Quote of the day

“Finally, there is the worry that to reject free will is to render all of life pointless: why would you bother with anything if it has all long since been determined? The answer is that you will bother because you are a human, and that is what humans do.  Even if you decide, as part of a little intellectual exercise, that you are going to sit around and do nothing because you have concluded that you have no free will, you are eventually going to get up and make yourself a sandwich.  And if you do not, you have got bigger problems than philosophy can fix.”

—p. 1784 in Greene, J., and J. Cohen. 2004. For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 359:1775-85.

The nihilism breaker: a pastrami sandwich from the Carnegie Deli, New York City

55 Comments

  1. Dominic
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    The bread looks as if it should be in the pastrami!

  2. Posted January 4, 2012 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    This is a great quote that I read several times just to fully absorb. Also, the picture of the sandwich looks very tempting even at 9:30am.

  3. GBJames
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    That won’t work on us vegetarians.

  4. Posted January 4, 2012 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    Couldn’t help but notice the free dill.

    • BilBy
      Posted January 4, 2012 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      Oh, well done!

    • Diane G.
      Posted January 7, 2012 at 2:26 am | Permalink

      HaHa!

  5. John D
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    add some swiss and slaw and I am a believer for 15 minutes!

  6. NewEnglandBob
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    mmmm, pastrami. Where is the cream soda?

  7. DV
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    do you have a choice what kind of sandwich to make?

    • Keith Bonham
      Posted January 4, 2012 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      None. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

      • Posted January 4, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

        Guru: Make me one with everything.

        … where’s my change?

        Sandwich maker: Change must come from within.

  8. Posted January 4, 2012 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    In other words, “freely choose to do nothing because you can’t freely choose.” Don’t you just love it when even assuming there is no free will, they’re assuming free will?

    • microraptor
      Posted January 4, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. The biggest argument “for” free will is that if everybody stopped believing in it it would somehow cause their behavior to change and everyone would sink into an nihilistic funk.

    • Posted January 4, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

      It has long seemed to me that the determinism / free-will debate is empty because the illusion of free will is just as good as the real thing – like the virtual calculator on my computor. As Turing more-or-less said, if it always says 4*3=12 then it might as well be multiplying.

  9. Chris Granger
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    I just returned from a long walk in the cold (burning some holiday calories) during which I was pondering this free will business. My sore feet and empty stomach discouraged me from going even further than I did. That’s my post-hoc rationalization, anyways.

    You’re taunting me with this photo, Jerry. ;)

  10. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything.

    Look up the work of Derk Pereboom. Strong incompatibilist. Works include Living Without Free Will.
    ISBN-13: 978-0521029964, 2006.

  11. Posted January 4, 2012 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    What problem does the lazy man who will not eat have? It is already determined that he will not eat. He has no responsibility in this matter for he has no will. If he gets up to eat it is because he was predetermined to do so. He has no problem.

    Greene and Cohen where predetermined to write about a non existent problem.

    • S A GOULD
      Posted January 4, 2012 at 8:20 am | Permalink

      Sorry, thought you wrote “predetermined to write about a NOM existent problem.” (That sandwich did look remarkably tasty…)

    • steve oberski
      Posted January 4, 2012 at 9:38 am | Permalink

      Why is it that many of those who are most vehemently opposed to the arguments against contra-causal free will then espouse a philosophy that puts them in the role of religious robots mindlessly following the dictates of malevolent, invisible, immaterial entities ?

  12. Posted January 4, 2012 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    Yes, we’re all ineluctably caught up and embedded in cause and effect and so will be driven to action by our appetites. But as UPenn law prof Stephen Morse says, memorably:

    “Even if determinism is true, we cannot wait for it to happen. We must determine what determinism dictates.”

    That is, we are loci of proximate (not ultimate) control that shape outcomes according to our desires.

    and:

    “…the truth of determinism does not mean that human beings are puppets or otherwise non-intentional creatures. Puppets and people both exist as a result of deterministic processes, but they are crucially different from one another. We may be secure in our assumption that human beings are intentional creatures with a general capacity to be guided by reason.”

    http://people.virginia.edu/~dll2k/morse.pdf

    To change the topic, what’s curious (should you read his paper) is that Morse claims the reason-based, action-guiding function of morality and the law explains the specifically deontological (non-consequentialist) aspects of morality (p. 8). But if the function of morality and the law is to *guide behavior*, this is obviously a consequentialist rationale for holding people responsible. In which case it’s difficult to see why we should punish individuals even if it doesn’t serve a behavior-guiding function, which is what compatibilist retributivists like Morse say is justifiable, http://www.naturalism.org/morse.htm

    Ok, back to that sandwich…

  13. Posted January 4, 2012 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    Gosh. That bread looks to be little more than cosmetic. Certainly non-functional.

    Reminds me of my low-carb kick, during which I would eat deli meat w a fork, knife, and no bread.

    Yes. I must’ve looked pretty silly.

    • JBlilie
      Posted January 4, 2012 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      Oh, am I hungry now!

  14. Egbert
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    There is no sandwich, it’s a vast collection of molecules and atoms. A person who sees a sandwich is seeing an illusion. And a person is an illusion too.

    • Posted January 4, 2012 at 8:49 am | Permalink

      Well, it is a vast collection of molecules.

      Look, even the staunchest FW-denier doesn’t deny that it looks and feels like we freely make choices. We’re not saying that phenomenon doesn’t exist.

      We’re just trying to get it across that we don’t pull decisions out of thin air (which, I know, compatibilists wouldn’t say either). But neither do we pull decisions out of air filled with influences.

      Our decisions are “pulled” for us.

      • Posted January 4, 2012 at 9:36 am | Permalink

        Not sure why you say we are the passive recipients of decisions, when in fact we as agents are *constituted by*, among other things, decision-making processes that guide behavior. So we make decisions. All physically constituted and deterministic of course, but genuinely our doing.

        • Posted January 4, 2012 at 9:56 am | Permalink

          I wouldn’t dispute that whatever we do is genuinely our doing.

          If the physical apparatus that is “us” does something, then yes, obviously, we have done it.

          I just don’t think it’s appropriate to magnify that fact into some kind of ersatz free will.

          (At this point I feel I should issue a caveat emptor. I realize I’m far from an expert, here. But I’ve done some reading and a lot of thinking. At the very least, I’m truly enjoying the argument. :) )

          • Posted January 4, 2012 at 10:21 am | Permalink

            Agreed. To call all the amazing stuff we can do “free will” just confuses the many folks who think the term points to something contra-causal. Of course we can still say colloquially “I did it of my own free will” and not mislead people, since in everyday contexts that just means I did it voluntarily without being coerced.

            The compatibilist ploy is to call our higher-level control capacities free will, and then claim that since we have free will we’re subject to all the same responsibility practices that were originally justified by the idea of our being contra-causal agents, such as retributive punishment. But as Greene and Cohen argue in the paper Jerry quotes from in his post, this doesn’t wash.

            • DV
              Posted January 4, 2012 at 11:43 am | Permalink

              You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say “I did it voluntarily without being coerced” and then claim no responsibility! No such thing as a free lunch.

            • DV
              Posted January 4, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

              >>To call all the amazing stuff we can do “free will” just confuses the many folks who think the term points to something contra-causal<<

              This is a bit condescending, don't you think? Why not try explaining that the thing that feels very real to all of us – free will – is an emergent characteristic of sufficiently complex computers. If you can understand Dennett why shouldn't these other folks be able to?

              And in any case, I think the confusion over free will is overestimated. We have the everyday usage of "act of your own free will", which i doubt anyone misunderstands or thinks "points to something contra-causal".

        • Posted January 4, 2012 at 10:20 am | Permalink

          Also, ” ‘pulled’ for us” was admittedly a rather poetic use of language.

          Of course we aren’t passively receiving decisions. That would imply an agent somewhere out there that distributes decisions.

          My point was that things, including “decisions” just happen. Like the path a rolling rock takes, albeit many trillions, perhaps, times more complex. All the stuff that goes on in our own brains – the stuff it seems compatibilists tout as the locus of free will – seem to me to be simply more of the crags, divots, sticks, etc, that influence the rock’s path.

          • Posted January 4, 2012 at 10:48 am | Permalink

            Yes, the brain operates on its own, completely unsupervised, as does the rest of nature. Yikes! But nevertheless, unasked for, we end up as supervisors of our own projects.

  15. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    “And if you do not, you have got bigger problems than philosophy can fix.”

    Strangely, I’ve never thought of philosophy as a problem solving device. Probably because there are more philosophies than there have been philosophers, all saying something different.

  16. TJR
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Is it just me that thinks the sandwich looks horrible then?

    Stilton on a baguette – The One True Sandwich.

    • John D
      Posted January 4, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      It may not be “just” you…. but a giant pastrami is one of my favorites. Stilton on a baguette is just something you might eat along side your real food. Each to their own when it comes to food.

      “Some people like snails and some people like oysters, while others like both snails and oysters.”

  17. Posted January 4, 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    I love it.

  18. Godless Heathen
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Man, a pastrami sandwich would not overcome my nihilism. Maybe a cake would. Or a cupcake.

    • JBlilie
      Posted January 4, 2012 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      Or a pake!

  19. abb3w
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    …that looks more like corned beef than pastrami. In fact, it looks like the one pictured here. With pastrami, you can usually see some of the black pepper used for seasoning, as in this pic.

    Dammit. Now I want a sandwich.

    • John D
      Posted January 4, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      Agreed – this is clearly not pastrami…. and all I have for lunch today is peanut butter and jelly.

  20. jack m
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    To me, the psychological implications are positive not negative.

    The absence of free will doesn’t imply the absence of will. I still get to do what I most want to do. I just don’t have the power to betray myself by being magically motivated to do something other than what I most want to do.

    That feels like freedom to me. I love my freedom from free will. The only down side is losing the chump change of self-righteousness, which is like losing the proverbial bowl of porridge to regain my birth right.

  21. Posted January 4, 2012 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the link to this interesting article. People have no trouble with the idea that the nervous system automatically controls things like blood pressure and heart rate, that the muscles of the digestive tract function without our thinking about them or even being aware of them. But we have difficulty imagining that unconscious processes are driving consciousness, as well. I agree that the mind arises from the activity of the brain, which is itself a product of evolution. This is simpler than the intuitive assumption that the mind and the body are separate, and the former is not the result of the activity of the latter. The mind, if it exists, is a part of the body. There is quite a rear guard fighting against this concept. I know a guy (a dualist) who thinks that people did not evolve. There is an article about his argument on my blog at http://www.august43.wordpress.com. It is related to the Wallace paradox, and to ID and creationism. All this stuff seems to hang together.

  22. JBlilie
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Yum, yum, eat ‘em up!

  23. Bernie
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    If there was true free will, the sandwich would be made with white bread and a dollop of mayo. I once was offered that in Jasper NP in Alberta. Oy!

  24. Gary Allan
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Free will is an illusion of course as electrons, protons and other particles have not choice but to follow the rules of quantum mechanics as shown daily by the accelerators of the world, but the laws of quantum mechanics are deterministic only as far as the probability function, not the behaviour of individual particles which is why physicists must accumulate many trials to get good statistics. So quantum mechanically no individual particles behaviour is predetermined in any interaction. Somehow, this quantum indeterminacy becomes classical determinacy on the large scale, but since on the small scale there is always intrinsic uncertainty in any quantity then chaos theory, or non-linear dynamics must apply guaranteeing no predictability on the large scale as well (provided the time scale is long enough). My point is that although we have not free will, nothing has been determined from the start of the universe; the world would not unfold the same way if replayed from the same start. This does not mean we have free will simply that the world and our lives are novel and as unpredictable in principle as we might always have thought)

  25. Vaal
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    “Free will is an illusion of course as electrons, protons and other particles have not choice but to follow the rules of quantum mechanics as shown daily by the accelerators of the world,”

    Agh!

    Why, why, why do people keep making this non-sequitur as if it were an argument?

    Saying “free will is an illusion” because “protons and other particles have no choice” is as much a non-sequitur as saying “Cherry pies are an illusion because protons and other particles have no pie crust or cherry filling.”

    Atomic particles aren’t wet…but in the form of and at the level of “water” they can be sensibly described as “wet.” Atomic particles don’t have fur and welcome you home with a wagging tail…but does that mean a dog constituted of such particles therefore can not do so. That it doesn’t exist and is only an “illusion?”

    This pointing out that atomic particles don’t in of themselves have some property, as it it meant the macro objects made of these particles can’t have an additional property is the same embarrasing argument that theists use when they argue that everything is an illusion in the world of the materialist because the materialist has to admit that “ultimately, all things are MERELY matter in motion.”

    It’s too bad to see atheists falling for the same bad inferences.

    There may certainly be interesting arguments for hard determinism/incompatibilism, but this slip from “Atomic particles have no choice and are determined” to “therefore humans can’t make real choices or don’t have free will” is like eliminativism-gone-hawyire. (And special pleading for reasons already given).

    Vaal.

    • Gary Allan
      Posted January 5, 2012 at 3:34 am | Permalink

      No doubt, Vaal, the macro properties of “wetness” and “wagginess of tails” is real and can be explained at least in principle as the outcome of great collections of particles via the deterministic rules of quantum mechanics. But the particles do obey deterministic rules to produce macro properties. Your reply is essentially that free will exists and therefore the argument that systems arising from collections of particles (which obey deterministic rules) cannot produce free will must be wrong. That’s it, nothing more, no explanation of the how of it … do you have any real ideas?

      • Vaal
        Posted January 5, 2012 at 11:52 am | Permalink

        Gary Allan,

        The compatibilist concept has already been explained many times on these free will threads, (including by me) so it’s not like I’m empty of ideas as your comment implies.

        GA: “Your reply is essentially that free will exists and therefore the argument that systems arising from collections of particles (which obey deterministic rules) cannot produce free will must be wrong.”

        No, that’s not it. I didn’t offer an argument for free will, I was criticizing your argument for incompatibilism. I simply pointed out that the inference you made in support of hard determinism/incompatibism, was a non-sequitur for the reasons I’ve already stated. (And which have been pointed out numerous times).
        The point is, if you actually want to argue for incompatibilism, I think you need to do better than the type of fallacious inference you offered.

        You did offer one more step of inference in your reply:

        But the particles do obey deterministic rules to produce macro properties.

        Sure. So what? Particles obey deterministic rules to produce macro effects of “water being wet” and “cherry pie” and “humans eating cherry pie behavior” etc. Obviously we need richer language to describe the macro effects, and specific language for specific effects. That atomic particles may be deterministic does not obviate our ability to have useful concepts of “cherry pie eating” or “water being wet” or “water flowing freely” etc.

        At the level of “water” and “toilets” we can talk about water being obstructed (e.g. the water flow of a toilet blocked by a physical obstruction) or “flowing freely” (water flowing unobstructed). Is the water “determined” in one sense in either condition (by underlying physics)? Sure But are we so shallow as to not have ways of expressing other, real relationships? This language of “freedom” is a completely sensible way of describing phenomena that actually exists, distinguishing “X” situation (water is not flowing freely) from “Y” situation (water flowing freely).

        It seems rather silly therefore to point to language that only describes atomic particles to restrict the language that we could helpfully, descriptively apply to all the varieties of macro object behavior.

        Humans have wills, and make choices, actions. Does the language of “freedom” help us distinguish various real scenarios in human decision making – discerning when I’m restricted in realizing actions that fulfill any particular desire? Yes. Sometimes I can be obstructed in acting on my will/desires, sometimes not. This is no more undermined by the fact of determined physics than is the language we use for “eating cherry pie” or “water flowing freely.”

        Your inference that atomic particles act deterministically, and that this in turn has macro effects, simply does not entail that concepts like “freedom” (and “free will”) are to be abandoned when describing and discriminating between specific macro situations, including human choice-making.

        Vaal

        • Vaal
          Posted January 5, 2012 at 11:54 am | Permalink

          My apologies: I’ll repost with less confusing formatting:

          Gary Allan,

          The compatibilist concept has already been explained many times on these free will threads, (including by me) so it’s not like I’m empty of ideas as your comment implies.

          GA: “Your reply is essentially that free will exists and therefore the argument that systems arising from collections of particles (which obey deterministic rules) cannot produce free will must be wrong.”

          No, that’s not it. I didn’t offer an argument for free will, I was criticizing your argument for incompatibilism. I simply pointed out that the inference you made in support of hard determinism/incompatibism, was a non-sequitur for the reasons I’ve already stated. (And which have been pointed out numerous times).
          The point is, if you actually want to argue for incompatibilism, I think you need to do better than the type of fallacious inference you offered.

          You did offer one more step of inference in your reply:

          But the particles do obey deterministic rules to produce macro properties.

          Sure. So what? Particles obey deterministic rules to produce macro effects of “water being wet” and “cherry pie” and “humans eating cherry pie behaviour” etc. Obviously we need richer language to describe the macro effects, and specific language for specific effects. That atomic particles may be deterministic does not obviate our ability to have useful concepts of “cherry pie eating” or “water being wet” or “water flowing freely” etc.

          At the level of “water” and “toilets” we can talk about water being obstructed (e.g. the water flow of a toilet blocked by a physical obstruction) or “flowing freely” (water flowing unobstructed). Is the water “determined” in one sense in either condition (by underlying physics)? Sure But are we so shallow as to not have ways of expressing other, real relationships? This language of “freedom” is a completely sensible way of describing phenomena that actually exists, distinguishing “X” situation (water is not flowing freely) from “Y” situation (water flowing freely).

          It seems rather silly therefore to point to language that only describes atomic particles to restrict the language that we could helpfully, descriptively apply to all the varieties of macro object behaviour.

          Humans have wills, and make choices, actions. Does the language of “freedom” help us distinguish various real scenarios in human decision making – discerning when I’m restricted in realizing actions that fulfill any particular desire? Yes. Sometimes I can be obstructed in acting on my will/desires, sometimes not. This is no more undermined by the fact of determined physics than is the language we use for “eating cherry pie” or “water flowing freely.”

          Your inference that atomic particles act deterministically, and that this in turn has macro effects, simply does not entail that concepts like “freedom” (and “free will”) are to be abandoned when describing and discriminating between specific macro situations, including human choice-making.

          Vaal

          • Xuuths
            Posted January 5, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

            Excellent points. +1

  26. colluvial
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    ” . . . why would you bother with anything if it has all long since been determined?”

    Never understood this idea. It assumes there is a disconnected you that could bother or not. Whereas bothering or not is simply a consequence of previous events.

  27. tdraicer
    Posted January 5, 2012 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Again, if there is no free will at all, then those you oppose on this blog are not responaible for their actions, cannot do other than they do, and this blog is pointless, apart from your lack of an ability to choose not to write it.

    I agree our ability to choose is quite constrained, but once you claim it doesn’t exist at all, we are mere simulations not conscious beings. Which could be the truth I suppose, but I still doubt it (that is if I exist and have the capacity to doubt).

    • microraptor
      Posted January 5, 2012 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      Free will is not required to learn how to behave anymore than having a soul is.

      • Xuuths
        Posted January 5, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

        Without free will, there is no learning, or behaving. There is only reacting, based on prior reactions.

        • microraptor
          Posted January 5, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

          That’s all learning is.

          And prove your first sentence.

          And while you’re at it, what definition of “free will” are you using?


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