New York Times to readers: of course you have free will.

In yesterday’s New York Times, William Egginton, a professor of humanities at Johns Hopkins, was exercised by recent research showing that when monkeys make a “decision,” their neurons register it before they’re conscious of it.  (This finding has been duplicated in humans.) That implies that the “decision” isn’t really a conscious one—that is, it doesn’t conform to our notion of free will.  Egginton worries about the implications:

The implications are immediate. If researchers can in theory predict what human beings will decide before they themselves know it, what is left of the notion of human freedom? How can we say that humans are free in any meaningful way if others can know what their decisions will be before they themselves make them?

Research of this sort can seem frightening. An experiment that demonstrated the illusory nature of human freedom would, in many people’s mind, rob the test subjects of something essential to their humanity.

If a machine can tell me what I am about to decide before I decide it, this means that, in some sense, the decision was already made before I became consciously involved. But if that is the case, how am I, as a moral agent, to be held accountable for my actions? If, on the cusp of an important moral decision, I now know that my decision was already taken at the moment I thought myself to be deciding, does this not undermine my responsibility for that choice?

Egginton goes on to ponder the obvious: if we don’t have free will, then not only conventional ideas about morality but also a lot of religious doctrine—especially the Christian idea of free choice between good and evil—go out the window.

He’s right, of course. How do you deal with this problem? One way is to accept that our behaviors aren’t really affected by some ineffable and non-physical thing called “will.” But Egginton, whose own blog is much concerned with propping up faith and bashing atheism, finds another solution.  He claims that the concept of predictability isn’t relevant to our ideas about free will:

In other words, we have no reason to assume that either predictability or lack of predictability has anything to say about free will. The fact that we do make this association has more to do with the model of the world that we subtly import into such thought experiments than with the experiments themselves.

What is this “model of the world?” Simply that the world can be understood through reason and empirical examination. To Egginton, this model is problematic:

The problem was that while our senses can only ever bring us verifiable knowledge about how the world appears in time and space, our reason always strives to know more than appearances can show it. This tendency of reason to always know more is and was a good thing. It is why human kind is always curious, always progressing to greater and greater knowledge and accomplishments. But if not tempered by a respect for its limits and an understanding of its innate tendencies to overreach, reason can lead us into error and fanaticism.

When you hear the words “respect for the limits of understanding,” you know that the speaker is a either a faitheist or accommodationist, trying at once to denigrate science and to vindicate “other ways of knowing,” i.e., religion.  But I hardly need to remind readers that the scientific “model of the world” has been extraordinarily successful at solving problems, while other “models” haven’t done squat.

While Egginton doesn’t explicitly define free will (a recurrent problem in these sorts of discussions), he clearly knows its opposite: any behavior that can be predicted.  But Egginton mistakes “predictability” for “determinism.”  Our own behavior might well be completely determined by the concatenation of our genes and our environment (with perhaps a dollop of quantum indeterminacy thrown in for fun), but not be very predictable.  It’s clear, in fact, that even if we are molecular automatons, we’ll never know enough to have more than a rudimentary ability to predict people’s decisions.  We need to know not only how molecules, chemicals, and neurons interact with each other and their environment, but also how these interactions occur in own own unique configuration of molecules. On top of our inability to know everything is the fact that some things simply can’t be known: things like where an electron will move and when an atom will decay. But nobody thinks that free will resides in quantum indeterminacy.

The conflation of determinism and predictability is seen when people invoke chaos theory as support for free will.  But chaos theory does not say that things aren’t physically determined: it says that the behavior of complex systems, though determined, isn’t predictable, since tiny and unmeasurable differences in starting conditions can ramify into large differences in outcomes.  

Anthony Cashmore’s definition of free will, which seems to me to encapsulate most people’s intutitive notion, is one based on large-scale determinism but not on predictability:

I believe that free will is better defined 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.

Surely our ever-increasing understanding of how the brain works and how it affects behavior must play an important role in how we see “free will.”  People like Egginton, who see those advances as mere annoyances, are akin to theologians who constantly revise what the Bible really means in light of our increased understanding of physics, geology, and biology. Indeed, studies of the brain are pushing back notions of free will in precisely the way that studies of evolution have pushed back the idea of a creator-god.

We simply don’t like to think that we’re molecular automatons, and so we adopt a definition of free will that makes us think we’re free.  But as far as I can see, I, like everyone else, am just a molecular puppet.  I don’t like that much, but that’s how it is.  I don’t like the fact that I’m going to die, either, but you don’t see me redefining the notion of “death” to pretend I’m immortal.

175 Comments

  1. Posted July 27, 2010 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    “But nobody thinks that free will resides in quantum indeterminacy.”

    Apparently some do: http://www.informationphilosopher.com/solutions/scientists/penrose/

    • oldfuzz
      Posted July 28, 2010 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

      There’s always somebody, thank whomever or whatever… lest our thinking concretize.

  2. Flaffer
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    “But I hardly need to remind readers that the scientific “model of the world” has been extraordinarily successful at solving problems, while other “models” haven’t done squat.”

    I must disagree with this 100% here. One “model” (the word is loaded and not ideal) that has worked wonders philosophers call “folk psychology” (free will is a part of it). It impugns all kinds of interesting predictions that come out right all the time. In fact, we could hardly function as a society if our models of others was not true when it counts.

    I think one can admit that science cannot explain (away) folk psychology (what would a replacement LOOK like?) without opening the doors to all who come by (religion, pseudo-science, bulls*%t, etc.). It may be easier to just dismiss all the things we know without empirical evidence as its sole justification, but it is an impoverished ontology at best.

    • Insightful Ape
      Posted July 27, 2010 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      Free will is an illusion. Get over it.

    • Anonym
      Posted July 27, 2010 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      Wow! “extraordinarily successful” countered with “disagree … 100%”. How can one argue against such a severe riposte?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 27, 2010 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

      we could hardly function as a society if our models of others was not true when it counts.

      What you describe is learning, not science.

      You can learn a lot of facts, and they can even cover facts and other knowledge. That doesn’t change the fact that learning is environmentally contingent and freely decoded.

      An example is the genome, which learns by trial-and-error or trial-and-success by way of differential reproduction. But change the environment and the learning (fitness) may not be applicable (adaptive). And good luck with deciphering genes as algorithmic program instead of heuristic recipes!

      So of course adaptation is successful, that is how it works and why it exist in the first place. But heuristics isn’t coherent knowledge (facts and theories), they are ad hoc methods (recipes).

      This is why we can tell other methods do nothing to promote knowledge.

      [The deceit that our models of selves and others are coherent is also a fascinating subject related to free will, see Coyne's description of the lack of overall predictivity. They are not generally coherent - but they are piecewise effective.]

      all the things we know without empirical evidence as its sole justification

      And now you make the predictable jump from denigrating science to vindicating “other ways of knowing”, see Coyne’s ad hoc heuristic for you.

      What exactly do “we know without empirical evidence”? Give one example!

  3. Posted July 27, 2010 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    “He’s right, of course. How do you deal with this problem?”

    If he is right, that free will is out the window, then we don’t deal with this problem. Quite simply, free will is the ability to deal with problems. Without free will, we simply do as we are allegedly compelled by the allegedly deterministic laws of physics (those laws that deny us free will).

    • Posted July 27, 2010 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

      Alas! We are condemned to merely appear as though we were dealing with problems by behaving exactly the way a deterministic problem-solving system would, resulting in problems actually being dealt with!

      I miss thinking I could deal with problems…

  4. Kevin
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    A couple of things.

    1. It’s the same brain making the decision. If the decision is made by the brain prior to the awareness of the decision on a conscious level, that’s a temporal anomaly which probably has survival benefits (“I’d better move away from that movement in the tall grass because there might be a lion hiding there”). It says nothing about “predetermination”, only that conscious awareness is not a requisite component of decision-making. And that’s a good thing.

    This is quite evident in sports like baseball. The time available for a major league hitter to hit a major league fastball is WAY too short for there to be a “conscious” decision to do so followed by the swing. But by training (and an abundance of fast-twitch muscle fibers to accomplish the task), the hitter learns to swing before he “decides” to.

    2. Of COURSE we have “free will”. Geez Louise, this is the most trivial of philosophical questions. And the evidence that we have free will is that we can change our minds. Everything from “No, I’ll have the fish instead,” to “I don’t love you any more; I want a divorce.” We are even free — ala Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton — to re-change our minds back again.

    The issue is not whether we have an ability to think for ourselves and make non-predetermined decisions about our lives (either instantaneous or future). It’s whether this facility comes at the price of an eternal overlord, who either “granted” us this ability or didn’t, depending on your theological persuasion.

    Free will is all-natural and part of the suite of higher-thinking skills that separates us from the other beasts. To be sure, our decisions are informed by our culture, our education, our upbringing, etc. (For example, I will *never* decide that raw termites are a delicacy, despite their being much in favor in some parts of the planet). But it is the individual brain that runs the show, acting alone and in strict accordance with the laws of electrochemical mechanics.

    I don’t know why you have yourself so tied up in knots over this. Substance dualism is dead as a doornail; and with it goes any concept of predetermination.

    • ritebrother
      Posted July 27, 2010 at 8:35 am | Permalink

      This is the right perspective, in my opinion. Nice post.

    • Insightful Ape
      Posted July 27, 2010 at 8:51 am | Permalink

      “Free will” is just a fancy way of saying human behavior is unpredictable. Changing your mind does not imply there is a ghost in the machine any more than a storm changing its course as a result of atmospheric phenomena.
      There is such a thing as the chaos theory. It states that the behavior of a physical system cannot be predicated with certainty even if the variables are controlled. The reason is that the system itself is so complex that even the slightest change may result in unforeseen consequences.
      It is easier to conclude that “making decisions” and “changing one’s mind” are results of human brain working under chaos theory than attributing functions to it that have never been observed elsewhere. Again, Occam’s razor.

      • Posted July 28, 2010 at 4:57 am | Permalink

        This is a confusion between a first-person and the third-person analysis.

    • Posted July 27, 2010 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      Of COURSE we have “free will”.We are even free… to re-change our minds back again.

      Here is how I think of it: In contexts that are similar, yes. In contexts that are the exact same (which never happens), no. If one were to rewind time, you would make the exact same decision over again. With absolute freewill, the kind promoted by theists, you could make a different decision each time even though everything started out the same way.

    • oldfuzz
      Posted July 27, 2010 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      Excellent. In a university course on the Neuroscience of Attention several years ago one of the research parers we reviewed covered this noting that while the “decision” was made prior to the act, the act could be suppressed by choice. The author called this behavior “free won’t” which is, for me at least, the flip side of free will. In my search for a reference, I found work by Benjamin Libet, but could not find the original paper.

      Of course, the great challenge here is an agreed definition of free will.

      • Kevin
        Posted July 27, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I agree. One of the primary issues here is that the term “free will” was invented by the religious to try to explain why god allows evil in the world. As such, it carries an extremely heavy theological burden. With theological heavyweights coming down on either side of the equation.

        I think a secular definition of “free will” boils down to the human decision-making process (cognitive, but not necessarily self-conscious) that involves the ability to choose between two or more options. For example, today I drove to a place for lunch and took a completely different route on the way home. There was nothing predetermined about that choice. I wasn’t programmed to drive either route. My “will” was “free” to go either way, or another entirely.

        And I had the steak sandwich instead of the chicken sandwich.

        For the most part, the expression of free will is mundane. The religious might want to confine it to expressions of moral/ethical behavior, but that’s clearly wrong. We make choice-based decisions all the time. Some of them involve cultural norms relative to others; most don’t.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted July 27, 2010 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

          Agreed.

          Also, I believe this form is a useful conceit, or rather component, of our model of selves. We can’t cognitively resolve the unconscious “free will” decision, conscious perception, conscious (?) “free won’t” decision, and finally modeling. Instead we lump it together, as we must.

          The religious discussion leaves me cold. I can see why Coyne would want to define free will differently, but it isn’t applicable to what we actually (want to) do.

        • oldfuzz
          Posted July 27, 2010 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

          Well said. The problem with free will is its definition, which seems to vary almost individually. As a pedestrian here, I rely on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as my Internet checkpoint and find the discourse on free will there to reveal the uncertainty I find in this discussion. It’s at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freewill/

          BTW, I would love to have the steak, but would opt for bread and soup.

        • Insightful Ape
          Posted July 27, 2010 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

          The secular definition of free will is that it is an illusion.
          See my post above.

          • Ian
            Posted July 27, 2010 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

            Solid matter is an illusion; it’s really all just empty space. However, I seem to be having trouble walking through walls. I am a molecular automaton, albeit one with the illusion that it has free will. I relish the illusion because it’s all I know.

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted July 28, 2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink

              Solid matter isn’t an illusion at all, it is a state. How it acts and how you perceive it is another problem.

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted July 28, 2010 at 11:10 am | Permalink

            I think it goes overboard to claim that it is a “definition”, but it is clearly the answer to the theological discussion of it.

            Also, on the brain and chaos: that is what is observed” Or nearly so. There is an interesting paper on neuronal tissue (in vitro and in vivo) and modeling its actions, coming to the conclusion that brain neurons “live on the edge of chaos”.

            To maintain a robust 1-1 signal throughout a rather disorganized structure, it organizes akin to social networks or the internet with many neighbors and a few long links (IIRC).

            Anyway, the upshot is robustness (no masses of epileptic state neurons starts to fire chaotically, in healthy tissue). The downside is lack of predictiveness of the signal chain details.

    • PhiloKGB
      Posted July 29, 2010 at 3:13 am | Permalink

      Yes, substance dualism is dead. Long live substance dualism in phrases like, “I changed my mind.” Surely my mind (defined as the part of Richard Burton who loved Elizabeth Taylor, then didn’t, then did again) can change, but who is the “I” that’s allegedly doing the changing?

  5. Thanny
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    The brain is a ruddy great Rube Goldberg contraption (compared to the size of its parts). The fact that my subjective experience of a decision takes place measurably later than the turning of the cogs that produce it does not threaten my sense of personal free choice in the slightest. It’s still my brain that does the cogitating, however abstracted my consciousness is from the actual mechanisms that produce it.

    Free will as generally “understood” is nothing short of incoherent. We are machines to the core. My will is nothing more or less than a product of my massive neural tangle, which was initially built by genes, then subsequently self-modified in countless ways by its own reactions to past and present inputs.

    I don’t know who originated the quote, but I remember it from Dan Dennett, and find it a pretty good summation: You can will what you choose, but you can’t choose what you will.

  6. Posted July 27, 2010 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    I like OldCola’s “Free Will” diagram… ;-)

  7. NewEnglandBob
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Just because a decision is made in the mind before one is conscious of it does not mean that one did not make that decision. That is a poor starting premise. We just don’t know enough about the mind yet.

  8. Insightful Ape
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    I don’t see why the NY Times writer is so perturbed. We have known about this for decades. In fact, the Bereitschaftpotential (“BP”) is such a well understood phenomenon that it has clinical applications. It is no longer just a research tool.
    By the time “you” decide you are going to execute a function the machinery is already in motion. Any individual witha basic understanding in neuroscience will tell you that.
    I respect philosophers an their work. But I think they really need to ask a scientist about context when they are commenting on a scientific finding.

    • Posted July 28, 2010 at 6:38 am | Permalink

      Here is a philosophical contribution.

      Now imagine you have a device that can predict if someone will push the red button or the green button.

      Put the screen of this device in front of the subject and give him that simple instruction “Just do the contrary of what is the device predicts”.

      What happens ?

      1. The device keeps its prediction and the subject do the contrary. Your device is not working : free will exists.

      2. The device change its prediction with the subject. The subject managed to change the device’s output with its volition : free will exists.

      3. The device enter in an oscillation state and after a while its output becomes completly chaotic. Free will exists, and you proved that it has something to see with the laws of chaos (the presence feedback loops is a condition of chaos).

      4. The subject do not do the contrary of what the device predicted. He comes back to you and say “I was like hypnotized by the device, I could not make a decision anymore…” Ok in that case you proved that free will does not exist…. But isn’t it a bit.. weird ?

      • Notagod
        Posted July 28, 2010 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, that’s weird.

        In the future, when you are about to post a comment, try not to. If you succeed then you might have free will, if you post any comment(s) in the future you probably don’t have free will.

      • AlexY
        Posted July 29, 2010 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

        Consider a machine that can perfectly predict which of two lights (R & B) another machine will turn on when it is programmed to make a decision. However, the predicting machine is wired to the random machine in such a way that when it turns on the light signifying R/B, it causes the random machine to light B/R. This is logically equivalent to your situation, and highlights the absurdity of the concept of a perfect predicting machine when the predicting system and the system being predicted are coupled in a way to make this property impossible for the predicting machine. If your argument could prove the existence of free will in a person, it could also prove the existence of free will in my programmed machine.

        • Posted July 30, 2010 at 3:09 am | Permalink

          In your example, the predicting machine is not a real predicting machine, because it does not take into account that it is itself wired to the supposedly random one.

          In a sense you want the predicting machine to be “outside the world” (not interacting with the object). That is exactly the principle of the scientific method to put the subject (i.e. the scientist) “outside the world”, observing the object. Unfortunatly it does not work anymore when it comes to our own consciousness and free will.

          That is exactly what my argument points out. Because a normal subject is able to understand the laws of physics, he may also be “outside the world” (in our case, have information about the predicting device) and consequently, you cannot prove that he does not have a genuine free will.

          I find it quite similar to the halting problem (Gödel -> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halting_problem ). Suppose an algorithm that tells us whether or not another algorithm will ever halt. The mathematician can prove that the algorithm, apply to itself, will never halt, whereas the algorithm itself cannot, because it will never halt.

          • Alex
            Posted July 30, 2010 at 4:20 am | Permalink

            My point is that the predicting machine being wired to the machine being predicted is equivalent to the person being shown the machine’s prediction before he does what is being predicted. The causal links are the same, just the wiring more complex. It makes no difference whether it’s a machine making a seemingly unpredictable decision or a person, a perfect predicting machine is a nonsense concept in that context, leading to the same paradoxes. I’m not saying that isn’t an interesting thing in itself about the nature of predictions, but I don’t believe it has anything to say about free will.

          • Posted July 30, 2010 at 6:27 am | Permalink

            Ok I understand your point.

            I agree, strictly speaking, we did not prove that the subject of the experience has free will. We only proved that he is unpredictable, just as a machine can be.

            Now practically speaking, we can attribute this unpredictability to free will, by analogy with our own experience of free will (or alternatively, we can do the experience ourself and be convinced that our free will deafeated the predictions of the machine).

            In the case of your variation with a machine, we would say instead that the intelligence of the conceiver of that machine defeated the predictions.

            The problem here is that free will is a subjective notion. Of course, it is impossible to prove the existence of free will objectively and we must take into consideration our subjective experience.

      • Robinson
        Posted July 29, 2010 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

        The failure in your logic is the idea of a prediction device. It has the same conflict as the time travel paradox of killing your own father. It proves mothing.

  9. Posted July 27, 2010 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    So I haven’t read the whole post, but I gotta jump in here before the comments get flooded (last time Jerry posted on free will, there were 200+ comments by the time I was ready to chime in, so I didn’t even bother).

    Up until very recently, my response to any discussion about free will was that the phrase is not sufficiently defined, so who cares. I was just reading an old Stephen Hawking essay, though, and he made a point I rather liked. It’s a little similar to this Egginton guy’s argument, only non-stupid:

    Basically, Hawking was arguing that since all of us experience a sensation that we have sort of informally agreed to call “free will”, and since human actions are so complex that the fact that they are predictable is mostly irrelevant to common experience, then this vague notion of free will is a reasonable model for our day to day lives — the same way that Newtonian physics is a reasonable model for all the physical phenomena we encounter on a daily basis.

    It’s a little different, because Newtonian physics is well-defined, whereas free will is not. But let’s face it, we all act as if our actions are neither random nor deterministic, that they are “willed” by a little internal humunculus. And we’re all going to keep acting that way most of the time. So “free will”, as ill-defined as it is, is a reasonable tentative model on a day-to-day basis.

    OTOH, someone trying to defend free will as a literal truth in a philosophical context is being a right idiot.

    • Posted July 27, 2010 at 8:45 am | Permalink

      In a similar way, we all operate on a model of Cartesian dualism, which is fairly well-defined, even though I imagine most commenters here (myself included) think the notion of mind/body dualism is patently absurd.

      That does not stop me from uttering phrases like, “I am comfortable with my body”, even though such a phrase is nonsensical outside of a dualistic paradigm.

      So — defending dualism from a philosophical and/or literal point of view is stupid; adopting dualism as an operating model for day-to-day living is simply unavoidable. It is much the same with free will.

      • enriquemota
        Posted July 27, 2010 at 9:17 am | Permalink

        The difference is that there are ethical consequences in accepting the folk psychology illusion of free will: by doing so, we suppose that we are responsible agents, and therefore blameworthy or praiseworthy in virtue of our actions.
        But if our actions are in fact determined by factors beyond our control, then we have no right to assume that we are ultimately responsible for them. The consequence, as noted by many, is that the kind of responsibility that justifies blame and praise for a person’s actions simply does not exist.
        Our ethics and morals, and their products, such as the legal system, insofar as they rely on the assumption of free will are in fact unjustifiable and unfair.
        You might be right in saying that free will is such a strong illusion that in practice we would never be able to defeat it, not even if there is conclusive evidence against it (I think there is); but I think this is a very defeatist argument, no different from assuming the Sun is the one that goes around, that the soul is non-corporeal, or that there is divine agency behind natural phenomena (and therefore design in complex natural things). All those are products of folk psychology, all very seductive for the uninformed, and some very harmful towards a better understanding of the world. Also, the idea of free will justifies some nasty reactive attitudes towards people, such as resentment, hatred, and revenge.

        • Insightful Ape
          Posted July 27, 2010 at 9:40 am | Permalink

          Nonexistence of free will doesn’t mean being discharged from responsiblilty, though. Human behavior is shaped by outside factors, true. But one of those factors is a system of rewards and punishments. Having such a system in place does change human behavior, which is exactly the point.

          • enriquemota
            Posted July 27, 2010 at 9:45 am | Permalink

            But you can have something analogous to that “reward and punishment” system of behavior education without unsustainable assumptions, such as the kind of responsibility that justifies blame or praiseworthiness.

            • Posted July 27, 2010 at 9:56 am | Permalink

              Maybe the issue here is that you are objecting to “blame” and “praiseworthiness” as sui generis concepts, but not recognizing that they could still exist and be something else.

              “Sexual pleasure” is not some sui generis philosophical concept that hangs in the air — it’s a result of natural selection. That said, I dunno about you, but I am not ready to discard sexual pleasure as a useless concept just because it is an arbitrary result of capricious evolution!!!

              I think similar things could be said about “blame” and “praiseworthiness”.

              By the same token, of course, a self-reflective understanding of all of these concepts ought to lead us to moderate our indulgence, I would think. A proper understanding of (the lack of) free will ought to moderate our concept of “blame”, for sure. But I disagree that it obliterates it.

        • Posted July 27, 2010 at 9:49 am | Permalink

          The consequence, as noted by many, is that the kind of responsibility that justifies blame and praise for a person’s actions simply does not exist.

          I disagree completely! :) Even if we adopt a completely deterministic model for human behavior, there are still pragmatic reasons for blame and praise — and I am not even talking about deterrence/incentive, although those are certainly important. It has been shown that when people feel that “justice” is being routinely avoided, they tend to be less happy and to withdraw from the system.

          In other words, if we don’t “punish” criminals as if they had little internal homonculi controlling their actions, then the Homo Sapiens in that society tend to get pretty upset about it. Since, for the time being, we are stuck with our society being composed of Homo Sapiens, punishment and reward is therefore unavoidable.

          To maybe put it even more pithily — the fact that homo sapiens cannot avoid operating on a tentative “free will” model is in itself a partial pragmatic justification for doling out punishments and rewards based on that same model.

          This is not to suggest we go overboard. For instance, in cases where we can show pretty clearly that, let’s say, a particular type of rehabilitation is more “effective” than a punishment that would please the Homo Sapiens (and by “effective” I mean lower recidivism rates, lower overall risk to society, lower cost, or some combination), we may also choose for different pragmatic reasons to favor the rehabilitation. A recognition that free will is nothing more than an illusory model ought to help us feel better about that decision, i.e. we know that in reality there is no tiny homunculus that is getting off scot-free for its “freely chosen” crime.

          but I think this is a very defeatist argument, no different from assuming the Sun is the one that goes around, that the soul is non-corporeal, or that there is divine agency behind natural phenomena (and therefore design in complex natural things). All those are products of folk psychology, all very seductive for the uninformed, and some very harmful towards a better understanding of the world. Also, the idea of free will justifies some nasty reactive attitudes towards people, such as resentment, hatred, and revenge.

          I think you are either making a bit of a strawman, or else misunderstanding my argument.

          I am categorically not saying we should discard any understanding that free will is an illusion, nor am I saying we should give up on trying to make people understand that it is an illusion. I’m merely saying that most of the time, it’s a good operating model.

          You mention geocentrism. Well uh… If you look up at the sky and check the position of the sun to see whether it is morning, noon, or night, what is your mental model? Are you REALLY picturing the Earth rotating and orbiting the sun? Or is your mental model of the sun orbiting the Earth, just for that brief moment of computation? I don’t know about you, but my mental model is definitely the latter.

          When I say, “Let’s go watch the sunset,” do you get all snide and insist that it is not the sun that is setting, but rather the earth turning, so therefore I should have said, “Let’s go watch the earthturn”? I think not.

          Geocentrism is a fine model for day-to-day living, and I’m pretty sure it’s what the vast majority of us employ as a working model, even if we are not consciously aware of it. Of course I am not suggesting that we stop teaching proper astronomy! Or that we just give up and say, “Oh, well it feels like the sun orbits the earth, so let’s just assume that is the case!” I’m merely saying that, most of the time, it sure does feel like the sun is orbiting the earth, and we shouldn’t worry ourselves to much about that, i.e. we don’t need to condition ourselves to always feel like it’s the Earth turning rather than the sun orbiting.

          That’s what I’m saying about free will. I’m not saying we should throw up our arms and say, “Oh, well it feels like we have free will, so let’s stop saying we don’t!” I’m just saying, nobody should lose sleep over the fact that there is no such thing as free will — because in the vast majority of day-to-day situations, where it would be disturbing if we didn’t have free will, it’s a perfectly reasonable operating assumption to say that we do.

          And I extend that to punishment/reward as well, at least on a day-to-day basis. I frankly do not understand how the lack of free will undermines responsibility. You are right that we ought to be able to try and rise above petty revenge and such, but then again, there are other pragmatic reasons for doing so anyway.

          • enriquemota
            Posted July 27, 2010 at 10:12 am | Permalink

            You say:

            “It has been shown that when people feel that “justice” is being routinely avoided, they tend to be less happy and to withdraw from the system.

            In other words, if we don’t “punish” criminals as if they had little internal homonculi controlling their actions, then the Homo Sapiens in that society tend to get pretty upset about it.”

            I think this is true in the current state of things, but as pragmatic as your argument may be, I still find very upsetting the fact that people are being punished and blamed for things that were beyond their control. I also don’t like the idea of allowing people to indulge in false righteousness, and worse, in revenge (not saying that you approve of any of these things).

            By a similar argument, we could just pragmatically let creationist live their lives in accordance to their intuitions about how the universe works, rather than upsetting them with the facts.

            You say:

            “When I say, “Let’s go watch the sunset,” do you get all snide and insist that it is not the sun that is setting, but rather the earth turning, so therefore I should have said, “Let’s go watch the earthturn”? I think not.”

            No, I wouldn’t get “all snide”, because I would know what you mean when you use that phrase. But common people still speak of free will as analogous to acatually maintaining that the sun is orbiting the Earth. They are not using the sophisticated pragmatical argument that you are using to defend the notion of free will.

            • Posted July 27, 2010 at 10:20 am | Permalink

              Ah hah! Okay, yes, I see the confusion.

              Let me state it quite clearly: The Average Person is quite wrong-headed when it comes to free will, and needs some serious edjumacating on the topic. While I think we would be unwise to entirely discard the ideas of “blame” and “praiseworthiness”, one cannot apply those concepts with judiciously and with appropriate moderation without understanding that free will is simply an experiential model with no physical referent (and as I say, how could it have a physical referent, since it’s undefinable/nonsensical in that context?)

              So I think we are on the same page in that regard.

              What I like about Hawking’s position is that it is a good answer for why we should not lose sleep over the contradiction between what we feel about “free will” and the obvious ridiculousness of anything like that existing in reality.

              But we should still lose sleep over the countless multitudes of people who don’t understand the latter part of that sentence. That’s a problem.

              It does not bother me that most people picture the sun going around the Earth and live their day-to-day lives as if it were. It does bother me that far too many people think this is the literal truth. (Even in developed nations, it’s a frighteningly non-trivial percentage, IIRC…)

            • Posted July 27, 2010 at 10:23 am | Permalink

              I still find very upsetting the fact that people are being punished and blamed for things that were beyond their control.

              I do not understand this sentence. What does it mean for something to be “beyond their control”? What is “their control” in a literal sense?

              See, I do not even think you can ask whether a given action was “beyond my control” without adopting a working model that encompasses free will. Otherwise, the question is nonsensical. What would it even mean for something to be “within my control” if we are not incorporating free will into our working model?

              Your sentence is as meaningful to me as if you had said, ” I still find very upsetting the fact that people are being punished for things that are either invisible or pink, but not both.”

          • Nick
            Posted July 27, 2010 at 11:37 am | Permalink

            Your thinking is very similar to mine on this issue and I find that reassuring. But I have seen a few things I’m not sure about.

            “Even if we adopt a completely deterministic model for human behavior, there are still pragmatic reasons for blame and praise…”

            I would go further than that. I would like to suggest that blame and praise are absolutely necessary for human existence. Imagine living your life (and other people living theirs) without these notions. I don’t know about other people but in my thought experiment life comes to a halt.

        • Posted July 27, 2010 at 10:03 am | Permalink

          Oh, and for the record:

          You might be right in saying that free will is such a strong illusion that in practice we would never be able to defeat it, not even if there is conclusive evidence against it (I think there is);

          I’ll go one step further: I don’t think it’s precisely definable, so you can’t even really ask if there is evidence against it. Outside of the context of human sensation, it’s completely meaningless. Not even definable. It’s the invisible pink unicorn.

          You can define it as an experiential model, and it seems to work reasonably well (though not perfectly) in that context. Which is why I don’t think it’s realistic nor wise to discard it altogether.

          But as a “real thing”? There’s not even evidence against it, because it’s an absurd self-contradictory concept.

          • enriquemota
            Posted July 27, 2010 at 10:23 am | Permalink

            I really don’t understand your argument. You say that free will is not precisely definable, and that therefore it is not falsifiable (or verifiable); that it is, in fact, only a certain attitude or emotion towards our decision making processes that works in the sense that it allows us to live satisfactorily.
            But I think it can be defined as the notion that the will is not determined by causes beyond the agent’s control. How is this not falsifiable?

            • enriquemota
              Posted July 27, 2010 at 10:39 am | Permalink

              You say:

              “I do not understand this sentence. What does it mean for something to be “beyond their control”? What is “their control” in a literal sense?

              See, I do not even think you can ask whether a given action was “beyond my control” without adopting a working
              model that encompasses free will. Otherwise, the question is nonsensical. What would it even mean for something to be “within my control” if we are not incorporating free will into our working model?”

              I don’t see how the notion of “control of their actions” is nonsense. It just means that the agent chooses to behave in a way that is not causally determined by factors other than his mere will.
              Also, you dismiss the notion of free will as a “pink unicorn”, yet you need to suppose it existence in order to justify reactive behavior such as punishment, resentment, praise, etc.

            • Posted July 27, 2010 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

              How do you define “his mere will”?

              If you define it in terms of physical processes in the brain, well then those things are very much not “beyond my control”! But if physical processes in the brain being deterministic and/or random contradicts the notion of free will, then I assume that definition has been implicitly rejected.

              Really, we cannot proceed further until you define “will”.

            • Posted July 27, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

              Also, you dismiss the notion of free will as a “pink unicorn”, yet you need to suppose it existence in order to justify reactive behavior such as punishment, resentment, praise, etc.

              No! I justified reactive behavior such as punishment, resentment, and praise on pragmatic grounds. It has a social function in terms of deterrence/incentive, but perhaps more importantly, these emotions are pretty ingrained in what it means to be human.

              Which is not to say we shouldn’t be aware of that and rise above it to a certain extent, but if we completely “rise above” what makes us human, what’s the point then? What are we evening “rising” to? What’s the goal?

              Ultimately we are human, and what we want is defined by that. By being self-aware of that, we can come up with a better resolution to certain internal contradictions (e.g. our ingrained desire for “revenge” may be tempered by our ingrained desire for “mercy”, and even more so by our ingrained desire for “not being fucked over” combined with a rational realization that someday we might be the person on whom vengeance is being taken!) but we can never reject our ingrained desires altogether or else… then what?

              Now, you can argue that blame and punishment are so often in contradiction with our other desires that we ought to discard them altogether. There is a case to be made for that (though I don’t entirely agree). But I do not need some ridiculous notion of “will” in order to justify a desire for punishment — I merely need to observe that I’m a human being.

    • Bill
      Posted July 27, 2010 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      The idea that the firing of neurons prior to the individual perceiving the conscious perceptual consequence of it, or deciding to turn right rather than left at an intersection, or inquiring on the spur of the moment whether a restaurant carries a particular artisinal ale is somehow something other than the free will (understanding, of course, that there never is any pure individuality purely acting individually in pure isolation) of the individual involved depends entirely on such Cartesian mind-body dualism, if not some further descendant multi-ism. For a man lost deciding directions, who or what could be making his decisions other than only him, himself, and he?

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted July 28, 2010 at 11:38 am | Permalink

        That is only if you define free will as the ability to make decisions. Coyne doesn’t, so this is no effective answer to the post.

  10. Posted July 27, 2010 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    Molecular puppets? At first I liked it, but then I thought about Tom Johnson and wondered, “Who’s pulling the strings?”

    To address a small part of what Egginton wrote:

    If a machine can tell me what I am about to decide before I decide it, this means that, in some sense, the decision was already made before I became consciously involved.

    Not necessarily, or rather, I don’t think this is the time to make such a pronouncement. We don’t actually know how consciousness works.

    Let’s pretend that consciousness is really just a reflection on things the brain has already finished executing. Even though it would then turn out to be wrong that decisions are made by our consciousnesses, our brains would still be in control. We would still be in control, just not consciously (even though it would seem like we were due to the close proximity in time that our consciousness becomes aware of things). That is, consciousness would be unnecessary for decision making and willpower. You could effectively shut your consciousness off and no one would notice.

    Or let’s say that consciousness is part of the decision making process. The “decision” that the scanner detects may be a coalescing conscious decision that we only perceive when it is fully formed. In other words, the scanner could be detecting the consciously requested draw from your memories but not the final decision; your memories, being mostly unchanging over time, would return a predictable result, captured by the scanner, that becomes the basis for your decision. To get a different result, different memories would need to be held by your brain to be tapped into, which isn’t going to happen during the testing time frame.

    So, I think there is a range of plausible possibilities for how it could be that our decisions are detectable before we are consciously aware of them that don’t necessarily mean we are not in control.

  11. Jonathan Morgan
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    Dan Dennett has an response to the human research showing this same finding in “Freedom Evolves” (Chapter 8)–analyzing the work of Ben Libet. He shows that this slight time delay does not have the significance that many have attributed to it. “Free Will” activity doesn’t happen instantaneously but over time. It’s illusory to assume that only instant decisions–which don’t really exist in nature–are the only way we could have free will. It’s part of the overall assumption of a mind distinctly separate from the physical processes that drive it.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted July 27, 2010 at 9:12 am | Permalink

      Agreed. I’m not defending this time delay as dispositive evidence against free will, although “consciousness” has historically been an important component of “making a decision. And of course, the experiments with monkeys and humans did involve an instantaneous decision.

      I am in fact about to start reading Dennett’s book.

      • gillt
        Posted July 27, 2010 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

        It’s worth reading, but I believe Dennett forces the conclusion (free will, we have it) through philosophical convolutions: freedom via determinism.

        • tmplikeachilles
          Posted July 28, 2010 at 12:46 am | Permalink

          Well, and what if he does? He is a philosopher after all. Given the complexity of the arguments and hidden assumptions on both sides of the free will argument, it is surely inevitable that any solution to the problem is going to seem “convoluted” and “forced” to some (possibly all) of the interested parties. But it might be a valid argument all the same. I for one think that Dennett gives (or let’s say, maps out) a valid solution to the problem, building on the excellent previous “Elbow Room”.

          What these scientific results say and don’t say about consciousness is also thoroughly explored in his previous “Consciousness Explained”, by the way, in his section on the “precognitive carousel” (if memory serves — it usually doesn’t). That book I would also highly recommend.

  12. Scott
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Why is everyone so obsessed with redefining free will to something that we really don’t have control over? Why not just do away with the damn term? It’s not sophisticated philosphy, it’s just clinging on to an old superstition.

    • enriquemota
      Posted July 27, 2010 at 9:31 am | Permalink

      I agree. I think these kinds of rationalizations are analogous to adding more and more epicycles to the geocentric model when in fact all the evidence points towards a heliocentric model of the solar system.

    • Posted July 27, 2010 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      This is something that Dennett gets at in his book on free will (Freedom Evolves). If we’re redefining “free will” to mean “quantum indeterminacies over which we have no control”, in what sense is that worth having? In what sense is it even “free will”?

    • Posted July 28, 2010 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      Free will is not a superstition, but something we all experience. It is a subjective aspect of life, you cannot treat this question objectively (That is the main problem of all these discussions), and you cannot “prove that free will does not exist” objectively.

  13. MoonShark
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    “But nobody thinks that free will resides in quantum indeterminacy.”

    You check that with Deepak Chopra? :p Never underestimate stupidity.

  14. Ray
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    “Why is everyone so obsessed with redefining free will to something that we really don’t have control over? Why not just do away with the damn term?”

    because many, if not most, folk definitions of free will correspond to something we clearly have e.g. “the ability to do what we want to.” Do you seriously doubt that certain components of our brain states represent desires and that our actions reflect these desires?

    It’s only definitions that philosophers and would-be philosophers come up with (where free will is viewed as opposing determinism) that create problems.

    • Scott
      Posted July 27, 2010 at 9:49 am | Permalink

      Yes, but that doesn’t at all lead to moral responsibility. Your desires are not something that you have control over, e.g. you could have an overwhelming desire to kill, an overwhelming desire for power, an overwhelming desire to make money by defrauding others. Those are determined by an aleatoric throw of the genetic and experiential/environmental dice. I’m not dogmatically against some form of free will, but I have yet to see evidence that it’s anything other than a neat cognitive illusion.

      • Ray
        Posted July 27, 2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink

        well, I don’t know what you mean by moral responsibility (and I suspect you don’t either), but punishment of misbehavior is certainly rationally justified in any society where punishment is viewed as personally undesirable and misbehavior is viewed as communally undesirable by the majority. It’s a bonus that in our society most people also feel a desire to honestly view themselves as “good people”, thus allowing guilt and self-respect to act as motivators in addition to societally imposed punishment. Either way, I don’t see how indeterminism would help anything.

  15. Nick
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne, I hold to no notion of free will. But I wonder if statements like “I, like everyone else, am just a molecular puppet” are the right language to be using. I really can’t imagine language that would be more deflating.

    I think we need a way of talking about this and other unsettling ‘realities’ that do not strip us of all feelings of meaning and worth. I think we need to be fully reconciled to our circumstance positively. I think Sam Harris is an excellent leader in this regard.

    I also worry that such statements will be used against us by our antagonists in the ‘culture war’ to great effect.

    • frank sellout
      Posted July 27, 2010 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      I think the term “free will” is a bad concept. It really has to do with the old argument of whether “God” gave us free will to decide our fate or is fate predestined. I think we should be looking at bahavior and behavior can definately be modified, just ask Pavlov. “Free Will” is a religious term and by using it I think we are playing on their field. Without a God there is no free will because free will is all about decisions actions and will lead us to salvation or damnation.
      I don’t know about everyone but when I die I’m not going to heaven or hell.

      • articulett
        Posted July 27, 2010 at 10:43 am | Permalink

        I think “free will” is an incoherent concept.

    • MoonShark
      Posted July 27, 2010 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      Nick, get over yourself and go watch some Carl Sagan.

      • Nick
        Posted July 27, 2010 at 10:39 am | Permalink

        “get over yourself”

        Don’t really know what that is supposed to mean. And yeah, I love Sagan. I’ve sent that very video to a couple of people.

        • MoonShark
          Posted July 27, 2010 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

          I must have misunderstood this then:

          “I think we need a way of talking about this and other unsettling ‘realities’ that do not strip us of all feelings of meaning and worth. I think we need to be fully reconciled to our circumstance positively.”

          That read to me like concern trolling — focusing on the words and the tone of the message rather than the contents and implications. The universe, after all, isn’t “positive” or “negative” — it just IS.

          It’s generally recognized (at least by most rational people I’ve met) that we make our own meaning, by living and loving and worrying and struggling and doing all those human things. So in that sense it’s not unsettling to know we’re conglomerations of molecular machinery under constant adjustment from the environment. Experience still makes us each unique.

          If you think about epigenetics, it would be far more unsettling if consciousness was strictly a product of genetics (all details fully determined at birth) or strictly products of the environment (we’d be unstable and total pushovers to nature).

          Instead it’s a blend, part determined and part probability. That’s a big challenge to understand every detail, but I find it much more academically appealing than the bogus black & white philosophy of “free will”.

          • Nick
            Posted July 27, 2010 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

            Most people I’ve met don’t seem to believe that we make our own meaning. They believe that it depends on some supernatural reality. I wish I could report otherwise.

            I agree with everything you say. But I don’t understand why you’re coming down on me for having a concern about how the language we use when talking about these issues is received by those who don’t share the same general worldview.

            Just to be clear: I am not saying the illusion of free will is some dirty little secret that skeptics need to keep. Indeed, my initial post implied otherwise.

            I have some friends (believers with doubts) with whom I have had a lot of conversations about God & science, etc. And while I’m not in the least inclined to do so, if I started talking about how science has shown that they and I are “just molecular puppets” do you think I would have half a chance at beginning to win them over to a more rational view of the world? That is the jist of what I’m saying.

            • MoonShark
              Posted July 27, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

              Yeah I understand. But what you should really be complaining about is that the “molecular puppets” shorthand is not entirely *accurate*!

              Note that I specified “rational people”, not the general populace.

              The working of a brain (as I understand) depends on its structure (which in turn depends on genes and the environmentally-tuned expression thereof through development) as well as signal feedbacks and gradients of flowing neurotransmitters. It’s damn messy!

              The general populace wants short sound-byte answers out of science, but sometimes it just doesn’t work that way. It would take a lengthy essay to teach them about what I only scratched the surface of.

              So what I find disturbing is that you seem to want Jerry’s editorial shorthand replaced with some other unspecified editorial shorthand which, in the end, is no more accurate!

              At least “molecular puppets” cuts to the heart of the problem with “free will” — at the lowest level there is no intention, only the laws of physics making matter and energy bump around.

              What’s your suggestion for better wording? You still haven’t given an example or explained why it would be more effective.

          • Nick
            Posted July 27, 2010 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

            “what you should really be complaining about is that the “molecular puppets” shorthand is not entirely *accurate*!”

            It is only accurate to the extent that you say: “At least “molecular puppets” cuts to the heart of the problem with “free will” — at the lowest level there is no intention, only the laws of physics making matter and energy bump around.”

            But at any rate, I don’t understand why you think I should be more concerned with the accuracy of an off-hand analogy than with the language.

            “What’s your suggestion for better wording? You still haven’t given an example or explained why it would be more effective.”

            I need to explain why using the phrase “fully caused” or “determined” is preferable to “just a molecular puppet”? I think you have forgotten what it was like before you had a fully naturalistic worldview.

            I really am surprised by all the opposition I am getting in response to what I thought was a mild criticism. Am I to understand that you don’t think such a phrase represents something for our antagonists to seize on? It seems to me like we are playing right into their hand with such language. Am I also to understand that you think people of our viewpoint who are in the public view should start to throw that phrase around? Whether as part of a consciousness-raising campaign or just whenever the issue comes up? Now I know you’ve said you don’t think it is accurate but that is not the point. The language is positively demeaning and I am saying that it is neither necessary nor desirable.

            • MoonShark
              Posted July 27, 2010 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

              A) I’m not “all the opposition”.
              B) “Fully caused” and “determined” leave out the aspect of probability. I’d hope the public at least has a general sense that, say, temperature is a statistical average that relates to colliding molecules. I think a reasonable layperson can extrapolate from there to understand that probability controls a lot of ways in which the atomic world relates to our scale.
              C) I don’t particularly care what antagonists seize upon. They’ve committed themselves to avoiding reality. I’d hope that the lay public values accuracy and sees that science can provide it where the antagonists don’t. D) We should educate based on scientific principles, not dance around with speculation on how idiots might misinterpret what we’re saying before it’s even said.
              E) By saying Jerry’s words are demeaning, you’re applying the exact same anthrocentric conceit that Sagan demolished with his Pale Blue Dot and Mote of Dust analogies. That’s why I said “get over it” in the first place! The world doesn’t exist for the sake of human feelings.

              Since you STILL haven’t posted a reasonable alternative to Jerry’s words, you’ve only strengthened my suspicions that you’re a concern troll. “Oh the tone! Oh the harshness! What will people think? Why are you picking on me?”

              Stick to the facts and you don’t have those problems.

            • Nick
              Posted July 27, 2010 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

              A) Of course you’re not. I don’t know why you would say that. In addition to you, gripes have come from Stephen, articulett, and Notagod.

              B.) No they don’t. I frankly have no idea what you’re talking about. Ascriptions of probabilities to specific outcomes is in no way inconsistent with those outcomes being caused (except perhaps for some phenomena that belong to the domain of quantum physics).

              C.) OK

              D.) I agree we should educate based on scientific principles. So you consider telling people “you’re just a molecular puppet” to be doing that?

              E.) What you seem to be saying here is that humans should have no meaning in their lives. No purpose. No sense of worth. I think you have misunderstood Sagan if you think that those things represent “anthropocentric conceit”.

              I still haven’t posted an alternative to Jerry’s words? What about the words of mine that you just quoted from my previous post? (ie. “fully caused” & “determined”)

              “Stick to the facts and you don’t have those problems.”

              MoonShark, would you mind pointing out where I have departed from the facts?

            • Nick
              Posted July 27, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

              One more thing. I have answered all of your questions but you did not answer one important question of mine that I asked to understand just what your problem with my viewpoint is. I asked: “Am I also to understand that you think people of our viewpoint who are in the public view should start to throw that phrase around? Whether as part of a consciousness-raising campaign or just whenever the issue comes up?”

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted July 27, 2010 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

              MoonShark has what I can see done a good job in laying out the neuroscience model (epigenetic).

              Ascriptions of probabilities to specific outcomes is in no way inconsistent with those outcomes being caused

              But they are inconsistent with those outcomes as being predictive in all detail.

              In the end, processes like quantum mechanics which are deterministic stochastic (states propagate deterministically, but decohere statistically) are still processes, not open for religious “gap cause”.

              What you seem to be saying here is that humans should have no meaning in their lives. No purpose. No sense of worth. I think you have misunderstood Sagan if you think that those things represent “anthropocentric conceit”.

              No, that is what a religious would like to say – no god, no purpose. That isn’t what non-religious would say. So why the strawman?

              This isn’t any concern of science, but it can observe that for example secular people construct meaning and purpose anyway. These social concepts are totally independent of science and religion, as they must. But they seem to be helped along by our being evolved to construct them.

              And all people are observed to feel self “worth” to some extent. This is another biological trait, it seems.

              Am I also to understand that you think people of our viewpoint who are in the public view should start to throw that phrase around?

              But you haven’t read the post! This, “molecular machines” isn’t a viewpoint, it is a (old and well known) result – it is an observable fact. The brain and its embodiment in eyes and muscular control et cetera is a molecular machine. What would you have us do? Frame the matter?

            • MoonShark
              Posted July 28, 2010 at 8:13 am | Permalink

              Nick: A) For the same reason you said “I presume to speak only for myself.” in your 7/27 11:01AM post.

              B) I’ll agree with Torbjörn here. “Fully caused” isn’t a reasonable alternative because causality is basically a given in the philosophy of science. That says very little; we can be more specific.

              (C is done)
              D) Education is a process. I see “molecular puppets” as a far better door to explain the mess of biochemistry and neurology behind consciousness than some halfway religious bunk like “free will” ever could be. Sure you could go all the way back to causality, but that’s a whole lot of extra work when most people know what a molecule is. I won’t argue that it has to be the specific “puppets” phrase, but the concept that molecules and their interactions make up the physical world is ubiquitous enough to make physics and chemistry a *very* reasonable starting point for a conversation on consciousness, neurology, cognition, etc.

              E) Yep, strawman. I never claimed we “should have no meaning”. Rather I believe we should actively make our own meaning and worth, rather than expecting it to be somehow inherent in what’s clearly a vast and impersonal universe made up of mostly cold dark matter and empty space.

              I’ll add F) You departed from the facts starting with your 7/27 9:43AM post suggesting that Jerry’s choice of words “strip us of all feelings of meaning and worth”. You continued at 1:10 with a vague anecdote about your own conversations with people, then 2:14 by saying the molecular view plays into the hands of antagonists and calling it demeaning.

              That’s 3 big posts with hardly a scratch of evidence. So forgive me if it looks like you’re just projecting your opinions.

              Note: Times are EST so maybe they appear differently for you. Hopefully the system doesn’t eat the links.

    • articulett
      Posted July 27, 2010 at 10:46 am | Permalink

      Nick, hour concern is noted.

      However, I don’t think you are a person who should be giving Dr. Coyne advice on how to use language. Your opinions are not necessarily shared by others, and you are scarcely a role model when it comes to communicating.

      • articulett
        Posted July 27, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink

        (“your” not “hour”)

      • Nick
        Posted July 27, 2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink

        Where does that come from? I was just expressing an opinion. It’s not like I was telling him off or denouncing him. And of course my opinions are not necessarily shared by others. I presume to speak only for myself. And why the personal stuff toward me?

        • Notagod
          Posted July 27, 2010 at 11:27 am | Permalink

          Can’t you think positively about puppets?

          We’ve been christian puppets for long enough. Long live molecules.

        • articulett
          Posted July 27, 2010 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

          Maybe I over-reacted. It just gets old to hear people lecturing about “tone” while avoiding the substance. Moreover, those who lecture on tone are seldom people with a tone I find worthy of emulating.

          Your first post came off as “concern troll”. You may want to reconsider how you express your opinions. When you fret over the “tone” of others, it sounds like you think they should adopt a tone more like yourself. I don’t think most readers would appreciate that.

          • Nick
            Posted July 27, 2010 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

            That is ridiculous. No fair-minded person could say that I have been “lecturing” or that I want to “censor” Dr. Coyne. And my objection was not about tone. It was about language. I phrased my concern humbly, using “I wonder if…” and “I worry that”. It seemed to me like a point that intelligent people interested in these issues might want to discuss.

            “Your first post came off as “concern troll”. You may want to reconsider how you express your opinions. When you fret over the “tone” of others, it sounds like you think they should adopt a tone more like yourself. I don’t think most readers would appreciate that.”

            No irony there man. None at all.

            • Tim Martin
              Posted July 27, 2010 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

              Here here, Nick!

              “It just gets old to hear people lecturing about “tone” while avoiding the substance.”

              Who is avoiding anything? Tone and substance are different matters, and there is no rule stating that you can only talk about the latter. And is it tone or substance to chastise other people for talking about tone?

              “Who cares? This is Dr. Coyne’s blog. Shouldn’t he be free to use language as he wishes on his own blog?”

              So you want to be able to ask questions about what topics are fair game, but you restrict what topics are fair game for others to talk about? And your chosen method of accomplishing this is name calling, rather than rational argument?

              Ridiculous.

            • Notagod
              Posted July 28, 2010 at 7:11 am | Permalink

              I really can’t imagine language that would be more deflating.

              How about ‘You are a sinner and the product of an invisible ghost’?

              People that are opposed to honesty and reality aren’t as concerned with language as you seem to think Nick. They are concern with the impact a concept has with regard to their fantasy.

              You didn’t even bother to offer an alternative only criticism of a description that is apparently close to the truth. The current state of being specifically makes most of the population the puppets of the very wealthy, who control media and advertising and religion, which through repetition shapes the masses to their liking.

              Truth and honest should be more important.

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted July 28, 2010 at 11:53 am | Permalink

              “No irony there man. None at all.”

              Exactly, no irony but for what you seem to read into it. articulett seems to say that your argument on tone is detracting from your argument on substance. That is different from saying that your tone is detracting from your argument.

              But _now_ we have irony, because you have decided to again conflate tone and argument.

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted July 28, 2010 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

              Who is avoiding anything? Tone and substance are different matters, and there is no rule stating that you can only talk about the latter.

              By introducing an irrelevant topic, you are distracting from the actual. And Nick did not discuss any of the matter at hand.

              There is no “restrict … topics”, but identifying off topic subjects.

              And your chosen method of accomplishing this is name calling, rather than rational argument?

              Identifying concern trolls is part of a rational argument. It has nothing to do with stereotyping. Rather, your argument that such identification is stereotyping is itself stereotyping.

            • Tim Martin
              Posted July 29, 2010 at 6:43 am | Permalink

              “By introducing an irrelevant topic, you are distracting from the actual. And Nick did not discuss any of the matter at hand.”

              That’s a ridiculous criticism. Going off on tangents to the OP is an incredibly common event on every message board/blog I’ve ever used, and Nick’s “tangent” is certainly not one of the worst. Furthermore, is it your or articulett’s plan to call out every person who goes off on a tangent? Clearly not. No one has any problem with MoonShark, who is engaging Nick on his line of reasoning. Furthermore, it would be impossible to call out every person who goes off on a tangent, because in doing so you would create more of a disturbance than the one you were trying to prevent.

              “Identifying concern trolls is part of a rational argument. It has nothing to do with stereotyping.”

              No one said anything about stereotypes, so I don’t know what you’re talking about. But insults and rudeness are not parts of a rational argument – at least not necessary ones. More importantly, articulett has provided no argument for why phrases like “molecular puppet” are the right language to be using (Nick’s original question).

              It seems like a person or multiple people here are very averse to the idea of someone discussing how something is said, as opposed to what is said, and Nick’s comment struck a nerve – resulting in attempts to shut Nick up. That explanation seems to me to fit the data much better than your explanation, and I think the above shows why.

              Lastly, I see down below that you used the argument that the “tone argument has been settled.” That itself is a non-argument. Unless you, at the very least, provide citations to that argument for everyone to read, you are doing nothing more than saying “I had this argument once and it convinced me, therefore you should be convinced.” That’s a ludicrous assertion to make. And it’s also odd to say that Nick is contributing nothing to the substance of this discussion, when he devoted a number of comments to substance the last time Dr. Coyne posted on free will!

    • Stephen
      Posted July 27, 2010 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      This sounds like “free will accomodationism” to me (can’t we all just get along?) …

      • Nick
        Posted July 27, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

        No. The religious accommodationist says that one shouldn’t challenge people’s religious view’s in the effort to promote scientific literacy because such challenges would likely undermine the educational effort by alienating people. The analogous position on the topic of free will would be to bullshit people. To not challenge their notion of free will or to assure them that they have it. I am not advocating doing that. I’m just saying that language matters when you are trying to prevail on someone as to what the truth of the matter is. And in my own case (and I suspect I’m not alone) I don’t use language like “molecular puppet” in any conversation, so I am not being duplicitous.

        Can I conclude on the basis of your comment that you think the skeptical community should start throwing that phrase around? Whether as part of a consciousness-raising campaign or just whenever the issue comes up?

        • articulett
          Posted July 27, 2010 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

          Who cares? This is Dr. Coyne’s blog. Shouldn’t he be free to use language as he wishes on his own blog?

          You sound like you want to censor him on his own blog. Or do you imagine he goes and shouts this at religious people? Remember, nobody has to read his blog.

          • blue
            Posted July 27, 2010 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

            You don’t realize the irony of what you are saying, do you?

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted July 27, 2010 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

              That irony would only exist if there were no “molecular machines” and instead a religious free will. But, alas, that is not the case.

  16. gatr
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    The free will argument is moronic at best and disingenuous at worst. Its just a blind to lead one to believe that humans are, for example, at an elevated level compared to monkeys. The real motive is to prime the mind of the gullible on the plausibility of a divinity that has elevated man to his place above other creatures, by bestowing upon him conscience and consciousness. The pathetic irony of the villainy is this: the role of the divine is to relegate you to a mere sinner, who has the illusion of free will, but in actuality, is a mere puppet. So by accepting free will in the first case, you are preparing to surrender it at the next instant. What is better? Give up something you never had in the first place and feel elevated, or just deny it and be happy – why the middleman to tell you something you already (should) know?

  17. Notagod
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Do our brains need to translate processes into lanuguage before we can understand? My conscious thoughts are in english but that can’t be the base processing that occurs. So translation needs some time to occur?

    This is fun (though brain ouchy painful).

  18. MosesZD
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    I have to say that Eggington should turn in his PhD and get a job flipping burgers. His idea is childish even if it came from someone who was currently in high school. The mere fact that we make an internal narrative that is somewhat time delayed, doesn’t mean it proves there is a God or have any implications for free will.

    Really, anyone who has played sports at a high level is quite well aware that your decision making process happens before your stream-of-consciousness process.

    Bottom line that his non-existent God doesn’t care if you can hit the curve-ball and your eye, contrary to what some may believe about the subject, can’t follow it in. That pitch, and it’s hoped for contact location, are approximated in the early stages of the delivery and initial flight.

    Karate is another sport where action precedes thinking. That’s why it takes so much practice to become a black-belt. First you have to learn to react to over-come the time-delay of thinking. Then you have to learn to control your reactions so you don’t react without the presence of bona-fide danger/threat…

    Neither the ability to hit a curve ball or place well in a karate tournament prove the existence God. Nor does badly understanding the workings of the mind and it’s passenger – the stream-of-consciousness. Rather, all show that there is more to the mind than the stream-of-conscious narrative that we recognize as “the mind.”

  19. articulett
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Being a meat puppet is not so bad…
    Why, all my favorite people (and pets) are meat puppets.

    • articulett
      Posted July 27, 2010 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      My bad. (I was predestined to mess up)… I meant “molecular puppet”. I have heard the term “meat puppet” to describe the same concept.

      • ritebrother
        Posted July 27, 2010 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

        And they were a band.

  20. poke
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    I think on this particular issue everybody is wrong. The research doesn’t show what the researcher thinks it does and both Egginton and Jerry’s approaches to free will are confused. Jerry is right that the will is not a “ineffable and non-physical thing” but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It’s simply a particular capacity of humans beings (and other animals) to act voluntarily when they have a range of actions available to them. That isn’t incompatible with determinism. The research makes the mistake of thinking the brain “decides” before the person. But that’s nonsense. Brains don’t make decisions. It’s like saying the engine starts to drive before the car does because the engine has to start first.

    • Posted July 27, 2010 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

      Brains don’t make decisions.

      What do you mean by that? The car engine analogy does not help.

      • poke
        Posted July 27, 2010 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

        If you put a bowl of chocolate ice cream and a bowl of vanilla ice cream in front of a person and he takes the vanilla ice cream and starts eating it, he has a made a decision. If you ask him, “Why did you decide to take the vanilla ice cream?” he might reply “I don’t like chocolate.” In this way he would justify his decision.

        If you put a bowl of chocolate ice cream and a bowl of vanilla ice cream in front of a brain, the brain would do nothing. If you asked a brain why it decided to take the vanilla ice cream it wouldn’t respond. You need a brain in order to make decisions but brains themselves do not make decisions.

        • Posted July 27, 2010 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

          If you put a bowl of chocolate ice cream and a bowl of vanilla ice cream in front of a brain, the brain would do nothing.

          Hold on a minute. Do you agree that your brain happens to be connected to the rest of your body, and that if someone were to cut out your brain that it would cease to be able to sense the world around it and communicate let alone survive?

          The way I see it, you are comparing a dead brain extracted and separated from its body to a living brain still attached to a functioning body. I don’t see how that is useful in the slightest.

          • poke
            Posted July 28, 2010 at 8:48 am | Permalink

            If a brain could be kept miraculously alive outside a body it would still not make decisions, see, think, imagine, believe, know, etc. Obviously your brain is connected to your body and relies on that connection to survive and communicates with the body in the analogous sense that a thermostat communicates with a heater. The brain, however, does not sense the world around it and does not use the body to sense the world around it. You need a brain to sense the external world but it’s not the brain that does the sensing.

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted July 28, 2010 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

              Again you don’t care to connect to what we actually observe. We can identify the neurons involved then making choices.

              Theoretically you could disconnect the brain and feed it the same signals through ear and eye inputs and see the same neurons fire – the brain is still making choices.

              That the brain is embodied is another discussion. What we are after is the neurons involved in decision making.

    • Stephen
      Posted July 27, 2010 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      “The research makes the mistake of thinking the brain “decides” before the person. But that’s nonsense. Brains don’t make decisions.”

      Or, the brain = the “person”, in which case this statement is nonsense because *there aren’t two separate things here,* and so no temporal order is relevant …

      I would ask you, “If brains don’t make decisions, what *do* make the decisions, then?”

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted July 27, 2010 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

        The brain makes choices. [Preferably adaptive, since it has been adapted to do so.] Choices are decisions, they constrain pathways exactly like selection constrain pathways in evolution.

        If the brain didn’t make choices, what does? If selection didn’t make choices, what does this work for evolution?

        And why would anyone think that it isn’t the obvious process?

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted July 27, 2010 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

          Oops. That was a response to poke.

        • poke
          Posted July 27, 2010 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

          People make choices. To say evolution makes choices is an analogy or way of speaking. It’s an anthropomorphism. The same is true of saying the brain makes choices (i.e., a neuroscientist might say, analogously, “the brain chooses to move the arm based on input from the eyes”). In the case of the brain it’s particularly pernicious because the brain is a part of a person who (literally) makes choices and there’s the temptation for reduction.

          • articulett
            Posted July 27, 2010 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

            It sounds like you are the one that is confused.

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted July 28, 2010 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

            That things from software to people make choices is an observation of a process (left/right et cetera). Similarly we can see that the choice-making system in a person is the brain. This is no reduction, but a simple observation.

            Yes, you are confused.

            • poke
              Posted July 29, 2010 at 6:45 am | Permalink

              No, things and computer emphatically do not make choices, except by analogy. Computers do not have memory either and the CPU is not the computer’s brain. These are all metaphors. No “simple observation” could place decision making anywhere, since it is not a thing and does not have a location. The neuronal mechanisms required for decision making might be in the brain but that is a different matter and not something I have denied.

  21. Tim Martin
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    “But if that is the case, how am I, as a moral agent, to be held accountable for my actions? If, on the cusp of an important moral decision, I now know that my decision was already taken at the moment I thought myself to be deciding, does this not undermine my responsibility for that choice?”

    Ah, nothing like a guy who asks questions because he doesn’t want the answers.

  22. NewEnglandBob
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    After a while the comments on these popular threads repeat the same thing over and over.

    • Steve
      Posted July 27, 2010 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      After a while the comments on these popular threads repeat the same thing over and over.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted July 27, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

        After a while the threads on these popular comments repeat over and over, the same thing.

        But with variation.

        • articulett
          Posted July 27, 2010 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

          After a while the threads on these popular comments repeat over and over, the same thing.

          But with variation… giving the conversation the opportunity to evolve.

  23. ennui
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    If we really had free will, then nobody would care about responsibility. Here’s why:

    Will is the desire to act on values; the result of the fulfillment of desire is happiness. We make choices based on our values, which are constantly changing in respective strength due to local conditions.

    Free will implies not merely the ability to choose what we want, but the ability to “freely” change what we value. Put in another way, we cannot freely choose that which we unfreely value. And if we really were able to freely change our values–adding new ones to match local conditions, and eliminating ones that did not match–we would always be happy. And no one would have anything negative to be “responsible” for.

    So, to those who propose that free will is true, how do we “freely”, through a not-deterministic, not-stochastic, not-chaotic, not-quantumly indeterminate process, choose our values? Don’t all processes have constraints? Isn’t the absence of constraints simply randomness?

    Isn’t free will really just random action? Aren’t we instead really meat robots?

  24. littlejohn
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    It doesn’t bother me that I don’t have free will. Oh, god! Did I write that? I didn’t want to! Must.. erase.. post.. No, I can’t!
    Don’t post comment.. Don’t post comment… Arrrgh!

  25. Ian
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    ‘He’s right, of course. How do you deal with this problem?’

    For goodness sake it’s not a problem!

    This is just a nebulous issue for those who know more and more about less and less, ie experts. Derived from two Latin words: ‘ex’ meaning old or has been, and ‘spert’ from sperto/spertere ie ‘a drip under pressure’.

    Now can we have something sensible to digest, please?

  26. Hempenstein
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Seems to me that the purpose of the whole free will thing from the religious standpoint is to swat down questions about why people do bad things and how could that happen if this God of theirs existed. It’s one of their central dogmas and essential to keeping their ship afloat. Anything that chips away at that dogma is therefore to be shouted down.

    Maybe this is implicit and maybe it’s already been stated, but I didn’t see it in skimming the above posts, and with that in mind I give the whole thing a shrug. Am I missing something?

  27. Neil
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    I think the neuronal evidence is perfectly consistent with what I think of as my “free will”. “Free will” is just my sense that I get to make choices, and I do. The fact that these choices are the product of past and immediate circumstances, learning, genetic predilections, and some amount of randomness in no way detracts from that sense. I always wonder why people, particularly philosophers, get so exercised about this.

  28. TreeRooster
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    These questions have probably always been fascinating to humans quite independently from any religious standpoint. The ideas of moral obligation, free will, and even consciousness itself are quite intertwined. Each are descriptions of subjective experience, and the question is whether the experience is an accurate reflection of reality.

    Consciousness is pretty hard to define as well, although we can usually determine its presence by experiment. Why can’t we define free will via some set of experiments also? For instance, free will is present in the subject if the results of repeated experiments (in which our subject makes a decision) are independent of the conditions.

    Of course it would be impossible to set up such an experiment in real life, but perhaps we could imagine one. It seems as though the conscious mind could effect the outcome regardless of the initial conditions. Can we not ever flip a mental coin?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 27, 2010 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      That is, as articulett notes exist, one inconsistent definition, “choice independent of conditions”. There is no choice without having environment (conditions).

      The more usual definition is “make choices”, it seems. It is consistent and observable; cellular life forms all do that, down to motile bacteria.

      • Nick
        Posted July 27, 2010 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

        “But they are inconsistent with those outcomes as being predictive in all detail.”

        Agreed. But not relevant.

        “No, that is what a religious would like to say – no god, no purpose. That isn’t what non-religious would say. So why the strawman?”

        It’s not a strawman. MoonShark has essentially been chastising me for objecting to what I think is demeaning, unnecessary language (“we’re just molecular puppets”). I say the language is extremely deflating and he says essentially: ‘cry me a river. Science shows our lives are meaningless, deal with it. Your concern reflects an anthropocentric conceit’

        “But you haven’t read the post! This, “molecular machines” isn’t a viewpoint, it is a (old and well known) result – it is an observable fact. The brain and its embodiment in eyes and muscular control et cetera is a molecular machine. What would you have us do? Frame the matter?”

        I’m afraid it is you who hasn’t done sufficient reading. If you had, you wouldn’t imply that I deny that free will is an illusion. You’re questions have their answers in what I have already written. I’m not gonna rehash it for you. It would be nice if you read up on the comments a little before you jumped in.

        • articulett
          Posted July 27, 2010 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

          I consider myself to have done sufficient reading. Your concern it “tone”– which makes you a “tone troll”. You are free to use whatever tone you think is best when talking to whomever you talk to. I think it’s silly of you to imagine you know what tone is best for Dr. Coyne or others to take.

          To me, this IS “fatheist” talk.; it’s akin to the courtier’s reply. You think Jerry is being “deflating” on his blog and you imagine that this will hurt some cause. Perhaps the Intersection is more your cup of tea.

          • articulett
            Posted July 27, 2010 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

            concern “is”, not “it”

            aaargh.

          • Nick
            Posted July 27, 2010 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

            First of all, why do you have to be such a jerk?

            The comment about the reading was not addressed to you, articulett. It was addressed to Larsson.

            And it seems like a simple fallacy to say that because people we call ‘accommodationists’ are concerned about how they come off to people, all such concern about how we ‘come off’ is automatically invalid. Are you saying there is no place for tact? No place for crafting the language in certain circumstances? And I already addressed the “fatheist” charge. So you have to address what I said if you want to stand by that.

            • Stephen
              Posted July 28, 2010 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

              “Are you saying there is no place for tact? No place for crafting the language in certain circumstances?”

              No, just that this is not one of those places.

          • Jon
            Posted July 27, 2010 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

            Oooh, you hear that Nick? You better cleave tighter to Doctrine or you can’t sit with the kewl kids at the lunch table!

            You have been warned by the Acolytes of Coyne!

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted July 28, 2010 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

              Jon, not at all, we have that discussion as a recurrent topic. In fact, WEIT have devoted whole threads to it.

              Which makes the irritation understandable, when it distracts from the actual discussion on science. It had been better “tone” to take it up where it belonged, when it belonged.

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted July 28, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

            Okay, jumping and condensing a bit.

            “But they are inconsistent with those outcomes as being predictive in all detail.”

            Agreed. But not relevant.

            I gave the relevance: determinism and causation are processes, not open for theological interpretation of “cause”.

            It’s not a strawman … he says essentially

            How is it not, when you put these words, the strawman of a religious as we know them to use on secular people, in MoonShark’s mouth?

            you wouldn’t imply that I deny that free will is an illusion.

            I imply nothing of the kind! You were discussing “that phrase”. So was I, explicitly.

            Why do you try to argue by strawmen? It is stupid – it doesn’t engage the actual discussion that is going on. Worse, it looks stupid – it makes you look like you are a jerk.

            A bad frame. (Or “tone” or whatever.)

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted July 28, 2010 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

              Oops. I meant to say Nick is jumping and condensing a bit. (His comment belonged up threads.)

        • MoonShark
          Posted July 28, 2010 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

          Nick, don’t put words in my mouth. I’d argue that the universe (as mostly dark matter and empty, expanding space) seems inherently meaningless — but that doesn’t mean our lives have to be. We create the meaning through experience, memory, history, and cultural artifacts that we leave for our descendants.

          If the Earth and all the radio waves we’ve ever broadcast were annihilated by a gamma-ray burst, then yeah, I’d say there’d be no meaning left. Excluding the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere, of course, with their own sense of meaning ;)

  29. Eric MacDonald
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    I suspect that the ‘problem of free will’ is conceptually much more complex than is being acknowledged here. Certainly, I suspect that talking of ‘molecular puppetry’ doesn’t really help much. At the level of research, where simple ‘choices’ are preceded by brain activity that indicates that the ‘choice’ is made before the subject becomes conscious of ‘making the choice’, this is what, given the complexity of response, one would expect. But where a person has to go through a very complex intellectual process before making a choice, as, for example, in deciding the best kind of life to live (see AC Grayling’s What is Good? and The Choice of Hercules), the idea that the outcome could be molecularly determined seems a bit far-fetched.

    I am not saying, for the moment, what it means to speak in terms of free will, of being, say, as Richard Dawkins suggested, able to foil the selfish replicators, since I haven’t given it much serious thought, but I think that it does require a kind of conceptual expertise that is not going to show itself forth in blog posts! Perhaps starting with Galen Stawson’s new edition of his first book, Freedom and Belief, due out next month, or Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, might be a good idea before pronouncing too confidently.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted July 27, 2010 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

      But where a person has to go through a very complex intellectual process before making a choice, as, for example, in deciding the best kind of life to live (see AC Grayling’s What is Good? and The Choice of Hercules), the idea that the outcome could be molecularly determined seems a bit far-fetched.

      But what else is there? We are bags of molecules that interact with other molecules. What non-molecular thing could intercede and allow us to override those interactions? After all, even a “complex intellectual process” is just a series of neuronal firings.

      • Posted July 27, 2010 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

        Jerry: We and our intellectual processes aren’t “just” a series of neuronal firings, but an amazingly *cool* set of naturally evolved neural processes and motion effectors that accomplish things that nothing else we know of in the universe can do, such as writing these posts. You are neither merely molecular nor merely a puppet, since your higher level components and processes are just as real as the molecules that instantiate them, and you (the brain-based person) have just as much (actually more) causal power than your impersonal determinants. You can and do control outcomes, puppets can’t.

        That nothing can “intercede” in the process that is you making decisions is simply to see your full connection with nature, not the dashing of any realistic hope of having more control. Any uncaused intervener – the little god of free will – would have no reason to act one way or another, so wouldn’t help the cause of being a person faced with decisions to make. http://www.naturalism.org/atheism.htm#littlegod

      • Eric MacDonald
        Posted July 28, 2010 at 4:42 am | Permalink

        But what else is there? We are bags of molecules that interact with other molecules.

        I guess my point is that I don’t know, but also that describing ourselves as ‘bags of molecules’ doesn’t, without further consideration, quite do it for me. Tom Clark’s note recognises the possibility of that ‘something more’ (something emergent, perhaps) that accompanies the remarkable kind of bags of molecules that we are. Simple inorganic compounds have characteristics which are not shared with their components, so it is not unreasonable to suppose that the complexity of brains, for instance, possess characteristics which are very different from and perhaps emergent upon the characteristics of the components of which it is composed.

        Having said that I don’t know what that more might be. I haven’t thought about it enough to be able to say. But one thing does occur to me. If the process is a rigorously causally determined process, then it almost seems as though Alvin Plantinga might be right, and that naturalism is self-defeating.

        Notice, I’m not saying that it is self-defeating, but if it is not, then there must be ways of actually sorting out from amongst our judgements those that are more likely than not to be congruent with ‘reality’. If we are just bags of molecules, how do we ‘do’ this? And what would it mean to say so?

        As I say, I would want to give the matter a great deal more thought before answering that question. Having done philosophy over the years, the conceptual complexity of answering that question is probably much greater than my present resources can handle.

      • Posted July 28, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink

        “What non-molecular thing could intercede and allow us to override those interactions?”

        That is the question of consciousness. Why do we experience a single consciousness if there are only moleculat interactions ?

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted July 28, 2010 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

          Why is that a question? It is like asking why there are crystals (or stones or trees or planets or galaxies) if there are only molecular interactions.

        • Posted July 28, 2010 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

          No it’s not the same.

          We call “stone” a certain amount of molecule, but there are no stone in reality : the stones only exists inside our mind because we decided to call it “a stone”.

          Our consciousness is not the same : it is experienced as single, and whatever we decide, there is always one consciousness at the scale of our body.

  30. Szwagier
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    When I hear the words ““respect for the limits of understanding”, I lose any respect I might have had for the person uttering them.

    Unless they’re quoting someone else, of course.

    • Observer
      Posted July 27, 2010 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

      In general I would agree, but how about if I said, “Since our only way of acquiring information about the universe is through our perceptions of the natural world, out of ‘respect of the limits of understanding’ I cannot conclude that a supernatural world exists? In other words, doesn’t atheism, or at least agnosticism, emerge from one’s ‘respect for the limits of understanding?’

  31. Sili
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    So let’s say that we have a machine that tells us what we’re gonna do ten seconds from now. Does that then mean that even given that information, we’re helpless to change our minds?

    I’ll stick with “if it feels like free will, that’s good enough for me”.

  32. Posted July 27, 2010 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    Whyevolutionistrue sez: “I am in fact about to start reading Dennett’s book.”

    In Freedom Evolves, Dennett mounts a good critique of libertarian free will and explains how we got to be sophisticated choosers operating in a likely deterministic macro universe. But many readers complain that the (compatibilist) free will he thinks is worth wanting (and deserving of being called free will) is a cheap substitute for the real thing, namely the libertarian power to intervene in causal chains from an uncaused vantage point.

    Dennett, unlike Cashmore, Joshua Greene (Harvard) Jonathan Cohen (Princeton), and Derk Pereboom (Cornell), is conservative in not drawing any revisionist conclusions for our responsibility practices (for instance in revamping the criminal justice system) that might follow from the fact we don’t have libertarian, contra-causal free will. Too bad, see http://www.naturalism.org/revolution.htm

    In any case, a book to check out on free will that gives a more balanced perspective on the current state of play is Four Views on Free Will, by John Martin Fischer, Robert Kane, Derk Pereboom and Manuel Vargas. I’ve reviewed it at http://www.naturalism.org/fourviews.htm

  33. Tim Harris
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    Either ‘free will’ or ‘molecular puppet'; it does seem a rather simplistic way of looking at things. I think Eric MacDonald has it right, more or less. Daniel Dennett talks somewhere of ‘greedy reductionists’, that is to say, people who think that because a reduction might be possible, it has in some sense already been made; has anyone, anywhere, produced a reduction, or anything near a reduction, of, let us say, Darwin’s theory to Darwin’s molecular machinery? And what should such a post-hoc reduction, assuming it is possible, achieve? On both sides of this debate, it seems to me, is a kind of maidenly and parochially Western shuddering over the assumption that if my nasty, material brain cells are in any way involved in a decision of mine, then I must be an automaton…

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 27, 2010 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

      a reduction, or anything near a reduction, of, let us say, Darwin’s theory to Darwin’s molecular machinery”

      First, it isn’t Darwin’s molecular machinery. I don’t think he knew or suggested much in that regard. Maybe WEIT readers can help with facts there.

      Second, what you suggest isn’t a reduction in the minimal sense, i.e suggesting underlying models. What you describe is what is usually observed as emergence, in the same way that chemistry emerges from quantum mechanics of atoms.

      The whole point of emergence is that one can’t express the emergent system in terms of the underlying one because, again, one looses predictivity. There simply isn’t enough resources to calculate chemistry from electrons and nucleons from first principles.

      [Don't ask me how nature does its physics algorithms underlying such processes, because I don't know. Likely emergent properties is simply a result of environmental selection altogether. I.e. there are universes in an inflationary multiverse where there are much fewer such properties around. But they have no observers.]

      This is why, I think, most people prefer to reserve “reductionism” as a description of theory building and its related parsimony.

      On both sides of this debate,

      This conflates reductionism with a discussion on free will. As far as reductionism goes, it is clear; science works on reductionism (theory). Similarly for molecular machines (puppets), biology works on biochemical machines.

      Emergence to the rescue! Turns out that the mind is emergent on the biological substrate. What you claim is a problem is the solution; this is what we observe.

      • Tim Harris
        Posted July 28, 2010 at 6:17 am | Permalink

        I think you misunderstand what I meant by ‘Darwin’s molecular machinery’, but thank you for your clear explanation. Yes, of course – that is of course why there are such disciplines as history and sociology. But it is also why I wonder about excited phrases like ‘molecular puppets’ and ‘bags of molecules’. I really don’t know what a ‘molecular puppet’ might be (perhaps you might explain), but yes, of course we are bags of molecules, and so what? Why the anguish? Why the histrionics? – Unless one is somehow still half in love with a Christian or Cartesian dualism where disembodied and un-molecular entities make decisions unconstrained by any reality…

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted July 28, 2010 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

          Why the anguish, indeed! Agreed.

  34. Observer
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    I seem to recall Jerry arguing against Ken Miller’s view that the evolution of intelligence (presumably *human* intelligence) was inevitable. But if our thoughts and choices, those things we experience as “free will,” are in fact the results of a deterministic process, doesn’t this same determinism pervade all of nature? It seems to me hard to argue against determinism in one case and for it in another. I’m sure I’m missing something significant in the argument, so I’d appreciate any clarification.

    • articulett
      Posted July 27, 2010 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

      Everything that happened in the past was inevitable… if all the inputs were identical than all the outputs would be identical. But, because there are a myriad of inputs, we can only make general predictions when it comes to the future… with increasing accuracy as we get more and better inputs.

      Even if some entity knew how everything would unfold, then there would be no free will, because you could not do something that he wouldn’t know you’d do in advance. You can do nothing but what he “knew” you’d do.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 27, 2010 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

      Congrats, that was a massive conflation of separate mechanisms! :-D

      Let me see if I can riddle some of that for you:

      First, on intelligence and free will. I define free will as simply the ability to make choices.

      As it is used in our mind’s model of “self” it is a more complex deceit, for reasons of resolution (i.e. we don’t see that it is unconscious decisions, due to too short times et cetera) and predictivity. But a useful one.

      But that is not the point here. As the basic ability to make choices, free will is ultimately a trait of motile bacteria, of all cells. So as a basic trait it isn’t connected to intelligence and mind at all.

      And thus free will (as I define it) is disconnected from the question if intelligence is an inevitable trait in an old enough biosphere.

      Second, on determinism. Deterministically chaotic systems show that you fundamentally loose predictivity in a deterministic system. Due to exponential divergence and/or folding of phase space you need real numbers to keep track of such systems. And real numbers have infinite resolution, while you and physics have locally finite resources.

      That means that you can never replay a chaotic system, because you can never reset the system with identical initial data. The concept that “if all the inputs were identical then all the outputs would be identical” is inconsistent as regards physics.

      What we can say consistently on deterministic systems is that “if all the inputs were near enough identical then all the outputs would be near enough identical for near enough short times”.

      But I digress for the sake of clarification of details. The bigger picture is that as soon as you know that predictivity doesn’t follow from deterministically causal systems, physical determinism, Coyne’s description in the post applies.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted July 27, 2010 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

        you and physics have locally finite resources.

        Except possibly around singularities, in physics of predictive theory, in the same way that the universe may be infinite.

        There is a fascinating short story of Stephen Baxter, with degrees in mathematics and engineering, on a supercomputer that was rigged in a black hole configuration, a “Planck-AI”. At the time he wrote that it was likely the case that people thought information couldn’t come out of a black hole, but today unitarity (total probability) is believed to be preserved which means information eventually leaks out.

        Anyway, as I remember it Baxter rigged some scifi suspension of disbelief machinery so the BH computer would do its thing. And it did, with infinite resources in finite time.

        Naturally it went crazy, being omniscient and all. [What, didn't you know already - the semitic gods _are_ crazy - as they must?]

        But before they managed to kill the omnipotent being it could have become, it seemingly eloped to become the omniscient source for the narrator of Baxter’s book. (“Vacuum Diagrams”.)

  35. Diego
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    Excellent point about predictability versus determinism. One of the most vexing aspects of the free will debate is that most people seem to have the hardest time grasping determinism.

  36. TreeRooster
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    Excellent and very much related material is online at http://www.edge.org/ . They are making available videos and transcripts of the entire conference: “THE NEW SCIENCE OF MORALITY” featuring talks and discussion from Roy Baumeister, Paul Bloom, Joshua D. Greene, Jonathan Haidt, Sam Harris,
    Marc D. Hauser, Joshua Knobe, Elizabeth Phelps, and David Pizarro. Now I’m off to do some reading!

  37. santitafarella
    Posted July 28, 2010 at 2:24 am | Permalink

    Here’s my response to Dr. Coyne:

    —Santi

  38. Posted July 28, 2010 at 2:36 am | Permalink

    If free will requires going beyond the laws of physics then of course it doesn’t exist. But people aren’t going to accept that definition just by repeating it, it doesn’t address the different forms of arguments surrounding free will.

  39. Posted July 28, 2010 at 4:20 am | Permalink

    There is an error in this article : the laws of chaos are not only related to unpredictability of nature, but also to its indeterminacy, simply because of the quantum nature of our world. The tiny unmeasurable differences that affects the global evolution of a chaotic system are in fact mostly quantum fluctuations.

    As I posted yesterday, asserting the inexistence of free will on the base of the physical laws (created and understood by our intelligence) is inconsistent.

    If I am able to understand the laws of nature and if they deny my free will, then in theory, I could predict my own behavior from these laws. And if this is true, I could choose, having that information, to do the contrary of my predictions, which is contradictory.

    This means that :
    – either the real laws of nature are not accessible to us. Then it is impossible to conclude on whether we have free will or not
    – either they are accessible, but compatible with our free will, and then the assertion that we can deduce the inexistance of free will from them is false.

    A third solution can be proposed :
    – I can know the laws of nature, they are incompatible with free will, but because of some limitations, I cannot predict my own behavior from them.

    This would be true if the world were chaotic but deterministic, for example (classical chaos).

    This third solution is very problematic, because it says that the unpredictability of my own behavior is a necessary condition for my sensation of free will to exist (otherwise there is a contradiction), which is a rather strange assertion : if it is in a way related to a sensation of free will, why couldn’t it be related to a genuine free will ?

    Having a causal relation between unpredictability and the sensation of free will, but not free will itself, is discutable. That seems to be the position of the author it.

    • Posted July 28, 2010 at 4:47 am | Permalink

      I also disagree with this :

      “When you hear the words “respect for the limits of understanding,” you know that the speaker is a either a faitheist or accommodationist, trying at once to denigrate science and to vindicate “other ways of knowing,” ”

      There is another way of respecting the limits of understanding, which is to acknowledge them. It does not mean that we will never go past these limits.

      For example : we can acknowledge that we do not understand, scientifically speaking, what is mind and subjectivity.

      We do not understand why there is a subjectivity at all. We do not understand why there is a present. No moment is priviledged in the physical laws : give me a formula that can predict that present is exactly now ? (Oh no, wait, the data changed… now, it’s… now !).

      We do not understand why our mind is experienced as single, whereas we are supposed to be an amount of particles.

      We have to acknowledge that as far as we know, subjectivity is incompatible with the laws of physics. Now free will is nothing but a particular aspect of our subjectivity… So arguing that free will does not exist simply because it is incompatible with the laws of physics is very narrow minded and simply irrelevant.

      In fact the assumption that free will does not exists relies on the popular belief that everything must have a cause (strict causality). This is a way of thinking that was favoured by evolution, and we tend to see causes everywhere, but it have been proved false. Causality is an approximation, there are only propensities.

      Being able to predict some decisions does not tell us anything about free will : we predict the propensities for those decisions (and remarkably, these propensities are mostly unconscious, whereas the sensation of free will is conscious).

      A challenge for science and philosophy would be to understand how this objective acausality of nature (from the third-person point of view) is related to our unknowable subjectivity (first-person point of view). Only this approach can tells us if free will exists or not.

      • Jon
        Posted July 28, 2010 at 7:10 am | Permalink

        …trying at once to denigrate science and to vindicate “other ways of knowing,” i.e., religion.

        This should be *e.g.* religion, not *i.e.”, religion. What about philosophy, history, artful utterances of humans in history? (Dead guys can be smart too.)

        Check out this essay: http://berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/published_works/ac/divorce.pdf

      • Jon
        Posted July 28, 2010 at 7:11 am | Permalink

        Even Sagan thought these were important:

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted July 28, 2010 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

        These two comments portray a world that can’t be recognized as ours, so I fail to see the relevancy with what we can expect our brain to do.

        For example:

        * I’m unfamiliar with any “laws of chaos”. We can observe and characterize forms of chaos such as deterministic chaos, which is mundane and potent, and quantum chaos, which is rare and weaker.

        * “The tiny unmeasurable differences that affects the global evolution of a chaotic system are in fact mostly quantum fluctuations.”

        Deterministic chaos happens to macroscopic systems for macroscopic reasons. I don’t know if anyone has measured the minuscule contribution from quantum fluctuations.

        Quantum fluctuations isn’t chaos, but stochasticity.

        * “I can know the laws of nature, they are incompatible with free will,”

        That depends on how you define free will. For many definitions it isn’t, see for example Coyne’s.

        * “There is another way of respecting the limits of understanding, which is to acknowledge them.”

        As I discussed elsewhere, there is a difference between the theological idea of such limits on science (but they don’t know the subject), and science’s own (which is an expert on self).

        Science mots basic limit is of natural resources. Deterministic chaos is a good example, as we would need infinite precision of reals to keep track of such systems, but have only locally finite resources to do that with: lack of predictivity.

        These limits are at the basis of many sciences such as computer science (algorithmic tower of complexity) and biology (contingency of evolution).

        * “we can acknowledge that we do not understand, scientifically speaking, what is mind and subjectivity.”

        But now you are not discussing limits, but current state of the art. I don’t understand what you mean by subjectivity here, please define. (At a guess you mean consciousness.)

        Whether or not these areas will run up against science resource limits is also an open question. This is no show-stopper.

        • Posted July 28, 2010 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

          I agree about the limits. I was talking about the bounds of our current knowledge. But I think intuitively that consciousness can only be understood by a philosophy encompassing our scientific knowledge and a subjective (1st person) perspective, and that it will remains outside the bounds of our objective knowledge. What makes me think that is that the practice of science is only possible inside a larger perception of the world, it is only possible because we are conscious and able to reason. Our consciousness is a bit like the framework of science, that is why science cannot account for it (sorry if it is a bit confuse).

          I don’t agree about the chaos. A “real” determistic chaotic system is in fact really indeterministic because quantum fluctuations will have an influence. The precision needed to predict the evolution of a chaotic system can be exponential with time. Here is a simplified example : if a millimeter range fluctuation result in an unpredictability of a system within 1 minute and a micrometer within 2 minutes, then a quantum fluctuation of a picometer will be “effective” within 4 minutes only.

          So because it is exponential, it is not a question of “minuscule contribution”. As long as there are quantum fluctuations, there is genuine indeterminacy in any chaotic system.

  40. Jon
    Posted July 28, 2010 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    …trying at once to denigrate science and to vindicate “other ways of knowing,” i.e., religion.

    This should be *e.g.* religion, not *i.e.”, religion. What about philosophy, history, artful utterances of humans in history? (Dead guys can be smart too.)

    Check out this essay: http://berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/published_works/ac/divorce.pdf

    Even Sagan thought these were important:

    • Jon
      Posted July 28, 2010 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      Sorry for the repeat post…

  41. Posted July 28, 2010 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    I don’t see what’s wrong with defining “free will” in a way that is compatible with determinism. I like to define “free will” in a way that I still have it even though I am a “molecular puppet”.

    (And I’m an atheist, a skeptic, a naturalist, I don’t misuse the word “quantum”, I also sense BS when I hear “other ways of knowing”, etc, so hear me out).

    Yes, any honest naturalist knows that we are deterministic, theoretically-predictable machines. But we still PREFER some things to other things (we like things that cause us to “feel good”, dislike things that cause us to suffer), and so we CHOOSE actions that we think will lead to the things we prefer. It may be deterministic and even actually predictable, but I’m still choosing.

    Sometimes my choices are ACTUALLY predictable, not just theoretically. Tonight I am going to a bar with a few friends, and these friends can all tell you exactly what I’m going to order (because I order the same thing every time). I also hate certain specific foods, so when offered a choice between one of those foods and any alternative, I will always choose the alternative, and my friends know this too and can see it coming. Does that mean I don’t have free will? I don’t think it does. I’m still choosing.

    Yes, this means that computer-controlled video-game characters, autonomous UAVs, etc, also have “free will”, since they make choices based on preserving certain values of certain monitored parameters. That’s fine with me. I’m actually just a really really fancy autonomous UAV (except I can’t fly unassisted. Oh well).

    The difference between me and a UAV is that I have an “I”, a “center of narrative gravity” as Dennett likes to put it. The question of what “I” is becomes important here. We all know that the choice is made by a deterministic brain. The question of whether we have free will, and responsibility, comes down to whether we can assign the mechanistic choice to this thing called the “I”. since the “I” is actually a simplified symbolic model of some of the things that happen in the brain, I think the “I” can get the credit/blame for choices (just as Windows, not the processor or RAM, gets the blame for my computer’s errors, even though “Windows” is really just a symbolic model of some of the things happening in the processor and RAM).

    When I say “I’m” still choosing, I’m making up this entity “I” and assigning the choice to it, just as you make up things like windows and icons when you look at a screen that’s really just an array of colored squares controlled by fast switching on billions of pieces of semiconductors. “I” don’t exist in the same way that “software” doesn’t exist, i.e. in a useful way they do exist. So to the extent “I” exist, “I” make choices… so “I” have free will.

    TL;DR: I’m an atheist/naturalist, but I don’t think that the deterministic/predictable nature of things is incompatible with an (atypically modest, I admit) definition of “free will”.

    • Posted July 28, 2010 at 9:01 am | Permalink

      Ian McEwan: “I see no necessary disjunction between having no free will (those arguments seem watertight) and assuming moral responsibility for myself. The point is ownership. I own my past, my beginnings, my perceptions. And just as I will make myself responsible if my dog or child bites someone, or my car rolls backwards down a hill and causes damage, so I take on full accountability for the little ship of my being, even if I do not have control of its course. It is this sense of being the possessor of a consciousness that makes us feel responsible for it.”

  42. oldfuzz
    Posted July 28, 2010 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Seems to me the responses to this posting is convincing circumstantial evidence supporting the idea of free will… maybe not. If will is volition, could it be that free will is an oxymoron?

  43. Posted July 28, 2010 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    Yes, our brains do run determinstically. And yes, we have free will. The distinction is between causes and reasons. Consider your computer–if the hardware is affected by random flaws, then the software will crash. It must run in an orderly and predictable nature for the software, and the data, to produce correct results. In the human mind, the software and data are your accustomed modes of thought (habits and character) and your beliefs. So long as your brain is running properly within normal deterministic parameters–that is, there are no chemical imbalances or physical damage–you will think and act according to the software aspects of your mind (for your own reasons), and because the human mind is recursively reflective, you are both the user and the programmer. I believe this is precisely Dan Dennett’s argument in Freedom Evolves.

    The fact that we may make decisions before we are aware of them is irrelevant. Unconscious processing is analogous to the compiled release version software, without debug information. Consciousness is debug mode; much slower but open to review–if you made all of your decisions this way, you would probably never make it to work, much less be able to do anything there. The purpose of the examined life is to debug and correct the compiled processing: we start as unconsciously incompetent, move on to be consciously incompetent, than consciously competent, and finally, unconsciously competent. In reviewing and correcting how we think, we not only correct logic errors and bad data, but in doing so we gain more control over the entire process. We become more free. External constraints, like compulsion by force or biochemical interference, come under the heading of causes, and decrease freedom. Of course, if you took the drug or voluntarily entered the situation, then you are responsible for those causes. So our commonplace understanding of free will survives pretty much intact.

    Arguments that situate freedom in chaotic quantum effects (the cutting edge of New Age nonsense) or divine influence are equally irrelevant. Chaotic effects would be the equivalent of jangling your keys across the pins that lead to the processor. The computer would crash, you would become a twitching, unpredictable lunatic. Divine influence would simply make you a divinely controlled robot.

    One last note, on the limits of understanding. Faitheists think that this means that they are free to build castles in the sky, to claim anything they want about cosmology. but it means nothing of the sort. To say that anything is possible is to say that nothing is known about the matter. Knowledge tells us not only what is possible, but what is impossible. And if you don’t know, you stop there. There are no buts, no therefores. This is what humility would dictate, not wild adventures of speculation framed as truth claims.

  44. Posted August 31, 2010 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Tell me how does one decide what they wish to willfully think about unless they are already thinking about that thing?


5 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  3. [...] free will (again) This time I’m truly puzzled. Humanities professor William Egginton, whose New York Times column on free will I “deconstructed,” is back again with another column, responding to my comments and trying to explain what he [...]

  4. [...] issue that many readers brought up, and which I can only touch on now in passing: religion. In a recent blog post Jerry Coyne, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago, labels me an [...]

  5. [...] ago, William Egginton – whose prior essays in that forum were met, rightly I think, with excoriating or at least cautious responses – set about answering the question “Can Neuroscience [...]

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