Another philosopher redefines free will so we can still have it

Now that materialism is the dominant paradigm in all the sciences, what on earth do we do about free will?  If all of our “free” decisions are really predetermined—perhaps long in advance—by a combination of our biology and our environment, and our brain is simply a concatenation of cells that must obey the laws of physics and chemistry, how can any of our decisions be “free”?  And if what we do for the rest of our lives has already been determined by the laws of physics—absent, perhaps a tad of quantum indeterminacy—how can we be held responsible for our actions?

The free-will issue is exacerbated  by recent studies showing that when we make “choices”—say, to press a button on the left or right side of a computer—the “decision” has already been recorded in our brain’s activity at least ten seconds before we’re conscious of having made a choice.  That, of course, further supports a deterministic view of behavior, and the absence of what most people think of as “free will.”

How do people conceive of free will, though?  My own definition, which I think corresponds to most people’s take, is that if you could rerun the tape of life back to the moment a decision is made, with all the concatenations of molecules at that moment, and the circumstances leading up to it, remaining the same, you could have chosen differently.  If you couldn’t, then determinism reigns and we’re not free agents, at least as most people think of them.

Philosophers don’t like that notion—the idea that we’re all puppets on the strings of physics. So they do what theologians do when a Biblical claim is disproven: they simply redefine free will in a way that allows us to retain it.  Like the story of Adam and Eve, it becomes a metaphor, with a meaning very different from how it was once used.

This is what Eddy Nahmias, a philosopher at Georgia State University, does in an “opinionator” piece in Sunday’s New York Times: “Is neuroscience the death of free will?”  And his answer is a resounding “no”.

Nahmias doesn’t like definitions of free will like mine, which involve a “soul” or “ghost in the machine” that can override the laws of physics, because they define free will out of existence:

We should be wary of defining things out of existence.  Define Earth as the planet at the center of the universe and it turns out there is no Earth.  Define what’s moral as whatever your God mandates and suddenly most people become immoral.  Define marriage as a union only for procreation, and you thereby annul many marriages.

What he doesn’t seem to realize is that we haven’t defined it out of existence, but rather science has shown that earlier “dualistic” views of free will, in which a spirit overrules matter, are simply wrong.  If free will as most people understand it rests on a misconception, then correcting that misconception eliminates the common notion of free will.  Our brains are our minds, our minds are what “appear” to make decisions, our brains are subject to the laws of physics, and there is no way to override those laws with some nebulous “will”.  Q.E.D.

But philosophers, acting like theologians, say, “Wait! That definition was naive to begin with! Few modern philosophers adhere to that kind of dualism!  Let me give you a more sophisticated definition of free will that does hold for humans.”

And here is Nahmias’s definition, which comports with the ideas of many “compatibilist” philosophers who see free will and determinism as compatible:

Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires.  We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure.  We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them.

These capacities for conscious deliberation, rational thinking and self-control are not magical abilities.  They need not belong to immaterial souls outside the realm of scientific understanding (indeed, since we don’t know how souls are supposed to work, souls would not help to explain these capacities).  Rather, these are the sorts of cognitive capacities that psychologists and neuroscientists are well positioned to study.

This, of course, is a definition that allows pure determinism to create “decisions.”  But all it does is describe the workings of our complex brains, which take in many different inputs before producing an output—a “decision.”  We aren’t really free to “imagine future courses of action”: the fact that we do this is purely a result of our evolution, our personal history, and the structure of our brain.  Even if we can do this kind of imagining and planning, that doesn’t mean that we could have decided otherwise.  Having a complex brain that absorbs many inputs is no more “free will” than is the output of a complex computer, say a chess-playing one, that weighs all possible strategies before making a move. Does that computer have “free will,” too?

There is a continuum in animals from simple ones who make binary decisions based on only one input (i.e. swim toward the light and away from the dark) to ones that make decisions based on more inputs (“Did I hurt my knee the last time I ran?”).  At what point does the complexity of input constitute a form of “free will”?  To me it seems totally arbitrary.  Yes, humans can weigh factors in a way that rotifers can’t, but if the course of action is predetermined in both cases, in what meaningful sense do we have free will but rotifers don’t?

I find it curious that philosophers don’t simply abandon the term “free will” because of its heavy historical baggage involving dualism and souls.  Why do they keep redefining the term in a way that allows us to maintain the illusion that we can choose?

At least in the case of Nahmias, it seems pretty obvious: he wants to keep the idea of moral responsibility.  And then there’s the bad side effect that people exposed to literature on determinism tend to cheat more often, and show fewer prosocial behaviors.

Indeed, free will matters in part because it is a precondition for deserving blame for bad acts and deserving credit for achievements.  It also turns out that simply exposing people to scientific claims that free will is an illusion can lead them to misbehave, for instance, cheating more or helping others less. So, it matters whether these scientists are justified in concluding that free will is an illusion.

My response to this is: “the truth is the truth, and if knowing it affects our behavior in undesirable ways, then we simply have to deal with that.”  We can still have the idea of responsibility under my definition of free will, but simply have to re-conceptualize what it means.  We hold people responsible for bad actions, and punish them, because it’s an environmental intervention that protects society and may, as an influence on the criminal’s neurons as well as the neurons of onlookers, reduce the incidence of bad behavior.  The same goes for rewarding people for good deeds: that’s something that also affects brains and neurons, and increases the likelihood of those deeds.  What is not justified under my scheme is the notion of punishment as retribution.

A kid who holds up a liquor store with a gun is no more “responsible” for his actions—in the sense of being able to freely refrain from them—than is someone with a brain tumor who becomes aggressive and attacks another person.  The only difference is that the physical influences on behavior are more obvious in the second case.  Choices come from minds, minds come from brains, and brains are collections of molecules that obey physical laws.  Given the appearance of a “choice,” I argue that we could never have decided otherwise than we did.   So when Nahmias says this:

If we put aside the misleading idea that free will depends on supernatural souls rather than our quite miraculous brains, and if we put aside the mistaken idea that our conscious thinking matters most in the milliseconds before movement, then neuroscience does not kill free will.  Rather, it can help to explain our capacities to control our actions in such a way that we are responsible for them. It can help us rediscover free will.

what on earth does he mean by “our capacities to control our actions”?  We can’t control our actions, for crying out loud, because there is no “we” there that can override the laws of physics. We could not have done otherwise.

I conclude that philosophers should abandon the term “free will” and use some less freighted term.  How about “the appearance of having made a decision”?  I don’t like the notion that philosophers, like theologians, try to turn scientific necessities into philosophical virtues.

And of course I had no choice about writing this post, nor you in whether you agree with me. . . .

309 Comments

  1. Yakaru
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    Looks like philosophers will always retain the concept of free will. They just can’t help themselves.

    • chemicalscum
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

      If the output of a complex neural system is Church-Turing not computable then it can not any any sense be described as predetermined. The output then cannot be predicted even if the system is completely specified and all the inputs known.

      I felt compelled to write this post but then in another world I wasn’t

      • Posted November 16, 2011 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

        Unless you had another hypercomputer.

        (Of course, real devices, including nervous systems are almost certainly sub-Turing, not super.)

        • Posted November 16, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

          I’ve yet to encounter a proposal for a super-Turing device that didn’t include as an essential element some sort of perpetual motion machine. They almost all boil down to being capable of performing an infinite amount of work in a finite amount of time.

          If we look at it from the other direction, one may reasonably suggest that a super-Turing device can function as Maxwell’s Demon without the need to extract energy from the system to make its determination of when to open and close the gate. Therefore, it could be used as the motor of a perpetual motion machine.

          I’m not qualified to formalize this, but I would suggest that somebody who is should be able to absolutely establish such a link. If so, we would know that Church-Turing is exactly as solid as the Law of Conservation.

          Until somebody can offer up a concrete suggestion of a violation of Church-Turing that doesn’t also violate the Law of Conservation, I’m personally assuming their equivalence.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

            Last time I brought up hypercomputing (which I agree is likely nomologically impossible) I asked how the conservation law violation was supposed to apply. I find this odd, given that at least one hypercomputing model was invented by physicists and philosophers of physics, who are explicitly concerned with its energy use – as it happens that model is unrealistic because it requires one to get one’s “hypercomputed” answer arbitrarily blueshifted, hence with arbitrarily high energy.

            • Posted November 18, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

              You’re finding what I found. Every time I’ve come across a novel hypercomputing proposal, there’s been a glossed-over “and then magic happens” bit that amounts to division by zero. Oops.

              Find enough of those, and you tend to spot a pattern emerging…the same pattern one finds in hucksters of perpetual motion machines….

              b&

              • Posted November 19, 2011 at 10:13 am | Permalink

                I agree they are impossible, but it becomes (in the best case) a question of idealizations and the usefulness of models. After all, a Turing machine is very idealized as a model of anything real too. As it happens, I think it captures something important (the nature of a program, not anything to do with hardware per se at all).

  2. Posted November 15, 2011 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    How do we hold people responsible for bad actions and punish them? You always lapse into talking as if we have free will to decide what should be the best policies to enact if we don’t have free will.

    • Microraptor
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 6:54 am | Permalink

      Mistake number one- thinking that punishment is the appropriate course of action for correcting undesirable behavior.

      • DiscoveredJoys
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 7:34 am | Permalink

        But the threat of punishment, including retribution, is a social marker to show that a particular behaviour is not acceptable. The strength of that threat ‘should’ be enough to change the brain states of people considering socially unacceptable behaviour.

        The thing is that once the ‘threat’ has been made it has to be carried out if it is to retain its value as a behavioural modifier to others considering unacceptable behaviour.

        There may well be better ways of modifying behaviour of course, but can any society afford not to include punishment as an option?

        • Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:14 am | Permalink

          But how would a potential criminal modify their behaviour isn’t that deterministic too?

          • Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:50 am | Permalink

            Yes, it is. Just as our decision to modify their behavior was determined, and so forth. I’m completely comfortable with the idea that I have no choice in typing this. Of course, I couldn’t feel any other way.

            • GBJames
              Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink

              I am compelled to agree.

              • Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:34 am | Permalink

                You are caused to agree. No one is compelling you to agree, at least I hope not!

              • GBJames
                Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:47 am | Permalink

                Mr. Internet tells me I am compelled. I am helpless to disagree.

                com·pel (km-pl)
                tr.v. com·pelled, com·pel·ling, com·pels
                1. To force, drive, or constrain: Duty compelled the soldiers to volunteer for the mission.
                2. To necessitate or pressure by force; exact: An energy crisis compels fuel conservation. See Synonyms at force.
                3. To exert a strong, irresistible force on; sway: “The land, in a certain, very real way, compels the minds of the people” .

    • Stan Pak
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      I agree with Microraptor. The way we think is incorrect in most cases. W think “punish” as a solution before even constructing a description of the problem. And in most cases use of physical force or abuse might not be the best means. You do not want to “punish” your child – you want rather to teach him/her to not to repeat mistakes and to correct behavior.

    • chance
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      If your dog attacked a pet rabbit because it was starving hungry, how would you hold it responsible?

      If a robot were programmed to destroy humans and was set loose on the world to cause mayhem, how would you punish the robot?

      If a bowling ball were to roll out of a bowling bag and roll clear down a lane and knock over all of the pins, is it necessary to attribute the strike to a conscious agent?

      How we hold any force responsible is no different from how we hold human beings morally responsible: we respond in a way that prevents harm or promotes well-being and flourishing. Responsibility has no need for an ephemeral notion of free will.

      Whether they realize it or not, philosophers who espouse the existence of free-will are just playing an existential blame game. In their confusion, they feel that someone or something ultimately needs to be “brought to justice” or “held responsible” for whatever undesired event takes place. In reality, no one is guilty in this _ultimate_ sense. In reality, “devils” are no more *at fault* for their bad behavior than are “angels” for their good behavior – so what we’re left to do is simply see to it that the angels succeed.

      • Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

        What we’re left to do is simply see to it that the angels succeed.

        Indeed,

        And, in that context, I’m truly at a loss as to understand the benefit of punishment.

        There are certainly necessary and just actions for a society to take which the individual will consider punitive, such as incarceration. But the purpose of incarceration shouldn’t be to hurt the criminal, but to protect society. And, to that end, incarceration should be only for the minimum duration necessary to prevent recidivism. It obviously follows that the goal of incarceration is to release the prisoner as a reformed and productive member of society — and that means that incarceration should involve treatment for mental disorders, education, job training, and anything else that will help ensure a successful reintegration with society.

        It should further be apparent that all those things should, to the greatest extent possible, be provided before the individual feels compelled to commit a crime in the first place. Incarceration therefore becomes a temporary restraint mechanism, in principle the same as a wedge inserted into a seizure victim’s mouth to prevent injury.

        Are there individuals so sick that no known cure is available, who may well go on to repeat their horrific acts with impunity if left unrestrained? Sadly, yes. But that by no means that we should make their lives any more miserable than is necessary, any more than a doctor would sanction torturing a cancer patient because of the extant pain. Yes, treatments for cancer can be torturous, but that’s a bug, not a feature. Those whose illness is societal rather than medical deserve as much respect, compassion, and assistance as any other.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Microraptor
          Posted November 15, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

          Ah, you’ve already made one of my points for me, and much more thoroughly than I would have.

          The other point I intended to make was this: the threat of punishment does not really seem to work. Certainly not in the United States, where we have a prison system filled to the breaking point, even in parts of the country where there’s a high chance that a criminal will receive a death sentence. Clearly, the threat of being imprisoned or executed wasn’t sufficient deterrent in any of those cases. Nor does it appear to be significantly more effect in countries where the convicted face far harsher punishments like lashings or having a body part chopped off (are there actually any countries that still practice that punishment?).

          • Posted November 15, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

            Well, how many more criminals would there be if there were no police? Take a look at Steve Pinker’s piece (I can’t remember which book) about what happened in his town of Montreal when the police went on strike. Crime skyrocketed! Clearly,the presence of police (and threat of punishment) was keeping crime down.

  3. Posted November 15, 2011 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    I think there is some merit to Nahmias’s redefinition, to the extent that the mental process he describes is the one that occurs when people exercise that which they label “free will.” Jerry, it’s even the same process you describe with your requirement of “rewinding the tape” — you’re creating a mental simulation of alternative realities in an effort to determine the effectiveness of various courses of action on your part.

    The question then becomes whether or not the fact that this is what people are doing when they say they exercise their “free will” is good reason to therefore declare it to actually be their free will, or whether that term should be reserved for what people have previously thought was responsible. I can see arguments being made in both directions. Fission and fusion are still generically referred to as transmutation even though there’s no Philosopher’s Stone involved, but we now know that the motions of the planets has no influence over the courses of our lives and astrology is discredited woo.

    Jerry, what do you think is a suitable way of describing the process of mental mapmaking and simulation? Do you recognize the connection between that process and what people traditionally refer to as “free will”? Would you have us make a clean break, or is some contextual continuity called for?

    As far as whether or not computers and rotifers exercise what Nahmias describes as “free will,” I would respond that they do, in roughly similar proportions to how we would describe them as being alive. “Life” is notoriously fuzzy around the edges. Is a virus alive? A prion? Dr. Venter’s DNA sequence on a computer? That same sequence re-encoded into DNA prior to being embedded in a donor cell? “Life” is not a binary condition but an enumerable property that various entities possess in differing quantities. “Intelligence” is similar, as is that to which Nahmias has chosen to attach the “free will” label.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • chance
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      I agree, this argument is largely semantic. I don’t see any problem with dropping the word “free” and just saying will.

      In Nahmia’s redefinition there’s a taste of insincerity in labeling it “free will,” he knows the traditional philosophical definition is wrong, yet he would rather keep the “free” label on the front… why? Because we still have basic will and that is what most people associate with free will? His argument isn’t very coherent or convincing seen in that light.

  4. Sigmund
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    I don’t know, I think I’m still in two minds about it.
    On a more serious note I have a problem with the robber/brain tumor example. Yes, if you froze and replayed the situation in either case immediately before the action you would indeed see the same thing. However freeze it several minutes befor the action and I suspect there would be much more room for an influence on the robber rather than the tumor patient.

    • Sigmund
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 6:28 am | Permalink

      “before”
      Damn my stubby iphone defying fingers!

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 6:29 am | Permalink

      But those influences on the robber are still determined. Yes, if someone bumps into him it may affect his actions, but that bumping is itself the result of the laws of physics. There is no difference between the two cases.

      • DiscoveredJoys
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 7:38 am | Permalink

        Which is why a lot of the justice process orbits around the idea of ‘intent’.

        The robber has a fully working brain and ‘should’ know better; the guy with the tumour may not have a fully working brain.

        • Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

          “Intent” is considered because everyone understands how unfair it would look to imprison a driver who hit a kid who ran out in front of his car.
          Also, it makes no practical sense to punish a person who accidentally causes harm. One can’t deter accidents.
          I think prisons should not be thought of as punishment (and therefore shouldn’t be unpleasant places), but rather as a sort of quarantine for people infected with a tendency to harm others.

        • Microraptor
          Posted November 15, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

          How do we know that the robber has a fully working brain, though? It’s not like we conduct CAT scans on every defendant to make sure they don’t have an atrophied hippocampus and that they haven’t suffered any trauma to one of their frontal lobes.

      • Bill Gilliland
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

        Except that those predetermined future actions include the reactions mandated by the laws of society, and the brain’s understanding of those laws, and the brain’s knowledge of what is likely to happen if the body carrying it around is caught breaking those laws.

        If there is free will, then the robber’s thought processes led to a decision to break the law. This deserves retribution as (sensu game theory enforcement of cheating) this can lead to overall desirable outcomes.

        If there isn’t free will, then the brain of the robber developed in such a way that it’s thought processes are programmed to reject the laws of society. Again, the robber needs to be punished, because without the certainty of punishment, the cooperative strategy called civilization is susceptible to invasion by selfish cheaters who might otherwise be deterred from violence. Punishment, even of predetermined actions, is part of the system and still needs to take place to achieve the more overall desirable outcome.

        In the case of the brain tumor, however, the punishment does not have any hope of reinforcing the societal norms. The tumor is not aware of the societal norms, the tumor is not capable of resisting the temptation, and the presence or absence of the threat of punishment would have no effect on the outcome. We DO respond to this individual, but it is with medical isolation and, if possible, treatment.

        Your “rewind the tape” experiment is not physically possible. But I would argue that given the exquisite iterative dependence on initial conditions, you WOULD get a different outcome if even one electron was in a different place (as long as you rewound the tape far enough backwards). You could argue that if everything was *perfectly* rewound then you would have the same outcome, but Heisenberg uncertainty tells us that kind of specification is impossible. Again, what experiment (even one possible only in theory) would be able to tell these two situations apart?

        I still feel this entire discussion is completely moot. Either we have free will, or the predetermined system is so chaotic and iterative that we have a perfect simulation of free will.

        • Microraptor
          Posted November 15, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

          Where is the evidence that the certainty of punishment is necessary to prevent people from breaking rules?

          • Bill Gilliland
            Posted November 15, 2011 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

            Exhibit A:

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston_Police_Strike

            • Microraptor
              Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

              The tricky part with an example like that is trying to sort out whether it was a lack of threat of punishment that emboldened the rioters and looters, or merely the lack of ability to stop them.

              It’s like a child who considers stealing a cookie and ultimately doesn’t- was it because he was afraid of getting sent to the corner or given a swat, or because he thinks his mother will catch him and prevent him from stealing it even without any further punishment. It’s not easy to sort out the actual cause.

  5. GBJames
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    I generally agree with you but isn’t “We can still have the idea of responsibility under my definition of free will, but simply have to re-conceptualize what it means.” rather like the philosopher redefining free will?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 6:31 am | Permalink

      Well, a fair point, but “responsible” still means that if you do the crime, you do the time. That isn’t such a big change from what we’ve always thought.

      • Occam
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:14 am | Permalink

        “if you do the crime, you do the time. That isn’t such a big change from what we’ve always thought.”

        Who’s ‘you’? Who’s ‘we’?
        If I take your meaning literally, there are no such entities. (Me neither.)

        I think there is some serious reconceptualisation to be done, and our linguistic baggage is ill equipped for that.

        • Steve Pinkham
          Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:33 am | Permalink

          So your computer doesn’t exist either?

          I highly recommend reading through some of lesswrong.com for a fairly well fleshed out view of philosophy from an AI standpoint.

          This is especially relevant.

          http://lesswrong.com/lw/of/dissolving_the_question/

          From the “A Human’s Guide to Words” sequence.

          http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Sequences#A_Human.27s_Guide_to_Words

          • Occam
            Posted November 15, 2011 at 9:33 am | Permalink

            Hacking the homework you so kindly assigned, sir.

            “Your homework assignment is to write a stack trace of the internal algorithms of the human mind as they produce the intuitions that power the whole damn philosophical argument.”

            I am, sadly, familiar with the tracing of stack frames in post-mortem debugging. But of the internal algorithms of the human mind? How do you do that?

            (Unless it’s a metaphor…)

            • spinkham
              Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:39 am | Permalink

              That’s why I gave the context of the sequence proceeding it. ;-) Yes, it’s a metaphor of sorts, with what you quoted being a elaboration on:

              “What kind of cognitive algorithm, as felt from the inside, would generate the observed debate about ‘free will’?”

              If that question doesn’t make sense to you, the link at the beginning of the article lists
              “How An Algorithm Feels From Inside” should help. It’s largely a discussion on how activation in neural nets can be a finicky thing, and a neural net that can do one task well can often lead to confusion due to cognitive shortcuts built into the net when faced with other tasks.

              Unfortunately, the more of the whole sequence you’ve read, the more sense it makes, there’s no shortcut. But as AI sees the process of human understanding much different than most philosophers have, let alone the man on the street, I would expect no less. I do promise there’s no magic qualia fields here, everything is understandable if you’re interested enough to put the time in. There *is* a lot of material though. :-)

              http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Sequences#Core_Sequences

              • Occam
                Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:20 am | Permalink

                Will look into it. Also, while I’m a very slow, one-handed typer, I’m a reasonably fast reader: I did read the context material you linked; that in turn raised a number of red flags, but I don’t want to derail the thread.

                “How An Algorithm Feels From Inside” reminds me, uncomfortably, of an exchange I had with Sir John Eccles in 1980. Eccles was giving a talk about the “neurone’s mind”. The cocky young student that I was asked him about his heuristics. Eccles answered candidly: “Every time I hit upon some experimental problem, I ask myself, ‘If I were a nerve cell, what would I do?'”
                Though prodded by a torrent of obvious objections, Eccles wouldn’t elaborate. To this day I don’t know “How A Neurone Feels From Inside”.

              • spinkham
                Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:49 am | Permalink

                Yeah, the exercise is not itself proof that reductionism is true, it just helps you to understand how you could generate questions about free will other metacognative questions even *if* reductionism is true.

                I don’t think reductionism itself is truly provable at our current level of technology, but all evidence we currently have is pointing strongly that way, and I see no reason to think otherwise.

  6. PhilosophyProf
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    Jerry: I admire your blog, but you’re out of your depth. There really is a philosophical discipline here to be mastered. Nahmias even offers empirical evidence that the folk *don’t* think free will requires the ability to have done otherwise, at least when the folk are careful to distinguish determinism from fatalism, which is a *very* different doctrine.

    I don’t go blundering into your disputes with other biologists about genomes and such, because I don’t have the training and haven’t read the literature. Clearly you’re in the same position with regard to the free will debate. You might pay philosophers the same respect.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 6:55 am | Permalink

      Ummm. . . .that’s a pretty snotty remark. Brain operation, after all, is a matter of biology.

      And, contra what you said, I’ve read a great deal of literature on free will. You can say that I’m wrong, but not that I’m unacquainted with the problem and the proposed solutions.

      Finally, Nahmias’s results are based on 249 Georgia undergraduates, and I’d like to see a survey of average Americans saying that yes, they think that their actions are completely determined and they don’t ever make real choices. This is anecdotal, of course, but I’ve met tons of people who really do think we could have chosen otherwise. And Nahmias leaves the question open at the end of his piece.

      Anyway, you’re obviously defending your turf here, but when someone talks about biology on this site who doesn’t have biology training, I don’t try to put them down in the way you have. I engage their arguments.

      • PhilosophyProf
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 9:10 am | Permalink

        Nahmias’s results are based on 249 Georgia undergraduates, and I’d like to see a survey of average Americans saying that yes, they think that their actions are completely determined and they don’t ever make real choices. This is anecdotal, of course, but I’ve met tons of people who really do think we could have chosen otherwise.

        “saying that…they don’t ever make real choices”! You make my point for me: that’s obviously a *question-begging* demand on your part. (Philosophical training helps one avoid committing that fallacy.) Nahmias’s point is that the choices *are* real and the folk *recognize* that when they’re not confusing determinism with fatalism.

        How many of people have you systematically surveyed? Zero, which is less than 249. And in your unsystematic survey, did you take care to distinguish determinism from fatalism, as Nahmias did, so as to avoid the popular confusion of two very different doctrines? I’m surprised to see a scientist offering anecdotes in response to empirical data.

        • Fabien
          Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

          Ok, so what is the difference between fatalism and determinism and why does this matter here ? You have to give us some insights, all you’ve said so far is not very informative…

          • physicalist
            Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

            “what is the difference between fatalism and determinism and why does this matter?”

            See here for one explanation. (It’s point #1.)

            • Notagod
              Posted November 30, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

              Jerry isn’t making that mistake at all. You haven’t shown nor does Jerry acknowledge a mechanism that would show that either fatalism or determinism , as you define them, occur. Without a mechanism both ideas might be equally wrong.

              Without evidence and mechanism its just six of half a dozen. To put it in a different context; no need to hunt for the correct christian, all christians are wrong.

      • philosophercj
        Posted December 12, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

        “This is anecdotal, of course, but I’ve met tons of people who really do think we could have chosen otherwise.”

        wow! Come on Jerry. You are a scientist. You know anecdotal evidence is worthless. The fact of the matter is that what “our concept” of free will turns out to be is an empirical question. Nahmias isn’t the only experimental philosopher. There is a whole literature on this, which includes lots of empirical survey’s . It’s surprising that it is the philosophers who are citing evidence and the scientist who is making pronouncements from the armchair.

    • Ralph
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 6:57 am | Permalink

      It seem bizarre to take the theologians’ route of the “sophistication” argument to dismiss Jerry’s comments. Most philosophers have little expertise in neuroscience, and at present it seems that neuroscience has far more to contribute to this debate than abstract philosophy.

      Rather than argue about who is qualified to talk about the ideas, perhaps we should just talk about the ideas? Can you expand on why you think determinism as opposed to fatalism rescues a meaningful notion of free will?

      • Tim Harris
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

        Try the writings of Raymond Tallis, who does have experience in neuroscience, and strongly disagrees with Jerry’s position.

    • penn
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 7:01 am | Permalink

      the folk *don’t* think free will requires the ability to have done otherwise

      But, isn’t that the only way free will has true meaning and value? Isn’t that what the common person means when they say “free will”? That’s why Jerry about the philosophical redefinition. If you take free will to not mean what everyone thinks it means then yes it can still exist.

      • PhilosophyProf
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink

        Let me repeat: according to Nahmias’s data, the folk *don’t* think that free will requires the falsity of determinism, provided they don’t confuse determinism with fatalism. Nahmias’s evidence is that contracausal free will is *not* “what the common person means when they say ‘free will’.” Who’s doing the redefinition, then?

        • Fabien
          Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:16 am | Permalink

          The notion of free will that “the folk” have is the one Jerry describes. Western society (maybe due to Christianity) has been using free will with this meaning for centuries. If you doubt this then you need to ask around and make your own poll (preferably not in philosophic spheres), shouldn’t take long. Just asked 11 colleagues here in astronomy, took me 2 minutes, 9 out of 11 believe in traditional free will (= go back and make a different choice). I bet >90% in the general public.

        • Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink

          In his article, Nahmias was very selective in reporting what experimental philosophers have found on folk intuitions about free will. The folk have libertarian intuitions as well as compatibilist, see

          S. Nichols, J. Knobe, Moral responsibility and determinism. Nous 41, 663 (2007).

          H. Sarkissianet al., Is belief in free will a cultural universal? Mind Lang. 25, 346 (2010).

        • CJ
          Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

          Excuse me, but shouldn’t the discussion and our definition of Free Will be defined in terms of where it really matters?

          Who here thinks discussing Free Will is most relevant in how it relates to moral responsibility, retribution or the existence of a ghost in the machine?

          Who thinks it’s not?  And tell me why I should care more about any other discussion of Free Will?  Cuz as it stands, I don’t.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 7:24 am | Permalink

      I think staking out and defending academic turf is counter-productive.

      There are things philosophers can learn from scientists and social scientists, and vice-versa. This kind of academic “No Trespassing” sign is really unacceptable to people who believe learning and truth is more important than power and authority.

    • Occam
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:03 am | Permalink

      “…but you’re out of your depth.”

      So there is depth?
      Surely not unfathomable?
      Then let’s heave the sounding lead, otherwise deep six the notion.

    • CJ
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:49 am | Permalink

      Jerry, no scientist has ever advanced anything outside their own field; you know that.

      PhilosophyProf’s comments read like a theologians.  Imagine if Ben Franklin thought like that.

    • Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      I’d be interested in hearing what philosophy there is to be mastered here. The reason I ask is that Jerry and Nahmias agree about how the brain works. In these debates about what to call it, we always forget that point. We’re all materialists here, and we all (I think) believe in determinism (plus possibly some quantum stochasticity). All we’re arguing over is what to call this state of affairs.

      So what, exactly, are you claiming Jerry has to learn?

    • Brian
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      Nahmias does not offer empirical evidence that “the folk *don’t* think free will requires the ability to have done otherwise”. What Nahmias did is try to see if people’s pre-philosophical intuitions require the ability to have done otherwise. One might, when straight up asked what they think free will means, say that free will requires the ability to have done otherwise and, when asked indirect questions to get at their intuitions, answer with the supposed “compatibilist answer”. I agree with Jerry’s description of free will. Free will in my mind means that my decisions are not deterministic, that my decisions an hour from now are not uniquely determined by the current state of myself and the universe. But the sort of questions Nahmias asks would have revealed me as a compatibilist. Mostly because I agree with the compatibilitist that humans make decisions and I hold them accountable for their decisions. I just don’t think merely being a biological decision making machine is free will. In particular, I disagree with Nahmias’ approach of combining free will and moral responsibility into one unit, as I effectively deny free will and accept moral responsibility. People don’t always fit in the philosophers’ boxes. In short, Nahmias and Jerry asked different questions and personally I think Nahmias is cheating at finding out what I think about free will.

      Just to give everyone an idea how this works, on of Nahmias’ questions was:

      (From Phenomenology of Free Will) Imagine you’ve made a tough decision between two alternatives. You’ve chosen
      one of them and you think to yourself, ‘I could have chosen otherwise’ (itmay help
      if you can remember a particular example of such a decision you’ve recently made).

      Which of these statements best describes what you have in mind when you think, ‘I
      could have chosen otherwise’?

      A. ‘I could have chosen to do otherwise even if everything at the moment of choice
      had been exactly the same’.

      B. ‘I could have chosen to do otherwise only if something had been different (for
      instance, different considerations had come tomind as I deliberated or I had experienced
      different desires at the time)’.

      C. Neither of the above describes what I mean.

      (From Experimental Philosophy on Free Will) In Universe A, a man named Bill has become attracted to his secretary, and he decided that the only way to be with her is to kill his wife and 3 children. He knows that it is impossible to escape from his house in the event of a fire. Before he leaves on a business trip, he sets up a device in his basement that burns down the house and kills his family.

      In Universe A, is it possible for a person to be fully morally responsible for their actions? Yes or No

      Is Bill fully morally responsible for killing his wife and children? Yes or No

      These questions are designed to indirectly test for one’s intuitions, not to figure out how people, when directly asked, define free will.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

        My feeling is that “rewinding the tape” is a flawed way of interpreting what people mean by “could have done otherwise.” I submit that what they really mean is that at the start of deliberations they could visualize various sequences of actions leading to different outcomes, without knowing which of those outcomes would in fact be realized. “Rewinding the tape” then does not mean a different outcome becomes physically possible; it just means they’d be back in that same state of uncertainty in which some conceivable outcomes had not yet been ruled out. “Free will” is what we call that process of ruling out options.

        I haven’t done a survey, but I think this way of looking at it comports well with both physical determinism and with folk notions of “free will”, “choice”, “could have done otherwise”, and so on.

        • Brian
          Posted November 15, 2011 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

          I agree that Jerry’s description of what he means by free will is flawed. Primarily because the rewinding the tape scenario and with this word “choose”, what conceptually is going on there is precisely the issue being discussed. Jerry failed to clarify what he meant by free will since he didn’t address the key issues.

          Certainly from the compatiblist view, you’d define “could” in terms of the fact there are decision making machines that are considering some potential outcomes and don’t know which outcome will happen. I agree that that’s certainly what is going on. What is also going on is they don’t have enough information and with information of all the states of the universe, there is a unique outcome that they just don’t know. That would be what I mean by free will. But this all is aside the point, are both perspectives are correct and insightful and this is a mere dispute over which one you call free will.

          The problem I have with the survey is it for example may perfectly capture what I think of moral responsibility or how I use “could” in certain contexts. But then using that tries to put me in a philosophical box. I don’t fit into a box or label. Thereby they create a straw man of what I think. They assume I define free will like an idiot by “could have done otherwise” and try to get at my intuitions prior to me realizing “could” can be used in several different ways.

          The main point is they didn’t test how people define free will when directly asked, which is what Jerry Coyne means. They tested indirectly for people’s intuitions. These are two different questions. I suspect Jerry Coyne is right, when people are directly asked they tend to define free will like an incompatiblist. But we need data on that and it needs to come from directly asking people.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

            I suspect that if you ask people straight out for a definition of free will, what you’ll get is what they think the “correct” answer ought to be, i.e. some paraphrase of a dictionary entry or philosophical argument. This may have very little to with what people actually mean when they use words like “free will”, “choice”, and so on in ordinary conversation. Surely the latter is what we ought to care about when discussing folks concepts of free will.

            • Brian
              Posted November 16, 2011 at 3:54 am | Permalink

              If you consult the dictionaries for a definition of free will and directly ask people what free will means and you constantly get the incompatiblist answer, than that is the definition of free will. It doesn’t matter if the public somehow got confused on what the supposed proper philosophical definition or what people say when you ask them indirect questions to get at what they “really” think. The compatiblist definition is wrong.

              This is rather condescending, this notion that people say free will means one thing but are really mistaken and they “really” think free will means something else intuitively. How arrogant for you to think you know better than me what I really think. How dare you straw man my position by asking indirect questions so that you can put me in some philosophical box of yours. You want to know my position, simply ask and accept my answer.

              Part of the problem is precisely that you and others continue using these words like “free will” and “could” which are just confusing the issue. People need to simply abandon this terminology. Ideally while acknowledging that what most people would call free will (when directly asked, not what they “really” think) just does not exist.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted November 16, 2011 at 10:52 am | Permalink

                Dictionaries don’t dictate the meanings of words; they document them. Meanings are determined by how people actually use words in sentences. I’m simply suggesting that if we want to know what the folk think “free will” and “could” mean, we should look at how they use those words in ordinary speech. That’s not condescending, nor is it an attempt to pigeonhole anyone; it’s just how proper linguistics is done.

                The fact is that these words are part of our everyday language and aren’t going away. You can’t just declare them out of bounds and insist that people stop using them. (That would be arrogant.) So it seems sensible (to me) to try to understand how they’re used, and whether we can make sense of those usages in a materialist framework.

              • philosophercj
                Posted December 12, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

                “This is rather condescending, this notion that people say free will means one thing but are really mistaken and they “really” think free will means something else intuitively. How arrogant for you to think you know better than me what I really think.”

                There is plenty of evidence in psychology that we don’t have conscious access to all the associations we make between concepts. It’s not being condescending, it is an investigation of implicit cognition. This tension between what people say, and how they behave is common. Try this test about race attitudes. https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/

    • chance
      Posted November 17, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      Great example of a philosopher being _horrible_ at philosophy.

  7. Kingasaurus
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    Doesn’t Dan Dennett essentially say the same thing? That we don’t have dualistic libertarian “free will” the way were used to thinking about it, but he doesn’t ditch the term entirely. He just redefines the idea so that it’s consistent with a materialist universe.

    It “feels” like we have “free will”, we act as if we do, and our day-to-day practical living wouldn’t change much if we just admit that we don’t have it in the traditional sense.

    Maybe I’m remembering Dennett incorrectly, though.

    • Sastra
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 7:21 am | Permalink

      No, that’s Dennet’s position:

      “Free Will is real, but it is not a preexisting feature of our existence, like the law of gravity. It is also not what tradition declares it to be: a God-like power to exempt oneself from the causal fabric of the physical world. It is an evolved creation of human activity and beliefs, and it is just as real as such other human creations as music and money. And even more valuable. From this evolutionary perspective, the traditional problem of free will can be broken into some rather unusual fragments, each of some value in illuminating the serious problems of free will, but we can undertake this reexamination only after we have corrected the misdirection implicit in their traditional settings.” (Freedom Evolves, pg. 13)

      Dennett tries to explain why we can and do make choices, and in doing so he tries to show that those choices are “real” choices because that’s what choice is.

      “I find that those who take it as just obvious that free will is an illusion tend to take their definition of free will from radical agent-causation types.” (Dennett)

      Dennett would probably argue that Jerry is just “playing into their (theologian’s) hands” and conceding ground he doesn’t have to. Gifting supernaturalism with our ability to make “real” choices is like saying atheist’s lives can’t have “real” meaning or gay people can’t have “real” marriage because meaning and marriage are only real if they’re grounded in a God’s-eye view of the universe. It’s privileging religion. Which is ironic.

      • physicalist
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:21 am | Permalink

        gifting supernaturalism with our ability to make “real” choices is like saying atheist’s lives can’t have “real” meaning or gay people can’t have “real” marriage

        Yep. Well said.

        • Posted November 15, 2011 at 9:11 am | Permalink

          If we are to twist the analogy in that direction, Jerry’s position would be that “real” marriage doesn’t exist for anybody, regardless of sexual orientation. He would still be (and in reality I know is) in favor of equal rights for both gays and straights. The debate would be over whether to call the relationship of pair-bonded humans “marriage” or to use some other term. In the context of this tortured analogy, Jerry’s position would be akin to abolishing marriage outside of religious contexts and embracing civil unions for all.

          (And, to be clear, I’m stretching this analogy to the breaking point and beyond, not speculating on Jerry’s position on civil unions v marriage. I know without doubt that he unequivocally supports equality, but I don’t know how he would achieve it on the particular subject of marriage.)

          And that’s why I see Jerry’s position on the question of free will to be entirely defensible, even if I come down on the other side. Jerry would have us abandon the religiously-tained term, whereas I would suggest it’s worthy of a reformation. But we all agree on the reality of what’s going on, even if we can’t agree on the best language to describe it.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • physicalist
            Posted November 15, 2011 at 9:50 am | Permalink

            Agreed.

            But Sastra’s (and Dennett’s, and my, and — I gather — your) point is that it’s not a good idea to say that nobody’s life has “real meaning” or to say that there are no “real marriages” in the world.

            Likewise, it’s not a good idea to say that we don’t have “real choices” or “real freedom.”

            Yes, we all broadly agree on the relevant biology and physics. I think there’s still some disagreement about its relevance for ethics and about the metaphysics of possibility, but the debate here is often too clouded to move into these finer points.

            • Sastra
              Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

              I agree. Semantic debates can be important because there’s often a lot of baggage riding along within ambiguous terms.

              • Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:46 am | Permalink

                Natural language always devolves to silly ideological, naive realism and socially desirable ideas — why philosophy is a dead end.

            • Jeff
              Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:43 am | Permalink

              I agree with what is being said here. The debate of free will vs. determinism is in some respects like the nature vs. nurture debate. To insist on either nature or environment as strictly determinant of biological development is wrong. But neither position even bothers to admit the theological point of view into the discussion, i.e. that human behavior is determined by a soul injected into a fertilized embryo.

              In the same way, the free-will implication that materialists are concerned about is the totally unacceptable one, the one that should be entirely excluded from the discussion, i.e. that a supernatural soul is responsible for or evidenced by free-will.

              Once we dispense with that soul non-sense, there remains a debate. On the one hand we see that physical laws and the chemical reactions that arise from them have a deterministic and thus predictable nature.

              On the other hand we see and feel our own behaviors as apparently involving choice, and we can not accept the extrapolation from physical and material determinism to a seemingly absurd fatalism, i.e. that no human activity or agency can alter the pre-determined course of history.

              There is a lot that is unknown between the chemistry of the brain, and the emergence of consciousness. There is room for human decision making to be somehow uncoupled from physical determinism as a result of emergent properties of an information processing model that physics, chemistry, and biology do not even begin to anticipate.

              • Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:50 am | Permalink

                No, this is a disingenuous comparison. In fact, it is likely that consciousness and verbal processing of experience is both trivial and epiphenomenal.

                But there are lots of power-play based reasons to cling to naive views of free will from theologians, to policy makers to philosophers and right wing folks.

              • Jeff
                Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

                I’m sorry, but I don’t see how consciousness and verbal processing are trivial.

                Perhaps you could elaborate on this and enlighten me in a few sentences?

              • Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

                Here’s why consciousness-language is trivial — it predicts very little and explains even less.

                It turns out deception is one the main functions of verbal behavior — see The Folly of Fools by Trivers.

                Market researchers are learning that self-reports of any kind are only (somewhat) reliable predictors of people doing the opposite.

                “Information is expensive.” and language-consciousness is cheap and easy to share (why we hype it’s value) therefore it likely contains little information value.

              • Jeff
                Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

                Also, to use the word disingenuous is to imply that I’m being dishonest. I assure you, you are wrong about that.

                It seems to me quite true, and I mean this honestly, that the idea of a soul should be excluded from the discussion of free-will vs. determinism, just as it should be excluded from discussions of what factors determine biological development.

            • Jack M.
              Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

              Why isn’t that a good idea?

              Just because I am determined to chose as I do, doesn’t me I don’t chose as I like.

              To the contrary, I don’t have the freedom to chose other than what I most want to chose. What’s more, I don’t want it.

              Even though I get no credit (or blame) for the wants that I have, it’s worth vastly more than the pleasure of self-righteousness to be free of the chronic anxiety that I might, in any given moment, betray myself.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

        I think the example of elan vital is instructive. People used to be convinced that life required some special magic not present in nonliving matter. Now we know that’s not true; life is just sophisticated chemistry. But we haven’t abandoned the notion that life exists; we don’t insist that it’s merely the illusion of life. We retain the concept of “real” life to describe what is after all a real phenomenon, but with a better underlying explanation that comports with materialism.

        I don’t understand why attempts to do the same with notions of volition, choice, and agency should be seen as unscientific word games.

        • Sastra
          Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

          Yes, that’s a good analogy.

      • philosophercj
        Posted December 12, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

        You don’t get to say its a “redefinition,” until we know empirically what the contents of the concept is. That is what Nahmias and others are trying to find out.

  8. Ralph
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    In the absence of free will, should the the criminal legal system be overhauled? Typically, a crime requires both “actus reus” (guilty act) and “mens rea” (guilty mind). Only in rare cases do the statutes specify “strict liability” crimes, where state of mind is deemed irrelevant.

    There is some overlap between free will and intent: was the crime planned ahead of time, did it happen in the heat of the moment, or was it accidental? But intent may usually be determined by objective external criteria – what was the timing, was there a conspiracy etc.

    The free will aspect I think relates principally to the notion of whether the actor knew that his actions were wrong. I think there is a reasonable case to be made for eliminating this idea from criminal law altogether, and just specifying that given criminal acts attract given sentences, whatever the supposed state of mind of the actor. Cases of mental illness could be dealt with at sentencing, where the specified term might be served under medical care in a secure hospital rather than in prison.

    • Fabien
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      Justice should only be used to protect society from criminals, while healing them by getting rid of their dangerous & asocial behaviors, which are psychological issues. This implies teaching what is “wrong” or “right” if the actor did not know it. Justice should not be punishment in any way.

      • Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:41 am | Permalink

        Wouldn’t the best way to protect society be to understand the medical/brain basis for the behavior and create treatments? What does punishment have to do with that?

  9. Dermot C
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    “…recent studies showing that when we make “choices”—say, to press a button on the left or right side of a computer—the “decision” has already been recorded in our brain’s activity at least ten seconds before we’re conscious of having made a choice.”

    Doesn’t V.S. Ramachandran say that it is milliseconds, rather than ten seconds, before we become conscious of the decision?

    • Neil
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      If it took our conscious brain ten seconds to recognize a choice another part of our brain has made, we’d be unable to drive, let alone play tennis. The statement is prima facie absurd.

    • Heber
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink

      True. That was probably a typo.

  10. SteveC
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    “The free-will issue is exacerbated by recent studies showing that when we make “choices”—say, to press a button on the left or right side of a computer—the “decision” has already been recorded in our brain’s activity at least ten seconds before we’re conscious of having made a choice. ”

    Something’s fishy about this sentence.

    If I’m at a party, and someone walks up behind me, taps me on the shoulder and offers me a selection of hors d’oeurves, I can not only select one, but probably *eat* it in less than ten seconds.

    I don’t doubt that in some cases brain activity may settle on a choice ten seconds or more ahead of time before the chooser realizes a choice has been made, but I’m pretty certain that there are plenty of cases in which a choice can be made less than ten seconds after the chooser was even made aware that there was a choice to be made.

    • Chris Granger
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:37 am | Permalink

      Definitely. If every choice we make requires a ten-second lead-time, we’d probably never be able to survive a drive in the city.

      • Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:05 am | Permalink

        The problem is that some neuroscientists rely on intuitive models of how behaviour results from brain activity. So when they intepret experiments like these they usually talk nonsense. There is stacks of literature by philosphers/psychologists/neuroscientists on the relationship between consciousness and behaviour but the neuroscientist who do these sorts of experiments don’t seem to notice it.

        • Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink

          When has anything philosophy said ever predicted anything?

          • Posted November 17, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

            Philosophers invented logic and natural science. Natural science is the predictive part of philosophy.

            • Posted November 17, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

              Let’s do this, let’s set aside the dusty academic abstractions and appeals to authority and return to the statement that you would be shocked if the evidence against free will were true.

              That fear response is a good, authentic, empirical point of fact. We presume you type your emotions of the moment accurately. Even if not however, it’s a great trope because it is a very common one and references all the emotional reactions to matters of fact that contradict ideologies — shocking.

              Fair?

              • Posted November 17, 2011 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

                sleeprunning,

                Let’s do this, let’s set aside the dusty academic abstractions and appeals to authority and return to the statement that you would be shocked if the evidence against free will were true.

                I never said that I would be shocked to find out such a thing. You don’t even remember what I said anymore. Read it again.

                That fear response is a good, authentic, empirical point of fact. We presume you type your emotions of the moment accurately. Even if not however, it’s a great trope because it is a very common one and references all the emotional reactions to matters of fact that contradict ideologies — shocking.

                Know what is shocking? To find out that science is wrong about something. To find out that something is true even though we had no reason to think it’s true.

              • Posted November 17, 2011 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

                lol We give up.

  11. Posted November 15, 2011 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    Both determinacy and indeterminacy result in infinite regress when it comes to the notion of ‘free will’.

    Hard determinism insists that initial conditions define what happens, (the notion of humans as local causal agents is just a cop-out as liteally everything is determined.) Hence infinite regress.

    Indeterminism suggests that random events, from wherever, (let’s say from shifting energy states in brain stuff, or by the hand of god if you prefer :-)) can somehow cause a difference in the firing of neurons and thence a different outcome in thought or action.

    Both these notions have huge implications for what we think we mean by ‘free will’ – as it either seems hostage to long ago events in the first case, or to random chance events, in the second.

    So, both conceptions of how the world wags don’t help us understand this notion of free will – because, in either case, you can’t get behind events to determine the physical reality of what ‘is’ or behind the conditions that determine how you ‘are’ which it turn will inform what you ‘do’ in any given situation.

    So, pragmatically, we can’t help but operate in any other wise than AS IF free will exists: that’s how we behave. We are not suddelnly going to abrogate moral responsibility for our own or others actions to this notion that we’re all helpless leaves “blowin in the wind,” and so we have to get to grips with what role the notion of free will is playing in our attributions of moral responsibility and in the way we think about and treat each other.

    No amount of determinism or indeterminism is going to do away with what it feels like to be in love, or to hate somebody, or to have your best friend die, or to resent your boss, or to cuddle a cat.

    I agree with you, it’s got a lot of baggage with it, that notion of free will.

  12. Greg Esres
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    “We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities”

    When someone like Nahmias defends free will, he tends to belabor the obvious as if discovering it were some great insight. Jeez, yes, we ALL know that human beings engage in decision-making. Why even bring that up? If that’s all you have to offer, why bother to write?

    Those who understand free-will to be an illusion also know that human beings engage in decision-making, so you can’t counter their arguments by bringing that up. This makes me think Nahmias doesn’t understand their arguments.

    • Aryeh
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      Agreed. It seems people enjoy playing semantic games instead of making any substantial statements. What is hilarious is that they are both correct when using their own definitions of “free will.” How wonderful!

  13. Bruce S. Springsteen
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    Any sufficiently complex capability of an organism — or other input/processing/output system — to detect, internally model, and react to external stimuli is indistingushable from free will. This is a practical definition, with apologies to Arthur Clark.

    On this account, the chess-playing program does have a kind of rudimentary free will, as does a motion detecting light switch. The freedom of will becomes a continuum from that demonstrated by microorganisms (very little) to average humans of modest means (much more) to gifted humans of prodigious means (even more still). Free will equates to degrees of freedom, the potential to respond to and influence the environment. Traditional notions of free will that seemed to rely on an absence of external or internal causality, or that hand-wavingly imagined an agent working uncaused within the machine, always were silly and self-negating. Free will is a term of convenience we use to describe our especially compex ability to react in varied ways to varied conditions. Does it have to be more complicated than that? Only when we start imposing confused moral notions on the problem. Ah, morality. There’s that definitional quagmire…

    • UB
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 7:37 am | Permalink

      This is the most sensible comment on this entire thread. So many of the “free will” discussions on this site just boil down to nonsensical word games IMO.

      • Microraptor
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

        Indeed. In most cases “free will” is so poorly defined that trying to argue whether or not it exists is impossible because there isn’t a coherent definition of it in the first place.

        Rather like the concept of the soul, now that I think about it.

        • Posted November 16, 2011 at 8:30 am | Permalink

          The very fact that free will is an incoherent concept unlikely to be easily salvaged (despite the efforts of Prof. Dennett and other compatabilists) is all the more reason to abandon the concept. It is simply unhelpful.

          • Posted November 16, 2011 at 8:31 am | Permalink

            Spelling correction: compatibilists

          • Microraptor
            Posted November 16, 2011 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

            Fine by me.

  14. Posted November 15, 2011 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    @ Philosophy Prof

    Why are you so sniffy about non specialists treading into philosophy? Just curious.

    It raises important social questions about how we treat each other that we all need to consider, don’t we?

  15. TJR
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    Good to see some definitions being given on this thread, as previous ones have often had people arguing at cross-purposes (IMHO).

    However, one thing isn’t quite clear in your definition. When you say “back to the moment a decision is made”, do you mean, referring to the previous paragraph, when it is originally “subconsciously” made, or when we become “consciously aware” of it?

  16. Sastra
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    “But philosophers, acting like theologians, say, “Wait! That definition was naive to begin with! Few modern philosophers adhere to that kind of dualism! Let me give you a more sophisticated definition of free will that does hold for humans.”

    Here’s a question for you: does your criticism also apply to the question of whether or not our lives have meaning without God?

    After all, it’s common for naive and simple people to assume that God gives human lives “meaning” — and is necessary for this. If there is no God, then our lives are pointless and purposeless and nothing we do matters — and thus we atheists contradict ourselves when we care about what happens and what we do. A universe without a Higher Power to firmly anchor our sense that there IS a meaning to life entails that our only proper and reasonable stance is one of depressed nihilism.

    But philosophers, acting like philosophers, say “Wait! That definition of “meaning” was naive to begin with! Few modern philosophers adhere to that kind of objectification of values! Let me show you a more sophisticated understanding of meaning and purpose that does hold for humans.”

    Meaning has to be anchored in the lives and values of individuals: it isn’t supposed to be interpreted from an objective cosmic perspective.

    Is that wrong of them?

    Jerry, I see this issue as you thinking like a theologian — and the philosophers being philosophers and bringing a large concept filled with ambiguity down to its secular roots. Compatibilism on free will is like compatibilism on meaning (“There is no cosmic purpose but human lives have meaning as long as they have meaning to ourselves.”)

    You seem to be arguing for libertarian free will as the only free will that matters the way believers argue that God-created meaning is the only meaning that matters. It’s more complicated than that.

    • Posted November 15, 2011 at 7:15 am | Permalink

      Eh, I don’t think I’d accuse Jerry of theologianism just yet. His position is defensible. It’s akin to accepting that the majority of Christians define their Christianity as the literalist one they believe in as opposed to the near-Deist version preached by the accommodationists.

      Essentially, we’re having a debate over definitions. Is “free will” only suited to the quasi-theological version of the phenomenon, or is it appropriate to appropriate it to the mental mechanism that actually underlies what people are pointing to when their fingers are aimed in that direction?

      It’s a toMAYto v toMAHto thing. I come down on the other side of the fence from Jerry, and I think you do, too, but it’s the use of language we disagree upon, not the fundamental description of reality.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Sastra
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 7:35 am | Permalink

        Ben Goren wrote:

        His position is defensible. It’s akin to accepting that the majority of Christians define their Christianity as the literalist one they believe in as opposed to the near-Deist version preached by the accommodationists.

        No, I don’t think this issue is analogous to that one, because “free will” is not a religious concept to begin with. Greek philosophers argued over it.

        Christians get to define the tenets of their Christianity but they don’t get to define secular concepts which would apply to all people, believers or not. What it means to exercise a “real” choice isn’t limited to radical agent-causation. “Free will” as a term is basically descriptive of what we feel: different theories try to explain it.

        I think the situation here could be compared instead to the argument over gay marriage. One side is insisting that marriage is only real if it’s grounded in the authority of a Higher Power. I see Jerry then as being like someone agreeing that sure, since marriage is a religious rite then only religious people could be “married” and since there is no God nobody is. It’s all just the illusion of marriage so let’s throw out the word and use something else. He’s conceding too much ground.

        • physicalist
          Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:09 am | Permalink

          Jerry, listen to Sastra. She’s right.

      • Peter
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

        You’re being way too generous to Jerry. He has claimed in several of his free will posts that that we don’t have free will and we should all be depressed and anguished about that (but he manages to live with it by basically not dwelling on it). So to him, compatibilist accounts of free will presumably do not describe a free will worth wanting.

        Besides, even if the problem is that free-will is a quasi-religious concept, *choice* is not at all, and yet Jerry keeps insisting we don’t really make choices, either.

  17. Ray Moscow
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    I also wish educated people would drop this notion of ‘free will’. Unless we’ve got physics, chemistry, neurobiology, etc. completely wrong, ‘free will’ is nonsense.

    What Nahmias describes as ‘free will’ is just a more sophisticated way of thinking that we might hope will result in better, more rational actions than simply acting on impulse. But neither sophisticated reasoning nor impulse are ‘free': both are slaves to the brain’s structure and history.

    • Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      Yip, we’ve largely got neurobiology wrong or have it too simple. We still no hardly anything about how the brain works and how behaviour arises from it. This is why people can get away with simplistic intuitive interpretations of “free will” experiments.

  18. bryan elliott
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    I don’t actually agree with your definition of free will, and never have, given that it’s absurd: You can’t go back in time.

    If you take dualism out of the picture, it makes no difference to me that I’m “slaved” to my physics – I AM the physical processes that make up my brain and body. A statement that I’m slaved to them is, essentially, a statement that I’m enslaved by myself.

    • Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      That’s a silly criticism – as if all counterfactuals were absurd because they involve reasoning about what could have been instead of what was. If I had chosen to go to the store yesterday, could I have bought more detergent? Yes. Nothing absurd about that question.

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      I agree, and the problem of recreating an event precisely is due to deterministic chaos (and to a lesser degree quantum effects).

      Ultimately this, I see from Tim Martin named “counterfactuals”, isn’t an empirical tool. So meaningless to adjudicate empirical questions with, here neurobiology vs folk biology descriptions.

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      Ah, maybe I misunderstood, “counterfactuals” seem to mean possible pathways (or outcomes) at the time. Not quite the same as replay.

  19. Matthias
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    Well put, Jerry. I couldn’t agree more with you. The parallels in evasive rationalization between believers in god and believers in free will are pretty obvious, too.

    Having listened to a RadioLab show on loops a while back, a neurological syndrome called “transient global amnesia” comes pretty close to an actual rewinding of reality if you provide for an approximately constant environment. Here’s the link to the show where a woman’s brain is literally reset every 90 seconds: http://www.radiolab.org/2011/oct/04/ The TGA story is about 10 minutes long and starts at 00:07. It is a fascinating example of this
    “same input => same output” behavior (and it is really, really striking just how stable this output generation is) that supporters of a free will just seem to not want to hear about.

  20. Dave
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    The whole idea that we are “slaves” to the chemistry and biology assumes that “we” are somehow separate from the brain.

    I think Nahmias is actually trying to agree with you, Jerry: there is no ghost in the machine. Your disagreement with him may only be over the term “free will.” Which is a pretty silly reason to argue.

    People want to think they are responsible for their actions. The idea of “free will” was a way of giving them that. But it was always a mirage. Recent discoveries in neuroscience are disposing of that mirage, but not of our desire for responsibility for our actions.

    So what if there is brain activity before we decide, Nahmias is saying— we can reflect on and correct those decisions later, at the post-conscious level, as we all do every day. And be held accountable for what we actually end up doing. Society needs that.

    The idea of consciousness as the “self” is the error at the root of the free-will/determinism debate. What we are learning is that our decision making process is largely unknown to us. I don’t see why that should remove our responsibility for our actions (call it free will or not, I don’t care).

  21. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    rather than our quite miraculous brains

    By which hopefully he means, “really really impressive in a way that does not actually involve violation of the laws of nature; i.e. miraculous in a nonmiraculous way.”

  22. Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    “If free will as most people understand it rests on a misconception, then correcting that misconception eliminates the common notion of free will.”

    Yes, the libertarian, contra-causal conception.

    “What is *not* justified under my scheme is the notion of punishment as retribution.”

    Music to my ears! http://www.naturalism.org/criminal.htm

    “We can’t control our actions, for crying out loud, because there is no ‘we’ there that can override the laws of physics.”

    Disagree. We can distinguish between the person (brain and body) and the actions that the person engages in. Most of the time these actions are controlled by the person in accordance with their motives, desires, plans, inclinations, etc. This all happens consistent with the laws of physics, but those laws don’t explain the actions, nor do they eliminate the person as an identifiable (albeit fully determined) locus of control, a perfectly real causer of effects in their own right.

    Btw, in his article, Nahmias ignores the libertarian, contra-causal intuitions among the folk that have been found in experimental philosophy studies. As science erodes these intuitions it might have an impact on our responsibility practices, for instance move us away from retribution. Details at http://community.nytimes.com/comments/opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/13/is-neuroscience-the-death-of-free-will/?permid=53#comment53

    • Greg Esres
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:57 am | Permalink

      “Most of the time these actions are controlled by the person in accordance with their motives, desires, plans, inclinations, etc.”

      But those motivates, desires, and inclinations are themselves caused.

      Your comment demonstrates the same equivocation that Nahmias and most philosophers do about what “we” means. Although there is something inside of us that chooses (duh), our chooser is constructed by forces outside of our conscious control. These are two different levels of explanation, and you can’t argue against one by defending the other.

      • Rory
        Posted November 16, 2011 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

        “But those motivates, desires, and inclinations are themselves caused.”

        Agreed, but I have trouble seeing why this should make much of a difference, as there is no coherent alternative. If I *could* choose my motives, desires and inclinations, on what basis would I make that choice except for other motives, desires, and inclinations? Or if I could act contrary to my volitional states, what sort of value would that action have?

        As Dennett put it, we need to articulate “a free will worth wanting.” I think the compatibilists give us the best approach to that.

        • Posted November 17, 2011 at 9:42 am | Permalink

          What’s a “volitional state” other than just silly self-talk and social signalling — epiphenomenal?

    • Lyndon
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      Tom,

      I find this statement to be a problem:

      “This all happens consistent with the laws of physics, but those laws don’t explain the actions,”

      Don’t we have to accept that the action is fixed by laws, even if those laws are ones that our current science have not tapped into yet? You could be strict and say that the laws involved in this case, and in the case of much of human activity, are not “physical,” or are not going to look like the current laws of physics; and instead they may be laws of chemistry or biology or psychology (I think this kind of separation is misplaced). But whatever kind of laws they are, surely those laws are what are determining the behavior, and the laws of brain properties or information property (again if we wish to separate them from “physics”) will surely be as “determinative” of actions as the laws of physics; that those laws will explain the actions, and that those laws are the totality of explanation “of the action.”

      Going to the Chess Computer (which should have been the end to all these questions): us claiming that Chess Computer “acted” not because of her programming, and the laws of such, but instead because of Chess Computer’s desire to win or because of Chess Computer’s “choice” to make a move, is empty. And the same is said for human being (computers). A human’s “action,” whether in a chess game or whether they choose to rob the liquor store or not, are “actions” following laws that explain those actions in those actions totality- there is not some action that rests outside of sciences purview, or the laws thereof, even if our brain science cannot explain human programming and their actions like it can the computer’s.

      • Posted November 15, 2011 at 9:55 am | Permalink

        Sorry, what I meant was that the laws of physics don’t allow us to perspicaciously explain the action *as an action*, since they are at the wrong level of explanation. I didn’t mean to suggest that actions aren’t determined by laws at whatever levels we might consider, in fact I made sure to say that the person is a *fully determined* locus of control.

        The common mistake I see Jerry and many others make is to suppose that because human agents are fully determined, they cease to exist as real entities that have real effects on the world. We are just as real as the factors that cause us, http://www.naturalism.org/demoralization.htm

        • Lyndon
          Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:24 am | Permalink

          Tom,

          I was trying to hint at it, but I do think there is a problem in our separating out of levels of sciences, and that causes problems in our our conceptualizations- but for another day.

          I think humans have always glorified human beings in a problematic way that is still very much with us. To accept, for instance that human “choice” is working in a similar fashion to “Chess Computer’s” “choice” does change how we view the “entity” of humans. People do not deny that the programming of the Chess Computer and the current situation that computer finds herself in is fully determining the choice the computer makes. I think hardly anyone, including Jerry, are saying that humans do not at least do what Chess Computer does when she or they “choose” a move; I feel like your focusing on the idea that humans are “real entitities” with real “agency” is encouraging people to think about the ontology of human choice making as on a different level than “Chess Computer’s” choice making. Accepting that human choice making is of at least a similar fashion to “Chess Computer’s” is the key to placing human properties in their proper sphere.

          • Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:58 am | Permalink

            At Naturalism.Org I’ve long promoted the view that human beings are (likely) fully determined in their behavior, and tried to bring out the progressive implications of that understanding, such as abjuring retribution. However, Jerry’s error of supposing we don’t control our behavior or make decisions needs correction – it wrongly equates determinism with eliminativism about personhood and agency.

            Here’s Gary Drescher in Good and Real making this point:

            “Thus choice…is a mechanical process compatible with determinism: choice is a process of examining assertions about what would be the case if this or that action were taken, and then selecting an action according to a preference about what would be the case. The objection ‘The agent didn’t really make a choice, because the outcome was already predetermined’ is as much a non sequitur as the objection ‘The motor didn’t really exert force, because the outcome was already predetermined’…Both choice making and motor spinning are particular kinds of mechanical processes. In neither case does the predetermination of the outcome imply that the process didn’t really take place.” (p. 192, original italics)

            http://www.naturalism.org/reviews.htm#Drescher

            • Lyndon
              Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

              Tom,

              Jerry accepts we control our behavior and make decisions, but no more so, or of a different kind, than that of a computer playing chess that “makes decisions” (moves) and “controls its behavior” (it yearns to win).

              Do you think humans make choices of a different scale or kind than of a chess computer or of the Watson computer on jeapordy? I claim that we, at this time, make more complex choices (maybe not in chess or on some factual structures) than computers but there is no reason to think those more complex choices are of a different order than computers. Do you think it is useful to retain the term “choice” only for humans? Do you think humans have a different kind of “agency” than computers will have in, say, 200 years?

              Tom, I have been a long time reader (well three years but that is when I started heavily getting into philosophy and naturalism etc.) and agree with 97% of what you have written and linked to at naturalism.org, and thank you for all the work you have done there.

              Best,
              Lyndon

              • Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

                As Drescher points out, choice-making is mechanistic and deterministic, whatever the level of complexity of the agent we’re dealing with – chess machine, human, or future AI. We’re in agreement about this I think.

                Just to remind you of what Jerry said:

                “We can’t control our actions, for crying out loud, because there is no ‘we’ there that can override the laws of physics.”

                As fully determined organic cybernetic mechanisms, we ordinarily control our behavior in service to our fully determined desires, goals, motives, etc. We don’t need to override the laws of physics to exert control. Sometimes we lose control as our output mechanisms degrade or get damaged. Seems to me talk of controlling our actions is perfectly legitimate, just as we might talk about any sort of cybernetic control system.

        • Greg Esres
          Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

          “The common mistake I see Jerry and many others make is to suppose that because human agents are fully determined, they cease to exist as real entities that have real effects on the world. ”

          Jerry doesn’t make that mistake, even ignoring the fact that “real entities” has no clear meaning.

          • Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:45 am | Permalink

            We have to factor in the probability that our, mainly American, hyper-notion of the individual as a basis for behavior driving is way oversold.

            Like with other social species, there really is no individual or individual behavior outside or independent of the group setting. Bacteria and social insects are a great place to start.

      • dieter
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

        “Going to the Chess Computer (which should have been the end to all these questions): us claiming that Chess Computer “acted” not because of her programming, and the laws of such, but instead because of Chess Computer’s desire to win or because of Chess Computer’s “choice” to make a move, is empty.”

        I disagree. We have to distinguish between an expert system that simply applies pre-defined rules of expert knowledge and machine learning. In the latter case, it is the machine that choses which moves to make and the programmer taught the machine only how to learn, not how to move.

        • Lyndon
          Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

          I agree and I should have made that distinction.

          Still, when the “self-programming” machine (humans mostly) makes a choice and then re-programs itself based on that choice and the environmental outcomes that it receives from that choice, this process does not carry us to a different order (or power) of choice and decision making than (non-learning) computers.

          I just re-read part of the “Scientist in the Crib” by Gopnik, et al, that focuses on this capacity for humans, and that states these processes well. It is this kind of power of self-programming in humans that we are no where close to duplicating in computers (I assume). These processes of updating ones-self does not grant us some extra capacity of control as our brain/self sits in a single specific environmental situation and responds to that situation, however.

  23. Jeff Johnson
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    I agree that duality is wrong. There is no God-Magic that can override the laws of nature.

    However, does materialism really imply determinism? Certainly not in terms of predictability, as we have learned from the chaotic behavior of complex dynamical systems.

    We can not predict the behavior of complex systems the way we can predict the movement of our car in response to tiny movements of the steering wheel. Complexity of systems can mean, in the car analogy, that an angstrom’s difference in steering wheel positions could mean the difference between veering left or flying upward in a reverse loop. And another angstrom could change the behavior to a pinwheel or corkscrew rotation of some kind.

    The nineteenth century clockwork view of the universe as predictable has been seriously challenged by quantum theory and chaos theory.

    Newton’s laws were first order approximations to natural reality, as we learned after General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics were developed and understood. But our current physics may only be a second order approximation.

    That we can’t predict the moment of nuclear decay or the path of an electron or photon through a diffraction grating means one of two things: either there is something deterministic in an underlying physics we don’t yet understand, or the underlying material reality really is fuzzy and probabilistic and our reliable conservation principles are really just approximations that work on a macro-level only.

    If we assume for a moment that there is some sensible way to make a division between the internal world of the mind, and the external world of influencing inputs, and we roll a metaphorical tape of the external world backwards, the state of the brain has “learned” and thus changed, and may decide differently.

    This “plasticity” of the mind may be key in allowing consciousness to arise from a material system. It could be that the brain’s unconscious computation can simulate or estimate many possible results at a frequency much higher than the changes in our external environment are occurring, so that viewed as a black box, which is how we view it, it is in some fundamental way uncoupled from a simple reactive mode with respect to external inputs.

    This of course only involves an apparent lack of determinism, yet could make predictability in some important sense impossible.

    There are many opportunities for apparent lack of determinism in complex multi-threaded computer systems. A parallel processing system responsible for computing and queueing thousands of independent results will not always queue them in the same order. This again is only an apparent effect, caused by other processes external to the computation in question, that compete for resources in the same system and thus can change the duration required to complete individual tasks required to complete the whole process.

    This represents some kind of emergent behavior that is linke to the underlying complexity of the system.

    We don’t yet really understand exactly what enables the phenomenon of self-awareness we call consciousness, and how this type of computing differs from what occurs in our electronic devices. We don’t really know how many orders of complexity beyond known information processing models that our brain actually operates.

    Until these things are better understood, it feels to me like the free-will vs. determinism argument is a bit like the nature vs. nurture argument. Defending mind-body duality is as silly as suggesting that human behavior is determined by a soul entering the embryo. So the classic view of free-will is just a noisy distraction from the real issues.

    However, it seems that there remains a lot of territory between deterministic and non-deterministic that has yet to be fully explored, and that there is a lot of play between the fixed physical laws and the capacity of information structures and processing to creatively generate behaviors which appear to be uncoupled from the constraints of physical determinism. This of course may only be an apparent decision making capability, but I think that until we truly understand the nature of consciousness, we can’t know for sure whether a true decision making ability might emerge from the computational complexity of our mind.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink

      However, does materialism really imply determinism? Certainly not in terms of predictability…

      Fine, quantum mechanics allows for some randomness. Is that what people mean by “Free Will” – randomness? I don’t think so.

      • gr8hands
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 9:52 am | Permalink

        You are confusing the inability to pin down exact location with randomness.

        Like Sam Harris points out, there is an exact number of birds in flight around the earth at any one time — but it is highly unlikely that technology will ever be able to give us that exact number any time soon. It isn’t a random, or unknowable number, but it also doesn’t appear to be a knowable number either.

      • Jeff
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink

        I agree with what you say here.

        It doesn’t appear you read the entire post carefully, or that you have responded to the main points.

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      However, does materialism really imply determinism? Certainly not in terms of predictability, as we have learned from the chaotic behavior of complex dynamical systems.

      These classical systems are actually deterministic, which is exactly why they can behave unpredictably, more so than quantum systems. (Exponential vs linear divergence.)

      The problem is that we can’t define the necessary infinite precision resolution required for predictivity (or recreation, as Jerry want to have), with local finite resources.

  24. Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    Can you link to this study where the decision was recorded ten seconds in advance?

    • Duncan
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:42 am | Permalink

      +1

  25. Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    ‘At what point does the complexity of input constitute a form of “free will”? To me it seems totally arbitrary.’

    That’s because it’s a vague term. Sometimes we abandon vague terms. Sometimes we redefine them.

    ‘Yes, humans can weigh factors in a way that rotifers can’t, but if the course of action is predetermined in both cases, in what meaningful sense do we have free will but rotifers don’t?’

    Human courses of action depend in part on what those humans think and say. Some of those thoughts are more free or willy than others, therefore “free will” might be a useful term in their deliberations.

    ‘My response to this is: “the truth is the truth, and if knowing it affects our behavior in undesirable ways, then we simply have to deal with that.”’

    Nahmias’s article was probably part of his way of dealing with it.

    ‘We can still have the idea of responsibility under my definition of free will, but simply have to re-conceptualize what it means.’

    Then why not re-conceptualize what “free will” means? It seems like you’re singling out that one term.

    ‘What is not justified under my scheme is the notion of punishment as retribution.’

    Except for people with social contracts.

    ‘A kid who holds up a liquor store with a gun is no more “responsible” for his actions—in the sense of being able to freely refrain from them—than is someone with a brain tumor who becomes aggressive and attacks another person. The only difference is that the physical influences on behavior are more obvious in the second case.’

    No, the second case also lacks a working social contract. There’s a difference where “free will” might find practical use.

    Like all the philosophers who have failed to make the case for retaining their vague, materialistic version of “free will”, I think you haven’t made a sufficient case for abandoning it. A lot of useful terms are vague and materialistic. You could be more specific about why “free will” doesn’t make the cut, but vague, imprecise words do, such as “planet”, “life”, “responsibility”, “position and momentum”, or “solid matter”.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

      Well said

  26. FreedToChoose
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    This ongoing discussion has been very helpful. As a subscriber to the idea of having free will, but not TUFW, Total Unconditional Free Will, I have invented a new term BFW, Bounded Free Will, meaning that we have an ability to choose (or not) limited by our comprehension (as Jaspers describes it). Just as I still use the term, god, to relate to the transcendent (Einstein’s impenetrable) I use free will to identify my freedom, within limits, to choose.

    That said, I agree that TUFW is highly unlikely, but then, there’s Damasio’s commentary on neuro-singularities which makes me wonder…

  27. Nicolas Perrault
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    In the real world freewill doesn’t exist any more than the set of real numbers. After all no one has ever seen a real number cross the street. The same goes for freewill. But both are concept that might be usefully utilized as a simplified (if imperfect) representation of reality. The usefulness of a concept may remain even if it can be shown that the concept is not literally true. For example we know that absolute time and space do not exist. Nonetheless, Newtonian mechanics remains a useful simplification of reality even if we know it isn’t true.

  28. physicalist
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    Jerry, we’ve been through much of this before (see here if you’re interested), but it’s worth making two quick points:

    1. “I find it curious that philosophers don’t simply abandon the term “free will” because of its heavy historical baggage involving dualism and souls. Why do they keep redefining the term?

    The compatibilist notion of freedom goes back at least to Aristotle. This isn’t some new position that’s been cooked up to deal with contemporary materialism. It’s been around for as long as people have been wondering what “free will” is.

    Your suggestion that this is post-hoc rationalization/protectionism is simply wrong on the history.

    2. ““What he doesn’t seem to realize is that we haven’t defined it out of existence, but rather science has shown that earlier “dualistic” views of free will, in which a spirit overrules matter, are simply wrong.”

    I take it this is precisely the point that Nahmias is making. Science also showed that earlier geocentrist views of the Earth and the Heavens are simply wrong.

    The question is, what do we do when we find out that some of our previous beliefs were false? Do we retool our concepts so they’re still useful (e.g., treat Earth as an object rather than just as a stuff that accumulates at the center of the universe), or do we decide to just toss out the old concept (and declare that “earth” doesn’t actually exist — and neither do “planets” — instead all we have are Newtonian bodies in the solar system)?

    Of course, we can refuse to retool our concepts, but (a) it’s pragmatically not the best way to go, and (b) if you do insist on the elimination route, you better make sure that you extract from the old concept all of features that still do accurately refer to the world. So for example, you better not say things like “Since there is no earth, there’s obviously nothing for us to stand on.”

    (And it seems to me that this is what you’re doing when you say that because there’s no libertarian freedom, there is no “real” choice, and so no “real” moral responsibility.)

    Finally, I think it might help if you just forced yourself to never speak of “free will” without appending either “libertarian/metaphysical/contra-causal” or “compatibilist” to the front of the term. You’re never allowed to use the adjective “real” in this context. Then 95% of the debate is done.

    • physicalist
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:39 am | Permalink

      Hmm, checked that link before submitting. Trying again: “here“.

    • Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      I like what you say here. My question is “what is the use of the concept of free will (as Nahmias defines it)?”

      First of all, I like to keep reminding others, and myself, that we’re all agreed on the physics here. When the environment acts as an input to my brain, and my brain does a calculation, and then produces an output, it’s exactly the same as when I break a rack of billiard balls – in the sense that the final outcome is completely determined by the initial setup (+ or – quantum stochasticity), and there’s nothing anybody can do to change that. So we’re just talking about cause and effect here.

      So free will is the name some people want to give to a special type of cause and effect, wherein computers can make decisions based on what they predict will happen in the future. The question is, why do we need a name for this particular case?

      It seems to me that we don’t. Or that the only reason people have supported its use so far is that they have some emotional baggage attached to the term “free will” and they want to say they have it. This is why people such as Nahmias will always talk about how humans have free will, but they’ll conveniently leave out the part where Deep Blue has it too. I could be wrong, but these people don’t seem interested in giving a name to this particular phenomenon because the name is useful; they seem interested in doing it because they want to feel special.

      Again, to anyone who wants to use Nahmias’ definition of free will, I would ask “What is the benefit of having a label for this specific type of ability?”

      • physicalist
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

        ““what is the use of the concept of free will (as Nahmias defines it)?”

        We need to distinguish between cases where someone does something because she *wants* to and cases where someone does something *despite* her desires.

        This for at least two reasons:

        1) When someone acts freely (in the compatibilist sense), then the act is the sort of behavior that we can modify through punishment, reward, educations, etc.

        Unfree acts (in the compatibilist sense) are immune to these sorts of influences. If someone does something by accident, or because she was coerced, then it’s foolish to punish her, in hopes of preventing similar behavior in the future.

        2) When someone’s action was caused by her desires, beliefs, character, etc. — and was the outcome of deliberation — then we hold the person morally responsible for the action.

        This is, of course, related to the first point. (See here for more, if you’re interested.)

        • Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

          First off, I have no idea what it means to hold someone morally responsible for an action! Seriously, I’m not just being difficult. Take the fact that given your genes, your upbringing, and your environment, you were always going to choose to steal that car, what does it mean to say you are “morally responsible” for stealing it?

          On to your response as a whole- it still seems like there is an undue amount of celebration in arguments like Nahmias’ or Dennett’s. “We have free will! Hooray!” Imagine what discussions about our choices would be like without this term:

          Were you forced to give birth to the child?
          No, of course not. I wasn’t forced.
          So you chose to keep him?
          Yes. Well, I was under a bit of pressure from my parents.
          So without that pressure you might have chosen differently?
          It’s possible. I mean I was leaning towards keeping the child either way, but my parents urgings did factor in.

          This entire conversation can take place without using the term “free will.” In fact, I would estimate that most do. When a man says that the robber pointed a gun to his head and “made” him take the money, we know exactly what he means – that he made a choice to take the money under strong coercion. There is no confusion here about the causal relationship between the events that took place. Could we modify the man’s behavior? Sure, make him unafraid of death (say, using religion, or clinical depression), or make him really averse to doing the thing he was coerced to do (for example, if he had been asked to torture a baby). Do this, and the man might have made a different choice.

          So where is the scenario in which we need to use the words “free will” to have a discussion about this?

        • physicalist
          Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

          “This entire conversation can take place without using the term “free will.”

          I agree, and I think most everyone else will to. We’re not forced to use the term — just like we’re not forced to use terms like “marriage” or “meaningful life” (to use Sastra’s above examples).

          But what we do need to do is make a distinction between actions that are done voluntarily and those that are not. And we compatibilists claim that this is the core of what people are getting at when they insist that free will is a necessary requirement of moral responsibility.

          [W]hat does it mean to say you are “morally responsible” for stealing it?

          I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking. Are you really asking about the meaning of the phrase, or are you just asking how we justify the claim that people are sometimes morally responsible in a deterministic world?

          I’d have thought the meaning was more or less obvious: To be morally responsible is to say that a moral evaluation is appropriate. If someone is morally responsible for an action, then it is proper to blame or praise the person. If the person is not responsible (e.g., if someone else did it, or it was an unavoidable accident), then it’s improper to attach moral values to the act.

          If one believes that punishment (or reward) is sometimes warranted by desert (i.e., because someone *deserves* something), then this will obviously be tied to moral responsibility.

          If you’re asking how one can believe that people are sometimes morally responsible in a deterministic world, on the other hand, then we need to go through the compatibilist account of freedom and responsibility.

          In short, the key idea is that even though everything is determined, there are important distinctions that can be made between various deterministic processes. Some such processes involve the deliberation of a rational agent, who has certain commitments, character, and desires, and who deliberately acts on those commitments and desires.

          The compatibilist claims that such acts are free, and that the agent is morally responsible for them. Such acts are to be contrasted with doing something by accident or under coercion (which is not a case of acting freely). And the compatibilist will argue that these commitments are at the core of our everyday evaluations of moral responsibility.

          • Posted November 15, 2011 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

            I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking. Are you really asking about the meaning of the phrase

            Yes. And I don’t have any strong objections to your answer… but the thing that bothers me about something being blameworthy or praiseworthy is this: The more we see a person’s choices as being a result of non-personal causes (such as their genes, or upbringing, or whatever), the less moral responsibility we attribute to them. For example, people who do horrible things sometimes have had equally horrible childhoods, and this mitigates the amount of moral condemnation we put on them. Jail sentencing is sometimes more lenient because of such mitigating circumstances. We can take this to an extreme example if we think about the fact that all sociopaths seem to suffer from an inability to feel empathy – this means, most likely, that if you or I were born without that ability, we would be sociopaths as well! These considerations short-circuit our intuitions about moral responsibility, because our intuitions seem to be based on the idea that if a person could not have done otherwise, they were not guilty. But when you have a great enough understanding of the causes behind a person’s actions, you realize that no person could have done otherwise!

            So what do we do about this? Do we just continue to put blame on people for their bad behaviors because it works and we’ve always done it that way? Or is there a better way to structure our society and our personal interactions – perhaps one that acknowledges, yes, you weren’t strong enough to inhibit your desire to steal that car, but we can’t have you stealing cars, and so you must learn to inhibit that desire in the future, and we as a society will come up with ways to make a positive outcome more inevitable than it was in the past?

  29. Myron
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    “Behind the whole compatibilist enterprise lies the valid and important insight that, from one centrally important point of view, freedom is nothing more than a matter of being able to do what one wants or chooses or decides or thinks right or best to do, given one’s character, desires, values, beliefs (moral or otherwise), circumstances, and so on. Generally speaking, we have this freedom. Determinism does not affect it at all, and it has nothing whatever to do with any supposed sort of ultimate self-determination, or any particular power to determine what one’s character, desires, and so on will be. It is true that the fact that we generally have this freedom provides no support for the idea that we are or can be ‘truly’ self-determining in the way that still appears to be necessary for true responsibility. But we can indeed be self-determining in the compatibilist sense of being able by our own action, and in the light of our necessarily non-self-determined characters and desires, to determine to a very considerable extent what happens to us.
    Compatibilists who stress this point have a powerful question to ask: ‘What else could one possibly suppose, or reflectively require, that freedom could or should be, other than this?’ But the old incompatibilist answer remains. This account of freedom does nothing to establish that we are truly responsible for our actions,nor, in particular, to establish that we are or can be truly morally responsible for our actions, in the ordinary, strong, desert-entailing sense.”

    (Strawson, Galen. Freedom and Belief. Rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. p. 94)

  30. Posted November 15, 2011 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Philosophy is a dead language as far as saying anything predictive is concerned.

    This is a very triggering fact for pretty much everyone, especially in the US, where uber-ego-driven control at all times is the (silly) belief.

    This is the topic that got us kicked off of the fake-freethinkers, Eric MacDonald’s, website CHOICE IN DYING.

    He and his echo-chamber posse, go their knickers in a twist when we asked the simple questions — If free will is so ubiquitous and powerful:
    – Why can’t we find it in the brain easily?
    – Why have we easily found evidence against?
    – Why don’t other species have it?

    Eric MacDonald censored our comments and banned us from his site because those questions he tagged as “uncivil.” And so they are – for ideologues.

    • gr8hands
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      sleeprunning, what evidence do you have that other species don’t have free will?

      Seriously.

      Found “evidence against” it? Really? I think the jury is out on that, as various posters here can attest.

      The various tests about making decisions can easily be invalidated by watching someone play a video game — they are making conscious decisions and actions way faster than the so-called tests say the subconscious “decisions” are made ahead of time.

      Why can’t we find it in the brain easily? Well, let’s see . . . we all know the brain is solid/liquid, but we can’t seem to nail down where this ‘solid’ or ‘liquid’ thing exists. The closer we go, the less ‘solid’ or ‘liquid’ it is.

      • Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:38 am | Permalink

        OK, how would animal consciousness be measured and described?

        “play a video game — they are making conscious decisions and actions way faster than the so-called tests say the subconscious “decisions” are made ahead of time.” Huh? So every move a video game, or any game player makes is verbally/consciously processed ahead of time?! That’s silly.

        Try this — pick an animal. Right now. How was that conscious choice made?

        The commentators here ain’t neuroscientists. Look if consciousness were so pervasive, it would be pretty obvious in all the brain research that’s being done — to the contrary.

        • gr8hands
          Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

          Actually, sleeprunning, some commenters here are neuroscientists.

          As for your “pick an animal” question — I guarantee you that I did so far faster than the “test” says is possible, which invalidates its conclusions.

          I didn’t say “every move” — but you made my point for me. The ‘test’ says that all your decisions are pre-decided some time before you consciously decide, which is silly. Thank you for agreeing with me.

          Everyone seems to agree that “gravity” is everywhere — yet, where is it? No gravitons have been detected. No particles visible. Yet it is “so pervasive.”

          • Tim Harris
            Posted November 15, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

            I shouldn’t worry too much about sleeprunning: he can’t help himself, and he can tell you why.

  31. Lyndon
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Well said, Jerry.

    The problem for most compatibilist (and many philosophers) is taking an individual as an already given entity with certain desires, certain characteristics, a certain brain structure. If we ask pointed questions about the structure of any individual’s brain at a given time, and we start analyzing the genetic and environmental determinations of that brain, and we ask pointed questions about how we could have socialized/educated this brain differently; or how we could have used brain surgery or genetic manipulation or drugs to help “better” this individual; or we examine social structures and institutions, e.g. drug policy, poverty and economic structures, support of strong families, etc.: then the isolating of this individual as a given entity out from all of these other factors (a product of our Individualism and Liberalism and Enlightenment, sad to say), will be seen as problematic. We will see that sweeping accusations such as Moral Responsibility can be structured and thought of in radically different ways, in ways that can build better individuals and societies, and that do justice to what our best ontology and science says exists. And this is not to advocate for a dangerous program of interference into personal lives, but such necessary political protections should not be infecting our philosophical thoughts about what it means to be human and the properties that human beings have.

  32. Posted November 15, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    “…Philosophers don’t like that notion—the idea that we’re all puppets on the strings of physics…”

    Only PHILOSOPHERS don’t “like” that notion???

    Who DOES like the notion that we merely faithfully twitch the dance at the end of a long chain of rigorously mechanical causality to a tune determined (ultimately, if there be no uncoupling ever of strict rigorously mechanical determinism) by the initial conditions of the universe billions of years ago, so that we are NOT (therefore) actually earners of any genuine praise or blame in any sense for our twitchings (all apparent warrant for credit or blame being an accident of birth) at the end of that long chain of causality?

    “…The free-will issue is exacerbated by recent studies showing that when we make “choices”—say, to press a button on the left or right side of a computer—the “decision” has already been recorded in our brain’s activity at least ten seconds before we’re conscious of having made a choice…”

    Yesterday a car in front of me suddenly slammed on its brakes, and I (sure seemed to have) made a quick decision on whether to veer to the left into possible oncoming traffic, brake yet nonetheless smash into the back of that car, or veer to the right off the road and maybe encounter serious unmovable obstructions that I could not see at the moment, and I (sure think I) decided to veer right, and I ran off the road missing the braking car, and fortunately I did not encounter any objects before coming to a stop.

    I thought (and I do remember thinking these) “left, strike, or right” and then veered right, passing the braking car on it’s right without contacting it perhaps 3, maybe 4 (5 at the most) seconds after I first became consciously aware that the other driver had applied full brakes ahead of me. Was that decision and action that implemented my decision to veer to the right REALLY recorded in my brain’s activity 10 seconds before I “made” it (which would have been even before the driver in front of me hit his brakes to begin with)?

    And despite the realism with which I (think I) recall it, do I REALLY “decide” to hit and return the ping-pong ball to my opponent’s left (or right, or straight at him) ten+ seconds before my opponent hit the ball towards my side of the table? It sure seems to me that a table tennis game proceeds much more rapidly than that, and that I think about and decide (most if not all) how and towards where I strike me returns.

    “…My response to this is: “the truth is the truth, and if knowing it affects our behavior in undesirable ways, then we simply have to deal with that….”

    If everything we “decide” is actually rigorously mechanically (pre)determined and is not actually a genuine DECISION, in what sense does anyone actually “deal” with ANYthing???

    • gr8hands
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

      Excellent points.

    • Lyndon
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:09 am | Permalink

      Alex Rosenberg proclaims a “nice nihilism” in The Atheist’s Guide to Reality that accepts all these things and says that we can get along without them and be better for it- a good read.

      But of course he also says a little Prozac can help us overcome our psychological instabilities if they become too great because of these answers.

      • Llwddythlw
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:50 am | Permalink

        I’m reading Rosenberg’s book at the moment, and I would thoroughly recommend it to anybody on this site who hasn’t already read it. If you want a preview of the book (through discussions with the author), listen to the podcast interviews at (i) http://www.blogtalkradio.com/thinkatheist (episode 33) and (ii) http://www.americanfreethought.com/wordpress/2011/10/17/podcast-134-alex-rosenberg-the-atheists-guide-to-reality/ (podcast #134). There is some overlap between the podcasts, but Rosenberg does go through a lot of the material that he discusses at greater length in the book, and he makes some remarkably good points along the way. The recording quality on the first podcast isn’t great, and I found at times I had to replay sections before I could understand 100% of the words. Rosenberg goes in for very long sentences, but it’s worth going through them to the end, as invariably he has something pithy to say.

        • Llwddythlw
          Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:01 am | Permalink

          And his comment on the first blog about the fountain pen ceremony in “A Beautiful Mind” is hilarious.

  33. Michael Hansen
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Laplace’s determinism has been been replaced by chaos theory. The brain is complex, nonlinear and nondeterministic. Events would play out differently if one could “replay the tape” so there is free will.

    • physicalist
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      Chaos is compatible with (and typically presupposes) determinism. It does nothing to undermine Laplacian determinism, nor does complexity or nonlinearity.

      Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, does (at least as it’s standardly interpreted). But this is irrelevant for the question of free will.

    • Karl Withakay
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      If you think so, what is the explanation for why the decision played out the way it did?

      The events didn’t play out differently than they did, so with what do you support your assertion that not only could they play out differently, but they would if you replayed the tape?

      Do movies end differently each time you watch them?

  34. Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    One thing that rarely gets mentioned in these discussions of free will vs. determinism is Einstein’s theory of special relativity which, if true, implies that all future events are determined.

    http://www.kiekeben.com/relativistic.html

    Doesn’t this pretty much settle the issue without ever having to consider the nature of human will?

    • gr8hands
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      I would say that it is a misinterpretation of the theory, and doesn’t settle anything.

    • physicalist
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      Einstein’s theory of special relativity . . . implies that all future events are determined.

      No. Even if the future is a real as are spatially distant events, this tells us nothing about determinism. Objective quantum indeterminism is perfectly compatible with a “block universe” interpretation of relativity theory.

      • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

        A block universe is not compatible with the realistic Many World Theory, see Deutsch’s “The Fabric of Reality”.

        I think “objective” here refers to Copenhagen theories, which are non-local, due to attributing reality to observables between observation instead of the field, and hence breaks relativity. The presumed compatibility is then illusory.

        • physicalist
          Posted November 15, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

          Haven’t read Deutsch yet. I’m skeptical, but I’ll leave it at that until I’ve had a chance to look at the actual account.

          Yes, I almost mentioned the conflict between measurement collapse (or hidden variables) and relativity. But this is a different worry from the claim that the block universe implies determinism

    • Occam
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      http://xkcd.com/103/

  35. Karl Withakay
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Maybe I should have finished reading the post rather than composing a comment mid-read, because you said almost the exact same that I composed in WordPad while pausing mid post so the thought was fresh in my head:

    It seems like if you don’t think of punishment as retribution (or punishment for punishment’s sake) to get what you deserve and instead think of the purpose of punishment as primarily for the purpose of correction and protection of others to prevent the ability to harm others in the future pending or in lieu of correction, the problem with determinism in regard to responsibility for actions kind of goes away.

    Likewise, the purpose of credit and praise for positive achievement is to encourage the achiever to continue and to encourage others to try to follow the example rather than just praise for praise’s sake. This is entirely compatible with deterministic actions.

    We (as a society) do seem fixated on punishment as retribution; why else would we care if someone on death row committed suicide instead of getting executed? (obviously, you can be opposed to the death penalty itself, but what’s the big diff between suicide and execution?) Did Herman Georing really “cheat the executioner” by doing his job for him?

    Tag line on my blog: Observations from our shared single objective reality in a materialistic, naturalistic, & macro-deterministic universe.

  36. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    We can’t control our actions, for crying out loud, because there is no “we” there that can override the laws of physics.

    Once again you’re trying to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Our cognitive processes control our actions in the same way that software controls a computer. With different software, it would behave differently. Of course at bottom it’s all physics, but if you leap from there to the idea that the software is irrelevant and exerts no control, then you’re deeply confused about how computers (or brains) actually work.

    • Jeff
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      It seems like the brain has software that continually re-writes itself, perhaps at a frequency which rivals or exceeds the pace of changing events around us.

    • Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      The brain as computer metaphor needs to be retired. The traction it has gotten in pop circles is overwhelmed by the mis-perceptions is causes.

      For example, biology and our brains are analog – never digital.

      The software metaphor is specious.

    • Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      Right on Gregory, see comment 22.

  37. Bill
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    While I am inclined to accept Professor Coyne’s rejection of “responsibility”- I need some help here. Can someone take me through thescenario involving the kid witha gun outside of the liquor store. There must be contingency- he can go in and rob the store or he can refrain. How is the actual conduct that ensues “determined?”

    • Lyndon
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      Because if we start asking “Why?” she (his brain) decided to rob the store instead of refraining, we will start seeing determing factors. The “contingency” is in the prior environment and genes (as much as it is anywhere) that structured his brain at a certain time.

      We as outside observers place contingency on the situation, but we do it because we do not have the power to analyze the totality of this individual’s brain and how it will act given the environment she is in (standing in front of the well stocked liquor store).

      We say “she could have done otherwise” because we cannot understand all the causal factors for why this individual chose the way they did. But if we could read the structure of every neuron and know the properties of these structures, as outsiders we should really be saying things like: “If we had not raised this individual in poverty, his brain would have been structured so as to refrain”; or “If we had diagnosed her brain tumor, she would have refrained”; or “If this individual had seen the public hanging yesterday, she would have refrained (since her emotional fears would have argued strongly against her taking the chance).”

      Obviously I think there are better ways to encourage good social behavior than the last one, but there are endless factors that go into structuring the individual’s brain and hence the resulting behavior that will occur. There is no more openness to the choice of behavior of this individual than there is for any other structure in the world. What there is, is an inability for us to ascertain the structures of behavior, either from our first person point of view or from a scientific point of view (at this time). From this obscurity about why the event occurs, we as an “I” feel ourselves take our bodies in one way or another, and this gives the impression or the illusion of a radical power of control. But, accepting the scientific picture of the world, we have to accept that it is only illusion.

      • gr8hands
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

        Lyndon,

        You are making the same suggestion that Laplace did: “But if we could read the structure of every neuron and know the properties of these structures…”

        Except that it may be that you cannot have complete knowledge of all those things, much like we’ve discovered you can’t know both the location and vector of all the particles, making Laplace’s question moot.

    • gr8hands
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      Actually, if Dr. Coyne is correct, you can’t possibly “accept/reject” anything. You can’t make any kind of choices at all.

      “You” are merely a passive observer of what physics says is going to happen regardless of your perceptions — all the while experiencing everything AS IF you were making choices.

      This is, of course, incorrect. Much like someone deciding that because a wall is not actually solid, there is almost no matter whatsoever physically present, they can run right through it if they run at full speed, face first, into the wall. Reality will show them the inaccuracy of their belief, even though technically they are correct.

      It has to do with the emergent property of all those molecules being so close together in their particular configuration. At the micro level it is mostly empty space. At the macro level, it is a solid wall.

      At the micro level, we have electochemical processes. At the macro level, we have consciousness and free will. It isn’t really that difficult.

      Look at it this way: if you took away every 40th molecule that makes up the wall, would it still be a wall? Would it still be “solid”? How about every 30th? Every 10th? Every other molecule? At what point would it stop being a wall, stop being solid?

  38. dieter
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Let me take the battle to your own turf, Jerry.

    How do you, as a evolutionary biologist, account for the concepts “random mutation” and “selection”?

    Sexual selection in particular sounds like choice to me. If human deliberations about whether to procreate and who to procreate with should not be refered to as “free will” and “choice” then it it would follow that is even less justifiable to speak of “sexual selection” among peacocks.

    Please define the process of evolution without resorting to words and concepts that can be interpreted in to be in contradiction with determinism.

    • Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      So peacock chicks say to themselves, using internal self-talk and conscious weighing of options — “Hey nice tail, bet that guy makes great babies?”

      Here’s another flaw in the free will ideology — if any brains were designed so they had to think about every behavior, especially fight/flight/freeze/feed/chase mate — they wouldn’t and they’d be dead.

      The brain already uses 20%+ of the bodies energy just running the automatic functions to keep us alive. It does not have the time and energy to think about much — as human behavior amply attests.

      • dieter
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

        That’s why I wrote that the usage of the term “sexual selection” would be even less justifiable than “choice” or “free will”, according to Jerry’s own reasoning.

        If humans don’t really “select”, whether to marry the rich girl or the good looding one, then neither do peacocks. So the word “selection” should be banned from the evolutionists dictionary.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

          I think the usage of “selection” refers to nature doing the selecting, not the peacocks. And I think the word selection is not limited to meaning conscious choice. Industrial equipment is capable of selecting and sorting different grades or sizes of commodities.

          So you aren’t really pointing out a flaw in the idea of natural selection, but rather a simple ambiguity of language.

          • dieter
            Posted November 16, 2011 at 2:25 am | Permalink

            It’s not the peacock and the peafowl who choose each other, but “nature”? Who is “nature”? That sounds like dualism to me.

            Anyway, Jerry wants us to jettison the term “free will” because it is ambiguous and can be understood in ways that are incompatible with determinism and monoism. So yes, we are only talking about semantics here.

            And yes, I know that conscious choice is a more limited concept than is selection. But that strengthens my point. If Jerry takes objection to any utterance of the word “choice”, he should object to “selection” even more so.

            Btw., I’m agnostic about the question of consciousness in animals. That’s not a requirement for my argument. gr8hands took off on a tangent there.

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

          Agreed, the language of evolution needs to be rebuilt. It seems largely stuck in 19th Century positivist and racial ideology.

          “Selection” implies conscious intent, indeed. “Fitness” is also misleading. Apparently “descent” is more accurate than “evolution” but has far less marketing value.

          However, it does appear increased complexity is directional.

          We think it makes much more sense to talk about social control of behavior and not individual control.

          There simply isn’t the time and energy in our brains for much to be influenced by thought let alone language.

      • gr8hands
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

        sleeprunning, do you have any evidence that peacock chicks are NOT using some kind of internal weighing of options?

        You seem to be making sweeping statements about what animals. Where is your evidence to back it up?

        There is plenty of ongoing research into just how much cognitive capability animals have — the question has pretty much been put to rest that they do think. I suggest your information is behind the times. Here are some articles:

        http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=cognition+in+animals&hl=en&as_sdt=0&as_vis=1&oi=scholart

        Please provide the evidence to support your so-called “flaw.” You continue to make the mistake of making unsupported statements, which happen to be incorrect.

        • Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

          Something that does not have evidence to support it does not need evidence to disprove it.

          OK, so how does animal consciousness work?

          Cognitive capacity of course, don’t try a switcharoo. You are talking about purposeful consciousness in animals.

      • gr8hands
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

        sleeprunning, it is clear you did not follow the link I provided. There are many studies demonstrating that animals are thinking, have consciousness, and cognitive capabilities.

        Here’s another link, part of which shows apes outperforming humans on memory games: (Google “apes outperform humans on memory”)

        “OK, so how does animal consciousness work?” Since you’re an animal, it works just like your consciousness. Unless you’re a plant, or mineral.

        We have evidence of animals using their own language to convey complex information, such as crows which convey facial features of individual humans. (Google “crows facial recognition”)

        We know elephants communicate over great distances via subsonics — although we do not yet know what they are communicating. (Google “elephants communicate subsonics” and look at the link on the Translate blog) (this link also discusses the use of syntax by monkeys)

        Oh, here’s an article on monkeys demonstrating self-doubt: (Google “monkey shows self doubt”)

        I guess the person who keeps being demonstrated to be in error (that would be you) can be safely ignored.

        • Posted November 15, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

          So animals use language internal and external to evaluate possibilities and say, internally or externally, “I chose to do this.”

          Is this also true of bacteria and social insects?

          So you are attributing:
          – Any animal behavior to conscious choice
          – Mediated by their “language” “syntax”
          – Just like human consciousness and language use

          It’s the Dr. Dolittle theory of consciousness! lol

          • gr8hands
            Posted November 15, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

            sleeprunning, we know that social insects do communicate (some via pheremones, others via other means). What they communicate, we only guess at — like understanding the dance of bees, we are probably not comprehending 100% of what the bees themselves comprehend.

            I did not say “any” animal behavior is a conscious choice, any more than I’d say that “any” human behavior is a conscious choice.

            Please provide evidence that animals using language and syntax is somehow different from human language and syntax usage. Please provide evidence that animals using tools is somehow different from humans using tools. Please provide evidence that animal emotions are somehow different from human emotions.

            I think you are determined to think of humans as somehow different from animals. We ARE animals.

            • Jeff
              Posted November 15, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

              I suppose this dog, dragging another dog from the freeway to rescue it, was not really conscious but merely following some genetically programmed robotic instinct, like a spider spinning web.

              Perhaps it’s just naive of me, but it really appears that this dog had to have awareness that it was caring for another animal, that it was running a risk of being killed itself, and it had to have the ability to react adaptively to a rapidly changing environment.

              There are enough similarities between mammalian brains and behavior that it seems very hard to deny that they show signs of consciousness and emotion, even if they don’t share our cognitive abilities of abstraction.

            • Posted November 15, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

              Quit dodging. We are talking about conscious choice, mediated by language — not communications or cognition.

              This must take place at the level of the individual organism’s neural system, since that is where behavior is driven.

              Your proposition is that such exists in all animals.

              We don’t need to disprove silly claims to question them.

              • Jeff
                Posted November 15, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

                You’ve introduced your own assumptions here. You’ve introduced the requirement for language, and you’ve added the requirement that all animals demonstrate this.

                I think the original point was only whether some animals have consciousness. You have effectively moved the goal posts.

              • Posted November 16, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

                OK, how do we define animal consciousness? Suppose it should include bacteria and social insects.

              • gr8hands
                Posted November 16, 2011 at 8:32 am | Permalink

                sleeprunning, once again, I will suggest you do a little research on feral children.

                These are modern day HUMAN BEINGS that do not have language, as they were not raised by humans. Yet they clearly have consciousness, dream, cognitive ability, etc.

  39. Scott de B.
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    ” At what point does the complexity of input constitute a form of “free will”? To me it seems totally arbitrary. Yes, humans can weigh factors in a way that rotifers can’t, but if the course of action is predetermined in both cases, in what meaningful sense do we have free will but rotifers don’t?”

    Of course it’s arbitrary, just like consciousness itself. I’m comfortable saying I have consciousness but rotifer’s don’t, aren’t you?

    • Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      How would we define rotifer or bacteria “consciousness” without human language?

  40. Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Good grief. Does all this mean it’s not Jerry’s fault that he likes cats?

    • gr8hands
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      If Jerry is correct, then the word “fault” has no meaning, aside from geology or electricity.

      Also: choose, choice, decide, want, attempt, try, succeed, desire, cherish, despise, hate, jealous(y), fail, responsible, guilty, innocent, invent, create, ponder, question, answer, introspection, negotiate, and a whole bunch of other related concepts.

      • Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

        *tries to tell tummy it doesn’t ‘want’ dinner*

        • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
          Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

          Surely a failed ‘attempt’. Why even ‘try’?

  41. Brian
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, I gather what you are trying to say and agree. But I think you don’t mean to say Free Will means “you could have chosen differently”. You are just falling into the philosopher’s definition games. The whole question as far as I can tell is what the word “could” means. Compatibalism is defining “could” in a way that is compatible with deterministic decision making. What you mean to say is our decisions are deterministic. By decisions being deterministic (not a technical term) I mean that my future decisions are uniquely determined by the current state of my brain and the universe. This is what I would me by free will and I think you mean the same Jerry.

    The term “could” has many different definitions. Consider a computer like Deep Blue playing chess. As some point in the game Deep Blue moves his knight. Could he have moved his bishop instead? Well, consistent with the rules of chess, moving the bishop was a legal move at that point in the game. The computer might have considered moving the bishop when deciding what move to make (let’s suppose it did). So yes, in that sense Deep Blue could have moved his bishop instead. But Deep Blue’s decisions are completely determined by its programming. Given the state of how the game proceeds and Deep Blue’s state, Deep Blue was going to move the knight, not the bishop. In that sense, no, Deep Blue could not move the bishop, it was going to move the knight.

    This is one big definition game. Debating definitions clarify nothing. You are right Jerry, let’s just ditch the terms “free will” and “could”, they are just rubbish confusing the issue. Do we have free will? Ignoring the use of rubbish terminology, the answer is simply we are biological decision making machines making deterministic decisions. Are we accountable for those decisions? I personally hold people accountable, with considerations and allowances for the factors influencing their decision, such as tumors. Problem solved. Since we all seem to understand this to be the situation and are only debating definitions that don’t change our understanding of the situation, let’s discuss something more interesting we don’t already understand and agree on. Debating mere definitions is silly.

    • gr8hands
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      Brian,

      I decide to play chess with Deep Blue. A coin is flipped, and Deep Blue gets to start. It has never played against me, and none of my games are either in its database or accessible to it in any way. It has no idea if I’m a rank beginner or an international grand master.

      On the first move, you may presume it will start by moving pawn to king 4, but it’s programming may have the ability to make random choices between two equally valid moves.

      If it makes moves based on a point system, there may be many situations where the points for multiple moves will have the same number of points associated with it. So even the programmers would not know ahead of time which of the various moves Deep Blue might “choose” based on the programming.

      • Brian
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

        Just because you don’t know what move Deep Blue will make doesn’t mean it is random or not pre-determined. I would guess that probably what the programmer did for when there are say 5 equally good moves to choose from is use a random number generator to “randomly” select a move between 1 and 5. Random number generators aren’t really random, they just are programmed cleverly to seem random. If you knew how the random number generator worked and the relevant inputs, you could figure out which of the moves was going to be made by Deep Blue.

        I’m not entirely sure how Deep Blue was programmed, but however the details are the point is Deep Blue is a machine and decides based purely on its programming and inputs like the other player’s moves. It’s decisions are predetermined by all this, even if you don’t know all the details and you personally can not predict the next move. Just because you don’t know everything about Deep Blue doesn’t mean Deep Blue has free will.

        • gr8hands
          Posted November 15, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

          Brian, if the random number generator takes input from the human, say the number of milliseconds it takes to type in something, then there is no way to pre-determine what the result will be.

          I am not claiming Deep Blue has free will, only that it may not be possible for ANYONE to predict the next move, because it is the result of input outside of Deep Blue. That refutes your claim that in each case there is only one possible move based on the machine’s programming.

          You can know everything about the computer’s state ahead of time, and still not know which of two choices it will make, because part of the process is to get outside information.

          • Brian
            Posted November 15, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

            “I am not claiming Deep Blue has free will, only that it may not be possible for ANYONE to predict the next move, because it is the result of input outside of Deep Blue.”

            Fine, whatever. I saying if you knew everything about Deep Blue’s state, the games’ state, and programming. I should have said if you knew everything about the state of Deep Blue, the game, and the universe at large and knew Deep Blue’s programming and the laws of physics, you could predict the next move. That is just nitpicking at some detail that is irrelevant to my larger point. If you want to nitpick, fine, but it might help to state “I think you mean to say this… because…”. If I knew all you wanted to say is that Deep Blue decision making wasn’t based simply on his state and the games’ state, I would have stood corrected and there wouldn’t need to be any response.

            • gr8hands
              Posted November 15, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

              Brian, you are repeating Laplace’s mistake, in suggesting that knowing all states and therefore being able to predict everything — turns out not to work in the real world.

              I believe “pre-determined” is binary: it either is, or is not correct.

              Since the discussion is about pre-determination equals no free will, then this is a germane point.

          • Karl Withakay
            Posted November 15, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

            gr8hands

            “Brian, if the random number generator takes input from the human, say the number of milliseconds it takes to type in something, then there is no way to pre-determine what the result will be.”

            Bull. The problem is the limitation in being able to predict the human making the dependent action (which is deterministic, but too complex to calculate) . Once that happens, you instantaneously have everything you need to predict Deep Blue’s exact next move, including how long it will take Deep blue to make the move. Deep Blue’s actions are purely deterministic.

            Additionally, you could produce a very complex flow chart with all the predetermined possibilities and the required conditions that would lead to each outcome. If x milliseconds, then A; if x+1, then B, x+2 then C, etc. Given a specific set of input conditions, there is only one possible outcome from Deep Blue.

            Being a digital computer, Deep blue is only capable of a discrete number of choices, which must be discrete choices. The conditions for any possible outcome are predetermined based on programming and inputs.

            The only way to introduce randomness would be to introduce a quantum dependency, which would still be probabilistic in nature.

            • gr8hands
              Posted November 15, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

              Karl Withakay,

              Incorrect.

              AFTER the conditions have been met, there is only one possible outcome. BEFORE the conditions are met, you’ve listed several possible outcomes yourself.

              It isn’t that complicated.

              • Posted November 15, 2011 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

                gr8hands,
                incorrect.

                First, you are assuming the input conditions are not deterministic in your example, which you have not proven.

                Second, the opposing player, if it knows the algorithm and programming, can predict and influence Deep Blue’s action by choosing exactly when to supply the relevant input trigger(s).

                Deep Blue’s actions are entirely determined by the input conditions. You’re trying to make the input conditions random (and not necessarily succeeding unless you’ve switched to something like a particle decay for your random number generator) and then saying Deep Blue’s actions aren’t predictable. It’s absolutely true that in each case there is only one possible move based on the machine’s programming.

                Even if you used a real random number generator, Deep Blue’s actions would still be predictable once the input conditions are set. DB doesn’t respond instantaneously, though it may seem so. Once the input is given, there is time between input, decision, and action. At the moment the input is given, DB can only make one possible move, which can be predicted.

              • Brian
                Posted November 15, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

                gr8hands, this all depends on what you mean by “possible”, or going back one step what your givens are. With the chess game, you could ask what moves are possible at some point in the game. There are several moves that are possible without violating the rules of chess, that Deep Blue “could” make. But despite being legal moves, some are bad moves with low point scores and thus Deep Blue is never going to make those moves. There the given was the rules of chess. Now when you talk about “possible” in the sense of this “predictable” garbage, your givens are what you as a human know and can use to figure out what the outcome might be. Yes, that omits more than one possible outcome. But that’s because for example there are other factors in Deep Blue’s decision you don’t know or are hard to work with. If you knew more factors, Deep Blue’s decision is unique, there is only one possible outcome. You are just lacking in the information to rule it out.

                I don’t want to take the word “possible” off the table, but you are abusing it in the same way as you abused “predictable”. Just like with “could”, “possible” has many different definitions depending on what you assume as given. To say something is possible as you do in your comment is meaningless, what you need to discuss in possible assuming what information, in terms of what givens.

                Karl Withakay, I agree with what you are saying.

      • Brian
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

        What you’ve done in effect is just made a more elaborate version of “Deep Blue could move the bishop because that move is legal in chess”. Now in addition to the rules of chess you know know the state of the game and some information about Deep Blue’s programming. Based on this, you can say “No, Deep Blue couldn’t move the bishop because that move had less points than moving the knight.” or “Yes, Deep Blue could move the bishop in the sense that both moving the bishop and the knight had the maximal number of points.” Of course, if you knew everything about Deep Blue’s programming and knew even more information about the state of things, then maybe you would say “No, Deep Blue couldn’t have moved the Bishop, it had the maximal number of points but…” You presumption that Deep Blue has free will hinged on your ignorance of some facts about Deep Blue.

        This raises an interesting question, which I don’t know the answer to and if I did know the answer to I might regard as a stupid questions. The question is, it seems our experience and intuition regarding “having free will” hinges on the fact that we are decision making machines that don’t know everything. In particular, we live with other decision making machines that don’t know everything and we don’t know how they will definitely act. Is our brain programmed with some assumption of free will in how we simulate the world around us, assuming we and those around us have free will?

        • gr8hands
          Posted November 15, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

          Brian, I will repeat myself. I do not believe that Deep Blue has free will.

          I do believe you were in error in stating that there could only be one possible move at each point, and I have given evidence to that how that is invalidated.

          • Brian
            Posted November 15, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

            “I do believe you were in error in stating that there could only be one possible move at each point”

            No you didn’t. I was in error in assuming that there could only be one possible move depending on Deep Blue and the game, ignoring outside factors like someone’s rate of typing something in. If you knew every state and law of universe relevant to how Deep Blue makes decisions, Deep Blue there is only one move Deep Blue would make given that information. (I hate using that word “could”. So confusing.) Well, you have to account for quantum mechanics, but that’s a negligible effect up to a negligible probability. There is only one move Deep Blue will make.

            • gr8hands
              Posted November 15, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

              “There is only one move Deep Blue will end up making, after making decisions — possibly from among several unpredictible options.”

              FTFY.

      • Brian
        Posted November 15, 2011 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

        In response to some of your more recent comments to me and to Karl Withakay, you are confusing the situation by talking about what is predictable. Predictability means not only is an outcome uniquely determined by some collection of inputs, but that the human being or whatever making the prediction knows all the inputs and knows how to determine what the outcome is from the inputs, say by a computation. Determinism is something entirely different, it simply means that given the collection of inputs, there is a unique outcome.

        In short, this has nothing to do with humans predicting outcomes, the relevant issue is the inputs and the uniqueness of the outcome.

        This stuff about “predictability” is rubbish and belongs in the same bin as “free will” and “could”. Burn it, trash it, get rid of it, never speak of it again. You are just confusing the issue.

        Consequently, since your FTFY used rubbish, consider nothing fixed for me.

        • gr8hands
          Posted November 16, 2011 at 8:06 am | Permalink

          Brian, your confusion between “rubbish” and an accurate statement does not mitigate the need your statement had for correction.

          You and Karl Withakay both remain confused about this rather simple situation — one that programmers run into all the time: how to respond to two (or more) equally valid choices for the software to make at some decision point.

          I think the next statements may be key: the software makes a request of the random number generator, and based on the return value chooses one of the valid choices. (This is well after the human has provided input.) The random number generator may take values from outside the computer via the internet, and therefore knowing EVERYTHING about EVERYTHING inside the computer would not enable you to be able to pre-determine what value will be returned.

          At the point where the software has evaluated two or more equally valid paths to take, and makes a request of the random number generator to choose between them, it may not be possible at THAT point to pre-determine what the final decision by the software will be.

          Heisenberg has demonstrated that there can be no ultimate all-being all-pervasive determinism of everything (hence the aptly named “uncertainty principle”). Chaos theory tells us that even the most minute change can have utterly immense, universe changing consequences due to cascading effects.

          To bring this back to the thread topic, I believe this same idea happens in consciousness. Since it physically takes time for visual information to go from the eye to the brain and be processed, brains evolved to make predictions about what will happen in the next fraction of a second — based on what’s been happening over the last few fractions of a second. Otherwise, if we were strictly reactive, we’d fall off cliffs, get eaten, etc. I believe brains also evolved to make many “do I need to make a decision now?” requests of its various parts, in response to the pre-visioning situation, and thus a subconscious pre-deciding function may be subtly hardwired into us. THAT doesn’t mean ‘no free will’ only that part of our consciousness involved in decisions is subconscious.

          • gr8hands
            Posted November 16, 2011 at 9:01 am | Permalink

            You both really seem to like the Laplace “demon” — without appearing to know that it has been debunked as not working in the real world. That whole ‘theory vs. reality’ thing.

          • Karl Withakay
            Posted November 16, 2011 at 9:02 am | Permalink

            gr8hands,
            Your confusion as to what constitutes a random number vs a elaborately derived and difficult to predict deterministic number does not mitigate the need your statement had for correction.

            You remain confused about this rather simple situation — one that programmers run into all the time: how to generate a random number. The fact is they don’t. They generate a number that seems random and is nearly impossible to predict in practice, but it is not random.

            Your drawing a line between the computer and the outside world is one part of your problem. The internal programming and pseudo-random number generator are part of the inputs to the system, though they are internal to the computer and part of the whole system and determining conditions. The distinction between inside and outside the computer is meaningless. You seem to still fail to grasp that something that is deterministic can be impossible to predict in practice while still being purely deterministic.

            Given a set of conditions (which includes all conditions relevant to the computer’s decision, including the data fed into the pseudo-random number generator), the computer can only make one choice, period. Your elaborate hand waving to make the conditions extraordinarily difficult to predict don’t make the conditions random.

            “At the point where the software has evaluated two or more equally valid paths to take, and makes a request of the random number generator to choose between them, it may not be possible at THAT point to pre-determine what the final decision by the software will be.”

            Bull

            Even if you had a real random number generator, the computer’s actions are still determined by the outcome of the number generator. From a prediction viewpoint, I can’t predict the computer’s choice until the random number generator generates a number, but once it does, the computer can still only produce one possible result (and has no choice in the matter), and if I am faster than the computer and know how the computer is programmed, I can predict that result with absolute certainty before it happens, once the random number is generated.

            I’m not real strong on chaos theory, but it’s interesting you bring it up. You say “Chaos theory tells us that even the most minute change can have utterly immense, universe changing consequences due to cascading effects.”. This is utterly compatible with determinism. This doesn’t imply that given a set of initial conditions that there are multiple possible outcomes; it just says that extraordinarily slight variations of those conditions can have wildly different outcomes, but is still compatible with one possible path for one set of conditions.

            Yes, quantum probabilities appear to be truly random individually, but they rarely influence the macro world, and even if they did, so what. Quantum uncertainties don’t support the concept of free will in any way. Just like your computer with a true random number generator, there’s a difference between predictability of a human behavior and true free will. Let’s say that a particle decays and kicks an electron out of an orbit in such a way that it influences a choice made by a human brain. That wasn’t a result of a free will between two options, the conditions changed in an unpredictable manner, and the choice predictably changed.

            • gr8hands
              Posted November 16, 2011 at 10:17 am | Permalink

              Karl Withakay, the only important thing you wrote in that response is where you completely agree with my point: “From a prediction viewpoint, I can’t predict the computer’s choice until the random number generator generates a number”

              THAT is the point. Everything else is blah blah blah. Thank you for understanding what I was trying to say. (Once again, I was not trying to say that Deep Blue has free will.)

              You seem confused about what “determinism” means. Your use is somewhat incorrect.

              • Karl Withakay
                Posted November 16, 2011 at 10:55 am | Permalink

                You seem to miss the point that my comment you quote was NOT about your scenario with a pseudo-random number generator, but a different scenario with a quantum event based random number generator. I never agreed with what you said, because you never presented a situation with the genuine random number generator I was speaking of. At no point have you used a real random number generator in your thought experiment despite all the elaborate hand waving.

                Even in my variation, as soon as the true random number is generated (assuming particle decay is not deterministic), the computer can make only one decision, the one it is programmed to make based on the input conditions. No other possible outcome is possible. In quantum terms, once you collapse the quantum wave form (by generating the number), the system state is determined and the system becomes deterministic.

                Anyway, this is only really relevant where quantum effects affect the macro level, which is common.

                “Determinism is the general philosophical thesis that states that for everything that happens there are conditions such that, given them, nothing else could happen.”

              • gr8hands
                Posted November 16, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

                Karl Withakay, you appear to have a reading or reading comprehension problem.

                I very clearly stated — more than once — that the random number generator could be outside the computer. (You can link to a variety of different sources over the internet, as I wrote.)

                You seem terribly confused about the difference between BEFORE and AFTER. Of course, AFTER the random number has been returned there will be only one course of action. But BEFORE it, will depend on the number of paths being chosen from via the random number generator routine.

                Yes, AFTER you flip the coin, you know what it is. BEFORE you flip it, you don’t know for sure.

                Sheesh!

            • Brian
              Posted November 16, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

              Karl Withakay, I agree with everything you said. Very well said. I have nothing to add. And to be blunt, gr8hands is an idiot who refuses to get it. He’s not listening to you or I and trying to understand our points before responding, he is just trying to disagree with us. I find him tiresome, have no interest in adding anything. Why are you still talking to this character? :-)

              • gr8hands
                Posted November 16, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

                Brian, you and Karl Withakay might want to see a doctor about a cure for your Dunning-Kruger malady.

                I only disagree with the errors you’ve made. When you’ve gotten something correct, I’ve agreed with it. (See the difference?)

              • Lyndon
                Posted November 16, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

                greathands,

                You made the statement above:

                “Actually, sleeprunning, some commenters here are neuroscientists.”

                Were you hinting that you are a neuroscientist?

                If you are then I would suggest you pay attention to the difference between unpredictable by humans and unpredictable in theory that is being presented by your antagonists above. The fact that an individual cannot predict the coin flip or the random number generator does not make the event unpredictable or random.

                Your statement:

                “Of course, AFTER the random number has been returned there will be only one course of action.”

                As argued above by others, different “courses of action” are not created through our ignorance before the action, and the computer and random-number-bumbler, like a coin flipping, does not create multiple courses of action by its design- unless it hooks into actual quantum uncertainties.

              • Brian
                Posted November 16, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

                gr8hands, all you’ve done is nitpick. You incidentally caught one very minor error and you didn’t really understand what the was. You have failed completely to understand my argument. And you’ve introduced this ridiculous “predictability” nonsense. I tried having a conversation with you. It’s apparent that all you are interested in is arguing.

                No, this isn’t an issue of Dunning-Kruger on my end, but thanks for the insult.

                I find you tiresome. Bye now…

              • Posted November 16, 2011 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

                My comment 60 is abt gr8t..best to let him rant. No talking sense to that boy!

              • gr8hands
                Posted November 17, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

                Lyndon, I am not suggesting that different courses of action are CREATED by the random number generator (why would you think I had?), but that from the potential choices of possible courses of action they can be chosen.

                At the point BEFORE the random number is returned, the may be many many possible courses of action — the specific one that will ultimately be chosen cannot be pre-determined from the available information.

                Brian and Karl Withakay are taking the debunked Laplace’s demon stance that if you know everything about everything, you could pre-determine what will ultimately be chosen BEFORE the random number is returned — except when they say you can’t. (Their inconsistency demonstrates they are confused.)

                I am aware of “the difference between unpredictable by humans and unpredictable in theory that is being presented by your antagonists above.” It is not, however, settled science that their determinism is wholly accurate — for the reasons which I, and others, have given in several places.

                Brian, you are confused about the “very minor error” you think I don’t understand. (I guess all your understanding didn’t prevent you from making the error in the first place, and your attitude kept you from admitting it until later.) For the record, you’ll see that YOU started the insulting comments in our exchange.

                I haven’t “failed completely to understand” your argument — I disagree with it. Do YOU understand the difference?

  42. Prof.Pedant
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    I am completely comfortable asserting that psychologically healthy humans want to have ‘free will’. I am accepting of this characteristic of my humanity. The information that ‘free will’ is largely, if not in essence, an illusion – and that my ‘desire for free will’ is something which I have no choice about, is not at all troubling. If ‘free will’ is an illusion, an illusion that I have an inborn desire for, then what I need to work towards is an improved – and therefore reality based – illusion of ‘free will’. In short: how does the knowledge that ‘instinct’ and ‘experience’ are pulling my strings enable that string-pulling to more reliably produce the results that I ‘choose’.

    • Posted November 16, 2011 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

      But what if this comfort is based solely on ideologies of the moment and not any fact basis, i.e., the ideology of self and individuations is time and culture determined

      Doesn’t that make it kind of lame?

  43. Torbjorn Larsson, OM
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Of course there is no “free will” dualism.

    But this:

    “Even if we can do this kind of imagining and planning, that doesn’t mean that we could have decided otherwise.”

    is based on a philosophical notion that can’t be observed. And even if we could recreate a situation, deterministic chaos and/or quantum effects will certify that the philosophical notion will fail empirically.

    So what remains? An effective everyday notion of choices run by such a complicated system that we can connote “free will” empiricism to other agents like ourselves. It doesn’t matter what we can do in the laboratory as long as we can’t access those observations on a daily basis.

    This is not complicated. The problem seems to me to be the insistence on a philosophical analysis, which ultimately in the absence of observation and test means “just so”.

  44. Alex SL
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    the “decision” has already been recorded in our brain’s activity at least ten seconds before we’re conscious of having made a choice.

    That is interesting considering that I rarely need as long as ten seconds to reach decisions. I would be in a lot of trouble on my bicycle if I were that slow to decide which way to pass by a pedestrian etc. Reference?

    While I am a determinist myself, I would also say that there is a use for the concept of free will that is not a ghost in the machine scenario. After all, we need language to differentiate between somebody giving money to somebody else “out of their own free will” and somebody giving money to somebody else because that other person is holding a gun to their face.

    Really, it does not make a lot of difference. I have no choice (ha!) but to behave as if I make decisions, even if I know that they are no more free than a sophisticated piece of chess software, yes, deciding to move this rook instead of that bishop.

  45. Posted November 15, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    I’m absolutely determined to get to hell..

  46. Karl Withakay
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Alex SL

    I agree that free will is a useful concept, even if it is an illusion.

    Knowing there is technically no such thing as free will isn’t usually particularly useful in most situations.

    Frankly I consider the issue of free will to be most problematic if you assume a creative deity. It seems illogical to think an all powerful deity created me and gave me a free will over which it had and has no influence or control. Logically, if I am created as the result of an all powerful creator, I must be exactly as that creator intended, apparently created to disbelieve and be damned, according to some belief systems.

    • Sastra
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      Karl Withakay #46 wrote:

      Logically, if I am created as the result of an all powerful creator, I must be exactly as that creator intended, apparently created to disbelieve and be damned, according to some belief systems.

      Oh, the apologists try to get out of this deterministic conclusion by insisting that if you are created with free will by an all-powerful creator, then you are exactly as that creator intended: created as one who was capable of freely choosing to disbelieve and be damned, with God aware in advance what you will freely choose to do. Somehow, God creating the damned knowing they will be damned is supposed to avoid moral culpability if the damned are really … you know … bad in their hearts. In other words, you’re expendable. The triumphant story of the universe is not about you.

      • Posted November 15, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

        So Dennett and Calvin are both in the same camp. They each think we are free to do otherwise in that we are not constrained. It’s just that we *won’t* choose otherwise.

  47. Pablo M. H.
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    “Free will” may be a cultural fiction, but I don’t see determinism as a reasonable alternative.

    Studies claiming that “decisions are made in the brain seconds before you become conscious of them” are overreaching in their conclusions. For one thing, they’re all based on subjective reports since there’s currently no better way of getting information about volition from a subject. Verbal reports, for instance, take processing time and are not an accurate readout of conscious decision making. Reports are in essence post-hoc elaborations, and tend to be inaccurate in time and, quite possibly, in content (brains fool themselves all the time, as in optical illusions, pattern completion, rationalization, etc.). The reality is that there won’t be a good way to determine the timing of conscious decisions until we come up with objective methods to observe the content and temporal evolution of conscious thoughts, independent of subjective reports. This requires to know a whole lot more about the workings of the brain as a cognitive state machine. We’re not there yet, but we might be able to do this in the relatively near future.

    At the core of most accepted definitions of free will is what we understand as “decision making”. Using the term loosely, the simplest “decisions” made by nervous systems are based on reflexes, which can indeed be identified as deterministic computations. In other words, the input of a given stimulus produces an output that can be predicted with a probability, p = 1. I don’t see how could we extend this notion of determinism to mammalian neural networks that show a greater degree of plasticity and base their algorithms for decision making on probabilistic models, many of them using Bayesian logic. In this kind of system, if you could roll back the tape, you might indeed get a different outcome (you could actually have decided otherwise). Any system generating probabilistic outcomes can’t be considered deterministic, even if you know the underlying probabilistic model (and there’s no need for quantum effects of any kind to explain this).

    Obviously, none of this implies free will, but it does reveal a misunderstanding of the neuroscience of decision making by the proponents of sheer determinism.

    • Jeff
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

      It also seems there is a tendency to assume that if something is unconscious that it must be deterministic. I think this is also likely to be a false assumption.

      • gr8hands
        Posted November 16, 2011 at 8:08 am | Permalink

        Excellent point!! +2

    • Posted November 16, 2011 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      Decision making is an oxymoron.

  48. DrDroid
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    Nothing incites a heated discussion like free will. My own view is that we have the *illusion* of free will: We are conscious of our actions and the fact that we did some particular thing and are aware (in hindsight) that we could have done something else. Our mind works hard behind the curtain of consciousness to convince us that we had the option of choosing that other action. It’s rather like our brains working hard to fill in the blind spot in the center of our visual field to create the illusion that we see everything.

    • dieter
      Posted November 16, 2011 at 1:52 am | Permalink

      “Our mind works hard behind the curtain of consciousness to convince us that we had the option of choosing that other action.”

      Why are you distinguishing between your mind and your ego? That’s dualism. Replace “mind” with “soul” and “we” or “I” with “body” or “flesh”.

      • DrDroid
        Posted November 16, 2011 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

        I don’t quite follow your comment. I’m just observing that the mind (brain) does many things that we are not consciously aware of (like filling in the blind spot in our visual field). Nor can we explain how the brain’s algorithms come up with what eventually registers in our consciousness. Those details are just not accessible to us apparently. I’m not a “dualist”, I don’t believe there is some little me (soul) inside my body driving it.

    • gr8hands
      Posted November 16, 2011 at 8:18 am | Permalink

      DrDroid,

      We are also aware that we can/will/must make future choices — you can/will/must choose to respond to this post or not — so it isn’t merely after the fact rationalization.

      I’d hazard a guess that the majority of choices you make each day are conscious ones. Starting with do I hit ‘snooze’, turn off the alarm, or allow it to keep making noise. Even things that we do as a matter of habit (for men, shaving starting on one side of the face) are actually conscious choices.

  49. irritable
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    Looking forward to reading Professor Gazzaniga’s new book, “Who’s in Charge?” which looks at free will and accountability. Gazzaniga has credentials lacked by philosophers. Reviews are already online.

    From a legal viewpoint, judges and legislators are going to be in no hurry to modify rules of accountability – particularly in criminal law – based on arguments that traditional intuitions about free will can be shown to be unsubstantiable.

    Conditions such as reduced decision-making capacity due to drug and alcohol intoxication and mental illness or incapacity are governed by legal rules which govern proof of offences, alternatively, by sentencing guidelines.

    It’s highly improbable that psychopathy will ever form the basis of a criminal defence, at least in the current state of neuroscience, by reason of entrenched views about accountability in legal and legislative institutions, not to mention the general uninformed public.

    Just as judges are not strictly bound to follow rules of true scientific causality in determining fault, they will probably always be given considerable elbow-room in dealing with the problems caused by neurologically based lack of inhibition in criminal cases.

    • Posted November 16, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      Take Gazzaniga with a grain of salt. He is on a “happy talk” journey promoting his book.

      Imagine try to promote a book in the pop media that is contra-free will. That would be DOA.

      The silly free will idea is a foundation for pretty much every ideology, especially in the US. Expect it to take longer to debunk than a flat earth.

      Our judicial system is based on punishment — that’s all.

  50. Filippo
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    “The free-will issue is exacerbated by recent studies showing that when we make “choices”—say, to press a button on the left or right side of a computer—the “decision” has already been recorded in our brain’s activity at least ten seconds before we’re conscious of having made a choice.”

    How does this ten second time frame square with the decision-making of a batter observing an 85 mph pitch heading his way, covering 60′ 6″ in something less than ten seconds, it taking some part of that brief time to figure out what kind of pitch it is as a factor in making a “choice” about swinging at it? What am I missing? (Perhaps someone has already addressed it; I haven’t looked at all the multitude of postings.)

    • Pablo M. H.
      Posted November 15, 2011 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

      The time scale cited by Jerry is the result of a delay between decision and action imposed by the experimental task under study. This is expected to vary in different experimental settings.

      In any case, the batter (or a tennis player returning a serve) faces a somewhat different problem concerning object tracking, motor learning, preparation, and control. The final decision and quick implementation of a “swinging plan” will depend on how good the batter is at estimating a set of physical parameters and, in well trained athletes, this is carried out with little “executive control”. It’s more of an automated response learned through repetition.

  51. InvincibleIronyMan
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    I’ll tell you what I think about the free-will debate: WHO CARES?

    If you’re standing in the road and a Mack truck is coming towards you at high speed, are you going to wait for a full philosophical explanation of your plight, or are you going to “choose” to get out of the way?

    If you’re famished and hungry and a full plate of delicious food is put before you, are you going to ponder whether it is valid to say you have “free-will” whether or not to starve to death, or are you going to pick up your fork and start eating?

    If either of these questions is hard, you seriously need to get out more.

  52. Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    The neurons in our body/mind brain react to our environment and make decisions for us. Some body/mind brains work better or differently than others which explains conflicts in thinking and action. Body/mind brains make mistakes in recording and reacting. Makes sense to me without too much philosophizing.

  53. DV
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    This is what Dennett would call bad reductionism. On the other hand Sam Harris is just as confused about free will as Jerry.

  54. Posted November 16, 2011 at 2:35 am | Permalink

    “We hold people responsible for bad actions, and punish them, because it’s an environmental intervention that protects society and may, as an influence on the criminal’s neurons as well as the neurons of onlookers, reduce the incidence of bad behavior.”

    You could have just typed this one sentence and been done with it.

    Although you may need to re-type a few thousand times, because people seem really unable to grasp it.

    All together now: Behavior is a product of the environment, and a criminal justice system is part of the environment.

    • Kharamatha
      Posted November 16, 2011 at 6:27 am | Permalink

      Yes, there’s no need to repeat every little thing each time this comes up.

  55. Diane G.
    Posted November 16, 2011 at 3:17 am | Permalink

    (subscribing)

  56. jose
    Posted November 16, 2011 at 5:34 am | Permalink

    “Now that materialism is the dominant paradigm in all the sciences, what on earth do we do about free will?”

    Not to mention Heisenberg’s principle! What do we do with that? Proposing that particles have properties that are inherently non-deterministic? What a cuckoo.

    • Posted November 16, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

      All the “-isms” are straw men rhetorical tricks for frame “science” as a belief system. It’s not.

      – There is no such thing as “science”
      – There are just specific studies and data
      – There is n’t even a scientific methodologies, there are lots of different methodologies.

      Philosophers and other anti-science folks always try to wrap something they make up as “science” in a natural language wrapper so to dismiss.

      The (false) ideologies of these folks make everything a personal belief or preference. We call this the “Ethnic Food Fallacy.”

      Since personal preferences are all that matter, like ethnic foods, everyones preferences are equally valid. Imagine if medicine were practiced that way.

      Best to not fall for the “-ism” scam.

      • gr8hands
        Posted November 17, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

        Not all scientists agree with your statements in this post.

  57. jose
    Posted November 16, 2011 at 5:37 am | Permalink

    Random isn’t really random, so genetic drift is merely disguised selection.

  58. Posted November 16, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    I’m curious what studies of people with no long-term memory would show regarding repeated choices of no significant importance. Some, but not all, people will subconsciously learn from their forgotten mistakes and get better at games, puzzles, etc. However if it was just a choice between picking heads/tails or choosing a number on a die before it is rolled, then there would be no learning happening.

    So if you repeated a situation giving them a choice, and they can’t remember their previous choice, then you essentially can see if they have free will to choose differently. Particularly if they are the type that don’t learn from their forgotten mistakes, then if they keep choosing heads or number 2 every time then that is evidence against free will.

  59. Karl Withakay
    Posted November 16, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    gr8hands, you appear to have a reading or reading comprehension problem.

    I very clearly stated – more than once – that you have not used a true random number generator in your example. (You can link to a variety of different sources over the internet, if you want, but that does not make the generated number random just because you’ve made the number extraordinarily difficult to predict.)

    You seem terribly confused about the difference between random and difficult to predict. Of course different inputs can produce different outputs, and if you were to introduce a truly random input, you could produce a truly random output that was nonetheless constrained and determined by the result of the random input.

    I don’t consider a coin flip a genuinely random event either, by the way. It may appear random, but it is not. Again, not being able to predict the outcome of a complex system is not the same thing as the outcome not being deterministic.

    All this really doesn’t bear much on the concept of whether free will exists or not anyway. If you are saying that your computer example (even modified to use a real random trigger like a particle decay) supports the concept of free will in any way, please explain how you think this is so.

    • Posted November 16, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, gr8t is a bit whacked out. But hey, all voices are welcome.

    • gr8hands
      Posted November 17, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      Karl Withakay wrote: “I very clearly stated – more than once – that you have not used a true random number generator in your example.”

      Incorrect. Re-read my posts, and you will see that I specifically point out linking to “true random number generators” more than once.

      I believe you have a disagreement about whether they are “true random number generators” or not, and I do not find your mere statements that they are not as persuasive.

      You seem to use “deterministic” as a handy crutch, but not everyone is persuaded as to its universal accuracy as you appear to be. Again, Laplace’s demon is not accepted as valid, yet you appear to cling to it’s tenets.

      I have already explained how I feel this is somehow germane to the topic of free will. Re-read my posts.

      • Posted November 17, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

        Gr8hands: “but it’s programming may have the ability to make random choices between two equally valid moves.”

        Actually, setting aside whether your conditions are really random or not, it’s not making random choices, the relevant conditions are being randomly established, and the computer is making the only decision possible based on the resultant relevant conditions. It doesn’t decide on a whim on a particular number and resultant chess move. The computer is programmed to get a random input and use its rule set to make a chess move based on the value of that number. the number is random; the choice is dependent on the value of random number.

        Are you saying that random factors that influence choices constitute free will? Is free will random? Free will is supposed to involve the ability to consciously make a choice.

        You haven’t supplied anything remotely analogous to free will. Random factors affecting decisions don’t constitute a free choice will between two options, the conditions changed in an unpredictable manner, and the choice predictably changed.

        Even if you disproved determinism in regard to the operation of the mind-brain, that doesn’t establish or prove free will.

        • gr8hands
          Posted November 17, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

          Karl Withakay, I say we make choices, and demonstrate that by choosing to write this post.

          You and others have said there is no choice on my part solely because of determinism.

          If I disprove determinism, it seems silly to then say there is still no free will — as I’ve already demonstrated free will.

          Now, I’m not claiming to have disproven determinism. Actually, I would say that you have not proven determinism exists, and I would go so far as to suggest the consensus among scientists is on my side of this discussion. But I could be wrong.

          You are confused that free will = random, or that I’m trying to say that. You appear to be too caught up in the verbiage of “choice” “random” in the chess issue, so I’m just going to drop it here. You, Brian, and sleeprunning don’t seem to be adding much to the ongoing conversation.

          • Posted November 17, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

            Avoid this guy. He’s very weird.

          • Posted November 17, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

            Your the one who used the random number generator in a computer scenario and claimed it was somehow relevant to the free will discussion.

            I say your choice to write your post is not the result of free will, but the result of a complex set of conditions that lead inevitably to your writing the post, just like you will have no free will in regards to whether or not to reply to this comment.

            “You and others have said there is no choice on my part solely because of determinism. If I disprove determinism, it seems silly to then say there is still no free will — as I’ve already demonstrated free will.”

            No, though I have not supplied any other reasons why there is no free will, at no time have I said the only reason why there is no free will is solely because of determinism.

            I even implied that random ionization of a molecule leading to a neuron firing differently resulting in an altered choice would not constitute free will.

            • Posted November 17, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

              This is useful when dealing with “gr8hands” and other hostile-aggressive folks. lol

              “Though people in general overrate themselves on positive dimensions, narcissists think of themselves as special and unique, entitled to more positive outcomes in life than others.

              Their self-image is good in dominance and power (but not caring or morality). Thus, they seem especially oriented toward high status and will seek out people of perceived status apparently for this reason. Though people in general are overconfident regarding the truth of their assertions, narcissists are especially so.

              Because they are overconfident, narcissists in the laboratory are more likely to accept bets based on false knowledge and hence lose more money than are less narcissistic people. They are persistent in their delusions as well. They predict high performance in advance, guess they have done well after the fact when they have not, and continue to predict high future performance despite learning about past failure—a virtuoso performance indeed. Calling someone a narcissist is not a compliment—it suggests someone whose system of self-enhancement is out of control, to the individual’s disadvantage.

              Derogation of Others Is Closely Linked In one sense, derogation of others is the mirror image of self-inflation; either way, you look relatively better. But there is an important difference. For self-inflation, you need merely change the image of yourself to achieve the desired effect, but for derogation of others, you may need to derogate an entire group.

              Exactly when would we expect this to be advantageous to you? Perhaps especially when your own image has been lowered—suddenly it becomes valuable to deflect attention onto some disliked group—so that by comparison, you do not look as bad as they do. This is precisely what social psychology appears to show—derogation of others appears more often as a defensive strategy that people adopt when threatened.”

              Trivers, Robert (2011-10-25). The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life (pp. 17-18). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition. “

            • gr8hands
              Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:36 am | Permalink

              Karl withakay wrote: “I say your choice to write your post is not the result of free will, but the result of a complex set of conditions that lead inevitably to your writing the post, just like you will have no free will in regards to whether or not to reply to this comment.”

              But you don’t supply persuasive evidence to support your contention. I will be happy to read any new evidence you believe is supportive — not merely a rehashing of what’s been presented thus far.

              You wrote: “No, though I have not supplied any other reasons why there is no free will, at no time have I said the only reason why there is no free will is solely because of determinism.”

              True, you did not specify that it was the only reason. I phrased that poorly. I apologize.

              The only reason you have supplied for no free will is determinism, which is not persuasive. Better? (If you have other reasons, this would be the place to expound on them.)

              How the random number generator is germane to free will is that at some point in the software running, it’s next move is NOT predictable. (You may disagree with that, but the burden of proof would thereby be on you to demonstrate that it IS predictable.) The argument of determinism against free will is that everything has to happen the way it happens, and that there has never been any choice by anything ever.

              If, however, as I maintain, there are places in a computer’s software that the next steps are not predictable, how much more unpredictable — in theory and in practice — are the choices we make in our much more sophisticated brains?

              If anything actually random existed, it would necessarily invalidate determinism.

  60. Posted November 16, 2011 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    He skitters all over the place. Think we’re dealing with mild cognitive impairment here.

    The hostile, delusional, non sequiturs are a symptom.

    • gr8hands
      Posted November 17, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      Project much?

  61. Posted November 17, 2011 at 12:53 am | Permalink

    Philosophers aren’t just “acting like theologians.” We have a common sense idea of free will that doesn’t depend on strange dualistic assumptions based on how we experience the world. How we experience the world is important.

    Additionally, your definition is either inadequate or merely one element of free will. You said free will is “that if you could rerun the tape of life back to the moment a decision is made, with all the concatenations of molecules at that moment, and the circumstances leading up to it, remaining the same, you could have chosen differently.”

    Your definition of free will is little more than a rejection of determinism. In that case we would have free will if we acted randomly (perhaps due to the quantum realm). However, if we act randomly, we are not acting freely.

    • Posted November 17, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      “How we experience the world is important.”

      Where is the evidence for this? In our feelings, ideology/philosophy, naive realism?

      If the ability to verbally process experience were important, why don’t any other living things have it? Would biology have forgotten this little accessory in the billions of years of evolution?

      • Posted November 17, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

        Where is the evidence for this? In our feelings, ideology/philosophy, naive realism?

        If the ability to verbally process experience were important, why don’t any other living things have it? Would biology have forgotten this little accessory in the billions of years of evolution?

        Nope. The experience is there simply because we make decisions and so forth. A lot of people equate “free will” with the ability to make decisions.

        And lots of living things probably have it. Why would you think otherwise?

        • Posted November 17, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

          Evidence on animals for language processing of experience?

          Is there experience without language processing/consciousness?

          • gr8hands
            Posted November 17, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

            Once again, sleeprunning, look up feral children — as I have suggested to you multiple times.

            You appear quite determined to remain ignorant on this subject — and yet still argue based on that ignorance.

            Clearly blind/deaf/mute children, before learning any language (if they ever do), have consciousness and experience.

            Sheesh!

          • Posted November 17, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

            It is possible that animals don’t have it, but that would be a shocking thing to find out for the same reason it would be shocking to find out that other people don’t have minds. They have similar biology and behavior to myself. The behavior is very similar to what I would expect it to be like if they had minds.

            This is a red herring. My original point does not require that animals have consciousness. Please tell me how I am wrong if animals don’t have consciousness.

            • Posted November 17, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

              Good so the logic being evoked is the “logic” of emotions — e.g., “shocking.”

              So we get to the crux issue — the emotional discomfort ideas and data disproving control of behavior evoke. So let’s deal with that and not any other faux-abstract matters of rhetorical claims.

              • gr8hands
                Posted November 17, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

                sleeprunning, you are misunderstanding or misrepresenting what the “data” is — an easy enough mistake, as Dr. Coyne has also misunderstood it (or taken it at face value, absurd as it may be, and as easily proven invalid as it has been done repeatedly in this thread alone).

                You are also purposely (or ignorantly) misstating JW Gray’s comments. His point is germane: as we share biology with other animals, it would be shocking to discover that they do not think or have consciousness like we do. It would be shocking to discover that they taste through their eyes – because our eyes are so similar. It would be shocking to discover that they defecate gold, because our alimentary systems are similar.

                Sheesh!

              • Posted November 17, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

                Red herrings now straw man fallacies. You either don’t know how to argue or you refuse to argue appropriately. I have written this to help you understand philosophical thought:

                http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/03/05/how-to-become-a-philosopher-free-ebook/

              • Posted November 17, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

                Ah, dodging the solipsist problem of emotional primacy as all. By all means, let’s dip deeper into natural language justifications and metaphors shall we? Clever but trite.

                “Shocking” is such a great emotional/marketing hook. These ideas are “shocking to me!!” All the visceral responses and defensive emotions that evokes. Playing to the cheap seats but there are a lot more of those out there.

                No need for data, evidence or logic — just reference fear triggering ideas.

                Philosophy is thus blessed with the rhetorical advantage of wielding natural language with no referent other than everyone’s feelings and preferences of the moment. Like ethnic food preferences — they are all valid. No data, logic, evidence or anything else needed. It’s magic.

                Shocking! lol

              • Posted November 17, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

                sleeprunning,

                Ah, dodging the solipsist problem of emotional primacy as all. By all means, let’s dip deeper into natural language justifications and metaphors shall we? Clever but trite.

                “Shocking” is such a great emotional/marketing hook. These ideas are “shocking to me!!” All the visceral responses and defensive emotions that evokes. Playing to the cheap seats but there are a lot more of those out there.

                No need for data, evidence or logic — just reference fear triggering ideas.

                Did I say anything you just said? No. Stop repeating yourself. I already said it’s a straw man argument. You are not being charitable to my argument. Try again.

                For the lazy, info about straw man arguments: http://www.fallacyfiles.org/strawman.html

                You are obviously not interested in logic if you want to keep using logical fallacies one after another, even after they have been pointed out. Your arguments are far from “logical.”

                Philosophy is thus blessed with the rhetorical advantage of wielding natural language with no referent other than everyone’s feelings and preferences of the moment. Like ethnic food preferences — they are all valid. No data, logic, evidence or anything else needed. It’s magic.

                No, philosophy does not necessarily suffer from such flaws. Read what I wrote for you about philosophy.

                Science itself relies on logic, mathematics, and metaphysical assumptions. You can’t prove logic, mathematics, the reliability of inductive reasoning, or the existence of an external world with natural science all by itself.

                And yes, ordinary language is important to many arguments because we have to find a way to communicate. You can’t tell me how to define free will if you don’t even care about how people use the word.

                You have given me no reason to think physicalism and free will are incompatible. Physicalist philosophers like Searle agree that free will is incompatible with determinism, but he is not a determinist. Other philosophers think free will is compatible with determinism and they have good arguments to support their beliefs. Some of these arguments involve “frankfurt cases.” http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/free-will-foreknowledge/#2.5

              • Posted November 17, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

                “-isms” are just empty ideologies, circular/self-referential natural language false constructions with no evidence to support them.

                Philosophers want to define the rules of argument by insisting on acceptance of the ideology of “-isms”, i.e., everything is a personal world view or emotional preference of the moment.

                That tactic is clever, widely accepted but just dishonest. Data and evidence are a valid basis for arguing and discussing matters of prediction and empirical reality.

                Natural language appeals to socially constructed metaphors and abstract categories are circular arguments going nowhere.

                Challenging the purposeful misconstrual of discussions of fact and evidence as “-isms” is exactly the (embarrassing) point philosophers/ideologues/magical believers/politicians want to hide.

                We call you out on this. Where is the data?

              • Posted November 17, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

                sleeprunning

                “-isms” are just empty ideologies, circular/self-referential natural language false constructions with no evidence to support them.

                Prove it. I think you have inadequate evidence to support your claim.

                Philosophers want to define the rules of argument by insisting on acceptance of the ideology of “-isms”, i.e., everything is a personal world view or emotional preference of the moment.

                Prove it.

                That tactic is clever, widely accepted but just dishonest. Data and evidence are a valid basis for arguing and discussing matters of prediction and empirical reality.

                Maybe, but what’s your argument?

                Natural language appeals to socially constructed metaphors and abstract categories are circular arguments going nowhere.

                And yet that’s how we communicate. No artificial language can be understood without being translatable in ordinary language.

                Challenging the purposeful misconstrual of discussions of fact and evidence as “-isms” is exactly the (embarrassing) point philosophers/ideologues/magical believers/politicians want to hide.

                No, that’s what philosophers do.

                We call you out on this. Where is the data?

                Data for what?

  62. Posted November 17, 2011 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    I appreciate Prof. Coyne beginning a discussion about my article (I have not read the numerous comments!). There is too much too say (some of which I say both in the article and my responses posted there), but let me just make one point (the details can be found in the second paper linked here: http://www2.gsu.edu/~phlean/papers.html).

    Coyne writes:
    “My own definition, which I think corresponds to most people’s take, is that if you could rerun the tape of life back to the moment a decision is made, with all the concatenations of molecules at that moment, and the circumstances leading up to it, remaining the same, you could have chosen differently. If you couldn’t, then determinism reigns and we’re not free agents, at least as most people think of them.”

    With various students (Dylan Murray in this paper), I have empirically tested whether his definition in fact “corresponds to most people’s take.” The answer is that it does *not*. (The neuroscientists targeted in my article also like to assume that their definition of free will is the same as everyone else’s, but hopefully they are amenable to considering empirical evidence against that assumption.)

    One case we use is remarkably like Coyne’s example of a rewinding universe:
    “Imagine there is a universe (Universe C) that is re-created over and over again, starting from the exact same initial conditions and with all the same laws of nature. In this universe the same initial conditions and the same laws of nature cause the exact same events for the entire history of the universe, so that *every* single time the universe is re-created, everything must happen the exact same way. For instance, in this universe whenever a person decides to do something, every time the universe is re-created, that person decides to do the same thing at that time and then does it.”

    The majority of people respond that people can have free will in this universe (and that people can be morally responsible and deserve blame for their actions in this universe). Even more agree if you ask about a specific person in this universe. (We also get some interesting results about people’s understanding of choice and ability to do otherwise.)

    More importantly, we found that, among those who say free will and responsibility are impossible, most also thought that this description of determinism entails something I call “bypassing”–that your beliefs, desires, and decisions have no effect on what you do. Determinism does not entail bypassing. So, the minority who *seem* to have incompatibilist intuitions do so because they *misunderstand* determinism.

    Coyne’s own discussion suggests he misunderstands determinism (and physicalism) to entail such bypassing. Only if you begin by assuming that the mind is non-physical would you think that an explanation of decision-making in terms of the brain cuts out, or bypasses, what the mind does. As I suggested in my article, if you instead recognize that neuroscientific explanations can help us understand how our conscious and rational decision-making work, then you should not think such explanations bypass *you*. (Though, as I say in my response, it is likely that scientific explanations will show that conscious and rational processes are not as effective as we tend to think, so we have less free will than we tend to think.)

    • Posted November 17, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      People are sooooo afraid that if we accept the non-existence of any conscious control over our behavior there will be mass murder and rape. That’s silly.

      You also hear the ancient demand to be able to punish someone. Our brains still insist on the “eye for an eye” and blood feud demand for compensation. “Civilization” means we have just transferred this imperative to the state. The blood thirstyness remains. Animal nature.

      The problems everyone is dodging by this ideological, and unfactual, belief system in free will remain:
      – Punishment doesn’t work
      – Treatment based on vengeance and punishment gives us no avenues for remediation and treatment of the medical facts.

      Soon we will know the broken circuits that drive self- and other harming behaviors and start to work for treatments.

      Philosophers, to save any minimal intellectual voice remaining, have made a bloody bargain to be apologists for vengeance, anti-scientific and punishment based pop/political ideologies.

      May they all go down in flames together.

      • gr8hands
        Posted November 17, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

        In your deterministic viewpoint, there are no actual choices, so there can be no “punishment” or “reward.”

        There are only uncontrollable reactions happening constantly, that through an emergent property we call “consciousness” we (and other “conscious” beings) are able to perceive.

        Any other interpretation is rendered invalid by your presumption of determinism. To argue against that demonstrates either ignorance or denial.

        Or that you really don’t believe in determinism when it comes right down to it, which is what the evidence suggests.

        • Posted November 17, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

          Ah, the nut-case continues the rants. Ho hum.

          • gr8hands
            Posted November 17, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

            Your most poignant and well written response yet. I’m sure it demonstrates the best you are capable of. Bravo!

  63. Posted November 17, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    This is useful

    “Most animals also have a conscious mind (not usually self-conscious), in the sense of a light being turned on (when awake) that allows integrated ongoing concentration on the outside world via their sense organs.”

    Trivers, Robert (2011-10-25). The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life (p. 9). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

    • gr8hands
      Posted November 17, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      Robert Trivers is clearly wrong about animals being “not usually self-conscious.”

      It is extremely easy to invalidate his proposition: see if any animal avoids fire or some other danger. (They do.) See if any animal feeds itself when hungry. (They do.) See if any animal demonstrates that it feels pain. (They do.)

      • Posted November 17, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

        lol More delusional behavior. So one of the most celebrated biologists, ever, is wrong. LMAO…too funny.

        Just think and a casual commenter on a blog discovered this! wow

        • gr8hands
          Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:09 am | Permalink

          sleeprunning, you should have used the link I provided about logical fallacies. It could have helped you avoid the argument from authority fallacy.

          Also, as the owner of this website has repeatedly stated and corrected to people, this is NOT a blog.

  64. Posted November 17, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    All this “self” stuff is just natural language bounded and thus pretty trivial. Here is a decent idea about why we pretend it’s so important.

    So philosophers/theologians/politicians/ideologues are going to insist on the importance of immediate experience/self/emotions because they want to bolster the pretend future usefulness/predictability of their utterances — which are false to being with.

    If they allow even the notion that evidence might supersede personal experience and utterances, even lies, the whole edifice of predictive lying to get and keep power collapses.

    So they demonize evidence based knowledge as:
    – Threatening your personal ideologies and beliefs about magic, your “self” and feelings of the moment
    – Just one person belief system threatening “yours.” The ethnic food fallacy — everyone’s personal preferences are all good.
    – This triggers defensive emotional reactions, deflects any facts in the debate and turns the listener/reader against the fact-based folks. Always effective.

    It’s really just abusive ad hominem fallacy and simple rhetorical bullying.

    “…one great virtue of language is its ability to make true statements about events distant in space and time, then surely one of its social drawbacks is its ability to make false statements about events distant in space and time. These are so much less easily contradicted than statements about the immediate world. Once you have language, you have an explicit theory of self and of social relationships ready to communicate to others. Numbers of new true assertions are matched by an even greater number of false ones.”

    Trivers, Robert (2011-10-25). The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life (p. 14). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

    • gr8hands
      Posted November 17, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      Not all philosophers or politicians act the way you describe.

      Your Mr. Trivers is also wrong when he wrote “Once you have language, you have an explicit theory of self and of social relationships ready to communicate to others.” This pre-supposes that your language has explicit words for the concept of “self” and social relationships. Not all languages do (linguistic researchers would point out).

      It appears you didn’t learn from your smackdown over at Choice in Dying — and your “ethnic food fallacy” argument wasn’t persuasive there, either.

      You seem confused about ad hominems and the ad hominem fallacy. Here’s a link to help clear that up for you:

      http://www.fallacyfiles.org/adhomine.html

      • Posted November 17, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

        ah, so now we add cyber-stalking to the delusional behaviors. Look out folks, you’re next.

        • gr8hands
          Posted November 18, 2011 at 10:14 am | Permalink

          sleeprunning, you are clearly projecting about being delusional.

          I wasn’t familiar with the “ethnic food fallacy” argument, so I researched it — which is what even reasonably intelligent people would do rather than continue in ignorance.

          Turns out that only YOU use it — because it hasn’t proven persuasive anywhere you’ve used it.

          Stalking? You flatter yourself. No, you bore me, but sometimes a correction is necessary just to keep flagrantly silly assertions from going unanswered. However, I don’t suffer from SIWOTI syndrome, so I won’t bother engaging your silliness further, as it has wasted too much of my time already.

  65. Posted November 18, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    It seems that if we are going to chat about consciousness-language-decision making mediated by language we need to accept the pretty serious limits of the huamn mind. For example:

    “..researchers at Vanderbilt University used time-resolved functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) – where both the topography and temporal sequence of cortical activation across brain regions is examined – to identify a unified attentional bottleneck – a network of regions that apparently limits the speeds at which perceptual encoding and decision-making can occur.

    ……Tombu points to two techniques that were critical to demonstrating the existence of a previously hypothetical unified attentional bottleneck neural structure. “Identifying timing differences across conditions was critical to the investigation, and both of the techniques we leveraged relate to measuring timing. …“In my opinion there are existing techniques and tools that can be applied to the research questions examined in our paper that provide the next logical steps to better understanding the capacity limitations that dominate human information processing….

    In terms of applications, Tombu says that their research findings answer an outstanding question from the cognitive psychology literature about the existence of a unified bottleneck for memory encoding and response selection. “Our results establish that bottleneck processes for both operations are collocated, and in all likelihood also being carried out by the same populations of neurons. This has implications for theory and also leads very naturally to future work that will better define exactly how the brain deals with the problem of limited resources in a world of unlimited possibilities.”

    http://medicalxpress.com/news/2011-08-fast-thought-perception-limited-neocortical.html

  66. Posted November 18, 2011 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    More on the limits of our brains. Really big limits it seems:

    Neural bottleneck found that thwarts multi-tasking
    READ LATER
    “Why is it that with our incredibly complex and sophisticated brain, with 100 billion neurons processing information at rates of up to a thousand times a second, we still have such a crippling inability to do two tasks at once?” Marois, associate professor of Psychology, asked. “For example, what is it about our brain that gives us such a hard time at being able to drive and talk on a cell phone simultaneously?”

    Researchers have long thought that a central “bottleneck” exists in the brain that prevents us from doing two things at once. Dux and Marois are the first to identify the regions of the brain responsible for this bottleneck, by examining patterns of neural activity over time. Their results were published in the Dec. 21 issue of Neuron.

    “In our everyday lives, we seem to complete so many cognitive tasks effortlessly. However, we experience severe limitations when we try to do even two simple tasks at once, such as pressing a button when a visual stimulus appears and saying a word when a sound is presented. This is known as dual-task interference,” Dux, a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Psychology, said. “We were interested in trying to understand these limitations and in finding where in the brain this bottleneck might be taking place.”

    The research is particularly timely, as additional states consider banning the use of cell phones while driving.

    The results revealed that the central bottleneck was caused by the inability of the lateral frontal and prefrontal cortex, and also the superior frontal cortex, to process the two tasks at once. Both areas have been shown in previous experiments to play a critical role in cognitive control.

    “We determined these brain regions responded to tasks irrespective of the senses involved, they were engaged in selecting the appropriate response, and, most importantly, they showed ‘queing’ of neural activity–the neural response to the second task was postponed until the response to the first was completed,” Dux said.

    “Neural activity seemed to be delayed for the second task when the two tasks were presented nearly simultaneously – within 300 milliseconds of each other,” Marois said. “If individuals have a second or more between tasks, we did not see this delay.

    “This temporal delay is the essence of dual-task interference for tasks that require actions. By using time-resolved fMRI, we can see its signature in the brain,” he continued. “These findings allow us to really now focus on this set of brain areas and to understand why these areas cannot process two tasks at once.”

    http://www.physorg.com/news88346555.html

  67. Kathleen
    Posted November 19, 2011 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    I liked Jerry Coyne’s explanation of the problem of redefining free will, except at the very end he demands a new term be coined instead of “free will” in scare quotes. Jerry’s offer of “the appearance of having made a decision” doesn’t work (try substituting it almost anywhere you might otherwise use “free will”).

    I think it is more understandable to use a qualifier instead of using scare quotes around “free will” or not, especially when speaking about the topic. For the traditional concept of free will, this is already being done in the literature, where it is often referred to as contracausal free will or libertarian free will. Earlier in these comments TUFW (total unconditional free will) was also suggested.

    So what to call the brain’s process of deciding, the reason for being responsible, or other aspects of mind and law that can still be attributed to Coyne’s “free will”? Earlier in these comments, BFW (bounded free will) was suggested, but I think deterministic free will might be a better choice, because it better describes the limits as compared to the traditional notion.

    That deterministic free will sounds oxymoronic (as does BFW) is good, not least because it reminds us of the need for a new term. We can refer to Nahmias’ deterministic free will with much of the same spirit that Coyne refers to Descartes’ dualistic mind. I hope, though, that Coyne realizes the irony of his not putting “mind” in scare quotes when he is referring to its redefinition as what the brain does instead of the traditional immaterial mind (see “our brains are our minds,” above).

    • FreedToChoose
      Posted November 19, 2011 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      As an engineer my analysis of the question would be to separate the term into ‘free’ and ‘will’. It seems that ‘free’ as discussed here is ‘unconstrained’ and ‘will’ has to do with ‘choice.’ There seems to be a consensus that we can choose (unless I’m daft) and my premise is that the question of our choices being ‘unconstrained’ is intuitively impossible.

      Therefore, I would agree we have will (neuroscience research has shown we have a ‘won’t’ which I take as will in the negative), but not free will. As to the appropriate modifier to employ I like either bounded or limited, preferring the former because it implies a potential to move the boundaries.

      Terms can be terrible limiters. My handle FreedToChoose causes some discord because it is read as FreeToChoose. There’s a difference. I’m not free to choose. I’m limited in many ways. FreedToChoose is a goal achieved whenever I shed ignorance and prejudice.

    • Posted November 20, 2011 at 12:18 am | Permalink

      We don’t know if determinism is true, so “compatibilistic free will” would be better. I am not interested in defining free will based on facts about reality that we lack access to. I’d like to know I have free will before we know if determinism is true or not — which we might never know.

      For similar reasons we don’t want morality to depend on risky metaphysics. We should be morally responsible with or without libertarian free will. Otherwise we are only guessing that people are morally responsible.

  68. Peter Beattie
    Posted November 19, 2011 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    As Mr Nahmias said upstream, there are a couple of problems with Jerry’s take on free will.

    1. Jerry only asserts that ‘spooky free will’ is “what most people think of as ‘free will’”. Lacking any evidence for this assertion, I don’t think we should take the definition contained therein seriously—especially since this definition is designed to negate freedom. To then rely on this definition in trying to adjudicate whether or not we have freedom simply begs the question.

    Put bluntly: What’s the evidence that most people think of free will as the spooky variety?

    2. Making a choice is what I (the individual human being) do. To say that when I order pasta instead of pizza isn’t really a choice because it is really the physical state of the universe that determined (i.e. made) that choice for me seems to imply some sort of dualism. Just because I am a collection of particles in a specific state doesn’t mean that I am not me. The only think I can reasonably be interested in (which would roughly be Dennett’s stance) is to act according to who I want to be, which primarily means to be a distinct and more or less consistent individual human being. That is our freedom.

    And there is one more issue, which is best phrased in Eric’s question from a thread on Dennett’s Freedom Evolves:

    “What would free will enable you to do that you can’t do now (since you don’t think you have it)?”

    You didn’t answer that question in the old thread. Maybe you could here.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] One is a look at how incorrect brain functioning can contribute to criminality and the other is a criticism of a paper on free will. The take-home message is this: our actions are determined by the physical workings of our [...]

  2. [...] Coyne is unhappy with a Eddy Nahmias’ defense of free will, published on the NYT opinionator blog. [...]

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