Free will redux: responses at Rationally Speaking

Yes, I know we’re getting free-willed out, but I have no choice about continuing to post, mainly because the discussion, and critiques of my own views, continue on other sites.  This week at the Rationally Speaking website, both Massimo Pigliucci and Ian Pollock take up the issue.  I have only the time and the (unfree) will for one response, so I’ll leave Massimo’s piece, “On free will, response to readers,” aside for the moment.

Pollock’s article, “Some observations on the ‘free will wars’” does deserve a brief response.  He is defending compatibilism, the view that free will is compatible with the physical determinism of the universe. Given my view that “free will” involves the ability, at any given moment, to freely choose between two or more alternative decisions, I see free will as incompatible with physical determinism, which mandates that only one choice is possible: the one conditioned by your genes, environment, and personal history. Pollock sees this incompatibilism as incoherent:

. . . many see incompatibilist determinism a la Jerry Coyne as either “reductionism gone mad,” or, putting a positive spin on it, the logical consequence of reductionism applied to human brains.

 I confess myself perplexed by this, because it seems to me that the  intuitions driving incompatibilism stem from absent or insufficiently applied reductionism.

Pollock’s brief against incompatiblism deserves to be set out in a bit of detail:

So how would I tackle the issue of free will/volition?

Suppose I am driving along an undivided highway when the stray thought comes into my head that I could steer into the opposing lane, resulting in a horrible, deadly accident.

Of course, I don’t do so, because… well, I like living and I don’t much want to kill others, either. And I just washed my car. But I could have done it….

Wait, was I right to say that I could have done it?

Yes and no. As we have seen, the pivotal word in that sentence is “could,” and “could” has at least two meanings that are relevant to the question of free will.

Meaning #1 maps physical possibility, and in this case returns the clear answer “No, the physical state of the universe was such that you could not have steered into oncoming traffic, as evidenced by the fact that you did not, in fact, do so. QED.” Jerry sees this clearly, and I have absolutely no argument with him.

Meaning #2 of “could” maps counterfactual statements. To say that you “could” have done something in this sense is (roughly) to say that IF circumstances had been otherwise, a different outcome would have resulted. Meaning #2 returns the answer “Yes, you could have steered into oncoming traffic, if you had wanted to.”

Meaning #2 is what people actually mean by “could,” most of the time.

If you’ve been sleeping through this post, pay attention now, because the entire click of compatibilism lies in this realization.

Proposition #1: “No, the state of the universe was such that it was physically impossible for you to have steered into oncoming traffic.”

Proposition #2: “Yes, you could have steered into oncoming traffic (if you had wanted to).”

These two propositions are both true in my example. THAT is the essence of compatibilism.

Also note the very important fact that “wanting to” corresponds to a different physical state than “not wanting to.”

These propositions look incompatible because people (especially incompatibilists!) have an annoying tendency to forget about the implicit counterfactual “if” clause in proposition #2.**

Now we are in a position to see that incompatibilism is basically a huge equivocation fallacy. The incompatibilists prove Proposition #1, then assume that therefore, Proposition #2 is proven false. But this does not follow.

I don’t think I’ve ever made that argument. Insofar as Pollock argues that the two propositions are different, I fully agree with him. I also agree with him that proposition #2, in which you “want” something different, implies a different state of the universe, for your desires are no longer the same as before. But I’ve never argued that the two propositions are the same thing, nor that the first leads ineluctably to the second. That would truly be muddled thought, and if Pollock is lumping me in with such incompatibilists, as he appears to do in the last sentence, he’s mischaracterizing me.

Given that, what, then, is the “huge equivocation fallacy” Pollick sees in incompatibilism?  It boils down to this: we appear to make choices, so we really do make choices.

The fact that individuals appear to choose is, of course, true.  Even people who have brain injuries that compel them to behave in a certain way appear to make choices, as do those who are forced to behave in a certain way by electrodes implanted in their brain. If we didn’t know these facts, we’d think that they were making choices, though they weren’t. I contend that we are all in the effective state of having electrodes in our brains: we are constrained to “choose” only one alternative because of the physics of our brain. But I am jumping the gun; here’s Pollock’s argument:

Now consider this passage from Jerry Coyne’s USA Today article:

The ineluctable scientific conclusion is that although we feel that we’re  characters in the play of our lives, rewriting our parts as we go along, in reality we’re puppets performing scripted parts written by the laws  of physics. Most people find that idea intolerable, so powerful is our  illusion that we really do make choices. (my emphasis).

But um, Jerry, we do actually make choices, right? Don’t we? I mean, not in some amazingly deep philosophically or morally fraught sense of choice, as in “But did Hitler really have a choice to not be a monster?”, but in a basic, boring, everyday sense, as in “Do you want Froot Loops or  muesli?” Surely you talk this way too, when you go home?

I think Jerry would concede that we do make such choices, but insist that they aren’t “real” choices. Well, what is a “real” choice as distinct  from an unreal one? Like in the case of magic, it would appear that  according to Jerry and other incompatibilists, “real choice” refers to  the choices that are not real (i.e., don’t actually happen because they  require supernatural powers), while the choice that is real — that can,  y’know, actually be done — is not. real. choice.
And yet I would bet a large sum of money that Jerry et al. are perfectly  willing to use the language of choice in their daily lives, as soon as  they’ve forgotten about the day’s blogo-philosophizing. This is not just because choice is a powerful illusion (which would presumbably [sic] be their preferred rationalization) — it’s because the concept of “choice” cuts  reality at the joints. Choice is one of the most important things that  the human brain does; arguably, the brain’s ability to model the world  and choose from alternative actions IS its survival value.

But if the appearance of choice is the same thing as free choice, or the same thing as free will, do cats have free will? How about earthworms? Rotifers? And what about bacteria, who make a “choice” by usually moving toward chemical gradients that indicate food or light? All of these organisms appear to make choices.  So do plants, who can “choose” to produce one type of leaf or another, or grow in a certain direction. For that matter, so do computers. Do all of these have free will?  How do we determine when the appearance of choice in other species means something different from the appearance of choice in humans? Or does it?

Ian, there’s no need to bet, for you’d win: yes, I use the language of choice because I feel that I’m choosing, even if I don’t believe that intellectually.  But saying that “choice” is one of the most important things that the human brain does” (and try reading that as “‘choice’ is one of the most important things that the earthworm brain does”) really evades the whole question, which I see—and I know others might disagree—as this:  “At any one moment, can we have behaved other than we did?” That is an important question that Pollock completely tosses aside—or rather, admits that the answer is ‘no’ but consider that that answer is trivial. Yet, despite Pollock’s assertion that most people concur with proposition #2 above, that is the way many people conceive of free will!  Is Pollock willing to write an essay telling people that their behavior, now and in the future, is completely determined by the laws of physics, but that it doesn’t matter?

Of course it matters!  It matters in how we think of ourselves (I, for one, have tried to stop fretting about bad “choices” in the past, since I had no alternative); it matters in how we conceive of moral responsibility, reward, and punishment (if it didn’t, why are philosophers engaged in furious debate about the effects of determinism on moral responsibility?); and it matters to religious people, who really do feel that they have a choice about whether to accept Jesus as saviour, or about whether the evils in the world stem from God’s having bequeathed us free will. And it matters because for hundreds of years people thought the soul was separate from the brain, and now we know that such dualism is wrong: the mind, and our choices, reflect, pure and simple, the physical behavior of matter. There is no spooky “will” controlling our thoughts and actions.

In the end, Pollock and I sort of agree, though I think he considers himself as a compatibilist because he sees the appearance of choice as equivalent to “free will.” (In this, by the way, I think he disagrees with Massimo, who still doesn’t appear convinced about determinism, and isn’t willing to go so far as Pollock in saying our behaviors are predetermined.)  Pollock concludes:

A good reductionist would look at this incredibly useful concept of  “choice” and then try to figure out how it fits into the determined physical universe. Eventually, they would conclude that choice is a physical process like eating or breathing or thinking.

Yes, the concept of choice is useful, and I do use it all the time.  But that’s different from “free will”!  In one case you evince one of several possible behaviors, in the other you see that that selection was just one of several possible actions you could have taken. That’s a vital distinction, and it’s important to let people know the difference.

Somehow, I think, compatibilists who are also determinists are loath to preach (or even emphasize) determinism. (Pollock isn’t.) I’ve even been told by determinists that although they agree with me, it’s important not to let the general public know that their “choices” are predetermined! That attitude reminds me of an old anecdote which, as The Quote Investigator has shown, is probably apocryphal. Nevertheless, it’s appropriate:

On hearing, one June afternoon in 1860, the suggestion that mankind was descended from the apes, the wife of the Bishop of Worcester is said to have exclaimed, ‘My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known.’

It’s always better to tell people what you really think about issues like this than to hush up one’s determinism under the misguided notion that the general public simply can’t handle it.  So yes, by all means let us retain the word “choice,” but let us realize what it really means.  We appear to freely choose among alternatives, but, as Pollock admits, that freedom is illusory.  But while keeping “choice,” I think we should dispense with the term “free will,” for it has so many different meanings, and is so freighted, that it’s no longer useful except, perhaps, in philosophical discourse.  In both my and Pollock’s conception of “choice”, there is no freedom in “free will”!

I’ll end with a comment by Spinoza from The Ethics:

“Men are mistaken in thinking themselves free; their opinion is made up of consciousness of their own actions, and ignorance of the causes by which they are determined. Their idea of freedom, therefore, is simply their ignorance of any cause of their actions.”


  1. tushcloots
    Posted February 7, 2012 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    When I get to a computer, I will explain, just like I have many times already, FFS.

    Fuck your arrogant attitude,
    I am sick of you evading my points and questions with long winded, technical appearing bullshit with nothing new to offer.

    Make no mistake about it, Jeff, you haven’t made a case for anything except to claim your are a determinist and that we give life meaning with the choices we make, and influence other people and the direction sosciety takes.

    You ARE a dualist, plain and simple. I am goung to use something Jerry said to repeat what I have been explaing over and over to you.

    Do me a favor snd read some basic psychology about the Black Box, for that is the nature of your understanding of what I am saying, and that is wrong. It is close, but I have ezplained the fucking software you people insist upon. Better read up on IBM’s neural computing while you are catching up to me.

    You are the ones claiming our minds are just cosmetics, mofo, so you are the the one that has a fuck of a lot of explaining to do.

    Hurry the eff up, why do we have our minds if they are inconsequential?
    I asked you from the very begining!! And I asked you how our collective thinking can somehow morph into a reasoned selection and the direction society takes.

    Don’t bother with verbal diahrea, either, by trying to explain physical processes as I alteady showed my superior use of that and told you that that rules out will, and I also pointed out that I agree with it!

    Do your explaining NOW, please. I am not letting you get away with twdry evasions anymore .

    • Posted February 7, 2012 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      This post is intemperate and obscene. I won’t have this kind of stuff on my site. You’re banned here until you apologize publicly to the person you insulted.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted February 7, 2012 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      I don’t take any of this personally. But tushcloots, you can’t possibly have read and understood what I’ve written if you think I’m a dualist, if you think I consider our mind to be cosmetic, or if you think I consider the mind to be inconsequential. Somehow you are projecting these ideas onto what I’ve written, and I hope it’s not because my use of language is too unclear or ambiguous.

      I’ve never said anything like what you claim, and in fact I express respect and awe for the human mind. I also think it’s very important as an adaptation for evolutionary success.

      I have done a ton of explaining here already, and until you actually carefully read it and then include references to which remarks of mine you are talking about, there is no way for me to engage with you at all.

      • tushcloots
        Posted February 9, 2012 at 4:37 am | Permalink

        I understand, Jerry Coyne, and you too, Jeff.

        I was wrong to address you in this manner, Jeff, and it is wrong for me to act like an impudent child in this civilized, mature, type of environment.

        I have, since the time of this comment of mine this morning, replied to other posts you have made, Jeff, in which I tell you how much I RESPECT and VALUE your contributions, and that I feel frustration that we are inhibited from properly understanding each other. (Yeah, it sounds good when I tell it!)

        I apologize to everyone that reads this blog – I certainly do not represent, nor portray, the class and intelligence of most participants here, or what Jerry Coyne rightfully finds acceptable.

        You guys do have class, which I intentionally tried to offend, and that was wrong, I agree fully.

        I may not deserve it, but I would feel fortunate and grateful to be able to continue to contribute to these discussions, in a constructive and appropriately respectful manner, please.

        Thanks for the chance to apologize to Jeff, Jerry. This is a very good blog; I am proud to be able to participate!

      • tushcloots
        Posted February 9, 2012 at 4:39 am | Permalink

        Of course, I apologize to you as well, Jerry Coyne, I wasn’t specific about that, above.

        Thanks for this opportunity, again.

      • tushcloots
        Posted February 9, 2012 at 6:24 am | Permalink

        if you think I consider our mind to be cosmetic, or if you think I consider the mind to be inconsequential.
        How is our mind of any use if it isn’t used to make reasoned and alternate decisions?
        It must give a greater survival advantage to the organism, so how does being conscious do this?

        It is inconsequential if it doesn’t improve upon choices made through pure determinism, because all the results of our behavior could be reproduced, all the processing of sensory inputs and instincts and feelings don’t require a conscious mind.

        It is all chemical and stimulated electro-chemical firing with one predetermined outcome, or resultant behavior. If our consciousness doesn’t improve upon this description of how we make ‘decisions,’ then what objective purpose does it serve?

        I call you a dualist because you seem to claim that our consciousness gives meaning to our life, or something, yet doesn’t affect our behavior.

        I don’t see any meaning in our lives if they are predetermined anyways, if it is decided, already, how we will respond in any given situation, for then our behavior is not ours to choose, but is done for us purely by the unfeeling laws of physics.

        In what way do you consider our minds important, if they are not important for our survival? And how can you get meaning out of life if you consciously can’t influence anything?

        Let’s start with this.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted February 9, 2012 at 8:02 am | Permalink

          Thanks for the apology. Accepted of course, and I’m glad you came back. These are some hard issues and it can be frustrating, I understand.

          I don’t have much time right now but I’ll try my best. First, I think that whether what is happening in human history right now was completely determined a trillionth of a trillionth of a nano-second after the big bang is a different question than whether a human reaction to it’s environment is determined. I haven’t thought so much about the first proposition, but I’m inclined toward a little doubt on that one, but even if it is all determined it doesn’t bother me so much.

          Think of a wave crashing against a cliff. The energy wells up from far out at see until it arrives at the shore, and in a spectacular “explosion” of water a complex profusion of foamy jewel-like droplets sparkling in the sun and forming an endless variety of shapes. It is all deterministic, but there is endless variation due probably to the chaos of dynamical systems.

          If you run time fast-forward on life on earth over the last billion years, and you think of the biosphere as a kind of medium or sea of organic chemicals, the evolution of life is kind of like those waves splashing, it is energy sloshing around and splashing on a different time scale, giving rise to species and individuals in a wild profusion of variation, not terribly unlike the productive power of shapes formed by splashing waves, but in a different medium and working according to the forces of selection and biochemical properties rather than according to just gravity and the properties of water.

          Thinking this way says two things to me: one is that in the entire unfolding of the universe and all live over such enormous time spans there is potentially more room for randomness or quantum indeterminacy to somehow play a role. But even if it doesn’t even if our entire universe from the big bang is a big deterministic splash, and each one of us and our lives are totally determined it can still all be beautiful.

          Now having said that, our behavior and our ability to control our lives and our environment is greatly enhanced by our brain and it’s abilities to learn. It is a very important distinction between saying 1) at one instant of time, the brain works such that my decision or action at that moment is entirely determined by the state of my brain, and it could not have been otherwise, or saying 2) between time t1 and time t2 the state of my brain changes, learns, remembers, and so I may act differently at t2 than I did at t1.

          We are constantly interacting with and learning from our environment, and that is what allows our brain to learn and change and thus experience control and freedom: not at one instant of time, but over a time period. There is a distinction between the boundaries of our bodies, which is how we define what “we” are, and the entire universe, so we can experience “us” changing and learning and deciding with respect to the external environment we find ourselves.

          The brain is important, and without it we would not be able to do what we do culturally.

          I’ve got to run now, but here are some other posts to read that might help.

        • Steve
          Posted February 9, 2012 at 8:58 am | Permalink


          Here’s a few of my answers/musings to the questions you pose.

          How is our mind of any use if it isn’t used to make reasoned and alternate decisions?

          When you say mind, I translate this and think “brain”. I do this because I think it is best to only think of mind as a metaphoric reference to the phenomena produced by the functioning brain.

          So to me, it is really the case of the brain making reasoned and (I don’t know what to make of the modifier “alternate”) decisions. And really that is one of the main purposes of the brain in a human: making reasoned decisions. To the degree that our brains make reasoned decisions, we make them. To the degree that they can’t make them, other animals, don’t make them. Reasoned decision making has evolved as life evolved on the planet. From our vantage point, it would seem as if our reasoning brain has served our species well. (Or not… only history will eventually tell.)

          It must give a greater survival advantage to the organism, so how does being conscious do this?

          Before I try to address this question I have a couple of questions for you to ponder first.

          1) At what stage in evolution, do you think life developed consciousness?
          2) How do you know any other life forms have consciousness at all? Tied in question: How can consciousness even be tested for?
          3) How do you know for sure if other humans have consciousness? You might be able to apply tests to see if a person is awake, but beyond that, how do you know that they have consciousness? Tied in question: Again how can consciousness even be tested for in humans?

          What if consciousness is merely a “display” type function… what if organisms can get along just fine without consciousness, and it’s just a optional thing?

          What if the brain, can do everything it does, taking in sensory input from the outside world, making decisions, activating motor commands, all without the “display” function of the consciousness?

          It would seem obvious that the initial forms of life had no consciousness… so where in the whole evolutionary path can we say at this point consciousness is a necessary element?

          If our consciousness doesn’t improve upon this description of how we make ‘decisions,’ then what objective purpose does it serve?

          This presupposes that consciousness has an objective purpose…. How do we validate such a presupposition? Maybe consciousness just happened as a fluke? Why five fingers instead of four or six? What is the objective purpose of five digits? I’m not the expert on evolution, maybe someone can shed some light on the validity of assuming there must be an objective purpose for consciousness?

          Forgive me, Mike, I am trying the best that I can.

          I don’t see any meaning in our lives if they are predetermined anyways, if it is decided, already, how we will respond in any given situation, for then our behavior is not ours to choose, but is done for us purely by the unfeeling laws of physics.

          Again, this presupposes that life is suppose to have a meaning. Is this a valid assumption? What if life just IS? No meaning, just existence. So if there is no meaning then there is no conflict between a fully caused life, and the implication of no meaning.

          I can’t speak for other non-free willists, but I personally don’t claim that consciousness gives meaning to our life… that is not one of my claims.

          In what way do you consider our minds important, if they are not important for our survival?

          Again, for me it is not a matter of minds…. it is a matter of brains. Brains are important, the phenomena of the mind, not important. And brains are important because of all the things they do.

          And how can you get meaning out of life if you consciously can’t influence anything?

          I am not so troubled by learning that consciousness is not a controlling thing, but a displaying thing.

          Mainly the fact that there is no libertarian free will is so irrefutable, that I have to give up whatever aspirations I might have ever had in influencing anything, as you say.

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Jerry Coyne and Massimo Pigliucci (and recently Ian Pollock on Massimo’s site) have been arguing about free will. One interesting thing about the argument is that each almost perfectly embodies the compatibilist and incompatibilist debate on free will; as far as I can tell, neither has added any personal nuance or addition to these positions. The interesting thing about this debate is that, as far as I can tell, it is almost entirely about how one chooses to define free will. Incompatibilists insist on the metaphysical, dualist definition of free will, which means that if you went back to the exact same point in time, with the entire universe (including your brain) in precisely same configuration, you could have done something different than what you did. If one accepts materialism and determinism, this is clearly impossible. Therefore, they say, “free will” is a bankrupt concept. [...]

  2. [...] Free will redux ( Shpadoinkle:Like this:LikeOne blogger likes this post. [...]

  3. [...] talking to some people myself (hat tips: Aurko Roy, Parul Singh). In fact, Jerry Coyne has been writing about this for a long time now, as have several other people including Daniel Dennett and, now, Sam Harris. It [...]

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