Sean Carroll on free will

Physicist Sean Carroll has picked up the gauntlet dropped by Massimo and me, and has a nice post up on Cosmic Variance about determinism and its connection with free will: “On determinism.”  Sean, of course, knows a ton more about physics than either of us, and his take is well worth reading.  Here are some of the points he makes:

  • All of our actions must obey the laws of physics.  All of us agree with that, of course, but he realizes that this raises a question, “What room, then, for free choice?”
  • Some people assert that classical mechanics may not be deterministic, though Sean says, “I personally don’t find the examples that impressive.”
  • Conversely, quantum mechanics (QM) may be deterministic. It’s not deterministic under the bizarre Copenhagen interpretation, but is deterministic under the even more bizarre many-worlds hypothesis, in which all possible outcomes of quantum “indeterminacy” are actually realized in different universes (so there may be an infinite number of universes!).  I was surprised to learn that Carroll adheres to the many-worlds interpretation of QM, which is a form of physical determinism.
  • Carroll isn’t clear about whether “the lack of determinism in QM [if it’s indeed probabilistic] plays any role at all in our everyday lives.”  I, too, was dubious about that, although I can see how, as some readers have suggested, indeterminacy could have real effects on us, for example in creating mutations that affect our heredity or, somatically, causing cancer.
  • The idea of chaos is irrelevant to this discussion, because, as I’ve pointed out as well, chaos theory is not probabilistic but deterministic. It affects predictability, since we can’t know things to such a precise level, but still allows results to be completely predetermined by initial conditions.

Of course, whether the laws of physics are deterministic or probabilistic is, to me, irrelevant to whether there’s free will, which in my take means that we can override the laws of physics with some intangible “will” that allows us to make different decisions given identical configurations of the molecules of the universe. That kind of dualism is palpable nonsense, of course, which is why I think the commonsense notion of free will is wrong.  As Carroll notes:

We can imagine four different possibilities: determinism + free will, indeterminism + free will, determinism + no free will, and indeterminism + no free will. All of these are logically possible, and in fact beliefs that some people actually hold! Bringing determinism into discussions of free will is a red herring . . .

A better question is, if we choose to think of human beings as collections of atoms and particles evolving according to the laws of physics, is such a description accurate and complete? Or is there something about human consciousness — some strong sense of “free will” — that allows us to deviate from the predictions that such a purely mechanistic model would make?

If that’s your definition of free will, then it doesn’t matter whether the laws of physics are deterministic or not — all that matters is that there are laws. If the atoms and particles that make up human beings obey those laws, there is no free will in this strong sense; if there is such a notion of free will, the laws are violated. In particular, if you want to use the lack of determinism in quantum mechanics to make room for supra-physical human volition (or, for that matter, occasional interventions by God in the course of biological evolution, as Francis Collins believes), then let’s be clear: you are not making use of the rules of quantum mechanics, you are simply violating them. Quantum mechanics doesn’t say “we don’t know what’s going to happen, but maybe our ineffable spirit energies are secretly making the choices”; it says “the probability of an outcome is the modulus squared of the quantum amplitude,” full stop. Just because there are probabilities doesn’t mean there is room for free will in that sense.

But Carroll himself doesn’t adhere to this form of incompatibilism.  He opts instead to redefine free will so it’s compatible with the laws of physics:

On the other hand, if you use a weak sense of free will, along the lines of “a useful theory of macroscopic human behavior models people as rational agents capable of making choices,” then free will is completely compatible with the underlying laws of physics, whether they are deterministic or not. That is the (fairly standard) compatibilist position, as defended by me in Free Will is as Real as Baseball. I would argue that this is the most useful notion of free will, the one people have in mind as they contemplate whether to go right to law school or spend a year hiking through Europe. It is not so weak as to be tautological: we could imagine a universe in which there were simple robust future boundary conditions, such that a model of rational agents would not be sufficient to describe the world. E.g. a world in which there were accurate prophesies of the future: “You will grow up to marry a handsome prince.” (Like it or not.) For better or for worse, that’s not the world we live in. What happens to you in the future is a combination of choices you make and forces well beyond your control — make the best of it!

With all due respect to Sean, whom I like a lot, I think this is a bit of a cop-out.  What he seems to mean here is that “we can act as if we and others have choices, though we really don’t, because what we ‘choose’ is determined not by our will but by the laws of physics.”  Yes, that’s useful, I suppose, but I think he’s wrong in saying that “a model of rational agents” accurately describes our world.  What does that mean?  Do people always act rationally?  That depends on your definition of “rational,” I think, and he doesn’t define it.  If by “rational,” Sean means “according to the laws of physics,” then his conception does become tautological.  But of course one can make useful models, as do economists, assuming that most people act rationally—given that you specify the meaning of “rational.”

Finally, it may be irrelevant whether or not determinism affects our conception of “free will,” for we—as did Carroll—can always define free will so that it’s independent of determinism.  But the question of how deterministic our actions really are remains vitally important.  It’s important in our conception of how we dispense justice and hold people responsible for their actions.  It’s important for many religious people as well, for whom the absence of determinism is pivotal for issues about salvation.  Maybe philosophers and scientists know that there’s no dualism, but it’s important for us to get that message out to the general public, if for no other reason than it dispels the idea that there are supernatural forces like ESP and “souls” that can affect our fate.

In the end, everything must obey the laws of physics, whether they be deterministic or probabilistic.  All else is commentary.

149 Comments

  1. Posted December 6, 2011 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    I assume everyone’s read Zombies: The Movie, then?

    CHALMERS: This is a grotesque distortion of my philosophical views.

  2. physicalist
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Typo: “chaos theory is not deterministic but probabilistic” Got that backwards.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted December 6, 2011 at 9:48 am | Permalink

      Yeah, the post was a mess (I wrote it at about 5 a.m.), and I just went back and cleaned it up, including that type. Thx.

  3. Posted December 6, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    >”Of course, whether the laws of physics are deterministic or probabilistic is, to me, irrelevant to whether there’s free will, which to me means that we can override the laws of physics with some intangible “will” that allows us to make different decisions given identical configurations of the molecules of the universe. That’s palpable nonsense, of course, which is why I think the commonsense notion of free will is wrong.”

    Me too! I like this quote.

  4. Posted December 6, 2011 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    What we need to make this concept viable in a pragmatic sense is stochastic stocking stuffers.

  5. physicalist
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    He opts instead to redefine free will

    It would be nice if you would acknowledge the point that many of us have made several times:

    a) The notion of freedom and choice has many components, and the compatibilist one captures the most important components. So it’s not a case of “redefinition” as you assert.

    b) The compatibilist notion has a long and respectable pedigree, so again, it’s inaccurate to call it a “redefinition” of free will.

    OK, it’s not what you mean by the term, but you don’t get to decide whether others are begging the question when they follow in the tradition of Aristotle, Hobbes, Hume, Locke, and so on.

    ” What he seems to mean here is that “we can act as if we and others have choices, though we really don’t, because what we ‘choose’ is determined not by our will but by the laws of physics.”

    It’s been pointed out several times that you’re wrong to say that “we don’t really have choices.” I’ll spare you the repetition, but you can find my attempt to correct you here: “If We’re Determined, Do We Choose?”

    • physicalist
      Posted December 6, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      Just to clarify the specific error, when you say, “what we ‘choose’ is is determined not by our will,” you’re saying something false. Only a dualist (or a fatalist) could hold that our will doesn’t affect/determine our actions/choices.

      Letting go of dualism doesn’t just mean denying he existence of ghosts. It also means accepting that all the actual features of the world are instantiated in the physics. And our ability to choose different actions is an actual feature of the world.

    • DV
      Posted December 6, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

      I have not seen Jerry acknowledge this line of rebuttal at all. He just repeats his free will issues as if nobody has made counterpoints. Strange.

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted December 6, 2011 at 10:17 am | Permalink

        Okay, I acknowledge that it’s not a “redefinition;” I should have said “choose a definition,” for of course there are more than one compatibilist definitions. I didn’t mean to impugn what Sean or compatibilists do here.

        But, ss physicalist said on his/her blog:

        Of course, it is true that the common person does believe that we have this libertarian (contra-causal, supernatural) form of freedom. This is because the common person is a dualist and so concludes that if the neurophysiology is doing the job, then it can’t be me who’s causing the action.

        What I am taking here as the definition of free will is the one that most people have, which is dualistic. My point is that this view of free will is WRONG, and so philosophers and scientists have their own definitions, which hven’t trickled down to the public. I also contend that philosophers haven’t been as active as they should arguing that dualism is wrong and that although we go through decision making processes, those decisions are determined by the laws of physics.

        • physicalist
          Posted December 6, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

          Thanks for the reply; and yes, we agree that the common person assumes dualism and is wrong about that.

          But many arguments and analogies have been offered over the months trying to convince you (and other hard determinists) that you shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath water.

          1. Copernicans shouldn’t go around denying the existence of sunrises/

          2. Sastra has pointed out (can’t find link) that it would be a mistake to buy into the theistic account of a meaningful life and agree with the common folk that if there is no god there is no meaning. Sure, they all think that meaning comes from god. But you’re shooting yourself in the foot if you agree to make that part of the definition of “meaningful” and then claim that the life the atheist is meaningless.

          3. I point out that it would be a mistake for kids to claim that there are no Christmas presents, just because most kids think that what it means for something to be a Christmas present is that it’s delivered by Santa.

          4. And the list goes on. The falsity of vitalism doesn’t mean that nothing is alive. The falsity of dualism doesn’t mean there’s no love. etc. etc.

          If you want to convince compatibilists to join the dualists in defining “free will” in a supernatural way, you should try to offer some specific reasons for us to abandon what we view to be a perfectly sound and useful notion (and one that, as a matter of fact, is used on a daily basis in a way that is perfectly consistent with our usage).

          • physicalist
            Posted December 6, 2011 at 11:03 am | Permalink

            Ah. Sastra has an even better list below.

          • Patrick
            Posted December 6, 2011 at 11:40 am | Permalink

            The real question is why you’re so attached to what you claim to be a pure disagreement about terminology.

            Its why I tend to find compatibilists, both in the free will and objective morality species, to be dodgy folks. The insistence on using the terminology of a position that most people wouldn’t recognize them as holding is usually a good indicator that, if not watched very, very carefully, elision will follow.

            • physicalist
              Posted December 6, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

              We’re attached for the same reason that we’re not inclined to allow people to say that physicalism/atheism implies that there there is no “meaning,” or “life,” or “love,” or “rationality,” and so on.

              On the common understanding of the words, it’s more false to say “no one freely chooses anything” than it is to say “we often make free choices.” This despite the fact that dualists will think that the latter claim is incompatible with physicalism.

        • Posted December 6, 2011 at 11:13 am | Permalink

          “… although we go through decision making processes, those decisions are determined by the laws of physics.”

          I’d suggest that although our decisions and actions are certainly consistent with the laws of physics, it isn’t particularly apposite to say they are determined by those laws. What determines our decisions is more usefully explained at higher levels of description, in terms of the various bio-neuro-psycho-social-economic laws that are empirically discovered to govern human behavior. Whatever entities play reliable roles in those explanations are just as real as quarks and gluons, unless of course one is an ontological hyper-reductionist.

          • Posted December 6, 2011 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

            In particular, this is where non-spooky notions of emergence (e.g. Bunge) play a role. The lower levels to some degree constrain the upper levels (e.g. conservation laws) but one also needs boundary conditions, which are “previous emergences” (so to speak) or frozen accidents (like the genetic code(s)).

          • Steersman
            Posted December 8, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

            I’d suggest that although our decisions and actions are certainly consistent with the laws of physics, it isn’t particularly apposite to say they are determined by those laws.

            While I’m certainly a supporter of naturalism – maybe even an ally – I’m not sure that there aren’t some problems with your, and the Center’s, interpretation and definition of it. For starters it seems that, in the above statement, you’re really saying that our decisions and actions are in fact entirely determined by the laws of physics. Which, to begin with, raises some questions about moral responsibility as suggested by Jerry and as emphasized by a passage on your site:

            Seeing that we are fully caused creatures – not self-caused – we can no longer take or assign ultimate credit or blame for what we do.

            That might be more reasonable and plausible if it were not phrased so categorically and were instead stated as, for example, “Since we are largely or substantially caused creatures – not entirely self-caused – we can no longer take or assign ultimate credit or blame for what we do”. Sort of a case of “degrees of freedom”: many of our actions are entirely or largely determined – the autonomic nervous system for example – while many others give every indication of being, in fact, a personal selection, a choice, “between alternatives on the basis of internal parameters keyed to achieving context-sensitive goals”. To argue that the latter is not at least partially “self-caused” would appear to be the consequence of an excess or misapplication of reductionism and only a case of the Barber paradox: a case of inconsistent definitions rather than one of physical impossibility – the Barber shaves himself; the system chooses and that with some degree of freedom.

            Although there are, of course, gray areas in between those extremes, for example, drug addiction in which, one might suggest, the autonomic nervous system has taken over, been programmed, to produce actions outside the “free choice module” exercising supervisory control.

            But the other main problematic area of concern, as I see it, is the question of the laws of physics, whether they are entirely and absolutely and categorically prescriptive or only descriptive – at least in some cases. Seems to me that “laws” – particularly as they are relevant to the issue of free will and determinism – are typically and historically viewed as “universal, absolute, eternal and omnipotent” (as phrased by Paul Davies pointing to and echoing the putative attributes of God) and as “pushy explainers [in the sense that they] make things happen in certain ways” (in the phrasing of Carl Hoefer). But quantum indeterminacy would seem to be the antithesis of that perspective – “a law that [only] works sometimes” really can’t be construed as being universal or omnipotent; still seems to be some “wiggle-room” in which “intentional agents” can make “non-algorithmic” choices that might be circumscribed by causal laws but ones that are not ultimately or entirely dictated by them and which consequently provide and manifest some limited freedom of the will.

            In addition, there is the question whether we will ever have a “Final Theory of Everything” – Steven Weinberg’s book with that title would appear, by the title itself, to be somewhat skeptical in that regard – quite possibly because such theories, by their nature, have to be essentially algorithmic and subject to the supposed limitations imposed by Gödel’s theorem on such “formal systems”. And absent such a theory it seems somewhat of an article of faith at best to be asserting that “we are fully caused creatures” – at least in the sense of being entirely subject to the dictates of whatever happens to be the latest and greatest algorithm to come down the pike.

    • Posted December 6, 2011 at 10:08 am | Permalink

      Yeah, at this point I’m going to have to agree with Physicalist’s complaints. Sean’s “redefinition” is not new. I’ve traditionally disfavored this definition, but even I have to admit that.

      Furthermore, a great many arguments on the phenomenon of choice have taken place at various blogs recently, and most of our time has been spent arguing about what to call this state of affairs. By and large we all agree on the facts, and we’re arguing semantics. Is this useful?

      Jerry, you keep saying that you oppose the compatibilist definition of free will because you think it is misleading to laypeople (who really are dualists, or something similar). Do you have any scientific data to support this?

      It seems to me that at some point you had that “Oh my god, I’m a molecular puppet and there’s nothing I can do about it” moment (as did I), and you want other people to have that moment too. And you think telling them “You don’t have free will!” is the only way to accomplish it. I want people to “get it” just as strongly as you, but begrudging people their definitions is not the way.

    • Sastra
      Posted December 6, 2011 at 10:19 am | Permalink

      Exactly. Saying “he opts instead to redefine free will” is like saying that

      atheists “opt instead to redefine meaning”

      atheists “opt instead to redefine morality”

      atheists “opt instead to redefine life”

      atheists “opt instead to redefine marriage”

      whenever a secular view of meaning, morals, life, or marriage is put forth over the supernatural version. “Free will” is a term that describes what we experience when we make choices that are not coerced by things we experience as ‘outside of ourselves.” It wasn’t and isn’t a strictly religious term that theists are allowed to set.

      It’s a matter of semantics and trying to deal with fuzzy terms. Bottom line, I think it is easier to make the case that “we have free will but that doesn’t mean that our choices are suspended outside of material causes” rather than “we don’t have free will but that doesn’t mean we don’t make choices.”

      • Kharamatha
        Posted December 7, 2011 at 2:42 am | Permalink

        Though I would prefer to call it will. Waiter, there’s a “free” in my will. Please replace the dish. /pout

  6. Helena Constantine
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Can Dr. Coyne p-lease answer two questions to clarify si psoition.

    1. In the decision between hiking in Europe for a year and law school, what outside agency is responsible for making that decision other than my own will? If it is the laws of physics, how do they make that decision?

    2. IF there is no free will, why is divination impossible?

    • Posted December 6, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

      Divination (or rather, predicting the future by any means) is a matter of epistemology, not ontology (metaphysics).

      The whole bit about “predictability” in general is a red herring for that reason.

  7. Matt
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    I still don’t get why you keep saying that we are only “pretending” to make choices.

    Choice is just a form of computation, no matter how you slice it. Even if you were to try and use a definition of free will where choices are somehow made outside the laws of physics (or something), you would still have to make room for computation to be happening somewhere, somehow.

    Computation requires some level of determinism so there is no way to have Free Will without it. If determinism breaks your concept of Free Will, then your concept of Free Will cannot exist (and therefore seems like a fairly useless idea).

  8. Posted December 6, 2011 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Let me put it this way: you say, “In the end, everything must obey the laws of physics, whether they be deterministic or probabilistic. All else is commentary.”

    That is true. But commentary is important! Examples of such commentary include, for example, all of biology.

    Our ability to make choices is as real as natural selection. Both are useful ways of providing higher-level descriptions of the underlying particles and forces. You are allowed to say that free will is an illusion, but to be consistent you would have to also say that natural selection is an illusion.

    • physicalist
      Posted December 6, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

      +1

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted December 6, 2011 at 10:08 am | Permalink

      Sean,

      I guess I don’t know what you mean by “making choices.” Do you agree that when someone acts on one of two alternatives, he or she really has no option but to make that “choice”? That is, there is no “choice” except in the sense that one does one thing instead of more things. Do you really want to call that “free will”? What is so “free” about it if the result is determined completely by the laws of physics?

      I don’t think natural selection is an illusion because the way we conceive of it is correct. I think the way most people conceive of “free will” is incorrect.

      • Posted December 6, 2011 at 10:41 am | Permalink

        As Matt says above, choice-making is a form of biologically-based computation, and it’s a real, higher level process, just as real as the laws of physics with which it’s consistent and the physical components which instantiate the choice-making machinery of the brain. So even though our choices are likely fully determined at the macro level, as Sean says they’re just as real as other natural phenomena, and their effects are just as real (non-illusory).

        Descriptions at the level of choice-making can and do figure just as usefully (more usefully actually) than micro-level descriptions when predicting and explaining human behavior, so the ontology of choosing (reasons, persons, desires, intentions, actions, etc.) is just as legitimate, just as real, as that of physics. That what most folks might mean by free will is illusory doesn’t undercut the naturalistic reality of human agency, http://www.naturalism.org/demoralization.htm

      • Posted December 6, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

        I mean that, when I am wondering whether to have a martini or a Negroni, I can make that choice, and then do it. There is no Hand of God, or Hand of Nature, or malevolent demon, that reaches out and stops me.

        It is *also true* that I am made of atoms that just obey the laws of physics, and I could choose to talk about myself that way, and “choice” would never enter the vocabulary. Just like it is true that dinosaurs are (were) made of atoms that just obeyed the laws of physics, and I could choose to talk about them that way, and “natural selection” would never enter the vocabulary.

        “Compatibility” does not mean “parallel ontological strategies.” It means “consistent predictions for what actually happens.” A macroscopic description of people as rational agents with an ability to make choices is completely compatible in that sense with an underlying deterministic theory.

        Of course everyone agrees that this is all just a boring argument over terminology, which is why in my post I just discussed both definitions, rather than insisting that one was the “correct” one. I agree that it would be nice to choose a definition that agrees as closely as possible with what people have in mind when you don’t specifically state the definition. The problem is that people might have two things in mind when you say “free will”: they might believe in a strong Kantian autonomy that allows you to overcome the underlying laws of physics (which would be false), and they might also believe that there is no external guiding force or simple future boundary conditions that forces them to some destiny (“you will die penniless and alone”) regardless of what actions they take (which would be true). Since the reality falls in between the conventional connotations of the term “free will,” I don’t think there is a “right” definition, just an obligation to be clear about what you mean when you use the term.

        • chance
          Posted December 8, 2011 at 1:20 am | Permalink

          you guys are awesome (jerry and sean :)

      • Helena Constantine
        Posted December 6, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

        whether I take a drink of coffee now and stop typing,or I wait until I press the post button, is not determined by the laws of physics. If you think it is, I wish you would say how.

        • jonjermey
          Posted December 6, 2011 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

          “whether I take a drink of coffee now and stop typing,or I wait until I press the post button, is not determined by the laws of physics. If you think it is, I wish you would say how.”

          Well, any event has its own unique set of causes, so we can’t say in advance what will cause you to drink coffee now or later, but we can confidently assert that your action will be triggered by events in your brain, which will in turn be triggered by events occurring in your brain and your body, which in turn will be triggered by events occurring in your brain and your body and elsewhere…

          What makes it look ‘free’ to you is simply that you don’t KNOW what events are going to occur, or how they will interact to determine the timing of your coffee-drinking behaviour. Looking from the present towards the future, we can envisage all kinds of things that might happen, and it is this that gives the illusion of free choice. But if events will cause you to drink your coffee before pressing the button, then the fact that you can imagine otherwise doesn’t mean you could have chosen to do it, any more than the fact that you can imagine being on the moon means that you could have chosen to travel to the moon.

          • Steersman
            Posted December 6, 2011 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

            But if events will cause you to drink your coffee before pressing the button, then the fact that you can imagine otherwise doesn’t mean you could have chosen to do it, any more than the fact that you can imagine being on the moon means that you could have chosen to travel to the moon.

            That certainly seems a plausible argument, although it also seems like a conjecture – the one in dispute or under discussion – or like a “just-so” story. That one can hypothesize that one could not have chosen otherwise seems not at all to necessitate that that is really the case. I think the cases you used – imagining having chosen drinking the coffee after pressing the button versus choosing to travel to the moon – are entirely different kettles of fish, entirely different levels of probability.

            • jonjermey
              Posted December 7, 2011 at 3:25 am | Permalink

              “That certainly seems a plausible argument, although it also seems like a conjecture – the one in dispute or under discussion – or like a “just-so” story. That one can hypothesize that one could not have chosen otherwise seems not at all to necessitate that that is really the case. I think the cases you used – imagining having chosen drinking the coffee after pressing the button versus choosing to travel to the moon – are entirely different kettles of fish, entirely different levels of probability.¨

              That’s not quite what I said. I thought I might be able to get away with a summary of my position, but it looks like I will have to flesh it out.

              Let’s start with an analogy: I have ‘in my head’ a geographical map of my current location in space. The map is fairly detailed with respect to nearby things: my desk, the floor of this room, etc, and less detailed as we move further away — to the shops, to the city, interstate and so on. And of course the map can be wrong: I may think I have left my glasses on the table when in fact they are in the bathroom.

              But in my head I also have a ‘map’ of my whereabouts in time. Like the geographical map, it gets less detailed as I move in either direction away from the present. The map of my past is not problematical because it is more or less fixed. The map of the future is highly indeterminate, because I don’t know much about what’s going to happen to and around (and inside) me. But because it’s important for me to have some sense of what may happen in the future, I need to be aware of at least my most likely foreseeable options. (And this ‘map’ can also be wrong, of course.)

              This, as far as I can see, is what gives the impression of free will. When I’m asked, or ask myself, what I will be doing in an hour’s time, I come up with various alternatives and assign them each a rough probability: and since I don’t know — and have no way of knowing — which of these I will be caused to do, I describe it in terms of having a choice between them.

              If, on the other hand, I am being coerced — e.g. by someone with a gun — then my ‘map’ of possible futures is drastically curtailed, at least in the short term, and my sense of having choices diminishes accordingly. Likewise if I am locked up, or chained up: it severely limits the range of plausible futures I can envisage for myself. And internal forces — disease or mental illness — can have the same effects, curtailing the plausible options I can envisage for my future.

              So it’s nothing to do with imagining a CHOICE: it’s to do with having plausible alternative short-term futures, and being aware of these as part of your normal mental equipment for navigating around the world. Many plausible futures = ‘free will'; few possible futures = ‘coercion’.

              • Steersman
                Posted December 7, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

                So it’s nothing to do with imagining a CHOICE: it’s to do with having plausible alternative short-term futures, and being aware of these as part of your normal mental equipment for navigating around the world. Many plausible futures = ‘free will’; few possible futures = ‘coercion’.

                I generally agree with that apparent definition for free will – or at least a major or central attribute of it. But “having plausible alternative short-term futures” also looks like a fair definition of having choices – and “imagining a choice”.

                As Tom Clark put it (and others seem to have the same or similar perspectives):

                If a system selects between alternatives on the basis of internal parameters keyed to achieving context-sensitive goals, then it makes choices.

                Though in the case of human or conscious “systems” I wouldn’t say that that necessarily means that they are always or entirely deterministic, at least in the sense of being algorithmic.

              • jonjermey
                Posted December 7, 2011 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

                ‘“having plausible alternative short-term futures” also looks like a fair definition of having choices – and “imagining a choice”’

                I don’t see that at all. Imagine a tree standing on a grassy plain with a big wind coming. The ‘plausible futures’ of the tree would include states like ‘bending to the north’, ‘bending to the south’, ‘standing upright’ and ‘being broken': but even if the tree could visualise those futures, I don’t think anyone would want to say it has a choice in the matter.

              • Steersman
                Posted December 9, 2011 at 1:07 am | Permalink

                Jon Jermey said:

                ‘“having plausible alternative short-term futures” also looks like a fair definition of having choices – and “imagining a choice”’

                I don’t see that at all. Imagine a tree standing on a grassy plain with a big wind coming.

                Seems that you sort of view consciousness as an epiphenomenon, that we’re only along for the ride and our “choices” and “free will” are only an illusion, sort of an after-the-fact story.

                But your example there of the tree looks to me like trying to equate an entity which is subject to external events over which it has no control whatsoever to entities – human beings – which are able, based on the concepts of choice and goals and purposes, to control at least some events, both internal and external, as well as being conscious of the process and which is central to it. While humans are also subject to largely inexorable or inevitable events – weather, species exterminating asteroids, cancer and the like – to suggest that, as far as choice and free will are concerned, a tree at one extreme end of the spectrum is the same humans, exhibiting volition and perception and control, at the other end seems to be carrying reductionism a little too far.

                I sort of get the impression that more than a few people on this issue think that free will is an all-or-nothing thing, that if we aren’t able on the spur of the moment to do anything we want then we don’t have any free will at all. Seems that also is a spectrum, a question of “degrees of freedom”.

                And your example seems to whitewash away or discount those differences. Somewhat similar to trying to equate the autonomic nervous system, controlling such things as the heart rate and digestion, with the cerebral cortex responsible for “thought, language and consciousness” and the basis for normal everyday choices involving what to eat for breakfast or when to have one’s coffee – before or after hitting the post button. Any honest appraisal of how those different systems operate and “feel like” should lead to the conclusion that there’s a significant difference in degree if not in kind.

              • jonjermey
                Posted December 9, 2011 at 1:42 am | Permalink

                [humans] “are able, based on the concepts of choice and goals and purposes, to control at least some events, both internal and external, as well as being conscious of the process”

                But this completely begs the question. If we CAN ‘control’ some events in a way that prevents causes from having effects, then yes, we have free will; but there is absolutely no reason to think that we can. So the interesting question is not ‘do we have free will?’ because in that sense the answer is ‘Apparently not’. What’s interesting is why we should ever THINK we do; and this is what I have tried to explain.

              • Steersman
                Posted December 9, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

                Jon Jermey said:

                But this completely begs the question. If we CAN ‘control’ some events in a way that prevents causes from having effects, then yes, we have free will;

                That is not at all consistent with the technical definition of control which generally presupposes that there is a goal towards which the system can move itself by using actions that have known and predictable consequences – causes that we initiate that have effects. The question is whether we can internally create goals of our own and initiate relevant and applicable control actions that are largely or significantly uninfluenced by external events. That we are able to conceive of and execute such – going to the beach or picking up the mail or a myriad of others – would seem to answer the question in the affirmative.

                And those internal abilities – and the consciousness of them which greatly extends and amplifies them – are what I would generally call human free will.

                What’s interesting is why we should ever THINK we do (have free will);

                Maybe, although one might also question why we would think that we don’t. Admittedly the parts of it are intricately entwined and the threads holding them together are greatly entangled. But to argue that we don’t have free will because we can’t quite pin down the precise location and nature of the process seems to be reductionism run amok. And it tends to lead to “eliminative materialism” which really doesn’t seem all that credible.

          • Jon Hendry
            Posted December 7, 2011 at 9:08 am | Permalink

            “What makes it look ‘free’ to you is simply that you don’t KNOW what events are going to occur, or how they will interact to determine the timing of your coffee-drinking behavior.”

            Actually, what makes it look ‘free’ to you is that humans operate on longer timescales, and have ample opportunity to override that impulse to take a drink of coffee.

            If people operated on microsecond timescales, so that when physics and chemistry resulted in an impulse to drink that coffee it was instantly acted upon without any opportunity for override, it’d be more meaningful to say we have no free will.

            Granted, each time you override such an impulse, that is also based on the operation of physics and chemistry in the conditions that held at the later moment. But in the end, any one particular physically-determined ‘choice’ isn’t inevitable, at least until the trigger is actually pulled.

            • jonjermey
              Posted December 7, 2011 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

              I don’t see that impulse has anything to do with it. I am reasonably sure that I will be in bed by midnight, but that doesn’t mean I have an impulse to go to bed now, or even that I have an impulse to go to bed when I actually do go to bed. I just know from experience that at midnight I am usually in bed, so it’s reasonable to assume that’s where I’ll be.

              But experience doesn’t tell me whether I can expect to be lying on my right side or my left side, so I can’t accurately predict that: since I don’t know what’s going to cause me to lie on one side or the other, from my current temporal distance it ‘looks like’ I have a free choice.

    • CJ
      Posted December 6, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

      Sean says:

      “You are allowed to say that free will is an illusion, but to be consistent you would have to also say that natural selection is an illusion.”

      You’re allowed to say that people have free will, but to be consistent you would have to also say that Charles Whitman had free will when he went on his murderous rampage.

      • Posted December 6, 2011 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

        Not necessarily. This is where the interesting, and in my view, terribly hard, work is – namely, what *does* become of certain sorts of responsibility, and what becomes of the notion of will itself. There’s a _Neuropsychologica_ or something like that special issue from more than a decade ago I found by chance when doing a free will and moral responsibility course at UBC. It reviews mechanisms of willed action, etc. So I would encourage philosophers and neuroscientists, etc. to come together with that literature and the philosophical one and work on the hard questions. For example (I pick this because it is well known, not because it is internally free of problems), the notion of “reasons responsiveness” – does it have a neurological underpinning? If we cannot find something like it, do we draw an eliminativist conclusion? Here of course the question strongly interacts with traditional philosophy of mind.

      • Jon Hendry
        Posted December 7, 2011 at 9:16 am | Permalink

        It would have been better to choose an example who, unlike Whitman, didn’t die on the day of his rampage, where mental state had come up at trial.

        Whitman probably acted with free will, responding “rationally” based on his perceptions and cognition, which were warped by mental illness.

        • CJ
          Posted December 7, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

          yes, there are better examples of brain damage affecting personalities, but you get what i’m driving at. My comment was equally as flippant as the Sean Carrol comment I quoted.

  9. Thos. Cochrane
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I have to agree with physicalist here. It’s not ‘false’ to speak about human choices even if determinism is true. It’s compatibilist. And to echo physicalist, compatibilism doesn’t require “redefinition” of free will.

  10. Posted December 6, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    I am quite pleased that there’s been so much accessible, intelligent discussion of free will and determinism here and elsewhere. But, as I’ve said in a comment elsewhere on this blog, I am surprised that the issue of relativistic determinism http://www.kiekeben.com/relativistic.html hasn’t come up in any of it. Given Special Relativity which asserts that there is no universal “now,” there is reference frame out there in which an observer would see events in your future as already happened. Hence there’s no changing them. Hard to escape that conclusion if Special Relativity, which as been confirmed by many observations, is correct. I chose a bagel instead of cereal this morning and at the time it seemed I could have gone either way, but it was a foregone conclusion to anyone who might have been watching me from a fast space ship.

    • Jack M.
      Posted December 6, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      But what about this:

      Just because A sees B1 as his “now” at A0 and B sees an event A1 in A’s future as B’s “now” does not make the event in A’s future “now” for A. It does not prove that “the future is now.”

      For B at B0 to affect A at A1, the “influence” would have to move faster than the speed of light.
      A and B are in a spacelike separation. The earliest possible moment that they could affect one another is if they traveled at the speed of light to meet at C.

      http://www.informationphilosopher.com/freedom/special_relativity.html

      • Posted December 6, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

        Hmmm…am I mistaken, or isn’t your point equivalent to saying that as I was deciding whether to eat the bagel or cereal this morning the guy in the spaceship who had already seen me choose the bagel would have had no way to communicate my future choice to me. But that doesn’t change the fact that at this moment–my “now”–there is a reference frame available to some potential observer in which events in my future have already happened. If so, it seems they must happen. Isn’t this pure determinism? And if the world is deterministic in this way it a priori rules out free will in the strong sense. I, like Jerry, am having a hard time wrapping my head around compatibilist free will.

        • Posted December 6, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

          Right, special relativity says there are no privileged nows. As you suggest, the block universe view that all nows, including our futures, exist in 4D spacetime seems equivalent to determinism: the observation from a time-bound conscious perspective that events unfold according to natural laws. As you say, this rules out strong free will, but it leaves intact a notion of control and freedom worth wanting, http://www.naturalism.org/spacetime.htm

          • Posted December 6, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

            Tom, echoing Greg below, does a computer program make choices according to your definition? If when I chose my bagel over Kashi flakes this morning I wasn’t doing anything different IN KIND from what a computer program does (only more steps and inputs and loops, but at 6 AM in the morning, not MUCH more complex, I warrant you), then where is the control and freedom you’re talking about? Sounds just like a rhetorical sugar pill.

            • Posted December 6, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

              The (compatibilist) control and freedom comes from the fact that sometimes you get what you want (the bagel, not Kashi) as opposed to being coerced by someone or something to act against your desires, plans, etc. (you’re forced to eat the Kashi by your mom) This is a real distinction that holds even in a block universe where all events are fixed in spacetime (I hope you’ll look at the link).

              If a system selects between alternatives on the basis of internal parameters keyed to achieving context-sensitive goals, then it makes choices. Determinism doesn’t obviate the fact that the process has to be gone through in order for system-appropriate behavior to be outputted. So it’s a real choice, a real process. If that process is overridden or blocked by external influences, then the system has been coerced or forced. Otherwise it has acted freely, that is, on the basis of its normal internal architecture to achieve, more or less, whatever its been designed (intentionally or via evolution) to achieve.

              • Greg Esres
                Posted December 6, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

                “as opposed to being coerced by someone or something to act against your desires, plans, etc. (you’re forced to eat the Kashi by your mom)”

                I don’t think it’s possible to act against your desires. In this example, I’m still acting according to my desires, but the most powerful desire in this instance is not to get my ass whupped by my mother.

              • Posted December 6, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

                So you can sometimes do what you will (e.g. eat a bagel when no one interferes), and this is freedom to a compatibilist, but you can never will what you will. This is not freedom of will, but simply unimpeded action. I am on board with the block universe (since I don’t see an alternative), but I agree with those (I think Jerry included)that we need new vocabulary to clear up this confusion and we should jettison the old.

                I read the article on Naturalism.org and thought it useful, but it only convinces me that I’m not missing anything important here.

              • Kharamatha
                Posted December 7, 2011 at 2:53 am | Permalink

                @John Sullivan – I think what we need is an old vocabulary. When did “free” become automatically glued unto “will” in every instance? /sadface

          • Posted December 6, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

            Having just read the piece you linked to on naturalism.org, I am no more convinced that “control” and “freedom” are appropriate terms for inhabitants of the block universe deluded that the future is undetermined. Sure, the presence of the eight-ball in the middle of the set of racked pool balls affects the behavior of the others when the cue ball strikes, but in no sense is it free or controls anything. How, on this view, are we anything other than self-important eight-balls?

            • Posted December 6, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

              You say:

              “So you can sometimes do what you will (e.g. eat a bagel when no one interferes), and this is freedom to a compatibilist….”

              Not just to compatibilists, but to everyone! If you grant the distinction between acting freely in this sense and being coerced, I think you should also grant that this is a crucial sort of freedom worth having and wanting in a deterministic universe. Besides which, the contra-causal freedom people think they have and suppose is worth wanting really doesn’t buy you anything, as I pointed out in the linked piece and see also http://www.naturalism.org/fatalism.htm#The_Flaw_of_Fatalism Being an uncaused causer or causa sui would just tie you in knots. But as it stands, we *do* sometimes control things such that they work out in our favor, even though we are fully determined in our desires and will.

  11. Posted December 6, 2011 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    I don’t think we need “free will” to be free in any meaningful sense.

    • Jack M.
      Posted December 6, 2011 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      I agree.

      It’s freedom aplenty for me to know that in any given moment I always choose that which I most want to choose, even though I’m powerless to do otherwise and even though I’m not ultimately responsible for my wants.

      Freedom to do otherwise, no matter how it’s defined, would be freedom not worth having. It would be the freedom to be against yourself.

      No thanks.

  12. Posted December 6, 2011 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    My take has always been that there is only the material, not some outside force that allows us to make a choice.

    It’s just that it’s complex. Very complex. But the level of complexity is in fact irrelevant. We cannot use our brains (however complex or simple) to model our own brains in real time. To model a human brain in real time would require something at least the same size, but probably larger than a human brain and outside of it.

    Therefore we can never personally know everything that is going on in our own brain. Free will, I think, is almost a necessity borne out of that complexity.

    That’s just my idea. I have no idea how that could be tested though.

  13. Somite
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Whatever biologists make out of consciousness and free will my feeling is that it will have very little to do with physics and specially QM. Just like nature abhors a vacuum biology abhors uncertainty. You can see this on biological process that could involve quantum phenomenona but don’t, like the electron transport chain and photoreceptors. Both of these processes have quite deterministic outputs.
    Consciousness and decision-making will be a matter of competition and selection, with an aggregator that measures the output of different neuronal constellations that represent each competing thought. This aggregator will turn out with something as mundane as the level of a neurotransmitter or number of active synapses. It will not involve physics or QM in an interesting way.

    • Posted December 6, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

      This is almost certainly correct, since physicists can and have done calculations about how cold, small or what not something has to be for quantum effects to be significant; the brain is none of them.

      That said, even if somehow this were all wrong, the usual bits about being a quantum coin toss should dissuade anyone of the idea anyway. Robert Kane and Storrs McCall (and, in McCall’s class years ago, me) tried to turn this into some form of “self originating action” but it is too low-level to work. I think now looking at the neuroscience is the way to go, but since I don’t work in this area anymore, I have just the drop-in-the-bucket suggestion (which others are doing to some degree, e.g., Pat Churchland’s latest).

  14. Ken Pidcock
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Maybe philosophers and scientists know that there’s no dualism, but it’s important for us to get that message out to the general public, if for no other reason than it dispels the idea that there are supernatural forces like ESP and “souls” that can affect our fate.

    Hey, if we do we do, right?

  15. Posted December 6, 2011 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    The concept of chaos is not irrelevant just because they are deterministic. In a chaotic system, arbitrarily small variations in initial conditions have large effects on much later states of the system. If QM is indeterminate, then there are tiny QM uncertainties in the initial conditions of the chaotic system, and these will lead to very large QM uncertainties in the later states of the system.

    • Chris Granger
      Posted December 6, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

      But doesn’t this just present a ‘different than it would have been’ later state from within which to make a choice? The choice itself will still be made deterministically, no?

      • Posted December 6, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

        Chris, I’m not sure what you mean by that. The idea of chaos doesn’t really involve choices. The point I was trying to make is that in chaotic systems, the quantum uncertainties in the initial conditions makes the later states of the system indeterminate. No physical law determines the later state of such a system. It only determines statistical properties of the system. If you ran the tape again, with exactly the same initial conditions, the system would do different things every time.

  16. Thos. Cochrane
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Jerry, it seems hard-headed of you to insist that it’s improper to refer to human choices, even if determinism is true (and I’m convinced that it is).

    Sean’s article, to which physicalist (?Sean?) linked (#5, above), contains the following:

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

    Sean is proposing that we use a model of human behavior that works at a certain level of description. When you insist that we stop using the model because it doesn’t capture a particular fact about the world (determinism) that’s irrelevant in the context in which we’re using the model, again, it seems hard-headed.

  17. Posted December 6, 2011 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Jerry, there are physicists who claim that someone could test the many-worlds interpretation of QM. All he or she has to do is shoot himself or herself in the head repeatedly. If he or she finds that the gun always misfires, then the many-worlds interpretation is true (and the vast majority of those worlds in which our brave physicist lived will be full of mourning relatives).

  18. Posted December 6, 2011 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Why the heck do physics types think they have anything to add to what is basically a biological and brain topic? It seems very silly.

    They would add much more to the discussion by studying bio, evo and the brain duh.

  19. Lyndon
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    About defining “choice” and “free will” and why it matters.

    The thing on free will, and “choice” for that matter, that is the crux for me is the phenomenology of the self, of the “I”, and experience of the decision making process. Constantly throughout our day, and even for long-term decisions, we experience all sorts of reasoning and thought processes and emotional responses surrounding our self and its choices.

    We (the I, our consciousness) feel our “self” making choices, forced to make decisions, and we experience many of the reasons and rationalizations (and I believe our consciousness at least at times taps into the important ones) but it is always made under conditions of uncertainty. What we feel, what the I is conscious of, is only a small portion of all the processing. Furthermore, if that decision is wholly determined (as most of us posit), the “I” could never experience it as such: it can always posit the counterfactual that “of course, I could have done otherwise” (even if such a decision would have resulted in death). With that problematic of our phenomenology I feel like we have to be on guard about seeing where our language and our conceptions are misreading that naive phenomenology and misleading our understanding of the human condition.

    The absurd definition of free will uses that naive phenomenology uncritically. At least some versions of compatibilism can innoculate free will from such problematic language, but there is no reason to continue using the term free will as long as it helps maintain an uncritical attitude toward our experiencing, an uncritical attitude towards our “self,” at least for a vast number of people.

    I find it difficult to believe that people without solid backgrounds in our present understanding of the brain/mind and the free will debate can see through language and their phenomenology and make unproblematic statements such as “I could have chose the tuna instead of chicken.” The concept of “choice” will always be burdened by what is presented and, especially, what is not presented (the DETERMINISTIC bent of the choice) to the self.

  20. physicalist
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Jerry says, “I also contend that philosophers haven’t been as active as they should arguing that dualism is wrong and that although we go through decision making processes, those decisions are determined by the laws of physics.

    I didn’t really notice this aspect of your argument before. (Probably because I was distracted by claims that I disagreed with.)

    Well, I’m happy to have philosophers be called to arms against the forces of dualism. I guess that means I’d better stop goofing off here and finish my book . . .

  21. miko
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    I think all this worry about free will stems from a buried dualist reflex.. that there is a “me” that is distinct from my brain and body that is somehow being denied control, or that the conscious “part” (or process or feature or whatever) of the brain should have some special executive exemption. No one is controlling any of my brain, “conscious” parts or not. It interacts with the world and makes decisions according to its unique structure and embodied state. That sounds pretty free to me, and how much more free could we possibly be without resorting to hooey?

    The argument that it would happen the same way if we reran the tape and therefore we aren’t free is null because it’s impossible. The tape doesn’t get rerun. We may as well throw out probability theory, because really rolling the dice can only have one outcome.

    • SMG
      Posted December 6, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      +1

    • MadScientist
      Posted December 6, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      Even if we *could* rewind the tape, the assumption that it must all play back the same is not supportable – it is merely an assertion based on the fact that there are some deterministic processes (and therefore everything must be deterministic). The flip side is the claim that the other side has no incontrovertible proof that human behavior is not deterministic therefore the claim of determinism must be true. For me this is the god argument all over again.

      • Posted December 6, 2011 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

        We KNOW the tape would not replay again, whether it included humans or not.

    • josh
      Posted December 6, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      There is a reason we do not say that dice “freely choose” how they will land. Probability theory applies where there is a lack of information, whether or not its objects are in principle random or determined.

      • miko
        Posted December 7, 2011 at 7:53 am | Permalink

        Agree the probability analogy is imperfect, but I think the comparison holds. We have centuries of illusions and other phenomena that have taught us that our conscious experience is a story our brain is telling itself based on limited data, not a realm of objective analysis let alone causal force. In the case of the experience of free will, it is the brain explaining to itself a best guess at the internal causes and reasons for an action. Again, I don’t get why that isn’t “free” unless we are privileging our conscious experience over the rest of our brain or expecting magic. I see no reason not to identify “me” with everything down to about the brain stem.

        I see no reason not to call this free will, and I see no reason to distinguish this state from less free ones in which my brain is controlled through external coercion or impaired by drugs, damage or disease. The fact that this is not what the majority of people think of as free will also doesn’t bother me, because the majority of people don’t know jack shit about anything.

        • miko
          Posted December 7, 2011 at 7:53 am | Permalink

          sorry, second para “I see no reason NOT to distinguish this state…”

  22. JT
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Carroll writes: “I would argue that this is the most useful notion of free will, the one people have in mind as they contemplate whether to go right to law school or spend a year hiking through Europe.”

    I think the idea of free will would be more acceptable if choices like these actually ever existed for me (and the vast majority of people). Hmmm, should I travel in Europe for a year or go to law school? Yeah right! I can see why more privileged people for whom such possibilities actually exist would want to maintain the illusion of free will. For the rest of us for whom the “choices” are for more mundane and far more limited, it’s a bit easier to live without the concept of free will. Also, for lucky middle-class privileged folks like Carroll, the idea of free will still lets them pat themselves on the back for all of their success in life. If there’s no free will, then the smart, educated, wealthy, beautiful people don’t get to congratulate themselves on a daily basis for all of the wonderful choices they’ve made in life.

  23. Jim Thomerson
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Not having felt the need to think about it very deeply, I think I have constrained free will. It is constrained by the nature of the universe, by my life experiences, my physical nature, the culture I live in, and so on. Even so, I make yes or no decisions, and take responsibility for them as I deem appropriate.

  24. John J. Fitzgerald
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Does it make sense to say that particles, objects, etc. obey the laws of physics. The so called laws of physics are not like jurisprudential laws. Obedience is not what we observe. We observe behavior and under certain conditions particles, objects, etc. behave differently. The laws are essentially generalizations that cover a particular instance. For example, water evaporates rapidly under heat and rapid air circulation. It evaporates slowly under cooler temperatures and slow air circulation. We explain the instance with the generalization. See Carl Hempel and Rudolph Carnap.

    • Posted December 6, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

      I think a better way to put it is that laws are objective patterns of being and becoming. The law *statemets* are what reconstructs these patterns in language (including with the help of the general study of patterns in themselves – mathematics) IOW, don’t confuse metaphysics with epistemology …

      • John J. Fitzgerald
        Posted December 7, 2011 at 1:33 am | Permalink

        The so-called “laws” of physics are simply generalizations developed by us to explain the behavior of the world. If there is no “law giver”, then what we are dealing with is chaos.

        Inside the chaos, there are patterns and over the past few thousands of years, humans have observed these patterns and passed their knowledge of them on to their brethren and their survivors.

        Determinism is a quest for causes. It is an attempt to create some order out of the chaos.

        The opposite of determinism is indeterminism. With that approach you get nowhere. Literally.

        If we want to understand nature and the world around us we need to create some theories and thus some explanations and predictions about the world. A valid theory can explain and predict a particular phenomenon. For example, why coal burns and creates heat. Or, how smallpox is transmitted and how it can be prevented from transmission.

        If you support Darwin and evolution, and I do, you have to support determinism and the working out of processes that began long ago. We are not free of nature, we are part of nature. We make choices, but the choices we make are the products of our environment, mental development, culture and imagination.

        Marx and Schopenhauer agreed on this. Our tomorrow is the product of our yesterday and today.

        • Kharamatha
          Posted December 7, 2011 at 3:20 am | Permalink

          Who was the scottish guy who pointed out that even God must follow the restrictions of his own nature, whatever that nature may be?

  25. MadScientist
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always thought the “infinite multiverses” was absolute nonsense and I’ve yet to see a reasonable argument in its favor. Nor do I buy that human behavior is deterministic – there is always the magical supposition that there are events which are deterministic and therefore human behavior must also be deterministic even if not provably so. Heisenberg elaborated on fundamental limitations of our observations at the quantum mechanical level and yet some people insist (without even producing a working mathematical model) that QM may in fact be deterministic but the fundamental observation problem prevents us from proving it. I would suggest that if someone came up with a working deterministic model for QM they should get a Nobel Prize. For me, the issue of free will is not currently resolved since there is insufficient evidence for either side of the story. Rehashing “everything must be deterministic” does not contribute anything.

    • josh
      Posted December 6, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

      The multiverse of quantum mechanics (as opposed to the multiverse of cosmology) is quite reasonable since it is the logical and consistent extension of quantum mechanics to ‘observers’. It is already a working deterministic model of QM, with the caveat that there are nonetheless experiments whose outcome we can’t predict. (Or rather, we can predict the outcome but it involves a splitting of ourselves such that each ‘self’ will see a different history of experiences.) It seems to me we could demonstrate a multiverse interpretation if we could detect interference between two ‘selves’. But in practical terms that may be impossible because the effect is too small or too complicated.

      • Posted December 6, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

        See my comment above–you can prove the many-worlds interpretation to yourself (though not to anyone else) if you shoot yourself in the head repeatedly and the gun misfires every time.

        • Posted December 6, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

          No. No, you can’t.

          /@

          • Posted December 6, 2011 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

            Elaborate please?

            • Posted December 7, 2011 at 2:37 am | Permalink

              All it “proves” is that you have a gun that is prone to misfire.

              /@

              • Posted December 7, 2011 at 8:44 am | Permalink

                You could test the gun by firing it at a target. If it always worked when aimed at the target, and never worked when aimed at yourself, you would eventually rack up a vastly improbable p-value for your alternative theory.

              • Posted December 7, 2011 at 9:01 am | Permalink

                Possibly something to do with the way you hold the gun in each case then.

                But, really, it doesn’t matter how improbable it is that the gun doesn’t kill you, it doesn’t “prove” the many-worlds interpretation.

                More fundamentally, it’s not clear that you can validate or falsify the many-worlds interpretation by considering events outside the regime of quantum theory.

                /@

              • Posted December 7, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

                You can always do further tests, use a robot arm to pull the trigger, etc. Of course we are not really talking about logical proofs, that is not how empirical science works. If properly controlled, this experiment would strongly confirm the many-worlds interpretation over its current alternatives.

                It is said that Everett, the interpretation’s inventor, expected to be immortal.

              • Posted December 7, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

                you can prove the many-worlds interpretation to yourself (though not to anyone else)

                That is not how empirical science works, either! ;-)

                Not only can this experiment not distinguish between the many-worlds and Copehnhagen interpretation of QT, I don’t think it can distinguish between quantum and classical universes. Everything boils down to one “history” in which you remain alive, however improbable the p-value.

                /@

      • Posted December 6, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

        Quantum computing may be the strongest evidence for the many-worlds theory; see David Deutsch, The Fabric of Reality.

        /@

  26. gr8hands
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, Dr. Coyne (and Sean Carroll, et al.), but if you’re correct, there is no possibility of making any choices.

    If you’re right, there are no actions, only reactions.

    • Posted December 6, 2011 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

      This would be true only if you, as the saying goes, try to “make” yourself very small. Your brain (and the rest of your nervous, endocrine, etc. systems) is not a simple transducer. It has much internal state – which is basically what you are. This internal state also includes a large degree of self-assembly and self-organization. (Neurons fire and such at a baseline rate, not just in response to incoming stimuli, for example.)

    • Kharamatha
      Posted December 7, 2011 at 3:12 am | Permalink

      In that sense of “reaction”, they will be all the action we need.

    • Jack M.
      Posted December 7, 2011 at 3:38 am | Permalink

      No need to extend your sympathy to Jerry. He agrees with you.

      • gr8hands
        Posted December 7, 2011 at 8:19 am | Permalink

        My saying “sorry” is because their use of words like “choice” or “decide” demonstrate that they do not believe they are incapable of anything other than mindless reactions.

        They could, of course, say they had no choice in use the words they used, which would be consistent with their stated opinions, but are somewhat meaningless if they are right.

        It appears painfully obvious that they do not believe what they are claiming — their vocabulary belies it, their “actions” belie it, and their choices belie it. The same for anyone else who thinks they do not have free will.

        As I’ve written elsewhere, “free will” is like “solid” — it doesn’t exist in the micro, you can’t show me “solid” by discussing particles — but you will still get hurt if someone hits you in the head with a “non-solid” baseball bat!

  27. Greg Esres
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think there is really any dispute here. Jerry, I assume, knows that people make choices in the way that many of his critics assert. If he doesn’t acknowledge this, it’s probably because it’s so blindingly obvious that it’s surprising that any sees fit to point it out.

    This is not an interesting definition of the word “choice”. In the boring sense of the word, the computer programs I write make choices; in the interesting sense of the word, they do not choose and merely do what I tell them.

    • Posted December 6, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      You’ve distilled it down well, I think with the computer program analogy. Unless there is something different in kind going on when a human “chooses” than when your computer program “chooses” (not just with more steps and feedback loops), calling choices we make “free” is merely rhetorical.

      • Posted December 6, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

        Maybe not just rhetorical. There is an important distinction to be made between free and coerced choices even in a deterministic universe, see #10 above.

        • Chris Granger
          Posted December 6, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

          But should there be a distinction between free and coerced choices? Isn’t even a coercion (man with a gun, say) merely a different environmental state from within which we make a choice?

          Replace the gunman with a cute puppy, and the environment now causes me to take a different action, but one just as much determined as before. Isn’t our environment always coercing our choices in the sense that we’re forced to make decisions from within it and based upon it?

          My apologies if I’m being naive or unclear.

          • Greg Esres
            Posted December 6, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

            “Isn’t even a coercion (man with a gun, say) merely a different environmental state from within which we make a choice?”

            Yes, pretty much the point that I made well above. I’d say a coerced choice is an oxymoron.

          • Posted December 6, 2011 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

            If you don’t see that there’s an important distinction between 1) someone forcing you to do something against your will (your desires, plans, etc.) and 2) doing something in accordance with your will, then it seems to me you’re blind to the reality of a very important sort of human freedom. Both 1 and 2 are fully caused, determined, etc., but one counts as coercion, the other counts as acting freely. To suppose that acting in accordance with one’s wishes is merely to be coerced by causation is symptomatic of being in thrall to a libertarian, supernatural notion of freedom, as many folks are of course.

          • Jack M.
            Posted December 7, 2011 at 3:59 am | Permalink

            I guess I’m as blind and enthralled as you Chris. I see choices as never coerced, only constrained. I’m reminded of that great Jack Benny bit, where he pauses for so long in silence after a mugger demands “Your money or your life!” that the mugger impatiently repeats the demand. Benny replies, “I’m thinking about it!”

    • neil
      Posted December 6, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

      As one committed to AI, I can imagine, in the future, computers with programs so advanced and complex that we can say they have free will, or volition, or whatever one wants to call it. Not “ghost in the machine” or dualist type free will, but functional free will, in the sense that compatibilists believe humans have functional free will.

      These computer choices will remain be physical and made with programming branches and feed-back loops, but of the nature that we can say the computer makes deliberate and autonomous choices based on memory, and projections of possible outcomes resulting from actions, and after assessing and gathering relevant information, as well as deciding when to stop assessing information and when to take action. And it will do this on a faraway planet where its human designer cannot directly tell it what to do–only how to assess situations and make its own decisions to achieve certain objectives. And indeed, the computer itself may have to choose the objectives, in accordance with some higher order directive.

      And when this happens, compatibilists like me will say the computer has free will (I prefer volition), and JAC and others will say it does not.

  28. Alex SL
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    Why is this still going round and round?

    (1) Everybody who actually participates in this discussion agrees that we have no libertarian or dualist free will.

    (2) But as many have repeatedly pointed out, it is useful, or rather necessary, to have a term that describes the difference between me forking over $1,000 to a charity because I want to support them and me forking over $1,000 to the same charity because somebody threatens to beat me up if I don’t.

    I would call the difference, between this bundle of physical law-following atoms doing what it internally has decided to do without coercion and this bundle of physical law-following atoms being coerced to do something it rather wouldn’t by another such bundle “free will”.

    If you are incompatibilist, do you have any useful word to differentiate these two situations? If yes, what is it? If no, how is your position actually different from the radical libertarian “free will” position that asserts that it is my own free decision whether I hand my wallet over to a mugger or let myself be shot by him? For them there is never any difference, and they call every decision free-willed; for your there is never any difference, only you call every decision non-free-willed. Both sides draw different conclusions for ethics and justice (which I would argue do not logically follow in either case), but the ability to differentiate between two really, fundamentally different situations is lost in both cases.

    • neil
      Posted December 6, 2011 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      Incompatibilists appear to argue that all our body’s actions are of the autonomous nervous system type. The fact that you can choose to hold your breath, but not your heartbeat, is simply an illusion.

    • Lyndon
      Posted December 6, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      Why not just say in one situation you were coerced and in the other situation you were not coerced (physically/psychologically).

      I doubt “free will” is actually being used to shorten your description or to MOST accurately describe the situation.

      Why use the term “free will”?

  29. Posted December 6, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    “[…] the even more bizarre many-worlds hypothesis, in which all possible outcomes of quantum “indeterminacy” are actually realized in different universes (so there may be an infinite number of universes!)”

    This is not correct. The many-worlds model does not imply an infinite number of universes. It is not like an infinite branching tree, but more like a rope.

    Check http://www.askamathematician.com/2011/11/q-according-to-the-many-worlds-interpretation-every-event-creates-new-universes-where-does-the-energy-and-matter-for-the-new-universes-come-from/ for a nice introduction.

  30. Posted December 6, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    The Many Worlds interpretation is not by any means deterministic, in the usual sense of that word. See

    http://somewhatabnormal.blogspot.com/2010/10/many-worlds-interpretation-is-not.html

  31. Golkarian
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Carroll might disagree, but if the multiple universes hypothesis is correct, it’s possible most universes wouldn’t be much different than our own, even human history would be almost identical. While quantum mechanics can affect our lives, individual quantum events don’t change things much (like climate change effects us, but the fate of a since carbon dioxide molecule does not).

    On the other hand, if quantum events are important in mutation (which I suppose they are), then the entire course of evolution might be different in some universes.

    Or if the big bang was heavily influenced by quantum mechanics, it might change the universe completely.

    But I don’t think quantum events are that important in our decision making, so if there’s a universe with you in it, I doubt your life would be any different.

    (sorry I changed my mind half way through this post, so that’s why I’m giving two opposing opinions)

    • Posted December 6, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      Or if the big bang was heavily influenced by quantum mechanics, it might change the universe completely.

      IIRC, cosmology tells us that it was. And I think Sean has posted on his blog that the many-worlds multiverse is continuous with the cosmological multiverse; in he latter, the different quantum events were at a much higher energy and so created bigger differences between each world/universe – different symmetry breaking rather than a adleiavde cat.

      /@

      • Posted December 6, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

        *Damn. Typographic hubris clobbered by HTML nemesis.

  32. Posted December 6, 2011 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    All these comments, although they deal with important issues, seem to neglect one exceedingly important issue: how does determinism explain rational autonomy – by which I mean the human ability (exhibited by some much more than others!) to consider rational criticism of viewpoints, to judge issues on the basis of evidence, etc. How does determinism get around the claim that IF determinism is true, then those who present rational/reasonable arguments for X (whatever conclusion X is) do so NOT because they have considered the actual pros and cons, but merely because they are predetermined to do, say, and think whatever they do, say or think. And those with different views have those views simply because they are predetermined to have them. Which suggests that all reasoning, including reasoning for or against determinism -is illusory! IF determinism is true, then we all simply think whatever we’re predetermined to think by our brains structure and environmental inputs.

    • Chris Granger
      Posted December 6, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

      +1

      I’ve been inclined to think that words like ‘should’ or ‘ought’ are meaningless within a framework of determinism that dictates we can do only exactly that which we do, and nothing else.

      I’m admittedly a little confused by all this.

    • physicalist
      Posted December 6, 2011 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

      do so NOT because they have considered the actual pros and cons, but merely because they are predetermined to do, say

      It’s false to say that we don’t rationally consider the pros and cons. We do (deterministically) go through these considerations, and they do make a difference.

      Compare (to use Sean’s above example): What would you say to someone who says that determinism shows that natural selection is not real? “The faster creatures didn’t survive because they were more fit, but rather because they were predetermined by the physics to survive!!!”

      You’d say there’s a mistake here in thinking that natural selection is offering an explanation that is incompatible with the deterministic physical explanation.

      Same answer for rationality and free choice.

      (More here if you’re interested; you’re falling for Mistake #1.)

    • Posted December 6, 2011 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

      “How does determinism get around the claim that IF determinism is true, then those who present rational/reasonable arguments for X (whatever conclusion X is) do so NOT because they have considered the actual pros and cons, but merely because they are predetermined to do, say, and think whatever they do, say or think.”

      Physicalist has it right. There’s no conflict between being rational agents and being determined in our rational capacities. In fact it’s unlikely that inserting indeterminism into our considering the pros and cons would help us come to better (more accurate, more appropriate) conclusions, http://www.naturalism.org/resource.htm#rationality

    • Kharamatha
      Posted December 7, 2011 at 3:02 am | Permalink

      “… then we all simply think whatever we’re predetermined to think by our brains structure and environmental inputs.”

      And you think there’s a more plausible alternative?

      A person who acts without regard to the brain’s structure and environmental inputs is operationally a CRAZED MADMAN.

  33. Torbjorn Larsson, OM
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

    I would have to read the post, but this seems obviously wrong:

    The idea of chaos is irrelevant to this discussion, because, as I’ve pointed out as well, chaos theory is not probabilistic but deterministic. It affects predictability, since we can’t know things to such a precise level, but still allows results to be completely predetermined by initial conditions.

    It is only irrelevant to the philosophical discussion, which I think we all agree on.

    But it is the easiest way to realize why an empirical free will model, or “compatibility”, arises: we can never be assured to be able to describe agents fully, but seeming “free will” emerges.

    It is also at the heart of why the philosophical “free will” definition and more generally counterfactuals are invalid: we can never be assured to be able to describe systems fully, so we can only repeat experiments stochastically at best. It is a, perhaps deep, empirical conclusion in acknowledging that gedanken experiments that aren’t physical does not contribute (but may confuse).

    If all you want to do is to fail dualism in general, it is better to analyze it directly. We can’t really study philosophical “free will” more than we can study fairies. It is fairology.

    In fact, it is likely all “representation theory” of a mind is “palpable” nonsense. It is a golem idea, while minds are embodied in the brain and body as a system.

    “the lack of determinism in QM [if it’s indeed probabilistic]

    FWIW, there was a recent paper on how the probabilistic theory has problems (so MWT passes another putative test). I don’t have time to locate it right now,

    From the description, I like Carroll’s analysis. (Probably since it is roughly compatible with mine. =D)

    • Pirate
      Posted December 8, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      “FWIW, there was a recent paper on how the probabilistic theory has problems (so MWT passes another putative test).”

      I’m assuming you’re referring to the Pusey, Barrett and Randolph paper. You really mischaracterize their conclusion here. There paper emphatically does not rule out indeterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics. What it rules out are (a certain subset of) interpretations of quantum mechanics that treat the probabilities as representing subjective uncertainty. Matt Leifer has an excellent post on the paper:

      http://mattleifer.info/2011/11/20/can-the-quantum-state-be-interpreted-statistically/

  34. Torbjorn Larsson, OM
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

    It is a long thread, so maybe someone else or Carroll himself commented on this:

    Yes, that’s useful, I suppose, but I think he’s wrong in saying that “a model of rational agents” accurately describes our world. What does that mean? Do people always act rationally? That depends on your definition of “rational,” I think, and he doesn’t define it. If by “rational,” Sean means “according to the laws of physics,” then his conception does become tautological. But of course one can make useful models, as do economists, assuming that most people act rationally—given that you specify the meaning of “rational.”

    Maybe I am seeing my own analysis in this, but I thought it was obvious from Carroll’s own proposal: “rational” refers to a rational (algorithmic) description, the ability to model free agents “free will”.

    • Torbjorn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 6, 2011 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

      It goes back to the problem of pathologies and what not: how much “free will” does some pathologies leave individuals.

  35. Kharamatha
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 2:57 am | Permalink

    Butthurt repetition of the day: Is it useful to call every will a “free will”?
    Is it useful to call every panda a “free panda”?
    Is it useful to call every car a “free car”?
    Is it useful to call every fall a “free fall”?

  36. BillyJoe
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 3:39 am | Permalink

    Forget it, evolution would not allow freewill to veto determinations that it has honed over billions of years for the benefit of our survival.

  37. Egbert
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 4:55 am | Permalink

    “In the end, everything must obey the laws of physics, whether they be deterministic or probabilistic. All else is commentary.”

    We simply don’t know what consciousness is. Physics doesn’t explain it. You’re leaving out the most important part of who we are.

    • Kharamatha
      Posted December 8, 2011 at 9:29 am | Permalink

      Teeth?

    • Posted December 8, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

      But we do know what consciousness is not. The evidence is overwhelmingly inconsistent with any dualist theory of mind.

      PZ expressed it rather well, I thought:

      My mind is a product of the physical properties of my brain; it is not above them or beyond them or somehow independent of them. It doesn’t even make sense to talk about “me”, which is ultimately simply yet another emergent property of the substrate of the brain, modifying the how the brain acts. It is how the brain acts.

      I think consciousness is a product of self-referential modeling of how decisions are made in the brain in the absence of any specific information about the mechanisms of decision-making — it’s an illusion generated by a high-level ‘theory of mind’ module that generates highly simplified, highly derived models of how brains work that also happens to be applied to our own brain.

      /@

      • Steersman
        Posted December 10, 2011 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

        But we do know what consciousness is not. The evidence is overwhelmingly inconsistent with any dualist theory of mind.

        Not sure that that is entirely correct or that a contrary argument can’t be supported, at least to some extent. For example Eugene Wigner said that:

        In his collection of essays “Symmetries and Reflections – Scientific Essays”, he commented “It was not possible to formulate the laws (of quantum theory) in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.”

        And the theoretical physicist John Wheelerelaborated on that:

        This closed loop of mutual support symbolizes John Wheeler’s conception of the universe. “Physics gives rise to observer-participancy; observer-participancy gives rise to information; information gives rise to physics.” This rather cryptic statement is rooted in the ideas of quantum physics, where the observer and the observed world are closely interwoven: hence “observer-participancy”. Wheeler’s interpretation of quantum mechanics is that it is only through acts of observation that the physical reality of the world becomes actualized; yet this same physical world generates the observers that are responsible for concretizing its existence. [The Mind of God; Paul Davies; pg 224]

        And Davies himself argues that:

        Furthermore, I have come to the point of view that mind – i.e., conscious awareness of the world – is not a meaningless quirk of nature, but an absolutely fundamental facet of reality. That is not to say that we are the purpose for which the universe exists. Far from it. [ibid; pg 16]

        As the philosopher David Chalmers argues, there is still the “hard problem” of consciousness to be dealt with as none of the current theories have any explanation as to how the phenomenon of consciousness can arise out of any of the mechanisms that have been proffered – except maybe to say that “Here at step two a miracle occurs”.

        Seems to me that, since consciousness itself is vitally central to the processes of quantum mechanics and that it isn’t in itself explained by QM, there is some justification for thinking consciousness might be “an absolutely fundamental facet of reality” and not reducible to any components of physicalism – hence a dualist theory of mind.

        • Posted December 11, 2011 at 8:09 am | Permalink

          consciousness itself is vitally central to the processes of quantum mechanics

          I’m sorry, Steersman, and with respect to Wigner, Wheeler (if that’s what he meant), and Davies, but that’s just bogus.

          This notion comes, I think, from a faulty understanding of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory.

          /@

          • Posted December 11, 2011 at 8:19 am | Permalink

            * Which is itself faulty!

          • Steersman
            Posted December 11, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

            This notion comes, I think, from a faulty understanding of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory. * Which is itself faulty!

            An important qualification. :-)

            But, out of curiosity and as a point of reference, which of the some 18 or 20 different interpretations do you favour? Seems to me that unless you actually have the correct interpretation in your pocket it is a bit of a stretch at best to assert that any other one is “faulty” or that any particular understanding of any one of them is likewise, particularly when the one in question seems to be, in its various permutations, supported by various “heavy hitters” including, apart from Wigner, Wheeler and Davies, individuals such as von Neumann, Penrose and Stapp.

            And, given that diversity of opinions of varying degrees of credibility, it seems likewise a stretch to be asserting that an apparently central feature of those ones – dualism of some sort – is entirely implausible and unjustified; one might even characterize such assertions, depending on how adamantly they are advanced, as articles of faith.

            • Posted December 11, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

              As a general heuristic, the one with magic in is unlikely to be a good candidate.

              • Steersman
                Posted December 11, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

                I see that that list of the various interpretations of quantum mechanics notes that some qualify, more or less, as quantum mysticism or “quantum flapdoodle” as I think Murray Gell-Mann described it. But a goodly percentage of the more credible ones also seem to provide some support for a dualist theory of mind. Which, given the credentials of those advancing the ideas, really can’t be considered as magic, at least as it is typically conceived.

                And, genuflecting to A.C. Clarke, one man’s magic is another’s sufficiently advanced technology.

              • Posted December 11, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

                I don’t care about their credentials. Newton espoused alchemy! ;-)

                Some – e.g., Penrose – seem to be putting Descartes before the horse, and promoting an interpretation of QT that supports their idiotic — sorry, their idiosyncratic view of consciousness.

                /@

            • Posted December 11, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

              I’d rule out all of the interpretations that have collapsing wavefunctions as unphysical. That is very much analogous to “and then a miracle occurs”.

              I’d also deprecate any with hidden variables.

              Of the others, as I’ve often stated here, my preference is for Everett’s many-worlds interpretation. I was pursuaded to this view by David Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality: For the first time, the quantum theory that I’d essentially accepted “on trust” throughout my post-grad work just made sense. Deutsch showed the explanatory power of Everett’s hypothesis, esp. wrt quantum computing.

              Support by “heavy hitters” is no basis for a preference, of course; you’ll recognise that as a logical fallacy.

              It strikes me that asserting dualism of some sort is entirely implausible and unjustified. Absent any empirical validation, parsimony rules against it. Really, it’s “dualism of the gaps”.

              /@

              /@

              • Posted December 11, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

                * excuse the stutter at the end!

  38. Greg Esres
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    The scientists seem to demonstrate a lot more clarity on this subject than do the philosophers. Perhaps this is due to the general goal of science to seek out simple, but powerful models, whereas the philosophers revel in complexity. Scientists try to see how things are similar, but philosophers stress the differences, drawing subjective distinctions between concepts that are really the same when viewed at a proper level of abstraction (e.g., “free choice” vs “coerced choice”). To me, this illustrates why philosophers never solve any problems and have difficulty in communicating with those outside their own field.

    • Posted December 7, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      Spoken like a true philosopher! :-)

    • gr8hands
      Posted December 7, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      Greg Esres, one slight correction:

      Scientists try to see how things are.

  39. philosophercj
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Has anyone mentioned work on free will in experimental philosophy? When Dr. Coyne and other’s use “our conception” of free will he is taking a guess about what is an empirical question. How does Dr. Coyne or anyone else know what “our conception” of free will is without setting up experiments. I recommend taking a look at the work of Shaun Nichols University of Arizona, as well as Josh Knobe, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and others. They have done some empirical work on finding out what “our” conception is and it is not so that Dr. Coyne is right about it.

  40. philosophercj
    Posted December 7, 2011 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    The last sentence should read it is not so CLEAR that Dr. Coyne is right about it.

  41. Posted December 9, 2011 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    More…

    Neuroscience vs philosophy: Taking aim at free will:

    http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110831/full/477023a.html

  42. Steersman
    Posted December 9, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Maybe philosophers and scientists know that there’s no dualism, but it’s important for us to get that message out to the general public, if for no other reason than it dispels the idea that there are supernatural forces like ESP and “souls” that can affect our fate.

    Whether there is or is not dualism – I tend to at least think it possible that there is – I really don’t see how that necessarily means that “there are supernatural forces like ESP and souls”. For one thing I don’t see that naturalism necessarily means that science can ever really explain everything by any algorithmic process – just the title of Steven Weinberg’s book Dreams of a Final Theory would seem to raise some questions in that regard. And if that is truly the case then one might reasonably ask what things might be real that are outside of any current or future algorithmic theory yet are still part of naturalism. And dualism would seem to be at least the start, or a part, of a useful handle on that.

  43. Posted December 9, 2011 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Just a marginally related note: there’s a post at sciam by Dagomir Kaszlikowski that suggests there’s an alternative explanation of QM without decoherence that leads to what we think of as objective reality: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/12/05/new-theory-explains-how-objective-reality-emerges-from-the-strange-underlying-quantum-world/

  44. Marjorie Spencer
    Posted December 18, 2011 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    In this calculus I don’t see any mentions of complexity theory. Organisms are highly complex expressions. Are we dismissing the relevance of that out of hand?

  45. Andrew Viceroy
    Posted February 3, 2012 at 1:47 am | Permalink

    “whether the laws of physics are deterministic or probabilistic is, to me, irrelevant to whether there’s free will”
    YES! This is what I was arguing on Massimo’s page. That cognitive biases can circumvent any compatibilist’s model should be enough to challenge folk notions of control, whether due to epistemic limitations, genuine salient stochasticty in some functional stage (cogito model), or as emergent phenomena. No freedom remains untainted.


4 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] one as humor.  I will be commenting, in particular on the recent posts by Jerry Coyne (here and here) and on the post by Sean […]

  2. […] Jerry is at odds with many of his readers in rejecting any notion of “free will” that is compatible with a deterministic […]

  3. […] Sean Carroll on free will (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com) […]

  4. […] Jerry is at odds with many of his readers in rejecting any notion of “free will” that is compatible with a deterministic universe. Such […]

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