John Horgan: a proud agnostic

August 21, 2021 • 12:00 pm

Here’s a new Scientific American column by science writer John Horgan who, unlike many of his fellow op-ed writers on the magazine, at least has the decency to stick to science and not foist social justice dogma on the  science-minded readers. (There a dreadful Sci. Am. column this week on that issue, and we’ll deal with it tomorrow.)

In this new piece, Horgan declares himself an agnostic about three matters noted in the title: God, quantum mechanics, and consciousness. What they have in common is simply that Horgan is agnostic about them.  And he does seem “agnostic” about God, though the difference here between agnosticism and atheism is a matter of degree rather than kind. As for quantum mechanics and consciousness, Horgan seems to evince no doubt that they work; rather, he’s agnostic about the explanations that people offer about why they work.  I have a different take on Horgan’s thoughts in each area, so I’ll divide them up below. Click on the screenshot to read his lucubrations.

GOD:  Horgan is more of an agnostic than, say, Dawkins or I, because he seems to find some positive evidence that there might be a God (I know of none). Therefore, on the “believer scale”, he’d put himself closer to 1 (firm believer) than Richard or I on Dawkins’s “spectrum of theistic probability.” (In that scale, 1 represents no doubt that God exists, while 7 represents strong atheism, that is, “I know that God doesn’t exist”). Now no scientist would put themselves at 7, simply because there’s always a finite probability that some godlike creature exists and you’d have to change your mind (of course, you’d have to proffer your definition of God before positioning yourself on the scale). Dawkins puts himself at about 6.9, and I’d be close to that point as well.

The question is this: what difference is there between an agnostic and an atheist? I’m not going to argue about this at length, but simply give my view. An atheist, to me, is someone who simply doesn’t entertain a belief in gods, which would mean 4 and above on that scale. But an agnostic who says, “I just don’t know about God don’t see the evidence, so I profess no belief in gods”, could also be seen as an atheist. As many have pointed out, agnosticism could be considered atheism.

But Horgan’s agnosticism isn’t really atheism as many of us hold it, since he seems to see some evidence that God exists. To wit:

Francis Collins, a geneticist who directs the National Institutes of Health. He is a devout Christian, who believes that Jesus performed miracles, died for our sins and rose from the dead. In his 2006 bestseller The Language of God, Collins calls agnosticism a “cop-out.” When I interviewed him, I told him I am an agnostic and objected to “cop-out.”

Collins apologized. “That was a put-down that should not apply to earnest agnostics who have considered the evidence and still don’t find an answer,” he said. “I was reacting to the agnosticism I see in the scientific community, which has not been arrived at by a careful examination of the evidence.” [JAC: Seriously? I’ve seen frozen waterfalls and I’m still not convinced.] I have examined the evidence for Christianity, and I find it unconvincing. I’m not convinced by any scientific creation stories, either, such as those that depict our cosmos as a bubble in an oceanic “multiverse.”

Well, yes, we should be an agnostic about the “multiverse” since there’s no evidence for it. But not all “scientific creation stories” warrant agnosticism. Evolution is one, with the Ur-organism forming via naturalistic processes. I assume Horgan accepts that, though I don’t know. And I also presume he doesn’t doubt the big bang, which is the “scientific creation story of our Universe.” He may doubt what made the Big Bang happen, but that’s a different kind of agnosticism. Maybe Horgan is agnostic about only those creation stories for which there’s no evidence.

And there’s this. Horgan avers that evil poses a problem for most Abrahamic theists, and the “free will” explanation for moral evil isn’t convincing (and there’s no good explanation for the existence of physical evil, though Horgan mentions “free will of cancer cells). But then he comes out with this:

On the other hand, life isn’t always hellish. We experience love, friendship, adventure and heartbreaking beauty. Could all this really come from random collisions of particles? Even Weinberg concedes that life sometimes seems “more beautiful than strictly necessary.” If the problem of evil prevents me from believing in a loving God, then the problem of beauty keeps me from being an atheist like Weinberg. Hence, agnosticism.

I’m not sure there is a problem of beauty. First of all, it has to have something to do with evolution, because to a planarian or a lizard, I doubt that the world “seems more beautiful than strictly necessary.” In other words, the more complex your nervous system, the more beauty you can experience, which to me points not to god, but to beauty as either an evolved perception—one Ed Wilson suggests in Biophilia or, alternatively, the perception of human beauty connected with reproductive fitness—or an epiphenomenon of our nervous system (music could be such a reaction, playing on aural tropes that somehow affect emotion). But at any rate, I don’t see this problem of “excess beauty”, and therefore I don’t see it as any kind of evidence for God. One could just as well argue that for virtually all organisms, there is excess pain, danger, and unpleasantness.

And there are good evolutionary explanations for friendship and love: bonding to a mate or to members of small, cohesive groups. Also, there’s reciprocal altruism. . .

QUANTUM MECHANICS: There’s no doubt that quantum mechanics is a good theory because it predicts everything that we see, down to the umpteenth decimal place. The controversy about it is not whether it works, but what it means. Does it involve an observer, as some have evoked for the “double slit” experiment, does it involve wave functions that don’t need observers, and could it involve multiverses? We don’t know. And it’s above my pay grade to adjudicate explanations like the “Copenhagen Interpretation” against its rivals.  It may be that there will never be any explanation of quantum mechanics that makes sense to us for we’re evolved creatures with limited comprehension.

That’s summarized in biologist J.B.S. Haldane’s famous quote, “The world is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” Quantum mechanics may be one of those things that evade supposition. Because of that, Horgan is agnostic not about quantum mechanics as a workable (or “true”, if you will) theory, but about how we can make sense of it on a human scale. And we might never be able to. I’m not agnostic about it, though: I’m ignorant about it.

CONSCIOUSNESS: Horgan is also hung up about explanations of consciousness, in particular the “hard problem”. How do neural impulses and their interpretation by the brain lead to “qualia”—subjective sensations like that of redness, or sadness, or pain. He seems to need a “theory” of consciousness that he can understand, as opposed to my view, which is if you have parts A, B, C, D, and so on, then you get consciousness—as either a phenomenon or epiphenomenon. To me, that is the only “explanation” or “theory” that we need, though of course one requires some kind of self-report or assessment to see if something really is consciousness that has the requisite parts connected in the requisit way.

In his search for the solution, Horgan is agnostic, but flails about to the extent that he might want Buddhism in his theory, or even panpsychism!

Gradually, this consensus collapsed, as empirical evidence for neural theories of consciousness failed to materialize. As I point out in my recent book Mind-Body Problems, there are now a dizzying variety of theories of consciousness. Christof Koch has thrown his weight behind integrated information theory, which holds that consciousness might be a property of all matter, not just brains. This theory suffers from the same problems as information-based theories of quantum mechanics. Theorists such as Roger Penrose, who won last year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, have conjectured that quantum effects underpin consciousness, but this theory is even more lacking in evidence than integrated information theory.

Researchers cannot even agree on what form a theory of consciousness should take. Should it be a philosophical treatise? A purely mathematical model? A gigantic algorithm, perhaps based on Bayesian computation? Should it borrow concepts from Buddhism, such as anatta, the doctrine of no self? All of the above? None of the above? Consensus seems farther away than ever. And that’s a good thing. We should be open-minded about our minds.

Indeed, but the idea that we’re actually falling behind in our efforts to understand consciousness is wrong: we already know how to assess it, and which parts of the brain are necessary to show it. We know how to fool it and how to take it away, and then how to restore it (removing anesthesia). Consensus is not farther away than ever.

As for integrated information theory, well, it’s intimately connected with a theory that Horgan has called “self-evidently foolish”: panpsychism, which, as he notes above, “holds that consciousness might be a property of all matter, not just brains.” IIT is one way that panpsychists say you can combine dimly conscious things like molecules into deeply conscious things like human brains.  But panpsychism isn’t even a scientific theory. For one thing, it can’t be tested, and second, the “combination” problem is finessed with fancy language that explains nothing. There is no there there.

Horgan is right that we don’t yet understand how consciousness arises, either mechanistically or evolutionarily. So yes, he’s right to be agnostic about how it comes about. But I’m confident that we will understand it one day, and not through Buddhism or panpsychism. We have to keep plugging away, and using not religion or Buddhism or panpsychism, but straight old laboratory and experimental naturalism.

As for God, well, if Horgan thinks that an “excess of beauty” constitutes a tick on the God side of the ledger, let him. I don’t buy it. And as for quantum mechanics, well, the universe may be queerer than we can suppose, and while we may know the laws, they may never make “common” sense to our evolved brains.

Horgan ends his piece by saying this:

I’m definitely a skeptic. I doubt we’ll ever know whether God exists, what quantum mechanics means, how matter makes mind. These three puzzles, I suspect, are different aspects of a single, impenetrable mystery at the heart of things. But one of the pleasures of agnosticism—perhaps the greatest pleasure—is that I can keep looking for answers and hoping that a revelation awaits just over the horizon.

I don’t know why he sees these three diverse issues as part of a single mystery, as they’re not very related. Their only commonality is that we are ignorant about some aspects of these phenomena. Is Horgan’s “single, impenetrable mystery” a divine one? Why does he think they’re even connected?

But, just sticking with God for the moment, what kind of “revelation” would convince Horgan that there is no God? If the Nazis and kids getting leukemia won’t do it, what would? I can’t imagine how he’d answer.

Some science listening from the BBC

July 30, 2021 • 10:00 am

Reader Dom called my attention to today’s BBC Science in Action program, which contains several items of interest. You can hear the 35-minute show by clicking on the site below and clicking “listen now”:

There are four bits:

Start – 12:20.  A discussion with Elizabeth Turner about her new evidence for 890-million-year-old animals (spongelike creatures), which I wrote about yesterday.

12:20-18:55.  A discussion with Cambridge University’s Dr Sanna Cottaar about the “Insight” probe on Mars’s surface and scientists’ attempt to deduce the structure of the planet.

18:55-26:45: Prof Lesley Lyons from the University of Missouri discusses the similarity of the genome of cats to that of humans, and how that could be used for medical purposes in humans. I’m not keen on this because it implies that they’re going to experiment on cats. As she says, “they’re bigger than mice and cheaper than primates”.

26:45-end:  A remembrance of Steven Weinberg, who died a week ago. There are extracts from two BBC interviews with Weinberg as well as discussions of his work by fellow scientists.

Sean M. Carroll shows that panpsychism is unlikely and unnecessary

July 26, 2021 • 11:00 am

I’m heartened to see that other scientists and philosophers of mind I respect, like Sean Carroll and Patricia Churchland, have analyzed the idea of “panpsychism” and found it wanting. As I noted yesterday, adding some of my own criticisms, panpsychism is somewhat of a philosophical fad (or even a religion). It claims that we’ll never understand consciousness through a combination of neuroscience and philosophy, but instead must posit that every bit of matter in the universe has its own form of consciousness. And if you put enough of those conscious atoms and molecules together, you get “higher” consciousness: the feelings of subjectivity, pain, pleasure, and the perception of colors known as “qualia”.

The problems with panpsychism are at least fourfold: the theory is untestable, there’s no evidence for consciousness of inanimate matter, there’s no explanation how the “rudimentary” consciousness of molecules and atoms can combine to produce to the complex consciousness of humans and (surely) other mammals, and we have made no progress in understanding consciousness by considering or adhering to panpsychism. It seems to be a view that, ultimately, will not help us understand consciousness.

The physicist Sean Carrol takes another angle in a new (and yet unpublished) paper that was cited by reader Vampyricon and is online. Click on the screenshot to read it. I’ve included the abstract and the place where it will be published (the book referenced, Galileo’s Error, is advocate Philip Goff’s big defense of panpsychism, but I wasn’t impressed).

As he has in previous books and papers, Carroll demonstrates that our present theory of physics is perfectly adequate to explain the physics of everyday life—unless we go sticking our heads in a black hole or something. Further, adding “mental” properties to our known core theory of physics not only changes that core theory, but is unlikely to explain consciousness, which, though we don’t yet understand it, is in principle perfectly consistent with the laws of physics, with consciousness being an epiphenomenon of physical processes. Yes, we don’t understand it, but that doesn’t mean that we must go tinkering with the laws of physics to explain consciousness or positing untestable mental properties of inanimate matter.

Carroll’s is a long paper, and has some equations that I don’t understand, but his conclusions are clear, and demands that panpsychism clarify its propositions in explicit physical terms beyond merely saying “all matter has consciousness”.  Here’s his conclusions:

Any discussion of mental aspects of ontology must specify one of two alternatives: changing the known laws of physics, or positing that these aspects exert no causal influence over physical behavior. We cannot rule out the first option either through pure thought or by appeal to existing experimental data, but we can ask that any modification of the Core Theory be held to the same standards of rigor and specificity that physics itself is held to. The point of expressions like (1) and (3) is not that mentally-induced modifications of physical parameters are impossible, but that a promising theory of consciousness should be specific about how they are to be implemented.

The passive mentalism option, where mental aspects have no impact on physical behavior, seems even less promising. “Behavior” should not be underrated; the behavior of physical matter is literally “what happens in the universe.” Crying at a funeral is behavior, as is asking someone to marry you, as is arguing about consciousness. No compelling account of consciousness can attribute a central explanatory role to metaphysical ingredients that have no influence on these kinds of behaviors.

We don’t know everything there is to know about the laws of physics, and there is always the possibility of a surprise. But the solidity of our confidence in the Core Theory within its domain of applicability stands in stark contrast with our fuzzy grasp of the nature of consciousness. The most promising route to understanding consciousness is likely to involve further neuroscientific insights and a more refined philosophical understanding of weak emergence, rather than rethinking the fundamental nature of reality.

I have a feeling that in one or two decades panpsychism (which has been around in one form or another for centuries) will no longer be regarded as a fruitful way to understand consciousness.

Steven Weinberg died

July 24, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Reader Rick informed me of this news, summarized in the piece below from Not Even Wrong (click on screenshot):  Steven Weinberg, a physicist, writer, and popularizer of science, died yesterday at the age of 88. (In fact, his Wikipedia biography hasn’t yet been updated.) For his work on unifying two of the fundamental forces of nature: electromagnetism and the weak force in nuclei, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics along with Sheldon Glashow, and Abdus Salam.

I’ve read several of his books (he was an excellent writer), and of course all of us know his most famous bon mot: “”With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion.”  He was a diehard atheist.

Click on the screenshot to read more about him:

As the obituary above gives you the relevant information about his career, I’ll tell just one story about him. In October, 2012, we were both participants in the small “Moving Naturalism Forward” conference organized by physicist Sean Carroll in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I sat next to Steve during the two days of the meeting, and watched as he worked out physics equations on a notepad during the talks. When he left the room, and his notes, I asked him if I could have them. He said, “sure”, but I included them as lagniappe in the autographed version of WEIT that he signed and we put up for auction.

Here’s a photo I took of Weinberg and the hard-core materialist Alex Rosenberg at the meeting:

And here’s Weinberg’s signature (circled) in my book, which was illuminated by Kelly Houle and auctioned off for charity for more than $10,000. I’m not sure what that diagram shows, but I am sure that one reader will tell us.

Although I had lunch with Weinberg one day, and remember that it was fun, I can’t recall what we talked about. My Weinberg story is this. At the meeting, Dan Dennett and I gave dueling presentations about free will, with Dan claiming, of course, that we had a form of it—a compatibilist one—while I argued not only that we had no libertarian free will, but also criticized compatibilism. (This led to Dan haranguing me for the entire three-hour drive back on the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston, which wasn’t covered with snow.)

At any rate, at some point after my talk, Weinberg asked me something like this: “Are you telling me that at any given point in time when I’m making a choice, I could not have chosen otherwise?” I said “Yes.” And he said he didn’t believe that. I was a bit taken aback that an atheist, determinist physicist of the stature of Weinberg could still accept what seems like libertarian free will. But we never got to discuss it further.

We’ve lost another great one—not just a scientist, but a writer, scholar, historian of science, and nice guy.

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.

Philip Ball says that physics has nothing to do with free will. Part 1.

January 10, 2021 • 2:00 pm

I’m getting tired of writing about free will, as what I’m really interested in is determinism of the physics sort, and, as far as we know, determinism is true except in the realm of quantum mechanics—where it may still be true, but probably not. So let me lump quantum mechanics and other physical laws together as “determinism,” recognizing that predictability may be nil on the quantum level. If you wish, call determinism “naturalism” instead. So we can say that “naturalism”, physical law, is true.

Further, as we know, admitting some uncertainty on the particle level does not mean that, even if our behavior is governed by the laws of physics, we could have chosen to do something other than what we did.  For physical uncertainties have to do with particle movement, not with the amorphous “will”—the supposed ability of our mind to force our bodies to do different things—that’s essential to most people’s idea of free will.   

Anthony Cashmore defines free will “as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature”.  A simpler but roughly equivalent definition is this one: “If you could replay the tape of life, and go back to a moment of decision at which everything—every molecule—was in exactly the same position, you have free will if you could have decided differently—and that decision was up to you.”

If you pressed most people, you’d find that they agree with these definitions, though the second one is clearer to the layperson. These forms of “libertarian” free will are accepted by many, including of course, those religionists who believe that we are able to freely decide whether or not to accept Jesus or Mohamed as the correct prophet, and if you make the wrong choice, you’ll fry. Only a loony Christian would argue that God would still make you fry if a quantum movement in your neurons made you reject Jesus. No, your “decisions” have to be under your control.

At any rate, physics—naturalism—rules out this type of free will.

I’m pretty sure science writer Philip Ball would agree that the laws of physics are true. But he also argues, in a recent op-ed piece in PhysicsWorld (click on screenshot), that free will has nothing to do with physics. I was going to discuss his piece in one post, but it would be too long, and I hear that goldeneye ducks are disporting themselves in a pond over near Lake Michigan, and I must go see them. I’ll continue this analysis in a final post tomorrow.

Now Ball doesn’t really define “free will”, he says that it is “not a putative physical phenomenon on which microphysics can pronounce—it is a psychological and neurological phenomenon.”

There are two issues in that sentence. First, is free will a physical phenomenon or not? Yes, of course it is, in the sense that all human behaviors are physical phenomena that come from our evolved sensory system and neuronal wiring interacting with our environments, and all of this must ultimately be consistent with the laws of physics.

As far as “pronounce” goes, well, no, we can’t predict with complete accuracy what someone will do, for we lack that depth of knowledge. But we’re getting closer to the “pronouncement” part, as we can often predict with better than even accuracy, via physical interventions or brain monitoring, what someone will do or “choose”. And we can also affect one’s sense of volition by interventions (Ouija boards are a familiar example.)

But to say that psychological and neurological phenomena are different from physical phenomena is nonsense. The phenomena are viewed and analyzed in different ways and on different levels, of course. As Ball argues, we don’t use the laws of physics to help understand or predict human behavior—yet. But that doesn’t mean that determinism doesn’t operate, and that somehow one could have behaved, through one’s own “will”, otherwise than one did. If you could, then our will would truly be “free” of physical constraints.

Ball seems to think that although we can’t use physics to predict our behavior, determinism and “naturalism” are therefore irrelevant to our lives. But they aren’t, for, as many of us agree, including Sam Harris, Anthony Cashmore (read his paper), and many others, accepting determinism can have profound effects on how one sees and wants to structure society. I know many here will argue against that, but surveys of the public show that a). they don’t accept determinism, with most accepting libertarian free will, and b). they realize that accepting determinism affects one’s view of morality and responsibility. (Sadly, they usually think that in a deterministic world there can be neither morality nor responsibility; and they’re wrong.) But I’ll talk about that tomorrow.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Click on the screenshot below. I’ll just reproduce a few of Ball’s assertions (indented) and comment on them (my words flush left).

To start, I have to agree with Brian Greene, whose take on free will, which I see as correct, is denigrated by Ball:

In his new book Until the End of Time, the US theoretical physicist Brian Greene says that our choices only seem free because “we do not witness nature’s laws acting in their most fundamental guise; our senses do not reveal the operation of nature’s laws in the world of particles”. In his view, we might feel that we could have done otherwise in a particular situation, but, short of some unknown psychic force that can intervene in particle motions, physics says otherwise.

Greene, like many others who take this view, is upbeat about it: free will is a perfectly valid fiction when we’re telling the “higher-level story” of human behaviour. You can’t change anything that will happen, but you should merrily go on thinking and doing “as if” you can with all the attendant moral implications. Maybe this picture works for you; maybe it doesn’t. But in this view, you have no say about that either.

But is free will really undermined by the determinism of physical law? I think such arguments are not even wrong; they are simply misconceived. They don’t recognize how cause and effect work, and by attempting to claim too much jurisdiction for fundamental physics they are not really scientific but metaphysical.

Metaphysical? It’s metaphysical to say that underlying our behavior are unalterable laws of physics? (Screw “cause and effect” for the moment, as they nebulous, philosophical, and irrelevant to determinism.) If you are a determinist, then there’s no way you can accept libertarian free will. My goal is not to engage in semantic arguments about what free will can be in a deterministic workd, but to ask a scientific question: is there anything we know about science that tells us that we can “will” ourselves to behave differently from how we did? The answer is no. We know of nothing about physics that would lead to that conclusion.

Ball then proceeds to construct what I see as a strawman:

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.

Perhaps that is the bitter truth. Why should we sacrifice physics just to save the face of other disciplines? But let’s consider the alternatives. Understanding decisions and behaviour through psychology allows us to form hypotheses and test them empirically. Some of these look as though they’re right: we can reliably predict what might make people change their behaviour, say. If, however, physics demolishes free will, this is just a peculiar coincidence. Forget all the “as if” gloss: reducing all behaviour to deterministic physics unfolding from the Big Bang offers us no genuine behavioural science at all, as it denies choice and puts nothing in its place that can help us understand and anticipate what we see in the world.

. . . It is not because of the sheer overwhelming complexity of the calculations that we don’t attempt to use quantum chromodynamics to analyse the works of Dickens. It is because this would apply a theory beyond its applicable domain, so the attempt would fail. Greene presents the matter as a hierarchy of “nested stories”, each level supplying the underlying explanation of the next. But that’s the wrong image. To regard every form of human enquiry, from evolutionary theory to literary criticism, as a kind of renormalized physics is as hubristic as it is absurd.

This is a strawman because none of us deny that there can be behavioral science, and that one can study many aspects of human biology, including history, using the empirical tools of science: observation, testing, falsification, and a search for regularities. It’s also a strawman because the issue is one of physics underlying human behavior, whether or not we can use it to predict that behavior.

Although the “laws” of human behavior, whether collective or instantiated in an individual, may not be obeyed as strictly  as the laws of physics, all of us determinists admit that it is fruitful to look for such regularities on the macro level—at the same time we admit that they must comport with and ultimately derive from the laws of physics.

But behavioral science isn’t necessarily “pseudoscience”. Regularities can be tested, confirmed, or refuted—as Ball admits. For example, I would predict that if a madman approaches a playground with a gun, a parent would first rush to save their own child rather than somebody else’s. That’s derived from kin selection theory. Or you can predict that if someone accumulates more desirable things in a lab experiment, like donuts, the value of an additional donut—its marginal utility—will diminish. That’s economics, but comes from selfish human behavior. And we can predict that if we show someone that their wife is having sex with another man, that person will get angry and jealous. That is NOT a “peculiar coincidence”, but also derives from evolution, as does much of human behavior that we see in our striving for repute, power, wealth, and status.

And history is surely not a “matter of inventing stories” about why certain events happened. True, we often don’t know for sure, as we can’t easily determine historical causation, but I’m sure historians wouldn’t see themselves as “making up stories”. If, for example, you think famous person A did X because he knew that Y was true, and you find out that that person A didn’t really know that Y was true but thought that Z was true instead, you’ve falsified a historical argument. Historical records exist to check assertions of fact. That’s why we know that the “Bethlehem census” of the Bible is wrong, and why the claim that the Holocaust was just prisoners dying of disease and not deliberate extermination is equally wrong.

To say that any behavioral regularities we see are mere “peculiar coincidences” is a claim that evolution itself has nothing to do with physics. For it’s evolution that’s at the base of so much of behaviorial science. And evolution results from the differential replication of different genes, which become different via mutations, which are of course physical phenomena.

It’s “not even wrong” to say that determinists who reject the idea that our “will” can interact with our bodies are at the same time claiming that history, game theory, economics, and other forms of “social science” are all pseudosciences. If you know what a pseudoscience really is: a belief system that rejects testing and falsification by the methods of “real science” and is buttressed by confirmation bias, then you wouldn’t make the statements that Ball does. He’s arguing against a view that nobody holds.

And now I must go see my goldeneye ducks. More tomorrow. Read Ball’s article.

h/t: David

 

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

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

Nobel Prize in Physics goes to three for showing that formation of black holes is predicted by relativity theory

October 6, 2020 • 6:15 am

This morning the Karolinska Institute awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics to two men and a woman—Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel, and Andrea Ghez—for work on black holes.  As the press release notes:

Three Laureates share this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics for their discoveries about one of the most exotic phenomena in the universe, the black hole. Roger Penrose showed that the general theory of relativity leads to the formation of black holes. Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez discovered that an invisible and extremely heavy object governs the orbits of stars at the centre of our galaxy. A supermassive black hole is the only currently known explanation.

Penrose got half the prize, with Genzel and Ghez sharing the other 50%.

My Nobel Prize Contest (see here and here) is already a big flop this year, with nobody guessing even one person from each of the two sets of winners so far. Reader ThyroidPlanet, though, did guess Penrose for physics.

The Chemistry prize will be announced tomorrow, and the Literature prize on Thursday.

Below is a video of this morning’s announcement featuring Professor Göran K. Hansson, Secretary General of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The action begins at 26:15, with the announcement in both Swedish and English. At 33:15,  David Havilland, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics, and Professor Ulf Danielsson explain the significance of the discovery.