The no-free-will experiment, avec video

I’ve spent a few more weeks reading about free will and the varieties of compatibilism and incompatibilism. And—much to the regret of some of my readers, I suppose—I haven’t changed my mind.  I still don’t think that we can make real “choices” at any given moment; I feel that all of our choices are  predetermined by the laws of physics and chemistry, and I think that all the attempts to save the notion of free will via philosophical “compatibilism” are unconvincing.

And my feeling that the common notion of free will—that at any given time, if the past history of an individual and all of her molecules were replicated, she would always choose the same way—was confirmed by discussions I had with three scientist colleagues. None of these colleagues had thought much about the problem of free will, but all of them, when pressed, thought of “free will” in the way I’ve characterized it. Further, all of them raised the similar objections to my claim that we have no free will in that sense: Wouldn’t that lead to nihilism? What about moral responsibility? But can’t people be persuaded to act in a certain way?, etc.   This is an anecdotal and small sample, but it’s a sample of smart scientists, and all of them initially conceived of free will as the ability to make decisions independent of the laws of physics.

Before I talk a tiny bit about compatibilism, let me present this video, which shows a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiment like that used in the famous work of Bode et al. (see reference below for a free download), showing that one can predict the outcome of a decision up to seven seconds before the subject is conscious of having made a decision. The YouTube description says this:

In this clip, Marcus Du Sautoy (Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and current Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science) participates in an experiment conducted by John-Dylan Haynes (Professor at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience Berlin) that attempts to find the neurological basis for decision making.

Hayes was one of the authors of the Bode et al. paper cited below.

It’s a complicated set-up, but the results and explanation are cool, even if you think they have no bearing on free will:

Now I’m perfectly aware that the “predictability” of the results is not perfect: it seems to be around 60%, better than random prediction but nevertheless statistically significant. I think, though, that as our ability to image and understand the brain improves, the predictability of which decision the subject will make will improve.  After all, fMRI is rather crude, based as it is on blood flow to certain areas of the brain.  And I know some will object that even if the decision was “predictable” up to seven (and probably ten) seconds in advance, it still could have been a decision, but an unconscious one.

I maintain that if a decision is unconscious—if it takes place in your head well before you’re aware of it—then that is not free will, which involves conscious decisions.  After all, every “decision” has to be reflected somehow in brain activity that is correlated with an action, so we’d expect to see predictable pre-conscious brain activity if there were no free will.  For those who say that seven seconds isn’t long enough, would you deny free will if I could tell you what flavor of ice cream you’d choose while you were on the way to the store, knew what flavors were on offer, but said you didn’t yet know what you wanted?

Now the version of free will I’ve adumbrated is contracausal free will, and it’s clear that I’m an incompatibilist—I believe that our actions and “decisions” are solely the results of the laws of physics and chemistry, and that such decisions are in principle incompatible with my definition of free will.  But I think that nearly all smart philosophers and scientists agree with me on at least one point: our decisions are basically deterministic (perhaps tempered with a bit of quantum indeterminacy, which can’t be part of free will) and are the result of physical laws.  Few people believe in mental/physical dualism thse days.

What people differ about is whether determinism removes our notion of free will. And so they concoct “compatibilist” definitions of free will—ones that make free will compatible with physical determinism.  I have not found one of their arguments remotely convincing, for I adhere to the same notion of free will as most folks do, and am unwilling to change it to conform to some philosopher’s attempt at reconciliation.  To me, free will means “I could have decided otherwise,” and if we can’t do that, then we don’t have free will.  We have something else, and I wish that philosophers would use another term if they’re compatibilists.

I’ve read about compatibilism because someone asked me about the philosophical arguments for it.  I’ve only found four or so that stirred me even remotely, but, as I said, none were convincing:

  • Free will is shown when people’s decisions are seen to respond to reasoned argument. That’s not convincing for two reasons: reasoned argument is still an environmental influence which can impinge on the brain to affect people’s decisions.  Second, whether or not someone is responsive to reasoned argument is itself determined by the laws of physics.
  • Free will is shown when someone’s “decision” is compatible with their backgrounds, temperament, habits, and personality. This isn’t acceptable because it doesn’t show that someone is making a free choice—only a choice that’s consistent with decisions and actions they’ve evinced before. It doesn’t show that they could have chosen otherwise, either.
  • Maybe you can’t decide freely to do something, but you can decide freely not to do something. This is the version of free will suggested by Benjamin Libet, who did the first experiment showing predictability of “choice” by brain imaging.  Dismayed at the implications of his result, he suggested the idea of “free won’t.” That’s bogus, however, because you don’t have any choice whether to veto a contemplated action, either.  (The icing on the cake is that “vetoing” takes place in precisely the same brain regions as “choosing.”)
  • Free will represent the “choices” made by rational, contemplative beings whose faculties have evolved to weigh many factors before making a decision. This subsumes a number of ideas suggested by different philosophers, including Dan Dennett. I don’t find them convincing because to me they just show that our brains are complicated computers made out of meat, evolved to weigh lots of inputs before giving an output. But computers that spit out a single output—a choice—after absorbing many inputs are still computers, and we don’t think that computers programmed to respond to complicated inputs have “free will.”  Does a chess-playing computer have free will? If you think so, then go tell it to the philosophers.

I still think that compatibilism represents a sort of kneejerk philosophical response to the fact that nearly everyone finds totally unpalatable the idea that we are automatons whose actions are completely determined by the laws of physics.  And, as Harris says in his upcoming (and excellent) small book, Free Will, all versions of compatibilism essentially boil down to one pithy description:

“A puppet is free so long as he loves his strings.”

____________

Bode, S., A. H. He, C. S. Soon, R. Trampel, R. Turner, and J.-D. Haynes. 2011. Tracking the unconscious generation of free decisions using uItra-high field fMRI. PLoS ONE 6(6): e21612. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0021612

242 Comments

  1. Posted December 27, 2011 at 5:31 am | Permalink

    Determinism? For the most part I am in agreement that all actions are governed by preceding actions. I think that there are instances where there are rogue actions that do not conform to the expected actions, though. At least, I hope so.

    • Orlando
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      I’ve calculated the arc of this discussion into the future and find all comments predictable. Could I have done otherwise (*_*)

  2. Posted December 27, 2011 at 5:39 am | Permalink

    Well you would say that, wouldn’t you?

    I maintain that if a decision is unconscious—if it takes place in your head well before you’re aware of it—then that is not free will, which involves conscious decisions.

    I’m not sure that it invalidates your argument against free will, but I think this makes an artificial distinction between consciousness and unconsciousness – “I” am the sum of both, however “I” make a decision.

    /@

  3. araujo
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 5:41 am | Permalink

    but if you decide to flip a coin and then make a decision based on the result?

    • Posted December 27, 2011 at 6:01 am | Permalink

      Then you have made the decision to follow whatever the coin says, which is definitely just the laws of physics.

    • Chris Granger
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      Simply, random doesn’t equal free.

  4. Posted December 27, 2011 at 5:43 am | Permalink

    I had always confused “predestination” with “determinism” in discussions of Free Will, and so I did think that we had Free Will. After all, how can Neil Peart be wrong about this? But a friend let me to Tom Clark’s writing on naturalism and it all made sense to me. We are the products of our environment and our genes. Our will is the dependent variable, if that makes sense. So, contra-causal free will is impossible, according to my newly enlightened thinking.

  5. Posted December 27, 2011 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    I agree that free will is determinist. The could I have chosen differently argument makes a lot of sense. Imagine asking someone why they chose a particular flavour of ice cream. “because I prefer strawberry” is purely deterministic. Also if this time you get a really bad strawberry ice cream then that will affect your decision, again deterministically, next time you are face that decision.

    Just because the processes involved in decision making are highly complex doesn’t make then metaphysical.

    I often find that those defending the metaphysical, on any issue, confuse it with complexity.

  6. Linda Grilli Calhoun
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    I have largely refrained from commenting on this premise because I understand, and agree with, the underlying idea, but it doesn’t do anything but raise questions.

    But, the questions persist, so I’ll ask them.

    First, how is this any different at all from “God has a plan for each one of us”? If we determine (and believe) that we are governed by the laws of physics, and religious people believe we are determined by a god, the outcome is the same. So then, why is their concept still repugnant?

    Next, if we don’t have “free will”, but are influenced by externals, what is the point of democracy? It could be argued, and is argued by despots, that dictatorship of the “wise”, wherein the external knows best, is preferable to a system where the majority determines the environment. Would we then argue that we should work toward a system where scientists take over and force everyone’s children into an educational system that avoids discussing religion? How exactly would you accomplish that? Religious people currently argue that we should be indoctrinated with their beliefs. We fight against that. Why?

    If we ARE influenced by externals, can we “decide” to influence other individuals in our sphere of acquaintance, even if we can’t influence ourselves? Is this desirable? Why or why not?

    What, exactly, is insight? I personally have experienced a couple of blinding, life-changing insights, which I value immensely. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on one of them, and on how a therapist might create an environment to elicit insight on the part of patients/clients. I can sometimes actually do that, and when it happens, I know that the recipient experiences the insights positively. What is the point of insight if it just produces more “puppetness” (for lack of a better term)?

    Count me among the people who find the idea repugnant, even though it’s probably right. I don’t see how it will produce anything but ennui. Why bother? Because we can’t help ourselves?
    L

    • Tyro
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

      First, how is this any different at all from “God has a plan for each one of us”? If we determine (and believe) that we are governed by the laws of physics, and religious people believe we are determined by a god, the outcome is the same. So then, why is their concept still repugnant?

      I can’t speak for others but what is repugnant about “God has a plan” is that it says that cruel and horrible things are inflicted upon us intentionally and that the victims (or bystanders) are trying to excuse them. “My husband might hit me, but I deserved it and he only does it because he loves me so much.”

      Whereas with the illusion of free will, we’re saying that there are causes behind events but no overarching plan, no intent and no reason to say everything must be “loving”.

      It’s like that horrid old expression “everything happens for a reason.” It isn’t an acknowledgement that causaility is still in effect but rather an attempt to reassure themselves that even nasty things can have fortuitous outcomes. Maybe we needed to get into that car accident to develop humility or something. That’s precious little comfort or growth for those who died in the crash.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      Next, if we don’t have “free will”, but are influenced by externals, what is the point of democracy?

      Because the consensus of people prefer it to dictatorship. Inputs are evaluated and that produces an output. This fits determinism.

      If we ARE influenced by externals, can we “decide” to influence other individuals in our sphere of acquaintance, even if we can’t influence ourselves? Is this desirable? Why or why not?

      Again, inputs are evaluated and output is produced. Is it desirable? that has nothing to do with free will discussion.

      Insight. The brain is again processing inputs and producing an output. You wrote a doctoral dissertation, but if you had not studied that topic, would the inputs for the dissertation be there? Still determinism to me.

    • Posted December 27, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      Hi Linda,

      According to religions (at least Christianity) God gave man free-will – this is the spooky free-will of dualism of body/(mind/soul). It’s also the free-will that compatibalists seem to be excusing, but without any real explanation of what entity or mechanism is experiencing this free will, or how it becomes free of natural phenomena of physics. The vague notion of “I” is often proposed as the willing agency, but that’s only some notional agent that still has no explanation of its own.

      What is compatible with natural phenomena is the degree of autonomy any system has. We can design and construct a fridge, plug it into the supply, and from then on its maintenance of its own internal temperature is pretty autonomous, though influenced by external factors, such external temperature, the opening and closing of the door, what items are placed in the fridge. In this sense we are autonomous system – autonomous to the extent that our behaviour is influenced to a great extent by internal activity of the brain, and body. But we are still physical systems.

      As to democracy, then that is just the playing out of behaviours of many of these autonomous systems. Autonomous systems can make decisions internally (e.g. I decide = my brain computes a behavioural outcome) and so individually, and collectively by weighing all the outcomes (e.g. votes) of all other such systems in a group. This democracy is different to a collective of autonomous systems where they all agree (or a significantly powerful subset agree) that one member or subgroup makes all the significant decisions. All politics, whatever the details, is a playing out of the interaction of autonomous fleshy systems. In the end (and, importantly, at any one time, for the current population – see Thomas Paine) the behaviour of the collective, one way or another, determines the political system. The fact that an individual might not like being ruled, by say a King, may cause internal behavioural changes in that individual that drive the individual to incite a revolt – or not.

      Your point about ‘scientists taking over…’ suggests a number of assumptions: ‘scientists’ (many religious people are scientists), and many proponents of science are not actually scientists themselves, in the specific sense of ‘doing science’. Who’s talking about ‘forcing’? If the democratic decision (see above) is that in science class we should teach science and not religion, then what’s the problem. If anyone is going to be doing any forcing of views, history would suggest it would be the religious (and currently consider the political intent built into Islam). Indoctrination with religious beliefs from a young age is quite different from the open ended enquiring nature of a good science education which should* encourage a healthy scepticism toward authority views (* if it is to remain open).

      We can influence ourselves – that’s what autonomous systems do. Our influence on others is a consequence of prior external influences on us, and the internal machinations of the brain, and our consequential external behaviour.

      ‘Insight’ would suggest that many of our ideas and decisions come from the non-conscious working of the brain. The power and significance of an insight might make its appearance seem more mystical that regular conscious thoughts, but really, have you ever truly examined a conscious decision and tried to figure out where that came from?

      What’s the point of insight? What’s the point of anything? Well, there is no ultimate cosmic ‘point’, or purpose, that we are aware of. Basically, ‘shit happens’, but on such a amazingly complex scale that to us it appears as though we have ‘purpose'; and, assuming the universe works somehow like we do, we assume the universe has a purpose.

      Ennui? Why bother? Because we do. Because we can’t help ourselves – yes. Because we have evolved to survive, to control our lives. Maybe ‘having a higher purpose’ than just surviving is something that emerges in the behaviour of complex animal brains. Or maybe that’s just us. Maybe some other evolved intelligence might be quite purposeless and content without controlling its environment, planning families, careers, etc. – I don’t know. Ask the dolphins. But, other than a few crazy philosophers, I don’t know anyone who holds the materialistic/physicalist view who doesn’t, for the most part, act out their lives as if free-will was real – it’s a convenient model that we seem to work by. Only trouble is, it has its own flaws – hence the points about culpability of brains that don’t work on the responsibility and empathy models.

    • Posted December 27, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

      “First, how is this any different at all from ‘God has a plan for each one of us’?”

      Well, for one we know that at the very least there exists laws of physics and by extension chemistry. This makes it conspicuously different than a god – a being whose existence is only speculative, at the very best.

      Why is it repugnant? Well, in making decisions about anything, it’s GIGO all the way. A decision isn’t improved by providing the deciding organ with erroneous information. It’s even less kosher when one is told that the providing to a brain of such nonsense thereby entitles the owner of that brain to tell my brain how it must operate, or be tortured for all eternity.

      The point of democracy is akin to a complex of computer cores. There are certain tasks that are necessary for the cores to properly operate (read be healthy). What tasks have a higher priority and what not are determined by coding, and on the needs of the majority of cores. People are the same in that regard, except that we’re far less logical because of a lot of the garbage in problems.

      “If we ARE influenced by externals, can we “decide” to influence other individuals in our sphere of acquaintance, even if we can’t influence ourselves? Is this desirable? ”

      Well, there is no if to it. We are all influenced by external factors. The question of whether we can influence others but not ourselves is nonsensical I must say. Every action we take influences our brains the same as anyone else’s. A decision is made; we act; our senses report data to the brain; the brain analyzes the new information and modifies its decisions. Iterate this process and you have responsive creatures like us.

      “What is the point of insight if it just produces more “puppetness” (for lack of a better term)?”

      Awareness of a process doesn’t imply the process is subject to one’s will. Consider the simple process of learning to count to a hundred. Does any point along the way that a child is getting insight into counting offer up a space for a child to freely decide that 99 in fact doesn’t follow 98? Adding millions of other numbers to the line doesn’t change the rules of the game – only the number of steps involved.

      Why would it be any different with more complex things such that gaining insight which results in new decisions based on that learning somehow makes available to the system free choice in a way that it didn’t exist the moment before? Again, do not conflate awareness with capacity.

  7. donK
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    How do we hide a six second lag in decision making from ourselves and others? A six second lag in conversation would be painfully obvious and deadly while driving.

    • Julien Rousseau
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:24 am | Permalink

      Most driving decisions that involve split second reflexes do not employ immediate conscious deliberation but reflex (which I view as conscious deliberation thought beforehand and encoded through teaching and practice).

      Those decisions that do take conscious thought (turn left at the next exit?) tend to take longer to be formulated.

      As for the “lag” in conversation it reminds me of a SF story where some astronauts are stranded light-hours away from earth and need to communicate efficiently with Earth to try to solve the problem as the hours long lag is very inefficient. The solution is hit on by one of the scientist’s mothers who says that it’s simple, just keep talking on both side at the same time without stopping, by the time a question arrives you may already have sent the answer among the rest of the data and thus save time.

      Same thing with your conversation lag, it isn’t apparent because you are processing what the person you talk with says at the same time he says it (both consciously and inconsciously) and you generally know what you are gonna say consciously before he even finishes his bit.

      I think to have a problem the way you envision it you would need to have a conscious decision that must be made in a very short amount of time based upon some information that takes a smaller (or equal) amount of time to impart than the amount available to make the decision.

      And you shouldn’t be able to decide beforehand that you would do A if the information is X and B if the information is Y as that would shorten the decision making process to a simple reflex.

      Anyway, that’s what I think but maybe I overlooked something.

      • Posted December 27, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

        The story you remember is Isaac Asimov’s “My Son, the Physicist”.

        /@

        • Julien Rousseau
          Posted December 27, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

          Yup. I was almost certain it was Asimov but as the author/storyname were irrelevant to the point I didn’t bother checking it out.

          • Posted December 27, 2011 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

            Understood, but proper citations are a good thing! ;-)

            /@

    • Tyro
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:34 am | Permalink

      Driving is actually a very good example of things that happen without conscious control. Most things requiring a lot of physical co-ordination and timing like driving, golfing, even baseball all happen too fast for us to make conscious decisions. We train slowly and consciously so that when we speed things up they happen faster but unconsciously.

      • Lyndon
        Posted December 27, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink

        I’ve turned to the computer Watson from Jeopardy! to help understand many of these things.

        Watson is processing information unconsciously and giving the answer.

        Our brains also process most information unconsciously. We are consciously aware of some of that processing of the selection between answers: “Is the capital of France Paris or Lyon?–quick, quick.” A lot of our conscious lives come about after the decision has already been decided on by unconscious processes. Our conscious processing may be closely parallel to the main unconscious processing which is sorting the information. As our unconscious processing has figured out the answer it quickly becomes known consciously and we respond. Our unconscious has probably already prepared us to buzz in, our body has already started the movement or has buzzed in, when we consciously become aware of the notion “Buzz now”. That’s my general take.

        Certainly decisions cannot be found to be “made” internally within the system prior to the inputs, such as before a question is asked- unless you understand how that system will process such inputs. I don’t think Jerry’s highlighting of the 7-seconds means that all decisions could be understood by fMRI’s 7-seconds prior to the carrying out of the decision, and especially not ones where the most important inputs or environmental prompting of the question has yet to happen. Again, as we do everyday through simple psychology, we can probably predict that a certain situation will be responded to in a certain way- upon coming upon T-rex we all run away, or when someone offers us a no-strings-attached free $1000 we will probably accept it. These “choices,” at least the latter coming with some conscious thought, will be made based on our brains and their structure (our Capitalistic/individualistic world) that structures us to take a free $1000 and to run away from dangerous things.

      • Kharamatha
        Posted December 28, 2011 at 10:24 am | Permalink

        Who knew? Turns out driving-lessons are important to our academics.

        I know well that conscious deliberation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sitting in a car and trying to think everything through step by step is only less likely to get you killed at very low speed-limits. That requisite kind of capacity is extraordinary in the extreme.

  8. PB
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    Freewill is an area that create a lot of confusion of term. A lot will misunderstand Jerry’s position.

    Actually, we’re on the verge of a totally new understanding of how brain creates the virtual world inside our head, including sense-of-self (the ‘executive’ of the subroutines running on top of the hardware brain).

    There’s a book by Alex Rosenberg (2011) Cole Professor of Philosophy at Duke University, aptly named: The Atheist’s Guide to Reality – Enjoying Life without Illusions.

    The writing is bit difficult, but he discussed this idea in even stronger words than Jerry.

    I’m open minded about these, the fMRI s have to produce more evidence.

  9. Pete Carlton
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    Isn’t saying “We don’t have naïve, contracausal free will, therefore we shouldn’t use the term ‘free will’ to refer to what compatibilists say we have” kind of like saying “We don’t have a soul, therefore we shouldn’t use the term ‘life’ to refer to what modern biologists say we have”?

    If the term “free will” has too much metaphysical baggage for some people, then what term should be used to describe the informationally-sensitive actions of uncoerced rational agents?

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:02 am | Permalink

      then what term should be used to describe the informationally-sensitive actions of uncoerced rational agents?

      Uncoerced by what? Are you saying there are agents which are free from coersion by the laws fo physics? That makes as much sense as spherical cows. If that’s not what you are saing, then you underline the confusion of terms, not repudiate it.

      • Myron
        Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

        “coercion by the laws of physics” – Laws of physics or nature aren’t forces or active entities. To say that the universe is “governed” by laws is a metaphorical way of speaking.

      • Peter
        Posted December 27, 2011 at 10:41 am | Permalink

        The laws of physics don’t “coerce.” Agents coerce other agents to do their bidding.

        For that matter, one doesn’t even need to talk about the laws of physics “causing” anything. Causality is something we interpret onto physics. It’s not a relationship that’s there in the equations, which are mostly time-reversible.

    • Julien Rousseau
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:31 am | Permalink

      more like saying “We don’t have naïve, supernatural souls, therefore we shouldn’t use the term ‘soul’ to refer to what neurobiologists say we have”.

      Maybe one day the term free will can be redefined but as long as most people use it to mean something that we know doesn’t exist doing so is just being like Humpty Dumpty saying that when he uses a word it means exactly what he means it to mean.

      At least they should point that they use a different definition by calling it “philosophical free will” for example.

      • steve
        Posted December 27, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

        Or call the other thing legal free will… as in “I sign this last will and testiment of my own free will.” (Meaning nobody made me do it by pointing a gun to my head.) This kind of legal disclaimer of course is not meant as a statement on the reality of the freedom of humanity’s will.

  10. Anthony Paul
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    I feel compelled to point out that the Harris’ puppet metaphor is totally misleading as it implies an independent conscious controller handling the strings. Allowing for additional argument so the mystery controller can change what I describe – for practical purposes only of course – as “my” mind, at this point “compatibilist” free will makes way more sense to me than “contracausal” free will, such that I can see an argument that you should stop using the term “free will” as you use it to refer to what now appears to be a primitive and nonsensical idea that never had a real-life counterpart. Finally, I think you throw the baby out with the bathwater by effectively isolating any one of countless decisions as if any random single decision proves something actually worth worrying about. Please explain how your apparent enthusiasm for the notion of the “expanding circle” fits into this – what exactly? despair? – over the “loss” of contracausal free will. So at any one point in time, a person, or a cat, is no more but also no less than the sum of all the unknown genes and experiences and environmental influences that have existed prior to that moment. So?

    • Posted December 27, 2011 at 6:57 am | Permalink

      In this case, I think, the puppetmaster is the preceding events that led up to the decisions.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 6:58 am | Permalink

      I don’t think Sam’s statement implies that at all. The “strings” he refers to are clearly the deterministic strings of genes plus environment. You’d know that if you’d read his book. The metaphor is spot on and not misleading.

  11. IMil
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    OK, let’s imagine that the experiment “if the past history of an individual and all of her molecules were replicated” can actually be performed (obviously, it can’t, neither practically nor theoretically).

    There would be two possibilities: person either chooses the same way, or differently.

    The problem is, none of this outcomes would prove either absence or presence of free will. If the choice was different, how can one distinguish between “free will” and “random chance”? And if it was the same, it might just mean that it really was the best choice at the moment :)

    In my opinion, “free will” is one of the concepts that are intuitively clear, yet cannot be strictly defined. Anyhow, in practice the illusion of free will is too strong to be ignored. Moreover, if it does not exist, we do not have the free will to disbelieve it :)

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:04 am | Permalink

      Moreover, if it does not exist, we do not have the free will to disbelieve it

      Some people seem to manage. Will Provine has been riding this hobby horse for decades.

      • IMil
        Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:38 am | Permalink

        Well, maybe he is predestined to do this.

        • Reginald Selkirk
          Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:44 am | Permalink

          And I am pre-destined to exclaim, falsely, that I have never heard that joke before!

  12. Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    Let me see whether I have this right.

    Jerry Coyne, of his own free will, has put up a post where he asserts that there is no such thing as free will.

    In putting up that post, Jerry takes full moral responsibility for his assertion that there is no such thing as moral responsibility.

    Jerry has posted this as a result of his careful study of the evidence, and the conclusions he has reached based on the evidence. That study and those conclusion convince him that we have no ability at all to carefully study evidence and reach conclusions based on them.

    Yes, I believe I have that right.

    Jerry, I think you have successfully knocked down an absurd strawman version of “free will” that has very little to do with what most people mean when they talk of free will.

    … perhaps tempered with a bit of quantum indeterminacy, which can’t be part of free will …

    That’s where I think you go wrong. If there is quantum indeterminacy, then there is not determinism.

    There’s a commonly expressed view that randomness (such as with quantum events) could only result in random behavior, and of course random behavior is not free will. However, if we feed random electrical inputs to a diode, we get a very directional output. If we have random chemical variations on one side of a semi-permeable membrane, that can have directional effects on the other side. If you feed random mutations into natural selection, you get a directional result. Take a look at my posts on “purpose”, where I try to make the case that biological system can amplify the effects of low level randomness, and use those amplified effects for their own benefit.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:23 am | Permalink

      Your comment shows that you don’t understand what I said, because you’re using your own definition of free will when you write the first four paragraphs. I did NOT write that post of my own free will by my lights, I don’t have moral responsibility for it because I have no choice, and yes, I studied evidence, but that study, and the effect of the evidence on my brain, was determined.

      And if you think my definition of free will is an “absurd strawman”, then it happens to be a strawman that’s accepted by a lot of people, including the last three colleagues I talked to. Sorry, but I stick with my definition, because that’s what “free will” means in common parlance: one could have chosen otherwise.

      I agree that the universe is not determined if there’s quantum indeterminacy, but I don’t agree that if you feed random mutations into natural selection you get a deterministic result. If the direction of evolution depends on what mutations occur, and those mutations are rare, then you can get different outcomes–UNDETERMINED outcomes if mutations really do reflect quantum events.

      I presume you agree, then, that our actions are completely determined by the laws of physics. Yes or no?

      • Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:46 am | Permalink

        I did NOT write that post of my own free will by my lights, I don’t have moral responsibility for it because I have no choice,…

        If you deny moral responsibility, then we ought to just treat your post as total bullshit, and not waste time on it.

        I’m wondering what you take “moral responsibility” to mean.

        I agree that the universe is not determined if there’s quantum indeterminacy, but I don’t agree that if you feed random mutations into natural selection you get a deterministic result.

        But I never suggest that you get a deterministic result. I only suggest that you get a directed result.

        I am identifying free will as the ability to make pragmatic decisions. A computer has no free will because all of its decisions are true-false decisions. And a true-false decision is a forced “decision”, forced by the state of the world. Everyone able to make sound judgments of truth should make the same true/false decisions. But biological systems can and do make pragmatic decisions. Pragmatic decisions are not forced in the way that true/false decisions are. They result from internal considerations of what works for the decider. They are person-relative, so properly credited to the person or other entity making the decision, rather than to the world as a whole.

        I presume you agree, then, that our actions are completely determined by the laws of physics. Yes or no?

        No, of course not. As long as there is quantum indeterminism, then nothing is “fully determined” by the laws of physics.

        I agree that our actions are consistent with the laws of physics, that they do not violate those laws. But they are not completely determined by those laws.

        • Posted December 27, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

          What do you suppose distinguishes ‘directed’ outcomes from ‘determined’ outcomes? More to the point, how would a directed outcome (I’m presuming that directed is some form of deterministic process with an inherent chance element?) make available a place for free will to exist?

      • greg byshenk
        Posted December 27, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

        Jerry, I, also, think your definition is a strawman (though not necessarily an ‘absurd’ one). I think I’ve pointed this out in some previous discussion, but…

        The “ordinary” understanding of ‘free will’ is somewhat confused. I’ve no doubt that many people (including smart people) who haven’t really thought much about it, will accept your definition when given. But I am almost certain that I could very quickly get them to -reject- your definition under a bit of additional consideration.

        Consider that your definition requires that the situation be exactly the same, which means that all of “my” wants, desires, motivations, etc. are exactly the same. Which means that, to exercise freewill according to your definition, I would have to want to act the same way, but somehow end up acting differently. And this is where your definition comes into conflict with the “ordinary” view, and I think it is in an ambiguity of what is to be considered “exactly the same situation”. The ordinary view of ‘freewill’ is that “in the same situation, I could have acted differently — had I wanted to do so” — which means that the situation must be very similar, but -not- actually the same in every respect.

        In effect, your definition requires that, in order to demonstrate ‘freewill’, I must act -not- in accord with my motivations, desires, and wishes. And that can’t be right.

        • Peter
          Posted December 27, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

          The two normal responses to that are:
          1) But your very wants are just determined by physics. (true, but…do would you gain anything worth wanting if your wants really weren’t caused by anything? what we want from free will is to be able to satisfy our desires, whyever we may have them…also, we can learn to weigh our desires differently, to moderate our destructive impulses and to encourage others, so that all our desires are more in line)

          2) well, imagine a binary choice where your wants come out to exactly 50/50 for either choice. Then if we have free will, and re-run the tape, you should choose A half the time and B half the time (but, well, then we’re kind of stipulating that free will only comes up when we don’t care what the outcome is. Why should we care if we have that sort of freedom?)

          • greg byshenk
            Posted December 27, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

            I don’t quite follow as to how those are responses.

            I am not arguing for some contra-causal freewill. Rather, I am arguing -against- Jerry’s definition, at least in so far as it is claimed that the definition somehow captures what people “normally” mean by ‘freewill’.

            The argument seems to be that it is correct to define ‘freewill’ such that -only- magical (contra-causal) freewill is -real- freewill, because that is what people “normally” mean. I think that this is false. The “normal” meaning is not restricted in this way. I think that the normal meaning is confused and possibly contradictory, but that the proposed definition fails adequately to coincide with normal intuitions.

            • Peter
              Posted December 27, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

              Oh, I agree they aren’t good responses, but that is how they respond. I don’t know what Jerry et. al. have against compatibilism.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:59 am | Permalink

      Let me see whether I have this right.
      Jerry Coyne, of his own free will, has put up a post where he asserts that there is no such thing as free will.

      Let me see if I have this right. Neil Rickert plays word games rather than take on the actual substance of the argument.

      That study and those conclusion convince him that we have no ability at all to carefully study evidence and reach conclusions based on them.

      And now Neil Rickert is just making **** up.

    • Tyro
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:41 am | Permalink

      Jerry Coyne, of his own free will, has put up a post where he asserts that there is no such thing as free will.

      I can’t tell if you’re playing some silly bugger definitional game by using different meanings of the term “free will” without any explanation, or if you’re too dense to question your own assumptions. Either way, that sentence burns with stupid.

    • Kharamatha
      Posted December 28, 2011 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      Of his own will, rather.

      You people are making me cry. :'( Stop gluing “free” onto it. You don’t do that to merchandise or animals. Poor will.

  13. Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    “Free will” is a pre-scientific notion of how humans make choices. It’s a myth, like the idea that a god dragged the sun across the sky in a chariot.

    The more appropriate approach is to simply study how humans make choices and understand what is happening in the brain and then develop theories and explanations for that behavior.

    The whole concept of “free will” makes very little sense, because it is simply a human invention, like the “soul” or “god”, not based on real scientific study, but based on a fantastic explanation for anecdotal evidence.

    It has no bearing on morality or on moral responsibility, because “free will” doesn’t really exist and people have been moral and responsible for quite a long time without it.

    So, again, the proper approach is to just shed all these ancient superstitious ideas about ourselves and actually study humans in an objective way and figure out how we manage to make choices and how we learn how to make good choices.

    We may in fact be automatons, but we also do learn quite well and we do seem to be fairly good at taking actions that further our goals. Free-will isn’t real, but that learning, self-serving behavior is real, and it is worth understanding.

    • Mary
      Posted December 28, 2011 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

      Best explanation (and reasoning) so far!

  14. David Leech
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    Not sure were I stand on free will, say you are a smoker and you decide to stop. Yes you are making a choice but it is a different choice to the one you usually make. How about my girlfriend who seems to be on a permanent diet (which strangely allows her to eat chocolate whenever she wants) will sometimes pinch a chip/French fry off my plate and sometimes she will eat it and sometimes she will say “ho I better not” and put it back. I realize one is a choice and the other is a choice to change her decision. Though aren’t you making ‘choice’ a unfalsifiable maxim?

    • Posted December 27, 2011 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      That is in fact a good demonstration of no free will.

      On the days she puts back the pilfered chip, can she explain why on this day she does and on another she doesn’t?
      Can she explain why on some days she never reaches out for the chip in the first place?

      There are probably a number of varying factors feeding into the result each time.

      • David Leech
        Posted December 27, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

        I understand that aspect of the argument but the choice part of the argument will always show ‘no free will’ which makes the claim unscientific because of its ‘unfalsifiable nature.’

        • mikmik
          Posted December 29, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

          Agreed. It is unfalsifiable. You make an excellent observation!

  15. Dragan Glas
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Greetings,

    The question I would ask is:

    What’s the evolutionary advantage of sentience?

    If it allows us, instead of a knee-jerk instinctive reaction, to take a mental step back and “choose” a different course of action, then is this not advantageous?

    Is this from of “free-will” a by-product of sentience – or the cause?

    Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts?

    Kindest regards,

    James

    • mikmik
      Posted December 29, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

      Yes! I ask the same question – What is the survival advantage of awareness if it means nothing? Awareness that comes after the action would seem superfluous.

  16. Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    I have not been able to make up my mind on the subject now for several years. I’m still feeding my computer brain information and waiting for it to kick in and tell me what to believe. Hey! It just kicked in this very second and I believe. WOW! A revelation! Related: Most atheists and agnostics agree, show me evidence of God’s existence and I will believe. The door is open for new information. Many church-goers don’t believe in the traditional God but continue to act as if they do believe. So, what good does it do to find truth and then act contrary to it? Nevertheless, I am encouraged that my arguments about God’s non-existence will eventually create an environment that will convince believers not to believe. We can drag them to truth even as they resist. I have more power than I ever thought I had. Oh, oh! What about St. Paul who had no choice in his conversion. God overpowered all his brain synapsis and memory and made the decision
    for him.

  17. Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    Does a chess-playing computer have free will?

    I would invert that.

    If humans have free will, then so too do computers.

    Now, whether or not somebody finds it satisfying to define “free will” in such a way that includes computers…I really couldn’t give a damn. I personally find the question rather meaningless.

    I certainly don’t take questions of “free will” into consideration when making decisions, and I fail to see what other relevance the subject might have (outside of late-night dorm room bull sessions, of course).

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Linda Grilli Calhoun
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink

      Thank you for this.

      I, too, find the question meaningless.

      Suppose we all become convinced that there is not any free will? OK, I think Jerry’s explanation is correct.

      Then what? Dwelling on this seems to me to be the equivalent of dwelling on death. It’s real, it’s there, it’s going to happen to all of us, but to be consumed by it, to the point of writing essays and books boggles my mind. L

      • Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:18 am | Permalink

        Linda et al. To some extent the question is meaningless insofar as it affects how we act or behave. Obviously we will go on acting as if we make choices. But there are two reasons that I think it’s important.

        1. Because it’s amazing to contemplate the possibility that we may not be the authors of our own actions, and that the brain may work in ways that are completely bizarre–that the experience of “agency” for example, may be an illusion. It highlights the mysteries of the brain (and their evolutionary origin) that still elude us.

        2. The real practical implications for no freewill are twofold. The trivial one is that it takes away the idea of religious people that they have souls and are able to decide freely whether to accept Baby Jesus. The more important reason is that realizing that people don’t really get to “choose” has implications for our ideas about how to dispense justice. If we think that a robber had no choice about his robbery, we might (and still) punish him for his own sake and for the sake of society: after all, deterrence is something that affects one’s brains. But it takes away the notion of punishment as retribution. It also, at least to me, makes one more empathic, because we see that people, as products of their genes and environments, often DON’T really have choices, and so we might want to try to change them through rehabilitative intervention rather than simply punish them by sticking them in prisons.

        So the really important practical result of all this philosophy is its implications for how we think about moral responsibility and punishment.

        • Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:34 am | Permalink

          I don’t think I see the same connections you do between “free will,” “moral responsibility,” and criminal justice, though I suspect that we wind up with similar conclusions as to the proper way to treat criminals.

          As far as criminal justice goes, I think the overriding concern should be for the desired outcome; justifications should be irrelevant, just as they should be irrelevant for anything else. You might justify applying a poultice made from certain herbs because their aroma offends evil spirits, but what you really care about is how effective it will be at healing the wound.

          And I can see no other purpose for the criminal justice system than to prevent (or, at least, reduce) recidivism. And we pretty much already know that, for the overwhelming majority of cases at least, the best way to do that is to provide what society should have provided in the first place: education, job training, and treatment for mental health disorders (including addictions).

          It would also be quite a good idea to re-think the notion of “crime” in the first place and stop punishing people for actions that cause no more harm than offending the sensibilities of hypersensitive busybodies.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Kharamatha
            Posted December 28, 2011 at 10:38 am | Permalink

            Yay!

        • Linda Grilli Calhoun
          Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:42 am | Permalink

          Thank you for your response.

          But, if we actually ARE influenced by information, it seems to me that your position is that we are able to act differently than we would without the information, i.e. our environment is now changed.

          So, we are then more influenced externally than internally? If that’s true, then how do you separate that information to make democracy acceptable? Would it not be better to be ruled by a knowledgeable despot who would influence us correctly from outside of ourselves? Religious people would think that is true, and that the despot should be one who agrees with their beliefs. According to this position, people who raise “hitchling” children are participating in an illusion. Why is this a superior “choice”?

          As far as dispensing justice – isolation of violent individuals just seems to me to be common sense, having nothing to do with retribution. Rehabilitation requires training. Again, if you can influence other people externally, and you claim that right, then you’ve just given religious people that same right, at least in a democracy.

          I have trained animals all of my adult life. I am very well aware that some techniques work better than others, and that, to some extent one has to tailor one’s approach to the individual personality. I KNOW I can influence other beings from the outside. I think whether one can influence oneself is an open question.

          Jerry, I still think that your concept of “choice” being an illusion is basically correct, from what I know about brain function and physics.

          But I think the argument for a humane approach to correcting criminal behavior is better approached from the standpoint of effectiveness (and the right of society to have safety).

          As far as people “choosing” to believe in Jeebus, a lot of them believe in predestination, too. To them, this might look like a justification. L

        • Tyro
          Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:52 am | Permalink

          I think it would be a fine result if more people in the criminal justice system stopped thinking in terms of retribtion and punishment or even of deterrence and started thinking purely in terms of safety and justice. (There have been some very intriguing discussions of this on the All In The Mind podcast, if anyone is inclined to check these things out.)

          Do better prison conditions reduce recidivism? If yes, then lets do that even though it might make prison seem cushy and insufficiently retributive. Do mandatory terms and minimum sentencing make streets safter? Are there other options besides prison which are better suited to some cases and if so, how do we identify them?

          It get so tiring to see the focus purely on making people “pay”. Sometimes the so-called justice system feels more like blood sport than a means of making our lives safer or more just.

          • Posted December 27, 2011 at 9:00 am | Permalink

            Punishing criminals for their crimes is exactly as horrific as torturing people who suffer from mental illness in order to cast out the demons possessing the victims — and for the same reasons.

            The punitive aspect of criminal justice should have gone out of fashion with electroshock and the icepick lobotomy, if not sooner. That it has not speaks only to the barbarity of our society.

            Don’t get me started on the legislated murders done by and in the name of the state, especially the states of China and Texas….

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Linda Grilli Calhoun
              Posted December 27, 2011 at 9:32 am | Permalink

              When training a dog, the optimum time between “crime” and “punishment” in order for the dog to make the association, is 5/6 second.

              It’s probably a little longer with people, but not the years and years that it sometimes takes between a crime and a punishment.

              I use a squirt bottle of water as a deterrent with many of my animals. A particular buck that I have now will be a perfect gentleman if I walk into his pen carrying the bottle, and I never have to use it. If I go in without it, though, he will try to knock me over, every time.

              Several years ago I had a buck that would become infuriated by being squirted. If he were being aggressive, it made him ten times worse. The best strategy with him was to be very, very quiet and smooth in motion when I was in his pen. But, twice during the seven years I had him, he knocked me down and came after me. Kicking him in the face was the only way I got out uninjured.

              I worked in corrections for several years. It always struck me that the “one-size-fits-all approach was ineffective because it didn’t take individual differences into consideration.

              Punishment actually DOES work with some people, and some animals, too. But encouragement and positive reward work better with most. However, occasionally you get individuals who see rewarding people as chumps.

              Creativity and flexibility would help a lot. L

              • Kharamatha
                Posted December 28, 2011 at 10:43 am | Permalink

                We need more career-migration from animal-care into law.

            • Gary W
              Posted December 27, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

              Punishing criminals for their crimes is exactly as horrific as torturing people who suffer from mental illness in order to cast out the demons possessing the victims

              I think this is nonsense. We punish criminals for a number of perfectly rational reasons: to prevent them from committing the crime again (incapacitation), to dissuade them or others from committing crimes through fear of the consequences (deterrence), to improve their moral character (rehabilitation), and to satisfy our sense of justice (retribution).

              • Ms. Lo
                Posted December 27, 2011 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

                I think only the retribution aspect is genuinely punishing criminals and it’s the thing that Ben and I said was abhorrent. Merely placing it in a list hardly makes it rational.

                Deterrence is the only plausible potential argument but I wonder what sort of evidence there is supporting it. Just doing a sniff test, to deter criminals they would have to believe that if they do a criminal act they will be caught and convicted, and that paying the penalties is not worth the benefits. We know the first part is not true so now it becomes a game of odds and criminals are not models of rational thinking or for their forethought. (Humans in general are not.) As for whether prison is not worth it, prison can be a career opportunity for gang members and for the destitute or drug addicted it may not seem like much of a change.

                I picture a meth addict looking to steal something so he can get high, a gang member trying to prove his credibility, or a violent thug asserting dominance who is only thinking two minutes into the future. Their thinking is so messed up that it’s ludicrous to imagine that even the gulag would give them pause.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 27, 2011 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

                Ms Lo,

                Why do you think retribution isn’t rational? You can’t claim it’s irrational on the grounds that you find it “abhorrent.” That’s just your subjective moral preference.

              • Posted December 27, 2011 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

                …and, to add on to Ms. Lo’s points, when criminals do consider the consequences of retributive punishment, the result is often disastrous.

                Rape is horrible, right? So let’s hang all rapists — that’ll deter them, if anything will.

                …except that now all that’s going to happen is rapists will start killing their victims as soon as they’re done with the assault. After all, the punishment is exactly the same if they get caught, and they’re much more likely to escape punishment without the prime witness walking around able to identify them.

                And what about that junkie who pays for his fix by sticking up liquor stores with his finger poking a point in his jacket pocket? With a three-strikes rule, after the second time he gets out of jail, he might as well go into a bank with guns blazing. His chances of success are better — or, at least, no worse — and he’ll get the same sentence either way.

                Of all the ways to reduce crime, “deterrence” though threat of torture or death is not only the least effective method I can think of, but the only one I’m aware of that’s likely to have the opposite of the stated excuse for its use.

                And, please. Don’t kid us, and don’t kid yourself. Retribution isn’t justice; it’s blood lust, pure and simple. You don’t want justice. You want the pleasure of feeling power over somebody, and you want to know that you have that power by imposing your will on that person so forcefully it hurts. Bad. Your desires are criminal, and I can only hope that you don’t act on them.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Gary W
                Posted December 27, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

                Ben Goren,

                I think criminal penalties probably do significantly reduce crime through deterrence and incapacitation, and I think you’d have a hard time time demonstrating otherwise. But I’m not really interested in a debate about that empirical question.

                My point is that many people believe that criminals deserve to suffer for their crimes, especially in the case of particularly heinous crimes. In fact, I think most people believe this. That is, most people’s conception of justice includes an element of retribution for wrongdoing. Criminal penalties serve that sense of justice. You apparently have a different conception of justice. But that’s just your opinion.

              • Posted December 27, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

                most people’s conception of justice includes an element of retribution for wrongdoing

                Why is “most people’s conception of justice” right?

                Surely, the point is that that is based on most people’s conception of contra-causal free will, which is disputed.

                /@

              • Gary W
                Posted December 27, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

                There is no “right” (in sense of “objectively correct”) conception of justice. It’s a matter of subjective preference.

                If your argument is that there’s no such thing as moral agency, on the grounds that free will is an illusion and people therefore cannot choose how to act, then no acts are morally wrong, including acts of retribution.

              • Kharamatha
                Posted December 28, 2011 at 10:47 am | Permalink

                “As for whether prison is not worth it, prison can be a career opportunity for gang members and for the destitute or drug addicted it may not seem like much of a change.”

                I’ve actually considered going to prison. I decide against it because of risk and inflexibility involved, and because there seem to be more favourable venues still.
                But yeah, there’s a roof, and food, if that’s what you’re after.

        • Posted December 27, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

          “So the really important practical result of all this philosophy is its implications for how we think about moral responsibility and punishment.”

          Quite so, in particular see Bruce Waller’s new book Against Moral Responsibility, which draws out the progressive implications of realizing that we don’t have contra-causal free will (CCFW) for criminal justice and social inequality. This is also the theme of a chapter in Toward a New Political Humanism, “The progressive policy implications of naturalism” http://www.naturalism.org/progressivepolitics.htm The naturalistic denial of CCFW is very much in line with the egalitarian thrust of the Occupy movement since it explodes the myth of the self-made self.

        • Gary W
          Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

          But if we were to treat people as if they have no choice over their actions, the implications would go far beyond prisons and criminal justice. It would dramatically alter our entire society. We would have to eliminate all language, all laws, all social conventions, all institutions predicated on the existence of choice and moral agency. No one would deserve blame for any kind of wrongdoing, from small, everyday infractions like a rude colleague at work or a misbehaving child all the way up to mass murder and political corruption and war. Similarly, no one would deserve credit or praise for anything beneficial that they do. Can you seriously imagine such a society, a society in which there is no choice, no right or wrong, but simply actions? I can’t.

          I think this is the point Jean Kazez is alluding to. Even though we know that every event is ultimately determined by the laws of physics, human societies rest on the “fiction” of choice and moral agency.

          • steve
            Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

            Not “choice”, but “free choice”… non-free willism does not deny choosing, but only freely choosing.

            But you are correct, blame and credit both are seen for what they have been all along, empty.

            • Gary W
              Posted December 27, 2011 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

              Not “choice”, but “free choice”… non-free willism does not deny choosing, but only freely choosing.

              Hard to know what this means. What’s the difference between “no choice,” “non-free choice” and “free choice” as you mean those terms?

              Your view that blame is an empty concept doesn’t seem to be very widely shared even among the commenters on this blog, considering how often one sees angry, judgmental comments here about religious groups and individuals, apologists for religion, political conservatives, homophobes, etc. I’m not saying these comments are unjustified or meaningless. I generally agree with them. I’m saying that the idea of eliminating blame and credit — and moral agency more broadly — from human affairs is a fantasy.

              • steve
                Posted December 28, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

                Gary,

                I am stating that there is a difference between saying that humans do not freely make choices, and saying that humans do not make choices. Too often these different notions are confused as synonymous and used indiscriminately obfuscating the issue at hand.

                The non-free willists claim is that there is no freedom to the choices that are made. All choices are necessitated by antecedent circumstances leading up to the choice. That rather than being an agent of choice, individuals are conduits through which circumstances are played out.

                Please, if you notice anyone on the non-free willist side of the argument placing blame, or taking credit, let me know… but if you notice this coming from the other side of the discussion… don’t be surprised because these things are part and parcel to the free will illusion.

              • Gary W
                Posted December 28, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

                I am stating that there is a difference between saying that humans do not freely make choices, and saying that humans do not make choices.

                Yes, and I’m asking you what you think that difference is. You said that you think people have a “choice” but not a “free choice.” What’s the difference, in your view, between a “free choice,” a “non-free choice” and no choice?

                Please, if you notice anyone on the non-free willist side of the argument placing blame, or taking credit

                It happens all the time. The comments on this blog frequently express anger, scorn, contempt, mockery, etc. towards various groups and individuals, most often towards proponents and apologists for religion and conservative political views. Similarly, there has been a recent outpouring of praise and admiration for Christopher Hitchens. But if you deny moral agency, if you think people do not deserve blame or credit for their actions, this makes no sense. Getting angry at fundamentalists and homophobes and racists makes no more sense than getting angry at tornados and earthquakes.

            • Peter
              Posted December 28, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

              In these discussions, Coyne is always careful to say that we DON’T REALLY CHOOSE. Not that we don’t choose freely, but rather that choice itself is just an illusion. Also, he and others back that claim up by pointing to the fact that our choices are made unconsciously, so that the “reasons” we give are mere rationalizations.*

              *ok, with Dennett and Hofstadter, I’m going to sort of agree that conscious accounts of reasons are to some extent rationalizations, but not that they are *mere* rationalization, like Coyne thinks.

              http://www.amazon.com/Minds-Fantasies-Reflections-Self-Soul/dp/0553345842

              • Gary W
                Posted December 28, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

                Yes, I still have no idea what Steve means when he says human beings “choose” but don’t “freely choose.”

  18. Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    But computers that spit out a single output—a choice—after absorbing many inputs are still computers, and we don’t think that computers programmed to respond to complicated inputs have “free will.”

    If it’s decision-making processes were as rich as a humans, I just might!

    However, although I still think compatibilist free will is a reasonable model, I will admit that I am increasingly convinced — based both on posts like this one, as well as comments from other readers on posts like this one — that it’s simply not helpful to use those particular words to describe the concept.

    There is a point where a thinking machine (like a human) becomes so complex — or at least, when its complexity takes on a certain nature — that we start to care about its personal autonomy and its “feelings”. No computer that we have built approaches this point, but there’s no reason in principle why one might not in the future (there may be technological barriers which wind up making this impractical, but it’s certainly not theoretically impossible, since we know we exist!)

    So there is “something” here that we are talking about. But I am starting to change my mind, that perhaps calling that “something” compatibilist free will is unhelpful. It is potentially confusing to the layperson, for whom nothing short of contracausal free will is the only thing that counts, and it complicates the discussion with people like Jerry for whom it seems to them too much like a futile attempt to salvage a concept that science has long since refuted.

    So call it something else, I suppose. I think one must (or at least ought) to admit that what philosophers mean when they refer to compatibilist free will is a real thing*, but if you want to make the semantic argument that it’s a stupid thing to call it, I think I’m beginning to agree with you.

    * If you don’t think so, then how do you justify not torturing people and animals, while you’d be just fine if I wrote a computer program that repeatedly said, “Don’t press ENTER please, it hurts me!” and then hit ENTER a thousand times?

    • Posted December 27, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      “if you want to make the semantic argument that it’s a stupid thing to call it, I think I’m beginning to agree with you.”

      Can’t we just call it “will”?

      • Kharamatha
        Posted December 28, 2011 at 10:50 am | Permalink

        Yay! \o/

  19. Myron
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    “Experimental work by Libet is worth mentioning in this connection, because it’s been cited in support of the view that we never really make choices or decisions in the present moment of consciousness in the way we think we do. … Strongly put, the claim is that the neurophysiological evidence shows that the experience of conscious choice is strictly speaking illusory; it occurs only when a choice that has already been made and has already begun to be acted on is (as it were) presentedin consciousness. This undermines an intensely natural picture of agency according to which it is, essentially, the ‘conscious I’ that is the agent. We take it that in so far as we are deciders and choosers and initiators of action, true exercisers of agency, we are so as conscious beings who are present in the present moment—essentially so. Yet it seems, as Norretranders says, that ‘it is not a person’s conscious I that really initiates an action…The I does not want to accept this. The thinking, conscious I insists on being the true player, the active operator, the one in charge. But it cannot be’ (1991: 257).
    Is this true? There is, it seems, a sense in which it is—although it isn’t really an empirical question whether the onset of the readiness potential should count as a choice. If it were true, would it undermine anything that matters? No. Even on their strongest interpretation Libet’s results do not in any way threaten the view that we really do make decisions and choices, and are indeed the authors of our actions. For our decisions and choices and actions, mental or bodily, are not in any sense not our own, or in any way less our own, because their original occurrence isn’t conscious (the same goes for our thoughts, reasonings, judgements). Libet’s results don’t threaten any defensible sense in which we can be said to have free will or to be responsible for what we do. The experience one has of being the author or origin of one’s decision or choice is mistaken only in so far as it may not be oneself considered narrowly as the ‘conscious I’ present in the moment of the conscious experience of making the choice or decision that actually makes the choice or decision. The choice or decision is, to repeat, no less one’s own for occurring outside consciousness (it is certainly no one else’s). It flows from oneself, from one’s character and outlook, from what one is, mentally. The most that Libet’s experiments show is that one doesn’t make one’s choices and decisions or initiate one’s action consciously in quite the way one thinks one does or at exactly the time one thinks one does.”

    (Strawson, Galen. Selves: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. pp. 195-6)

  20. Tyro
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    I might have been one of your earlier critics (or at least appeared that way) but I wanted to say that I’ve always supported your general thust and your last few posts have been spot on. If I was critiquing anything it was some nitpicky definitional things but otherwise you’re right on the money.

    If anything, I thing Sam doesn’t go far enough:

    A puppet is free so long as he loves his strings.

    I think the insidious part of the illusion of free will is that the strings don’t tug on our bodies but on our mind and our emotions. Our strings decide what we love and don’t love, so almost by definition we love our strings and feel free to do so.

  21. Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    Free will is always going to be a live issue for me, despite the good arguments for determinism, and against compatibilism. That’s because when I make decisions, I can only believe I’m not free in a highly theoretical way. In some sense or other, I believe I (must be) free. This is most compelling when the decision is especially trivial. Should I raise my right or my left hand in 10 seconds? It’s extremely difficult to think what I decide was inevitable 100 or 1000 or a billion years ago. Philosophy doesn’t penetrate the belief system that judges the decision is free. So–endless fun can be had thinking and rethinking these issues.

  22. Jack van Beverningk
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    Could Jerry recommend a book (or, preferably, books!) on the issue of Free Will, that can be read as an introductory text for those (like myself) that find the premise interesting, but, so far, haven’t given it much thought?

    • Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:24 am | Permalink

      Jack,

      For an elaboration of incompatibilism, I don’t think you could do better than Sam’s new book (it’s short, really at 30-page essay), which will be out in February. I put a link to it above. Most of the stuff I’ve been reading is pretty arcane, like the Oxford Handbook of Free Will. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has pretty thorough pieces on free will, compatibilism, and incompatibilism, but those, too, are dry and academic. I don’t know of any general and popular treatment of free will that’s not a polemic, but maybe some of the other readers do.

      But one should read about the biology even more than about the philosophy, because that’s where the real advances are coming from (curiously, the Stanford book barely mentions neurophysiology!). And the biology is all pretty recent, and in papers rather than books. I’ve linked to a lot of them on this website.

      • jonathan morgan
        Posted December 27, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

        I just read “Who’s In Charge?” by Michael Gazzaniga.

        He is a world-renowned neuroscientist (he’s done some of the pioneering research in split-brain patients)–on Sam Harris’ website, he says he’s currently reading it.

        He offers a different take–that “mind” is an “emergent” phenomenon that is derived from the deterministic workings of brain which turns out to be more that the sum of its parts.

        So its deterministic at the level of individual neurons firing, but not at the level of consciousness.

        He makes a strong argument for taking personal responsibility for our actions, which most of us, under normal situations, do have, even if, ultimately we don’t “choose what we choose” (to quote Sam Harris)

    • Myron
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:31 am | Permalink

      I’m not Jerry, but here’s a recommendation of mine:

      * Kane, Robert. A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    • PB
      Posted December 28, 2011 at 8:17 am | Permalink

      I mentioned in my comment #8 above:

      There’s a book by Alex Rosenberg (2011) Cole Professor of Philosophy at Duke University, aptly named: The Atheist’s Guide to Reality – Enjoying Life without Illusions.

      I have finished it, I’ll enjoy a discussion about the content. I would say Mr. Rosenberg is a hardcore atheist (Dawkins scale of 6.999).
      And he is adamant that free will is totally no-no. Srsly.

  23. Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    The idea that we are mere puppets of deterministic causation, whether physical, psychological, behavioral or social, forgets the fact that human agents are just as causally effective as their determinants. We pull strings just as much as strings pull us. True, we aren’t self-caused little gods, but we are robust loci of control, determining outcomes according to our desires and plans. To suppose that we would have more control by being able to have done otherwise in actual situations is the mistake, http://www.naturalism.org/fatalism.htm#The_Flaw_of_Fatalism

    • Myron
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      So the puppet and the puppeteer are one and the same agent or person?

      • Posted December 27, 2011 at 10:41 am | Permalink

        Yes, we can pull our own strings, so to speak, by understanding the causes of our behavior and then taking steps to change the conditions that produce behavior we don’t like, see for instance http://www.naturalism.org/Weight_Loss_Naturalism.htm This is a fully caused process, but that doesn’t undermine the value of having understood the actual causal processes themselves for achieving greater self-control and achieving one’s goals. Giving up the myth of contra-causal free will gives us power and fosters compassion.

  24. Barry
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    The implications of Kahneman’s research (described in “Thinking Fast and Slow”) provide a slightly different take on freewill. His psychological explanation of heuristics, related to the “system 1″ and “system 2″ brain functioning suggests that bias affects pretty much all decisions and that this has implications for behavior that are predictive. I guess in its simplest form a key question is why are we so easily fooled by illusions? When asked to “decide” what we think we are shown we are often wrong. We often disregard key information and evidence that we should consider prior to making a decision because of “recency effect”, “confirmation bias”, “anchoring” or a fundamental attribution error.

    In what sense, therefore, are any of our decisions “free”?

    @mankinholes

  25. FormerComposer
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Why do people care about “free will.” I can only think of two reasons — the same reasons that any good scientific theory satisfies. 1) To explain the past, what has happened. This explanation is often made more convenient by the use of a “shorthand” of a theory. 2) To predict the future, what might or will happen. Again, this prediction is made more convenient by the “shorthand” of the theory. In dealing with the past, one can easily imagine many counterfactual futures for a particular instant. Once something “happens”, though, a large number of those futures are now foreclosed. That “something” could be (in some cases) what people use the phrase “free will” to signify — it is the naming of an instant where a minuscule physical change occurs that precludes an infinity of possible follow-ons. (There may still be a different infinity of follow-ons, however, and there may even be some overlap between the two sets farther down their respective paths.) The problem people and other animals have is reliably predicting the future state of the blooming, buzzing confusion we inhabit. “Free will” seems to be an extremely useful heuristic. And, like all heuristics, following its lead is sometimes wrong. We are still surprised. But it is a recognition that predicting the future often comes down to the small “choice points” (really the instants of those minuscule changes mentioned above) about which we, as outside observers, often have no clue (sometimes we are even outside observers of our self.)

  26. Peter
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Just on the basis of simple propositional logic, it is hard to believe anyone ever took seriously this:

    “Maybe you can’t decide freely to do something, but you can decide freely not to do something.”

    This is waffle #3 of the compatibilist pantheon that might be seriously considered.

    That seems to say: even if there is no free will ‘to do D’, there might be ‘to not do D’. And it is supposed to be the “not” that makes this possible. Thus, one has free will (in spades, with more than one “not”) ‘to not not do D’. But the latter is semantically identical with ‘to do D’, so the whole idea is destroyed by the simplest logical contradiction a freshman in logic easily could find.

    (And put the “to” after all the “not”s if you prefer, it makes no difference.)

  27. Peter
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    Quick thoughts:

    -I don’t care whether Jerry is a compatibilist or not

    -But Jerry is doing a terrible job of describing what compatibilism is, and of engaging with what he thinks is wrong with it

    -I don’t think anyone should be impressed if you can predict our ice cream choice with 60% or better accuracy (for binary choices), or statistically significant accuracy for more choices. We tend to choose the ice creams we like, and if you know our preferences, you can make those predictions. You don’t need fMRI to do that.

    -Compatibilism isn’t a response to *physical* determinism specifically. It’s a response to the fact that we think there are reasons for our behaviors, and yet we also think our behaviors can be unpredictable. But the reasons don’t need to be computed with physics and chemistry: it *could* be (for the sake of argument, I’m not endorsing this view) that human behavior is too complicated for a meat computer to implement, so that our personalities are instantiated supernaturally, (in the soul, which would have more processing power). The immaterial soul could itself be partially or completely deterministic (though mostly decoupled from and inscrutable to the rest of physics), in the sense that if produces only one output for any input. If we happened to suppose our brains worked that way, we still wouldn’t have the solution to the free will problem (in Jerry’s case, he’d probably say that we…? see, I really don’t know how to apply his definition to that case–we still wouldn’t be able to decide otherwise, but not because of physics). Compatiblism holds that the mechanical details of how our thoughts and behavior are processed are mostly irrelevant to the types of questions we’re asking when free-will problems comes up.

    -Stipulating that “I can’t choose differently, therefore free will is false,” begs the question with artificially loaded meanings of “I”, “can”, and “choose.” For example, if you take “I” to mean the particular configuration of atoms that are instantiating “I” when you make the choice, then we really can’t choose differently. But then don’t “I” also cease to exist when that configuration changes? Are there specific rules for the evolution of that configuration that preserves it’s identification as “I”? Seriously, Jerry is driving this whole discussion on his intuition about what free-will must mean, but in order to get there he seems to require highly unintuitive, uncommonly specific definitions of such things as “I”, “can”, and “choose”.

  28. Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    “A puppet is free so long as he loves his strings”.

    Super quote. This tidily sums up why the radically counter-intuitive realization that contra-causal free will is a mirage should not leave us mired in existential despair. Despite the fact that our decisions are caused, we still do what we want to do. However, as Jerry has noted above, the implications on our justice system are profound. Punishing people for bad behavior because we think they should be punished for making the wrong choice is just as useless as heaping praise on them for doing something good when they supposedly could have chosen to do something bad. The only justifiable reason for punishment should be to deter the offender and others from committing the crime in the future.

    • Gary W
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

      Punishing people for bad behavior because we think they should be punished for making the wrong choice is just as useless as heaping praise on them for doing something good when they supposedly could have chosen to do something bad

      But it’s not “useless.” It satisfies our desire for justice.

  29. Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    If there is no free will then everyone is innocent so there is no need for God.

  30. Barb F
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    This is what Zen masters call a Koan. It forces us to think in entirely new ways. Who needs an answer? Who believes there is one? Sounds like Calvinism reframed. Am I a chosen one or not? Does it mastter? If I can’t change what I do, even contemplating the nihilistic ramifications would only be what i was programmed to do by genetic encoding and life experience. If one cannot choose, one must do something or nothing. Go for it. Or not.

  31. Posted December 27, 2011 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    The central flaw in Coyne’s case against compatibilism is that he is criticizing it as if it was libertarian free will, when it is not.

    Compatibilism is not debunked by determinism or dependent on the incoherent concept of “ability to have done otherwise”. In fact, it necessarily presuppose determinism at the level of the brain.

    Compatibilism is just the ability to predict the likely consequences of our actions (which cannot be done without determinism at the level of the brain) and act to avoid unpleasant ones. One cannot simply reply that “well, that is still determinism”, “It is not a (libertarian) free choice” etc. because that is not the point of compatibilism to begin with.

    Instead of thinking of compatibilistic freedom as an either-or dichotomy, we can think of it in terms of a graded scale. Clearly, human adults often have more of it than children, for instance.

    I found it useful to try to nail down what definition of freedom (or free will) one is using to avoid talking past each other.

    • dieter
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

      Coyne’s critique of compatibilism also undermines the theory evolution. After all, if determinism invalidates the concept of “free will” and “choice”, then it invalidates even moreso the concepts of “randomness”, “selection” and especially “sexual selection”.

  32. Kevin
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    I only got as far as your definition and had to stop.

    “independent of the laws of physics”?

    Who in the world says that?

    Within the context of the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology, our brains have developed an awareness of our selves and our environment. So that, at any point in time, we can made decisions that will lead to alternate space-time pathways.

    * Turn left instead of right (to take the long way around rather than the more-dangerous shortcut). Or turn right to take the shortcut.
    * Go to Harvard instead of Yale.
    * Have the beef and not the chicken.
    * Get into a shouting match but not a fistfight.
    * Get into a fistfight but not a knife fight.

    Our brains are clearly plastic enough to make those choices freely, and the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology clearly do not constrain them. Given the same circumstances today as yesterday, I can and often do make different choices.

    Nothing about physics, chemistry, or biology constrains my actions because all of my choices are already constrained. I can’t “decide” to fly like Superman to the grocery store.

    That doesn’t mean that I don’t have choices or that I must perforce act in a single way and that the entire path of my life and everyone else’s is already pre-set so that next Tuesday at 4 pm, I’ll be doing a specific thing because I was predestined to be there doing that at the moment of the Big Bang.

    So, within the set of the possible actions, I am free to take alternate courses.

    What you’re totally discounting is the plasticity of the brain and the nature of human consciousness. It’s your biggest weakness, IMHO.

    And now, I’m going to make a choice to get some work done.

    • Another Matt
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      Given the same circumstances today as yesterday, I can and often do make different choices.

      Ah ha, this is instructive, and maybe even the crux of the issue. There are some loose ways of using the notion of “same.” Clearly, “given the same circumstances today as yesterday” is incoherent at some level because one set of circumstances was yesterday and the other today (so there is a difference). One compatibilist point (and maybe the point of empiricism) as well, is that our brains are sufficiently complex to model the world by making very strong analogies between different situations. When someone says “I could have chosen differently” it’s in the sense that they have just made analogies to other situations which were extremely similar, and yet made a different decision in those cases. (It’s further complicated by level analysis, and I think Jerry is unfairly leaving the word “I” unanalyzed in his discussion.)

      If I remember correctly, Jerry likes soccer. If someone has beat the goalie but misses the goal, and Jerry says “aw… I’ve seen her make that identical shot before” – his brain has made a strong analogy between this event and past ones based on its model of the world, but the word “identical” goes too far because obviously SOME of the variables in this set of circumstances were different; just not different enough to make a difference to the model. Nevertheless “identical circumstances” is an extremely useful approximation (or if you want, a lie) because it allows us to do science and have “fee wrill” (or whatever you want to call the compatibilist version of what we have).

      • Chris Granger
        Posted December 27, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

        Given the same circumstances today as yesterday, I can and often do make different choices.

        I’m glad you caught this. If time passes in between A and B, clearly A and B can’t be the same. No two decisions in our lives could ever be based on the same set of circumstances.

  33. Joseph P. Bevak
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Robert Trivers in “The Folly of Fools”, p. 55, says: “From the time a person becomes concious of the intent to do something (throw a ball), he or she has about a second to abort the action, and this can occur up to one hundred milliseconds before action (one-tenth of a second). These effects can themselves operate below conciousness–that is, subliminal effects operating at two hundred milliseconds before action can affect the chance of action. In that sense, the proof of a long chain of unconcious neural activity before conscious intention is formed (after which there is about a one-second delay before action) does not obviate the concept of free will, at least in the sense of being able to abort bad ideas and also being able to learn, both conciously and unconciously, from past experience.”

    • Posted December 27, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      Love Trivers and love that book.

    • steve
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      Trivers may assert this, but he is in error. If an individual was to abort a “bad idea” their ability to do so, and their doing so, would still be a function of their causal matrix of determinants. (Just as their initial decision to do the “bad idea” was.) There is nothing about Trivers scheme that circumvents the lack of freedom of human will. I.e., Trivers is saying something that he has no support for. What would be the magic in the ” two hundred milliseconds before action can affect the chance of action”?

  34. Curt Nelson
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Right. There is no ghost in the machine. That’s an easy one. But why do “no free will” advocates always make so much of conscious versus unconscious brain processes? It’s all us, after all. The answer to that one is that conscious thought is supposed to be required for exertion of will, therefore what goes on unconsciously doesn’t count when playing the free will word game. Anyway, allowing the unconscious in doesn’t change the game because it isn’t a ghost either. (Why talk about the Libet experiments at all in discussions of free will?)

    But what about actual behavior? It isn’t random. Where does Jerry Coyne come from and how does the explanation of it conform to your views on free will? Because a question (do we have free will?) whose answer (no) doesn’t account for our non-random behavior, is silly.

    • jonathan morgan
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      I completely agree.

    • steve
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      Jerry Coyne comes from his heredity and environment, his nature and nurture, the matrix of his personal causal determinants. Everything that Jerry is and does is a function of these things. This is why Jerry (and all the rest of us) has no freedom to his will.

      Now what about this fails to account for non-random behavior? Most of non-free willism hinges upon the fact that all non-random events have causes.

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted January 3, 2012 at 8:16 am | Permalink

      » Curt Nelson:
      But why do “no free will” advocates always make so much of conscious versus unconscious brain processes? It’s all us, after all. The answer to that one is that conscious thought is supposed to be required for exertion of will, therefore what goes on unconsciously doesn’t count when playing the free will word game.

      That’s well said.

  35. AndreSchuiteman
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    What exactly happens when I make a choice? I can imagine something like this:

    1. An algorithm, based on my current internal state, or a random process suggests what I should do.
    2. The suggestion is evaluated and carried out if accepted. If it is rejected, repeat step 1.

    Where is there room for free will? Only in step 2, I would say. But what does step 2 entail? What else, but the execution of another algorithm? Therefore, we can simplify the above by merging the 2 steps into one:

    An algorithm, based on my current internal state, determines what I will do.

    Now, this algorithm (which need not be fixed but may change even as it is being executed) is inaccessible to me, I can’t steer it. It is a black box. But that means that I don’t have free will.

    Where, then, does the illusion of free will come from? I think it is because the algorithm is not immutable but is influenced by the choices it makes. It will avoid making the same poor choice twice. Even ‘doing something unexpected’ could be part of the algorithm.

    • steve
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      Andre,

      I think the illusion comes from the “black box” aspect of the workings of the brain. We are not cognizant of workings of our brain, our thoughts just “pop” into our consciousness and we assume that our consciousness must have thought our thoughts into existence. But instead of being a control center, the consciousness is merely a somewhat limited viewport.

      • AndreSchuiteman
        Posted December 27, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

        Steve,

        If the workings of this black box were more predictable than they are we would more readily concede that we have no free will. So it’s not purely the black box aspect that supports the illusion.

        • dieter
          Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

          I don’t think so. “random mutation”, “sexual selection” and “natural selection” are more predictable than the behaviour of humans as individuals or as groups.

          That hasn’t stopped opponents of free will compatibilism from upholding evolution compatibilism.

          • AndreSchuiteman
            Posted December 28, 2011 at 3:16 am | Permalink

            Natural selection and sexual selection are examples of feed-back loops that are perfectly compatible with determinism.

            If mutations can be described adequately by a stochastic model, then they can for all intents and purposes be regarded as being random. And if they ultimately depend on quantum effects, then they are, as far as we know, indeed truly random.

            Absence of free will has no bearing on evolution.

        • steve
          Posted December 28, 2011 at 8:59 am | Permalink

          If the workings of this black box were more predictable than they are we would more readily concede that we have no free will. So it’s not purely the black box aspect that supports the illusion.

          Andre,

          I don’t agree. First of all, I am not saying that it is purely the black box aspect that supports the illusion. There are other sublime aspects at work too. But it is probably the major aspect.

          As for predictability (or unpredictability): I am hardly ever surprise by what my black box shoots out, how about you? Don’t you feel like you can predict what you’re likely to do as you live out your life? We might be pretty lousy at predicting what others will do (or maybe not so lousy), but what comes out of our black box is pretty much in keeping with what we know about ourselves.

          • AndreSchuiteman
            Posted December 28, 2011 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

            I would say that the ability to surprise ourselves from time to time reinforces the illusion of free will. But otherwise I think our positions on this topic don’t differ much.

  36. Posted December 27, 2011 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Brain science is leading the new Copernican Revolution.

    Just as humanity learned, but has still not really accepted, that the earth is not the center of the material, so we are learning that our “self” is not the center of the behavioral/psychological or social world.

    It is revealing, but predictable, that something so central to pretty much all ideologies and belief systems would be so quickly dismissed with such crude brain research tools.

    It will likely take hundreds of years for this fact to even be entertained. At a minimum, the current generation of folks will have to die off for any new ideas around this to be given a chance.

    People will spend a lot of energy defending indefensible fantasy beliefs rather than accepting facts.

    • steve
      Posted December 28, 2011 at 9:00 am | Permalink

      I agree… for the most part.

  37. Posted December 27, 2011 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    I’m not quite sure I understand the point of all this. Supposing everything that is being said about “free will” (whatever that is), what is the point of writing about it, and what are we doing when we do so? If it is just a matter of causal processes, then I can’t have written any other words than the ones I am now writing, and neither can anyone else on this thread. So, we are all somehow causally determined to write exactly what we do write. So, what’s the point? Why don’t we stop writing?

    Unless we really think that reasons might be convincing? But if reasons can be convincing, then something besides molecular action is involved here, because reasons comprise something over and above the causal behaviour of molecules. So, what is happening when Jerry argues that we are not free, and others either agree or disagree, if, if fact, we are simply bundles of molecules in causal relationship, in causal relationships with other bundles of molecules in causal relationships with other molecules? I don’t get the point.

    The same goes for Jerry when he does scientific research. If there is no “free will” (again, whatever that is), then he doesn’t really discover anything at all. It’s just the outcome of molecules interaction. There is no Jerry, and no one to make choices or to discern confirmation or disconfirmation.

    This is precisely, I think, the idea that Plantinga has in mind when he is saying that nuturalism is self-defeating. I don’t think he’s right about that, because I think there is something besides collisions of molecules. Now, my philosophy on this point is weak, but I don’t see that Jerry hasn’t backed himself into a corner with no way out, since any response he can make is made for “him” by the causal pattern molecules in the brain.

    Regarding the video clip. This is not a test of significant occasions of choice, when, in fact, things like reasons for actions, or confirmation of theory, etc. come in. Deciding to push one button or another is simply too simple a case to deal with what is in mind when discussing “free will”. I have no idea what that is, by the way, but I think this discussion shows that someone has taken a wrong turning somewhere.

    • Posted December 27, 2011 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      Stopping doing anything would also be a “choice” determined by physics. My response is that for some reason evolution has instilled in us a sense of agency (perhaps it was adaptive), and so that’s how we act: as if we make choices. Even someone like me who firmly believes I’m a meat robot still acts as if they can choose to do something rather than lie in bed all day.

      Reasons are convincing because those reasons affect our brains (which have been conditioned to accept reason) by affecting their molecular structure.

      Really, Eric, since you don’t believe in the supernatural, or in souls, what do you envision when you say, “I think there is something besides collisions of molecules”? I really am curious, because you’re being a supernaturalist here. All there IS are collisions of molecules: we are physical entities that are the result of an evolutionary process that began with inanimate matter. Since I know (I think) that you’re not a supernaturalist, do tell me how we can somehow step out of the configurations of our brains and influence their workings.

      And of course the influences of other people, including the “reasons” they give us, DO constitute influences on our brain molecules–and the actions of those people are also due to the laws of physics.

      If there’s something other than molecules affecting our choices, let us know what it is!

      • Posted December 27, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

        whyevolutionistrue writes:

        “Reasons are convincing because those reasons affect our brains (which have been conditioned to accept reason) by affecting their molecular structure.”

        This is exactly the reason why moral responsibility still works just fine even without free-will.

      • Posted December 27, 2011 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

        “If there’s something other than molecules affecting our choices, let us know what it is!”

        Well, it’s all molecules, but there are levels of organization above the molecular level that are just as causally real as molecules. These levels include including persons, their motives and their reasons for action. As Lyndon points out below, the brain’s organization instantiates representations of the world that we express as propositions in reasoning. Although the molecular level of deterministic causation is ultimately what makes the muscles move and thus is the spring of action, our reasons are perfectly valid causes in their own right since they are what determine the higher level *sequence* of neural processing. The sequencing is just as real as the processing, and so to talk of reasons as the determining causes of behavior is perfectly valid and a lot more informative than saying what we do is determined by the laws of physics and/or chemistry.

        Bottom line: physicalist determinism is no bar to effective reasoning and persuasion, so (Eric) it’s perfectly reasonable to keep writing even if we don’t have contra-causal free will.

        • Lyndon
          Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

          Tom,

          In some senses the idea of different levels seems wrong to me. If you think about the end of a chess game, where you consciously understand, “If I move my piece here, I will win,” and you do so. I assume that whatever unconscious configuration of molecules that is structuring that decision is in some sense equivalent (in logical structuring) to what you are consciously representing, though the conscious representation has a qualitative feel and presentation different than the “pure logic” of the molecular configuration of the situation (probably because your qualia of the situation also includes emotion, etc.). The basic “logical” sense of why it is a “good” move and why our self should make the move, seems like it should be of a parallel nature within both “levels”; that is, it is representing the logical structure in a similar and consistent way.

          In many cases and across the sciences, it seems the reason that the higher level is useful or “causal” is because (in some way) it is a mirror of the lower order. And separating such spheres in such distinct ways may be problematic, even if we lack the tools for not doing so at this moment. But that is just what makes the most sense to me.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

            I had a long exchange with someone on a previous thread about this issue. The crux of it was that while you could in principle construct an enormous system of equations describing the motions of all the particles involved in your decision to make this move instead of that one, that system would not only be intractably complex and incapable of solution, it also would not generalize to other moves in other chess games. You’d learn nothing useful about chess from it; it would simply be a one-off description of a particular series of apparently random particle interactions — a travelogue rather than an explanation. If you want a workable theory of chess (or of natural selection, or of human volition), then you must suppress all that physical detail and deal only in higher-level abstractions that do generalize from one instance to another.

            • Lyndon
              Posted December 27, 2011 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

              Gregory,

              It is a question of ontology here and not our modelling of such.

              And are you saying that the computer that no human can beat at chess would best be described in higher-level abstractions? We may describe a computer’s move in such terms, but the computer, I assume, was following some coded structure or algorithm and not abstracting anything in any significant fashion. It may be best described in higher-level, behavioral and intentional terms, from the means that that is the only way humans would be able to comprehend its functioning and its “decision-making”, but that does not mean it is the BEST way to describe it- only the pragmatic way and the way ascertainable way to our frames of minds. Such modelling does not mean that our “higher-level” abstraction has created a different structure or has found a new level of causality. It may have created new levels of causality, but that would be in the structure of the brain that is now representing that “pattern,” (and in the brain states that now are going to proceed from those representations). Which gets back to a discussion I had with Tom here about “real patterns” and their ontological existence.

              This does not mean we do not generalize patterns or structures. Take the example of our ability to read the letter “A” whether capital, lowercase, written in many fonts, and written in cursive- you could probably come across an instance of “A” that has no previous modelling and be able to recognize it. “Logical” rules and “reasons” can be generalized and seen in many different disparate objects and structures in the world, and our brains can take those rules and generalize them out to new situations. In poker, for instance, our representation of pocket 5’s versus pocket 4’s probably is generalized in a similar way to pocket 10’s versus pocket 9’s- but just because our brain is using some general structure or recycling certain generalized logical rules for similar situations (and perhaps even the same brain areas that represent that kind of logical understanding), does not mean it is ascertaining a higher-level that is not or could not be fleshed out in the bare representing brain state, which is a certain structure of molecules/neurons that has become structured based on learning to respond to such things.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted December 28, 2011 at 12:45 am | Permalink

                “…the computer, I assume, was following some coded structure or algorithm and not abstracting anything in any significant fashion.”

                You lost me here. A coded structure or algorithm is a significant abstraction from the level of fundamental physics. The very essence of an algorithm is that it can be implemented on a wide variety of physical hardware and operating system platforms. Computer languages are designed to hide physical details and express problems and solutions in terms of abstractions such as chess moves and board positions. This is not just a convenience of interpretation for human observers trying to make sense of the algorithm; such concepts are central to the design of the algorithm itself. A computer program does not just shuffle electrons; its primary job is to manipulate symbols. So if you want to understand what it’s doing, you have to know what those symbols represent. No description that ignores that symbolic content can have the same explanatory power.

              • Lyndon
                Posted December 28, 2011 at 8:38 am | Permalink

                I don’t wholly disagree here, but let me try to clarify.

                Instead of an “algorithm” let us take a wholly mechanical machine (non-computerized) that accepts quarters and unlocks some mechanism. On this case all that matters is that the object has the structure of the quarter, which I assume could be an infinite different configuration of electrons (I assume). Assuming every quarter or “fake quarter” has at some level different molecular structures but it also has properties that can be generalized and accepted by the machine, and that means it performs the function on the machine. If we think of the quarter as a “symbol,” what matters is not the absolute configuration of electrons or baseline atomic structure, but some kind of structure that produces the weight, solidity, shape of a certain kind- a quarter, which I am taking can be different from quarter to quarter and also “fake quarters.”

                Our “explanatory power” will be greater and “should include” why multiple objects fit in this slot, but that is because of our “explanatory” goal (our ought) which will abstract across the instances of what is happening as different quarters are put into this machine. For any one instance, it is unnecessary to proclaim that this “fake quarter” with this different micro-structure would have also achieved the same results as that quarter; it is explanatorily useful and useful for design stances, but it is superfluous for any one instance of causal explanation about what is happening. The machine may work because of “weight,” but in any one instance that “weight” is being molecularly configured in only one (ontological) way, and the presenting of counterfactuals (of explanation) is what we do. Which can help us manipulate this object, in the future we may use “fake quarters” to trick this weight counter, but that then creates a different instance. Our “understanding of what symbols represent” causes US to use different weights to create different worldly functions, but in any one instance such “understanding” is unnecessary for the ontological processes that are actually happening- there can only be one molecular structure of our quarter.

              • steve
                Posted December 28, 2011 at 8:48 am | Permalink

                But the only pertinent issue to the topic at hand is whether the machine has any freedom in how it acts at any point in time.

              • Lyndon
                Posted December 28, 2011 at 8:43 am | Permalink

                One more quick abstraction: Instead of one “quarter,” the machine now “counts” to three every time and then performs its function. We do not say: “that machine counts to three, it manipulates the abstract concept three,” though there is useful, explanatory power in saying “that machine takes three quarters.” Let us say at the verification of a quarter, that the “verifier” causes a lever to tick once, and once it ticks three times it creates some further function. That particular device is no longer connected at all to quarters but only whatever mechanism that verified “a quarter” and caused it to tick. If the preceding mechanism now counts baseballs instead and then tells the ticker to tick, our “three-counter” will still perform its same “abstract” function, which of course is not really “abstract.” I assume such pseudo-abstract levels hold at the silicon and computer-algorithmic level as it manipulates objects and “abstract” symbols. Our brain as well.

    • Lyndon
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      “But if reasons can be convincing, then something besides molecular action is involved here, because reasons comprise something over and above the causal behaviour of molecules.”

      “Reasons” are, from my viewpoint, representations of causal chains, representations (brain states) that are in themselves a certain structure of molecules.

      They are things that become instantiated in the structure of our brains as we represent causal chains or as we posit how some causal chain will or should proceed. That is, the simple reason or logic that says that if A=B, and B=C, then A=C, is something that we (a brain state) represents, recognizes and manipulates as it sees this logical structure in objects or in problems. A brain state is essentially a clump of molecules. Through “learning,” the empirical testing of the world around us and learning from other individuals, the states of our brain (structures of molecules) learn to respond in appropriate ways, that is, with reason, to certain environmental cues that can be manipulated appropriately for our end.

      “Reasoning” is a “cool” complex of molecules because it can represent complex patterns in the world and helps do things like build bridges and airplanes and represent complex behaviors of others. Through the process of learning we gain “reasoning” and representations of how causal processes work and gain the capacity to use counterfactuals to manipulate that world. Those complex representations that build up though, that we call “reasons,” do exist in their efficacy in controlling the world, but that is because of their underlying physical structure, because of how those molecules have been structured to respond in appropriate ways.

      The cool things that computers do are working in similar ways (minus conscious processing and some other “mental” properties, perhaps), even if we do not necessarily subscribe the term “reason” or “intentionality” to their processing- but that is probably just because of our narrowly defined and overly-boisterous belief of our “reasoning” power. We have not created computers that can touch many of the manipulation and representation that human brains do, but there is no reason to claim that we have properties of “reasoning,” “willpower” or intentionality that goes beyond some base level deterministic, algorithmic like structure, and that proceeds from one state to the next based on the previous state and the environmental input.

      We shouldn’t let that frighten us; but accepting this as the structure of our world, I believe we should be using such knowledge to build the best world that we can, including most importantly, creating the best selves that we can. Seeking the causal structures of all of our weaknesses, and the causal structures of our successes, for those of us who on occasion find success, should help us build better selves- for each and every individual and as society in total. A starting point is to admit: very rare are the brains that lack the capacity, given the appropriate environment, to graduate high school, learn multiple languages, and be quite knowledgeable and talented.

      • Lyndon
        Posted December 27, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

        that last sentence should read something more like: . . . learn multiple languages, be knowledgeable and talented, etc. etc.

    • tyro
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      How do reasons and arguments reach us? How are the translated and processed by our brains? Surely like sight, sound and other senses we may think of them as abstractions but they all are expressed and stored as patters of neuronal activity. This is ultimately chemistry and biology.

      Like the others, I don’t see why you feel this is an exception.

    • Another Matt
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      …I think there is something besides collisions of molecules. Now, my philosophy on this point is weak, but I don’t see that Jerry hasn’t backed himself into a corner with no way out, since any response he can make is made for “him” by the causal pattern molecules in the brain.

      Eric,

      I think the reader Sastra would have some things to say that would be useful.

      Maybe I’ll give it a shot, though. I think the “something besides collisions of molecules” is there, but you can’t be essentialist about it, which is what I think Plantinga’s (and above all Feser’s and the Thomists’) error is. The “something besides” is the extremely complex organization of those molecular collisions and the behavior that emerges from them at all those different levels.

      When someone says “I am more than the sum of my parts” I think they have in mind a microscopic image of balls bouncing around – a tiny cross-section of tissue or fluid that would be indistinguishable from a cup of tea or a brick at the same level of organization. The mistake is to think that the cup of tea is “tea all the way down” or that your consciousness is “soul stuff” all the way down. They are forgetting to include the relationships among their pieces and their levels of organization among their “parts.”

      The word “real” is far too easy to abuse, as is the word “mere.” Take the perception of pain: it would be ridiculous to say “when you burn your finger, some ion channels open and a signal is sent to the brain – it’s MERELY molecules in motion and obviously the molecules don’t feel pain, so there’s no REAL pain.” (Decartes actually believed this about animals, if I’m not mistaken.) But there is no essence of pain – pain is something that emerges from lower levels of organization (and from the incredibly complex history of prior nociception in other organisms). The analogy between this and “REAL consciousness” and “REAL choice” should be obvious (and hopefully not too glib and simplistic), but one has to ditch notions like “the essence of consciousness” to make any decent sense of it.

      Yes, Jerry is “just” an interaction of molecules, but what a magnificent interaction!

  38. TK
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    First off, yes, there is no ghost in the machine. The machine is the ghost. I’m a physical system whose components obey physical principles, and those principles dictate that one state is the root of the next, and the wobbly ways in which they may or may not describe multiple future states (depending on which mathematically equivalent quantum mechanics interpretation you find useful) they don’t accomplish any legwork for said absent ghost.

    Incidentally, fMRI and choice timing studies are interesting, but they don’t offer one ounce of additional heft beyond the observation that we are made of meat with known mechanics. All it points out is that mentation takes time and the internal and external “announcement” phase comes last- akin to pointing out that an observer in the train tunnel knows the train is coming before someone watching the outlet. A woo-woo type could just as easily bury their ghost before the machine-detectable moment of choice collapse, and no legwork would be accomplished.

    I’d still, if pressed, call myself compatibilist, or weakly compatibilist, or something like it, not because I’m harboring some lingering hope that I won’t be swept away in the tide of the universe, but because words like free will and consciousness aren’t illusions so much as useful abstractions for getting things done, and scientific literate people persist in using other such useful abstractions constantly- because the vast majority of systems are not well illuminated by trying to solve all the assorted field equations. Life is one- it’s been some time since anyone thought life was anything but a chemical system, but the classification persists because of utility. Natural selection is another- it’s all “just physics,” but that’s not a terribly useful perspective to take. We still manage to teach geometry to kids with edges and compasses even though the circles are not actually Platonic circles and the constructed parallel lines will certainly converge before infinity.

    Free will may not have the rigorous scientific utility of an abstraction like natural selection, but if life deserves a layer of symbolic language to get things done, then the activity of brains, especially big ones equipped with language, certainly do too, and all the “weasel words” that keep coming up in this discussion- free will, choice, consciousness, and so forth- are, in usage in every context outside the pulpit or the armchair, just the abstractions we use to describe the behavior of brains. If the preamble to a living will states the document was drawn up “of my own free will,” the statement is not about particle physics or relationships with omnipotence- it’s about whether there was a gun to your head and if someone should get around to fixing that. If I tell someone that they get to choose where we go to dinner, exactly zero progress is made on the problem if I instead said “Please engage in deterministic processing cycles to resolve where the evolution of the universe to date has established we will dine.” Instead, they engage in a behavior that can be massively simplified by putting it in a bag, for purposes of the discussion at hand, called “choice.”

    And that’s the flavor of the impasse at hand. No one has articulated to my satisfaction what the payoff is from abandoning the “intentional stance,” as a way of talking, in certain arenas, about human behavior. If a person’s fist hits me in the face, the process of determining who to be mad at hinges a great deal on if that person “decided,” and “wanted,” “of their own free will,” to punch me or if they slipped on the ice, despite the fact that both events were deterministic systems. Will outside the proverbial ivory tower is a interpersonal-level phenomena, no higher and no lower.

    Criminal justice comes up sometimes, but the acknowledgement that the punitive arms of the law serves at base two rational functions- the rectification of the effects of past crimes (restitution) and the prevention of future crimes (through containment, correction, and deterrence)- and that list is the same regardless of your take on the mechanics of the brain. A world without the words “free will” still has jails, still has room to talk about the death penalty, still can have people “made an example of,” and so forth. Taking that off the table can still lead to a crummy justice system- or else history was hiding a view Calvinist utopias I missed. Sensible sentencing is going to be a result of people trying to make rational, utility-maximizing decisions towards the aforementioned ends- and whether “will” enters into that conversation is something of a pedantic question- one suspects bringing it up, yea or nay, signals you aren’t prepared to have the discussion at all.

  39. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    “Is it the conscious me, or an unconscious mass of grey matter that I have no control over?”

    False dichotomy. The “unconscious mass mass of grey matter” is just as much a part of me as my conscious mind. And who says I have no control over it? It’s all one system, conscious and unconsious, with information and causal influences flowing both ways.

    “I have to randomly decide, and then immediately press one of these left or right buttons.”

    It baffles me why anybody would think this sort of go-with-your-gut finger-twitch experiment would tell us anything useful about deliberative free will. What’s being measured here is the opposite of deliberation: it’s pure impulse, with the subject explicitly instructed to act without thinking. So no wonder the choice looks to be largely unconscious.

    “Does a chess-playing computer have free will? If you think so, then go tell it to the philosophers.”

    Don’t have to. Here’s Dennett’s answer in Freedom Evolves:

    Admittedly, our chess programs, like insects or fish, are much too simple agents to be plausible candidates for morally significant free will, but the determinism of their world does not rob them of their different powers, their different abilities to avail themselves of the opportunities presented.

    • DV
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      +1

    • Pankreas
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      Exactly right. Alfred Mele makes the same point in a video that Jerry recently posted here: a) sitting around in a tube and waiting for an impulse to arise would hardly be considered a paradigm case of free will, and b) showing that a particular action is not free does not show that none of them are free and that, therefore, we don’t have free will.

    • Posted December 27, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

      I had another question about the usefulness of this experiment.

      It seems they assert that they can see the decision being made in the subconscious mind 7 seconds before the subject is conscious of having made a decision. Do they mean 7 sec before the subject actually pressed a button? I don’t see how the “moment of conscious decision” could really be ascertained. It’s too nebulous. I’d have to resort to guesstimation trying to pin down the precise moment I actually became aware that I had definitively made a decision.

  40. steve
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    TK,

    After reading your post, I must conclude that you’re the one that isn’t prepared to have this discussion (at all).

    When you say, “A world without the words “free will” still has jails, still has room to talk about the death penalty, still can have people “made an example of,” and so forth.”, you are in error. For a world without the words “free will” will have no room to talk about death penalties, and it will no longer have people to be made examples of.

    I pity you the misfortune of your personal matrix of determinants… you have been severely shorted.

    • TK
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

      The purpose of the law, and the evolved moral sentiments that precedes them, is not about some cosmic architecture of justice- it’s about the maintenance of the positive sum social structures that are so easily crashed if left unattended. If armed men arrive at your door, something needs to be done about it, regardless of the existence of “free will,” and the array of choices continues to look like deterrence before the fact in the form of assured punitive measures (like fines, jail, or death,) restitution, and the prevention of recidivism, either via simple containment (jail,) the abatement of means (fines, or rehabilitation) or destruction (death.) The problem of what to do about crime does not vanish, nor does the basket of tools change- and lest we forget, history is littered with cultures without a strong conception of personal will that still treated criminals horrifically- if they were broken from birth, they were still broken and thus beneath concern.

      My point was that rational, compassionate, useful sentencing (which I suspect you’ll agree will result in a world with fewer people locked up, in kinder conditions, and which lacks a death penalty altogether) is by no means an automatic product of consigning free will to the conceptual dustbin- history is quite clear on that.

      It is instead a product of acknowledging the game-theoretical function of the law over the visceral, bloodlust-satisfying elements, applying an actuarial, data-driven approach to the problems of deterrence and recidivism, and filling in the rest of the map with basic human decency- and once again, no part of that pragmatic architecture cares a whit about whether the particle systems of human brains are deterministic or not.

  41. steve
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    “A puppet thinks himself free so long as he cannot sense his strings.”

  42. Posted December 27, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been round and round and round with people on this issue, and invariably the conscious bit gets brought up. To extend the computer analogy, a computer no more makes a free decision when one hits the run button on a program than we do when our brains respond to an environmental condition by running the appropriate ‘code’ in our brains. That the computer executes the program after one hits the run button only determines when the computer becomes ‘aware’ of the need to run that code, and then somewhere along that process becomes ‘aware’ that the code has determined some output. But awareness that some outcome has happened says nothing about what causes said outcome.

    In other words, our awareness of decisions our brains have previously made come late in the process, not early. And certainly any notion of will involves awareness of the decisions while they’re being made – how else is the concept of freely choosing among available alternatives a coherent one if we’re unaware of what’s been decided until long after it’s been decided for what anyone understands as ‘us’?

    The only thing on determinism that gives me pause is conversation. Conversations happen at such a rapid pace that the 6 seconds bit clearly isn’t at play. Perhaps our language abilities are just far more efficient than, say, picking a random object from a list so that our brains respond much more quickly. In most cases there simply isn’t enough time between input and output to countenance the time we’re aware certain decisions make.

    I don’t consider this fatal to determinism as of yet because the segment of time in which our brain determines what we’ll say before we’re aware could be such that it appears instantaneous to our senses, but still isn’t. However, I give the proviso that this may yet be a source of hope for free willies, but I’m not prepared to accept free will until we have much better instrumentation to study what I suspect is the answer anyway.

    I also get the quantum argument from time to time. I grant it outright even though I doubt quantum behavior is operative at the level of the brain because the randomness of that model doesn’t provide any place to locate free will. A decision is no more free if your brain computes the answer by algorithm than it is if your brain uses a random number generator to give an outcome.

    Sorry for long post.

  43. Pankreas
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    I wouldn’t agree that philosophers are ignoring the relevant scientific research. You just have to know where to look.

    One example would be a collection of essays called “Conscious Will and Responsibility: A Tribute to Benjamin Libet”

  44. Greg G
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    I am in the same camp as you are on the question of free will. Recently, I read an article on the brain that may relate to free will.

    “Brain Structure”
    The human brain has many neurons and signal channels between the neurons. The larger the channels are, the more reliable the signal, but the more space they take up and the more energy they use. Smaller channels allow more neurons in a given space so that some of the extra neurons can be used for error correction. Natural selection would optimize the ratios.

    Since the error correction would not be 100% efficient, this could account for the some of the illusion for free will, and account for creativity to boot.

    “Subconscious Action in Sports”
    You often hear of rookie football players saying the game has “slowed down” for them. That is when they stop thinking and start reacting which means they don’t use their conscious mind to make decisions in the game.

    Once during a basketball game, I saw a passing lane open momentarily and decided it was too late to throw the ball only to realize that I had already made the pass for an assist. It helped me to understand all those times I asked myself, “Why did I throw that pass?”

  45. Stephen Barnard
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    I choose to remain unconvinced. :-)

    Is it possible that some entity (besides me) could determine whether I’ll click the “post comment” button? It would have godlike powers.

    The denial of free will under the assumption that we have a consistent and complete understanding of the natural world seems somewhat arrogant to me. We don’t. Not by a long shot. By avoiding dualism at all costs, Jerry’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    • steve
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

      Stephen,

      Are you saying that you believe you could just as easily choose instead to be convinced? Really? Honestly?

      • Stephen Barnard
        Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

        Honesty, along with many other intentional states, requires free will to be meaningful.

  46. pendulum21
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Is anyone curious as to how likely or unlikely it might be for a self aware organism to discover that it is without free will, with the understanding that it was the illusion of free will that allowed it to survive long enough as a species to make that discovery?

    • steve
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

      It will probably take it longer than it took it to discover that its planet is not the center of the universe, or even its solar system. It will take longer that it took it to discover that there is no life after death, or that there is no omnimax deity. It will be a very hard thing for it to come to grips with due to the persistent and pervasive nature of the illusion.

      • pendulum21
        Posted December 29, 2011 at 9:47 am | Permalink

        But this is really unlike those other things, it’s the underlying process that allowed us to make those discoveries. This research is telling us that the discoveries you mention in your post were really unremarkable since if you rewind the tape and play again, the discoveries would occur again. All this time we’ve given “credit” to these great figures in science who seem to have overcome great odds with these discoveries, but no credit is due, correct? It would happen the same way, always. I’m just amazed at the overall demeanor I see from posters on this site and Jerry himself, there is this non-chalance in accepting that we, you, I, him, have no true control over outcomes for our lives. This is not like the previous discoveries in science, this is the most revolutionary discovery in our history, and I would venture that many here have not followed it’s implications through. You cannot choose to accept that there is or is not free will, you cannot choose, or accept anything, in a free sense. Every choice, reaction, and epiphany you have is not your own. This business of debating the existence of free will is itself nonsense, the debate will land where it will land, and we will all live with the consequences, because it can’t be any other way, the tape leads to one conclusion, not this one, or that one. When it is scientifically proven that there is no free will, we will need to all lead what I call “The Great Lie”, where we somehow know that our decisions are not our own, but we are too imprisoned by the illusion to allow this to change our perception of reality. After all, we are not free to change anything, let alone our perceptions.

        • steve
          Posted December 29, 2011 at 10:36 am | Permalink

          Non-chalance? Hardly, there’s probably been a ton of chalance experienced by those that finally see through the free will illusion. But whats a person to do, the facts are the facts and they clearly show that there is no freedom to the human will. (Not just that there isn’t any, but most probably couldn’t ever be. What with free will being an incoherent concept from the get go.)

        • steve
          Posted December 29, 2011 at 11:49 am | Permalink

          But this is really unlike those other things, it’s the underlying process that allowed us to make those discoveries.
          Is the free will illusion really the underlying process that allowed us to make those discoveries? How can the claim be substantiated? As interesting as this hypothesis is, I am dubious as to its merits. I can’t see how the free will illusion is necessarily instrumental in the discovery of truths… if anything the free will illusion seems to always have led us in the opposite direction.
          This research is telling us that the discoveries you mention in your post were really unremarkable since if you rewind the tape and play again, the discoveries would occur again.
          I don’t agree with your implication that the remarkability of these other discoveries is somehow dependent on there no being freedom to the will. I wonder what your logic might be.
          All this time we’ve given “credit” to these great figures in science who seem to have overcome great odds with these discoveries, but no credit is due, correct?
          Any discoverer only discovered what their own personal matrix of causal determinants caused them to discover. In retrospect we know that they could not have done other than what they did. Really, do you think they freely chose to make the discovery that they made… that they could have just as easily chosen to not make their discovery?
          It would happen the same way, always.
          Verily it is so.
          I’m just amazed at the overall demeanor I see from posters on this site and Jerry himself, there is this non-chalance in accepting that we, you, I, him, have no true control over outcomes for our lives.
          I sense that you are railing against this lack of “true control” of your life. (Or more properly the loss of the illusion of true control of your life.)(Which is a very common reaction.)
          This is not like the previous discoveries in science,
          I agree.
          this is the most revolutionary discovery in our history,
          The last great illusion to be exposed. (But interestingly enough the foundational illusion upon which so many other illusions were set.)
          and I would venture that many here have not followed it’s implications through.
          And I would put it to you that they have followed its implications, and that is why they are moved to argue for the continued belief in free will. All the compatibilists… they seem to be very moved to defeat the proposition that free will does not exist. Just look are their convoluted mental gymnastics they have to resort to… none of which are convincing.
          You cannot choose to accept that there is or is not free will,
          Not freely choose. A choice is of course made, but it is a necessitated choice. A non-free willist knows that anyone who remains a free willist can’t help but do so… they are still bound by their determinants making it seem to them as if there is free will. (They are still under the free will illusion.)
          you cannot choose, or accept anything, in a free sense.
          Correct.
          Every choice, reaction, and epiphany you have is not your own.
          Well, there are those who have posted here that would say, even if I wasn’t free to make or not make them, they still were mine.
          This business of debating the existence of free will is itself nonsense, the debate will land where it will land, and we will all live with the consequences, because it can’t be any other way, the tape leads to one conclusion, not this one, or that one.
          And yet, the process does not stop, just because you realize that free will is an illusion. I suspect you are right… rewind the tape… and man discovers all these illusions and eventually the truth will win out and man will see how and why it is that there is no freedom to the will.
          When it is scientifically proven that there is no free will, we will need to all lead what I call “The Great Lie”,
          For the majority of mankind the great myth of free will has been and is being lived.
          where we somehow know that our decisions are not our own, but we are too imprisoned by the illusion to allow this to change our perception of reality.
          Who is to say? Do you think the free will illusion is that strong.
          After all, we are not free to change anything, let alone our perceptions.
          Not being free to change things via a so called free will, is not the same thing as nothing ever changing.

          • pendulum21
            Posted December 29, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

            Didn’t mean to imply that the illusion of free will is a prerequisite for being able to discover truths about reality, was more trying to get at the credit we assign, and the regard in which we hold these figures for their accomplishments. However, it is hugely important to the scientific community, who clearly see assigning proper credit as an incentive for pushing the envelope of discovery.

            “The last great illusion to be exposed. (But interestingly enough the foundational illusion upon which so many other illusions were set.)”
            // Agreed.

            “And I would put it to you that they have followed its implications, and that is why they are moved to argue for the continued belief in free will. All the compatibilists… they seem to be very moved to defeat the proposition that free will does not exist. Just look are their convoluted mental gymnastics they have to resort to… none of which are convincing.” // I think there’s some confusion, I’m with you, and Jerry, compatibilism doesn’t do it for me. To me, free will in any form is a long shot. So you are right in one sense, that I’m railing against the implications of a reality, of my reality, without free will, but that has not scared me away from accepting that position. What scares me, is that I can’t “accept” any position, and neither can anyone else. Without free will, you can’t choose to accept or deny, not part of the deal.

            “Who is to say? Do you think the free will illusion is that strong” // It’s only as strong as it is, regardless of what we think. I’m not the one to say, only to speculate.

            “Not being free to change things via a so called free will, is not the same thing as nothing ever changing.” // Agreed, but at least acknowledge that with this view, you can only hope that the flow of the universe leads us to a reconciliation. Your prior causes could suddenly make you an extremely religious person who believes in free will as granted by God himself. And as products of all of our own personal prior causes, who would we be to judge you? With our new understanding that free will does not exist, how do we judge? Do we acknowledge that we can not ‘not’ judge? We can only feel lucky that our prior causes have landed us in an area where our beliefs more closely resemble true reality than others beliefs, but we have to accept this is because the dice have land how they do.

            Sorry for the long posts, I happened to rant further today on tumblr

            http://tmblr.co/ZIl3RwDyw6Wt

  47. Peter
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    [This is the Peter with the simple remark about logic in #26 above, not the other one(s)]

    Some matters between which I won’t dwell too much on explicit connections:

    1. The question seems very important, but is it not far too early to expect convincing arguments about the existence or not of free will?

    2. Surely most here agree it is a scientific question. So where are the experiment(s)/observation(s)which will falsify the statement “Free will exists”? If already there, please make it easier for this confused mind by being more explicit about this. I don’t find what’s in the video anything more than a bare beginning on this.

    3. If it really is the classical (deterministic) limit of quantum (non-deterministic) physics which is needed for all this, the argument against the existence of free will must be taken seriously. But we don’t yet have any theory that makes all of relativity logically compatible with quantum theory, or even agreement about which, if not both of quantum theory and general relativity will need modification in such a theory. So to just assume the approximate, but wonderful, classical physics, which apparently suffices for biologists, will also suffice for deep questions about consciousness, just seems exactly that: an assumption. Although he hasn’t many in agreement, Roger Penrose is certainly no lightweight, and a look at his book “The Emperor’s New Mind” and its followup, “Shadows of the Mind”, might not be a bad idea.

    4. And that leads me to point out that many here seem to automatically assume that so-called “Strong AI” is evidently true (the latter has been put crudely as saying the brain is not more than a computer made of meat), whereas that thesis certainly has many serious detractors. And read Penrose to disabuse yourself of the mistake of believing that serious detractors of strong artificial intelligence are necessarily claiming that the human mind cannot be understood
    scientifically.

    • Posted December 30, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      Penrose’s ideas have been more than failed to get agreement – they’ve gotten all matter of counter evidence against them.

      (He’s definitely wrong on what AI is about, definitely wrong about microtubules, and definitely wrong about “the” halting problem and the incompleteness theorems.)

  48. Peter
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    I’m one of the other Peters. I don’t think it’s a scientific question. It’s more of a value judgement.

  49. Posted December 27, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    My psychological determinants had me seek therapy such that now my schizotypy has lessened its impact on me. This is causal free will rather than the contra-causal free will,which latter implies randomnomness such that actually we’d then paradoxically not have free will [ I understand that indeterminists contest that assertion.].
    Tom, our defender of compatiblism, is right.
    Now that some decisions occur subconsciously as to what we do becomes an overgeneralization to otherwise imply that we actually have no free will [ or whatever term one prefers].
    Remember that our determinants influence us but do not necessarily coerce us. We can change our determinants with new knowledge and putting ourselves into the right places and with the right people.

  50. tdraicer
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    If you accept Jerry’s position (I use the first name since so many others do here as well) then I don’t see where consciousness fits in, except as another illusion, along with ideas, reason, and, really, everything. Then it seems to me the difference between being alive and being a simulation of being alive is likewise non-existent. All of which may be true, but if it is, the simulation of me won’t allow the illusion of me to accept it as true.

    • Stephen Barnard
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

      My problem with Jerry’s position is that it presuposes that we have at the very least a firm grasp on nature, if not a consistent and complete understanding.

      That is ludicrous.

      We don’t even know where the vast majority of the mass and energy in the universe comes from or what form it takes. We have two rather beautiful physical theories — quantum mechanics and general relativity — that seem to be irreconcilable, despite our best efforts. Don’t get me started on parallel universes. :-)

      I think some humility is called for. We live largely in ignorance of what’s really going on.

      • Tyro
        Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

        So we don’t understand everything therefore magic?

        There are some gaps in our physical theories but they’re in the realms of the extremely massive and extremely small, realms which are not found in our brains.

        • Stephen Barnard
          Posted December 27, 2011 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

          Who’s talking about magic? I actually resent that implication. I’m as much a materialist as you are, I’m sure, but I’m not arrogant enough to think we’ve pretty much solved the riddle of the universe — oh, except for the “extremely massive” and the “extremely small.” Minor oversights, apparently. No doubt these inconvenient annoyances will be cleared up shortly.

          If free will is an illusion, it’s such a compelling illusion that I’m not willing to give it up easily, and certainly not on the basis of these experiments.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

        The real problem with Jerry’s position is not that he’s presumptuous about the physics, but that he’s conflating two separate notions of determinism:

        1. Our brains are made of matter, and matter behaves according to physical laws. Therefore our thoughts are determined by physics.

        2. Neuroscientists can see things happening in our brains before we consciously register an impulse to act. Therfore our actions are predetermined and we are powerless to do otherwise.

        #1 is (or should be) non-controversial. Physical determinism is no obstacle to compatibilist free will, which is all about using our cognitive abilities (whatever their physical implementation) to systematically weigh alternatives.

        #2 is simply a non-sequitur and smacks of closet dualism. If we accept that “we” and “our brains” are one and the same, then the problem vanishes, and we remain in control of our own actions.

        But Jerry seems to be using the obvious truth of #1 to try to prop up the spurious truthiness of #2.

        • steve
          Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

          You are overlooking the glaring fact that there is no freedom in systematically weighing alternatives – systematic weighing is the exact opposite of free. Devoid of freedom, the compatibilists have no basis to call what they say exists is free will.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

            If you insist on defining “free” to mean “magic” or “uncaused” then you’re correct. However that’s not how compatibilists define it, nor is that the everyday meaning of “free” in usages such as “free choice”, “free rein”, “free speech”, “free citizens” and so on.

            • Vaal
              Posted December 27, 2011 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

              Keep fighting the good fight Gregory :->

              As to this “problem” of the consciousness delay mentioned in Jerry’s OP, on top of what others have said, I’d add:

              Even if it were the case that I’m aware of decisions only after they have been made, how exactly does this threaten free will or that “I” would be making rational, deliberated decisions?

              When offered a choice between a peanut butter cookie and a peanut-free cookie to give to my son, I choose the peanut-free cookie because he has a peanut allergy, so the peanut butter cookie could kill him, which obviously I do not want to happen.

              I’m quite conscious of this knowledge as I write it now, and so will make this same rational decision in the future, based on my desires (for his welfare) and my beliefs (on which actions I think will support his well-being).

              Now let’s say I am offered the choice between the two cookies again and someone says “Did you know that your choice was actually made unconsciously before it came to your conscious?”

              Well…so what exactly it the importance of this? It’s still the case that this decision is coming from MY BRAIN, and hence from ME. And the choice reflects my knowledge of my son’s condition, my desires for his welfare, and the choice I would rationally make anyway.

              If this amounts to a “decision” or “choice” that is indistinguishable from the type of choice I’d be making “consciously”…then what have I lost? What’s the difference? It seems the process I want to happen is happening anyway no matter what the delay to my awareness.

              And it’s not like consciousness just doesn’t happen, or exist, or play any role.

              We distinguish between someone being conscious/aware and someone sleeping under general anesthetic.

              Tell me my son has a peanut allergy while I’m asleep, and since that is not being input into my conscious state, it’s not going to have any effect on my decisions about the next cookie to feed my son.

              Tell me while I’m in a conscious state and it WILL have an effect on my choice. So consciousness, in the sense we normally think of it, is efficacious and important to making choices.

              So, if consciousness remains important or vital for making the choices we want to make, and our choices end up reflecting our desires, knowledge and rational lines of reasoning we’d make “if consciously doing it”…then, again, I do not see how we have encountered some major threat to our person-hood or our “making choices” or free will in any useful sense in which we would apply it everyday.

              Vaal

            • steve
              Posted December 28, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink

              No… that’s not me insisting that to be free means to be uncaused (and I’ve not even come close to stating that free means “magic”). The word free may have multiple uses as your supplied examples illustrate, but one such understanding and use of the word is that to be caused to do something means you were not free regarding the doing of that thing. A galley slave would be considered not free because he is caused to sit chained at his station and row. I hope this isn’t a surprise to you, that to be free means to not be caused to do a thing.
              Seriously, the disagreement at hand is not one over the use of language. This topic is much more substantial than a argument over semantics. There is at the heart of this conversation a fundamental disagreement about whether man has libertarian free will or not. Proponents of Free Will say man has such a thing, proponents of non-free will say the opposite that there is not any freedom to the human will. Non-free willists, by in large, have come to conclude that though it might seem as if we have a free will, it’s only an illusion. Non-free willists say that upon further examination the very notion of a free will is incoherent… analogous in many ways to square circles.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted December 28, 2011 at 11:49 am | Permalink

                As far as I can see, nobody here is seriously advocating libertarian (“uncaused” or “magic”) free will. The disagreement is largely between compatibilists (who recognize our ability to make meaningful, consequential choices in a deterministic universe) and incompatibilists (who deny that our choices are real or meaningful).

              • Peter
                Posted December 28, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

                I don’t agree with your claimed usage/example that caused is an antonym of free. A galley slave isn’t merely caused to be sitting on a bench rowing, but rather coerced.

                More generally, in normal usage if something caused someone to do something, that implies that the person was free to do that thing.

                And while I agree that the argument between compatibilists and incompatiblists is not just a semantic argument, it spawns a lot of weird semantic arguments.

          • mikmik
            Posted December 30, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

            I don’t understand what you mean about systematically weighing alternatives is not free. Evaluating alternatives, perhaps creating or realizing new ones, how is that not free, let alone making a decision to select one, or not select one and wait…. how is this inimical to free?
            Systematic means a logical and purposeful process, how else would a rational person choose to evaluate alternatives, to weigh the consequences of any one choice?

    • Peter
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

      Obviously, non-existence of consciousness implies non-existence of free will in Coyne’s sense, so that would certainly finesse the question in this thread.

      And to see that simulation of ‘you’, at least in the famous brain-in-a-vat sense, is nonsense, see Dennett’s book “Consciousness Explained”, right at the beginning, page 3 onwards.

  51. Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    Unlike other achizotypals, I objurgate what Paul Kurtz calls ” The Transcendental Temptation, the twin superstitions of the supernatural and the paranormal.
    typo- randomness

  52. Terry
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    I won’t believe in any kind of “free will” until I can go back and make a different decision, and that won’t be happening any time soon.

    • steve
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

      Yes, like not ever.

  53. Vaal
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    I wonder of Jerry miss-wrote when he said:

    —“And my feeling that the common notion of free will—that at any given time, if the past history of an individual and all of her molecules were replicated, she would always choose the same way—was confirmed by discussions I had with three scientist colleagues.”

    That doesn’t sound like Jerry’s definition of free will – it sounds like his conclusion that there isn’t free will. As I understand it, Jerry’s definition of free will would be essentially the above paragraph, with the correction: “..but she could have chosen differently.” (And if she could have chosen differently under the exact same circumstances, THEN she would have had free will).

    Anyway…we are going round and round on this one.

    As many have pointed out, Jerry is defining free will as essentially incoherent, and if we don’t have free will of that incoherent type, then we don’t have free will.

    What can someone do but shrug and go on to say, “so what…I’m interested in having anything incoherent…I’m interested in the relevance of choices we actually have. And free will still captures the essence of most relevant things I have to say about our choices.”

    As has been pointed out, if you follow the logic of Jerry’s notion of free will, it doesn’t make sense on any level. Say I had the desire to cut a wooden board to fit in a shelf. I have the desire to do so. I have beliefs about the nature of wood, and about the nature of measuring. I use my powers of deliberation to conclude that, that the wood needs to be cut to 6″ by 24″ to fit just as I desire into the shelf. This is the essence of rational decision-making, how your decision making concerns your actions following from the logical combination of your belief/desires at any time.

    Now, once I’ve made that deliberation, freeze me in this mythical Jerry-described state, and now…what? Give me the “free will power” to choose differently? What in the world could that mean? If I chose differently, what could that mean but that the “alternate” choice would be divorced from the set of desires and rational deliberations I had made? That being the case, how would this alternate choice be a rational choice? And how would it even be MY choice?

    So in essence the type of free will to choose that Jerry talks of equates an irrational choice…not made by “me.”

    That’s a free will I would never want or care about. And contra Jerry, the merest prodding I think shows that this notion doe NOT capture what most people would think of as having free will. Most people equate free will to being at least able for “Me” to make a “rational choice” based on what I desire and believe. (If you prod people on this issue, you’ll find they do indeed think in these terms).

    I would WANT my decision to be DETERMINED causally by my former and current state. It’s the only way “I” get to make any decisions…and it’s the only way I can be assured my decisions could be rational and not random.

    The idea that compatibilists are in some desperate state of wanting to “save” free will gets it all wrong. The point is that
    incompatibilists like Jerry are falling for an incoherent concept of free will in the first place. And again, Jerry may feel that his concept is the norm, but I submit that in fact it does not actually capture the types of concerns that some, if not many, if not most people REALLY think of when it comes to the issue of Free Will.

    Compatibilists don’t say they are finding a way to “save” free will despite determinism: they are saying free willed “choice” – of the only type we normally think of worth having – is only made POSSIBLE in the context of determinism/causation.

    Vaal

    • steve
      Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

      Vaal,

      It is not the fault of non-free willists that the concept of free will is incoherent. Don’t forget that it is others that assert that there is such a thing as free will. Jerry only makes reference to free will to make the case that no such freedom exists in the will of man. There is nothing incoherent in the claim that non-free willists make, that all of an individual’s behavior is fully caused and therefore complete without freedom.

      Even your inability to understand what Jerry understands is not a function of free choice on your part… you are not freely choosing or not choosing to remain a believer in free will, you are constrained by a combination of determinants that make you believe what you believe at this point in time.

      • Vaal
        Posted December 27, 2011 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

        Steve,

        If there were only one notion of free will you (and Jerry) could have a point.

        The issue is whether Jerry’s version of “free will” is THE concept of free will, the only one useful or worthwhile, the only one that captures what many of us are concerned about when talking of “free will.”

        The problem is that free will, like morality, is a somewhat fuzzy concept, one often in dispute, but which broadly encompasses a set of concerns people tend to have about our choices and identity. Broadly speaking, do “I” have any “real choice”…and from that other issues follow.

        In that way the concept of free will is like the concept of morality. There is no one spokesman for the concept. Jerry’s concept of free will is no more the only relevant concept of free will than a theistic Divine Command theorists concept of morality is the only relevant notion of morality. In the case of the Divine Command Theorist who takes on horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma, that things are “good” because God commands them, it can be pointed out this ultimately is incoherent. Because it makes God’s commands arbitrary and if they are arbitrary it makes no sense we “ought” to do X when there exist no reasons to do X.

        The Divine Command Theorist may fervently intuit that morality is “only real morality if it comes from God’s commands” and say “If you are right, then there is no such thing as morality.”

        But, sorry, there are other people who are going to point out that the Divine Command Theories has no monopoly on the concept of morality – that it is a broader concept that captures a set of concerns that, it turns out, does not necessarily turn on whether a God exists to command us.

        Likewise, with free will. Jerry’s notion of free will is not the only one going. And as I mentioned, I think it actually does not comport well with how we think of “free choices” in everyday life, whereas a compatibilist account actually DOES comport with how we tend to use such notions.

        Let’s say Jerry has a son and the issue is whether to attend X University for Y subject, or whether to drop out of school.
        Presuming Jerry thinks there are good reasons for his son to go to University, what happens if his son says “Sorry Dad, University sounds nice, but I have no freedom to make such choices. I just don’t see the relevance of you presenting me with any choices.”

        How will Jerry respond? What will Jerry say to his son to make the case that, yes, he DOES have the freedom to make such a choice, or that the choices are relevant?

        I suspect that the type of case Jerry will make will fall into line with the concept of “being able to choose” in pretty much the way we normally conceive of it, and talk of such choices. And that such choices he will argue ARE relevant and consequential and “YOURS” to make.

        Now, Jerry may then add “But I want to add the caveat that, ultimately, I was determined to make such a case and my son is determined to do what he ‘chooses’ to do.”

        In which case the compatibilist will shrug “Yeah…we know. But adding that doesn’t negate the case you’ve made for your son having a deeply relevant choice on the matter of his education, and all the reasons you’ve adduced to persuade him are all the relevant things we want in Free Will anyway, and it’s captured in the every-day talk you will use with your son.”

        Vaal.

        • steve
          Posted December 28, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

          Vaal,

          It would be a waste of time to continue this exchange, if Jerry and I are refering to the long standing concept of “free will” while you are talking about something different altogether, i.e., some new combatibilist redefinition of “free will”.

          As for your example of Jerry’s son, where have you shown any freedom in the son’s choice to drop out of school? At most you present that Jerry believes one way, and the son another, but you don’t establish that either of them are at the current point in time able to believe differently than they do. You don’t show that the son can freely will himself to be of a different position that the one that he has, or that Jerry could freely will himself to have a different opinion on that matter.

          • greg byshenk
            Posted December 28, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

            But part of what is in question here is whether you and Jerry (and other incompatibilists) actually -are- correctly defining ‘the long standing concept of “free will”’.

            As I noted above, I don’t think that this is true. The “normal” (“long standing”) concept of ‘free will’ encompasses that one could have done differently — had they so wished. Unfortunately, Jerry’s definition turns that on its head, in that it entails that ‘free will’ exists only when one is acting -contrary- -to- one’s wishes. Thus, if the goal is to somehow capture “the long standing concept of ‘free will'”, then this definition can’t be right.

            • Vaal
              Posted December 28, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

              Yes, greg has it exactly.

              Steve (and Jerry) every time you talk of compatibilism “re-defining” Free Will, as if your definition (as incoherent as that concept turns out to be) is the “real Free Will,” it shows you still don’t get it.

              Compatibilism makes sense of free will, makes sense of our everyday talking of free-choice, and explains that this only makes sense within a determined/causal scenario.

              Whereas you have Jerry (and Sam H.) having to field their notion of hard determinism with not only the inconsistencies of how they act and speak, but with morality itself, in which Jerry constantly makes explicit or implicit moral judgements about what theists are doing, but then says things like: “I don’t have moral responsibility for it because I have no choice,”

              It’s unfortunate to see folks like Sam Harris and Jerry C. go in this direction with determinism as it seems to be a case of some very visible atheists (who often speak for atheism) shooting themselves…and hence us as well…in the foot and handing ammunition to the theists, when there seems there may be no good reason to do so.
              :-(

              Vaal.

              (This is not to say that Jerry should not be voicing his own view of free will and determinism. Of course he should! I’m just saying that since I don’t think his or Sam’s stance on free will seems to be cogent, it is a particular shame that it would be “wrong” in precisely the direction that to the general audience can weaken the hand of atheism, and strengthen the hand of theism who can shout “see…see…we told you how the atheist world view is at odds with moral responsibility!”)

              • windy
                Posted December 28, 2011 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

                Good point about the moral judgments, Vaal.

  54. Vaal
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    BTW,

    In case I left the impression I don’t respect Jerry’s thoughts or his ongoing research into the free will issue…I certainly do! I sure don’t think I have the absolute answer figured out myself.

    It’s just that the very incompatibilist stance, Jerry’s stance being only one example, has never made sense to me, which is why I find compatibilism more compelling, for some of the reasons I and others have stated.

    Vaal.

  55. Posted December 27, 2011 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    I hate to say it, but this is one area where William Lane Craig is right. That is, if “hard determinism” is true, then we are (and in principle cannot be) accountable for any of our actions, because we did not actually choose them. Sam Harris tries to escape this conundrum by suggesting that our intentions are what count, but according to hard determinism our intentions are not our own either. Like Coyne says, we’re just automatons.

    But I think Coyne (and Harris) is way off base here. It does not logically follow that because consciousness arises from (and is governed by) physical processes that the ability to make choices, within a given framework, is non-existent.

    So I don’t think the problem is that we’re having to redefine free will, since we’re not advocating contra-causal free will. It’s the hard determinists who have to redefine consciousness to be functionally indistinguishable from the subconscious.

    • AndreSchuiteman
      Posted December 28, 2011 at 3:53 am | Permalink

      Computers are able to make choices, like this:

      If x then A;
      If not x then B;

      Are you suggesting that computers have free will? If not, why not?

    • steve
      Posted December 28, 2011 at 8:39 am | Permalink

      So I don’t think the problem is that we’re having to redefine free will, since we’re not advocating contra-causal free will.

      Well that is an interesting assertion to make, because a causal free will would be completely free will completely devoid of freedom. (Which is just nonsense, you must have typed something wrong.)

      p.s. nobody has said that “the ability to make choices, within a given framework, is non-existent.” What has been said is that the ability to FREELY make choices, within a given framework, is non-existent. There is a difference between these two statements.

    • mikmik
      Posted December 29, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

      I couldn’t agree more with you, Mike D

  56. mikmik
    Posted December 28, 2011 at 2:41 am | Permalink

    @mike #55,
    Like I always say, “If our perception of free will is superfluous, then why do we have it?”

    ‘Proving’ we can’t have free will is proof that we can’t have a conscious mind and awareness, yet we do. When they explain qualia in a purely mechanical and deterministic manner, then I will listen to them wax pedantic about free will.

    • steve
      Posted December 28, 2011 at 7:56 am | Permalink

      Mikmik,

      ‘Proving’ we can’t have free will is proof that we can’t have a conscious mind and awareness, yet we do.

      I fail to see how you come to this conclusion. Please substantiate your claim. How does one get from “there is no freedom to the will” to nobody is conscious and nobody has any awareness?

      I suspect that when they (non-free willists) tell you that it is only an illusion that you have freedom to your will, you are rejecting this message due to the pervasiveness of the free will illusion. You are linking the realness of your consciousness/awareness of feeling that you make libertarianly free will choices all the time, and therefore if that thing that seems very real to you isn’t real, then shucks consciousness isn’t real and awareness isn’t real either.

      Free will is revealed to be an empty/untrue concept by the assertion that all human behavior is 100% caused by antecedent events, and therefore devoid of freedom. How could the claim that behavior is not free prove that nobody is conscious or aware?

      • mikmik
        Posted December 29, 2011 at 10:42 am | Permalink

        No, you put the cart before the horse. I am saying that there is an unknown. You incompatabilists are saying that our awareness of qulia, our experiences and memories, arise naturally from physical processes, and one of the results is an illusion of free will.

        I am asking how you can skip the step in explaining exactly what physical properties out mind – meaning our conscious awareness of qualia – are composed of. WHAT IS THIS PHYSICAL THING CALLED THE MIND – WHAT ARE THE PHYSICAL PROPERTIES OF ILLUSION.

        If you do not know how we get from A -> B, from PHYSICAL PROCCESSES to result in a PHYSICALLY DESCRIBABLE MIND, replete with the experience of the color red, for instance, then you do not know what happens to give or not give us free will.

        There is a GREAT UNKNOWN DIVIDE which you assume to be unnecessary to account for!

        When you can account for the exact physical description of the mind object, then you will be able to account fr the part of the mind object that is the illusion of free will.

        You, every one and all of you, for ever I have ever seen, are basing your arguments on a fallacy. It is thus:
        1 Every effect has a physical cause.
        2 Every resultant effect is physical.
        3 Our mind has a physical cause.
        4 The cause has only one effect, the instantaneous state of the caused mind.
        5 The mind has only one state and in turn can only cause one single effect(our choice of action).

        I am asking you to explain my perception of the color red(as I am looking at a label on a bottle beside me with red in it) as a physical thing that resulted from a physical cause.

        How does the physicality of my brain transform into the physicality of my brain which contains the physicality of my experience of a swatch of red color as part of it. Then explain the swatch of red experience in purely physical results.

        When you have done that, then you can move up in scale to explain the thoughts as physical things, then the decisions made in our thoughts as physical things.
        Then, and only then, can you tell me if the perception of making an informed decision by weighing alternatives and selecting an appropriate action is an illusion or not.

        You are all making the fallacy that because all things can, in principle, be known as the result of physical causes, then our minds can be known thus. Our minds are therefore physical in ways that we already understand as physical.

        But you don’t know what all the possible physical properties of our minds are. You do not know the process, THEREFORE, YOU CAN NOT COMMENT ON THE RESULT.

        • steve
          Posted December 29, 2011 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

          Mikmik,

          No, I don’t need to know all that you say I need to know in order to know that free will is an illusion. Heck, if what you say is true, then nobody would be able to claim that free will is true unless they knew all the thing you say one should have to know in order to say yea or ney to this question.

          By the way, you didn’t answer my question, “How does one get from “there is no freedom to the will” to nobody is conscious and nobody has any awareness?”

          • mikmik
            Posted December 29, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

            Yes!! That is exactly what I am saying!! (big effin smile!)

            Nobody knows. THEREFORE: Nobody can say there isn’t free will, or is!!!

            By the way, you didn’t answer my question, “How does one get from “there is no freedom to the will” to nobody is conscious and nobody has any awareness?”

            I never said that, or I didn’t mean to. (I am not very clear sometimes, sorry about that)

            I wonder why we would have consciousness, which would include awareness of qualia and illusion of free will, if all our decisions are purely rote. I don’t see how consciousness is necessary to act if it is all just chemical and physical with no will being involved. I mean, why bother? It would seem to be an awfully, desperately so, bizarre and complex thing to arise for no reason, wouldn’t it?

            There are two questions that I think need to be answered.
            1. How do you explain consciousness. You need the understanding in order to attribute anything to be a logical, empirical result of it.
            I mean, it is a given that we have free will because we experience it.
            It is not at all apparent that free will is an illusion. That is a very, very strong assumption, or hypothesis. If you are to claim absolute knowledge of lack of free will, then you must tell me why we have the appearance of it.
            To do that, you must tell me(us) how our brain works to produce our consciousness and experiences in order to be able to say that it may not possess a particular feature ie that aspect, free will, is ruled out.

            2. Why do we have awareness if we don’t need it. We obviously don’t need it if all our decisions and resultant behaviours are causally predetermined.

            • steve
              Posted December 29, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

              Oh, but the case can be made that there is no such thing as free will, without needing to know all that stuff that you think needs to be known (why you see red). As for “…then you must tell me why we have the appearance of it…”, no I don’t. All I have to do is present a convincing case for why it is nothing but an illusion.

              Also, I too share the same curiosity (that you seem to have) about the whys and wherefores of consciousness and awareness.

              • mikmik
                Posted December 29, 2011 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

                Yes you do. There is an unknown process going on which results in things you cannot explain or understand.
                Seeing that this process is verified, ie fact, you cannot draw a cause and effect relationship of a direct and simple type.

                It is a fantastic, mind blowing claim that we do not have free will. Exceptional claims require exceptional evidence, and a simple correlation is not sufficient.

                I still haven’t had time to reply to vain and others, but vain pointed something else out that I haven’t seen anyone say before(except me on a pharyngula free will thread, which was also ignored).

                You incompatibilists insist on simplifying things beyond reason, and several of us have pointed this out.

                No one has explained a causative relationship between experiment and supposed lack of freedom of choice.

                You people keep quibbling about the meaning of the words free will, labels like compatibilist and what they exactly mean, and general nitpicking which is indicative of faulty or lacking rigor behind your opinions.

                I just want to state that I completely agree with whoever said(above) that Coyne and others are virtual hypocrits by continuing to try to change people by argument, and also, by displaying emotions like frustration, anger, smugness, petulance, and express moral judgements and, also, to try and argue points with the express purpose of changing others, and I am going to keep asking you why you act like you have free will if you don’t have it.

                And I don’t mean the triteness, “I have to” because you don’t know that, and furthermore, you all have ignored the fucking gravity of the implication(also stated above) of us not actually having free will.

                That would be devastating, to say the fucking least.

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

                Mikmik,

                Yes you do.

                I hardly know where to start. First of all, I reiterate that non-free willists do not have to have an explanation for how the brain manifests conscious experience, or how it stores memories, or how it regulates body functions, or how brain cells process decision making, or why you see red when you see red, or any of the thousand other mysteries of the human central nervous system in order to with complete confidence that there is no freedom to human will.

                There is an unknown process going on which results in things you cannot explain or understand. Seeing that this process is verified, ie fact, you cannot draw a cause and effect relationship of a direct and simple type.

                I don’t have the slightest inkling as what this unknown process is that you are talking about here. Of course nobody can explain or understand anything that is unknown to them. But really, how can an unknown process be verified? If it is verified then it would seem to be known. This part of your post must have come out garbled somehow.

                It is a fantastic, mind blowing claim that we do not have free will.

                Of course you are just reporting that your mind is blown by the claim and that you appraise the claim to be fantastic. Over the years I’ve gotten this a lot from people new to this observation (that there is no freedom to the human will).

                Exceptional claims require exceptional evidence, and a simple correlation is not sufficient.

                I do agree with the logic that exceptional claims require exceptional evidence. Often I have made this demand of supernaturalist and/or theists. But one must establish just what is the authentic exceptional claim? I’d say that making a claim that something as incoherent as free will is the exceptional claim. (Not incoherent, you say?, then produce a true coherent definition of free will).

                Free willists make the claim that free will exists, so I’d say the burden of proof lies with them to prove free will. (Same as the burden of proof lies to someone who asserts the existence of a deity or pixies or flying pink teapots.) And speaking of exceptions… there probably is no bigger example of an exception than the exception that libertarian free will represents. All of the universe is deterministic, except for the human will (and also recently added to the list, according to Stephen Bernard, lions). And talk about simple correlations: you think/feel like you make free will decisions so you correlate this to mean that you have free will and furthermore all of humanity has it too. This is all that the claim of free will rests upon, this one simple correlation for this ultimate exceptional claim: that unlike anything else known to man, man transcends causation/determinism/cause-and-effect.

                You incompatibilists insist on simplifying things beyond reason, and several of us have pointed this out.

                I have no idea what you mean by simplify beyond reason. Sorry if our explanation as to why free will is only an illusion has been made too simple for you.

                No one has explained a causative relationship between experiment and supposed lack of freedom of choice.

                I shall attempt to explain it to you. Free willists sometimes attempt to explain the existence of free will by alluding to “conscious decision making”. They say that free will is evidenced by the experience of conscious decision making. The experiment appears to show that the experience of conscious decision making is a false positive for the existence of free will because we now have indicators that show that decision making is made first in the subconscious and then subsequently shows up in the consciousness rendering the impression of the decision being made consciously.

                I hope this is an easy to digest explanation of the experiment.

                You people keep quibbling about the meaning of the words free will, labels like compatibilist and what they exactly mean, and general nitpicking which is indicative of faulty or lacking rigor behind your opinions.

                Please find it in your heart to excuse our quibbling about the exact meaning of words. Put yourself in our shoes… we are faced with emotionally motivated rejection of our observation, those who would argue that our observation is incorrect would try to make the case for their position by obfuscation via redefinition of words/terms/concepts. Saying things like, “well not the free will your used to thinking you have, but a free will that is much more desirable/usable” or “Sure you have all the free will a person could really want to have” or “Yeah, it’s free will, it just does contain any real freedom”. So yeah there is some quibbling, but believe me, it’s not because we like quibbling or that we freely chose to quibble.
                As for the rigor of my opinions: they are not without rigor. I refer you to your own report of how mind blowing this opinion is… an opinion lacking in rigor would hardly be mind blowing. I’d say your visceral reaction is an indicator of just how substantial the argument that free will is an illusion is.

                I just want to state that I completely agree with whoever said(above) that Coyne and others are virtual hypocrits by continuing to try to change people by argument, and also, by displaying emotions like frustration, anger, smugness, petulance, and express moral judgements and, also, to try and argue points with the express purpose of changing others, and I am going to keep asking you why you act like you have free will if you don’t have it.

                Wow, so much to unpack in this one sentence.

                Hypocrisy is an almost slanderous charge. You may be skittering on the edge of civil discourse.

                How can someone who is still under the free will illusion credibly claim to know how someone who has come to see through the illusion of free will ought to act? Do you think that someone who doesn’t believe the Earth rotates as it orbits the Sun has any grounds to critique the behavior of heliocentrist when they might opine, “That sure was a nice sunrise this morning”?
                Maybe Coyne and others are new to non-free will enlightenment. Maybe they lose their focus and are momentarily influenced by the free will illusion. Maybe they are reacting emotionally. One thing I am willing to bet, they didn’t freely start believing in free will again and use that belief to justify being angry or smug, or petulant. (We might talk about morality and moral judgment at a later date, if and when you come to grips with non-free willism.)
                What is the problem with trying and arguing points with the express purpose of changing others? There is nothing about the non-free will world view that would preclude trying and/or arguing points with the express purpose of changing others… explain your thinking here, please.

                and I am going to keep asking you why you act like you have free will if you don’t have it. And I don’t mean the triteness, “I have to” because you don’t know that, and furthermore, you all have ignored the fucking gravity of the implication(also stated above) of us not actually having free will. That would be devastating, to say the fucking least.

                Again, given that you believe in free will, how do justify saying how a person who doesn’t believe in free will ought to act?

                Next: regarding ignoring the f***ing gravity of the implication of non-free willism. I don’t ignore it… I am willing to address it, I often do address it. That there may be grave implications does not change the reality that there is no free will. Surely you don’t mean that I (or Coyne or any other non-free willist) should believe differently because of these grave implications, do you? Think of the graver implications of intellectual dishonesty if that is indeed your bent.
                Devastating… hmmm, I think you over react. It can be a bit shocking when an illusion is exposed. Maybe unsettling, but I hope you aren’t devastated by the knowledge that you have no ability what so ever to transcend the causal effects of your heredity and environment, your nature and your nurture, your personal matrix of causal determinants.

        • Stephen Barnard
          Posted December 29, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

          The onus is on the incompatabilists to explain whence come the creative and seemingly intentional acts of us creatures — things like art and science and politics and so on — things that are explicable with free will. There must be something important missing in their physical world view.

          It seems like trading one mystery for a bigger one.

          • steve
            Posted December 29, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

            Stephen,

            Incompatibilists are just those who believe that free will is not compatible with determinism. Therefore there are two varieties of incompatibilist: free willist and non-free willists. (Compatibilists believe that free will is compatible with determinism.) I begin my response with this because you seem to be under the impression that all inccompatibilists are non-free willists. Certainly the free willists subset of incompatibilists would point to free will as the whence from which creative and seemly intentional acts come.

            As for the non-free willists, well we would just reply that freedom of will is not required for either creativity or intentionality. There are computer programs that can produce new music quite creatively that have no free will. And a lion can be very intentional in chasing down its prey, and you wouldn’t attribute free will to a lion, would you?

            Regarding your last point, the issue at hand is discovering a truth (there is no freedom to the human will), that this might open up a new bigger mystery for you does not keep this from being true.

            • Stephen Barnard
              Posted December 29, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

              Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I’m obviously not familiar with the rather obscure taxonomy of this debate.

              My point was that a non-free-will stance has a lot to answer for. Where does all this stuff come from, if not from free will? I don’t think variation and natural selection can answer for it.

              And yes, I would attribute free will to lion deciding to chase down a particularly vulnerable gazelle.

              • steve
                Posted December 29, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

                If you claim that lions are free willing, then I must decline to continue this exchange with you as all bets are off with you as far as I can tell.

              • Stephen Barnard
                Posted December 29, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

                Hey, fine with me, and with the lions, too. I suppose you’re one of those people who think there’s some transcendental difference between humans and our cousins. How quaintly anthropocentric.

              • Stephen Barnard
                Posted December 29, 2011 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

                I’ll also add, gratuitously, that you won’t score any points with Jerry by dissing lions. :-) (It’s a joke.)

  57. Myron
    Posted December 28, 2011 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    What exactly is determinism?

    “I shall say that two possible worlds diverge iff they are not duplicates but they do have duplicate initial temporal segments. Thus our world and another might match perfectly up through the year 1945, and go their separate ways thereafter. …
    First, a system of laws of nature is Deterministic iff no two divergent worlds both conform perfectly to the laws of that system. Second, a world is Deterministic iff its laws comprise a Deterministic system. Third, Determinism is the thesis that our world is Deterministic.”

    (Lewis, David. “New Work for a Theory of Universals.” 1983. In: David Lewis, Papers in Metaphysics and Epistemology, 8-55. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. pp. 31+32)

  58. Myron
    Posted December 28, 2011 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    In this debate, the phrase “free will” had better be replaced by “free action/choice/decision”.

    “These days, many philosophers avoid the expression ‘freedom of the will’, preferring to talk about freedom of action (including the freedom of mental actions such as choosing, forming intentions, and deciding)[.]“

    (“Free Will.” In: Helen Beebee, Nikk Effingham, and Philip Goff, Metaphysics: The Key Concepts, 81-83. Abingdon: Routledge, 2011. pp. 81-2)

    “‘Free will’ is the conventional name of a topic that is best discussed without reference to the will. Its central questions are ‘What is it to act (or choose) freely?’, and ‘What is it to be morally responsible for one’s actions (or choices)?’ These two questions are closely connected, for freedom of action is necessary for moral responsibility, even if it is not sufficient.”

    (“Free Will,” by Galen Strawson. In The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward Craig, 286-294. London: Routledge, 2005. p. 286)

    • steve
      Posted December 28, 2011 at 8:22 am | Permalink

      Wouldn’t this just make the discussion more problematic than less? I think using “action/choice/decision” instead of using “will” would only add to the cumbersomeness of our exchanges.

      A rose by any other name is still a rose.

  59. MAUCH
    Posted December 28, 2011 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    Are neuroscientists convinced that there are truly a dualistic aspect in brain activity. We seem to have evolved to think that the little person that lives in our brain has a strained marriage with unconsciousness. Has anyone divorced themselves of seeing brain function this way.

  60. mikmik
    Posted December 30, 2011 at 5:34 am | Permalink

    I was just reading at ScienceDaily and happened on two reports of studies(experiments) on conscious vs. unconscious decision making. It seems that a self determined time of consciously ruminating leads to better decisions:
    Complex Decision? Don’t Think About It
    (not what it sounds like)

    and:
    Complex Decision? Don’t Sleep On It

    I see these types of experiments as able to show that people can indeed choose differently in identical situations, depending on how you arrive at their conclusions, and that purposeful though has a significant influence.

    I also want to comment on the video. The research showed a .57 correlation with brain activity at 8 seconds, and again at 1 second, prior to the action of pressing button.
    Further, the predictability was almost no better than chance at t-6 to t-2 seconds.

    This is a long way from predicting the actions of, say, a hockey goaltender who reacts in less than 2/100ths of a second with a save that directs the rebound purposely to an area where his teammate can recover the puck.

    How does this video explain decisions made fractions of seconds after presented with stimuli. We do this almost constantly when navigating in crowds, for instance. And we screw up and bump into people more if we are not consciously paying attention, and even then, when we don’t have enough time to react.
    It would be interesting to look at this because I know that when I am really focused and paying attention, like when I play soccer, say, that I can avoid collisions in a crowd far more successfully and often.

    Surely, conscious activity plays a part in this.

    Mostly, though, I think the linked references I’ve given are an indication that, yes, I could have chosen to act differently in some certain situation.

    • steve
      Posted December 30, 2011 at 8:24 am | Permalink

      …I could have chosen to act differently in some certain situation.

      Can you tell us of such an incidence when this was true? (Be as truthful as you can. And by this I mean be truthful to yourself.)

      p.s. Maybe people collide in crowds because they aren’t looking were they are going… the eyes can’t send information to the brain (conscious or subconscious) if they aren’t pointed in the right direction.

      • mikmik
        Posted December 30, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink

        First, Steve, I thank you for taking time to respond to me. I can’t directly reply to your last reply:
        steve

        Posted December 30, 2011 at 8:16 am | Permalink
        but you are mostly correct; I see the difficulties of my position that you pointed out, and I am desperately trying to salvage the position that we have free will. I am almost completely convinced that it seems that we cannot have a free will, or ability to act/react differently in any given situation. I still see grave difficulties, though, with pure determinism because of the presence of our conscious awareness – it would seem to be superfluous. I will find the proper time to go through your objections and reasoning above for much is interesting.

        In regards to your statement:

        (…I could have chosen to act differently in some certain situation.)
        Can you tell us of such an incidence when this was true? (Be as truthful as you can. And by this I mean be truthful to yourself.)

        It seems to me that I could respond or not respond right at this moment, but I agree that I cannot, yet, prove that anything I have ever done could have been done differently. I am trying to break down my actions into smaller and smaller increments of time, and the more I do that, the less it seems I could have chosen to act differently anywhere.
        However, I still feel very badly that this approach misses something very important, and is the incorrect way to analyze things. The experiments I linked to are the best way I have seen(and I haven’t seen much!) to show that people can act differently depending upon conscious effort, but, of course, this proves nothing here(in the experiments) because it can be argued that whether or not a person takes the time to ruminate, or just makes an impulsive decision, or else ‘decides’ to sleep on it (the first method leading to the best decision or outcome), that choice is coerced/determined by initial conditions in the first place, ie. the belief that one or another of the three methods is best.
        Never the less, conscious rumination changes the outcome favorably versus the two unconscious methods although the authors never quite say that explicitly in their conclusion, just that it is no worse FFS!

        However, overall, I still feel, and think!(because I feel a certain way?), that approaching these discussions (and research) on free will with a deterministic bent limits our ability to see everything that may be relevent to the question. I am trying to turn the tables and ask why, not how. There must be a reason, of course, for our perceptions and awarenesses, but I can’t see how these are neccessary in determinism.
        Drat, I have to go again. Thanks again,
        Mike

        • mikmik
          Posted December 30, 2011 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

          Well, this guy states much more clearly what I think: Massimo Pigliucci, and this book promises to invalidate experiments that purport to establish action before awareness: Each of the following claims has been defended in the scientific literature on free will and consciousness: your brain routinely decides what you will do before you become conscious of its decision; there is only a 100 millisecond window of opportunity for free will, and all it can do is veto conscious decisions, intentions, or urges; intentions never play a role in producing corresponding actions; and free will is an illusion.

          In Effective Intentions Alfred Mele shows that the evidence offered to support these claims is sorely deficient. He also shows that there is strong empirical support for the thesis that some conscious decisions and intentions have a genuine place in causal explanations of corresponding actions. In short, there is weighty evidence of the existence of effective conscious intentions or the power of conscious will. Mele examines the accuracy of subjects’ reports about when they first became aware of decisions or intentions in laboratory settings and develops some implications of warranted skepticism about the accuracy of these reports. In addition, he explores such questions as whether we must be conscious of all of our intentions and why scientists disagree about this. Mele’s final chapter closes with a discussion of imaginary scientific findings that would warrant bold claims about free will and consciousness of the sort he examines in this book.

          This is self explanitory:
          The Appearance of Reality
          A representational approach to explaining consciousness

          url = http://www.naturalism.org/appearance.htm

          As I said, there are grave difficulties with the hands-down acceptance of determinism. At first I thought I might be moving in the direction of non-free will, but as I thought about it, and then read Pigliucci, I am back to the question of why we have conscious awareness and, also, perception of volition. (Now that’s unambiguous – from Pigliucci)

          There are other examples of ordered indeterminism besides QM as well. Chaos is one.

          I have a clear conscience and don’t have to live with a contradictory belief of (my perception of)reality, in any event.

  61. mikmik
    Posted December 30, 2011 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    I have another question for the determinists re: The computer Watson and the belief that a sufficiently complex computer could equal our behaviors and decision making (in the area of morality and love, for instance).

    Would your computer also have to say things like, “I need to tell you how I feel, please” or it would begin to malfunction?
    Could that computer genuinely answer questions like ‘how do you feel’ or self destruct because of emotional anguish?

    I mean, sure, it seems plausible that much of our activity could be explained deterministically, but then why do we have a conscious awareness?

    Hard determinists have to answer the question of consciousness, I say it again.

    Determinism is far too reductionistic to be of any use.

    Because, Jerry, the amazing thing to me is that our minds affect our brain function. How can our brain decide what to change in itself, given that consciousness is part of the process. And it must be, or why do we have it?

    Why would Watson Jr. have it?

  62. Stephen Barnard
    Posted December 30, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    I wonder what kind of physical world view the non-free-will proponents have? I imagine Laplace’s demon:

    We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.
    —Pierre Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities[34]

    Is that accurate?

    • Another Matt
      Posted December 30, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      Quantum theory would seem to preclude this thoroughgoing view of the world. But again the point is not whether determinism implies that the future is in principle predictable by such an intellect (though I do wonder whether such an intellect would feel more free or less free than humans do). Maybe a way to reword the spirit of Jerry’s flavor determinism while taking into account quantum indeterminacy might be “The future is whatever will have happened.” (i.e. once a future event happens we can point back to its causal chain(s).)

      • Stephen Barnard
        Posted December 30, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

        Quantum theory doesn’t preclude Lapalace’s demon at all. Quantum mechanics is deterministic.

        It sounds to me like you’re embracing Laplace’s demon, except maybe for the “intellect” part. (That’s only a rhetorical flourish on Laplace’s part.)

        Of course, there’s the inconvenient fact that quantum mechanics and general relativity are, up to this point, irreconcilable, which would pose some serious problems for the demon, but let’s put that aside. There’s a more serious problem with this world view.

        • Another Matt
          Posted December 30, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

          I’m no expert, so I’ll defer to whomever knows about QM, but I thought its determinism was dependent on the interpretations, and the interpretations which are deterministic tuck some things away in unobservable places (e.g. the multiple worlds interpretation).

          A compatibilist argument is proposed against nihilist interpretations of hard determinism (any indeterminacy is a “wee frill”). It’s why I wondered whether Laplace’s demon’s own model of the world would lead it to “feel” more or less free than humans (what would a compatibilist say about Laplace’s demon?). The existence of such a being is implausible in a deterministic-naturalistic world, though, because the mechanics needed to do the analyses would need to include themselves in their own analyses in real time. The analysis would have to happen after the fact and would always be confirmatory rather than predictive. But I think the question isn’t about prediction anyway.

          • Stephen Barnard
            Posted December 30, 2011 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

            If you’re going to premise rejection of free will on physics, you have to take physics, as we know it, seriously.

            The essential point, in Laplace’s words, is, “We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future.” That’s the hard nugget of the no-free-will stance.

            Laplace is suggesting a system of partial differential equations dependent on time. The demon integrates forward in time from the present to get to the future, or backwards in time to get to the past. The system is deterministic and time-reversal-invariant.

            That’s what we have to work with. This works for quantum mechanics as well as classical mechanics and general relativity (although there are serious problems in stitching them together, which we can set aside for now).

            Something very important is missing from this world view, and it’s not quantum mechanics. It’s the arrow of time and the second law of thermodynamics.

            I’m sure many if not all of you (if anyone’s still listening) have heard the lame-ass claims of creationists about the second law of thermodynamics refuting evolution. That’s not what I’m talking about. Not at all.

            The events in the world we experience are irreversible, governed by the second law. You can’t unscramble an egg. But Laplace’s demon CAN unscramble an egg. Just replace t with -t and integrate. It’s not realistic. In this world view, time is an illusion.

            At the very least, this should give pause to non-free-willers who might be complacent with naive physics.

            Laplace also said, “What we know is not much. What we do not know is immense.”

          • Another Matt
            Posted December 31, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

            There’s a lot to say, and I hesitate to add too much to the thread, but:

            The error with the Laplace’s demon thought experiment is that it sets up its calculation as something that is trivial for it to do. It’s asking you to imagine something that is precluded by physics in the first place. Unless it’s supernatural or has access to resources in a multiverse, even if it could collect and store the relevant data instantaneously it can’t do the integration instantaneously, and if I’m not mistaken it can’t do it in time to deliver the relevant data of a snapshot of the future before that point in time occurs (and this leaves out the relativistic problems with simultaneity and QM problems with uncertainty – the “data collection” problems, as well as the fact that the change in the universe associated with performing the calculation will have to be folded into the calculation itself – it’s going to run into entropy problems before it can finish). There’s a lot of intuitive power in this thought experiment because the way it’s set up it involves some kind of sentient prediction.

            To prove the idea that “We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future” the demon would need to collect data at three points in time, run two calculations from the middle one connecting it to the other two in two time directions and show that the results predicted by the middle state predicted the later and postdicted the earlier. I can’t tell whether this would still count as inductive empiricism so I’ll leave it open whether it would need to perform this action several more times to show that it’s reliable. And then it wouldn’t matter whether anything could actually be predicted (or postdicted).

            I have very little expertise in physics, so I have to ask – why wouldn’t the increasing-entropy/arrow-of-time be folded into the Laplace demon’s calculations going forward and backward? T would not be meaningfully interchangeable with -T, because the demon’s calculations would always show how entropy was changing, and to the extent that it didn’t it would just be using a bad model, yes-no? In what way does the 2nd law conflict with causal chains in a deterministic world?

            • Stephen Barnard
              Posted December 31, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

              I’m afraid you’re missing the point. Laplace wasn’t writing a grant proposal; he was making a philosophical point. Of course his demon is wildly impractical. The point is that the laws of physics as Laplace understood them, and as we pretty much understand them today, involve deterministic, time-reversal invariant systems of equations.

              The second law of thermodynamics is a funny kind of law, set apart from and somewhat in conflict with Laplace’s schema. It describes something that’s observed (increasing entropy in closed systems; irreversibility), and it’s justified or explained with statistical arguments. It’s also closely related to the concept of information.

              As far as I’m aware, there are no widely accepted general principles or laws governing self-organizing open systems far from equilibrium. Biological evolution seems like an example where we at least have a theoretical foothold, but the general problem is a giant void in our understanding.

            • Another Matt
              Posted December 31, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

              I’m maybe deliberately missing the point, because I think his philosophical point has to rest on the possibility of the thing it’s making a point about. Saying the demon is “wildly implausible” vs. “impossible in our universe” are different things, and I’m provisionally claiming the latter.

              Laplace is saying “in principle, if there were such an intellect, this is what it would find.” I’m saying that “in principle” no such intellect could exist that didn’t have resources outside the universe, so the point is not epistemologically warranted. It’s not something that can be said about the world.

              It reminds me of the good old uncertainty principle: there’s some question about whether it’s an epistemological principle – the particles do have specific positions and momentums but we can’t observe them both to an arbitrary degree of accuracy – or an actual physical principle – particles do not actually have specific positions and momentums, even for a Laplace demon (or a god’s eye view, or whatever). If it’s the latter any argument that relies on a posited intellect that has access to both is going to be wrong.

              It’s not quite analogous to our problem with determinism and the impossibility of the Laplace demon, but my point is that a lot of unwarranted things can be smuggled into thought experiments and “philosophical points.”

              • Stephen Barnard
                Posted December 31, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

                ” … but my point is that a lot of unwarranted things can be smuggled into thought experiments and “philosophical points.””

                Point taken. I wish I’d never brought up the “demon” thing. It’s not necessary, but it’s colorful. I was trying to flesh out the physical world view of the free-will naysayers, from whom I’ve yet to hear, except for you.

                By the way, I don’t think Laplace believed in his demon for a second, and I’d wager he believed in free will, if it ever occurred to him to question it.

  63. mikmik
    Posted December 30, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    Eery vindication: Nahmais makes the point that the ‘death of free will’ idea makes a fallacy he calls ‘bypassing’ that reduces our decisions to chemical reactions, implying that our conscious thinking is bypassed, and so we must lack free will.

    He notes that this is like saying life doesn’t exist because every living thing is made up of non-living molecules, when, in reality, its impossible to understand life or free will without considering the system at the macro level – that is, the actions and interactions of the whole organism.

    • greg byshenk
      Posted December 31, 2011 at 9:26 am | Permalink

      This strikes me as a terrible analogy. After all, “life” doesn’t exist as some independent entity; rather, ‘living’ is a term applied to certain types of organizations of matter (and is somewhat fuzzy at the edges, as well). The point of the “no-free-will” camp is that ‘freewill’ is supposed by the “pro-free-will” camp to be causal in some way independent of mere particular organizations of matter. In this way there seems a much closer analogy to vitalism, wherein the sense that something seems to be present somehow entails that there must actually be some thing.

      • mikmik
        Posted December 31, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

        Seems a fine analogy to me. Where do you get the lifeforce/vitalae idea? He does not say anything about ‘life’ being a thing.

        I’ve said this over and over again, the step from purely inanimate physical(matter and energy) to mind/awareness is missing.
        From this post

        No, you put the cart before the horse. I am saying that there is an unknown. You incompatabilists are saying that our awareness of qulia, our experiences and memories, arise naturally from physical processes, and one of the results is an illusion of free will.

        I am asking how you can skip the step in explaining exactly what physical properties out mind – meaning our conscious awareness of qualia – are composed of. WHAT IS THIS PHYSICAL THING CALLED THE MIND – WHAT ARE THE PHYSICAL PROPERTIES OF ILLUSION.

        If you do not know how we get from A -> B, from PHYSICAL PROCCESSES to result in a PHYSICALLY DESCRIBABLE MIND, replete with the experience of the color red, for instance, then you do not know what happens to give or not give us free will.

        There is a GREAT UNKNOWN DIVIDE which you assume to be unnecessary to account for!

        You have to look at the whole system as a whole, it is not just a bunch of individual processes.

        Shee43sh, that analogy is very straight forward. Give me a break already.

        P.S. I am not trying to brag, just that I notice that these ideas that I’ve come up with in argument to the non-free willists, on my own, are not only not strange, they have a history and some analysis already for at least a few years.

        I have been getting the idea that many non-free willists sound like and act like the devout trying to defend religion with the introducing of superfluous arguments about meanings of terms, classifying/labeling opponents, seemingly purposely missing the point and/or avoiding questions.* Thought experiments, blah, blah.

        These are all red herrings!

        There is so much latitude for free will to enter that I find it absurd that anyone can be smug and virtually certain of the impossibility of free will.

        Okay, I am going to say another thing again, sigh. The mind object/thingy, by which I mean the awareness of qualia and processing ideas and thoughts and feelings and creativity and everything else mentioned above, is in no way explainable in known physics. DO NOT tell me that you can see exactly what is happening with the brain blah blah, because that is not what I am talking about. That only shows correlation, FFS.
        So, if you cannot explain WHY OUR MINDS OBTAIN, then you do not know why, or why not, free will obtains as part of the mind.

        Get. Over. It.

        *Steve, not you. You are rigorous and encompassing. I can learn from you, man!

        • greg byshenk
          Posted December 31, 2011 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

          I’ve said this over and over again, the step from purely inanimate physical(matter and energy) to mind/awareness is missing.
          And similarly, the step from purely inanimate physical matter to ‘life’ is missing. Which, by the preferred analogy here, would suggest that some ‘lifeliness’ is called for as an explanation.

          This strikes me as a x-of-the-gaps argument: you can’t fully explain y, therefore x must be the case. The hard incompatibilist points out only that there appears to be no place for ‘freewill’ (in the strong sense) to arise, given the nature of the universe as we know it. Of course, we may be mistaken in our understanding, but simply invoking magic, as you seem to do, seems inadequate.

  64. Stephen Barnard
    Posted December 31, 2011 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    When creationists present their lame-ass argument that the second law of thermodynamics refutes evolution, they’re ignoring the fact that life originated and evolves in open, far-from-equilibrium systems. The free energy in a open, far-from-equilibrium system drives complex, self-organizing, irreversible processes of which we have only the dimmest understanding, but we have many examples.

    Biological evolution for one. Also embryology and development. The brain is a self-organizing system. Also cultural evolution, and many other examples. Self-organization in complex systems far from equilibrium operates at all levels of abstraction, from molecules to culture. We don’t lack examples. We lack understanding.

    I think it’s possible, even likely, that a justification for free will is hidden within this lack of understanding. It’s disturbing, to say the least, to think that physics and causality negates free will. My suggestion is that it’s premature to give up on free will while we’re still woefully ignorant of what’s going on.

  65. FormerComposer
    Posted December 31, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    A couple of months back, Sam Harris had a couple of posts on consciousness. What seems to be a fundamental question for him is

    [t]o use the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s construction: A creature is conscious if there is “something that it is like” to be this creature; an event is consciously perceived if there is “something that it is like” to perceive it.

    When he announced he was working on a book about Free Will and requesting input for areas of concern, I suggested this as an interesting question: Is there “something that it is like” to make a decision?

    • Stephen Barnard
      Posted December 31, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

      That’s a misreading of Nagel’s essay.

      Ask yourself what it is like to be you. I think you’ll conclude it’s like something, and that something is a mystery, inaccessible to others, somewhat like it’s like to be a bat.

      • FormerComposer
        Posted December 31, 2011 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

        I’m not sure it is “like something.” But I am sure it is something. Reading all the comments here (and similar discussions elsewhere), I find the idea of decision-making to be similarly opaque. There is something that I do when I make a decision — as much as there is something that is me — but hearing others talk about it seems like listening to a discussion of something alien. If free will is not about decision-making, then I’m not sure what it is about.

        • Stephen Barnard
          Posted December 31, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

          The problem of other minds can drive you crazy. I don’t take the solipsistic position — that only my own mind can I know exists, but a thoughgoing skeptic would have to. :-)

      • Another Matt
        Posted January 1, 2012 at 9:21 am | Permalink

        Another way of framing FormerComposer’s question in Nagel’s terms would be, “Is there something that it is like to be a being that makes (“real”) choices?” or simply “Is there something that it is like to have (some form of) free will?” I’m not sure it would be a productive conversation, but maybe those who don’t believe in any form of free will should be able to answer, “how could we tell if we actually had real free will – what differences would we detect?”

        • steve
          Posted January 1, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

          maybe those who don’t believe in any form of free will should be able to answer, “how could we tell if we actually had real free will – what differences would we detect?”

          Wouldn’t this be the same as asking “what diffence would there be if there were square circles in the universe”, of those who believe square circles don’t exist and aren’t even coherent?

          • FormerComposer
            Posted January 1, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

            “Square circles” as a physical concept/construct is a contradictory and incoherent concept. “Squaring the circle” as a mathematical concept required more effort to prove that the concept as described was not possible. I don’t remember if it is contradictory but the basic premise was not incoherent, just false (or impossible.) I don’t think there is anything incoherent about some definitions of free-will although they may turn out to be (ultimately) illusions.

  66. alEx
    Posted January 15, 2012 at 2:47 am | Permalink

    I have a theory about what is Free Will and I have written a post on it on my blog : “Free will is a choice in the long run”. It is part of a philosophy I have created.
    The main concept I add up to the short term deterministic point of view is about long term non-deterministic model due to probabilities in a complex biological system.

    Homo Equilibrium – Next Stage in Human Evolution

  67. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted January 22, 2012 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    I didn’t make time for this earlier, so to address outstanding points regarding my own notion of empirical free will:

    I maintain that if a decision is unconscious—if it takes place in your head well before you’re aware of it—then that is not free will, which involves conscious decisions. [...]

    What people differ about is whether determinism removes our notion of free will. And so they concoct “compatibilist” definitions of free will—ones that make free will compatible with physical determinism.

    And in this context the video makes a claim on that we want “causes”, which I will take as empirical causality:

    Empirical “free will” is a simple heuristic model that obeys internal causality, not used because it shores up philosophical dualism but because it is practical. So none of the above applies.

    Empirical free will has limits, but so has newtonian gravity when compared to general relativity. It is not factual, but so is the notion that solids are solid. (They are mostly space.)

    To me, free will means “I could have decided otherwise,” and if we can’t do that, then we don’t have free will. We have something else, and I wish that philosophers would use another term if they’re compatibilists.

    Again, within the heuristics it looks like we can make choices, because we can model free agents like making them. I agree that philosophers concerns are elsewhere, so a differentiation in terms would be nice!

    “A puppet is free so long as he loves his strings.”

    A naturalistic fallacy.

    And as I note earlier a specific fallacy. We love heuristics because they simplify things.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted January 22, 2012 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      “because we can model free agents like making them.” – because we can model free agents as making them.

  68. Posted March 18, 2012 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    The natural laws we write on our cells determine the decisions we make.(Lawsin 2000)

    An eletronic transistor is designed to make choices or decisions, does it has free-will? A game of chess online makes its own choices when I play against it, does it has free-will? Do I make decisions to myself, or something makes the decisions for me? Does something react inside of me to make such decisions?

    When someone is watching a sad movie, why does someone cry? Is it her choice to cry or something inside her makes her cry? Is that free will?

    When someone is sleeping, why does someone dream? Is it his choice to dream or something inside him makes him dream? Is that free will?

    Why do we peeh or pooh? Is this freewill or God tells us to do so?

    There is no such thing as free will. This excerpt is from the book Originemology by JLawsin.

  69. kishore
    Posted September 3, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    I think my free will is unlikely for a variety of reasons / examples:

    1. I cannot will myself to “like” music that is outside the typical note structure that my brain intrinsically “likes”

    2. I cannot change my “personality” on a whim.

    3. You can’t get homosexual people to stop being homosexual.

    4. You can’t seem to cure pedophilia.

    5. So many of our “vices” such as addiction to drugs, begin inexplicably even though we KNOW we shouldn’t use drugs and alcohol. We get fat even though we KNOW we shouldn’t eat too much. The fact that we make “decisions” to do things that are bad for us despite all knowledge and logic to the contrary speaks against free will.

    6. Genetics and twin studies regarding addiction show definite evidence of nature AND nurture having a role in addiction behavior.

    7. I can’t will myself greater aptitudes. NO matter how much I practice, I don’t think I can be Mozart.

    8. I might want to will myself to stay awake but my body “decides” when I am too tired. I might want to watch more TV but my eyes are fatigued. Your body limits your ability to exert your will on a regular basis. You can’t “will” yourself to not have to sleep.

    9. Post traumatic stress syndrome appears to be genetically mediated. Whether you pop your pimples or not appears to be genetically mediated. Whether you are born with taste buds that prefer sweet or sour are probably something you can’t control. Sedentary vs active lifestyle behavior are partially at least determined by genetics. Risk taking behavior is probably genetic to some degree as well.

    10. Most of the day my thoughts just arise, not of my choosing. When I am looking around, the things that my eyes look at not really in my control.

    11. Much of the sensory input to our brain is illusory (like our blind spot being filled in by our brain). If the information we have to act on itself is illusory to some degree, how can we act on bad information?

    12. It is so hard to change your desires, if not impossible to turn off entirely. (at least for most people).

    13. 99% of all decisions we make in life are very much mundane and patterned responses based on your personal genetics, past experience, etc. The experience of being alive largely feels like on autopilot.

  70. Posted February 11, 2013 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    I do not even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was great.
    I don’t know who you are but definitely you’re going to a famous blogger if you are not already ;) Cheers!


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Why Evolution is True blog has many posts on the subject and the latest one is here (http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/12/27/the-no-free-will-experiment/), its worth popping over too even if its to watch the 5 min embedded video. If Free Will and the [...]

  2. [...] dangerously engaging in waxing philosophical again. This time he weighs in, after insifficient and limited study, on the free will/determinism debate. He can weigh in, see, [...]

  3. [...] there have been a lot of good papers, publications and books about the Free Will (here, here, here, etc.). I agree with these ideas but I have another approach based on a philosophy I [...]

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