has suggested in several of his posts that, because he believes that there is no actual free will, we should change our approach to criminal justice — so that the approach to criminal justice does not entail retribution, but instead entails correction. That basically sort of like training animals. You’d want to train people to do better.
Of course, how one could define “better” in a world with no moral good or evil is a question Coyne doesn’t address.
But what is genuinely frightening about applying Coyne’s determinism and denial of free will to our society is that the most important consequence of the denial of free will is not that there therefore is no guilt. The most important consequence is that there is no innocence. It encourages, an approach to law enforcement that deals with people based on predictions of what they might do.
We ARE animals, and can be influenced by environmental circumstances—like jail. Sadly, our criminal justice system is, by and large, not set up to reform people, but to punish them. It’s also set up to deter others and to keep bad people out of circulation. And yes, there is “guilt”: it means “you did something deemed a crime.”
What a pair of morons! It’s even worse, though, if they knew how I’d respond to these things but have distorted my views to convince people that a secular Jewish evolutionist is, yes, EVIL.
I see I’ve offered some rebuttal after all! But I couldn’t help it: it’s those damn laws of physics!
Physicist Brian Greene published the book below in 2020, and it appears to cover, well, just about everything from the Big Bang to consciousness, even spiritually and death. Click image to go to the Amazon site:
I’ll try to be brief, concentrating on Greene’s view of free will, which is that we don’t have it, we’re subject only to the laws of physics, and our idea of free will is an illusion stemming from our sense that we have a choice. The interview with Greene is in, oddly, the July 1 issue of Financial Review, and is paywalled, but our library got me a copy. (Judicious inquiry may yield you one, too.) You might be able to access it one time by clicking below, but otherwise ask or rely on my excerpts:
Greene also dwells on the fact that we’re the only creatures that know that we’re going to die, an idea that, he says, is “profoundly distressing” and in fact conditions a lot of human behavior. More on that below. Here are a few topics from the interview:
Free will: Although Greene, as I recall, has floated a form of compatibilism before (i.e., our behaviors are subject to natural laws and that’s all; we can’t have done otherwise by volition at any given moment, but we still have free will), this time he appears to be a rock-hard determinist, which I like because I’m one, too. Excerpt from the interview are indented:
What’s more, beyond thoughts of death, my colleagues, according to Greene, are mistaken in their belief they are making their own choices to change their lives. Thoughts and actions, he argues, are interactions between elementary particles, which are bound by the immutable laws of mathematics. In other words, your particles are doing their thing; we are merely followers.
“I am a firm believer,” he says, “that we are nothing but physical objects with a high degree of order [remember these words, “high degree of order” – we’ll circle back to that], allowing us to have behaviours that are quite wondrous, allowing us to think and feel and engage with the world. But our underlying ingredients – the particles themselves – are completely, and always, governed by the law of physics.”
“Free will is the sensation of making a choice. The sensation is real, but the choice seems illusory. Laws of physics determine the future.”
So then, free will does not stand up against our understanding of how the universe works.
“I don’t even know what it would mean to have free will,” he adds, “We would have to somehow intercede in the laws of physics to affect the motion of our particles. And I don’t know by what force we would possibly be able to do that.”
Do you and I have no more options than say, a fish, in how we respond to the world around us?
“Yes and no,” says Greene. “All living systems, us included, are governed by the laws of physics, but the ways in which our collection of particles can respond to stimuli is much richer. The spectrum of behaviours that our organised structure allows us to engage in is broader than the spectrumof behaviours than a fish or a fly might engage in.”
He’s right, and there’s no attempt, at least in this interview, to be compatibilistic and say, well, we have a form of free will worth wanting.
Death: From the interview:
“People typically want to brush it off, and say, ‘I don’t dwell on dying, I don’t think about it,”‘ says Greene via Zoom from his home in New York, where he is a professor at Columbia University. “And the fact that we can brush it off speaks to the power of the culture we have created to allow us to triumph over the inevitable. We need to have some means by which we don’t crumble under the weight of knowing that we are mortal.”
. . . Greene believes it is this innate fear of death twinned with our mathematically marching particles that is driving my colleagues to new horizons, and driving my decision to write this story, and your choice to read it, all bolstered by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Greene’s view appears to be that a substantial portion of human behavior is driven by a combination of two things: the “naturalism” that deprives us of free will, combined with our learned (or inborn) knowledge and fear of death. The death part is apparently what, still without our volition, forces us into action. I’m not sure why that’s true, as the explanation’s not in the interview but perhaps it’s in the book. After all, some people argue that if you’re a determinist doomed to eternal extinction, why not just stay in bed all day? Why do anything? If we do things that don’t enhance our reproduction, it’s because we have big brains and need to exercise and challenge them. Yes, we know we’re mortal, but I’m not sure why this makes me write this website, write books, read, or do science. I do these things because they bring me pleasure. What does mortality have to do with it?
Natural selection: According to the writer and interviewer Jeff Allen (an art director), Greene thinks that the promulgation of our mortality, as well as much of our communication, comes from storytelling, which has been instilled into our species by natural selection. Things get a bit gnarly here as the interview becomes a bit hard to follow. I’m sure Greene understands natural selection better than Allen, but Greene’s views are filtered through the art director:
Natural selection is well known for driving physical adaptation, yet it also drives behavioural change, including complex human behaviours such as language and even storytelling. Language is a beneficial attribute that helps us as a species succeed, as is the ability to tell stories, which prepare the inexperienced with scenarios that may benefit them in the future.
“Evolution works by tiny differentials in adaptive fitness, over the course of long timescales. That’s all it takes for these behaviours to become entrenched,” says Greene. “Storytelling is like a flight simulator, that safely allows us to prepare ourselves for various challenges we will face in the real world. If we fail in the simulator, we won’t die.”
Darwin’s theory of evolution is one of the recurring themes of Greene’s book.
Note in the first paragraph that evolved language and storytelling “helps us as a species succeed”. That’s undoubtedly true—though I’m yet to be convinced that storytelling is anything more than an epiphenomenon of evolved language—but whatever evolved here was undoubtedly via individual (genic) selection and not species selection. Traits don’t evolve to enable a species to succeed; they evolve (via selection) because they give their bearers a reproductive advantage. I’m sure Greene knows this, but Allen balls things up by throwing in “species success”.
Consciousness: If you’re tackling the Big Issues that deal with both philosophy and science, it’s consciousness, defined by Greene (and I) as both self-awareness and the presence of qualia, or subjective sensations (Greene calls it “inner experience”). I’ve written about this a lot, and don’t propose to do more here. We have consciousness, we don’t know how it works, but it’s certainly a physical property of our brains and bodies that can be manipulated by physical interventions. The two issues bearing on Greene’s piece are where it came from and how will we figure out how it works. (Greene implicitly rejects panpsychism by asking “”How can particles that in themselves do not have any awareness, yield this seemingly new quality?”. That will anger Philip Goff and his coterie of panpsychists.)
I’m not sure about the answer to either., We may never know whether consciousness is an epiphenomenon of having a big brain or is partly the result of natural selection promoting the evolution of consciousness. I suspect it’s partly the latter, since many of our “qualia” are adaptive. Feeling pain is an aversive response that protects us from bodily damage; people who lack the ability to feel pain usually accumulate substantial injuries. And many things that give us pleasure, like orgasms, do so because they enhance our reproduction. But this is just speculation.
Greene also thinks that natural selection has something to do with human consciousness, but it’s not clear from the following whether he sees consciousness as an epiphenomenon of our big brain and its naturalistic physical properties, or whether those properties were molded by natural selection because consciousness enhanced our reproduction:
“My gut feeling,” says Greene, “Is that the final answer will be the Darwinian story. Where collections of particles come together in a certain kind of organised high order ‘brain’, that brain is able to have particle motions that yield self-awareness. But it’s still a puzzle at this moment.”
Where Green and I differ is in what kind of work might yield the answer to how consciousness comes about. Greene thinks it will come from work on AI, while I think it will come, if it ever does, from neurological manipulations. Greene:
“That’s perhaps the deepest puzzle we face,” says Greene. “How can particles that in themselves do not have any awareness, yield this seemingly new quality? Where does inner experience come from?”
Greene’s suspicion is that this problem will go away once we start to build artificial systems, that can convincingly claim to have inner awareness. “We will come to a place where we realise that when you have this kind of organisation, awareness simply arises.”
In June this year, Google engineer Blake Lemoine said an AI he was working on, named LaMDA (Language Models for Dialogue Applications), got very chatty and even argued back.
I suppose this is a version of the Turing test, but it will be very, very hard to determine if an AI bot has “inner awareness”. Hell, I don’t even know if my friends are conscious, since it depends on self-report! Can you believe any machine that says it has “inner experiences”?
With that speculation I’ll move on. Greene also muses on the origin and fate of the universe, and whether it might “restart” after it collapses, but cosmology is above my pay grade, and I’ll leave you to read about that yourself.
Peter Singer, my favorite ethical philosopher and somewhat of a role model, has published a provocative article at Project Syndicate that has made me rethink the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. While I absolutely supported Roe v. Wade, and in fact would extend the two-trimester guidelines for legal abortion, I didn’t really see the “right to abortion” enshrined in the Constitution. Sure, you could slot it into the “right to privacy”, but that’s stretching it. And that dies differ from the supposed “right to own guns”, as the Second Amendment specifies under what condition people can own guns: for a militia, not to carry them into a bar in Colorado.
The Supreme Court’s current brief is to rule on whether a law is constitutional, not to make new law. And if you take that view, then the Dobbs decision was correct, as it in effect affirmed that states could ban abortion, for the right to make such laws was not a subject of the Constitution. Ergo, Roe v Wade, which affirmed such a right, wasn’t decided properly.
Of course the Court’s ruling was also tempered by the strong Catholic beliefs of most justices, so it was largely a religious decision as well. But given that I am strongly pro-choice, what do I do? After thinking about it, I’m pondering the solution offered by Singer in this piece: let the democratic process, whether it be on the federal or state level, decide issues that aren’t addressed by the Constitution.
Click to read:
Every woman should have the legal right safely to terminate a pregnancy that she does not wish to continue, at least until the very late stage of pregnancy when the fetus may be sufficiently developed to feel pain. That has been my firm view since I began thinking about the topic as an undergraduate in the 1960s. None of the extensive reading, writing, and debating I have subsequently done on the topic has given me sufficient reason to change my mind.
Yet I find it hard to disagree with the central line of reasoning of the majority of the US Supreme Court in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the decision overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that established a constitutional right to abortion. This reasoning begins with the indisputable fact that the US Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and the possibly disputable, but still very reasonable, claim that the right to abortion is also not implicit in any constitutional provision, including the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The reasoning behind the decision in Roe to remove from state legislatures the power to prohibit abortion was clearly on shaky ground. Justice Byron White was right: The Roe majority’s ruling, he wrote in his dissenting opinion in the case, was the “exercise of raw judicial power.”
The Supreme Court exercised that power in a way that gave US women a legal right that they should have. Roe spared millions of women the distress of carrying to term and giving birth to a child whom they did not want to carry to term or give birth to. It dramatically reduced the number of deaths and injuries occurring at that time, when there were no drugs that reliably and safely induced abortion. Desperate women who were unable to get a safe, legal abortion from properly trained medical professionals would try to do it themselves, or go to back-alley abortionists, all too often with serious, and sometimes fatal, consequences.
None of that, however, resolves the larger question: do we want courts or legislatures to make such decisions? Here I agree with Justice Samuel Alito, who, writing for the majority in Dobbs, approvingly quotes Justice Antonin Scalia’s view that: “The permissibility of abortion, and the limitations upon it, are to be resolved like most important questions in our democracy: by citizens trying to persuade one another and then voting.”
Now Singer points out the irony of the Court overturning Roe right after it affirmed, on Constitutional grounds, the right of citizens of New York to carry handguns, a right that isn’t really in the Constitution unless you stretch the Second Amendment like a Slinky.
I know what you’re thinking: “But if the states vote, I won’t get the laws I want: we’ll have a lot of states that ban abortion.” And that may be true, but if such things aren’t specified in the Constitution, then it’s either up to Congress or the states to decide the issue, not the Supreme Court. The Congress might just squeak through a national pro-choice law some day (not in the near future, sadly), but until then we should not let the Supreme Court strike down democratically enacted legislation. This is something Singer points out in his piece (my bolding):
There is an even more radical implication of the view that courts should not assume powers that are not specified in the Constitution: the Supreme Court’s power to strike down legislation is not in the Constitution. Not until 1803, fifteen years after the ratification of the Constitution, did Chief Justice John Marshall, in Marbury v. Madison, unilaterally assert that the Court can determine the constitutionality of legislation and of actions taken by the executive branch. If the exercise of raw judicial power is a sin, then Marshall’s arrogation to the court of the authority to strike down legislation is the Supreme Court’s original sin.Marbury utterly transformed the Bill of Rights. An aspirational statement of principles became a legal document, a role for which the vagueness of its language makes it plainly unsuited.
So whence does the Supreme Court derive its ability to overturn legislation not in the Constitution? It’s not in the Constitution itself, but is an assertion of one Justice in 1803. I’m taking Singer’s word for this, but I assume some readers will know this history.
Apparently, though Singer is not clear on this, laws that are clearly against what is specified in the Constitution can properly be struck down, for otherwise we’re left with conflicting legal assertions.
And now you’re probably asking yourself, as I did, “Well, if the court doesn’t rule on whether hazy laws are Constitutional, then what should it be doing?” That’s a good question, and Singer’s answer isn’t totally satisfying. For if the Supreme Court (or apparently any court) can’t rule on whether every law adheres to the federal Constitution, can state courts rule on whether hazy state laws are constitutional? I suppose that depends on whether state judges are elected or appointed. If the former, then their rulings are part of the democratic process; if they’re not, then they have no business making such rulings (see below).
Singer’s Big Solution:
Supreme Court decisions cannot easily be reversed, even if it becomes clear that their consequences are overwhelmingly negative. Striking down the decisions of legislatures on controversial issues like abortion and gun control politicizes the courts, and leads presidents to focus on appointing judges who may not be the best legal minds, but who will support a particular stance on abortion, guns, or other hot-button issues.
The lesson to draw from the Court’s decisions on abortion, campaign finances, and gun control is this: Don’t allow unelected judges to do more than enforce the essential requirements of the democratic process. Around the world, democratic legislatures have enacted laws on abortion that are as liberal, or more so, than the US had before the reversal of Roe v. Wade. It should come as no surprise that these democracies also have far better laws on campaign financing and gun control than the US has now.
The part in bold, which is my emphasis, is not entirely clear, and that is Singer’s fault. What does he mean by “enforce the essential requirements of the democratic process.” Couldn’t he list some appropriate actions? Does he mean that they can adjudicate laws that may have not been passed democratically, or laws that lower courts mistakenly construed? I’m pretty sure he means at least that “the Supreme Court should not determine the Constitutionality of laws to which the Constitution does not apply.” For Supreme Court justices, being appointed and not elected, shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. (I can just imagine what the Supreme Court would look like if its judges were elected!)
This of course will radically overhaul the entire court system in the U.S., and not just federal courts. I’m just throwing this out there to see what readers think. Most of us are pro-choice and are angry as hell that the Supreme Court decided that Roe v. Wade didn’t really rest on a constitutional “right to privacy.” But remember that courts are political, and the Supreme Court in particular can willy-nilly rule on rights when the court itself isn’t accountable to the voters.
One of the reasons that compatibilism is so popular, besides buttressing the comforting idea that we can make a variety of conscious choices at any time (well, that’s the way we feel), is that there’s a widespread belief that if you accept determinism (“naturalism”) as opposed to free will, it will be bad for society. (I prefer to use “naturalism” to mean “one’s actions purely reflect the laws of physics” rather than the more common “determinism”, because some of the laws of physics are indeterministic.) If you think you can’t make more than one choice at any one time, so the argument goes, you become mired in nihilism and irresponsibility, bound to act on your merest impulse, immoral or not. In other words, the argument for keeping free will claims that naturalists who ascribe our actions solely to physical laws become irresponsible cheaters who cannot be trusted, and free will is thus a vital form of social glue that keeps society cohesive.
Here, for example, are two statements by the doyen of compatibilism, my pal Dan Dennett (sorry, Dan!):
There is—and has always been—an arms race between persuaders and their targets or intended victims, and folklore is full of tales of innocents being taken in by the blandishments of sharp talkers. This folklore is part of the defense we pass on to our children, so they will become adept at guarding against it. We don’t want our children to become puppets! If neuroscientists are saying that it is no use—we are already puppets, controlled by the environment, they are making a big, and potentially harmful mistake. . . . we [Dennett and Erasmus] both share the doctrine that free will is an illusion is likely to have profoundly unfortunate consequences if not rebutted forcefully.
—Dan Dennett, “Erasmus: Sometimes a Spin Doctor is Right” (Erasmus Prize Essay).
If nobody is responsible, not really, then not only should the prisons be emptied, but no contract is valid, mortgages should be abolished, and we can never hold anybody to account for anything they do. Preserving “law and order” without a concept of real responsibility is a daunting task.
—Dan Dennett, “Reflections on Free Will” (naturalism.org)
But you can be a “hard determinist” and still believe in responsibility!
These views are often based on an early study by Vohs and Schooler (2008), which “primed” students by reading them an anti-free-will passage written by Francis Crick, with another group reading a “control” passage that was neutral. Not only were the anti-free-will readers less likely to accept free will right after the readings, but they also tended to cheat more in a psychological test given immediately thereafter. To me, this is a thin basis on which to make a blanket statement about the long-term effect of denying free will on society.
Since that 2008 study, however, there have been many similar experiments testing whether such “priming” can not only affect belief in free will, but whether it can promote a variety of antisocial behaviors. Some studies have attempted to replicate the results of others and failed to do so; these, ironically, include the landmark study of Vohs and Schooler.
I should note that, as the authors of the paper below show, there are many people (including me, though I’m not cited) who feel that there are healthy effects of naturalism, including having more empathy for others and a reduced feeling of “retributive justice” (i.e., people should get punished because they made the wrong choice).
The present study by Genshow et al. (click on screenshot below; pdf is here, reference at bottom) is an attempt to combine all existing studies of this type using meta-analysis. They had two big questions:
Research Question 1: Can belief in free will be experimentally manipulated?
Research Question 2: Does this have any downstream consequences?
“Downstream” means “after the manipulation”, and not “permanent”!
The answers, as you can see if you read the long paper are yes, belief in free will can be experimentally manipulated, though the effects aren’t large, and no, the consequences of such manipulation, if any, don’t last long. The authors thus conclude this:
Taken together, there is a debate about whether anti–free will viewpoints should be discussed in the public media. Our findings suggest that the influence on society may be weaker than previously assumed. In this respect, we would like to argue that discussions about the implications of believing in free will should distinguish between scientific facts and philosophical speculations (Schooler, 2010) as well as acknowledge methodological limitations of the cited research (Racine et al., 2017).
In other words, you can promote compatibilistic free will for a variety of reasons (i.e., it comports with our personal understanding of what “free will” means), but not because belief in naturalism will somehow erode society.
First, some clarification. The authors analyzed 84 studies. Of these, 72 were subject to meta-analysis to see if “priming” affected belief in free will. (These studies included 124 experiments, of which 31 were published and 93 unpublished.) Further, 44 of the studies that showed successful manipulation of free will were tested to see if there were effects that lasted (these comprised 67 experiments, 43 published and 24 unpublished.)
What do the authors mean by “free will”. Apparently the classic contracausal or libertarian “you-could-have-chosen-otherwise” free will:
. . . belief in free will reflects a much broader belief about choice and freedom (e.g., “Do I have a choice? Can I freely choose to do otherwise?”).
They construe the opposite of free will to be “determinism” though, as I said above, purely physical indeterminism, like quantum effects, could affect what one does at any given moment but still not reflect conscious choice and not be part of classical “free will”. (You can’t “choose” to affect the movement of an electron.) I will use “naturalism” instead of the authors’ “determinism”. Though they don’t talk about pure physical indeterminism, it doesn’t affect the results of their studies.
They used two methods to measure the effect of reading on free will belief; both gave the same results.
They also analyzed two other aspects of experiments. The first involved four ways of conducting the “priming’ : reading two statements alone, doing that as well giving a verbal reprise, seeing a video about free will or a neutral one, or reading a variety of statements that were either “control” or “anti-free will”. None of the experiments involved reading any pro-free will statements, probably because most people already accept libertarian free will and there’s not much room to manipulate that belief. It turns out that the most effective way to erode belief in free will is a combination of the two readings plus a verbal summary by the experimenter.
Second, the authors analyzed experiments in which the subjects were asked themselves to summarize or rewrite the messages given to them right after they were primed. It turned out that this form or conscious repetition also increased the erosion of belief in free will due to the experimental manipulation.
a. “Can belief in free will be experimentally manipulated?” The meta-analysis showed that over all the experiments, priming did significantly erode acceptance of free will, though not by a huge amount. So yes, beliefs can be affected. When acceptance of “naturalism” (what the authors call “determinism”) was also tested, it increased, though not as much as acceptance of free will declined.
b. “Does this have any downstream consequences?” But how long do these effects last? When erosion of belief in free will occurs in these studies, is it permanent, or does it last only over the experimental period? The “experimental period” appears to last between a day and a week, so it’s by no means permanent. And by “downstream” effects they include experiments where antisocial tendencies were tested right after the priming studies, and where the priming was separated from the measurement of antisocial behavior by another, unrelated test. I didn’t look at every experiment, but most appear to do the antisocial tests right after priming, so the effects can only be said to be temporary—a few hours to a week.
The social behaviors tested are shown in Table 1 of the paper, and include measurements of cheating, helping, aggression, conformity, gratitude, punishment, prejudice, moral actions, cooperation, punishment and moral judgments, victim blaming, and other tests. Again, this was a meta-analysis, so all these “antisocial” behaviors were taken into consideration in a single analysis.
Finally, their main method of seeing if there was an effect over all the studies on social attitudes involved “p curve analysis”, which I’ve never used but the authors describe like this:
In the first step, we ran a p-curve analysis across all dependent variables. While the aim of estimating a population effect size makes a meta-analysis unsuited to evaluate diverse sets of dependent variables, this is not the case for p-curve. Rather than estimating a population effect size, p-curve investigates whether a set of statistically significant findings contains evidential value by testing whether the distribution of p-values is consistent with the existence of a true effect (Simonsohn et al., 2014). Importantly, if confirmed, this does not mean that all included studies show a true effect. Instead, it merely implies that at least one study does (Simonsohn et al., 2014). As such, p-curve can be applied to diverse findings as long as they form a meaningful whole (Simonsohn et al., 2015).
And they analyzed a subset of the results involved “anti- or prosocial behaviors”:
In a second step, we ran meta-analyses on internally coherent sets of dependent variables. Upon reviewing the literature, one clear set arose—namely, antisocial versus prosocial behavior (for an overview, see Table 1). Hence, we pooled together the studies in this set and subjected them to a meta-analysis testing whether manipulating belief in free will influences social behavior. However, pro- and antisocial behavior is still a relatively broad and unspecific dependent variable. Therefore, in a third and final step, we also ran meta-analyses on three specific dependent variables that have been used in at least five experiments: conformity, punishment, and cheating.
The upshot: there was no statistically significant effect in either analysis. The p-value distribution suggests that not a single study had a “true effect.” Now if you use the psychologists’ way of measuring significance (p < 0.1), there is an overall level of significance for the effect on behavior, but using the biologists’ p value for significance (p < 0.05), the overall result became nonsignificant. And using either criterion, when you eliminate the single experiment that had the largest “downstream” effect, the whole effect on behavior becomes nonsignificant (p = 0.128). The effect on anti-social behavior appeared to be significant, but was seen only in published and not unpublished studies, as might be expected. Further, when those studies were eliminated that showed no effect on manipulating free will, the “downstream” effect disappeared, so it may have been some kind of artifact.
I should add that there was no attempt to correct for multiple tests of significance, which increases the chance that something will appear significant when it’s really not. Experimenters vary in how they do this correction, but some correction is always needed, and none was done in this study. That means that even the close-to-significant results, of which there were few, were probably not statistically significant.
The authors conclude this:
In sum, the analysis showed that the effect of anti–free will manipulations on antisocial behavior was no longer significant after controlling for publication and small sample biases. This was true even when we only included studies that found a significant effect of the manipulation on belief in free will and indicates that there is insufficient evidence for the idea that manipulating belief in free will influences antisocial behavior.
Now there are caveats about all these results (i.e., the downstream effect could have been significant but missed, or there might be an unknown third variable that affected the results, and so on); and the authors describe these in detail. The profusion of caveats means that the authors look as if they’re almost apologetic for finding no effect given the widespread view that denying free will will ruin society.
But given that the effect of priming on eroding free will was weak, that there was no meaningful “downstream” effect of trying to make people reject free will, that there was no attempt to correct for multiple tests of significance (a statistical no-no), AND, especially, the “downstream” effects were measured within a week of the initial priming (usually on the very same day), there’s simply no reason to play Chicken Little and say that we must believe in free will because otherwise society will fall to pieces. How can one possibly make statements about the long-term effects on society of rejecting free will and embracing naturalism without a proper test of that hypothesis? I repeat what the authors say above:
Taken together, there is a debate about whether anti–free will viewpoints should be discussed in the public media. Our findings suggest that the influence on society may be weaker than previously assumed. In this respect, we would like to argue that discussions about the implications of believing in free will should distinguish between scientific facts and philosophical speculations (Schooler, 2010) as well as acknowledge methodological limitations of the cited research (Racine et al., 2017).
And even if pure naturalism be true, and that most people’s belief in libertarian view be wrong, should we really hide that truth from people for the good of society? It reminds me of the Little People’s Argument for Religion: “we of course aren’t religious, but society needs religion to function properly.” It also reminds me of The Little People’s Argument for Creationism, encapsulated in what might be an apocryphal anecdote. It recounts how the wife of the Bishop of Worcester reacted when told that Mr. Darwin suggested that people had descended from apes. Mrs. Bishop of Worcester supposedly said:
“My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray it will not become generally known.“
And that is the same argument many make for the prevalence of the laws of physics, which to many of us rules out libertarian free will. Further, if you think that nobody attacks naturalism or supports some form of free will because they decry naturalism’s supposedly bad social consequences, you’re wrong. I quoted Dan above, and I could give more quotes. To me, it’s almost never of value to hide the truth about reality as a way to preserve social harmony.
Yes, you can embrace compatiblistic free will even if you think libertarian free will has no consequences for society, but if that’s the way you think, I ask you this: “Why did the authors of this paper go to all the trouble to do the analysis?”
Tom Clark called my attention to this essay on free will published by philosopher Julian Baggini in Psyche, adding this:
If you’ve not already seen it, Baggini has about the best version of compatibilist free will I’ve come across, It’s explicit about determinism and how things change under it, including abandoning retribution.
And yes, this is one of the best articles around about free will in general, making a strong case for hard determinism and the abandoment of libertarian free will.
But I think Baggini comes a cropper on three issues, all involving compatibilism. First, he thinks that we need a notion of compatibilist free will to act as a form of social glue, because psychology studies show that abandoning the notion of “contracausal” free will makes people cheat more often (see below about that) and also may make them abandon the notion that they’re “responsible” for anything (more about that later, too). Second, I don’t think Baggini makes a good case why we need some form of “compatibilist” free will. I don’t think that with this he’s arguing here that we use the term “free will” as a shorthand even though we may be hard determinists, and that “compatibilist” free will is just a shorthand for this argot. Rather, I think he goes beyond this. Indeed, my third issue is that he formulates a form of “compatibilist free will” that, to me, is no different from hard determinism.
That said, I think that about 80% of this article is good, and is certainly worth reading. Baggini writes clearly, and for your friends who claim that determinism isn’t something anyone believes, point them to this piece. But even better, point them to Sam Harris’s short book Free Will, a book with which I have no major disagreements. (As usual, we tend to recommend books with which we have the most agreement!) Sam’s small paperback is only $8 on Amazon. I should add that Baggini has also written a book on free will, Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will(2015), which I haven’t read but will.
Click to read Baggini’s piece. It’s not short, but worthwhile for free-will mavens and philosophers.
Baggini’s first point is to assert the hegemony of determinism and to reject libertarian “you could have done otherwise” free will. This is from his summary of major points:
All your choices are in a sense inevitable. A lot of the time, you might feel as though you have freedom to act as you wish (a view known as ‘voluntarism’), but taking into account your history, personality, mood and other factors, there is in fact an inevitability to everything you do.
There’s no escaping the chain of cause and effect. Even quantum physics and the randomness of quantum causation cannot offer us an escape because the ability to act randomly is not the same as having free will.
And that’s that. He also notes the increasing number of brain-monitoring studies showing that our “decisions” (granted, simple ones) are made before we’re conscious of having made them:
The final nail in free will’s coffin seems to come from neuroscience. Various brain studies have claimed to show that actions are initiated in the brain before we have any awareness of having made a decision. In other words, the thought ‘I’ll choose that’ comes after the choice is made. Actions are determined by unconscious, unchosen brain processes, and the feeling of having made a decision comes later. On this view, believing that these thoughts have any role in determining what we do would be like mistaking the noise made by an engine for the force that powers it.
People object to this, saying that the decisions studied are simple binary ones (add or subtract, decide when to move a finger), but they’re getting better and the results are still the same. To those who claim that more “complex” decisions are not made before we’re aware of them, or are the results of libertarian choice, the onus is on them to give evidence instead of carping about existing studies.
As do many compatibilists, though, Baggini tries to show that determinism is really the situation we want, for libertarian free will is “capricious”. We should (and do) make decisions in line with what we really want, and that’s good.
Take the assumption that we would be robbed of an essential human capacity for choice if our decisions were in any sense inevitable. But imagine what would need to be true for your choice not to have been inevitable. It would mean that you had the power to override your settled preferences, personality and life history, and could decide to do something that is not determined by these but only by something we call your ‘free will’. Such a freedom would be gratuitous, since the only grounds for our choice would be the power to choose itself. Is pure caprice really a form of free will worth wanting?
To take a trivial example, we don’t want the capacity to choose any flavour of ice-cream but the one we think we’ll most enjoy. We don’t want the capacity to vote for any political party but the one that we think will most advance our values. Our freedom to choose matters precisely because it reflects our personalities, preferences and values, not because it can override them. Our moral and political commitments would mean nothing if they were things we could choose to change at will.
Although ice-cream choice (why do people always use ice cream as an example?) is determined, is it certain that it’s to your benefit that it be determined? Perhaps if you had a “capricious” desire to try a new flavor, you’d decide that you like it and then could have a new flavor in your panoply of preferences. I haven’t thought much about this, but it seems as if Baggini is making a virtue of necessity, and that in some circumstances libertarian free will might be useful (i.e., a robber decides not to pull the trigger of a gun). But given that this isn’t possible, we’re pretty much stuck with determinism.
I’ll highlight five other points in Baggini’s piece.
a.) Properly, Baggini notes that “praise and blame don’t depend on absolute freedom”. He notes, and I agree, that the concept of “responsibility” (as in “agent responsibility”: X did Y and was thus responsible for Y) still makes sense undeer determinism. As for judicial punishment, we’re also in agreement:
The idea that we need the concept of voluntarist free will for praise and blame, reward and punishment is also highly questionable. The major philosophical justifications for punishment are retribution, deterrence, reform of the offender and signalling societal disapproval. Of these, only the first requires voluntarist free will for its justification, and many find the notion of retribution repugnant in any case.
Note that philosopher Gregg Caruso, also a hard determinist who’s debated Dan Dennett (a compatibilist) also feels that deterrence is not a valid rationale for punishment, as it violate’s Kant’s imperative that people are to be used only as ends, not as means. I’m still pondering this for situations in which the perp really did the deed and is not some innocent person used as an example to deter people. After all, what other reason is there to give traffic tickets?
b.) Baggini says this: “It’s useful to feel you could have done things differently, even if it’s a fiction.” He uses Dan Dennett’s “putting” example:
To the extent that the idea of free will involves some fictions, this could be a good thing, as long as we are aware that they are fictions. Take the idea that we ‘could have done otherwise’, so central to the free will debate. There is a sense in which this is never literally true. But the thought that we could have done otherwise is neither meaningless nor useless.
In his bookFreedom Evolves (2004), Daniel Dennett illustrates this with the example, borrowed from John Austin, of a golfer who misses an easy putt, and then thinks: ‘I could have holed it.’ If you think this means that, were time to be rewound to the moment the golfer played the shot, then she could have played it differently, you’d be wrong. The golfer herself probably doesn’t mean that either. Rather, she means that holing the shot was well within her skillset, and that this was the kind of shot she would usually pull off.
The thought ‘I could have holed it’ does not therefore serve to inform us of an alternative reality that didn’t come to pass. It is to focus the mind of the golfer on the mistake so that she doesn’t repeat it next time, perhaps by making her think about what it was that made her slip up.
This point of view, to me, does not mean that we have to think that “we could have done otherwise”. It means exactly what it says, “Perhaps I could have holed the putt if I had done Y.” And this is a simple function of our brain’s adaptive wiring to do things that bring us success (a surrogate for survival and reproduction). If we fail, our brain goes to work and runs over other possibilities, just like a chess-playing computer runs over possibilities, though it does this before it makes a bad move. One can think about alternative actions without having to fool yourself into thinking that you could have performed them at the time.
c.)Bagginis’s concepts of “free will worth having”, or “compatiabilist free will, don’t make a lot of sense to me. Here’s one of them, involving coerced choices versus uncoerced choices, with the latter seen as forms of compatibilist free will:
What we need is a ‘compatibilist’ conception of free will, one that reconciles human freedom with the causal necessity of the physical world.
Such a conception is hiding in plain sight, in the ways in which we distinguish between free and unfree actions in real life. We rarely, if ever, ground this distinction in a metaphysical thesis about causation. Rather, we distinguish between coerced and uncoerced choices. If no one ‘made me do it’, I acted freely.
Now Baggini does qualify this (see next point), but this is the most common way people find free will in everyday life. If you do something uncoerced, you’ve evinced free will. If you’re forced to do it, it wasn’t free will. (Remember, Baggini’s still a determinist but looking for everyday meanings of “free will” that make sense).
The problem is that this distinction doesn’t exist under strict determinism. As Sam Harris said:
“There isn’t, materially, anything more coercive about giving money at gunpoint than drinking milk when you’re thirsty.”
And he’s right. You are coerced by the laws of physics, whether you feel coerced or not. And, of course, there are those cases in which you are pulled in both directions. If society urges you to use your savings to send your kids to college which you want to do, while you partly regret that because you’d really like a new Porsche or two. But when you send your kid to college, are you doing that of your own free will or not? There are gazillions of such circumstances in which we do things when there are upsides and downsides of each possible alternative. That’s why the “coercion” trope isn’t useful.
But wait! Baggini qualifies this with seemingly more sophisticated philosophy:
It is not quite enough, however, to say that, as long as choices are not coerced, they are free. Bees are not forced to spread pollen at gunpoint but their behaviours are too automatic to be classed as free. Similarly, highly automatic or unreflective human behaviours, such as addictive consumption, don’t seem to be genuinely free either. So what elevates some human choices to the genuinely free rather than the merely unforced?
The best answer to this remains Harry Frankfurt’s influential theory about the difference between first- and second-order desires. Our first-order desires are the ones we just have: for a piece of cake, to have sex, to scratch our itching skin. Second-order desires are desires about these desires. I may not want to want to eat cake, because I’m trying to eat more healthily. I may not want to want to have sex because the object of my desire is not the person I am in a monogamous relationship with.
Frankfurt says that we have the kind of free will worth having when our first- and second-order desires are aligned and we act on them. When we choose to do something that, all things considered, we don’t want to do, we have failed to exercise our free will and have behaved compulsively. If we haven’t even thought about whether we desire a desire, we are not exercising our free will if we unthinkingly act on it.
This makes no more sense to me than the “coercion” argument. All that’s happening here is that our brain program is vetoing something else that we might have done: it’s the old “free won’t” trope. Granted, humans may have more sophisticated brain programs than, say, earthworms, but that doesn’t mean that just because we can override things that one might think we’d choose is no evidence for a type of free will. We ALWAYS behave “compulsively” in the sense that all our behaviors, whether or not they fulfill “second-order desires” (a distinction I find pretty useless), are compelled by the laws of physics acting in our brain. So if I give up the cake because it’ll make me fat, I am exercising free will, but if I eat it because it tastes good, that’s not exercising free will? This is a distinction without a difference. To me, this is not a “form of free will worth wanting”. It gives you no control over what you do, whether or not you eat the cake.
Even Baggini recognizes that he’s pulling a desperation move here:
Second-order desires do not escape the chains of cause and effect. At bottom, they are the result of a series of events that we did not choose. But nothing we can do can be freely chosen ‘all the way down’. No one can choose the things that most fundamentally shape them: their genes, society and family. Not even God would be free to change its nature, if it existed.
d.)The idea of free will is good for society. This is the “little people argument,” maintaining that we must tell people that they have a form of free will, because if they’re determinists they will be nihilistic and become miscreants and cheaters.
All of this is based on short term (one day, usually) studies of undergraduate students asked to read either a “libertarian free will” passage or a “deterministic” passage, and then determining, on a test given almost immediately, whether they cheat more. The results are not replicable, and there are no long-term studies of this paltry experiment. Baggini admits the problems, but still maintains that embracing determinism means rejecting responsibility. I reject that wholeheartedly, and have bolded the relevant sections of Baggini’s argument below:
For example, studies have shown that the more people believe in free will, the harsher they judge not only criminals but their victims. When we fail to acknowledge the limitations of freedom, we become more punitive, less forgiving. Simply rejecting free will altogether would, of course, be one way to make us more forgiving. But it can also push us too far. Another famous set of studies suggested that when people are encouraged to believe that free will is an illusion, they are more likely to cheat. The reasoning seems to be that, if we don’t have free will, no one can be blamed for their actions, so it no longer makes sense to feel bad about doing wrong.
We should be suspicious of all such studies, since many have failed to be replicated. Studies aside, however, it is logical that belief in voluntarist free will would entail attributing too much responsibility to people, and rejecting free will completely would mean the end of responsibility altogether. Only the compatibilist approach gives us a framework in which we can hold people to appropriate account. It tells us we shouldn’t just let people off the hook, but we should also become more aware of what has shaped people’s behaviour and therefore be more understanding of it. The same should also be true of how we view ourselves.
I maintain, in contrast, that a pure determinist approach gives us a framework in which we can hold people to appropriate account. Baggini himself has shown us how: to sequester the baddies, give people a chance for reform, and deter others. You can do all that as a pure and hard determinist.
e.) The fact that how we think changes how we act gives credence to a form of free will. Baggini says this:
Compatibilism also allows for the undeniable fact that what we think changes how we act. Many assume that if all that we do is ultimately governed by cause and effect, then our actions are caused by brain processes that ‘bypass’ our thoughts and beliefs. But it cannot be as simple as that since, when we change what we believe, we change how we act. If I think that cake is poisoned, I won’t eat it. That is why it is important to think of our actions as being under a degree of control: what we think does change what we do.
To me, this is a no-brainer, so long as you realize that you have no choice about what you think, and that the environment also influences what you think. If you think a cake is poisoned, you must have received that information somewhere, and your adaptive brain program, evolved to keep you alive, will make you reject the cake. If you’re a dog and think someone’s friendly, but then they keep kicking you, that will change how you think and how you act: you will associate that person with an aversive stimulus and henceforth avoid them.
In the end, compatibilism always seems to be a semantic way around Baggini and my claim that we have no choice than to do whatever we do at a given time. Compatibilism is not necessary unless you think people can’t handle the truth of determinism (they can, just as they can handle the idea of atheism that was once unthinkable). Yes, we have shorthands for choice, but a serious determinism knows exactly what these are: verbal shorthands underneath which lies pure determinism. Evolutionists use the same kind of short hand when we say stuff like “Natural selection made the finch’s beaks larger.”
I’ll finish by closing with more words from Sam Harris:
Compatibilism amounts to nothing more than an assertion of the following creed: A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.
(That man can write!)
Let me reiterate, though, that on the whole I admire Baggini’s essay, and would love to discuss these issues with him over a pint of Landlord. As opposed to other proponents of compatibilist free will, Baggini seems open minded and amiable rather than tendentious and querulous.
I’m just here to pass on this information from reader Merilee, which she got in an email. I won’t be able to watch Dan’s lucubrations, but you can:
Tonight, March 17 from 8-9 pm ET, we host Daniel Dennett for a Munk Dialogue on the origin of human consciousness, and how our minds have been shaped by natural selection and generations of cultural evolution.
Daniel Dennett is a world-renowned philosopher and cognitive scientist, and the Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.
Although I had (and still have) trouble understanding superdeterminism, it is, as Horgan and Sabine explain, a way that quantum mechanics becomes deterministic rather than fundamentally indeterministic. To use the jargon of Bell’s Theorem, superdeterminism is a theory of “local hidden variables”, so that factors we don’t yet understand actually determine absolutely how particles behave. As Horgan notes:
A conjecture called superdeterminism, outlined decades ago, is a response to several peculiarities of quantum mechanics: the apparent randomness of quantum events; their apparent dependence on human observation, or measurement; and the apparent ability of a measurement in one place to determine, instantly, the outcome of a measurement elsewhere, an effect called nonlocality.
Einstein, who derided nonlocality as “spooky action at a distance,” insisted that quantum mechanics must be incomplete; there must be hidden variables that the theory overlooks. Superdeterminism is a radical hidden-variables theory proposed by physicist John Bell. He is renowned for a 1964 theorem, now named after him, that dramatically exposes the nonlocality of quantum mechanics.
As I wrote in response to Hossenfelder’s video:
I’m not quite sure what “superdeterminism” means is on the level of particles, but it appears to be something like this: “What a quantum particle does depends on what measurement will take place.” And once the measurement system is specified, somehow a quantum particle is determined to behave in a certain way. That’s what I don’t get.
And Horgan seems as puzzled as I am, even though Hossenfelder says that superdeterminism may be empirically testable. Back to Horgan:
I’m nonetheless baffled by superdeterminism, whether explicated by Hossenfelder or another prominent proponent, Nobel laureate Gerard t’Hooft. When I read their arguments, I feel like I’m missing something. The arguments seem circular: the world is deterministic, hence quantum mechanics must be deterministic. Superdeterminism doesn’t specify what the hidden variables of quantum mechanics are; it just decrees that they exist, and that they specify everything that happens, including my decision to write these words and your decision to read them.
Hossenfelder and I argued about free will in a conversation last summer. [JAC: this discussion is on YouTube and I can’t watch it from down here.] I pointed out that we both made the choice to speak to each other; our choices stem from “higher-level” psychological factors, such as our values and desires, which are underpinned by but not reducible to physics. Physics can’t account for choices and hence free will. So I said.
And now, what about the effect of superdeterminism on free will? Horgan says that the relevance of physics itself to the phenomenon of free will, much less the effect of superdeterminism, is irrelevant. That’s because, or so it seems from his piece, that he does believe in a form of libertarian (“you-could-have-done-otherwise”) free will.
But as most of us know, even if there are fundamental indeterminacies lurking in quantum physics, and while deterministic physics rules macro-level phenomena, there is still no such thing as libertarian free will. Whether or not an electron jumps in an indeterminate way, and that makes you decide to do one thing or another—this does not mean you have libertarian free will. To enable that, your conscious will must have made that electron jump and, as Sean Carroll has pointed out, that itself violates what we know about the laws of physics. So long as the laws of physics are obeyed, be they deterministic or indeterministic, we cannot have libertarian free will. Yet Horgan seems to think that that kind of free will can exist; we just don’t understand enough about nature to know how and why.
The analogy here is to our current lack of current understanding abut how neurobiology leads to the phenomenon of consciousness. This lack of understanding is taken by some, like Philip Goff, to mean that we’re missing something beyond current laws of physics: the ability of electrons, atoms, and so on, to have a form of consciousness (this idea is called “panpsychism,” and I consider it both foolish and untestable).
Likewise, the fact that we have emotions and consciousness and feelings that can alter the world (again, this is a fact regardless of the truth of superdeterminism) leads Horgan to the idea that there may be libertarian free will. He thinks that we just don’t understand enough physics yet:
. . . To my mind, the debate over whether physics rules out or enables free will is moot. It’s like citing quantum theory in a debate over whether the Beatles are the best rock band ever (which they clearly are). Philosophers speak of an “explanatory gap” between physical theories about consciousness and consciousness itself. First of all, the gap is so vast that you might call it a chasm. Second, the chasm applies not just to consciousness but to the entire realm of human affairs.
Physics, which tracks changes in matter and energy, has nothing to say about love, desire, fear, hatred, justice, beauty, morality, meaning. All these things, viewed in the light of physics, could be described as “logically incoherent nonsense,” as Hossenfelder puts it. But they have consequences; they alter the world.
Physics as a whole, not just quantum mechanics, is obviously incomplete. As philosopher Christian List told me recently, humans are “not just heaps of interacting particles.” We are “intentional agents, with psychological features and mental states” and the capacity to make choices. Physicists have acknowledged the limits of their discipline. Philip Anderson, a Nobel laureate, contends in his 1972 essay “More Is Different” that as phenomena become more complicated, they require new modes of explanation; not even chemistry is reducible to physics, let alone psychology.
This, and the paragraph below, are truly begging the question of naturalism and free will: assuming the existence of a phenomenon we want to prove—libertarian free will. We are “intentional agents” with “the capacity to make choices”, What Horgan is ignoring here is whether or not those choices are determined by the laws of physics. They may look like true choices that could have been made otherwise via conscious will, but that’s an illusion.
And the last paragraph seems to show that Horgan truly is afflicted with confirmation bias. To Horgan, the known and unknown laws of physics, and their relevance to free will, is a non-issue. Our wills must truly be free—and not deterministic—because because the implications are just too depressing. Horgan:
. . . Why does the debate over free will and superdeterminism matter? Because ideas matter. At this time in human history, many of us already feel helpless, at the mercy of forces beyond our control. The last thing we need is a theory that reinforces our fatalism.
What we need is the truth, not a view of science that buttresses our emotional desires.
In the end, the debate between superdeterminism or quantum mechanics is irrelevant here. All that’s relevant is whether the known laws of physics apply to all matter. There is no evidence that they don’t, and some evidence (viz., Sean Carroll’s arguments) that they do, at least to “everyday life.”
In other words, Horgan wants there to be libertarian free will, and so he thinks that we’re simply missing the physics that allow this to be true. I happen to disagree, and I think that most physicists and philosophers will agree with me. Even compatibilist philosophers, after all, still think that libertarian free will is wrong, and our “choices” are absolutely determined by the laws of physics. They just conceive of free will in a manner that is compatible with the laws of physics.
I have floated this question before, but want to raise it today to see if I can understand a distinction. And that distinction is between many people’s argument that they cannot be forced to get a Covid vaccination to stay on the job, but at the same time they allow their children to be forcibly vaccinated to attend public school.
Now there is no law in the U.S. saying that you must be vaccinated, period, though of course there are mandates specifying that you can’t work unless you’re vaccinated. New York City’s mandate for municipal workers went into effect today, after the Supreme Court turned down an emergency request yesterday to stall it. Up to 3,000 people might have lost their jobs this morning. And yet many people still refuse to get vaccinated even if it means the loss of their livelihood. I see them on the news every night, making loud protests about their “rights” being violated by vaccine mandates. Along with that goes the mantra “this is my body and therefore it’s my choice.” And so they get fired, and some of them die, while others infect their fellow citizens.
This mass protest has culminated in the Great Truckers’ Protest of last week, and I hope it’s over now. (Did Trudeau show some moxie?) It was an act of civil disobedience, and therefore warrants punishment, but I had little sympathy for them.
What I don’t understand is this: these same people who assert their rights and bodily autonomy—and I see no “right” to be able to endanger the public safety by infecting others—make not a peep when they get shots for their kids to go to public school.
Not everyone understands that in the U.S., and presumably other countries, any child wishing to attend public school has to get a series of immunizations,
Now why aren’t the parents protesting this forcible vaccination? Isn’t that a violation of either the parents’ or the students’ “rights”? If you’re one of the many who talk about “rights” and “my decision”, and yet still want to walk around in public, yes, it’s certainly hypocritical to not bring up “rights” for your children as well. But, except for a few fringe anti-vaxxers, or believers who want religious exemptions for their kids (I’m not sure these are even allowed for school vaccination), we hear no talk of rights for school immunization.
Is this hypocrisy? Well, I can think of several reasons why you could say “no”:
a.) The school vaccines have been proven safe and effective over years of trial, while, of course COVID vaccines have been around just a bit more than a year. The parents could say, “These vaccines work and don’t have bad side effects, so I won’t speak of “rights” But then you could ask them how much safety must be proven before vaccination becomes mandatory. As I recall, when the polio vaccine came out, it became mandatory within just a few years, and people were begging to get it.
b.) You could say that you have the right to decide for your own body, but not for the bodies of your kids, and therefore they should get vaccinated. But this doesn’t work because parents make decisions about the medical treatment of their kids all the time, especially before the kid is sentient enough to make its own choice, which is at a pretty advanced age. For school vaccinations, the parents have to agree by the time the child is five or six. (Note as well that parents feel that have the right to decide their children’s religious beliefs before the kids are old enough to choose!)
c.) The parents could say that they have the alternative of no employment if they’re not vaccinated, but there’s no alternative for their kids if they’re not vaccinated. That’s not entirely true: there is homeschooling, which is free, and private (often religious) schools that don’t require vaccination. But The latter are often pricey.
d.)_ They are willing to risk getting Covid, but the children are too young to afford that risk. But this reverts back to a) above: if the vaccine isn’t risky for your children, why is it risky for you? (In fact, it’s more dangerous for adults to get Covid than for kids).
There is more to discuss here, but I won’t get into it. I’m just curious why parents who obediently let their kids be vaccinated (even with COVID shots for college!) turn into enraged don’t-tread-on-me” types when it’s their own jabs at issue.
If there’s a rational answer, I would say that a)—proven safety and effectiveness—would be the one, but of course the Covid data so far shows that the risk is minor compared to the effectiveness. Certainly we know that the chance of illness, hospitalization, and death is greatly reduced for adults if they get the shot (we’re talking about resistance of adults to getting vaccinated). Vaccination for adults is, without doubt, a net good save for those who are medically compromised.
But I suspect that more is at stake here—perhaps ideology. People have largely lost control of their lives during the pandemic, and refusing shots is a way of getting control, and also of showing the government that they can’t control you. This is likely connected with a conservative or libertarian ideology that opposes government intervention. In the case of the truckers, it seems to me they’re pissed off about a lot of things, including loss of jobs and rising prices, and protesting against vaccines is the nucleus around which these resentments coalesce.
But maybe I’m not asking a meaningful question. It’s just that when I see a bunch of angry people yelling about “rights” and “bodily autonomy” on television, it makes me wonder whey they go all quiet when the needle goes into the arms of their kids.
I’ve had my differences with Massimo Pigliucci, but when he says something I agree with, I give him praise (see my kudos here for his admirable critique of panpsychism). So I’m always puzzled when he has to work in a slur against me when we do have our differences.
In this case we don’t seem to have any differences on the topic of free will, but he still insists on characterizing Sam Harris and me as “philosophically naive anti-free will enthusiasts”. Massimo’s insults usually come in such a form: asserting his superior credentials in either biology or philosophy. I’m not going to respond by calling him names. It is the argument I want to deal with.
That aside—and the “naive” bit did upset me a tad—Pigliucci argues in the article below that the concept of free will is “incoherent”. By “incoherent”, he apparently means that “free will in the pure libertarian sense cannot exist because it violates the laws of physics.” But of course that’s the argument I’ve been making all along, so in fact we agree. Perhaps the word “incoherent” has a philosophical meaning I don’t fathom (I am, after all, philosophically naive)’ but if people do realize that the libertarian (“I-could-have-chosen-otherwise”) concept of free will adhered to by most people and a large proportion of religious believers cannot be true, I will be happy.
Do note that for a long time I’ve lumped physical determinism together with pure indeterminism (as in quantum mechanics) as “naturalism”. It’s naturalism that puts paid to the libertarian concept of free will, not just determinism. “Contracausal” free will (another name for “libertarian free will”) would violate the laws of physics, and so can be dismissed. As Sean Carroll showed, there is no way that immaterial “will” can influence physical objects, and we already understand the physics of everyday life. Libertarian free will is not part of everyday life.
Anyway, click below to read Pigliucci’s short essay in “Philosophy as a way of life”:
Massimo’s argument seems no different from one I’ve been making for years (it’s not of course my argument; I’m parroting the naturalists who preceded me). A quote:
“Free” will, understood as a will that is independent of causality, does not exist. And it does not exist, contra popular misperception, not because we live in a deterministic universe. Indeed, my understanding is that physicists still haven’t definitively settled whether we do or not. Free will doesn’t exist because it is an incoherent concept, at least in a universe governed by natural law and where there is no room for miracles.
Consider two possibilities: either we live in a deterministic cosmos where cause and effect are universal, or randomness (of the quantum type) is fundamental and the appearance of macroscopic causality results from some sort of (not at all well understood) emergent phenomena.
If we live in a deterministic universe then every action that we initiate is the result of a combination of external (i.e., environmental) and internal (i.e., neurobiological) causes. No “free” will available.
If we live in a fundamentally random universe then at some level our actions are indeterminate, but still not “free,” because that indetermination itself is still the result of the laws of physics. At most, such actions are random.
Either way, no free will.
Note that, as I’ve also maintained (but some readers here don’t) that the popular view of free will is wrong because it violates the laws of physics, including both the deterministic ones and the truly indeterminate but statistical quantum-mechanical ones. (Note that Newtonian mechanics is a special case of quantum mechanics, but determinism suffices for much of everyday life, like sending rockets to the Moon.)
So where is the incoherence here? Massimo’s argument appears to be this (my take):
a. The universe is governed by the laws of physics. The brain is part of the universe and behavior (including “choice”) comes from our brain
b. If the laws are deterministic, we can’t have free will
c. If the laws are indeterministic, we can’t have free will, either, because, according to libertarians, our behaviors are not completely “random” or capricious.
d. Since deterministic and indeterministic laws are all we have, there is no free will, which is seen as independent of the laws of physics.
If that’s “incoherent”, I don’t see why. It’s not a purely philosophical deduction, because determinism and indeterminism are empirical phenomena.. And I’m happy that Massimo agrees that there’s no free will the way most people use the term. At least he doesn’t assert, as compatibilists do, that the popular notion of free will is really a sophisticated Dennett-ian one. Surveys show that that is not true: it’s the libertarian one that both Pigliucci and I say is nonsensical. (Or, in his case, “incoherent.”)
In the rest of the article, Pigliucci discusses the meaning of the Libet experiment as well as interesting newer experiments in which brains are monitored when more complex decisions are made. It turns out that for a simple random decision, like pressing a button or deciding whether to add or subtract, as in Libet’s study, the brain gives a signal before the actor consciously decides what to do. And that signal predicts with substantial accuracy what the actor will do. The predictability has increased as brain monitoring has improved.
Massimo says this:
Libet also asked participants to watch the second hand of a clock and report its position at the exact moment they felt the conscious will to move their wrist. The idea was to explore the connection between the RP [the “readiness potential” detected in the brain before the actor’s decision comes to his/her consciousness] and conscious decision making.
The results were clear, and have been confirmed multiple times since, using different and improved experimental protocols. Unconscious brain activity, measured by the RP, preceded the conscious decision to move the wrist by at least half a second, with more recent studies putting that figure up to two full seconds.
This was interpreted as to mean that the participants had in fact decided to move their wrist quite some time before they became conscious of their decision. The implication being that consciousness had nothing to do with the decision itself, but was rather an after-the-fact interpretation by the subjects.
Philosophically naive anti-free will enthusiasts like Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne, among others, eventually started using the Libet experiments as scientific proof that free will is an illusion. But since free will is incoherent, as I’ve argued before, we need no experiment to establish that it doesn’t exist. What Libet’s findings seemed to indicate, rather, is the surprising fact that volition doesn’t require consciousness.
I don’t in fact remember using the Libet experiments as “scientific proof that free will is an illusion.” You can rule out libertarian free will, as I do when I talk about the subject, from the laws of physics alone, using exactly the same argument that Pigliucci does. What I do say is that insofar as the popular conception of free will requires a conscious decision, it doesn’t seem to work, as consciousness is temporally decoupled from choice, which can be predicted with substantial but not perfect accuracy from brain scans before the conscious choice is made.. Again, we have pilpul: a distinction without a difference.
The stuff in Massimo’s piece that interested me was his discussion of a paper that I haven’t read for a while:
Enter a pivotal paper published by U. Maoz, G. Yaffe, C. Koch, and L. Mudrik in 2019 in the journal eLife Neuroscience and entitled “Neural precursors of decisions that matter — an ERP study of deliberate and arbitrary choice.”
The authors set up a series of conditions that allowed them to distinguish between what was happening in the brains of people asked to engage in arbitrary decision making (similar to the original Libet experiment) or in deliberate choices (the latter characterized by different degree of difficulty).
The results were highly informative. They did detect the RP, but only in association with arbitrary, not deliberate decision making. In other words, Libet’s results do not extend to situations when people engage in conscious decisions, and therefore it has nothing to do with the debate on volition.
Maoz and collaborators also built a theoretical model that was able to nicely match the experimental results. On the basis of their model, they suggest that — contra the common view regarding the RP — where arbitrary decisions are concerned “the threshold crossing leading to response onset is largely determined by spontaneous subthreshold fluctuations of the neural activity.” That is, the RP goes up and down randomly until it crosses a threshold that leads to action, in the case of the original experiment, the flicking of the wrist.
Maoz et al.’s model also suggests that two different neural mechanisms may be responsible for arbitrary vs deliberate decision making.
That’s interesting, though Maoz et al., while able to make a model of what happened, couldn’t suss out what the “decision” would be using their models or the measurement methods (EEG). That doesn’t of course mean that researchers with more knowledge of the brain, couldn’t eventually find a way to predict what decision a person could make before it’s made.
But even if it’s made at the very last second, it doesn’t matter. The whole process of deliberation and “decision” in complex tasks is analogous to the working of a giant computer made of meat. There are inputs, they work through the neurons, and we spit out an “output”: a decision. That decision is still not “free” in the sense that it could have been “made” (via volition) in a different way. That decision still reflects the deterministic or fundamentally indeterministic laws of physics, and is not made independently of them. If the decision could have been otherwise, it could only be because an electron jumped a different way, not because the actor willed a different outcome. (We still don’t know, and I doubt, that quantum-mechanical indeterminacy really does show its effects in the way people behave.)
But the end, as Massimo says, “Either way, no free will.”
Neuroscience and our understanding of how we act as we do is a hard but fascinating subject, and experiments like the one above are essential in understanding behavior. But we’re a very, very long way from working out the physical basis for “choice.”
Massimo ends his article this way:
Research like the one conducted by Maoz and colleagues opens fascinating insights into a real scientific question: how do human beings make conscious decisions? The other question, regarding free will, is a non-issue because free will cannot possibly exist in a universe with laws of nature and no miracles. It follows that there is nothing at all that neuroscience can say about it.
I don’t agree. Free will is not a non-issue, and we know that because many people accept it. For them it is an issue! They accept it because they don’t understand physics, because they embrace duality, or because they believe in God and miracles. You can’t dismiss all those people, for they are the ones who make and enforce laws and punishments based on their misunderstanding that we have libertarian free will. They are the ones who put people to death because, they think, those criminals could have chosen not to pull the trigger.
I agree that there’s little that neuroscience can say about free will, but it can say this: Because neurons are material objects that obey the laws of physics, we cannot have free will. That is not “nothing”!
The rest is commentary—and a lot of hard work.
Oh, and Massimo, if you’re reading this, could you just be civil and lay off the insults? I may be philosophically naive, but I can still understand what you’re saying and can still learn from your arguments.