Sean Carroll on free will

I’ll be brief here, as I promised not to post on this topic for a while—a promise I’m now breaking for the third time. But I wanted to draw attention to Sean Carroll’s new and thoughtful post on the “free will issue.” It’s at his website Cosmic Variance, and is called “Free will is as real as baseball.” What does he mean by that? That both the game and our appearance of choice are emergent properties that are useful to consider as wholes rather than simply as groups of atoms obeying the laws of physics:

The concept of baseball is emergent rather than fundamental, but it’s no less real for all of that.

Likewise for free will. We can be perfectly orthodox materialists and yet believe in free will, if what we mean by that is that there is a level of description that is useful in certain contexts and that includes “autonomous agents with free will” as crucial ingredients. That’s the “variety of free will worth having,” as Daniel Dennett would put it.

Carroll is a materialist, and believes,as do I, that quantum uncertainty plays little role in macroscopic human behaviors.  And it follows that he’s a complete physical determinist. But our inability to predict human behaviors that are already determined is what he construes as “free will”:

If we know the exact quantum state of all of our atoms and forces, in principle Laplace’s Demon can predict our future. But we don’t know that, and we never will, and therefore who cares? What we are trying to do is to construct an effective understanding of human beings, not of electrons and nuclei. Given our lack of complete microscopic information, the question we should be asking is, “does the best theory of human beings include an element of free choice?” The reason why it might is precisely because we have different epistemic access to the past and the future. The low entropy of the past allows for the existence of “records” and “memories,” and consequently forces us to model the past as “settled.” We have no such restriction toward the future, which is why we model the future as something we can influence. From this perspective, free will is no more ruled out by the consequence argument than the Second Law of Thermodynamics is ruled out by microscopic reversibility.

As far as I can see, then, Carroll mostly agrees with me, but decides to label as “free will” the observation that humans appear to make choices.  I say “appear,” because if you’re a determinist you don’t believe that they are really choices—that is, you could not have done otherwise in any situation.  That’s certainly “will,” but in what sense is it “free”? It only appears to be free.

At the end, Carroll admits that whether choices really are “free” is important in our notion of moral responsibility and punishment:

We don’t find people guilty of crimes simply because they committed them; they had to be responsible, in the sense that they had the mental capacity to have known better. In other words: we have a model of human beings as rational agents, able to gather and process information, understand consequences, and make decisions. When they make the wrong ones, they deserve to be punished. People who are incapable of this kind of rationality — young children, the mentally ill — are not held responsible in the same way.

The problem here is that maybe criminals are no more “responsible” for their crimes than are miscreant “young children” and “the mentally ill.”  If all acts are, as Carroll believes, physically determined on a macro scale, then there’s no difference between these groups, and any lawbreaker is as guilty as any other.  What does Carroll mean by “responsibility” if someone’s crime looked like a choice (even if the person had the “mental capacity to have known better”), but in reality the crime was already determined by his genes and environment?

To me the important question—and I recognize that people will disagree—is this:  did a criminal really have a “choice” to commit a crime, or was his behavior determined well before the moment of the crime? One can still have a valid theory of punishment under a completely deterministic world view, and I’ve talked about this before.   But if, like Carroll, you’re simply defining “free will” as “the observation that humans pick one thing to do one then when there are many apparent alternatives”, then I say that he should slap a warning label on that definition: “NOTE:  Agent was not really capable of making any “choice” other than the one he made.  It only looks as if he could.”

Carroll winds up asserting again that we have free will because it’s a good model of human behavior:

Thinking of the collections of atoms we call “people” as rational agents capable of making choices seems like a pretty good theory to me, likely to remain useful for a long while to come. At least, that’s what I choose to think.

Well, yes, it’s hard to accept (as I really have) that my choices are all determined before they’re made, and we can’t live our lives thinking that.  That way lies madness—and nihilism. And it’s impossible in most cases to predict what those choices will be.  But Carroll might be a bit clearer about his last sentence, which I’d rewrite like this, adding the stuff in bold:

Thinking of the collections of atoms we call “people” as rational agents capable of making choices, even though they aren’t really capable of free choice between alternatives, seems like a pretty good theory to me, likely to remain useful for a long while to come.

And I guess I don’t really agree that it’s a “pretty good theory”, because it ignores things that are important in our philosophy and practice of punishment.  If science shows, in the future, that a “common criminal” had no more freedom of action than a criminal who was young or mentally ill, then Carroll’s theory is not quite so useful.  Determinism is the elephant in this philosophical room: we may know it’s there but pretend otherwise.

107 Comments

  1. astrosmash
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 5:31 am | Permalink

    Our sense of free will is a stand-in for our inability to know the future. Knowing the future would negate choice. And the fact is, in that we cannot know the future, is that we do and must make choices whether pre-determined or not, and that we cannot know the ultimate outcomes of those choices. I don’t think Dennett is soft soaping the issue by defending the appearance of free will, because in fact that is precisely what we have. I don’t believe free will exists, however there has been no qualitative change (as far as I know as a self-reporter)in the feeling that I do.I would argue that the sense of free will is a “necessary symptom/ condition” of human consciousness

  2. Egbert
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 5:43 am | Permalink

    Part of the problem with this issue is trying to place the human world and its brain into the determinate/indeterminate mechanics of the atomic world.

    Our brains have their own mechanics, including consciousness, which emerge out of the structure or building bricks of atoms and the atomic universe.

    And so yes, we have choices, because choices belong within the human world as well as free choices. But there is no free-will atom or substance, we’re talking about two separate realms of mechanics.

    Our error, and it’s a big continuous error, is to attempt to place concepts that belong in one mechanical realm into the other.

    It’s a bit like looking at a building in a city, and then stating that its lift can’t possibly go up, because that defies the force of gravity.

    • gillt
      Posted July 14, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      This sounds similar to what Douglas Hofstadter was saying in GEB. There are layers of organization, with physics at the bottom while perhaps sociology at the top. Adjacent layers see overlap, yes, but it’s incoherent, according to the concept, to use the terms and definitions in physics to explain political systems. Why? Because there are many layers of organization in between (chemistry, biology, psychology, etc.) that provide context.

      For example, there is enough overlap in language (a proxy for coherence) between physics and chemistry and then between chemistry and biology for a somewhat smooth transition. However, if you jump just one layer, you loose explanatory power. Admittedly, this is not a totally satisfying explanation.

  3. Matt
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    “Thinking of the collections of atoms we call “people” as rational agents capable of making choices, even though they aren’t really capable of free choice between alternatives, seems like a pretty good theory to me, likely to remain useful for a long while to come.”

    I feel like there’s a fallacy of composition in this argument. Atoms don’t “really” think, so people don’t “really” think. Atoms don’t “really” make choices, so… There are two things at work here — one is a desire to elevate one’s own observations to a higher epistemological level than is justified. If what initiates the illusion of free will in a deterministic world is a necessarily incomplete model of that world, there is no practical difference between the illusion and the reality. It would be like saying “nobody REALLY sees green. I know that when I have the illusion of seeing green it’s just a bunch of reactions going on in my retina and optic neural pathways.” You don’t get to be that meta, because to do so, you’re misusing words like “agent,” (which has no “real choice”) in ways that you wouldn’t want to with regard to things like “perceiver” (which has no “real perception of pain”). These are on the same epistemological level.

    This gets at the second problem, which is the reluctance to try to find a proper context for different levels of organization. Yes, everything in principle ought to be reducible to physics, but that’s an incredibly and probably unnecessarily complex physics to MODEL if we’re talking about a group of molecules which creates vibrations in the air which cause vibrations in collections of molecules in other molecule groups which sets off complex reactions in groups of molecules which causes molecules to “fly,” “dropping” a group of atoms some of which undergo fission over a group of molecules we’ll tentatively label “Hiroshima.” At what point are we not willing to accept a description like “president Truman authorized the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima for _____ political reasons.” because it’s not sufficiently reductive? Life’s too short not to be a compatibilist. =o)

    “Determinism is the elephant in this philosophical room: we may know it’s there but pretend otherwise.”

    By epistemological necessity. Again — what’s the practical difference between an ineluctable illusion and justifiable truth-within-a-theory (since theories are the best we’ve got for situating fact)?

    • Matt
      Posted July 14, 2011 at 5:47 am | Permalink

      Wow, sorry for the long comment.

  4. Posted July 14, 2011 at 5:50 am | Permalink

    I agree. Free will is a description of a system at a certain level of detail.

    “If we know the exact quantum state of all of our atoms and forces, in principle Laplace’s Demon can predict our future.”

    Probably showing my ignorance of Physics here, but I thought the point of waveform collapse is that it is inherently non-deterministic. So knowing the exact quantum state of the universe *doesn’t* mean you know its future evolution (Bell’s theorem).

    “Carroll is a materialist, and believes,as do I, that quantum uncertainty plays little role in macroscopic human behaviors. ”

    Any random process, however tiny, when thoroughly mixed, affects the whole future evolution of the system. This is usually called the “butterfly effect”, though often its significance is massacred by misrepresentation. In an n-body problem, for example, a quantum waveform collapse can and will change the orbit of planets. That’s trivially easy to show.

    So I don’t understand how *any* uncertainty at the tiniest microscopic level can not have macroscopic role. Am I misunderstanding what you are saying?

    • Posted July 14, 2011 at 6:34 am | Permalink

      I too am really confused that Jerry and Sean claim to be physical determinists when it is easy to show that uncaused quantum events have macroscopic consequences. I gave many examples in the comment sections of Jerry’s previous posts on free will. Here is one: Schrodinger stuffs his many cats into a room, and then puts a gun triggered by a Geiger counter in the room. Later he finds one cat dead, and lots of live cats. While we can give a causal explanation for why one of the cats died, we cannot give a causal explanation for why that particular cat died and not one of the others.

      Whether this is relevant to the free will argument is admittedly doubtful, but here again the discussion of free will has been framed with respect to physical determinism, which should be off the table. I haven’t read Sean’s post yet, maybe he will explain.

      By the way, I am impressed that Jerry manages to write more interesting posts per day than all those new SciAm bloggers put together.

      • Matt
        Posted July 14, 2011 at 6:45 am | Permalink

        “Whether this is relevant to the free will argument is admittedly doubtful, but here again the discussion of free will has been framed with respect to physical determinism, which should be off the table.”

        I disagree. It’s a simpler discussion under physical determinism, with the added benefit that if you can defend an appropriately defined and meaningful concept of free will under hypothetical hard-determinism, it will carry over to a quantum-indeterminate world with little difficulty.

      • TK
        Posted July 14, 2011 at 7:34 am | Permalink

        Sean does address that- the simple answer being that things obeying physical laws is really the more important criterion than those laws being “deterministic” in the A-to-B Newtonian sense. Adding a stochastic process to the basement level of reality no more add “choice” than a model that treats the rudiments of the physical world like ricocheting billiard balls. If you’re heading on a rollercoaster but I attach a switch between two tracks to a Geiger counter, does the system have more choice than before, or just more randomness?

        • Posted July 14, 2011 at 8:40 am | Permalink

          Right, but that doesn’t give someone a pass to say things that are not true (“If we know the exact quantum state of all of our atoms and forces, in principle Laplace’s Demon can predict our future”). And why say it if, as Matt mentions above, the false statement is not needed for his argument?

    • Buzz
      Posted July 14, 2011 at 6:50 am | Permalink

      As I recall, Carroll’s belief (which is also mine and probably also that of most physicists who have though about this question carefully within the last twenty to thirty years) is that quantum dynamics are indeed deterministic, and the collapse of the state vector is an illusion. However, an individual mind can only perceive one part of the macroscopic superposition state that is created when the outcome of a microscopic quantum event is measured. The other outcomes that might have occurred still exist (they are Everett’s “many worlds”), but a consciousness (as was pointed out by Wigner) can only perceive one of them.

      The realization that state vector reduction is a property not of fundamental quantum mechanics (although quantum decoherence is a key element) but of consciousness raises all sorts of new questions. Some of these presently seem to be untestable solipsisms (like quantum immortality), but it was once believed that atoms were untestable metaphysical constructs as well. I personally tend to think that we will be able to understand a lot more about the relationship between quantum mechanics and individual consciousness at some point in the future.

      However, it’s not really clear what this says about free will. The many worlds interpretation actually implies that whenever there is the possibility of making a choice, all choices that do not contradict some conservation law actually occur. Somehow, our consciousness passes along into only one of the resulting “many worlds” (although there are presumably equally conscious versions of each of us in the other worlds, who perceive that other world to be the only one into which the consciousness has passed). Some people might argue that this does mean that minds have free will, because there are multiple choices, yet only one path is (or appears to be) followed at each bifurcation point. However, this argument is tricky, because the mental choice does not precede or cause the difference in how a person behaves; rather, the choice and the difference in behavior are simply two aspects (or consequences) or a quantum decoherence event.

      • Posted July 14, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

        Buzz, you are right, that is a good interpretation of quantum uncertainty. A bit challenging, but interesting. I’ve used the same argument myself when thinking about fine-tuning. However, this interpretation doesn’t really change the implications of QM for causality. It is still true that certain events in any given world cannot be said to have a cause. Right?

      • Posted July 14, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

        The many worlds hypothesis feels more like theology than physics to me. Lots of unmeasurable, undetectable hypotheticals. Alternate me and alternate you, maybe even some of them living forever in a paradise among the stars :)

        And I think you might be confusing “realization” with “thought experiment”.

        Genuine question, end of sarcasm. Are there cases where the non-deterministic QM interpretation that fails to describe the observable data? Is the need to create multiple unperceived worlds forever unattainable by our perception not a fanciful gedanken motivated by discomfort at non-determinism?

        I’m happy to go with multiple worlds. But a bit of empirical grounding would be nice!

        • Buzz
          Posted July 14, 2011 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

          There are no experimental tests of the many worlds interpretation that are experimentally feasible, at present. However, it is easy to formulate thought experiments for which the Copenhagen interpretation doesn’t even provide an unambiguous prediction, much less a correct one.

          Historically, some early experiments in quantum mechanics were done extremely crudely, and the probabilistic Copenhagen interpretation explained them. Some of those experiments have been repeated, keeping much closer account of the quantum state of everything involved in the phenomenon. When this is done, it is found that everything behaves according to the rules of deterministic quantum mechanics, except when macroscopic systems (whose internal quantum states are unknown) are made to interact strongly with the microscopic objects. Note that this means randomness only enters at the same point where randomness would enter in a classical problem—when we introduce an element into our experiment about which we don’t know everything.

          • Posted July 15, 2011 at 4:56 am | Permalink

            Brilliant, Thanks Buzz. Triggered me off on a reading spree.

            From cursory surveying it seems I had assumed something like the Ensemble interpretation was the only viable one.

            I have to say, I (gut-instinct) detest the many worlds hypothesis :) But it looks like there’s a fair few others that are both non-deterministic and deterministic, to choose from.

            Thanks again.

            • Leigh Jackson
              Posted July 15, 2011 at 6:15 am | Permalink

              Also, Ian, the expression: “the collapse of the wave function” completely fails as explanation. It’s a hollow expression to describe the brute facts of quantum mechanics. We don’t measure wave functions. We measure “electrons” etc. We use wave functions to predict what we will see.

              What the hell electrons etc. are in themselves, IF they are in themselves, is another matter.

              • Matt
                Posted July 15, 2011 at 6:21 am | Permalink

                “Another Matter”

                Nice.

  5. Posted July 14, 2011 at 5:50 am | Permalink

    I’m actually enjoying the free will posts, and I doubt I’m the only one. :)

    One thing I’ve noticed: once you’ve read a decent amount on neuroscience, psychology and philosophy of mind, your views of people become more… compassionate. Especially if you have been persuaded by determinist arguments.

    I’d like to know if Jerry or anyone else here feels that their opinions of other people’s culpability for their bad choices/actions have been softened somewhat after learning about the (determined) brain and mind.

    I myself certainly can’t view people and their foibles with quite the same amount of indignant disapproval that a less knowledgeable me might have had. “But for Fortune there go I” and all that.

    • Posted July 14, 2011 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      Yes, I agree completely.

    • Nick B.
      Posted July 14, 2011 at 7:59 am | Permalink

      My experience has been the same. Indignant condemnation is still needed sometimes, though.

      • Posted July 14, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink

        Oh, but of course. Since minds can be changed through persuasion or through being convinced by the facts, criticism is still a valid form of ‘indignant disapproval’.

        Just because a person’s wrong or harmful beliefs/choices/actions are determined, it doesn’t mean they should be condoned, or left unopposed.

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted July 15, 2011 at 6:17 am | Permalink

      I would rewrite Carrolls’s last sentence to read:

      That’s what I have no choice but to think.

      I often forget when I come across people talking the most awful bullshit with the most unshakeable conviction they they can’t help themselves. We express our thoughts, we don’t choose them.

      I had no choice but to express what I just said… and that…

      • Leigh Jackson
        Posted July 15, 2011 at 6:20 am | Permalink

        Just to clarify I mean the last sentence from:

        Thinking of the collections of atoms we call “people” as rational agents capable of making choices seems like a pretty good theory to me, likely to remain useful for a long while to come. At least, that’s what I choose to think.

  6. Carl
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    You apparently lack all free will when it comes to not posting on the topic of free will.

  7. Posted July 14, 2011 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    Perhaps the “responsibility” element assumes that the person’s mind has to be working well enough to take society’s morals, mores, and laws into the calculations that, at least in part, drive behaviours.

    We tend to assign responsibility even to impaired minds if they did something that “voluntarily” impaired that function (like drinking too much) before the offending action. But if the same impairment was permanent or involuntary (e.g., brain damage), we wouldn’t assign the same blame. (We also wouldn’t let that person drive, own a weapon, etc.)

    If my understanding of mores differs significantly, a lot of my actions will probably be different, too.

    In this sense, “free will” would actually just mean the capacity for understanding society’s mores and laws as they apply in each situation. It has little to do with the determinism question.

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted July 15, 2011 at 6:35 am | Permalink

      You get close to the heart of it here, I think. For when we are considering the justification for punishment from the point of view of society we are necessarily talking about what is the general opinion about how individuals ought to act in particular social situations, and what should be done to individuals who for various reasons cannot or *will” not, play by the generally agreed rules.

      Here, I assume legal rules to have warrant to the extent that they express society’s moral norms.

      Moral norms being behaviours generally allowed to be correct in appropriate situations.

      • Leigh Jackson
        Posted July 15, 2011 at 6:46 am | Permalink

        The question then is whether someone who will not play by the rules also cannot even if they understand them.

        I think they cannot, but society also has no choice! We are compelled to take action against someone who will not play by the rules.

      • Leigh Jackson
        Posted July 17, 2011 at 5:40 am | Permalink

        The action we take against someone who will not play by the rules may include punishment as an incentive for them to rethink.

        Someone who understands the generally accepted rules of society, and is aware of the potential consequences of disobeying them, is implicitly accepting those consequences should he/she choose to break the law. However, whilst it’s one thing to be undeterred whilst never having been punished; it’s another thing to be so post-punishment. One may want to change one’s behaviour following punishment.

        However, the reality is that most criminals re-offend after punishment. Most offenders are as immune to the experience of imprisonment as to the prospect of it, at least in terms of its effect on their behaviour when released back into society. Incarceration and so far as possible rehabilitation of offenders, for the sake of the protection of society, should therefore be given priority over punishment.

        Extreme crimes may require extreme retribution (torture, life imprisonment, death penalty) if a justice system is to sustain the complete confidence of the public. However, complete confidence also requires that only the truly guilty suffer extreme punishment. We know that justice systems convict innocent people of the most extreme crimes. We can’t have complete confidence in our justice systems.
        Either we torture, imprison for life or kill innocent people or we don’t do these things to guilty people. That’s something we need a vote on.

  8. Posted July 14, 2011 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    Regardless, the evolved capacity of the prefrontal cortex to abstain from competing impulses constitutes remarkable agency within the parameters of determinism. I always think of Pinker’s quote “If my genes don’t like what I do, they can go jump in the lake.”

  9. Greg Esres
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    ““free will” the observation that humans appear to make choices. ”

    This observation merits a “duh”. I’m surprised that so many bloggers make it as if it contradicts anything that you’ve said. I’m also surprised that they take so many paragraphs to make that observation. I’m sure I could whittle their posts down to a paragraph or so.

  10. Posted July 14, 2011 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    Professor Coyne, I sincerely hope that you won’t refrain from continuing to post on the topic of free will (or, more accurately, the illusion of free will). The vast majority of people consider the suggestion that free will is a mirage to be not only counter-intuitive but downright disturbing. However, the arguments against contra-causal free will are compelling. The implications of this are undoubtedly unsettling:

    Criminals should not be held morally blameworthy for their crimes.

    Adulterers should not be held morally blameworthy for their infidelity.

    Heck, nobody should be held morally blameworthy for anything, in the sense that they could have acted other than in the manner they did.

    Recognizing that my behavior is entirely causally determined by factors outside my control in no way dilutes my appreciation of life. The reason for this is because I still act in a manner which is consistent with my desires. Moreover, the absence of moral blameworthiness does not mean that causes cannot be applied by others to deter individuals from committing socially unacceptable activities, whether that be cheating on one’s spouse or committing a murder. The recognition of the absence of contra-causal free will does allow us to stop wasting time over the concern that an individual could have acted other than the way they acted. This fact can be appreciated by some simple philosophical reflection: if we literally put ourselves in someone else’s shoes (whether it be psychotic Andrea Yates or heroic Dietrich Bonhoeffer), do we really think we would have acted differently than they acted? Whether the act was drowning children in a bathtub or risking life to resist the Nazis, human actions are predetermined by causes. Blaming someone or praising someone for acting in the manner they did is a waste of time unless the purpose of the blame or praise is to alter future action.

    These implications are so unsettling that some philosophers (such as Saul Smilansky) have argued that free will is a beneficially necessary illusion. Of course, the same argument can be applied to religiously dictated morality.

    • Matt
      Posted July 14, 2011 at 6:39 am | Permalink

      “Criminals should not be held morally blameworthy for their crimes.”

      Luckily, at this level of description there is neither real responsibility nor real pain.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted July 14, 2011 at 7:47 am | Permalink

      Criminals should not be held morally blameworthy for their crimes.

      Even if this were to be the case it does not mean to say that society (the rest of the troop of primates) should not show its disapproval of the behaviour by some form of sanction or punishment.

      You could even argue that most systems of law determine guilt rather than moral blame, but that is another debate entirely.

      • Filippo
        Posted July 14, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

        Concur. Let’s say the criminal is not bloody blameworthy for committing murder. We’re not going to provide you the least opportunity to so “bless” an additional human being.

      • Posted July 15, 2011 at 5:00 am | Permalink

        Or even, presumably, that society had any choice in whether to punish them or not.

  11. Matt
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    “If science shows, in the future, that a “common criminal” had no more freedom of action than a criminal who was young or mentally ill, then Carroll’s theory is not quite so useful.”

    This is like asking “what choices should we make in a world where there are no REAL choices?” It’s absurd – none of us gets to be Neo and traverse the Matrix “at will.”

    Deterrence and rehabilitation still have meaning even in a deterministic world. If my son steals a candy bar he still goes to time out and loses privileges, and he doesn’t get to say “but you said the event was predetermined — it’s the only choice I could have made!”

    “Well then, this time out and loss of privilege was also predetermined, and it will make you make better ‘apparent choices’ when you’re faced with them in the future.”

  12. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    As far as I can see, then, Carroll mostly agrees with me, but decides to label as “free will” the observation that humans appear to make choices.

    And if I decide to label as “free will” a game played with gloves, sticks and a ball, then free will is even more like baseball!

    I am simply not interested in arguing over every person on the planet’s individual definition of “free will.” Set some definitions first, and then we can all discuss the same thing.

  13. Teapot
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    The idea that we don’t have free will seems to be an extraordinary claim. Could someone give some links to the extraordinary evidence supporting it?

    • Egbert
      Posted July 14, 2011 at 6:41 am | Permalink

      Since free-will is a concept, then it would be futile seeking evidence for it or against it. It is really a description about human behaviour. Rather like mathematics is a description of the behaviour of matter. We don’t look for evidence of mathematics in atoms, neither do we need to look for evidence of free-will in cells.

    • Posted July 14, 2011 at 6:42 am | Permalink

      If you’re referring to contra-causal, libertarian free will, then yes, we don’t have it, http://www.naturalism.org/freewill.htm

    • Kudu
      Posted July 14, 2011 at 7:57 am | Permalink

      You have it backwards.

      Atoms comply with the laws of physics. Since we are made of atoms, our thoughts and actions are merely results of those laws and are thus predetermined, like the result of a collision between to billiard balls.

      If we had free will to choose, what would do the choosing? Some “ghost” in the “machine” of our brains that is not made of atoms? It is that belief that is the extraordinary claim, and there is neither evidence nor logic to support such a belief.

      • Teapot
        Posted July 14, 2011 at 9:34 am | Permalink

        If you redefine the null hypothesis then it certainly makes the argument easier, I’ll give you that.

        • Kudu
          Posted July 16, 2011 at 8:14 am | Permalink

          You dont have to redefine anything to see that there is no ghost running the “control room” of your brain.
          We can have the same decision about a blender. Does a blender have free will to choose what it does? Is there some entity living in the machine that makes decisions? Can it just decide to switch itself on, contrary to the laws of physics? A blender and your brain run on different power sources, are made of different materials, etc. But both are machines made of atoms with no ability to violate the laws of physics.

  14. Posted July 14, 2011 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    “The problem here is that maybe criminals are no more ‘responsible’ for their crimes than are miscreant ‘young children’ and ‘the mentally ill.’ If all acts are, as Carroll believes, physically determined on a macro scale, then there’s no difference between these groups, and any lawbreaker is as guilty as any other.”

    Not so Jerry. The young and mentally ill lack capacities of self-control and foresight and deliberation that a mentally competent adult has, therefore they can’t and shouldn’t be held responsible. Holding each other responsible is a means to maintain and enforce moral and legal norms that’s completely compatible with behavior being fully caused. Indeed, our responsibility practices wouldn’t work if we had contra-causal free will. But we can only justly hold people responsible if it’s reasonable to suppose that they could have anticipated and taken into account prospective rewards and sanctions, which the young and mentally ill (depending on their capacities) could not have. So moral and legal responsibility survives determinism, along with our commonsense criteria for picking out responsible agents, http://www.naturalism.org/glannon.htm

    However, you rightly point out that Sean misses an essential point in supposing that our responsibility practices are left untouched when we drop contra-causal free will, for instance in criminal justice. Naturalizing our notions of freedom and human agency, should it ever come to pass, will likely have significant effects on how we think about responsibility, credit and blame, http://www.naturalism.org/criminal.htm

    • Jamie
      Posted July 14, 2011 at 8:24 am | Permalink

      The young and mentally ill lack capacities of self-control and foresight and deliberation that a mentally competent adult has…

      “Self-control” “foresight” “deliberation” are just three terms smuggling the concept of ‘free will.’ (Foresight does not necessarily imply free will, but to merely foresee the inevitable lends no weight to moral responsibility.) As far as I can tell, your argument reduces to “the young and mentally ill have diminished free will.” That is an argument you can make, of course, but it does not address the problem Jerry posits in the bit of his you quote.

      • Matt
        Posted July 14, 2011 at 8:37 am | Permalink

        It’s an extremely interesting point, though. Part of the handwringing we’ve been reluctant to address has been over the question of differently sized capacities of free will. We’re every bit as determinate as slugs and bugs, but it doesn’t make sense to throw up our hands in dismay claiming that our actions are “really no different from slugs’.” We evolved the ability to form a model of the world that seems like it admits foresight, deliberation, and self-control, and even if we’re “merely” complex deterministic computers, we still process information and imagine counterfactuals (or what will be counterfactual after the fact). It doesn’t do to flatten all distinction among degrees of free will even if it’s fully deterministic!

        • Posted July 14, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink

          Exxxxxactly!

        • Jamie
          Posted July 14, 2011 at 10:38 am | Permalink

          I am perfectly comfortable postulating different degrees of free will and different degrees of moral responsibility as well. I am thinking now that this is very like the old ‘”nature/nurture” debate. One may assign all responsibility to the caused, all responsibility to the causes, or try to apportion responsibility between them on some reasoned basis. Our culture places a heavy emphasis on individual responsibility and traditionally minimizes the responsibility of causes ‘external’ to the agent (the environment) but that has been a shifting ‘zeitgeist’ for decades bringing controversy to the criminal justice system, flooded with pleas for leniency for ‘environmental’ reasons.

          It seems to me that a rational agent in society would simultaneously insist on a standard of individual responsibility and seek to alter causes without giving undue emphasis to either. To use causes merely to excuse criminal behavior misses the point, which is that we control the causes to some extent and could learn to control them more. To date we have been rather entirely focused on controlling individuals’ behavior (through moralizing, incarceration and punishment) and neglecting managing our social environment to yield high liberty and low anti-social behavior.

      • Nick B.
        Posted July 14, 2011 at 8:46 am | Permalink

        I don’t think so. Those terms do not smuggle ‘free will’. I am a system that possesses a measure of self-control. Self-control that is fully-caused. That seems to be a fact.

        And I don’t think Jerry does posit a problem above. The kind of complete abolishment of responsibility and accountability that Jerry seems to think the non-reality of “free-will” implies is flat-out impossible and unreasonable. Humans (or any animal like us) simply can’t live in a way that would be consistent with that kind of thinking.

        • Posted July 14, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink

          Preeeecisely!

        • Jamie
          Posted July 14, 2011 at 9:48 am | Permalink

          A steam engine with a governor is a system that shows ‘self control’ and that is fully determined so you may be right that ‘self-control’ does not in itself imply moral responsibility. Nevertheless, if your use of the three terms, including ‘self-control’ above did not mean to imply in themselves some degree of moral responsibility, I don’t see how you can derive moral responsibility from them. And if your not getting the moral responsibility from ‘free will’ I don’t know where you are getting it from.

        • Jamie
          Posted July 14, 2011 at 9:54 am | Permalink

          Sorry I confounded ‘free will’ and ‘moral responsibility’ in the above post. It hsould nave read, “you may be right that ‘self-control’ does not in itself imply free will…”

  15. Posted July 14, 2011 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    I’m with you, Jerry: what’s true in practice isn’t necessarily true in principle, and it’s the principle that is relevant when discussing the practice of justice. It seems fallacious to take truth in practice for one area and apply it as though it were a principle in another. Justice, and the individual(s) entangled, deserves, nay demands, truth in principle; “good enough” is not an adequate answer to the question of what is true.

    It strikes me as pretty clear that if the question “what is the truth” receives a response “who cares?”, the question should be re-posed elsewhere. How about the human beings in the justice system? Do they care? What about those of us for whom it matters whether the justice being meted out is ethically justified. This is like asking whether man X is culpable for his crimes, perhaps because he is mentally infirm, and receiving “who cares?” in response. This seems to me to be a recipe for a disastrous failure of compassion (kind of like….oh, I don’t know, how about our DRUG LAWS).

    Lee.

  16. hazur
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    (sorry if I’m repeating an argument already presented) I think that the key ingredient in all this discussion is that among the factors determining our choices is awareness (which I think is what Carroll and Dennett are referring to), however imperfect or even if they are wrong, of the consequences of our acts. We do things with more or less reliable expectations for the consequences of our choices while aware of the existence of multiple options with different outcomes. That is what put as apart from most (if not all other) animals and may allow for the addition of ‘free’ to will or choice. Awareness is what allow us to choose ‘freely’ in accordance to our biology and history.

  17. Jamie
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    I was most persuaded by Carroll’s analogy to temperature. I can’t say I have a complete understanding of why the analogy is valid—perhaps it breaks down. But granting Carroll the benefit of my doubt, I see no need to tag temperature readings with alerts, “this volume of gas only has the appearance of temperature.”

    What we define as ‘temperature’ on one scale, resolves to ‘motion’ on a smaller scale, or at least so I have been taught. I see no reason in principle why what is defined as ‘free will’ on one scale could not resolve to ‘neurons firing’ on a smaller scale, making ‘free will’ as real in its proper context as temperature is in its.

    That leaves plenty of room for statements such as, “well, free will is really just neurons firing,” (temperature is really just atomic motion) without requiring the abandonment of the notion of ‘free will’ altogether.

  18. Richard Wein
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    Unlike the term “free will”, which arguably has non-deterministic connotations, I don’t feel the word “choice” has such connotations to any significant degree. So I see no need to deny that deterministic choices are “real” choices, as Jerry does. It might be better to say that they’re not “freely willed” choices.

    At the risk of repeating myself… I still think the debate is distorted by intertwining the issues of free will and moral responsibility. If you accept for other reasons (as I’ve done) that there can be no such thing as moral responsibility, then nothing much is at stake in the “free will” debate.

    Humans take actions, some following conscious reflection, others not. It’s useful to distinguish those two cases. But there’s no incentive to refer to the latter case as involving “free will” (as compatibilists seem to mean it) unless you’re trying to make a point about moral responsibility. Absent that, you may as well call it by a less ambiguous name.

    • Jamie
      Posted July 14, 2011 at 7:48 am | Permalink

      Unlike the term “free will”, which arguably has non-deterministic connotations, I don’t feel the word “choice” has such connotations to any significant degree.

      I find that to be a very interesting statement. I cannot conceive of a meaning for the word ‘choice’ that doesn’t imply some sort of free will or agency. How can a determined transition from a given state to a succeeding state be thought of as a ‘choice?’

      • Coel
        Posted July 14, 2011 at 8:52 am | Permalink

        “How can a determined transition from a given state to a succeeding state be thought of as a ‘choice?’”

        When your laptop downloads a file it then “chooses” which application to open it with, doesn’t it? There are no other types of “choice” in our world (with the possible exception of those that involve the throwing of a quantum dice).

        • Jamie
          Posted July 14, 2011 at 9:26 am | Permalink

          Well thanks, now I have an idea how you see things, I guess, but no, I wouldn’t say that an app choses what file to open or what other app to launch. I would call that anthropomorphizing the computer. It is the programmer who made the choice, if a choice was made.

      • Richard Wein
        Posted July 14, 2011 at 9:57 am | Permalink

        Jamie,

        A voter can still choose (select) which box to tick, even if that event is determined by prior states. “Voter chose X” and “X was determined by prior states” are not contradictory statements. They are descriptions at different levels.

        Clearly when Jerry talks about a “real choice” he means something different. I don’t object to him using “choice” in another sense. I’m just being a bit pedantic about his calling a “choice” in his sense “real”, as if to say that a “choice” in the other sense cannot correctly be called a “choice” at all.

        • Jamie
          Posted July 14, 2011 at 11:16 am | Permalink

          Yes, I think I get the different levels thing. I might say voter’s ‘choice’ of X was determined by reasons x, y an z and on a different level I might say, voter’s ‘choice’ of X was determined by the fact that voter was born in a certain location, had a certain set of parents and, at the time of polling, resided at a particular place or I might say that voter ‘chose’ X instead of Y because voter had X brain wiring instead of Y brain wiring.

          But I don’t think Jerry claims that, “voter chose X” and “X was determined by prior states” are contradictory (I don’t). I think Jerry’s claim is (forgive me for putting words into his mouth—I have no idea what he would actually say) that “voter chose X” and “voter’s choice of X was determined by prior states” are contradictory statements if one subscribes to a libertarian version of free will.

          In any case, I accept a distinction between ‘real choice’ and ‘apparent choice’ when arguing against a libertarian version of free will. If I understand Jerry correctly, it is the libertarian position that requires the distinction, not Jerry himself.

          Also, If your position is that ‘choices’ humans make are not substantially different from a computer ‘choosing’ an app, then I appreciate the consistency of your view and I don’t strongly disagree… I am undecided on the matter of whether humans actually have something like free will. But I still do think the word ‘choice’ connotes free will of some description to the ordinary user of the language—whether that is a real thing or not.

          Thank you for your responses. You are helping me think it through.

          • Richard Wein
            Posted July 14, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

            “But I still do think the word ‘choice’ connotes free will of some description to the ordinary user of the language—whether that is a real thing or not.”

            No doubt in discussions of “free will” the word “choice” will connote free will to some extent. It obviously does to some people here. But I certainly don’t believe that free will is being connoted in ordinary everyday discourse about choices. When a waiter asks, “Have you made a choice?”, surely he doesn’t have the slightest interest in whether free will exists.

            • Jamie
              Posted July 14, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

              No, you are obviously right about that, because the waiter might just as correctly said, “have you determined your selection?”

              Once again, I appreciate your comments.

  19. Bob
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    “Well, yes, it’s hard to accept (as I really have) that my choices are all determined before they’re made, and we can’t live our lives thinking that. That way lies madness—and nihilism.”

    Statements like this, basically, “I believe something that leads to madness and nihilism if taken seriously, look at me!”, kind of beg to be used by apologists for theism, don’t they? I worry that Jerry’s dramatic framing of the issue, while it makes the posts more interesting to read, is just the kind of thing that could drive a young, thoughtful person into the arms of theists.

    Wouldn’t it be more responsible, both in terms of logic and rhetoric, to acknowledge that this is an incredibly complex philosophical issue, and that brains and human behavior are also incredibly complex, and that simplistic application of billiard ball kinetics-like thinking isn’t a very good model for thinking about these issues? Heck, I’m not religious at all, but when the issue is set up like it was in the OP, I can start to see why it appeals to people.

    • derekw
      Posted July 14, 2011 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      I’d have to agree here and not sure this isn’t the same thing a theist might do in the face of naturalism. If the FACT of the matter is my choices are pre-determined…then I’ll live my life believing in the MYTH that I’m fully in control of my decisions ergo having purpose/effectiveness (avoiding a major nihilistic downer!) Not sure how this is critically different from someone believing a ‘myth’ about god and giving purpose and fulfillment to their lives?

      • Matt
        Posted July 14, 2011 at 10:23 am | Permalink

        You could make the opposite argument about religion, too. “If the FACT of the matter is my choices are predestined (in the Calvinist sense), then I’ll live my life believing in the MYTH that I’m fully in control of my decisions thereby demonstrating my faith and fulfilling my destiny.”

        My question: why have a weblogsite called “Why Evolution Is True” if the Calvinists actually were all determined to believe they are the Elect? =o)

  20. Coel
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    “To me the important question—and I recognize that people will disagree—is this: did a criminal really have a “choice” to commit a crime, or was his behavior determined well before the moment of the crime?”

    I’d say that the more relevant question is “would an environment in which crime is disapproved of and punished have a substantial effect on how likely such people are to commit the crime?”

    • Jamie
      Posted July 14, 2011 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      I’d agree that a shift to questions of environment makes sense. But you frame only the typically conservative question of the environment. We also need to ask the typically liberal question, would an environment in which people are well fed and well cared for have a substancial effect on dampening crime.

  21. DV
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    Our actions are not determined well beforehand. Our brains make plenty of just-in-time computations that determine our actions. That’s what brains are for isn’t it?

    • Posted July 14, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

      Great point that Jerry consistently overlooks, which drives him to the mistaken conclusion that we don’t really make choices. Choice-making is a real, necessary process in behavior control that doesn’t happen in advance of itself.

      • Jamie
        Posted July 14, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink

        Tom, are you just asserting contra-causal free will as a bald fact?

        • Posted July 14, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

          I’m asserting that contra-causal, libertarian free will doesn’t exist, as argued at http://www.naturalism.org/freewill.htm

          • Jamie
            Posted July 14, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

            Hmmm… I took a look at the link you provided, but there are close to 40 articles there. I am curious to understand your argument, but I cannot sift through so much looking for a specific explication, even though I don’t doubt the quality of the material. Perhaps you would be willing to say a bit more about your view? I obviously parsed it incorrectly since you are making the opposite claim to the one I thought you were making.

            Here’s how I am currently parsing you:

            Choices are fully determined (caused), but the cause(s) arise(s) (?) in the moment that the choice is made, not before hand, so, although caused they are not pre-determined and libertarian free will doesn’t exist.

            • Posted July 14, 2011 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

              Right. The choice making process that determines the choice is just as real as that which preceded it, so it really matters in how things turn out. It’s all deterministic, all real, and there’s no sense in which being outside the causal stream would give us more control over or authorship of our actions, see the first essay at http://www.naturalism.org/fatalism.htm

              Thanks for hanging in there!

      • DV
        Posted July 14, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

        I think part of the confusion around this topic is the experiments showing that decisions/choices enter into our consciousness only after they have already been made. But this doesn’t negate the fact that the computations that occurred in our brains generated the decision/choice. It just means that our old notions of self and consciousness need some tweaking.

  22. Jeff
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    I’m glad you’ve broken your promise not to post about free will. I’m not sure why you should make such a promise in the first place. I think the question of free will is one of the most interesting discussed on your blog, and I would heartily encourage you to continue breaking this promise on a regular basis.

  23. Posted July 14, 2011 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    First, glad that the site now supports longer URLs (mine used to be two characters too long).

    Second, as someone else has already pointed out, you statement “I’ll be brief here, as I promised not to post on this topic for a while—a promise I’m now breaking for the third time. ” shows pretty clearly your lack of free will.

    Third, if one really believes that we have no sort of free will at all, then by the same token we should not worry about what consequences this has, for criminal justice or anything else—you are saying “what should we decide (about something specific) if we (i.e. everyone in society) can’t decide at all (in general)?” this is a self-contradictory question.

    Fourth, the idea that one should not be punished if one is not responsible, couldn’t have decided otherwise etc invalidates only some reasons for punishment, namely educating the convict to mend his ways and, perhaps, revenge (assuming one accepts that as a valid reason at all). It does not invalidate other reasons, such as protecting society from those proven dangerous and deterrence. The latter might seem a bit strange; after all, if someone could not have chosen otherwise, then how could he possibly be deterred? One has to see the whole system. For example, even allowing that, say, a rapist couldn’t have decided otherwise in a given context (say, a society in which rape is frowned upon but tolerated) does not imply that he would not decide otherwise in another context (say, in a society in which rape is strictly punished). Even if we are automatons with no free will at all, that doesn’t mean that information such as expected punishment etc doesn’t play a role in the “decision”.

  24. Posted July 14, 2011 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    I don’t go with the idea of free will being unpredictability. We should stick with the principle of determinism and predictability, even if that doesn’t happen in practice, and see where that gets us in terms of free will.

    “Compatibilist” free will (the kind Dennett agrees with) does not require unpredictability. It’s a high-level property of systems which are powerful enough to be considered agents.

    Put simply – it’s will because it’s the agent that is doing it, and it’s free because it’s the agent that is the place of choices, even if not fully the source of reasons for choices.

    With this approach, there can be free will within a situation even if outside the situation (such as a simulation) everything is predictable (in principle).

  25. TK
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    I have to be with Sean and Dennet on this one- the fact that we are material beings in a world of natural laws might generate jam the gears of a system that includes divine judges and essences, but it is borderline irrelevant to the pragmatic, human-scale usage of the concept we actually brush intellectual shoulders on a daily basis.

    The metaphysical libertarian position is not empirically defensible, to be sure. Atoms behave in knowable ways and adding the steady, non-directional hum of quantum noise doesn’t add anything that looks like nuclear-level choice to the system. What is more interesting to me is that as near as I can tell, it’s not terrible useful on a psychological level when you unpack it, either. When we talk about making a choice, we generally aren’t interested in the notion that we are rolling dice in our head- we are talking about having potential outcomes to the situation in front of us that are in congruence with our mental character and physical capacity- and that’s where the rubber hits the road. The reason it makes intuitive sense that a human has “more” free will than a microbe isn’t that one is touched by the light of a deity- it’s because the casual web that determines my reaction to the environment at any given moment is vastly larger and more densely woven, thanks to the huge “knot” of it carried inside my healthy brain.

    When we begin a last will with “being of sound mind and of my own free will,” the pertinent question is not whether the atoms of my brain were infused with a contra-casual-and-yet-not-random Essence of Will- it’s whether someone was holding a gun to my head when I signed it. The particles in my head are no more or less “deterministic” in either situation, but the executor knows in one case to view the instructions as a product of the average mental states of the brain of the deceased (“their personality”) and not in the other.

    I think the same sort of focus on the appropriate level clears up the muck that tries to creep into the discussion about criminal justice. All the moral sentiments and their legal counterparts all still have exactly the same work to do- deterrence, restitution, containment, rehabilitation, maintenance of a cooperative society, and so forth- and, for that matter, the satisfaction of social needs for more primal forms of justice. If a person tries to stab me, the question of whether his atoms could do otherwise in some cosmic sense is rather irrelevant to the question of whether I should put him in a place where we can’t stab me anymore, and that I should leave him there long enough to trend his atoms past a stage of life where he is liable to stab me again. Now, the question of whether a given criminal justice system and our moral feelings towards people (whether anger or shame is a “good feeling in a given situation, for instance) get the job done as presently formulated is a legitimate question (I lean heavily on ‘no,’) but making the necessary corrections relies on the same pile of psychosocial data and discussions that it always has, the state of physics be damned. Taking something that never existed out of the equation tends to leave the equation unaffected.

    I’m always reminded of an old Edge discussion with Steven Pinker and Dawkins and a few others (maybe even Dennett) where they referred to “Soul Type One,” and “Soul Type Two,” where Type One was the scientifically indefensible gob of eternal energy that carried poorly defined characteristic of you-ness into the next life, and Type Two *was what everyone actually meant when they used the word soul outside theology,* as in soulful eyes, soul music, being good for the soul, losing pieces of your soul, and so forth- a handy catch-all for deep feelings, central organizing beliefs, an ability to function as a social being, and so forth. Type One both doesn’t exists, and doesn’t seem to actually be very helpful in comparison to the clearly extant Type Two. Free will is the same- Type One (the quantum-magic will) doesn’t exist and doesn’t get us anywhere- but it’s not what anyone outside a philosophical tussle like this one means anyway- so why fret?

    • Matt
      Posted July 14, 2011 at 8:47 am | Permalink

      +1

      I’d add that there’s an inflection point where vast increases in knowledge would actually decrease free will in the sense you’re describing it. A subject with a more or less perfect model of the universe will feel the sting of causality much more than we do, even with quantum uncertainty at play (and likely that subject wouldn’t be so damn worried about it either because it would be aware of and understand its mental workings as physical processes). The problem here is that many of us are trying to frame the discussion from the point of view of that subject in a way that has nothing to do with human reality.

      • TK
        Posted July 14, 2011 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

        Well, I’m not sure that’s a given. That being both has the ability to successful reach more endpoints, and it can’t maintain a complete description of its internal state, which is part of the system. I think it might actually be “freer.” In any case, yes, it’s a framing question- throwing physics at psychology has never been a workable practice.

  26. Greg Myers
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    I wonder if the free will discussion should include the mutability of the “initial decision state.” At the moment before we make a decision, there are a number of factors that seem to influence our decisions – and it does look like culture, facts, social networks etc. can and do influence our decisions. At least, studies seem to suggest that we cann predict what choices we tend to make, based on tings like education and social bbackground. To say that we lack free will does not mean we decisde at random.

    This indicates to me that perhaps the most important choices we make are how we interact with our environment. I would expect that if we truely have no free will, then culture and community, facts and advocacy should have no impact on our decisions.

    What happens instead is that these external factors, as well as how our brains process those interactions, creates a decsion tree or pathway that we follow, with little or no choice in the matter. It seems clear that in everything from fashion to gender roles, from what we should eat to how we view the concepts of god, morality and happiness, what we “chose” varies over time and from place-to-place. Unless these changes represent random drift, there does seem to be some interplay at work here – people participating in systems that influence their choices, and those choices influencing the kind of systems that exist.

  27. Jamie
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    A number of people have joked about how Jerry’s posting against his promise shows he has ‘no free will’ about posting. Not to be a spoil sport, but breaking a promise might say something about the strength of a persons will, but if it says anything at all about the freedom of the will, it argues for it, not against. I would say it only shows that Jerry has the flexibility of mind to recognize the value of over-ridding a perhaps too hastily made promise.

    Additionally many people have been making arguments similar to this one from post #22

    …if one really believes that we have no sort of free will at all, then by the same token we should not worry about what consequences this has, for criminal justice or anything else—you are saying “what should we decide … if we … can’t decide at all…?” this is a self-contradictory question.

    This is a fairly typical response to determinism… “it means my actions have no meaningful basis.” That is a problem each person has to sort out for themselves. But arguments of this sort violate Hume’s is/ought dictum (pace Sam). If it is true that I have no free will then I should not worry…?

  28. Dave
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    I am surprised at the number of people arguing for free will because of “pragmatic” reasons — i.e. because it makes for a more morally coherent society. I think the opposite is true: belief in free will corrodes morality, and belief in determinism enhances it. Determinism forces us to be compassionate towards everyone, even the most evil of sociopaths, because no matter how evil their actions, they had no control over the myriad circumstances (i.e. genes, upbringing, life experiences) that caused their evil actions. Indeed, hating people is irrational under determinism, and forgiveness becomes paramount. On the other hand, under free will, hating people IS rational, because people can consciously choose to do evil things, and forgiveness thus becomes all the more difficult. Under determinism, punishment for its own sake is irrational: we should only punish to deter. Under free will, punishment is rational for its own sake, and we should punish evildoers even if we encounter them in a vacuum. Under determinism, nobody really “deserves” anything, whether it be punishment or praise; thus, gratitude is the proper emotion to feel at the attainment of success, not superiority or arrogance. Under free will, we can gloat all we want, and we can even blame homeless people for not having “chosen” to pick themselves off the streets. Anyways, I could go on forever. The point is: we ought to preach determinism, for determinism, not freewill, is the wellspring of compassion.

    • Posted July 14, 2011 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      Lovely, see http://www.centerfornaturalism.org/descriptions.htm#motto

    • Juan
      Posted July 14, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      There’s actually some evidence that the opposite holds true. See here:

      http://www.badscience.net/2010/10/pride-and-prejudice/

      • Posted July 14, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

        Yes, interesting research, suggesting that when people see a negative trait (e.g., mental illness) as biologically determined, they don’t necessarily forgive it, but rather view it more as unchangeable and dangerous, neither of which is necessarily the case. But the point here is broader. Spinoza expressed it this way:

        “The mind is determined to this or that choice by a cause which is also determined by another cause, and this again by another, and so on ad infinitum. This doctrine teaches us to hate no one, to despise no one, to mock no one, to be angry with no one, and to envy no one.”

        http://www.naturalism.org/celebrities.htm

        • Juan
          Posted July 14, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

          Thank you for the reply. It should be noted that the research applies to a certain view of biological determinism, very similar to what Jerry has been espousing for the last few days; it doesn’t really touch the wider issue of physical determinism in our universe.

          And yes, the subjects’ perceptions may not necessarily be concordant with the full truth of mental illness, but I think it shows that different people with different moral instincts will each take a decidedly different reaction to the same evidence presented by science. And for me the problem is: who’s to say which view is right? I consider myself a Humean skeptic in this matter, so I don’t see why the fact of determinism should necessarily, as suggested by Spinoza, lead us to take a more “compassionate” view of human beings. Note that this doesn’t mean that we should, like John Horgan, “promote” free will for pragmatic reasons despite the evidence*. It should, however, lead people to wonder exactly what basis do we have for promoting one type of “justice” over another.

          *I, however, am not denying free will. I’m a compatibilist by instinct, although like most people who tackle this subject my thoughts are currently too vague and disordered to be able to answer the question in an affirmative or negative manner.

  29. Aaron Novick
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    I’m a determinist and I think we really make choices, because I think that making choices has nothing to do with contracausality, and thus nothing to do with contracausal free will.

    Making choices, like deliberating, making snap judgments, considering logical arguments (or illogical arguments), having a personality, etc. are all psychological patterns that arise from the complicated interactions of deterministic particles.

    Just because we reject the theists’ dumb explanations (sans explanatory power) of these phenomena doesn’t mean we have to deny the phenomena themselves. All you need to believe that we make choices (NOT contracausal choices) is that we live rich psychological lives.

  30. Rick
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    Jerry,

    What do you think of this take of Popper’s on free will:

    “New ideas have a striking similarity to genetic mutations. Now, let us look for a moment at genetic mutations. Mutations are, it seems, brought about by quantum theoretical indeterminacy (including radiation effects). Accordingly, they are also probabilistic and not in themselves originally selected or adequate, but on them there subsequently operates natural selection which eliminates inappropriate mutations. Now we could conceive of a similar process with respect to new ideas and to free-will decisions, and similar things. . . That is to say, a range of possibilities is brought about by a probabilistic and quantum mechanically characterized set of proposals, as it were – of possibilities brought forward by the brain. On these there then operates a kind of selective procedure which eliminates those proposals and those possibilities which are not acceptable to the mind.”

  31. Marshall
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    If, as you say, criminals are not responsible for their crimeinality, then where did the various crimes come from? If the whole notion of “independent activity” becomes extinct and all merges into the Seamless Whole? It’s just that the Legal Code is an artifact of an analysis that takes the idea of human self-sufficiency as a natural given.

    • Matt
      Posted July 14, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      I think this is exactly the right point. If you’re speaking on a descriptive level that has a definition of “crime” you most certainly also have a definition of “choice” and “responsibility” at that level. I haven’t thought this through totally, but I think subjective notions like “pain,” “thirst,” “happy,” and so forth are on a similar descriptive level, and the moment you leave that level and start talking about molecules and determinism, you lose those higher-level definitions. The problem here is that it’s tempting to keep “pain” and “happiness” and even “murder” because of how we want to define crime but throw out “choice” and “responsibility” because of the determinism issue on the molecular level, but really what’s more germane is the conflation of the levels of description. If you’re on the molecular level where “choice” seems to disappear, you’ll find that “pain” also disappears for the same reason.

      Meanwhile, I think this calls for a more compassionate and more situational (less automatic) justice system, but it would take way more time than I have to justify that, so feel free to rip it apart.

  32. Carl
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    If we can argue that individuals lack genuine free will and thus are not ultimately responsible for their actions, then perhaps the societies composed of those individuals also lack free will and hence society is incapable of dealing with crime in any other matter then the one it does, that is with the theater justice.

  33. Dominic
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm… Sean Carroll’s piece is a bit of a curate’s egg. I agree with lots – everything is an emergent property though, but I suppose he means complexity – epiphenomena?

  34. Posted July 14, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    … another thought after reading Sean:

    If the “Consequence Argument” is not valid … if the arrow of time is reversible as our understanding (based on evidence) of basic physics says it should be … what does that do to determinism? Apparently closed loops of causality could be permitted.

  35. Notagod
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    The arguments for free[ish] will that rely on perception aren’t satisfying to me, there are lots of cases where perception is wrong. As for truly free will, there are too many societal and environmental factors involved for truly free will to occur. Sorry christians but you are out to lunch (crackers anyone?).

    There are two points that I am currently getting hung up on:

    Sleep walking – If our conscious state isn’t redundant and the perception of choice is real, how could sleep walking, and actions while sleep walking, happen while the conscious state is not apparent.

    Large brains – What is the need for large brains with perceived consciousness, if everything is just a chain reaction. Consciousness may be just a by product of the brain’s function but, I still see some odd sticky points there.

    I can work my way to possible explanatory reasons for each of those two points but, so far nothing that I’ve been really satisfied with.

    No free will is my default because, a mechanism for doing free will is lacking. If quantum events could generate random thoughts that the brain could weigh along with other already stored patterns, that may result in some random actions but, that isn’t free will in any personally free way.

    In the past few weeks I’ve tried getting my brain to not report choice events but with no success. Most times when engaging my brain, it gets tickled along the way but, that stuff has produced nothing to even work with. Not much enjoyment.

    Current state: brain ouch.

  36. Filippo
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    JC speaks of whether criminals’ actions were pre-determined. But why restrict it to criminal actions?

    What if I dropped some trash on the floor. I know that I should pick it up, that that’s the right thing to do, eh? Or not? If one person feels compelled to pick it up, and another not to pick it up, is it determinism acting uniquely on both according to their respective circumstances, genetics, familial upbringing/raisin’? Or is it a matter of someone getting a charge out of being lazy, obstinate, uncooperative, oppositionally defiant? In other words, a willful jerk?

    • Posted July 15, 2011 at 2:38 am | Permalink

      I fail to perceive the difference.

      Does the cow graze because it’s hungry, or is it simply a hungry, grazing cow?

  37. colluvial
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    Free will implies freedom from influence. How can will exist and not be influenced by its environment?

    Unpredictable does not mean free.

    • Matt
      Posted July 14, 2011 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

      Um. Are you implying that it also means “free from constraint?” If that were the case I don’t think the non-existence of free will would be controversial at all. I obviously can’t just will to turn myself into a group of six flying barnacles that traverse the globe in six directions, reconvening in Berlin where I reassemble as myself dressed in a tux just in time to catch the Berlin Philharmonic. A guy can always hope, though.

  38. abb3w
    Posted July 14, 2011 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    It’s free in the sense of a free variable; to wit, the unknown information component.

    Also, a frame of reference with absolute information would appear to be in some respects a privileged frame of reference, although in a different sense than Einstein. The comparison makes me wonder if it isn’t as intrinsically flawed as the notion of the Luminiferous Aether.

  39. Posted July 15, 2011 at 2:33 am | Permalink

    Sometimes, I parse Coyne’s “determinism” as fatalism. I still think it’s mostly in the phrasing, though.

  40. Rebecca Sparks
    Posted July 15, 2011 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    Why did you promise not to talk about free will for a while, anyway? People seem interested…

  41. Aratina Cage
    Posted July 16, 2011 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    I think the way out of this conundrum is to chop up that which is us. If you don’t treat the self as a single unit but as a community, then you might be able to imagine how freewill could arise from the push and pull of a communal effort over time.

  42. Explicit Atheist
    Posted July 16, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Jerry wrote:

    ‘The problem here is that maybe criminals are no more “responsible” for their crimes than are miscreant “young children” and “the mentally ill.” If all acts are, as Carroll believes, physically determined on a macro scale, then there’s no difference between these groups, and any lawbreaker is as guilty as any other. What does Carroll mean by “responsibility” if someone’s crime looked like a choice (even if the person had the “mental capacity to have known better”), but in reality the crime was already determined by his genes and environment?’

    There is a responsibility that is assigned to the those who are capable of a self-awareness of right and wrong that those who are less capable of such self-awareness lack. This has nothing to do with determinism, we can all be fully determined input and output machines, it is still logical and proper to distinguish between irresponsible acts committed by those who lack a full awareness of what they are doing and those who have that full awareness when implementing penalties.

    There are some fact assertions about the world which clearly are distinguishable from contrary fact assertions, yet the public policy implications of which fact assertion is true are minor. I think that is generally the case with te human choices are deterministic versus nondeterministic assertions. While I agree with the Jerry that the weight of the evidence favors the conclusion that our choices are nondeterministic and determinism is an illusion (albeit somewhat, I don’t think this is a clear as Jerry appear to thinks it is), I disagree that this conclusion has any major public policy implications with regard to crime and punishment.

  43. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted July 16, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    It looks like a good review of physicalist thinking of Carroll. The “free will” model is useful, even testable as emergent theories are, in modeling self and in the legal sphere.

    That it isn’t suitable for philosophy is rather a problem for philosophers. Ultimately they can’t test their models anyway.

    That’s certainly “will,” but in what sense is it “free”? It only appears to be free.

    Again, that is in the definition. The underlying substrate is of no concern.

    The problem here is that maybe criminals are no more “responsible” for their crimes than are miscreant “young children” and “the mentally ill.”

    That doesn’t seem to be a legal problem. They find free will useful.

    ¨I say that he should slap a warning label on that definition: “NOTE: Agent was not really capable of making any “choice” other than the one he made. It only looks as if he could.”

    Certainly we could do that, even if it is contra-intuitive towards what the model says. No one has argued that the result is valid outside the model.

    Determinism is the elephant in this philosophical room: we may know it’s there but pretend otherwise.

    This is wrong, because it conflates philosophical and physical determinism. They are not equivalent, deterministic chaos is unpredictable.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 16, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      I should also note that conversely to deterministic chaos being ultimately unpredictable, one can always fit a deterministic model to any noise data after the fact. That doesn’t mean that stochasticity is deterministic.


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