My piece on free will in The Chronicle of Higher Education

Partly to call attention to three new books on free will and human agency—by Sam Harris, Michael Gazzaniga, and David Eagleman—the Chronicle of Higher Education has a new special issue dealing with the question “Is Free Will an Illusion?” (and it’s truly free, not behind a paywall).   Alfred Mele, Michael Gazzaniga, Hilary Bok, Owen Jones, Paul Bloom, and I all contributed essays, which you can find at the link above.  My own contribution, “You don’t have free will” makes arguments that will be familiar to readers here, but do read it first if you want to discuss it or diss it.

I haven’t yet read the other essays, but the titles suggest that most contributors answer the Chronicle‘s question with a “yes.”

92 Comments

  1. Posted March 19, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Could I may you a copy of my Why Evolution Is True for an autograph?

  2. Posted March 19, 2012 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I like Gazzaniga’s take on it: “Free Will Is an Illusion, but You’re Still Responsible for Your Actions.” I think you’d agree with him, and I prefer the rhetorical tack he takes.

    b&

    • Posted March 19, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      Agreed, though I like Paul Bloom’s slightly more.

  3. Peter
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Titles not withstanding, these are basically all endorsing compatibilist notions of free will. Highlights relevant to the discussions on this blog:

    Hilary Bok: “Determinism does not relieve us of the need to make decisions. And when we make decisions, we need some conception of the alternatives available to us. If we define an alternative as an action that is physically possible, then determinism implies that we never have more than one alternative. But since we cannot know in advance what we will choose, if we define “alternative” this way, we will never know what our alternatives are.”

    Owen D Jones: “Many people assume that legal responsibility requires free will, such that an absence of free will necessarily implies an absence of responsibility. Not true…”

    Paul Bloom: “…it’s not clear what difference it [the existence of free will] makes…”

    Alfred Mele: “Asked whether [a hypothetical physically determined person] had free will when he made [a moral] decision, 73 percent answer yes.”

    • Peter
      Posted March 19, 2012 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      Oh, and this also from Owen:
      “at base, free-will discussions tend to center on whether people have the ability to make choices uncaused by anything other than themselves. But there’s a clear answer: They don’t…Choices are initially constrained by the obvious—the time one has to decide, and the volume of brain tissue one can deploy to the task. Choices are also constrained by things we have long suspected but which science now increasingly clarifies.”

  4. Steve
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    sub

  5. David Pinsof
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    All the essayists basically agree with one another; they simply disagree on what to emphasize. Jerry emphasizes that the dualistic notion of free will is dead, while the others emphasize that the non-dualistic notion of conscious deliberation is still alive and well. Jerry emphasizes that moral responsibility no longer makes any sense, while the others emphasize how important the concept of moral responsibility is for our social and political life — and that we would be foolish to discard it. It’s not a disagreement over facts; it is a disagreement over emphasis, semantics, and pragmatics.

    For what it’s worth, I think Jerry has the right emphasis, the right semantics, and the right pragmatics. Sure, it’s obvious to these academics that the dualistic notion of free will is dead, but it isn’t obvious to the soul-believing masses! Sure our brains can still make decisions, but why emphasize such a trivial fact when the whole issue of what to do with our criminal justice system, which is BUILT on the notion of dualistic free will, is in need of such dire revision? People need to start thinking straight about this and stop jiggering their semantics and emphases to protect cherished illusions.

    • Steve
      Posted March 19, 2012 at 11:57 am | Permalink

      You, sir, are correct!

    • Posted March 19, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      “… the whole issue of what to do with our criminal justice system, which is BUILT on the notion of dualistic free will, is in need of such dire revision?”

      I disagree that our criminal justice system is built on dualistic free will, I’d say it is built on pragmatics. What actual changes to the justice system are you suggesting should follow from accepting determinism?

      • David Pinsof
        Posted March 19, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

        Our criminal justice system is built on dualistic free will in the sense that we imprison people not just for deterrence or rehabilation, but for retribution. Lawyers and judges waste countless hours assessing the “blameworthiness” of the perpetrator, how “deserving” he is of punishment, or the extent to which he “acted on his own free will.” These questions are red herrings insofar as they fail to answer the important questions, which are: a) what is the probability that he will commit crimes again in the future? b) how much and what kind of rehabilitation does he need? c) what is the most efficient way to deter others from comitting crimes like this in the future? Until government officials abandon the former set of questions and start asking the latter set, our criminal justice system will be fundamentally misguided and inefficient.

        Dualistic conceptions of free will do damage in other parts of our politics as well, and we see it in countless political debates — i.e. the homeless “deserve” to be where they are, the rich “deserve” their riches, and anybody can “choose” to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Nobody deserves anything; all fortune and misfortune is directly attributable to a lucky or unlucky mixture of genes and environment. So this is another reason why the appropriate emphasis should be on the death of dualistic free will, and not on the ability of our brains to make decisions, which nobody denies. Dubious notions of metaphysical responsibility poison the political atmosphere like god and religion.

        • Peter
          Posted March 19, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

          Granted that retribution deserves no place in how we run our justice system. But I disagree that any notion of free will actually inspires our justice system’s appeals to retribution, and dualism in particular has nothing to contribute to how we support or refute notions of retributive justice.

          It goes like this: people have an intuition that retribution should be part of justice. That intuition is derived from intuitions of reciprocity, not intuitions of free will (and especially not libertarian notions in particular). “Free will” only comes up when deciding whether/how much to mitigate retributive punishment, but one can easily describe those mitigating factors without the language of free will. So free will as such is irrelevant to notions of retributive justice. I just don’t get why people keep bringing it up as if one actually *depends* on the other.

          • David Pinsof
            Posted March 20, 2012 at 8:23 am | Permalink

            I’m curious how you would describe the following phenomenon:

            Bob’s wife cheated on him. Bob has a brain tumor in his amygdala, which made him more violent, and he killed her.

            Joe’s wife cheated on him. Joe kills her in a fit of rage.

            In our justice system, Bob would get a lighter sentence than Joe. What does this have to do with reciprocal altruism? How can we justify this without appealing to some notion of free will/responsibility/retribution?

            Perhaps you might say that Joe poses a greater threat to society than Bob. In that case, let’s say that Bob’s tumor is inoperable. Bob would still get a lighter sentence, even though he poses just as great of a threat to society as Joe. Certainly, things like this happen all the time in courts. Lawyers will come up with fanciful excuses for why it wasn’t their client’s fault — i.e. he was deranged, he was abused as a child, he was intoxicated, he had too much sugar, etc. These wranglings make no sense under the rubric of reciprocal altruism. Why should these details matter? Why are they even worth discussing? Why should we bother figuring out how “blameworthy” the perpetrator is, or how “at fault” he was? Perhaps I’m missing something, but I see no way of justifying these phenomena without appeal to some notion of free will/responsibility/retribution. The point I’m making is that when everything that people do is caused by genes and environment, free will/responsibility/retribution simply makes no sense anymore, and it would behoove us to alter our court proceedings to reflect that.

            • Peter
              Posted March 20, 2012 at 8:43 am | Permalink

              Yes, you are missing the point. First, a quibble: it’s not about *altruism*, but it is about do unto others lest they do unto you.

              The point is that retributive intuitions don’t derive from belief in free will. “Free will” only comes up in deciding whether/how much we should mitigate retribution in a particular case. You are basically conceding that retribution is a fine way to punish criminals, except that since no-one actually has “free will,” everyone deserves mitigation from retribution.

              • David Pinsof
                Posted March 20, 2012 at 9:27 am | Permalink

                I think it is debatable whether not free will enters into our retributive intuitions — and it’s probably not even worth debating because it’s ultimately an empirical question, and one that psychologists may have already answered for us. Obviously, my hunch is that it does. In any case, the point is not about our intuitions, but rather about how the criminal justice system works. The criminal justice system, at least in the US, clearly wastes a lot of time discussing whether or not the culprit could have done otherwise, which is a total waste of time.

        • Lyndon
          Posted March 19, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

          Well said David.

          I think the important questions for the criminal justice system and for “lawbreakers” comes prior to them having committed the crime. Focusing instead on socialization/education; drug laws and sentencing and rehabilitation; easing of poverty; bettering neighborhoods, families, and environments; better family planning. These are the things that “deter” criminals in the most straightforward way. Kids raised in affluency, in “good” neighborhoods, to active and involved (and “educated”) parents, to stable families, in our best schools, etc., are not those who become criminals for the most part.

          Focusing on the question, “How much do I have to punish this individual so as to deter others?” may in the end be something that needs to be asked, but there are far easier ways to “deter” most crimes and violent crimes.

          That’s perhaps too wide of a view, but we do have to reimage what it is a self is and why it came to be that way and how we can build better selves in the future. For us, as individuals, such critique of one’s self can be empowering- lead to better choices.

        • J.J.E.
          Posted March 19, 2012 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

          This is true for only some values of “our”. The Norwegian criminal justice system, for example, is quite different from whatever system “our” is the referent to (presumably the U.S. or UK systems).

          • David Pinsof
            Posted March 20, 2012 at 8:04 am | Permalink

            By “our” I meant U.S. Sorry to leave that out. I would not be surprised to learn that the Norwegians do things better than we (America) do. We’re kind of a shit show.

        • Posted March 20, 2012 at 2:16 am | Permalink

          “… we imprison people not just for deterrence or rehabilation, but for retribution.”

          Fine, so in future we jail someone for 15 years for deterrence instead of jailing them for 15 years for retribution. All that has changed is some superficial commentary.

          I’d be interested if those arguing that lack of free-will has major implications for criminal justice would give some actual examples of jail sentences they consider radically wrong. What actual differences to punishments (as oppose to commentary) do you think follow?

          “the homeless “deserve” to be where they are, the rich “deserve” their riches, and anybody can “choose” to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Nobody deserves anything …”

          But humans can’t operate like that. Once you think it through a determinist/compatibilist stance still ends up with those concepts. Would you, for example, advocate the abolition of all sports on the grounds that no-one ever “deserves” victory and it’s all just luck of genes/environment? Or do we just adopt compatibilist interpretations of these things?

          Again, can you give me some specific example of actual changes that you want to implement as a result of determinism?

          • David Pinsof
            Posted March 20, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

            Steven Pinker gives a good example in “The Blank Slate” (p. 184). He has us imagine the possibility of discovering that many men harbor an almost irresistable desire to abuse women. If we take the view that punishment is about retribution for freely chosen evils, then this evidence should move us to decrease the punishment for wife-beaters, because such men’s behavior would be less an act of free will and more a cause of a powerful urge. If we take the view that punishment is about deterrence, then this evidence should move us to INCREASE the punishment for wife-beaters, because they would then need a larger deterrent than we previously thought. It would be an enormous coincidence if our lust for retribution perfectly lined up with the optimal way of deterring crime, and we’ll never know how far off we are from optimality until we change the terms of our discourse.

            Another radical consequence of denying free will is that we may even decide to abandon prisons altogether, to be replaced with rehabilitation centers! Indeed, what if research revealed that improving things like education, welfare, nutrition, etc. had a larger effect on deterring crime than imprisonment? It’s not so far-fetched, and if this turned out to be true, we would be impelled to divert our resources away from prisons and towards better education, welfare, etc. The fact that no one is even discussing this possibility bespeaks how entrenched the mythology of free will and retribution is in our culture.

            • Posted March 20, 2012 at 8:20 am | Permalink

              “It would be an enormous coincidence if our lust for retribution perfectly lined up with the optimal way of deterring crime, …”

              Given that our moral sentiments will have been fine-tuned by evolution over eons exactly to maximise their utility, I suspect that our sentiments are indeed roughly about right (but not through mere coincidence).

              That’s why I suspect that in practice any change from “retribution” to “deterrence” would not make all that much difference.

              Another radical consequence of denying free will is that we may even decide to abandon prisons altogether, to be replaced with rehabilitation centers!

              Perhaps, but there would still have to be deterrence. And yes, if rehabilitation were shown to work, then there would be a strong case for it. And that case is indeed continually made (at least in the UK!).

              Indeed, what if research revealed that improving things like education, welfare, nutrition, etc. had a larger effect on deterring crime than imprisonment?

              Then obviously there would be a strong case for so doing.

              The fact that no one is even discussing this possibility bespeaks how entrenched the mythology of free will and retribution is in our culture.

              I’m beginning to suspect that there are large US v UK differences here, because in the UK those sorts of things are indeed considered and talked about.

              And the difference between the US and the UK is not any difference over views on “free will” and dualism (that’s hardly ever discussed in the UK), it’s a cultural divide over a highly religious society versus a highly secular one. Again, it is not the attitude to “free will” that makes the difference.

              • David Pinsof
                Posted March 20, 2012 at 8:31 am | Permalink

                Interesting. I get the sense that there is probably a pretty big cultural divide between the UK and US. We are not only more religious than you guys, but also more individualistic, which I think gives even more fuel to the “free will” concept.

              • Peter
                Posted March 20, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink

                “Given that our moral sentiments will have been fine-tuned by evolution over eons exactly to maximise their utility,”

                There’s been no selection pressure to tune our sense of how long a car thief should be incarcerated to maximize benefit to modern American society, so no.

            • focalpoynt
              Posted March 20, 2012 at 8:32 am | Permalink

              We already know this stuff is true There is no doubt about the co-relation between poverty, hopeless economic situations, dysfunctional family upbringing, and crime and drug abuse, and between mental illness and drug abuse.
              It doesn’t change anything. The big lie is that somehow the way society operates would be radically changed if we just admitted that there is no such thing as responsibility for our actions, or at least zero choice to act otherwise than we do.

              The fact ofn the matter is that we all experience free-will and the perception is deeply ingrained and innate.

              You can’t get rid of religion and new age woo and all other pseudo-science and quack nonsense with knowledge and proof, so what is the difference in this situation?

              Yeah, I am able to forgive myself and others easier myself, but I assume an attitude of no free will, or I assume the attitude that they are damaged and aren’t expected to know better, but it doesn’t work much in real life when your daughter gets raped and some a-hole laughs and spits in your face and says how much he enjoys rape and humiliation even though he understands how wrong it is, and doesn’t rape more than %1 of the time opportunity presents itself.

              You guys are a long way from reality, so give it a break. The proof is in the pudding, and you don’t act like you don’t have free-will and know it.

              • Steve
                Posted March 20, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink

                but it doesn’t work much in real life when your daughter gets raped and some a-hole laughs and spits in your face and says how much he enjoys rape and humiliation even though he understands how wrong it is, and doesn’t rape more than %1 of the time opportunity presents itself.

                Huh? Focal, what is your poynt with this?
                This doesn’t alter the fact of free will not existing. All you seem to be pointing to is emotional response.

              • focalpoynt
                Posted March 21, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

                I’m not talking about free will, Steve, I am talking about what it would be like to forgive and/or not hold a person accountable for what they’ve done because you ‘know’ that there is no free-will.

              • Steve
                Posted March 21, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

                I think the problem is that once an individual suffers a loss, they really don’t care the reason they have suffered that loss. The pain of loss is not mitigated by the circumstance of the loss. Many people I am sure have hurricanes and earthquakes that they just can’t come to forgive.

          • David Pinsof
            Posted March 20, 2012 at 8:02 am | Permalink

            I also disagree that “humans can’t operate like that.” I can and do operate like that. When someone makes me angry, I remind myself that they have no free will, and my anger is softened. When I make mistake, I remind myself that I couldn’t have done otherwise and the painful feelings of guilt decrease. Operating under the assumption that free will doesn’t exist has actually IMPROVED my life. And I wouldn’t advocate the abolition of sports anymore than I would advocate the abolition of anything that people like doing. Would the death of free will make sports less entertaining? I don’t know! I never liked sports much to begin with.

            • focalpoynt
              Posted March 20, 2012 at 8:42 am | Permalink

              Yeah, but it’s not you making any meaningful decisions ever in your existence. In fact, that’s what life boils down to, in your view, meaningless vicarious compliance.

              You do not know what it means to not have free will, by which I mean volitional and voluntary. You cannot experience it, you cannot describe what it is like to not have any choice in your actions and behaviors at the deepest levels, for if you did, you would be profoundly disturbed with the sense of fatalism and frustration.

              It is easy to intellectualize that you don’t have free will, but you cannot experience it, and thus, do not have true knowledge of what it means.

              • Steve
                Posted March 20, 2012 at 8:55 am | Permalink

                Say what you say about David is true, so what, it doesn’t change the facts.

                You claim, for if you did, you would be profoundly disturbed with the sense of fatalism and frustration. Upon what do you make such a claim?

              • David Pinsof
                Posted March 20, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

                People quite often experience “what it is like” to not have a choice or to not have a self; they do this through meditation. Far from inducing a kind of fatalism and frustration, it typically makes them feel at peace with the universe and increases their life satisfaction. Perhaps you should try it and see for yourself.

  6. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Your brain and body, the vehicles that make “choices,” are composed of molecules, and the arrangement of those molecules is entirely determined by your genes and your environment.

    Statements like this appear in most of your writings on free will, but I’ve never figured out why you give special emphasis to genes as causal agents in determining behavior (apart from the fact that you’re a geneticist). If the point is to show that at bottom everything is physics, why make an exception for genes, which are themselves just arrangements of molecules obeying the laws of physics like everything else? If such notions as choice and intent are illusions, mere epiphenomena of physics with no causal efficacy, then genes and their action are just as illusory and causally impotent, and for the same reasons: they’re just human labels stuck on collections of molecules behaving as molecules must.

    So invoking genes as determinants of human behavior, while ruling out cognition as a determinant, seems inconsistent. Either it’s physics all the way down, or else you admit that higher-level organizations of matter have causal power. Which is it?

    • Steve
      Posted March 19, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      Gregory,

      Of course your complaint here has no bearing on the freedom of the human will. You’re just on about the way in which this topic has sometimes been described?

      • focalpoynt
        Posted March 20, 2012 at 8:43 am | Permalink

        Answer his question. Which is it?

        • Steve
          Posted March 20, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink

          O.K. focalpoynt, you don’t know this about GK (well, I don’t think you know this), but GK agrees that free will is only an illusion.

          But either answer, it doesn’t matter, because neither puts any freedom into the human will equation.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted March 20, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

            Steve, please don’t put words in my mouth.

            I agree that libertarian free will does not exist. That’s not the same as saying “free will is only an illusion”, since there are several definitions of free will in play here.

            You argue your position, and let me argue mine.

            • Steve
              Posted March 20, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

              Gregory, you pick at quite the nit.

            • Steve
              Posted March 20, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

              And there may be, as you say, many different definitions of free will in play, but this is only because of those who would subvert the conversation by introducing without warrant all the many definitions to which you allude. Would it have helped if I have said that libertarian free will is only an illusion?
              (SO that you view wouldn’t have been confused with one of those other uses of the term “free will”?

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted March 20, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

                So anybody who disagrees with your position is trying to “subvert the conversation”? Please. If people want to talk about other conceptions of free will besides the libertarian one, they’re free to do so, with or without your permission.

                My own view of libertarian free will is that it’s not even an illusion, just a wrong idea that hardly anybody takes seriously. Even folk notions of volition may not depend on it in any serious way, as studies such as the one cited by Mele seem to indicate.

                That said, I still think it best if you let me speak for myself. So no, it would not have helped if you phrased it a different way.

              • Steve
                Posted March 20, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

                Now who is putting words into someone else’s mouth… I didn’t even come close to saying that.

        • DV
          Posted March 20, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

          I’d like to hear the question answered too.

  7. Andrew
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    I think the conception of free will (or lack thereof) that most closely reflects my own is that of Owen Jones, where he describes “[a]subset of possible (and generally nondisastrous) behaviors”, that have probabilities based on external as well as internal factors. I think this is important because, holding people responsible for there actions, adds another factor which will help to determine that person’s behaviour (point 1).
    I remember reading that Ted Bundy saw murder as morally equivalent to jay-walking, in that although neither act provoked any negative feelings in him, he knew they were both wrong, because they both contravened legal standards of behaviour.

    In my case, although I jay-walk frequently and feel no remorse, if I am somewhere I think I am likely to be caught and fined, I might reconsider the action. If I am caught and brought to justice, I will pay the penalty. I won’t feel bad, though, just unlucky.

    I think that is sufficient for “moral accountability”. I scoff at religion. However, in a synagogue, I will wear a yarmulke if asked, and will kneel in a church if that is expected of me, because expecations, rules of eitquette, etc. contribute to my determined decision.

    All this to say, I remain to be convinced that the fact of determinism suggests we need a radical revolution in our approach to punishing criminals.

  8. Neil
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    To me, an illusion is something that can be demonstrated as false, like the Muller-Lyer illusion. I can get out a ruler and prove that the two lines are the same length.

    That is not possible with free will. JAC and others act as if they believe that if they assert free will is an illusion enough times, that will make it so.

    • steve oberski
      Posted March 19, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      Like the religious who claim there is a god, the onus is on those who make the claim that there is “free will” to provide evidence for their assertion.

      Pointing out that there is no evidence for free will and referencing experimental evidence that indicates that at least some of our decisions are not made consciously is hardly “asserting” that free will is an illusion.

      • Neil
        Posted March 19, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

        We each have subjective evidence of free will (volition). The incompatibilists claim this subjective evidence is an illusion. But, as I pointed out, unlike in the Muller-Lyer illusion, the fact of an illusion cannot be shown. Thus the claim is simply a repeated assertion (JAC asserts it, Harris asserts it, as do others.)

        Compatibilists simply claim the question remains open because we do not yet know enough about how mind works. Incompatibilism presumes that mental processes are algorithmic. I don’t claim to know that this is false, but I am doubtful.

        • Peter
          Posted March 19, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

          That’s not the normal usage of “compatibilist.” Compatibilists are normally happy to accept that mental processes are purely deterministic. Um, I’m not sure “algorithmic” would be technically correct, but that’s partly because of computer scientists don’t have rigorous definition of the word.

          Rather, the compatibilist usually just maintains that contra-causality isn’t an important part of what people mean by “free-will”, and that giving up contra-causality doesn’t imply that we need to throw out our intuitions about it.

          • अहंनास्मि (Ahannāsmi)
            Posted March 19, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

            Um, I’m not sure “algorithmic” would be technically correct, but that’s partly because of computer scientists don’t have rigorous definition of the word.

            Actually, we do have a definition of “algorithmic” that is as rigorous as any other in science. It is called the Turing Machine. How else do you suppose we make statements like “The halting problem is not algorithmically solvable” or “There can not exist an algorithm for solving integer Diophantine equations.”?

            • अहंनास्मि (Ahannāsmi)
              Posted March 19, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

              Sorry for messing up the link tag. This is what I was referring to.

            • Peter
              Posted March 19, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

              Yes, Turing machines are a rigorous model of what we mean by algorithm, but from wikipedia on the Church Turing thesis:

              “the notion of what it means for a function to be “effectively calculable” (computable)—is “a somewhat vague intuitive one””

              The actual computer science definition of “algorithm” really is not that rigorous, and doesn’t rule out there being other things that should be called algorithms besides what can be computed with a Turing machine.

              • Peter
                Posted March 19, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

                Or why beat around the bush, here’s wikipedia on “algorithm”:

                “While there is no generally accepted formal definition of “algorithm,…”

              • अहंनास्मि (Ahannāsmi)
                Posted March 19, 2012 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

                You are mistaking the common meaning of the term “algorithm” with the technical computer science meaning. Yes, in common usage the term “algorithm” is vague: what does it mean to have an algorithm for addition? Does “Go to your calculator, punch the numbers and get the answer” count? Do I have to specify how you switch on the calculator? Or does the algorithm consists of writing down some symbols and performing some manipulations?

                Not so for us computer scientists. For us an “algorithm” is just a Turing machine. Any computer program written for a modern computer can be modified to run on a Turing machine. When you say that the brain’s process are “algorithmic” it means that given enough memory, you can write a program in you favorite programming language that will keep track of the state of the brain, and with the same inputs as the brain gets, will evolve this state in such a way that at any point it can “predict” the response of the brain to a stimulus.

                Now coming to your claim about the “vague and intuitive” notion of “efficient calculability”. This arises only in the context of trying to write down the tentative physical law we call the Church Turing hypothesis. In computer science theory, this “vagueness” is eliminated by simply defining “effective calculability” to be the same as “effective computability”, that is, computability by a Turing machine.

                An analogy from physics might be useful here. I challenge you to define inertial mass in any “non-vague” and “non-intuitive” except by saying that inertial mass is the proportionality constant appearing on the right hand side of Newton’s second law. Yet, I don’t think you would contend that “inertial mass has not been rigorously defined by physicists”.

                Inertial mass in the above analogy is similar to “effective calculability”. Its operational definition in terms of the Second law of motion corresponds to the definition of algorithm in terms of Turing machine I told you above (and which is standard in Computer Science), and the Second law of motion itself corresponds to the Church Turing hypothesis.

              • Posted March 19, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

                I’ve yet to encounter a proposed method of getting around Church-Turing that didn’t either explicitly require violation of conservation or couldn’t be exploited to violate conservation. As such, it is my own hypothesis that Church-Turing violations are exactly as rare as perpetual motion devices.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Peter
                Posted March 19, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

                Derp.

                “We have not defined-and probably cannot precisely define-algorithm”

                Thomas Sudkamp, Languages and Machines: An Introduction to the Theory of Computer Science,2nd Edition, p. 318, Addison-Wesley, 1997.

                Anyway, regarding this:

                “When you say that the brain’s process are “algorithmic” it means that given enough memory, you can write a program in you favorite programming language that will keep track of the state of the brain…”

                I’m not arguing that we can’t do that, but we certainly don’t know that we can do that, even if we assume that the brain is deterministic. A bit more importantly, even if we can simulate the physics of a brain on a TM, it doesn’t follow that the best explanation for how brains work is in terms of physics. For example, one difficulty with such a physics based explanation could be that your “description” holds for one thing that was inspired by a brain, but can you describe how other brains work in terms of the physics going on in your model brain? Well, no, you probably can’t. (i.e. you could describe how any particular brain works in terms of physics, but that physical description would be meaningless if you try to apply it to another brain…you’ll need to generalize a possibly non-algorithmic description at a higher level of abstraction)

              • Peter
                Posted March 19, 2012 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

                @Ben

                Unfortunately, lack of imagination is not a mathematical proof of anything. And the main problem with a *rigorous* proof of the Church Turing thesis is that we don’t have a rigorous definition of “algorithm”.

              • अहंनास्मि (Ahannāsmi)
                Posted March 19, 2012 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

                Ben: I think you meant the Extended Church Turing thesis, which talks about whether all models of computation can be efficiently simulated by Turing Machines. I am not aware of any serious attempts that try to get around Church Turing per se: it is almost given the status of a physical law.

                As for the Extended Church Turing thesis, their are serious proposals out there: quantum computing being one of them. We do know that certain so versions of extended Church Turing fail with quantum (one example is the Deutsch Jozsa problem). But the the only current candidate challenging the original (and the most important and realistic) Church Turing hypothesis is the factoring problem.

              • अहंनास्मि (Ahannāsmi)
                Posted March 19, 2012 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

                Peter: Also, thanks for anointing my comment with the dignified appellation of “Derp”. I like learning new words.

            • अहंनास्मि (Ahannāsmi)
              Posted March 19, 2012 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

              Peter: I don’t see what you are getting at. The Church Turing hypothesis can no more be rigorously proved than Newton’s Second Law of motion can be. As I already pointed out above, it as as impossible to independently define “efficiently calculable” as it is to define “inertial mass” (Try it yourself!).

              Yet, the Church Turing hypothesis does give a rigorous operational definition of what an algorithm is, and this is universally accepted in computer science: the most celebrated results of computability theory are of the form “No algorithm can solve Problem X”, where some examples of X are the Halting problem, Turing’s original example, and the Diophantine equations over integers. Do you really think all these results can be proved without a precise operational definition of what an algorithm is? I can tell you from personal experience that they can’t. This is no different from how Newton’s second law of motion gives an operational definition of “inertial mass” which is universally accepted in (classical) physics.

              I will reiterate: 1) there is a very rigorous definition of what an “algorithm” is, and it is universally accepted in the computer science community. 2) There is as much hope of proving the Church Turing thesis “rigorously” as there is of proving the axioms of Quantum Mechanics “rigorously”. They are physical laws, and by necessity they must therefore describe relations between terms, which independent of the laws, are undefined.

              • अहंनास्मि (Ahannāsmi)
                Posted March 19, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

                Peter: Also, since you seem to like arguing by quotations, may I point you to Section 3.3 of Michael Sipser’s Introduction to the Theory of Computation, 2nd Edition?

                The Section is titled “The Definition of Algorithm” and its second paragraph opens as as follows:

                Even though algorithms have had a long history in mathematics, the notion of algorithm itself was not defined precisely until the twentieth century.

                It then launches into why a precise definition of algorithms was so important to mathematics:

                The following story relates how the precise definition of algorithm was crucial to one important mathematical problem

                The problem in question is Hilbert’s Tenth Problem: asking for an “algorithm” for solving integer Diophantine equations.

              • Peter
                Posted March 20, 2012 at 6:18 am | Permalink

                *My point* is that I made a little quibble about whether I want to require brain processes to be algorithmic before we reject contra-causal free will. The case against contra-causal free will is stronger if you don’t require that, because the definition of “algorithm” is a bit fuzzy, and it’s not as clear to me that we actually can build a TM that does what brains do (even though I think we can, I don’t want to have to argue it before rejecting contra-causal free will).

                So then you start arguing that yes, algorithm is rigorously defined. But of course it isn’t. At most, we have several models of what we might mean by algorithm, and they are all provably reducible to TMs. So yes, we all agree that anything that can be executed on a TM is an algorithm, and we all suspect that there is a TM for every algorithm.

                So what is *your* point?

              • अहंनास्मि (Ahannāsmi)
                Posted March 20, 2012 at 10:40 am | Permalink

                As I have pointed out to you so many times above, with citations from reputed sources and my own arguments “algorithms are not rigorously defined” is about as justifiable an opinion to have as “inertial mass is not rigorously defined”. All you have done is trying to say that the everyday use of algorithm is not rigorous (surprise!) and support that with out of the context two line quotations. I must confess that it really pains me as a professional computer scientist when someone tries to undermine one of the most important achievements of the field: a formal notion of what an algorithm is.

                To repeat: do have another look at Sipser’s book <Introduction to the Theory of Computation, specially Section 3.3, which talks in great detail about why a formal operational definition of algorithms is of the utmost importance to computer science, and why finding it in terms of Turing machines (or lambda calculus) was one of the most important achievements of twentieth century mathematics. I already pointed out this reference before, but in the tangle of comments, you might have missed it.

              • अहंनास्मि (Ahannāsmi)
                Posted March 20, 2012 at 11:19 am | Permalink

                it’s not as clear to me that we actually can build a TM that does what brains do

                Again, do you have any reasons apart from your own convictions for holding that view?
                Not only most computer scientists I know believe it can be done, it is actually being done: http://bluebrain.epfl.ch/

        • steve oberski
          Posted March 19, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

          It’s interesting how similar arguments for free will and having an invisible friend are.

          They are both based on “subjective evidence”, also known as “feelings” and plead a special privilege for their position bereft of empirical evidence and advance convoluted rhetorical circumlocutions completely detached from reality.

          Both are also based on a gaps argument, as science uncovers more and more evidence that contradicts free will/an invisible friend, those that hold to these viewpoints retreat into smaller and smaller gaps.

          And both make impassioned appeals to emotion – I just couldn’t live in a universe where I’m relegated to being a “meat robot” or without the cloying love of a special invisible friend.

          • Neil
            Posted March 19, 2012 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

            Pain is subjective. Color is subjective. Dreams are subjective. Consciousness is subjective. Lots of things that we say are real are subjective. Subjective evidence is not the same as having an invisible friend or believing in a supernatural being.

          • Curt Nelson
            Posted March 19, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

            It’s also interesting how arguments against free will rely instead on determinism, the evidence for which is invisible.

            What evidence is there for determinism? Try to be specific.

            • steve oberski
              Posted March 20, 2012 at 5:11 am | Permalink

              I approach the discussion with the pre-suppositions of methodological naturalism, that is all the attributes of the mind are or will be explainable by natural causes, nothing beyond the laws of nature are needed.

              Should the evidence indicate otherwise I would change my opinion.

              • Curt Nelson
                Posted March 20, 2012 at 5:25 am | Permalink

                Of course the mind is all natural, but what about determinism. That was the question.

              • steve oberski
                Posted March 20, 2012 at 6:24 am | Permalink

                I do not claim to rely on determinism. That’s something you made up.

            • Steve
              Posted March 20, 2012 at 7:23 am | Permalink

              Curt,

              IHTPO, non-free willism does not depend on determinism being true.

          • focalpoynt
            Posted March 20, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink

            No, science doesn’t. When science explains qualia – describes it physically, then you might have a point. Until then, arguing about the motivations and reasons behind any one stance that doesn’t agree with yours is mind reading, which as far as I know, is a fallacy.
            In fact, if I were to draw parallels, I would say hard determinists and anti-free willists use all the argument types, including projection, of the religious and irrational. You tell compatabilists what they really mean, you tell us why we say things, you repeat over and over that it is a fact that there is no free will, you say others are emotional, yet mort of your statements are passive aggressive or outright condescention in character.

            All the articles except JAC and Gazzinga outright supported compatabilism, so there goes your arguments from consensus, another of your fallacious pleadings.

          • focalpoynt
            Posted March 20, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

            Everything is based on subjective experience, everything.
            Here’s one for you: prove that there is an objective reality. It’s farcical that you would claim that we ever understand anything beyond our subjective thoughts.

            We are inside of our heads, and that is all we can possibly know for sure, what is in our heads. Everything else is just an interpretation of sensory input, so quit bitching about subjectivity. That’s what empirical evidence is, trial and error, accumulating data and evidence through cause and effect.

            Empiricism is a term in philosophy for a set of philosophical positions that emphasize the role of experience. The category of experience may include all contents of consciousness or it may be restricted to the data of the senses only [1].
            [...]
            In the philosophy of science, empiricism refers to an emphasis on those aspects of scientific knowledge that are closely related to experience, especially as formed through deliberate experimental arrangements. It is generally taken as a fundamental requirement of the scientific method that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world, rather than relying on intuition or revelation. Hence, science is considered to be methodologically empirical in nature.

            So, unless you possess some innate knowledge of the relevant limitations of all the possible, past – present – and future, configurations and operational attributes of matter and energy, then you don’t know if we have free will, or not. No experiment has ever eliminated the possibility of free will, and not any theorized or proposed explanation for our sense of awareness and introspection has been advanced.

            In a purely deterministic and mechanical universe, I know of no way that qualia are possible, like the sense of seeing a color in our imagination, or the feeling of anticipation, for instance.

            What is more bizarre, the idea that a self referencing system can exert control over itself, where some form of self interest is part of the chain of cause and effect?, or that inanimate matter can form imaginary pictures and see them.

            If you want to start from a reductionistic materialist foundation and proceed from there, the first idea is fathomable, the second unimaginable.
            Yet, the more difficult of the two has indeed become manifest.

            So let’s cut to the chase, who are you to say you know what is going on, or what isn’t possible.

            • Steve
              Posted March 21, 2012 at 5:20 am | Permalink

              then you don’t know if we have free will

              And you don’t know that he doesn’t know, but you think you know, so you make this charge.

  9. SmoledMan
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Of course there is no such thing as pure free will since we are tied to our circumstances and biology/genetics. Free will only exists in the sense that we have a range of choices that is limited and we can pick from that. It’s better then the medieval mindset that you had t pray to the Pope and give indulgences and hope you made it to your 40th birthday. At least now in 2012 we have more choices.

    • Steve
      Posted March 20, 2012 at 5:38 am | Permalink

      Of course there is no such thing as pure free will since we are tied to our circumstances and biology/genetics.

      SmoledMan, that is the non-free willist position. If you accept that, then the rest of your post only serves to make the conversation less than pure.

  10. DV
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Bok, Bloom, Jones are all compatibilists. So free will does not come from dualism – that’s nothing new. These authors seem to be past that. Both Gazanniga and Jerry are arguing against the dualist notion of free will. They both do not entertain any notion of alternative concept of free will. Basically they’re saying you don’t have free will, period. But they come to different conclusions. Gazanniga says that doesn’t change anything about your responsibility, while Jerry says it does (“If whether we act well or badly is predetermined rather than a real choice, then there is no moral responsibility”). Mele appears to be disputing the data.

    Gazanniga, shows a hint of getting the point: “Is there really something in all of these machines that needs to be free, and if so, from what?”, but unfortunately didn’t follow through with the answer to that question.

    Jerry is consistent in language. By denying free will, he also denies choices, and responsibility. But gets into semantic problems – what should we call the concepts that didn’t really disappear: “freedom”, “responsibility”, and “choice”. The others are more nuanced with language and accepts non-dualistic meanings.

    Hilary Bok I think understands the issue best: “How can we reconcile the idea that our choices have scientific explanations with the idea that we are free?”

    Situational freedom, not essential freedom. If you don’t think freedom means anything, that’s a sure sign you’ve been living well in a free society all your life. :)

    • focalpoynt
      Posted March 20, 2012 at 8:57 am | Permalink

      Exactly, my friend :)
      I don’t think many people here understood what the rest of the authors were saying.

  11. Beau Quilter
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    No surprise that the one voice arguing “the case against the case against free will” is a Templeton Foundation man.

    “Alfred R. Mele is a professor of philosophy at Florida State University. He is the director of Big Questions in Free Will, an investigation of the science, philosophy, and theology of free will, supported by a $4.4-million grant from the John Templeton Foundation.”

    Sure he says that “free will doesn’t depend at all on the existence of nonphysical minds or souls”. But with no real explanation for how a brain could produce independent free will, this tactic sounds remarkably similar to the ID creationists who claim that “intelligent design” research doesn’t presume a God.

    • focalpoynt
      Posted March 20, 2012 at 9:00 am | Permalink

      You sound exactly like you don’t have anything pertinant to say and instead rely on Poisoning the well, a form of ad hominem.

  12. Posted March 19, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Jerry,

    I very much enjoy your blog and as an atheist, appreciate your rigorous and vigorous defense of evolution. For these reasons I’m disappointed that my first communication has to be a negative one.

    We both agree on the definition of free will. We disagree, however, as to whether it exists. You believe it doesn’t. I believe it does. My reasons:

    Determinism, in any of its variants, is rooted upon an insuperable epistemological contradiction. For humans to know what is true or false, what constitutes evidence or error, nonsense or justified belief, their minds must be free to evaluate the facts of reality for what they are, so they can adjust their beliefs and thinking accordingly. But if determinism is true, this is not possible. Whatever I believe is determined by inexorable factors beyond my control. If I belief in God, I have to. If I believe in evolution, I have to. Whatever I believe to be true or false, I have to. Thus if determinism is true, it is not just right and wrong that no longer make sense, but truth and falsity become equally meaningless. For even if determinism were true, the determinist would never be in a position to know it. All he could utter is that he has a causally dictated mind state that requires him to believe that determinism is true.

    The only alternative for a determinist is either to declare that he is an exception to the laws of determinism, in which case he excludes himself from the realm of reality, or to declare that he knows determinism is true by some mystical means or insight, in which case he excludes himself from the realm of reason.

    While I understand your reasons for embracing determinism, I believe your understanding is incomplete.
    Matter in motion is inescapably determined by the laws of physics. Humans however are more than just brain processes and molecules; they are beings possessed of volitional consciousness, the faculty which makes choice possible. Nor is this fact an exception to the laws of causality, but an example of them. Properly understood, the principle of causality is not that everything has a cause, but that everything must act according to what it is; what it is, determines and delimits what it can do.

    .

    • steve oberski
      Posted March 19, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      What part of “volitional consciousness” is not “Matter in motion” ?

      Try to be specific.

    • Steve
      Posted March 20, 2012 at 7:21 am | Permalink

      sophiesammy,

      For humans to know what is true or false, what constitutes evidence or error, nonsense or justified belief, their minds must be free to evaluate the facts of reality for what they are, so they can adjust their beliefs and thinking accordingly.

      Let me ask to be sure I understand your assertion: without the capacity of libertarian free will, there is no way for an entity to discover what is true? Truth and falsity only have meaning to an entity that is not bound by cause and effect?

      Obviously a non-free willists doesn’t agree. You talk as if you, by way of your free will, have some way of arriving at what is true or false that in some way transcends the convictions of the evidence at your disposal. How does this work? Magic? Not magic, then how?

      Humans however are more than just brain processes and molecules; they are beings possessed of volitional consciousness, the faculty which makes choice possible.

      You should realize that you are merely restating the free will illusion. What you state here, is that which we (non-free willists) are attempting to point out to you is not real.

      • focalpoynt
        Posted March 20, 2012 at 9:12 am | Permalink

        Let me ask to be sure I understand your assertion: without the capacity of libertarian free will..

        Doesn’t matter how many times it get explained to you, Steve, you still keep trying to reframe everything we say as libertarian in nature, even though I’ve never seen a compatabilist once say that, or agree to that.

        Get over it.

        You don’t know what is true or not because you are determined to think whatever you think, including that your illusion of truth is real.

        sophiesammy, this is one of the clearest, and rare, expressions of what I have struggled to point out, that of being illusional means not just will and voluntary volition, but everything we think is also necessarily an illusion. Thanks for your excellent ‘first communication!’ I hope to see you contribute regularly.

        • Steve
          Posted March 20, 2012 at 9:30 am | Permalink

          focalpoynt,

          I didn’t do any reframing.

  13. steve oberski
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Jerry,

    Did you have anything to do with the fact that the author of “The Case Against the Case Against Free Will”, Alfred R. Mele, disclosed that he is the recipient of a $4.4 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation and is the director of Big Questions in Free Will, an investigation of the science, philosophy, and theology of free will ?

  14. Posted March 19, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    http://www.newscientist.com/special/god?cmpid=NLC|NSNS|2012-1903-GLOBAL|god&utm_medium=NLC&utm_source=NSNS&utm_content=god

    • focalpoynt
      Posted March 20, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

      Yes, exactly! People will always be religious, will always be what they’ve always been, and that includes the operating on the principle that we have a measure of free will.

      So called ‘scientific proof’ that JAC and others claim about not having free will, and how that will change morality and society, is very greatly over estimated. In fact, it won’t ever happen; these debates are basically moot.

  15. Curt Nelson
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    JC,

    Your first paragraphs make sense – we’re biological machines, nothing more, and as such we behave within the laws of nature. No soul. No problem.

    What makes you think, though, that no choice besides the one we made was possible? And why do you think it’s up to the free will advocate to prove we do have free will instead of your burden to prove we don’t?

    Also, why do you “illusionists” cite the studies about unconscious decisions (Libet expts) when they only point out that the mind has conscious and unconscious properties? Free will is about the mind, not just its conscious aspect, right?

    • Neil
      Posted March 19, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

      I like that term–illusionists. I’m stealing it.

  16. Curt Nelson
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    Me = my mind
    Free = from my brain or from determinism
    Will = my mind making decisions

    Is my mind able to make decisions apart from my body = No

    Is my mind able to make decisions at all, or does it just think it can even though what it decides was always in the cards? = I don’t know but the idea that all things were predetermined by a Newtonian style of physics seems very far fetched.

  17. Posted March 19, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    Suppose A is an individual who is about to choose action X or action Y. We all agree that the choice of Y would be bad for society. We do not know what A will do. If A chooses X, no problem. If A chooses Y, problem. We would sanction A in some way. This describes what we do all the time. The removal of free will does not change this general pattern of behavior, but it does remove some of the intensity of our response. Our system of justice already makes some concessions to determinism. The loss of free will would probably increase the extent to which this is the case.

    • Steve
      Posted March 20, 2012 at 5:33 am | Permalink

      O.K.

  18. Hamilton Jacobi
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

    It is interesting to read Mark Twain’s take on the subject, from 1906.

    What is Man?

    • Steve
      Posted March 20, 2012 at 5:33 am | Permalink

      Twain had come to the valid conclusion.

  19. Posted March 20, 2012 at 3:29 am | Permalink

    I read Sam Harris’s “Free Will” last night so thought I’d post a quick review. I wasn’t overly impressed to be honest (though I’ve really liked much of what Sam has previously written).

    First, it’s not really clear who it is aimed at, the dualist populace or those with a scientific/determinist bent?

    I doubt it would convince dualists, since it doesn’t spend much time actually attacking that notion, and some of the arguments would be unconvincing to them. For example: “the unconscious operations of a soul would grant you no more freedom than the unconscious physiology of your brain does”. OK, but most dualists would say that the “soul” was also the consciousness, and is not “unconscious”.

    Sam then attacks compatibilism quite a bit. He seems to regard compatibilists as people who accept determinism grudgingly, and are really hankering after a quasi-dualistic free-will.

    He thus spends time arguing that compatibilism does not give you any sort of quasi-dualistic free will that is in line with popular “intuition” of non-deterministic decision making.

    Well, yes, agreed, but that is the whole point of compatibilism, and compatibilists really have accepted all of that long ago. Compatibilists are not hankering after quasi-dualistic free will and don’t need to be told that they can’t have it!

    After that, Sam spends the rest of the book outlining ideas of “choice” and “responsibility” from a deterministic stance. All of this is compatibilism. Sam is a de facto compatibilist! That stuff is exactly what compatibilists have been saying for a long time.

    I did like one line of Sam’s: “Losing a belief in free will has not made me fatalistic — in fact it has increased my feelings of freedom”.

    Late on Sam asserts (as is commonly done by [claimed to be] “incompatibilists”) that his stance has major implications for the criminal justice system. I grant that it might change some of the superficial commentary about our justice system (more emphasis on deterrence rather than retribution), but does it make any real practical difference?

    Sam gives no specific examples of major changes that he considers would follow from determinism. This section gives the impression that he needs to think this through a bit more (and so end up as a whole-hearted compatibilist!); our justice system is a pragmatic and social construct, and stances on “free will” really won’t change it much.

    So, sorry Sam, this “book” would have been better as a blog post really — it doesn’t add much to what has been discussed extensively before, and those who have (for example) followed the multiple threads on this website on this topic will not feel that it advances the debate much.


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