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

January 11, 2021 • 9:30 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 20, 2020 • 11:00 am

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

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

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

Click to read:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

h/t: Jiten

Richard Dawkins on truth and “ways of knowing”

December 19, 2020 • 10:45 am

It’s been a while since I’ve seen an article by Dawkins appear in a magazine or newspaper, but now there’s a new one on the nature of truth and knowledge in The Spectator (click on screenshot for free access). Yes, it’s a rather conservative venue, but you’re not going to see The Guardian publishing critiques of theology and postmodern denial of objective truth. And Dawkins does take some pretty strong swings at Donald Trump, e.g. “For him, lying is not a last resort. It never occurs to him to do anything else.”

The article first defines what scientists mean by “truth”, and then attacks two areas that dismiss that definition—or at least offer alternative “ways of knowing”:

What is truth? Richard begins by analogizing scientific truth with the “the kind of truth that a commission of inquiry or a jury trial is designed to establish.” He adds this:

I hold the view that scientific truth is of this commonsense kind, although the methods of science may depart from common sense and its truths may even offend it.

I like that idea—though Massimo Pigliucci will be enraged—because it shows there’s no bright line between scientific truth and the kind of truth that people establish using “common sense”, which I take to mean empirical inquiry whose results people generally agree on. Truth is simply what exists in the universe and can be found by common assent. That’s with the proviso, of course, that there is a reality to be found, and one that’s independent of us. I’ll take that as a given, and don’t want to argue about it. And, of course “common assent” means, in science, the assent of those capable of evaluating data.

Finally, while truth is always “provisional” in science, there are some truths so well established that we can regard them as “not really that provisional”. These are the truths whose reality you’d bet thousands of dollars on. It’s unlikely, as I say in Faith Versus Fact, that normal DNA will some day be shown to be a triple helix, or a water molecule to have two atoms of hydrogen and two of oxygen. This is a point that Richard makes as well, and one we should keep in mind when we debate those who argue that, “Well, science is tentative, and can be wrong—and has been wrong.” To wit:

It is true that Newton’s laws are approximations which need modifying under extreme circumstances such as when objects travel at near the speed of light. Those philosophers of science who fixate on the case of Newton and Einstein love to say that scientific truths are only ever provisional approximations that have so far resisted falsification. But there are many scientific truths — we share an ancestor with baboons is one example — which are just plain true, in the same sense as ‘New Zealand lies south of the equator’ is not a provisional hypothesis, pending possible falsification.

Bad thinkers. Finally, the two groups Richard excoriates for rejecting the notion of scientific truths are the theologians on one hand and the PoMo-soaked philosophers and Critical Theory mavens on the other. First, the theologians, who by now are low-hanging fruit:

Theologians love their ‘mysteries’, such as the ‘mystery of the Trinity’ (how can God be both three and one at the same time?) and the ‘mystery of transubstantiation’ (how can the contents of a chalice be simultaneously wine and blood?). When challenged to defend such stuff, they may retort that scientists too have their mysteries. Quantum theory is mysterious to the point of being downright perverse. What’s the difference? I’ll tell you the difference and it’s a big one. Quantum theory is validated by predictions fulfilled to so many decimal places that it’s been compared to predicting the width of North America to within one hairsbreadth. Theological theories make no predictions at all, let alone testable ones.

Nor has theology ever, by itself, established a single truth about the universe. I keep asking people to give me one, but they either can’t or bring in truths that are empirical and can be verified not by revelation or dogma, but only by observation and testing. Ergo, theology is not a “way of knowing.”

And then the poor PoMos and Critical Theorists get their drubbing (remember, the roots of Critical Theory are in the filthy humus of postmodernism):

A more insidious threat to truth comes from certain schools of academic philosophy. There is no objective truth, they say, no natural reality, only social constructs. Extreme exponents attack logic and reason themselves, as tools of manipulation or ‘patriarchal’ weapons of domination. The philosopher and historian of science Noretta Koertge wrote this in Skeptical Inquirer magazine in 1995, and things haven’t got any better since:

Instead of exhorting young women to prepare for a variety of technical subjects by studying science, logic, and mathematics, Women’s Studies students are now being taught that logic is a tool of domination…the standard norms and methods of scientific inquiry are sexist because they are incompatible with ‘women’s ways of knowing’. The authors of the prize-winning book with this title report that the majority of the women they interviewed fell into the category of ‘subjective knowers’, characterised by a ‘passionate rejection of science and scientists’. These ‘subjectivist’ women see the methods of logic, analysis and abstraction as ‘alien territory belonging to men’ and ‘value intuition as a safer and more fruitful approach to truth’.

That way madness lies. As reported by Barbara Ehrenreich and Janet McIntosh in The Nation in 1997, the social psychologist Phoebe Ellsworth, at an interdisciplinary seminar, praised the virtues of the experimental method. Audience members protested that the experimental method was ‘the brainchild of white Victorian males’. Ellsworth acknowledged this, but pointed out that the experimental method had led to, for example, the discovery of DNA. This was greeted with disdain: ‘You believe in DNA?’

You can’t not ‘believe in DNA’. DNA is a fact. . . .

While different groups of people have different interests, and that may lead them to work on areas that reveal truths heretofore hidden, that doesn’t mean that there are different ways of knowing. Barbara McClintock, for example, was touted by her biographer Evelyn Fox Keller as having a special female-linked “feeling for the organism” that led to her Nobel-winning studies on mobile genetic elements. I don’t buy that thesis, but there may be some truth to the claim that female evolutionists helped emphasize the important role of female choice in sexual selection.  If so, that means that different aspects of a problem may appeal to different groups, but in the end the truth or falsity of ideas are established the same way by everyone. McClintock did her science the way everyone else did, as do those who study sexual selection. There may be many ways of thinking, but only one way of knowing. 

And that way of knowing is what I call “science construed broadly”: the use of observation, testing of hypotheses, attempts to falsify your theory, experiments, and so on. Science has more refined methods than, say, an electrician trying to find a glitch in house wiring, but in the end they both rely on a similar set of empirical tools.

Richard will of course be faulted for attacking the beloved notion of “other ways of knowing”, but in the end he’s right. And of course there are all those people laying for him, who will claim he’s arrogant in giving science such hegemony over truth. He attacks this head on:

Some of what I have claimed here about scientific truth may come across as arrogant. So might my disparagement of certain schools of philosophy. Science really does know a lot about what is true, and we do have methods in place for finding out a lot more. We should not be reticent about that. But science is also humble. We may know what we know, but we also know what we don’t know. Scientists love not knowing because they can go to work on it. The history of science’s increasing knowledge, especially during the past four centuries, is a spectacular cascade of truths following one on the other. We may choose to call it a cumulative increase in the number of truths that we know. Or we can tip our hat to (a better class of) philosophers and talk of successive approximations towards yet-to-be-falsified provisional truths. Either way, science can properly claim to be the gold standard of truth.

Amen! I’ll finish with a quote I used to begin Chapter 4 in Faith Versus Fact. It’s from Mike Aus, a former preacher who left the pulpit after admitting his atheism on television. Since then he hasn’t fared well, but he did produce one quotation that I think is telling:

When I was working as a pastor I would often gloss over the clash between the scientific world view and the perspective of religion. I would say that the insights of science were no threat to faith because science and religion are “different ways of knowing” and are not in conflict because they are trying to answer different questions. Science focuses on “how” the world came to be and religion addresses the question of “why” we are here. I was dead wrong. There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world.

h/t: Eli

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

November 15, 2020 • 11:30 am

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

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

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

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

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

h/t: Paul

Sabine Hossenfelder says we don’t have free will, but its nonexistence shouldn’t bother us

October 11, 2020 • 1:00 pm

Here we have the German theoretical physicist, author, and science popularizer Sabine Hossenfelder giving an 11-minute talk called “You don’t have free will, but don’t worry”. (My own talk on the subject is the first five words she uses, and I think we should be concerned—though not in the sense she means.)  The video and a written transcript are on her website Backreaction.

If you’ve read this site, you’ll know that my own views are pretty much the same as hers, at least about free will. We don’t have it, and the fundamental indeterminacy of quantum mechanics doesn’t give it to us either. Hossenfelder doesn’t pull any punches:

This means in a nutshell that the whole story of the universe in every single detail was determined already at the big bang. We are just watching it play out.

These deterministic laws of nature apply to you and your brain because you are made of particles, and what happens with you is a consequence of what happens with those particles. A lot of people seem to think this is a philosophical position. They call it “materialism” or “reductionism” and think that giving it a name that ends on –ism is an excuse to not believe it. Well, of course you can insist to just not believe reductionism is correct. But this is denying scientific evidence. We do not guess, we know that brains are made of particles. And we do not guess, we know, that we can derive from the laws for the constituents what the whole object does. If you make a claim to the contrary, you are contradicting well-established science. I can’t prevent you from denying scientific evidence, but I can tell you that this way you will never understand how the universe really works.

QED!

She adds this about quantum mechanics, which used to be a life preserver used to rescue the notion of “freedom”, but has largely been abandoned because with two seconds of thought you see that it doesn’t give us any freedom of the will:

What about quantum mechanics? In quantum mechanics some events are truly random and cannot be predicted. Does this mean that quantum mechanics is where you can find free will? Sorry, but no, this makes no sense. These random events in quantum mechanics are not influenced by you, regardless of exactly what you mean by “you”, because they are not influenced by anything. That’s the whole point of saying they are fundamentally random. Nothing determines their outcome. There is no “will” in this. Not yours and not anybody else’s.

Taken together we therefore have determinism with the occasional, random quantum jump, and no combination of these two types of laws allows for anything resembling this intuitive idea that we can somehow choose which possible future becomes real. The reason this idea of free will turns out to be incompatible with the laws of nature is that it never made sense in the first place. You see, that thing you call “free will” should in some sense allow you to choose what you want. But then it’s either determined by what you

Now note that she hasn’t actually defined free will so far, but later on she dismisses the concept that most people, including me, adhere to (my emphasis):

Taken together we therefore have determinism with the occasional, random quantum jump, and no combination of these two types of laws allows for anything resembling this intuitive idea that we can somehow choose which possible future becomes real. The reason this idea of free will turns out to be incompatible with the laws of nature is that it never made sense in the first place. You see, that thing you call “free will” should in some sense allow you to choose what you want. But then it’s either determined by what you want, in which case it’s not free, or it’s not determined, in which case it’s not a will.

Now, some have tried to define free will by the “ability to have done otherwise”. But that’s just empty words. If you did one thing, there is no evidence you could have done something else because, well, you didn’t. Really there is always only your fantasy of having done otherwise.

I don’t agree here, for the “could have done otherwise” definition of free will is the one that most people adhere to, and the “otherwise” comes not from physical randomness but from will. In fact, Hossenfelder doesn’t even agree with herself, for shortly thereafter she implicitly defines free will this way—after having disposed of a few varieties of compatibilism (again, my emphasis):

I also find it unenlightening to have an argument about the use of words. If you want to define free will in such a way that it is still consistent with the laws of nature, that is fine by me, though I will continue to complain that’s just verbal acrobatics. In any case, regardless of how you want to define the word, we still cannot select among several possible futures. This idea makes absolutely no sense if you know anything about physics.

Here she implicitly defines free will as whatever facility enables us to “[select] among several possible futures,” and that’s the notion she refutes. I’m not sure why this idea is any more “empty words” than  is “the ability to have done otherwise”.

At any rate, she goes on to conclude that the absence of free will doesn’t mean that our moral behavior will erode. I agree, of course. I think it means our “moral responsibility” disappears, for to me “moral responsibility” comes with the notion of “having an ability to make the ‘right’ choice”, an ability that doesn’t exist. I think we are responsible for our acts in the sense that it is our brains that have produced them, and thus for many reasons we should either be punished or rewarded. If you want to say “we are responsible because we have either transgressed or supported the acts society considers ‘moral'”, I’m not going to beef.

Hossenfelder concludes by reiterating that free will is “nonsense” and that “the idea deserves going into the rubbish bin.”  True, that. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be happy, for we have the illusion of free will, and we can use that as a crutch to go through life. She even suggest a psychological trick for being happy:

If it causes you cognitive dissonance to acknowledge you believe in something that doesn’t exist, I suggest that you think of your life as a story which has not yet been told. You are equipped with a thinking apparatus that you use to collect information and act on what you have learned from this. The result of that thinking is determined, but you still have to do the thinking. That’s your task. That’s why you are here. I am curious to see what will come out of your thinking, and you should be curious about it too.

Why am I telling you this? Because I think that people who do not understand that free will is an illusion underestimate how much their decisions are influenced by the information they are exposed to. After watching this video, I hope, some of you will realize that to make the best of your thinking apparatus, you need to understand how it works, and pay more attention to cognitive biases and logical fallacies.

I’m not sure how it helps to realize that “you have to still do the thinking”, when in reality the thinking is doing itself! Just because we don’t know what will happen—that our predictability is not so hot—doesn’t make us any less a bunch of meat robots who are slaves to the laws of physics. I know this, and yet I’m tolerably happy (for a lugubrious Jew). We know our “choices” are illusions, and my realization that these illusory choices come from a brain embedded in the skull of one Jerry A. Coyne does not give me the consolation Hossenfelder promises. But I still beat on, a boat against the current.

One more point: I’m not sure why compatibilists don’t just admit what Hossenfelder does instead of trying to find a definition of free will that people do have. The physicist Sean Carroll and philosopher Dan Dennett have taken that route, which I call the Definitional Escape rather than Hossenfelder’s There’s No Escape but Isn’t it Cool to Not Know what Comes Next.

The one thing I think Hossenfelder neglects comes from her last paragraph. If we do understand that free will in the Hossenfeldian sense is illusory, that has enormous consequences for the judicial system and for how we think about people who are either more or less fortunate than we are. I won’t dilate on this as I’ve discussed it to death. But yes, realizing that our brains are particles and obey the laws of physics should cause us worry—worry about how we treat prisoners and those who are mentally ill, and worry about how some people hold others responsible for making the “wrong choices.”

That aside, I applaud Dr. Hossenfelder for realizing the truth, which, as she says, is the ineluctable outcome of science, and for saying it so straightforwardly. I’m a big fan of hers. And I applaud myself for agreeing with her.

 

h/t: Andrew

Once again: the supposed need for the self-justification of science

September 23, 2020 • 12:00 pm

Reading the latest edition of The Chicago Maroon, our student newspaper, I saw an op-ed about self care by Ada Palmer, an associate professor of History. I’m not going to write about that; her piece is pretty straightforward and empathic towards our students, who will be having a rather stressful semester. Rather, when I looked Palmer up, I saw that she’d written a review two years ago in Harvard Magazine of Steve Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. Always interested in how my colleagues regard Pinker, in arguments for empiricism and rationality, and intrigued by the title of her piece, I read her piece. You can, too, by clicking on the screenshot below.

It turns out that Dr. Palmer likes Steve’s book, but has two reservations. The first is that Steve argues that humanism, which is a handmaiden of atheism, is the way forward, and that religion has only been an impediment to moral and material progress. I think he’s pretty much right on that one. But Palmer doesn’t like the atheism bit:

Pinker reviews what he sees as humanism’s intellectual adversaries, such as those who caricature it as cold utilitarianism, those who suggest that humans have an innate need for spiritual beliefs, and the classic accusation, ubiquitous in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, that there cannot be good or virtue without God. For some readers, it will be frustrating that 350 pages of useful and cheering data, the majority of which one could call faith-neutral, culminate in the declaration that only triumphant atheism can ensure that scientific progress will help instead of harm. But Pinker’s secular humanism is less militant than that of many contemporary atheist voices; he focuses on the benefits of caring about the earthly world, rather than on condemning religion. His conclusion, that progress simply requires us to value life over death, health over sickness, abundance over want, freedom over coercion, happiness over suffering, and knowledge over superstition, is one numerous theisms can and have embraced.

Thank God he’s not as militant as Dawkins! God forbid that anyone should condemn religion.

Yes, but of course many theisms have impeded science, reason, and morality, and continue to do so (I’m looking at you, Vatican), while atheism hasn’t impeded those things one bit. After all, atheism is simply lack of belief in gods. The lucubrations above look like either religion osculation or accommodationism. I doubt that anyone could argue cogently that science would be more advanced if everyone became religious. Palmer also mentions “secular evidence” below, as if there was a kind of “nonsecular evidence” for science.

But the main problem with her piece is a recurrent trope that we see among those who wish to minimize the importance of science. It’s the claim that reason itself, or logic, or science itself, cannot prove that science can actually help us understand the universe in a useful way. For philosophers and some in the humanities, the lack of a priori justification that reliance on empirical methods will work is somehow an indictment of science. Here’s how Palmer goes at it:

Pinker briefly reviews efforts to value other factors—love, passions, feeling—above reason, but declares such efforts self-defeating: as soon as they attempt to justify themselves, the very act of providing reasoned arguments for their beliefs admits that reasoned arguments are the strongest grounds for belief. Yet, as I reflect on this argument, I am reminded how science, during a critical moment in its history, was self-defeating in much the same way.

Why was it self-defeating? Because there was no a priori justification for going ahead with empirical observation, hypothesis-making and -testing, and so on as a way to understand nature:

Progress in the modern sense, as an intentional and human-driven process, was first fully articulated by Francis Bacon early in the seventeenth century, when he suggested that a collaborative community of empirical inquiry would uncover useful truths that would radically transform human civilization and make each generation’s experience incrementally better than that of the generation before. This was not the easy sell it seems, since Bacon had no evidence that this unprecedented project could wield such power—and even if he had found evidence, one can’t use reasoned evidence to prove that reasoned evidence can prove things. New discoveries were frequent—the moons of Jupiter, the magnification of insects, the circulation of the blood—but practical benefits were slow in coming.

Well, that’s not exactly true, because people had been using what I call “science broadly construed” to understand nature for millennia. I was impressed, on reading Beryl Markham’s West With the Night, how local trackers used scientific observation to find game: the depth of the tracks, how dry they were, where waterholes were, and so on. There was in fact every reason to think that empirical inquiry would lead to understanding, while prayers and revelation, which any chowderhead would know didn’t help much, weren’t a good way to find animals or decide which plants were edible vs. poisonous.

As for the “practical benefits being slow in coming”, well, I take issue with that. Is improved understanding of the world “practical”. Maybe it won’t make you richer or healthier, but it makes you wiser and more appreciative of the marvels of nature.

In the end, though, I don’t care if you can’t use reason to prove that reason and empiricism “can prove things”. (Actually, they can’t: science doesn’t speak of “proof” but of more or less confirmed hypotheses.) What’s important is that, as Richard Dawkins said pungently, “Science works, bitches!”  The justification of empiricism, reason, and science is in its results: we find out what makes people sick, how to get to the Moon, how to cure disease, and so on. Only somebody hogtied with the strictures of philosophy could see a lack of a priori justification as an argument against the methods and validity of science. Yet we hear this all the time—often from theologians.

Palmer goes on:

 Yet Bacon did succeed in awakening a groundswell of enthusiasm (and funding) for reason and science, through an argument that often surprises my students: he appealed to the personality of God, arguing that a good Maker would not send humans out into the wilderness without the means to achieve the desires implanted in us. Thus, because reason is God’s unique gift to humankind, it must be capable of all we desire.

From time to time, particularly in the aftermath of the French Revolution, champions of secularized science have been embarrassed by this comment from Bacon—worrying what would happen if their atheist followers realized that science, at its inception, had no secular evidence to support its own faith in the power of evidence.

Well, the important thing is that nobody’s embarrassed by this argument any more, for the majority of scientists, and nearly all “elite ones” neither believe in gods nor worry about “the lack of secular evidence” to support the power of evidence. As I noted above, long before Bacon we knew that we could understand things without needing “divine evidence.”

Palmer makes one more dig at atheism:

But with Pinker’s entire book in hand, Bacon would also have felt the tension between two arguments running through it: the inclusive argument that reason, science, humanism, and progress have made our present better than our past, and can make our future better still; and the less inclusive argument, however eloquently and intelligently presented, that the humane and empathetic humanism capable of turning our powers to good and away from evil must be secular.

Frankly, I don’t care what Bacon would think about the lack of need for “divine” as opposed to secular evidence for science, or about the power of humanism. There’s not an iota of evidence that religion makes people behave better, and often it makes them behave palpably worse. (Remember Steve Weinberg’s dictum: “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”) And of course the more atheistic a country, the better off it is—by nearly any measure: gender equality, happiness, prosperity, well being, and so on.

But it doesn’t matter, for her main argument, which she reprises in her last paragraph, is both philosophical and a non-starter. Note what I see as a snarky bit in the following (I’ve bolded it):

Pinker is no more successful than Bacon at justifying science and reason without a recursive appeal to science and reason. Yet for those already confident in the persuasive force of evidence, it would be hard to imagine a more encouraging defense than Pinker’s of the reality and possibilities of progress.

What? Is there a large segment of humanity that isn’t confident in the persuasive force of evidence? If so, they shouldn’t be trusting any court decisions, or even their own observations, much less taking planes or swallowing antibiotics.  In my view, nearly everyone is confident in the persuasive force of evidence about most things, though some fraction of humans are confident in things that lack evidence. They include religious people, conspiracy theorists, and cranks. (Oh, and Donald Trump.)

Why does this argument against science keep coming up? It’s worthless!

Why science needs philosophy: an op-ed in PNAS

September 11, 2020 • 1:00 pm

Although some scientists (I believe Lawrence Krauss is one) have said that philosophy is useless to scientists, I’m not one of these miscreants. Although I recognize that philosophy can’t find out truths about the real world as opposed to “truths” within logical systems, it can certainly be an aid to thinking about science. Two examples are Dan Dennett’s ideas about consciousness (I don’t think his lucubrations about free will, though, have been helpful to science as opposed to philosophy itself) and Phil Kitcher’s critique of sociobiology (now “evolutionary psychology”) in his book Vaulting Ambition: Sociobiology and the Quest for Human Nature. 

Further, philosophers have been instrumental in helping discredit Intelligent Design theory and creationism; I’m thinking in particular of Rob Pennock’s book Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism and Kitcher’s anti-creationist book Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism.  Surely dispelling an “alternative” theory to evolution is a real contribution to science and to science education.

My Ph.D. advisor, Dick Lewontin, was a big fan of philosophy, and some of his scientific papers, like the one on the units of selection, sit at the border of science and philosophy. We often had philosophers spending sabbaticals in our lab (Eliott Sober, one of the authors of the paper below, was one of them), and their presence was stimulating.

Now several scientists and philosophers have teamed up to once again make the case for the value of philosophy in science in this paper in the new PNAS. Click on the screenshot to read the piece, or download the pdf here.

It’s a short piece—3.5 pages long—and gives several examples, new to me, about how philosophers have helped guide research, mainly by clarifying concepts. Not all of the “helpful” aids from from philosophy seem to have been all that helpful, though, including debates about the “modularity” of the brain, or emphasis on the importance of microbes in the biosphere, which seems to me to have come from science, not philosophy. This is what the piece says about brain modularity, for instance:

Philosophy had a part in the move from behaviorism to cognitivism and computationalism in the 1960s. Perhaps most visible has been the theory of the modularity of mind, proposed by philosopher Jerry Fodor (10). Its influence on theories of cognitive architecture can hardly be overstated. In a tribute after Fodor’s passing in 2017, leading cognitive psychologist James Russell spoke in the magazine of the British Psychological Society of “cognitive developmental psychology BF (before Fodor) and AF (after Fodor)” (https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/jerry-fodor-1935-2017).

Modularity refers to the idea that mental phenomena arise from the operation of multiple distinct processes, not from a single undifferentiated one. Inspired by evidence in experimental psychology, by Chomskian linguistics, and by new computational theories in philosophy of mind, Fodor theorized that human cognition is structured in a set of lower-level, domain-specific, informationally encapsulated specialized modules and a higher-level, domain-general central system for abductive reasoning with information only flowing upward vertically, not downward or horizontally (i.e., between modules). He also formulated stringent criteria for modularity. To this day, Fodor’s proposal sets the terms for much empirical research and theory in many areas of cognitive science and neuroscience (1112), including cognitive development, evolutionary psychology, artificial intelligence, and cognitive anthropology. Although his theory has been revised and challenged, researchers continue to use, tweak, and debate his approach and basic conceptual toolkit.

Well, modularity could have been true in principle, and surely the idea of brain modularity has stimulated a lot of discussion. But in the end, it hasn’t led anywhere, largely because the actions of the brain don’t seem to be separated into distinct, quasi-independent moieties but seem to be diffuse—and plastic enough to be influenced by other parts of the brain. You can read about this diffuseness in Matthew Cobb’s new book, The Idea of the Brain. But even the precise definition of modules isn’t sufficiently specific that philosophers have been able to propose good experiments to test it.

In the end, the authors offer some suggestions for how to make science and philosophy more of BFFs, and they’re reasonable but nothing that doesn’t come to mind—or haven’t come to mind—to others. For what they’re worth, here they are (my emphasis):

  • i) Make more room for philosophy in scientific conferences. This is a very simple mechanism for researchers to assess the potential usefulness of philosophers’ insights for their own research. Reciprocally, more researchers could participate in philosophy conferences, expanding on the efforts of organizations such as the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology; the Philosophy of Science Association; and the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice.

  • ii) Host philosophers in scientific labs and departments. This is a powerful way (already explored by some of the authors and others) for philosophers to learn science and provide more appropriate and well-grounded analyses, and for researchers to benefit from philosophical inputs and acclimatize to philosophy more generally. This might be the most efficient way to help philosophy have a rapid and concrete impact on science.

  • iii) Co-supervise PhD students. The co-supervision of PhD students by a researcher and a philosopher is an excellent opportunity to make possible the cross-feeding of the two fields. It facilitates the production of dissertations that are both experimentally rich and conceptually rigorous, and in the process, it trains the next generation of philosopher-scientists.

  • iv) Create curricula balanced in science and philosophy that foster a genuine dialogue between them. Some such curricula already exist in some countries, but expanding them should be a high priority. They can provide students in science with a perspective that better empowers them for the conceptual challenges of modern science and provide philosophers with a solid basis for the scientific knowledge that will maximize their impact on science. Science curricula might include a class in the history of science and in the philosophy of science. Philosophy curricula might include a science module.

  • vRead science and philosophy. Reading science is indispensable for the practice of philosophy of science, but reading philosophy can also constitute a great source of inspiration for researchers as illustrated by some of the examples above. For example, journal clubs where both science and philosophy contributions are discussed constitute an efficient way to integrate philosophy and science.

  • vi) Open new sections devoted to philosophical and conceptual issues in science journals. This strategy would be an appropriate and compelling way to suggest that the philosophical and conceptual work is continuous with the experimental work, in so far as it is inspired by it, and can inspire it in return. It would also make philosophical reflections about a particular scientific domain much more visible to the relevant scientific community than when they are published in philosophy journals, which are rarely read by scientists.

The first two are fine; as I said, Lewontin’s lab always had a philosopher about. Co-supervision of Ph.D. students would be practical only if one’s thesis had a big philosophical component. #4, a curriculum balanced in science and philosophy, sounds good but there is little time in graduate school for courses outside one’s area, so a roughly equal “balance” would be impractical. A single course in philosophy of science, however, would be useful for Ph.D. candidates, at least in evolutionary biology. Reading groups are great if they’re well supervised, and many science journals already adhere to #6, having some bits about philosophy.

In the end, philosophy is an extremely valuable adjunct to science, but useful largely for getting us to think hard and avoid blind alleys, not so much in providing answers or suggesting experiments. Giving answers to empirical questions is not, of course, the job of philosophy, which is why Francis Crick is supposed to have made this statement, which may be apocryphal:

“Listen to philosophers’ questions, but not to their answers.”

h/t: Bryan

Gregg Caruso on free will, the justice system, prisons, the meaning of life, and the good life

September 1, 2020 • 12:45 pm

The New Philosopher has a long interview, “On Purpose,” with Zan Boag speaking to the philosopher Gregg D. Caruso, Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Corning, Honorary Professor of Philosophy at Macquarie University, and Co-Director of the Justice Without Retribution Network (JWRN) at the University of Aberdeen School of Law.

Although I’ve never met Caruso, I consider him a philosophical confrère, as he’s a hard determinist who has no truck with notions of contracausal free will (classical you-could-have-done otherwise free will that’s the basis of Abrahamic religion). Not only that, but he thinks, as do I, that the rejection of conventional free will should absolve us of moral responsibility and therefore lead to big changes in the justice system.

He’s thought a lot harder about this than I have, and has written about the issue in several books, which you can see here. He’s debated free will with Dan Dennett, a compatibilist who thinks that you can have both determinism and free will; and Gregg tells me that he has a book coming out next January called: Just Deserts: Debating Free Willin which he and Dennett “debate our respective views on free will, moral responsibility, and punishment.” I’m looking forward to that one! He’s got yet another one coming out about the implications of “no free will” for criminal justice: Rejecting Retributivism: Free Will, Punishment, and Criminal Justice. 

Definition of free will: Caruso has a unique way of defining free will, as he says many philosophers “define free will in such a way that it directly follows that we either have it or we don’t.” Instead, he limns the concept by whether or not it gives us moral responsibility, which is, to most people, the essential concomitant of free will. And so he comes up with this:

I’ve long argued that the variety of free will that is of central philosophical and practical importance is the sort required for moral responsibility in a particular but pervasive sense. This sense of moral responsibility is typically set apart by the notion of basic desert and is defined in terms of the control in action needed for an agent to be truly deserving of blame and praise, punishment and reward. Understood this way, free will is a kind of power or ability an agent must possess in order to justify certain kinds of basically deserved judgments, attitudes, or treatments – such as resentment, indignation, moral anger, and retributive punishment – in response to decisions or actions that the agent performed or failed to perform. These reactions would be justified on purely backward-looking grounds, that is what makes them basic, and would not appeal to consequentialist or forward-looking considerations, such as future protection, future reconciliation, or future moral formation.

I contend that there are several distinct advantages to defining free will in this way. First, it provides a neutral definition that virtually all parties can agree to. Unlike some other definitions, it does not beg the question or exclude from the outset various conceptions of free will that are available for disputing parties to adopt. Second, by defining free will in terms of basic desert moral responsibility, this definition captures the practical importance of the debate. Third, this definition fits with our everyday understanding of these conceptions. There is, for instance, growing evidence that ordinary people not only view free will and moral responsibility as intimately tied together, but that it is precisely the desire to blame, punish, and uphold moral responsibility that motivates belief in free will. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, rejecting this understanding of free will makes it difficult to understand the nature of the substantive disputes that are driving the free will debate.

This of course winds up with a view of free will as will that is free from determinism: contracausal free will, which, despite Dan Dennett’s compatibilism, is really the kind of free will that most people “want.” Because Caruso, like me, sees no way that we can have the kind of agency that gives us true moral responsibility, he rejects the idea of moral responsibility.

As an aside, Caruso claims that, in his book with Dennett, Dan reveals himself as someone who also rejects moral responsibility. Now since I once argued with Dan about that very point for three hours in a car, with Dan asserting that we do have moral responsibility, with me disputing it, I’ll be curious how Greg can discern this:

As to how my view compares to Dan Dennett’s, I’ll just add one final point. While Dennett’s compatibilism appears to be fundamentally at odds with my free will scepticism, when you actually drill down into what Dan means by free will, you’ll find that he too rejects what I’m calling basic desert moral responsibility. For that reason, I think he’s more of a free will sceptic than he admits – although he would resist that characterisation.

Crime and punishment.  Caruso is even more of a penal reformer than I. While we agree that punishment can and should be levied even without moral responsibility, I see the punishment as basically consequentialist, and useful for not only reforming bad guys and keeping them away from others until they’ve reformed, I also think punishment is necessary as a deterrent.(We both reject retributive punishment out of hand, as it’s based on punishing someone because he made the wrong choice.) Caruso, though he doesn’t discuss deterrence in this interview, rejects it because he thinks it has philosophical and moral problems.  However, I’m not sure what you do to deter people from, say, cheating on their income taxes or running red lights, and I’ll be curious to see how Gregg deals with this in his new book on retribution. You can’t just let people drive their cars without regulation and without the threat of some punishment!

At any rate, Caruso has what he calls a “public health” view of punishment, which seems quite progressive—though I still worry about the absence of a deterrent aim:

. . . . If we reject retributivism, either because we come to doubt or deny the existence of free will or for other reasons, we need an ethically defensible and practically workable alternative. In Rejecting Retributivism: Free Will, Punishment, and Criminal Justice, I develop and defend what I believe is the most promising, humane, and justified alternative: the public health-quarantine model. The core idea of the model is that the right to harm in self-defence and defence of others justifies incapacitating the criminally dangerous with the minimum harm required for adequate protection. Yet the model does not justify the sort of criminal punishment whose legitimacy is most dubious, such as death or confinement in the most common kinds of prisons in our society. In fact, the model is completely non-punitive and requires special attention to the wellbeing and dignity of criminals that would change much of current policy. Perhaps most importantly, the model also develops a public health approach that prioritises prevention and social justice and aims at identifying and taking action on the social determinants of health and criminal behaviour.

. . . Analogously, on this model the use of incapacitation should be limited to only those cases where offenders are a serious threat to public safety and no less restrictive measures were available. In fact, for certain minor crimes perhaps only some degree of monitoring could be defended. Secondly, the incapacitation account that results from this analogy demands a degree of concern for the rehabilitation and wellbeing of the criminal that would alter much of current practice. Just as fairness recommends that we seek to cure the diseased we quarantine, so fairness would counsel that we attempt to rehabilitate the criminals we detain. Rehabilitation and reintegration would therefore replace punishment as the focus of the criminal justice system. Lastly, if a criminal cannot be rehabilitated and our safety requires his indefinite confinement, this account provides no justification for making his life more miserable than would be required to guard against the danger he poses.

This model would have the effect of eliminating the grossly inhumane types of punishment imposed by countries like the U.S. and India, replacing it with one along the lines of Norway, which has a much lower rate of incarceration as well as a much lower rate of recidivism than the U.S. (see my earlier post on this). The other day I watched this video about the country’s most secure prison, the ADX Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado where, as the show below notes, “America sends the prisoners it wants to punish the most”. I was absolutely horrified at the treatment of the prisoners, who are in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day and have one hour of solitary exercise. Note that the “punishment” goes to prisoners who may not be especially dangerous to guards or other prisoners, but they are being punished retributively.

And here’s a Supermax cell. Note the barred door behind the main door. It’s 7 feet wide and 12 feet long.

There’s a lot more, but I’ll add just that Caruso lards his discussion with a lot of social justice talk, but not of the woke kind: he says that hand-in-hand with punishment reform must go an attempt to prevent crime by eliminating “racism, sexism, poverty, and systematic disadvantage as serious threats to public safety.” This of course is useful and necessary, but it won’t of course eliminate crime completely.

I strongly agree with Caruso that penal reform is a huge priority for the U.S., and that taking the no-free-will “public health” approach—which basically sees criminals as individuals with an infectious disease that needs to be cured humanely—is essential in spurring such reform. But I’ve said that many times before.

The meaning of life and the good life. Caruso goes on to speak about the meaning of life, and what he considers a good life (he has a fascinating digression on one of his hobbies that gives his life meaning), and once again we agree on this:

[Interviewer] In philosophy, and for many people throughout history, a common quest has been the search for the meaning of life, or perhaps just for meaning in life. Is there a meaning of life? And how can one find meaning in life – a purpose to our lives?

[Caruso]: The search for the meaning of life is a fool’s errand. There is no singular, universal, all-encompassing meaning to it all. There is, however, meaning in life. We create meaning through our roles as players in the game of life.

QED.

If you have a spare hour or so, have a read. Even if you reject Caruso’s hard determinism, there’s a lot to think about in the interview.

h/t: Tom

Another paper claiming (but failing) to give evidence for libertarian free will

June 14, 2020 • 9:00 am

UPDATE: Reader Coel pointed out in the comments—this had escaped my notice—that the author of this piece, George Ellis, won the Templeton prize in 2004 for efforts in harmonizing science and religion. This may be relevant to the article below.

Part of his citation says this:

Beyond ethics, Ellis contends that there are many areas that cannot be accounted for by physics. “Even hard-headed physicists have to acknowledge a number of different kinds of existence” beyond the basics of atoms, molecules and chemicals, he said in his prepared remarks. Directly challenging the notion that the powers of science are limitless, Ellis noted the inability of even the most advanced physics to fully explain factors that shape the physical world, including human thoughts, emotions and social constructions such as the laws of chess.

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A lot of people sent me this link to an article in Aeon by physicist George Ellis, with some of them telling me that his piece deals the death blow to determinism and pumps life into the idea of free will. It doesn’t—not by a long shot. And anyone who has such a take doesn’t understand either determinism or Ellis’s arguments. For once you understand them, you see that they’re invalidated by a big fallacy.

First, here’s Ellis’s bona fides from the site (his Wikipedia bio is here):

George Ellis is the Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Complex Systems in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He co-authored The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time (1973) with Stephen Hawking.

First, let us be clear that although Ellis doesn’t define what he means by “free will”, it’s clear that he’s talking about libertarian, contracausal, “you-could-have-chosen-otherwise” free will”, not the compatiblist free will that accepts physical determinism. No, Ellis thinks that determinism is simply wrong.

And by “determinism”, I don’t mean that “with perfect knowledge of the present, or of the moment after the Big Bang, we could predict what would happen with 100% accuracy”. I don’t believe that, as there are some fundamentally non-deterministic processes—to our best knowledge at present, quantum mechanics comprises some of these fundamental unpredictabilities—that could, at a given time, act to create different futures. (Evolution might be one of these if the fuel for the process—mutation—is affected by quantum unpredictability. In that case, “rerunning the tape of life” from a given point could yield different outcomes.)

By “determinism”, I mean that the future is determined only by the laws of physics, not by some nonphysical “will” or “agency” that we can exercise. (Throughout his piece, Ellis conflates physical determinism with predictability, an odd stance for a physicist.)

The article, at six printed pages in Word in 9-point type, is very long, and larded with descriptions of the Schrödinger equation, ion channels, gene regulation, and biochemistry, all fancy science that could bamboozle the reader into thinking that Ellis’s view is backed by science. But it isn’t. In fact, his argument can be stated very simply, and I’ll try to paraphrase it:

Free will acts by human psychology changing the constraints that act on our brain molecules.  Although physical processes are constrained by physical laws, psychology can override and change these constraints. Therefore, our minds, or our psychology, can somehow “reach down” to affect the molecular processes occurring in our brains and bodies. And these psychological processes, which are apparently themselves physically unconstrained, constitute free will.

Now that is my paraphrase, but I’ll support it with quotes from Ellis (any bolding is mine):

In the case of the biomolecules that underlie the existence of life, it’s the shape of the molecule that acts as a constraint on what happens. These molecules are quite flexible, bending around joints rather like hinges. The distances between the atomic nuclei in the molecules determine what bending is possible. Any particular such molecular ‘conformation’ (a specific state of folding) constrains the motions of ions and electrons at the underlying physical level. This can happen in a time-dependent fashion, according to biological needs. In this way, biology can reach down to shape physical outcomes. It changes constraints in the applicable Schrödinger equation.

. . . So what determines which messages are conveyed to your synapses by signalling molecules? They are signals determined by thinking processes that can’t be described at any lower level because they involve concepts, cognition and emotions in an essential way. Psychological experiences drive what happens. Your thoughts and feelings reach ‘down’ to shape lower-level processes in the brain by altering the constraints on ion and electron flows in a way that changes with time.

The phrase that our thinking “reaches down” to affect our molecules recurs often in this essay, implying a psychological “invisible hand”—”thinking processes”—that is the crux of Ellis’s argument. But wait! There’s more!

How does any of this happen? As the Austrian-American doctor Eric Kandel explained in his Nobel Prize Lecture from 2000, the process of learning at the mental level leads to changed patterns of gene expression, and so specific proteins being produced, which alter the strengths of neural connections at synapses. This changes the strength of connections between neurons, thereby storing memories.

Such learning is a psychological happening. You might remember your pleasure on eating a delicious meal, the details of a Yo-Yo Ma rendition of a Bach sonata, or the painful memory of the car crash. Once again, these are irreducible psychological events: they can’t be described at any lower level. They reach down to alter neuronal connections over time. These changes can’t be predicted on the basis of the initial state of the neural connections (your neurons did not know that the car crash was about to happen) – but, afterwards, they constrain electron flows differently, because connections have changed. Learning changes structure at the macro scale (we have a ‘plastic brain’), which reaches down to alter micro connections and the details of electron flows at the bottom.

(Note the allusion to classical music; people love to show off in this way. They never talk about the moving saxophone solo of Lester Young or the poignancy of a Frank Sinatra song; it’s always Bach or Beethoven, isn’t it?)

If it’s not too early in the morning, you’ve already spotted the flaw in Ellis’s argument. First, he’s conflating predictability with physical determinism, and he’s also arguing, falsely, that a “change in constraint” means “libertarian free will”. Most important, he’s pretending that psychological phenomena are not physical.

I’ll cite just two more bits:

What these instances show is that psychological understandings reach down to shape the motions of ions and electrons by altering constraints at the physics-level over time. That is, mental states change the shape of proteins because the brain has real logical powers. This downward causation trumps the power of initial conditions. Logical implications determine the outcomes at the macro level in our thoughts, and at the micro level in terms of flows of electrons and ions.

. . . Genuine mental functioning and the ability to make decisions in a rational way is a far more persuasive explanation of how books get written. That this is possible is due to the extraordinary hierarchical structure of our brain and its functioning. And that functioning is enabled by downward causation from the psychological to the physical levels, with outcomes at the physics level determined by constraints that change over time. No violation of physical laws need occur.

That should be enough to show that Ellis’s argument is bogus. Why? Because it argues that the “psychological level” (“mental thoughts”) is somehow different from the “physical level”: that our experiences, our cogitation, and our interactions with others and with external events, are different from physical processes that shape our actions. After all, they are “top down” phenomena.

But they’re not. We can be influenced by internal and external events to so that our behaviors and actions would differ from how they’d be if those events were different.  The example I often use is kicking a dog, though I would never do that. If a dog is friendly, but you repeatedly kick it when it approaches you, it’s not going to be nearly as friendly as it would have been had you petted it instead. Your actions have rewired the dog’s brain in such a way that it regards you as an object of fear rather than affection. It’s as simple as that. And in a similar way, our experiences reprogram our brains—our onboard meat computers—in a physical way that affects our behavior, but that we don’t yet understand. There is no psychology independent of physics that can “reach down” to affect our molecules, because, in the end, our psychology is based on molecules, even if we can’t yet (or ever) predict our future behavior with a deep knowledge of our brains.

Ellis’s Big Flaw: to claim that there is an Invisible NonPhysical Psychological Hand that “reaches down” and “changes our constraints”. Rather, there are external stimuli and inputs into our brains that alter their workings. We don’t need the palaver about “constraints” and “reaching down”, which is simply literary prestidigitation that is obscurantist.

Remember, Ellisis not talking about compatibilist free will here. He’s talking about contracausal free will. Ellis rests his case on a human psychology that is independent of physics. And that is pure dualism.

In the end, perhaps his mask slips a little, for in his ending he appears to find determinism distasteful because it absolves us of the ability to make “genuine choices” or to be “accountable for our behavior”. (I’ve argued that we are still responsible for our behavior in the sense that we are the entities who behave, but that we are not “morally responsible” because we could not have acted otherwise. But this is irrelevant to his argument.)

Ellis’s ending:

Physics has made huge strides since the days of Laplace; indeed, it would be completely unrecognisable to him. Yet there are still physicists today who confidently proclaim that we can’t have free will because physics determines everything, including brain functioning – entirely ignoring the complex context and the power of constraints.

If you seriously believe that fundamental forces leave no space for free will, then it’s impossible for us to genuinely make choices as moral beings. We wouldn’t be accountable in any meaningful way for our reactions to global climate change, child trafficking or viral pandemics. The underlying physics would in reality be governing our behaviour, and responsibility wouldn’t enter into the picture.

Well, he’s wrong about “responsibility” if you conceive of it as I do—in a way that still allows for and, indeed, asks for approbation and disapprobation,  punishment and reward. After all, those are external stimuli that can alter our brains.

But one gets the sense here that Ellis’s misguided screed in favor of free will is motivated in part by his distaste for determinism and his need for all of us to be “responsible”.  But, as a scientist, Ellis should realize that wanting something to be true has no effect on whether it is true.

Robert Sapolsky on (the lack of) free will and its consequences

May 30, 2020 • 1:30 pm

Here’s a 43-minute Scientific American podcast in which Stanford biology professor, author, and atheist Robert Sapolsky is interviewed by Robert Mirsky. Many of us have read Sapolsky’s recent book Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst, and Mirsky centers the talk on one of Sapolsky’s chapters from that book on behavior and free will. Here’s that chapter:

“Oh, why not?” That phrase shows that Sapolsky knows what a minefield is the issue of free will. But nevertheless, he persists. Like me, he’s a hard determinist; unlike me, he doesn’t seem to even consider compatibilism; and he feels that the most important implication for determinism is in reforming the justice system. But, as he notes in the podcast, this will be a hard thing to accomplish, since it means first dispelling the notion that most people have of libertarian free will and attendant moral responsibility for what they do.

Sapolsky, as you may know, is a brilliant and eloquent polymath, so what he says must be correct, right?  Click on the screenshot to hear the podcast, which has a digression about an award between 16:00 and 22:37.

Most of Sapolsky’s eloquent take on free will relates to the concept of humans as “broken cars.” When your car is broken, you don’t say it deserves to be punished. You either “rehabilitate” it by taking it to a mechanic, or if it’s a car that won’t ever work well again, you “sequester” it by putting it in the junkyard or letting it rust in your front yard. And since Sapolsky, like me, sees criminals as “broken humans” who simply reflect in their criminality the influence of their genes and environments, he sees no sense in putting people away because they made the “wrong choice” or “deserve” retribution. (Some readers here think these two ideas are not part of our penal system, but I would disagree strongly.)

Since libertarian free will doesn’t exist, Sapolsky looks at our criminal justice system and sees it severely wanting—in fact, broken beyond immediate repair:

“I am of the stance that the entire criminal justice system, top to bottom, makes no sense whatsoever because it is predicated on 200-year-old biology. We have no control, ultimately, over anything we do.  When we say ‘I’ve changed my mind’ about doing this or that, we are in fact saying ‘circumstances have changed my mind.’ We have no agency, and the criminal justice system does not make any sense at all.”

One function of criminal justice isn’t mention by Sapolsky: deterrence. That’s a reason why you don’t go to jail for a parking ticket but do for shooting somebody, and it seems to me that this, too, should be considered by determinists when weighing how to fix the justice system.

Another analogy used by Sapolsky is epilepsy. In the Middle Ages and even later, epileptics were thought to be possessed by demons, and were often punished or burned at the stake. But now we’ve discovered that epilepsy is a disease that one has no control over: a screw-up in the brain’s potassium channels. Now that epilepsy is medicalized, we don’t punish people for being epileptics, but instead try to alleviate their disease. And so should we do with criminals.

Another minor difference I have with Sapolsky is his view that determinism completely gets rid of the idea of “responsibility” for bad acts. I would disagree in the sense that someone who commits a crime is the responsible person—the person who has to be reformed, treated, or “punished”.  All that means is “this is the person who did the act.” But Sapolsky seems to construe “responsibility” as “moral responsibility”—that the person had a free choice to act good or ill, and makes one choice or another that comports with or contravenes societal morality.  In that sense, yes, I agree with him—we should deep-six that notion of responsibility. But there are different ways to define “responsibility.”

At the end, Sapolsky answers two of Mirsky’s questions. First, does he think that neuroscientists will drive philosophers out of business? That is, will empirical studies of volition make philosophical lucubrations about free will obsolete? Sapolsky says “no”, that we should simply “force dead white male neurobiologists and philosophers to talk to each other more.” I mostly agree, for we need philosophers to clarify the concepts of “will” and “agency.”

Second, given the success of Behave, is Sapolsky writing another book? His answer is “yes,” and it sounds like an interesting one. He’s writing a book about how the world is supposed to function if everyone is a determinist and nobody accepts libertarian free will.  (He doesn’t address compatibilism in his entire interview, which I suspect reflects his view—and mine—that compatibilism is just a semantic game that distracts from the real issue: the hegemony of determinism.) What he wants to happen is a big change in the penal system to reflect our knowledge that everyone’s behavior is “biological luck” flowing from the nexus of our genes and our environments. And that, he says, is almost an insuperable task. In fact, he’s right, for the first step is to convince people of determinism, and only then can we do the hard, empirical-based changes in, say, the judicial system.

Likewise, how we view “rewarding” people will change, he argues. Praising someone for their beautiful cheekbones, he says, is ludicrous: they have no “responsibility” for their cheekbones. (He means that the zygomatic arches are, like behavior, a product of genes and environment.) But neither do they deserve encomiums for their praiseworthy behavior like being generous, so why even laud people who do good?  Sapolsky doesn’t seem to consider here that praising good behavior is an environmental input into others’ behavior that can change it—even if we are predetermined to praise people for the good things they do.

One can see Sapolsky’s whole interview as the logical consequence of his determinism, which leads to an immediate consideration of how screwed up our penal system is. You don’t see many compatibilists, even though they’re determinists, worrying much about penal reform. But such reform is far more important and consequential than trying to redefine “free will” so people won’t get freaked out if they don’t think they have it.

Yes, I know some readers say that you can still favor penal reform if you’re a compatibilist, and that’s true. But then why do you see hard determinists like me, Sapolsky, and others being the determinists most concerned with penal reform, compared to compatibilist/determinist philosophers, who argue semantics ad infinitum and claim, falsely that their efforts aren’t directed toward keeping the Little People convinced that they have free will?

If you don’t like Sapolsky’s views, don’t take them up with me; take them up with him! (That, of course, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t comment on them below; and anyway, I’ve said that I largely agree with him).

The great man

h/t: Bob