Brother Blackford criticizes my take on free will

I write this with trepidation, for how can a philosophically unsophisticated upstart (i.e., moi) take on a friend who not only has a Ph.D. in philosophy, but criticizes me at the venerable organ Talking Philosophy?  Perhaps I’m an April Fool, then, but I want to rise to the challenge of Russell Blackford’s critique, “Jerry Coyne on free will.” His piece was written in response to my essay against free will published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Sometimes I think that either I’m missing the whole point of such critiques, or the philosopher is, or something else is at issue that I don’t really understand.  I want to be brief here, so I’ll address only three of Brother Blackford’s points:

  • He is not trying to save face.  Russell doesn’t agree with my claim:

Although science strongly suggests that free will of the sort I defined doesn’t exist, this view is unpopular because it contradicts our powerful feeling that we make real choices. In response, some philosophers — most of them determinists who agree with me that our decisions are preordained — have redefined free will in ways that allow us to have it. I see most of these definitions as face-saving devices designed to prop up our feeling of autonomy.

His response is this:

I don’t think there is any reason at all to believe that; it strikes me as overly cynical. I can report, in my own case, that my past (and certainly not entirely buried) tendency towards compatibilism is not at all a face-saving device of this kind. It is a sincerely held position based on the view that we retain certain capacities even if our decisions are the product of a causally more-or-less deterministic process.

Let me first exculpate Russell in such cynicism, for I do believe him. But he either didn’t read what I wrote, or took it too personally. I deliberately said some philosophers redefine free will to prop up our feeling that we have choices.   And I do believe that, for it’s explicit in some compatibilist treatments.  As I recall, Dan Dennett’s notion of free will was expressly described as “the only free will worth wanting.”  Other philosophers have addressed the problem with the aim of reconciling physical determinism with the express purpose of finding some descriptor that matches our feeling of agency.  I think this is a losing proposition, because such descriptors always overreach, or seem ludicrous, but I certainly don’t think those compatibilists are intellectually dishonest.  They’re trying to rearrange their ideas to match their emotions. But on to the major issues.

  • Blackford thinks he has “capacities” that are an important part of his free will.  As he says:

Furthermore, reflection on what is important that reasonably falls within the ambit of the free will debate leads me to think that the capacities we retain are very important.

These capacities include: the ability to deliberate; the ability, more specifically, to deliberate about what I most value or desire in a situation; the ability to shape my own future to an extent, as a result of my choices; and, more generally, the ability to affect the future of my society and my world, to an extent, as a result of my choices. Some people – certain fatalists and passivists – seem to deny the latter abilities, at least.

My response is: so what?  Yes, Russell thinks he is deliberating, and he is insofar as his brain is working and mulling over alternatives when he makes a decision.  But he’s sorely mistaken if he thinks he has any control over those deliberations.  They are the result of the laws of physics, and are largely deterministic, with the exception of any quantum indeterminacy (which, as I have said ad infinitum, doesn’t play a role in anyone’s notion of free will.)  Blackford, by the way, does seem to be a determinist, but appears to accept that only grudgingly.

Further, Russell is mistaken if he really thinks that he has “the ability to shape [his] own future to an extent.” Here, I think, he’s sneaking in a kind of dualism. How can he affect his own future by ruminating and deliberating if that future has already been determined before his deliberations?

Yes, humans have evolved an elaborate system of weighing inputs before giving an output—a “choice”—but the apparatus and the results of the deliberations are also part of a deterministic system of molecular interactions.  It is true, as Russell says, that his own actions and words “affect the future of [his] society and [his] world,” but none of this is a result of a free choice on his part.  What Russell doesn’t address is whether his ability to deliberate really could lead to more than one possible outcome in a session of deliberation (it can’t), nor does he explain what he means when he says that he can “shape his own future.”  How is that supposed to happen?  What he means is that his future has already been shaped, before deliberation, by the peculiar (and handsome) configuration of molecules that is Russell Blackford and his environment.

  • Blackford finds free will in the contradictory idea that “I could have done otherwise had I wanted to.”  As he says:

Even this is problematic. The idea of “could have chosen otherwise” (which some philosophers do, indeed, use as a definition of free will) is at best equivocal.

On one interpretation, to say that I could have chosen otherwise simply means that I would have been able to act differently if I’d wanted to. Say a child drowns in a pond in my close vicinity, and I stand by allowing this to happen. The child is now dead, and the child’s parents blame me for the horrible outcome. Will it cut any ice if I reply, “I couldn’t have acted (or couldn’t have chosen) otherwise?” No. They are likely to be unimpressed.

What more would I have needed to have been able to act otherwise? I was at the right place at the right time. I can swim. No special equipment that I lacked was actually needed … and so on. The parents are likely to reply that it’s not that I couldn’t have chosen to act otherwise, but that I merely didn’t want to act otherwise.

This reminds me of an argument I had with my sister when we were very young.  She maintained that our father was a “perfect man,” and could do anything. “He could even fly if he wanted to,” said my sister. “Well then,” I responded, “Why don’t we ever see him fly?”  “Because he doesn’t want to!” she answered.

Need I point out that (especially given the unconscious nature of motivations and desires, long adduced by psychiatrists but now revealed by neuropsychological experiments), the idea that you do something because you “want to” is simply a tautology.  There is no difference between saying “I couldn’t have chosen otherwise” and “I didn’t want to do otherwise”.  What does it mean to say “I wanted to go dancing but had to study”?  To a determinist, all that means is that you had a desire to go dancing but that was trumped by a greater “want” to study. One could say that you really wanted to study, but the idea of “wants” is irrelevant here anyway.  What one can best say is that “For reasons I don’t really understand, I studied instead of danced.” One can certainly acknowledge conflicting desires, but those cannot be instantiated in different actions in an identical situation.

So when Russell says something like this—

Surely there are many cases like this where the reason that I didn’t act otherwise was not any lack of capacity, equipment, being on the spot, etc., but merely that I didn’t want to act otherwise. The most salient thing determining how I acted was my desire-set. Leave everything else in place, but change my desire-set, and I would have acted otherwise. In those circumstances, it is true that I could have acted otherwise. In those circumstances, someone can rightly say to me: “It’s not that you couldn’t have acted otherwise; it’s that you didn’t want to.”

—he’s simply is making up a new word for “the physical factors that impelled one to act”: he calls it the “desire-set.”  Yes, of course if you change the “desire-set” construed in that way, then your actions would have been different.  But, Russell, your desire-set is fixed by your molecules: by your genes, physiology, and the determined environmental factors that impinge on them.  You haven’t said anything new here or adduced a new argument for why one’s choice is “free.” Indeed, Russell sort of admits this later in the article.

What it appears to boil down to—if Russell does agree with me that his desire set is fixed and he can only ever do one thing, even after “deliberating about it”—is whether or not the parents of the drowned child have a right to reproach Blackford for his dilatory and selfish behavior:

But as long as the explanation as to why I didn’t act otherwise is just those states of my neurology – the ones that constitute my desire-set – the parents are quite right to complain that I could have chosen to do otherwise and saved their child. “You just didn’t want to,” they say, correctly. I was someone whose desire-set was such that I wouldn’t act otherwise in such circumstances, but I was not someone who couldn’t do so.

But in what sense are they “quite right” to complain that Russell didn’t save their child? They certainly feel aggrieved about this, for such feelings are evolved and powerful, but in my view Russell had no “moral responsibility” to save the child: he could only do what he did.  Yes, the parents could complain about what he didn’t do, and that, indeed, may affect not only Russell’s future behavior, making him more altruistic, but influence others to act more altruistically in the future.  (Nobody—even pure determinists—deny that social approbation or disapprobation can influence people’s future behavior.) The parents’ statement that Russell “didn’t want to save their child” is in fact identical under determinism with his statement that Russell “couldn’t save their child.” Blackford’s claim that these statements differ in substance is wrong. Or, if there is a relevant difference here, Blackford hasn’t made it clear, especially if he’s a determinist.

In his attempt to save free will, Blackford concludes:

Thus the “couldn’t act otherwise” argument, based on causal determinism, should not convince us that we lack free will. When I failed to save the child, I could, indeed, have chosen to do otherwise.

This statement leaves me completely baffled.  When Russell says “I could, indeed, have chosen to do otherwise,” he seems to mean only, “had I been somebody other than Russell Blackford at that moment, I might have done otherwise.”  And in what sense is that free will? It’s one thing for people to chastise somebody for making a “bad choice” (an emotion that feels natural but is at bottom irrational), but it’s a different thing to think that somebody actually can act in different ways at a single time.

So I ask Russell—and I’m confident that he’ll answer me—where is the “freedom” in your notion of free will?  Are you agreeing with me that all of our actions are determined? If so, then where does the notion of “freedom” come in?

I freely admit that we feel we have free will, but I adamantly deny that this is anything other than an illusion.

UPDATE: I’m still confused about what Russell means by the difference between “could have done differently” and “could have done differently if I wanted to”.  If by the latter he means “I could have made a different decision had circumstances been slightly different,” then I agree with Russell completely.  But that was never my argument to begin with, and I doubt that anyone takes issue with it.

225 Comments

  1. Posted April 1, 2012 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    I think free will exists also, in our conscious minds. It is our subconscious that lacks free will and operates automatically.

    • Posted April 1, 2012 at 6:13 am | Permalink

      Brief but interesting! But surely the reply is that this free will that you sense in your conscious mind is in fact an illusion? It is a means by which the complex circuitry of decision making is hidden, much the same way that our brains do not bother telling “us” about the regulation of peristalsis or the rhythm of the heart.

      • Posted April 1, 2012 at 6:21 am | Permalink

        I would admit it an illusion only in the sense that our existence could be an illusion.

        • Egbert
          Posted April 1, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

          Is a bed an illusion?

        • Piero
          Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

          How can a non-existent being experience illusions? If you call your own existence an illusion, then the word has no meaning at all. If I threw sulphuric acid on your face, would you call your subsequent deformation an illusion? Come off it, mate!

          • Steve
            Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:04 am | Permalink

            Piero,

            Maybe he meant “the self” is an illusion, without rejecting that he the physical being/entity exists.

    • Posted April 1, 2012 at 6:23 am | Permalink

      Consciousness is nothing but brain activation and particularly memory activation: short-term modes (for very recent until present events and states registry) and long-term modes (for past events and states registry). Combine all these with language’s (ambiguous?) architecture in thinking processes or speech by words’ manipulation (mostly to fit emotional needs) and you have self-conflicting statements and/or notions of reality including the notion of agency.
      For any objections please address yourself to the study of the symptomatology of almost all cognitive impairment neurological syndromes.

    • Dan L.
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      I think free will exists also, in our conscious minds. It is our subconscious that lacks free will and operates automatically.

      Most of the stuff in my conscious mind is sense experience, and I don’t control that.* If the sky wants to be blue today it’s going to be and that’s that. Free will doesn’t determine sense experience. Next most common is discursive thoughts starting from something in sense experience. I see a billboard promotion for a movie and I think, “Oh well I liked that book,” and that book makes me think of something else which makes me think of something else. There’s no volition in this, my mind just jumps from point to point; looking back at it afterwards I often find myself asking “how did I get here?” Besides, since this stuff depends on sense experience which has nothing to do with my will this stuff can’t either.

      Next most common are thoughts to which I cannot attach a particular inspiration. Just thoughts floating up from the bottom of my brain, I don’t know where they come from or why. I certainly don’t will those. I also can’t control my emotions or preferences. I hate the smell and taste of eggs, fish, and a few other foods. I wish I didn’t; I hate being a picky eater. But I can’t help what tastes distasteful to me. I also can’t help what makes me angry or sad or frustrated or anxious.

      I feel like a make choices, but those choices are made according to my preferences which as I already noted are not consciously willed. When I “choose” not to eat fish I do so grudgingly because I really wished I enjoyed the taste and smell of it. So in a sense, making this “choice” not to eat fish seems more like a failure of the will rather than an instance of free will.

      All of which makes me wonder what room is there left in my conscious mind for free will? After much meditation and deep introspection I’ve found no aspect of my internal life which is directly under my “control.” Rather my “control” is dictated by the ever-shifting landscape of my conscious mind. For the most part I feel that my conscious mind is just the same as my unconscious mind except for a dim, flickering lightbulb rendering it just a little less mysterious.

      *OK, well I can close my eyes or choose what to focus on but a little experience with meditation should show you that it’s much harder than it seems to choose what you want to focus on. Thoughts or emotions will start slithering up from the bottom almost as soon as your attention is on target.

  2. Stephen Lawrence
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    “Sometimes I think that either I’m missing the whole point of such critiques, or the philosopher is, or something else is at issue that I don’t really understand”

    I’m just a layman with a keen interest in this subject Jerry, I applaud your denial of libertarian AKA Contra causal free will and am very glad that you and Sam Harris are taking this on. My favourite philosopher who has also been taking this on and has been at it for some time now is Tom Clark.

    I do, however, think you are struggling with certain concepts and staying consistent.

    “I deliberately said some philosophers redefine free will to prop up our feeling that we have choices. ”

    Having choices means having options. We do have options but it’s a question of what options really are. A too simplistic definition, which will do for starters, is things we can do if we want to.

    ” Yes, Russell thinks he is deliberating, and he is insofar as his brain is working and mulling over alternatives when he makes a decision.”

    Here you say he does mull over alternatives, in other words options and in other words choices. So he does have choices.

    So my first constructive criticism is which is it to be, does he have alternatives/options/choices? Or doesn’t he?

    I intend to come back on the rest of your post when I have time.

    Keep up the good work, I do think it will be more effective if you get your view on “alternatives” amongst other things straightened out.

  3. Posted April 1, 2012 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    I’ve looked at free-will as nothing more than the story we tell ourselves a second or so after the meat has made its decision.

    Of course, I’m ‘deterministic’ in my belief system… I just don’t buy off on free-will in a deterministic universe. That there is something ‘special’ or ‘exceptional’ about humans that they’re somehow immune from the rules.

    • Kevin
      Posted April 1, 2012 at 6:46 am | Permalink

      You either totally misunderstand the free will position or you’re completely misrepresenting it.

      Who in the “free will” camp says that we don’t obey the rules? Of course we do. I can’t decide to fly (sans aeroplane) to work tomorrow.

      Within the context of the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology, we have the ability to make decisions and change them. We can — and often do — override the “meat”.

      BTW: the “meat” is actually the “brain”. Nobody is saying that free will means that consciousness or consciously made decisions are all there is. Your subconscious faculties are still yours, and if they come up with a solution to a problem and then report it for vetting to the consciousness, that’s how the system has evolved to work. Just as the system allows you to reconsider consciously and literally “change your mind”. We wouldn’t have that phrase in our lexicon were it not true.

      Now, in some instances, the subconscious decision has to be acted upon pretty quickly. Baseball players can’t consciously decide whether to hit or not-hit that inside fastball. There’s just not enough time for that interaction. They’re trained, therefore, to allow the subconscious decision to be considered “correct” without a check-in. But that doesn’t mean that they’re unable to check their swing. Or to obey the coach’s “take” sign — even though the 3-0 pitch is a fastball straight down the middle.

      Baseball proves free will.

      • Tyro
        Posted April 1, 2012 at 8:43 am | Permalink

        We can — and often do — override the “meat”.

        That’s a whopper of a claim and it’s preposterous to just drop it in without any support. Jerry has devoted dozens of posts to flesh out his argument and in response, you merely assert the contrary?

    • Neil
      Posted April 1, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      News flash. If you believe the meat made a decision, you believe in free will.

  4. Posted April 1, 2012 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    If free will did not exist there would be no indecision nor would there be guilt.

    • Steve
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:21 am | Permalink

      How do you figure this?

      My own personal take (not that you asked) is that indecision is an indicator of the deterministic weighing out of alternative choices that is going on in our brain.

      And guilt I think is fallout from the illusion of free will. (Same as pride, but opposite of course.)

  5. Posted April 1, 2012 at 6:30 am | Permalink

    Humans, as well as any other possible fully sentient and aware creature in the Cosmos, is very special and exceptional as there are no written rules.

    • johnnyrodgersmorris
      Posted April 1, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      By what mechanism are you able to behave in any way other than how your collective molecules behave while exposed to the laws of physics? No matter what you say or do, all of it…_ever_single_thing about you is the way it is only because of molecular interactions controlled by the laws of physics.
      You say “If free will did not exist there would be no indecision nor would there be guilt.”
      I would reply that even those are the result of determinism. Please provide any coherent alternative to determinism.

      • johnnyrodgersmorris
        Posted April 1, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

        every*

    • dschealler
      Posted April 1, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      Rule #1: There are no written rules.

      Rule #2: Except for rule #1.

      Rule #3: Oh… And rule #2.

      Rule #4: … Fuck.

  6. Posted April 1, 2012 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    The non-existence of free will would support determinism, it would also support the concept of an omniscient God.

    • Posted April 1, 2012 at 6:33 am | Permalink

      Determinism means everything is set in stone, and can be known by an all-seeing God.

    • Posted April 1, 2012 at 6:34 am | Permalink

      Having “options” is the mark of free will.

    • Steve
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:28 am | Permalink

      I see your point. But what kind of god would that be, if all that it could ever do is what it is determined to do? It knows all, but is deterministically bound?

  7. Kevin
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    Sorry, Jerry. I’m with Blackford on this.

    • CJ
      Posted April 1, 2012 at 6:49 am | Permalink

      Nice of you to apologize.

      • Kevin
        Posted April 1, 2012 at 7:01 am | Permalink

        I agree with him on most positions. I think he’s a stellar scientist, a fine writer, a rationalist, and otherwise a positive influence in society.

        It’s a cultural idiom to therefore preface a disagreement with someone you respect with the word “sorry”.

        Would you have me word it differently?

        “Asshole. You’re wrong.” … perhaps?

        No, I think I’ll continue to use the appropriate idioms in such situations.

    • Tyro
      Posted April 1, 2012 at 8:45 am | Permalink

      So the argument against Jerry has become “nuh-uh” with no elaboration. Well, colour me convinced. Thanks for your contribution.

      • Tyro
        Posted April 1, 2012 at 8:57 am | Permalink

        Kevin – I see you do have a longer explanation below so please ignore this comment.

  8. Posted April 1, 2012 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    Credentials are nice to have, but tend to be a “plea from authority” when flashed about.

    • Kevin
      Posted April 1, 2012 at 6:52 am | Permalink

      Sorry, but that’s wrong. When the authority in question is the expert, then it’s not a logical fallacy to rely on that authority’s opinion.

      It’s only when you use the authority’s stature on something tangential or orthogonal to their expertise does the fallacy come into play.

      I trust Dr. Coyne’s opinion on evolution and biology. And so should you. I don’t trust his opinion on free will. If I were to invoke him as an authority in evolution, that’s a valid use of expertise. If I were to invoke him as an authority on free will, that would be an invalid use of his expertise in one field to grant him authority in a different one.

      Shorter me:
      Coyne on evolution: Valid authority. Not a logical fallacy.
      Coyne on free will: Invalid authority. A logical fallacy.

      Get it?

      • Posted April 1, 2012 at 7:31 am | Permalink

        To rely on authority is to assert that that individual carrying credentials can never be wrong. Even those without credentials can be right, even when those with credentials are wrong. A layman can be right while an expert can be wrong. Accepting anything simply on the stature of an individual is a mistake. I have read Jerry Coynes books. I agree with the majority of what he says, not because of his expertise but because it makes sense, seems reasonable and backed by evidence. No doubt Jerry makes the same measured analysis when he reads others’ works.

        • Jamie
          Posted April 1, 2012 at 9:26 am | Permalink

          You hit on the important point at the end. Relying on authority is an admission of not understanding the issues sufficiently to form one’s own convincing opinion.

      • Occam
        Posted April 1, 2012 at 11:26 am | Permalink

        Coyne on evolution: Valid authority. Not a logical fallacy.
        Coyne on free will: Invalid authority. A logical fallacy.

        The coyote is way off the cliff on this one.
        Nice case of Bayesian inference at hand:
        Posterior supports Coyne on evolution or free will : valid authority.
        Posterior infirms Coyne on evolution or free will : invalid authority.
        Formal credentials serve just to set the prior before the first iteration.

  9. CJ
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that Professor Blackford is so worried about the moral implications of determinism that he’s ‘willing’ to love his strings. But alas, he has no choice. Just as Dr. Coyne has no choice but to refute Professor Blackford’s position.

    He needn’t worry; The truth of determinism cannot undermine human nature.

  10. Egbert
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    “But he’s sorely mistaken if he thinks he has any control over those deliberations. They are the result of the laws of physics, and are largely deterministic,”

    Oh dear. Another facepalm moment, as Coyne continues to make a categorical error of truly epic proportions.

    • Anthony Paul
      Posted April 1, 2012 at 8:01 am | Permalink

      Is this the determinism versus fatalism issue?

    • Jamie
      Posted April 1, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

      It might help some of us who are not mind readers if you specified precisely what categories you think Jerry is confounding. Presumably you have something in mind a little more sophisticated than the categories of brain and mind?

      • Egbert
        Posted April 1, 2012 at 9:41 am | Permalink

        I don’t know, look it up. There are so many categories and theory of categories. But most of us understand categories when we try and determine the meaning of a sentence.

        For example:

        1. “My bed is made of wood.”
        2. “My wood is made of bed.”

        Which sentence makes sense and which is nonsense?

  11. Posted April 1, 2012 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    Cognizance plays fetch to the repercussions of a molecular pinball machine.

  12. Kevin
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    “On one interpretation, to say that I could have chosen otherwise simply means that I would have been able to act differently if I’d wanted to. Say a child drowns in a pond in my close vicinity, and I stand by allowing this to happen. The child is now dead, and the child’s parents blame me for the horrible outcome. Will it cut any ice if I reply, “I couldn’t have acted (or couldn’t have chosen) otherwise?” No. They are likely to be unimpressed.

    What more would I have needed to have been able to act otherwise? I was at the right place at the right time. I can swim. No special equipment that I lacked was actually needed … and so on. The parents are likely to reply that it’s not that I couldn’t have chosen to act otherwise, but that I merely didn’t want to act otherwise.”

    I simply see this as treating the brain as a black box. The limiting factor that prevents him from acting is his mental state. Perhaps he needs a pill that would reduce his stress in order to act. There are times that we wished that we had acted differently on deliberation, but I think that it is a large leap to say that we could have actually acted differently. I wish my brain could have processed what was happening quicker, I wish my adrenaline wasn’t going through the roof, I wish I had different preferences, etc. These are purely physical phenomena that influence how we act. It is completely irrelevant what we ‘could’ have done in a stress-free environment, only what we actually can do in that certain situation and I see no reason to say that that person could have saved the child.

    Why not take the hypothetical to the extreme? A soldier upon seeing the traumas of war curls up into a ball inside of a ditch. Five feet away is his injured buddy. There is a calm in the firefight, but he stays inside of the ditch and doesn’t help his friend. Do we say that he could have acted differently? No, we understand that people act differently under stress, and sometimes, they ‘freeze’. The chemicals that are released in these situations impact our behavior in ways that can’t simply be reduced to a vague notion of wants. I feel that this line of argument completely ignores the natural processes that occur inside of the brain, in effect, treating it as a black box.

    Also, whether this answer is likely to impress a pair of grieving parents is also irrelevant. I suspect that any answer that doesn’t involve seeing their child alive at the end of the day would also be unimpressive (is this also an argument for an afterlife?).

    • Tyro
      Posted April 1, 2012 at 8:56 am | Permalink

      The child is now dead, and the child’s parents blame me for the horrible outcome. Will it cut any ice if I reply, “I couldn’t have acted (or couldn’t have chosen) otherwise?” No. They are likely to be unimpressed.

      What does it matter whether the consequences of these theories are reassuring or not? That’s an absurd basis for evaluating a claim.

      And yes, we all know and admit that the hypothetical Blackford was physically capable of rescuing the child. However if the h-B decides that he doesn’t wish to save the child, is this desire something that he has any control over? Since our wishes, hopes, and desires arise from a deterministic process and there is no ghost in the machine to override it, we are ultimately helpless to make different choices.

      In “Lying”, Harris uses the example of a person who feels dissatisfied with their life and takes several self-help seminars, sees therapists, reads books, learns philosophy but continues to fail. He reflects and can’t think of any reason why he should fail – he thinks he wants to succeed but just can’t muster the commitment or energy. After a few years of failure he attends a seminar and he feels revitalized, he’s able to make the changes that he seeks and everything starts to improve. He might tell himself a story that the seminar is what let him change, but upon deeper introspection, he can’t point to anything that’s really different about that seminar from all of the others. Something inside him had changed and all of his wishing and effort before wasn’t able to help him earlier. Despite all of his apparent effort, the change was due to something out of his control and out of his awareness.

      We can easily flip this example, so that rather than trying to improve our lives we find that we decide against saving the lives of children or commit even worse acts. Ultimately we see we’re not externally prevent from different things, but we are not able to want to do different things. That’s why we don’t have free will.

      • Kevin
        Posted April 1, 2012 at 10:14 am | Permalink

        Interesting analogy. The particular analogy I had in mind was someone who tries to change their diet. They want to eat healthier. On the other hand, many people who want to eat healthier also sometimes eat sweets. When they do, did they want to eat those sweets? Or were they unable to stave off the stimuli sent to the brain to eat sweets? This person may want to eat healthier, may want leafy greens to taste like chocolate and chocolate to taste like leafy greens, but their physiological wiring is not set up that way. They have no control over this*. They want their behavior to be otherwise, they want their physiological response to be otherwise, they want their preferences to be otherwise. How do we then say the opposite? If we say that they ‘wanted’ the chocolate, we are talking about a physiological response that they have no control over. Where’s the free will?

        *In the short-term. After eliminating sweets from a diet, after awhile, they lose their aura.

        • Tyro
          Posted April 1, 2012 at 11:44 am | Permalink

          While we’re on the topic of examples…

          While I hung out on Christian apologetics forums, I was frequently told that punishment or reward in the afterlife makes sense because we have free will to obey Jesus or to reject him. That was when I first started thinking about free will.

          What first convinced me that I didn’t have free will was when I thought of why I didn’t hurt people, had never murdered anyone, and didn’t steal. I have never had the slightest urge to do any of these things and when I think about it, I feel revulsion. Am I really making a free choice not to sin? There are other people who feel a compulsion to hurt others, who are prone to blind rages where they lash out at anyone nearby regardless of the cost to themselves. In what sense can we say that we both have free will when our minds are wired so differently, with some people who would have to be forced to hurt others and some people who have to be physically restained?

          If we then note that changes in our brain or biochemistry can have major impacts on our mind and decisions, again where is the place for free will? The more I think about it, the less room there seems to be. That’s one reason why Harris says that there isn’t even an illusion of free will, that once we think about how we make decisions and where our thoughts and values come from, we quickly see that we aren’t in control at all.

  13. Daniel Lafave
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    Is it really so much to ask that you use the term “determinism” correctly? It has a meaning, and that meaning is not what you take it to be. This has been pointed out repeatedly and you don’t seem to have any interest in using the term correctly. If you are actually interested in making accurate claims that use terms correctly, please refer to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Causal Determinism or John Earman’s book “A Primer on Determinism”.

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal/

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted April 1, 2012 at 8:31 am | Permalink

      It has one meaning as defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia, which differs from other meanings (I’ve just found about ten in a few seconds of Googling). It’s clear how I’m using it: as “physical determinism”, i.e., all matter behaves according to physical laws, and nothing else. Those can be deterministic, i.e. only one possible outcome, or possibly influenced by quantum indeterminacy. I contend that all our behavior results from these laws of physics.

      And is it really too much to ask you to be polite to your host instead of obnoxious? Really, this website is my home, and if you want to take issue with what I say, fine, but behave civilly. And I’m not required to conform to your definitions.

      • Anthony Paul
        Posted April 1, 2012 at 9:43 am | Permalink

        Here’s where I get confused again. If I understand what you are claiming about no free will, then Mr. LaFave had no choice but to act in a way that you refer to as “obnoxious.” Yet your reply is not, shall we say, cool and understanding of his inability to have responded in any other manner. You apparently were unable to react in any other way yourself, or else some part of you calculates that even though Mr. LaFave could not have acted other than as he did before, your strong response will affect Mr. LaFave’s future behavior in a manner that some part of you considers to be an improvement. In practical effect, you react as if he did have free will, as your response may (unconsciously?) affect his future behavior? Another possibility is that your subconscious does not “agree” with what your conscious mind is saying about no free will, or that your conscious mind simply has not yet totally joined the program and still acts as if people do have free will reflexively? Or do I still not understand?

        • Egbert
          Posted April 1, 2012 at 10:36 am | Permalink

          Lafave was not obnoxious, rude or uncivil in his comment. He was a bit patronising, but seriously? We’re supposed to show no respect for silly beliefs like religion, or even ridicule them, but not to Coyne’s absolute belief that we don’t make free choices?

          BTW, I still respect Jerry Coyne, just not this particular absurd dogmatic belief.

          • Muffit
            Posted April 2, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

            What’s dogmatic about going where the evidence goes (obscure unconscious physical causes/brain states influenced by environmental factors/hard to pin down deterministic forces)? Seems unclear…

        • AL
          Posted April 1, 2012 at 11:29 am | Permalink

          “In practical effect, you react as if he did have free will, as your response may (unconsciously?) affect his future behavior?”

          The claim that a response to someone may affect their behavior is not incompatible with a rejection of most notions of free will. Even in a world without free will, it’s possible someone could change their mind upon being exposed to another’s reaction. What would differ is only the nature of the mind change, not the mind change itself. In a world of free will, the mind change would be a “choice,” whereas in a world without free will, the mind change would’ve been the result of hard-wired predetermined changes in neural synaptic strength in response to visual stimuli in the form of an internet comment forum.

    • Stephen Lawrence
      Posted April 1, 2012 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

      Daniel Lafave,

      “Is it really so much to ask that you use the term “determinism” correctly?”

      Jerry’s use of the term is fine. What he means is one future we can get to from the actual past.

      Most compatibilists point out that could means could if… and so that’s not a problem for compatibilist free will.

      There are a few compatibilists who argue that even if determinism is true we could get to a different future from the same past and this is why we are morally responsible.

      I’d call them contra-causal compatibilists, Norman Swartz is an example but they are making the same mistake as the Libertarians as could, used correctly, does mean could if…

  14. Posted April 1, 2012 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    I wrote an essay titled, “Why Hard Determinism Fails” for my blog that details the problems with the usual arguments against free will. It’s far too long to paste here so I’ll just present the major points and leave a URL to the blog post.

    First the URL: http://www.atheistexile.com/2012/03/27/determinism-and-reciprocal-causation/

    Determinism is a scientifically unfalsifiable claim.

    The suggestion that determinism precludes free will is a false dichotomy. There are other possibilities (which I describe in the post).

    Physics is an inappropriate scientific discipline to apply to the question of free will: biology and neuroscience are better suited.

    Reciprocal causation (feedback) is what enables consciousness, memory recall, imagination, and intelligence and, I submit, also free will.

    And more . . .

    Please copy and paste the URL, above, for full explanation.

    • Jamie
      Posted April 1, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      Feedback does not provide a mechanism for revisiting a decision point and taking a different path. Feedback only happens in the flow of time. Feedback (such as the parents’ complaint) can only modify future behavior and is completely bound by deterministic physics. (Many kinds of feedback devices exist, from simple thermostats to complex electronic control systems. None of these devices yield free will for the machines and systems of which they are a part.) With the input/output model of brain function, it matters not a whit whether any particular input derives from an “internal” generator (a feedback) or from the “external” environment. The source of any given input is completely irrelevant. Given the same inputs at a given moment, the same outputs will necessarily be calculated. There is no possible way for feedback to alter this picture.

      • Posted April 2, 2012 at 2:31 am | Permalink

        @Jamie,

        EVERYTHING happens in the flow of time — most certainly, causality. But you’re not including everything in your analysis. Human intelligence has a temporal advantage over causality . . . it’s called imagination. With imagination, we routinely extrapolate cause and effect into the future in order to anticipate it. That’s a fundamental part of what intelligence is. Imagination, along with memory, stimuli and mental deliberation are all mixed in the feedback loop. Some of us anticipate causality better than others but we all anticipate it and forge a path into the future based on that anticipation. Success is based on how well we anticipate the future.

        Reciprocal causation is the mechanism by which we combine all the relevant causal factors to anticipate the future. When we are directed by our anticipation of the future, we become, essentially, self-determined. We meet the future based on our own unique anticipation of causality.

        I would assert you can’t have intelligence without anticipating causality and that the better you anticipate it, the more intelligent you are. It’s one of the obvious differences between humans and other apes.

        • Muffit
          Posted April 2, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

          Imagination is limited by brain state, which is caused by chemistry/biology/physics/determinist factors.

          It’s not supernatural, hence it’s a result of natural laws. Hence it does not give you anything like free will.

          Computers can also do predictive models. Is that free will? That argument makes no sense.

          You can only imagine things that you are capable of imagining. What you are capable of imagining is inherently limited by experience and what you already know. I can’t imagine even, the formula from physics that determines some abstract state of matter. I simply can’t ever imagine it with my current knowledge. I can guess based on current knowledge, but fat chance I would be wrong forever.

          So, again, imagination is not boundless, it’s a product of physical reality and determinism like anything else.

          • Posted April 3, 2012 at 2:18 am | Permalink

            Yikes, Muffitt!

            If you had actually addressed what I’ve said, we could advance the discussion. But you didn’t.

            • Jamie
              Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:31 am | Permalink

              He responded to AtheistExile pretty much as I would have. If your present decisions are determined then your imagination of future decisions is as well. The only thing imagining gets you is the possibility of error… I may imagine I would decide one way in the future and then find that, in fact, I decide other than I imagined.

              • Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:25 am | Permalink

                Although we might be inured to it, it’s imagination in which we extrapolate potential possibilities and play out potential scenarios based on experience and the facts involved. Or at least, it is for me. When I “think things through” to develop a plan of action, it’s imagination I use to derive what I think is the best course to take.

                A plan represents a series of choices organized before action. Course corrections will probably need to be made but those too are choices. If you can, with any reliability, conceive and execute plans, you’re demonstrating the ability to make choices . . . and that is, essentially, free will.

                When I speak of “imagination”, I’m referring to a mental process essential to making plans . . . anticipating and extrapolating causality into the future.

              • Steve
                Posted April 3, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

                . If you can, with any reliability, conceive and execute plans, you’re demonstrating the ability to make choices . . . and that is, essentially, free will.

                No it is not.

                Jim, please, first of all you are redefining/reconceptualizing the term “free will”. Secondly, where is the element of freedom in your concept? Conceiving and executing plans can be a completely determined activity.

    • Ougaseon
      Posted April 1, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      You begin by merely asserting that there is a categorical difference between animate and inanimate objects. Why should we believe this is the case?

      Later, (perhaps trying to support your above assertion?) you make the rather odd claim that the complexity of cellular mechanics puts it in a different category than other molecular mechanics. Forgive me for disregarding this as a different application of the well known creationist argument from complexity. Complexity merely makes things more difficult to predict, not fundamentally nondeterministic.

      Finally, you reference biological feedback mechanisms in defense of free will. These are well known to exist in all manner of biological systems from immune response and body temperature regulation to visual perception and consciousness. Their primary consequence is also well known: they generally introduce non-linear dynamics into a system’s response to stimuli. It is hard to see how this could lead to contra-causal activity in systems with such features. Why should we believe, for example, that the same hardware that the visual system uses to compute reliable inferences about the structure of the external world (a decidedly deterministic process) can suddenly provide contra-causal ‘will’ with different inputs?

      • Posted April 2, 2012 at 2:13 am | Permalink

        There’s nothing contra-causal about free will emerging from mental feedback. Aside from the “external” feedback with the environment, there is also “internal” feedback from memory. The point of reciprocal causation is that, in a feedback loop, cause and effect is no longer linear and become undifferentiated. This is not contra-causal, it’s a different mode of causality: one that interacts (as opposed to merely reacting; as with inanimate objects).

      • Posted April 2, 2012 at 2:33 am | Permalink

        If you want to insist that there’s no difference between a rock and a brain, then there’s no hope of a meaningful exchange between us.

        • Jamie
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:42 am | Permalink

          Of course there are many differences between rocks and brains… free will isn’t one of them. You have given an account of how it might be one of them. I, for one, am unsatisfied by that account for reasons given. It does not follow that there is no hope for a meaningful exchange.

          • Steve
            Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

            Jamie,

            Perhaps you underestimate the chasm that separates the two. I have often read the claim (in one form or another) that it is this very thing, human free will, that makes man special in the universe. It can be quite a sticking point for those who believe in free will.

  15. Thanny
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    That’s pretty much what I said, in part, in my comments on Blackford’s article.

    It seems to me that many philosophers, while saying they reject dualism, use words and ideas in ways that aren’t compatible with non-dualism.

    In particular, the idea that what one wants is somehow distinct from other physical states of the universe.

    That’s before you even get to determinism versus non-determinism.

  16. Stephen Lawrence
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    I intend to continue to work my way through.

    The next striking bit is this:

    “Further, Russell is mistaken if he really thinks that he has “the ability to shape [his] own future to an extent.” Here, I think, he’s sneaking in a kind of dualism. How can he affect his own future by ruminating and deliberating if that future has already been determined before his deliberations?”

    The answer is he can and does, by mulling over “alternatives” and acting as a result of the evaluation of those alternatives.

    Put another way, he can affect his own future to the extent his future depends upon his chosen actions.

    To ask how he can do that if that future has already been determined before his deliberations is like asking how rain can affect the future if that future has already been determined before it rained. :-)

  17. Peter Beattie
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    I think the central problem here is simply the interpretation of ‘could have done otherwise’. Given determinism, to say that CHDO means that an outcome of exactly the same preconditions could be different would be to contradict oneself. We have, in effect, already agreed that that cannot be what CHDO means. Instead, we must adopt a non-magical definition of free will—because insisting on the contra-causal, spooky definition is, as Russell has pointed out in a comment at his place, to stack the deck in favour of your preferred outcome.

    And Dennett has given just such a definition, e.g. in Freedom Evolves. Our freedom lies in the fact that we could have done otherwise than to do X in a situation that is only a little different from the one in which we did X. For dogs, say, the differences would have to be greater, because of the lesser extent of their freedom; for bacteria, the differences would have to be far greater still; and finally, for a molecule there might be only one specific configuration of a couple of particles (i.e. one degree of freedom) that would make a difference to its ‘behaviour’. And I don’t have a problem conceiving of this as ‘freedom’, nor do I accept that large numbers of people would, either.

    And in any case, to insist that it’s ‘phsyics all the way down’ is pretty much irrelevant, in a bad-reductionism kind of way, as far as I can see. It’s as though you are saying that no higher-level phenomena can be real, only single particles (or something) are real. In the words of David Deutsch (The Beginning of Infinity, p.371), what you are doing is

    to conceive of the human condition in a reductionist way that obliterates the high-level distinctions that are essential for understanding it … .

    To try to reduce behaviour (including any free will that we might have) to physics is as sensible as trying to explain evolution in terms of particle interactions. No understanding will be gained thereby.

    • Jamie
      Posted April 1, 2012 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      If you want to say that free will is an emergent property of consciousness that’s fine. But what is that property, exactly? How is that different from saying that free will is an illusion… a feeling that we have about ourselves that obscures how we actually function in the world? In other words, how does such an emergent property “free” one from making choices based on all available inputs at a given moment in such a way that given the same inputs more than one output is possible… and what is the non-physical “higher-order” mechanism for influencing which of multiple possible outputs actually happens?

      • Peter Beattie
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 3:24 am | Permalink

        » Jamie:
        But what is that property, exactly?

        Just as with ‘life’ or ‘space’, not having an exact definition is no obstacle to taking the phenomenon seriously.

        and what is the non-physical “higher-order” mechanism for influencing which of multiple possible outputs actually happens?

        I think you haven’t properly read what I said. Dennett’s conception of free will (which I pretty much subscribe to) does not depend on determinism to be false. If you think that it does, you haven’t understood it. Dennett says (as have many others on this thread have) that of course rewinding the tape would yield the same result, but our freedom actually lies in being able to act differently even in not too radically different circumstances. (See ‘degrees of freedom’ in my comparison with dogs, bacteria, and molecules to see what Dennett means.)

        And for what it’s worth, I should perhaps point out that our notions of cause and effect may be quite mistaken. Here is David Deutsch (The Fabric of the Cosmos, p.274):

        What we are seeing is that spacetime is incompatiblewith the existence of casuse and effect. It is not that people are mistaken when they say that certain physical events are casues and effects of one another, it is just that that intuition incompatible with the laws of spacetime physics. But that is all right, because spacetime physics is false.

        And on the question of what we should fruitfully (and actually do) take ‘free will’ to mean (p.338):

        We value our free will as the ability to express, in our actions, who we as individuals are … What we think of as our free actions are not those that are random or undetermined but those that are largely determined by who we are, and what we think, and what is at issue.

        This is what Dennett has been saying all along. Given that some rather prominent authors (not to mention a handful of people on the free will threads here) dissent from Jerry’s assertion that “we” think free will means subscribing to the contra-causal CHDO, can I once more ask for some (any?) evidence for that assertion?

        • Jamie
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:06 am | Permalink

          I have read Dennett and I am comfortable with his notion of degrees of freedom. What I don’t understand is your apparent claim that “free will” is an emergent (higher-order) property… that is not something Dennett says and is not justified by citing his ideas.

          Nor do I understand why you choose to criticize Jerry when he defines a species of contra-causal free will and then explains why it is nonsense. You may not think of it in those terms but many people (though perhaps not many philosophers) do.

          I do not mean to antagonize… I am simply puzzled by your value judgments (“bad” reductionism) and your apparent anti-materialist approach (…physics all the way down).

          • Peter Beattie
            Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:43 am | Permalink

            Jamie, I attributed the bit about higher-order properties to Deutsch, not Dennett.

            And I criticise Jerry’s definition exactly because it’s nonsense—and everybody actually agrees that it is. Contra-causal free will would be a belief in the supernatural, and nobody here has ever advocated it, I don’t think. And also, I think it is nonsense to assume that gazillions of people do believe that nonsense. At the very least, I would expect that claim to be backed up by evidence, which I haven’t seen so far.

            “Bad reductionism” was a reference to Dennett’s “greedy reductionism” (see Darwin’s Dangerous Idea), and no, I am not an anti-materialist—why would I be? It’s just that I agree with Deutsch that “explanations do not form a hierarchy with the lowest level being the most fundamental” (see Chapter 5 of The Beginning of Infinity).

            • Steve
              Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:56 am | Permalink

              And I criticise Jerry’s definition exactly because it’s nonsense—and everybody actually agrees that it is. Contra-causal free will would be a belief in the supernatural, and nobody here has ever advocated it, I don’t think.

              Who is this everybody to which you refer?

              Everybody, everybody, as in the entire population of the planet, everybody? Where is your evidence that everybody agrees that libertarian free will is nonsense?

              And where is this “here” to which you refer? Surely not this tiny ol’ blog, because there’s been lots of free willists posting here.

              • Peter Beattie
                Posted April 3, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

                Oh dear. Do you understand what ‘compatibilism’ means? The “free willists” here explicitly do not believe in contra-causal free will. You may very well argue that that would be an inconsistent position to take (as I imagine you do), but to pretend that there are no arguments for compatibilism indicates that you need to make more of an effort at understanding the other side’s position.

              • Steve
                Posted April 3, 2012 at 10:58 am | Permalink

                Peter,

                I just asked some questions. Were the questions I asked too difficult for you to answer?

                PS. I know what I have read Compatiblism means: Contra-Causal Free will is Compatible with a Deterministic universe. (Well at least it means this for some group of people.)

              • Peter Beattie
                Posted April 3, 2012 at 11:06 am | Permalink

                » Steve:
                I know what I have read Compatiblism means: Contra-Causal Free will is Compatible with a Deterministic universe.

                *facepalm*

                As I said: must try harder!

  18. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    I would be much more moved by these debates if the two extreme positions were more faithful to physics.

    – On the one hand we have the “free” will dualists, that propose a a golem soul that somehow untestably interferes with the physics of our brain to “make” our decisions.

    – On the other hand we have the “non-free” will dualists, that propose the existence of counterfactual pathways that somehow untestably interferes with the physics of everything in order to show us that we can’t “make” our decisions.

    Yes, I would claim they are both dualists, even if the latter group embrace a small dualism in order to fight the large dualism of the former. Counterfactuals lives in some philosophical alternative universe outside of physics.

    The purpose of a model of will is most simply the same as the purpose of a classical model of gravitation. It predicts behavior correctly in a simple manner over a large regime of validity. (Viz, animals with nervous systems are too complex machines to predict behavior of at all scales while they do show regular patterns of behavior, hence an observer can attribute it to an existence of “a will”. One could probably make the same case for complex plants and fungus.) It is a feeble folk psychology description, but it isn’t invalid but survives testing.

    And then at times, as here, the latter group get into the relativistic “block universe” model that replaced the classical deterministic clock work universe, which is actually relevant to physics but again is untestable at the moment:

    “if that future has already been determined before his deliberations?”

    There are various alternatives to this. I recommend “The Fabric of Reality” by Deutsch for one interesting albeit likely flawed model based on realistic many worlds theory (MWT) of quantum mechanics. I believe particle physicist Matt Strassler (or maybe another Matt) once portrayed the minimum relativistic quantum mechanics (i.e. quantum field) model of time on Carrol’s blog Cosmic Variance as he opposed the latter’s MWT.

    As I understand Matt, probably incorrectly, the future of an observer unfolds with the relativistically advancing light cone of an individual bubble of decoherence.* Hence observers can no more agree on the state of a universal clock (say, the age of the universe) than on clock rates and order of events as per usual relativistic physics. They have to wait until all local decoherence bubbles connect entangled particles, which can be separated by light years in principle.**

    The concept of “a single future” block universe may still survive, but it looks fuzzier and fuzzier.

    —————
    * Why decoherence would advance with light speed is one of the mysteries here that I wish I could ask that Matt about. Perhaps because interactions with photons (or gravity) decohere entanglement.

    ** The upshot, which I don’t particularly like, is that quantum systems in fact do work with instantaneous non-local effects, something that MWT doesn’t have.

    • Occam
      Posted April 1, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

      One of the more delightful tools I was given to play with in recent years was a Quantis device, a tiny quantum optical true random number generator. It can produce up to 4Mb/s of true random bits.

      I tried it for the obvious numerical applications, but I’m sure I could fit it into, say, an Arduino drone. Then I could program the drone’s flight by a completely deterministic algorithm, but include at several stages into the direction-finding tree a decision based solely on an input sequence of random bits. This strategy could even be used for a decision loop through which the program would determine acceptable or otherwise input values: deterministically, but unpredictably. I’m sure many experiments in the same vein have been conducted.
      Now, my grasp of quantum physics is certainly woefully inadequate. But unless I got it hopelessly wrong (and I’m anticipating some devastating flak), even if Jerry’s “tape” could be rewound, the flight path of my drone would not, in all likelihood, repeat itself identically. Of course, it can be argued that such a micro-computer controlled drone has less of an intelligence than the most primitive neural systems. It certainly lacks consciousness and self-awareness, or the illusion thereof.
      But the point is that its autonomous guidance system, however basic, could combine a completely deterministic control system with an undisputed element of very simple quantum randomness, at several levels. No, it’s not ‘free’; neither is it completely predictable.

  19. Posted April 1, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    I think these arguments about free will are largely arguments about what the definition of “free will” ought to be, but this:

    “…it’s a different thing to think that somebody actually can act in different ways at a single time.”

    has to be one of the worst definitions ever.

    We only have free will if we can do two DIFFERENT things at the SAME time? We only have free will, then, if logically contradictory things happen?

    Um, OK, if we define “free will” to be something that is logically impossible, then no one has free will. Happy now, Jerry?

    (The fact that there is only one possible outcome in a given circumstance is not an obstacle to free will, as pointed out by Norman Swartz:

    http://www.iep.utm.edu/foreknow/)

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted April 1, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      It has been clear to everyone but you what I mean by free will: the capacity of a human mind at a given instant in time to “choose” more than one alternative act. That is, the “decision” could have be different had the tape of life been rerun exactly. I said nothing about DOING two different things at the same time.

      Having free will in the sense that I’ve defined it is impossible, and absolutely puts the lie to any dualistic, ghost in the machine, free will. Sure, one can define it differently, but then you’re making a different argument. Note that Swartz never defines free will in his article.

      The definition that I use is not in fact one of the worst ones ever,but one that was held by average people, the faithful, and many philosophers for millennia. And it’s still held by a gazillion people.

      Take some time to understand what I said before you lay on the snark. “Happy now, Jerry?” Geez. Could you please be as polite to me as I was to Russell?

      It amazes me that philosopher-types can get even ruder and less civil than theologians when their beloved free will is attacked. This is my website, so lay off the snark toward the host.

      • dschealler
        Posted April 1, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

        The tape of life thing might be part of the problem here… It’s very limiting.

        You’re playing chess. The board is in state X. It is your turn.

        It is true that at this point in time there is, according to the rules of chess, a limited set of legal moves M(X).

        Of this set only one move m from this will be executed. Assuming hard determinism and that the tape of life is re-wound and replayed, the move will always be m.

        So how do we define free will?

        If free will is, as you say, all about the tape being re-wound in that situation… Then no, there is not free will.

        But if free will is, as it might be, to do with selecting from the available set of legal moves, then we do have free will.

        It all comes down to what ‘free will’ means. What’s the most useful definition? What definition or definitions most closely resembles common usage.

        • Egbert
          Posted April 1, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

          Exactly, well put analogy.

        • Vaal
          Posted April 1, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

          Consider the basis for why people typically make a claim they “could have done otherwise” (or could do otherwise).

          Is it to some strict appeal to “I could have done this had every atom in the universe and every cause where precisely the same?”

          I don’t see that it does.

          Rather, it seems to be more an appeal to the powers one has, based on inference from past empirical experience.

          Take Fred, at the gym. Fred usually combines a weight work out with 20 minutes on the tread mill. Fred is in the locker room, having decided to skip doing the treadmill, today. You ask Fred “Could you have chosen to do otherwise? In other words, could you have done 20 minutes on the treadmill today?”

          Fred says “Yes, I could have chosen to do do the treadmill.”

          The skeptic retorts to Fred: “You can’t be serious. If you mean you could have chosen to do so had EVERYTHING been precisely the same, every atom the same, every cause the same…there’s no way you could have gone on the treadmill – it was determined that you did not do so.”

          Fred, the average person, I’m sure would look at you like you were nuts.

          Fred would point out “I wasn’t talking about any such weird philosophical stuff; I mean I could have done the 20 minutes on the treadmill IF I WANTED TO. I just didn’t want to do it today (and he may supply the reason).”

          This makes sense because you just have to think about why WOULD Fred have made the claim he “could have” done 20 minutes on the treadmill? What’s the basis? What makes Fred think he COULD have done 20 minutes on the treadmill? It’s derived from his previous experience in the gym! That is, he’s been there before plenty of times in SIMILAR circumstances and he has been able to do 20 minutes on the treadmill when he chooses to. “I’ve done it plenty of times in the past.” Hence, it’s an inference Fred is making about his powers in very similar circumstances (of being in the gym). If Fred had no such similar empirical experience to appeal to, to infer such a power (e.g. if he had no legs), then he would not be making such a claim.

          And if you say you doubt Fred’s claim that he “could” have done 20 minutes on the treadmill, what is he likely to do? He’ll say: “Ok, watch this”…and he’ll go to the treadmill and show you how he can do 20 minutes. Again, an expression of his power, given his will.

          He’s not going to say “Let me just freeze time, or turn back the clock, and I’ll show you I can do otherwise even though the universe is precisely the same each time!”

          Just think about the basis for your claim any time you say you “could have done X” and you’ll see that the reason you say so is you are making an inference from your empirical past, from which you infer you have the power to do X and therefore “could have done X” had you wanted to.

          Vaal.

        • Steve
          Posted April 1, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

          dschealler,

          You are missing the target by a tad bit.

          • dschealler
            Posted April 1, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

            Did I miss because I failed to hit the target I was aiming for?

            Or did I miss because I was aiming for the wrong target?

            You haven’t exactly given me a lot to go on here. It’s hard to decipher what you meant, exactly.

        • Piero
          Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

          At any given moment, your brain is in a given state. Given that state, you “choose” move m because there is really no other choice available. A computer in State A will always change to State B after the next processor cycle.

          If you believe that I can really “choose” between the myriads of moves that are objectively possible, then you have to explain what mechanism, force, energy field or whatever did compel me to choose m out of that set.

          A good analogy, from the Tacoma Bridge disaster: after the bridge collapsed, the state Governor declared: “We shall build the exact same bridge exactly as before”, which prompted an engineer to reply “If you build the exact same bridge exactly as before, it will collapse into the exact same river exactly as before”.

          Why should our minds work any differently from a bridge? Are they both not material objects subject to the same laws of physics?

      • Posted April 1, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

        First, apologies for the snark.

        Second, I am a scientist, not a philosopher type. Please don’t tar the philosophers with my bad attitude, my mistakes or anything else I do wrong.

        Third, given your definition of free will (as stated here), and given determinism, there can’t be free will without logical contradictions. As you say, “Having free will in the sense that I’ve defined it is impossible.” No one (no naturalist, at least) believes in that kind of free will.

        Fourth, I thought the whole point of the post was that you were taking issue with OTHER definitions of free will. You wrote, “some philosophers — most of them determinists who agree with me that our decisions are preordained — have redefined free will in ways that allow us to have it. I see most of these definitions as face-saving devices designed to prop up our feeling of autonomy.” And in the rest of the post you are discussing Blackford’s definition of free will, which is somewhat different from yours (in that he has a different take on “could have acted differently”).

        So my point stands: there’s no need to argue about any definition of free will that makes free will impossible. The real question is, are there other definitions of free will that (a) are not impossible, and (b) are interesting and useful?

        • Tyro
          Posted April 1, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

          The real question is, are there other definitions of free will that (a) are not impossible, and (b) are interesting and useful?

          Why would anyone ever ask those questions? If free will is impossible then why try to shift definitions? That just muddies the water, makes it very difficult to communicate and ultimately serves as a buffer for those people that DO believe in the magical form of free will.

          It’s the same problem we’ve had with those misguided people who, rather than saying that they don’t believe in a god, redefine “god” to be something totally unrecognizable apparently in the sole quest to let them say they believe “god” exists. It’s dishonest.

          • dschealler
            Posted April 1, 2012 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

            You’d have a point if the situation with free will wasn’t already more dirt than water. ^_^

            One reason to ask the question is for the purpose of providing a generous interpretation of those that use the term.

            If you use a term, and that term has multiple meanings, and some of those meanings are incoherent, then the generous thing to do is to take the most coherent of the possible meanings of which I am aware and run with that one until corrected.

            In the case where all usages of which I am aware are incoherent, then sure – perhaps I can say as much.

            But even here, it doesn’t hurt to check to see if there might be a coherent and fair usage for the terminology of which I am currently ignorant before I dismiss the other person’s argument.

      • Neil
        Posted April 1, 2012 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

        Isn’t assuming a “tape of life” the same thing as assuming there is no free will? Your premise and your conclusion are a little too close to make this argmument interesting.

      • Stephen Lawrence
        Posted April 1, 2012 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

        Jerry,

        “The definition that I use is not in fact one of the worst ones ever,but one that was held by average people, the faithful, and many philosophers for millennia. And it’s still held by a gazillion people. ”

        Yep, this is what most people believe in, which is why it matters.

        They believe people have some way of getting to different futures from their actual past that makes them morally responsible.

      • Peter Beattie
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 3:46 am | Permalink

        » Jerry:
        The definition that I use is not in fact one of the worst ones ever

        I think you have yet to actually engage the arguments against your definition. In any case, simply restating your conviction doesn’t seem to be helpful.

        Here’s one way of looking at it: the question is, I think, what we should profitably mean by the term ‘free will’. It goes without saying, I suppose, that we cannot be expected to do something that is impossible. So if contra-causal CHDO is impossible (as everyone agrees), then then we shouldn’t even consider it as a candidate definition.

        What’s more is that your definition is simply a restatement of ‘you cannot change the past’. What we are (i.e. should be, in the sense explained above) interested in, however, is whether there are causes within us, i.e. within our consciousness and our intentions, that could (in the future!) make a difference to a certain situation. And I suppose that is pretty uncontroversial, wouldn’t you agree?

        And it’s still held by a gazillion people.

        Can I ask again: Is there any actual evidence for that?

        And would it even matter if there were, given that you presumable wouldn’t abandon, say, your concept of ‘species’ just because gazillions of people held a different concept that was unhelpful and inconsistent?

        • Stephen Lawrence
          Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:52 am | Permalink

          Peter,

          “So if contra-causal CHDO is impossible (as everyone agrees), then then we shouldn’t even consider it as a candidate definition.”

          Why shouldn’t we?

          It’s what most people believe in, what difference does it make that what most people believe in is impossible?

          Could have done otherwise in the actual situation in a way that gives us moral responsibility for our choices is a version of free will.

          What it’s supposed to do, although of course it can’t, is give us ultimate moral responsibility. This is responsibility that would make us deserving of receiving rewards or punishments in a way we couldn’t be if who happens to end up with these depends upon our distant pasts, something beyond our control and therefore a matter of luck.

          That is a variety of free will and it’s one that is positively not worth wanting, which is why people choose to argue against it.

          • Peter Beattie
            Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:14 am | Permalink

            » Stephen:
            Why shouldn’t we?

            I said why in the post you quoted: “the question is, I think, what we should profitably mean by the term ‘free will’. It goes without saying, I suppose, that we cannot be expected to do something that is impossible.” In other words: to require somebody to do something that is physically impossible is nonsensical.

            If I still want to use the term, because I think it can be helpful, then I will have to avoid the nonsensical definitions of it.

            It’s what most people believe in

            So you (and Jerry) keep claiming. Unless and until you can show some evidence for that claim, let me just say: It isn’t.

            And as you will have read in my comment’s last paragraph, what gazillions of people allegedly think is strictly irrelevant to the question.

            • Stephen Lawrence
              Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:08 am | Permalink

              ” “It’s what most people believe in”

              So you (and Jerry) keep claiming. Unless and until you can show some evidence for that claim, let me just say: It isn’t.

              There is plenty of evidence, everybody who expresses their incompatibilist intuitions provides evidence.

              It is what most people believe in, which is not to say that they don’t also use free will in a compatibilist sense as well.

              “And as you will have read in my comment’s last paragraph, what gazillions of people allegedly think is strictly irrelevant to the question.”

              Irrelevant to what?

              The point is gazillions hold a damaging erroneous belief.

              What else do you imagine Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris, Tom Clark, me and others like us are concerned about?

              • Peter Beattie
                Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:27 am | Permalink

                Stephen, seriously, you need to read more carefully. Jerry’s claim was about most people. Individual instances cannot be evidence for that.

                And I also said explicitly what the “gazillions” are irrelevant to: the question of what we should mean by ‘free will’, in a fruitful sense.

                Also, you seem not to have noticed that Tom Clark is not exactly on Jerry’s side on this issue. He says about the freedom he think we have, for example:

                This is not the radical, unconditioned freedom to act without causal antecedents, but rather the freedom to act without being coerced or constrained by the direct imposition of another’s power. Our choices are free just in so far as they are selected from among the alternatives we desire, not those forced upon us.

                Which pretty explicitly goes against what Jerry is saying. In both respects that he mentions.

  20. Steve
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, for what it is worth, sounds like you’re right on the money.

    • Stephen Lawrence
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 8:20 am | Permalink

      Peter,

      <>

      I’ve seen enough individual cases to leave little room for doubt.

      <>

      Which misses the point that gazillions of people believe in free will in a positively unfruitful sense, which is a problem and obviously a problem Jerry Coyne is concerned about.

      “Also, you seem not to have noticed that Tom Clark is not exactly on Jerry’s side on this issue.”

      This issue? If this issue is what we should mean by free will I believe Tom would say best not to use the term free will for compatibilist freedom because it confuses people.

      Tom agrees with Jerry that we don’t have contra causal free will and that it’s important that we don’t.

      He disagrees with Jerry on other points.

      What I seem not to have noticed, I don’t know.

      • Peter Beattie
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink

        » Stephen:
        I’ve seen enough individual cases to leave little room for doubt.

        *facepalm*

        What I seem not to have noticed, I don’t know.

        Because that would have meant reading what I quoted and what I said about that. Somehow I am not surprised. But by all means hang on to your opinion.

        • Stephen Lawrence
          Posted April 2, 2012 at 9:11 am | Permalink

          Peter,

          <>

          How do you think you gather evidence about what most people’s intuitions are if not by checking what many individuals intuitions are?

          It’s no coincidence that many scientists are saying we don’t have free will. They are saying it because of their incompatibilist intuitions.

          There is little room for doubt that these intuitions are to be found generally.

          And we see this in the concept of deserved punishment, the idea that it can serve someone right for them to suffer for what they have done.

          I’m suprised if you take it seriously that people don’t generally have these intuitions.

          <>

          I did read it, it doesn’t give a clue to what I seem not to have noticed.

          “But by all means hang on to your opinion.”

          But what opinion is that? I suspect the opinion you are refering to is one I don’t hold.

  21. Vaal
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    JC wrote: “but I certainly don’t think those compatibilists are intellectually dishonest.  They’re trying to rearrange their ideas to match their emotions.

    You may not be charging dishonesty, but replacing it with a claim that is condescending isn’t much of an upgrade. :-)

    Essentially you seem to be saying “The conclusion I’ve reached about free will was arrived at by reason; the conclusions of those compatibilists are driven by emotions.” In other words “I can attribute my conclusions to reason; I attribute your conclusions to psychology.”

    How about, instead of appealing to emotions, these compabilitists are simply making mistakes in their reasoning?

    I think your inference about the conclusions of other side being emotionally motivated tend to derive from how reason and arguments makes things LOOK to us. If we have given our attention to a subject, and reasoned through it the best we can (as you have), then we seem to have reached our conclusion via “reason.” What if someone else looking at the same subject else reaches a different conclusion? How does that look to us? Well, we say “I’ve reasoned through this so I know that IF you are using reason, you would arrive at the conclusion I reached. Since that other person claims to have used reason, but didn’t arrive at the conclusion I did, they couldn’t actually have got their conclusion using reason. Therefore, something else must have driven them to that opposing conclusion. I’ve got it! It was EMOTION. They have some emotional stake that drove them past all the faults in their reasoning.”

    This is so easy and tempting to slip into this mode of accusation. It certainly CAN apply….but the process of reasoning and arguing, I think, makes this conclusion so tempting the attribution of the other side to psychology/emotions becomes way overplayed.

    I no doubt have exactly the same temptation: From my end as someone defending compatibilism here, it looks like no matter how many times I raise certain criticisms, they remain ignored, or are given inadequate answers, over and over. It would be tempting and easy to start thinking “why can’t these people recognize the obvious???” and attribute this defiance to emotions and psychology on their part. But I hold that would be both condescending and likely just wrong. Some of us are just making mistakes when we think these things through.
    Could be me; could be the other side. But this attributing to emotions stuff is not only beside the point in terms of evaluating arguments; it’s too often condescending and I think, quite wrong.

    (I think it’s also even over-used when atheists almost reflexively attribute religious beliefs to mere emotion and psychology, while WE are using reason only. I’d argue that, while psychology may play a role in all of our thinking about subjects, often enough theistic beliefs are “honestly held” insofar as they are attributable to errors in reason, and not to some emotional constitution that the religious person falls to and we do not).

    Vaal.

  22. Terry
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Lots of Dualists here, I would have thought most posters would be Monists.

    That aside, I fail (as I have said before,) to see how anyone can prove that any decision is a decision when one can’t go back and redo the “decision.”

    We are children of the Big Bang, just like every other molecule out there; at the mercy of all physical processes, large and small.

    • Wordpress broke this
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

      Compatibalism does not equate to Dualism.

  23. dschealler
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Free will keeps on coming up, time and time again.

    And when it comes up people seem to feel very strongly about it.

    I’ve never really understood what’s at stake to others in the free will conversation. I don’t really have a stake of my own in that discussion – at least, I don’t think I do – so the recurrence and strength of free will arguments is a little bit baffling to me.

    So I’ll ask again, as I’ve asked before:

    If you feel strongly about free will: Why?

    What’s at stake?

    • Egbert
      Posted April 1, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      Firstly, in your every day experience, are you making free decisions or not? What does your own experience tell you?

      Then, someone comes along and says, you don’t make your own free choices and that’s a fact, science say so, and it’s been proved beyond doubt.

      How does that make you feel? Which side do you think is absurd?

      Good luck.

      • dschealler
        Posted April 1, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

        “Firstly, in your every day experience, are you making free decisions or not? What does your own experience tell you?”

        Eh… I suspect I’m a bit of an outlier, here. I suspect because I can’t peer inside everyone else’s heads to see the world as they do.

        But for me? The moment I start paying attention to decisions it becomes apparent that the decisions are something that are happening to me.

        But I’m a reasonable person – so I can assume the alternative position. Assume that I don’t have that inner sense, that I believe the reverse…

        Okay. So I’ve been told that my inner sense of my own decisions are wrong.

        And then what? Why is that a problem. I’m only human. I’m wrong about stuff all the time.

        Don’t get me wrong: I can understand that subjective experience may lead to disagreement on the subject. I get that much.

        But I don’t understand what motivates some people (from my limited perspective, most people) to disagree so passionately.

        The question of free will always seemed to me to be an interesting but somewhat dry subject.

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

        Or perhaps to put it another way:

        I don’t see how the validity or invalidity of free will have any real-world implications.

        The big one is probably the notion that free will is somehow required to justify punishment/reward and blame/commendation.

        But these both have valid and (in my view) better justifications that don’t invoke free will at all… And perhaps more to the point, I always thought that linking free will to these things was a non-sequitur anyway.

        So putting that to the side… What changes?

        Imagine a universe with free will, then another nearly identical universe that doesn’t have free will.

        What’s different?

        I just don’t see what makes it such a big deal.

        • Neil Schipper
          Posted April 1, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

          Your take on this is perhaps more interesting than the debate itself.

          H. Sapiens — especially its more intellectual specimens — seems to like to think of himherself as a decision making actor, and particularly, as wise, and as capable in certain morally challenging circumstances of being a little heroic (at least compared to most other folks).

          So to then learn that all “your” actions, including the apparently freely willed decisions that preceded the behaviours, were preordained around the time of the big bang (perhaps with a bit of nudging here and there from quantum events) is just a bit creepy.

          • Wordpress broke this
            Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

            I think dschealler’s point was not particularly addressed to those who disagree with Jerry. rather, Jerry and his defenders seem just as emotionally dug in as the dissenters here.

            Too much heat and not enough light. Contrary to the impression one might get if one read only Jerry’s take on the issue, and taking into account the latest discoveries in neuroscience and physics, it is nothing even resembling a settled argument at this point.

        • Stephen Lawrence
          Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:32 am | Permalink

          dschealler,

          “Imagine a universe with free will, then another nearly identical universe that doesn’t have free will.

          What’s different?

          Without Libertarian free will no suffering could be deserved.

          Sure blame, guilt, punishment could be justified on the bases of deterrent and correction.

          But not on the bases that some people deserve their good or bad fortune.

          Would it make a different if people stopped believing in deserved suffering and rewards etc?

          Well, I certainly would have thought so!

          If we did only use these as practical tools would we blame nearly so much? would we harm people nearly as much?

          What does science tell us about how to get the best behaviour out of human beings and have happy healthy human beings?

          Are people interested?

          Nope, because they are much more interested in making sure that those who deserve to suffer do, or hanging on to their deserved rewards.

          Belief in Libertarian free will blocks moral progress, as surely as belief that “God hates fags” does.

          But the difference is nearly everybody believes in Libertarian free will

          • dschealler
            Posted April 2, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

            “Without Libertarian free will no suffering could be deserved.”

            Very nearly agree with you on all of that, except for one thing: The way you phrased the comment above strongly implies it’s negation:

            “With Libertarian free will at least some suffering could be deserved.”

            I don’t know what Libertarian free will is. If you check the above, I don’t even know what free will is – there’s too many competing usages.

            However: Of all the usages I know and I can imagine, I still cannot understand what chain of reasoning can take free will as a foundational premise and then arrive at deserved punishment as its conclusion.

            Deserved punishment does not appear (to me) to be based on actual reasoning. The use of free will to justify deserved punishment strikes me as having all the hallmarks of a post-hoc rationalization that people give having already arrived at the deserved punishment decision for non-rational reasons.

            If you look at it carefully, the notion that deserved punishment is justified by free will only ‘works’ if we don’t actually think about it too hard. It’s assumptions all the way down that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

            So with all that in mind: Even in a world with free will, deserved punishment would still be unjustified.

            In a world without free will deserved punishment continues to be unjustified…

            Which brings me back to my original question.

            Between the two worlds, what is the difference?

            Is there one?

            I don’t see what the difference would be.

            • Peter
              Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

              +1

            • Stephen Lawrence
              Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

              dschealler,

              “So with all that in mind: Even in a world with free will, deserved punishment would still be unjustified.”

              No, that’s a mistake, because Libertarian free will is the thing that is supposed to make punishment deserved.

              It’s the thing that fits in this sentence, you had free will therefore you deserve the punishment.

              Do most believe in it, yes of course they do.

              Impossible, yes, but you asked me to imagine this impossible world.

              Fact is people believe we have this thing free will which makes punishment deserved.

              They don’t accept that people have one future they can get to from their birth, they believe there is some way that the person could have got to a different situation from the same past, that makes it their fault that they didn’t. Again impossible, yes. But so what if it’s impossible, it’s what people believe that matters. It’s impossible for homeopathy to work. So what it’s that people believe it works that matters.

              To say this version of free will is impossible and therefore somehow irrelevant misses the obvious point that it matters because people believe in it.

              What people like Jerry mean when they say no one is morally responsible is no one is morally responsible in the sense people believe. In the deserved sense that is supposed to be justified by free will.

              So the best question is not to ask for the differences between an impossible world and this world as you did.

              It’s to ask what difference does it make that people believe in a type of moral responsibility which we don’t have?

              Well. it would be surprising if on mass people’s view of moral responsibility was wonky and that we couldn’t do morally better by straightening it out.

              It’s an odd view to start out being sceptical that such a key and prevalent erroneous belief is harmful and instead expect it’s benign.

              Odd, especially amongst sceptics, who generally think it’s important to try to align our beliefs with the truth on such important matters.

              • dschealler
                Posted April 3, 2012 at 1:07 am | Permalink

                “No, that’s a mistake, because Libertarian free will is the thing that is supposed to make punishment deserved.”

                So… It’s assumptions all the way down? (Just like I said.)

                Which means there is no chain of reasoning to link Libertarian free will to the conclusion of deserved punishment? (Just like I said.)

                I’m confused.

                It’s seems like you’re just repeating my own points back at me, but you’re using language that sounds like you’re disagreeing with me.

                Are you just trying to tell me that some people have a mistaken belief that Libertarian free will (whatever that is) justifies free will?

                Because I acknowledged that when I pointed out this stance has all the hallmarks of a post-hoc rationalization.

                So yeah.

                You agreeing with me, or what?

  24. Vaal
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Jerry,

    Since you are again asking for understanding on the compatibilist concept. As always, we begin be agreeing that contra-causal “could have done otherwise” doesn’t happen, it’s incoherent. You still seem to gripe with compatibilism still making claims about our nonetheless saying we “could have done otherwise.”

    What you keep failing to take in is this: The compatibilist conception of Free Will boils down, like pretty much any discussion of Free Will, to what is meant by “could have done otherwise.”
    On the compatibilist account “I could have done otherwise” is an empirical claim, an empirical description of our nature, power, potential. It is EXACTLY the same type of empirical claim we make about ANY OTHER empirical entity in the universe. So if you really want to deny
    the validity of speaking in a compatibilist sense of “could have done otherwise,” calling it “irrational” and an “illusion” it seems you are stuck calling ANY empirical descriptions – all of science included – “irrational” and “illusion.” (Hence, this also makes your own conclusions about Free Will, derived as they are empirically, “irrational.”)

    Why is this so?

    Just think closely about how you derive descriptions about the nature of anything. Say: water.
    Note how indispensable is the combination of empirical observations are with hypothetical situations when trying to understand the nature of water. We might in describing water say “Water can flow through cracks, water can erode rock, water can remain liquid, or it can freeze, or it can become vaporized, etc.” Surely we consider these to be rational descriptions – we something about the REAL nature/potential of water. But what are they based upon? Empirical observation of many individual, separate instances of seeing water “do X” in one situation and “do Y” in another situation. Right? Yesterday the puddle in our yard remained frozen; today the temperature was just enough that a puddle in the same spot evaporated.
    In either SPECIFIC case there was, deterministically, strictly speaking, no other possible outcome. The water that froze was never “not” going to freeze; the puddle that evaporated was never “not” going to evaporate. But we take these instances together, and many like them, to form our description of the nature of “water.”

    To understand the real nature of water and hence to make predictions based on understanding it’s nature, we are not stuck ONLY with our empirical observations “This water DID X on this occasion, that water DID Y on that occasion…” to fill out our understanding of water we infer and add in HYPOTHETICALs to our description. “IF the temperature had been higher, water would have evaporated, IF the temperature had gone lower water would have frozen” and this is also necessary for our predictive understanding of the nature of water “IF water is boiled at X temperature it will evaporate, IF water is chilled at Y temperature, it will freeze solid…”

    What if someone objects and says “It’s simply wrong to say water COULD have been frozen, because since you boiled it, we know it never REALLY could have frozen. And it’s simply WRONG and irrational to say water can either be used as ice cubes, or to boil potatoes, because every particular instance of water boiling or freezing can not “have been otherwise.”

    We reply:”But, water freezes at below 0 degrees, so it’s true the water WOULD have frozen if we put it in the freezer.”

    Our skeptic replies: “So what? You have to admit it would not have done so in PRECISELY THE SAME CIRCUMSTANCES, if all the atoms and causes had been precisely the same. Hence, in making your claim about water, you are just appealing to a hypothetical that never occurred, and never WAS going to occur! You aren’t talking about anything REAL. It’s therefore just illusory talk. We should drop this weasely talk about the nature of water…you are just using hypotheticals and not talking about REALITY.”

    It should be obvious that if our descriptions about reality were limited in the bizarre way argued by the skeptic, we would not have empirical descriptions about then nature of ANYTHING. Luckily, we are more rational: in the real world, empirical descriptions employ hypotheticals to understand the nature of water – how water will act given some alteration in the scenario (IF it had been cooled, rather than heated).

    Just try and describe and predict the nature of water without this combination of past empirical observations WITH hypothetical situations.

    Is this talk about water merely “illusion” and “irrational?” If so…you’ve rendered all empirical inference about the nature of anything “illusion” and “irrational.” Are you happy to do that? (And, again, note that in doing that, your own inferences about free will, born upon empirical insight, become irrational). I’m betting you think this kind of talk is quite valid, rational, and necessary to describe something quite “real”about the nature of water.

    Why then do you suddenly make this whopping exception and DENY the validity, rationality and reality of speaking this way about human choices, which is what compatibilists do? (Themselves, one more example of describing the physical nature of an entity).

    When I say, in the compatibliist sense, “I chose the hamburger at lunch today, but I COULD HAVE CHOSEN OTHERWISE (hot dog)” I’m making the same type of empirical claim about my nature, about my powers, about my potentials, as you would be making when describing the nature of water. IF I had desired the hot dog I COULD have chosen otherwise, is an empirical claim derived from observing my powers in roughly similar situations of ordering food. It’s “true” in just the same way we would describe the nature of water: “the water could have boiled if you put it over the flame, instead”. And you can “test” my claim in the same way you can test a claim about water: Put me in front of a menu with hot dogs and hamburgers, and if my claim about my “being able to have done otherwise/do otherwise” is true of my powers, I’ll be able to choose a hamburger sometimes and a hot dog other times.

    And, it is actually this basis of inference that I would argue underwrites the typical claim anyone makes about “I could have done otherwise/I could do otherwise.” It’s always based on the same combination of inference from similar past experiences and hypothetical description, as any other description of other empirical objects.

    So, I really want to see how you can go denying the way compatibilism justifies the concept of “could have done otherwise” WITHOUT logically pulling the plug out of all other empirically-derived descriptions and predictions about the nature of other empirical entities.

    Vaal.

    • Another Matt
      Posted April 1, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

      Vaal,

      This is great. Congratulations.

      In a weird way I think it touches on Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy, and why it’s so tempting to think in teleological terms. Much of your description of water, for instance, sounds like so-called “dispositional properties” – properties of something that aren’t expressed at a given moment but which would be expressed if circumstances were different. The mistake is to read any kind of “final cause” into these dispositional properties.

      • Vaal
        Posted April 1, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

        Thanks Another Matt.

        If only some critic of compatibilism, like Jerry or someone else here, would give a serious answer to the issue. I’ve made the challenge before to incompatibilists: to simply describe the nature of something empirical (e.g. water or anything else), along with predicting it’s behavior (as one does routinely in science)…and let’s see if you can do so without appealing to a combination of past observation with the hypothetical. No one takes up the challenge.

        The problem is I keep making this point and it seems I get the equivalent of “huh?” “what?” and then it’s just ignored and it’s on to making the same old criticisms of compatibilism.

        Yes, I agree this talk about the nature-of-things steps into the arena with Thomist philosophy – which I reject, for the reason you cite. (Then again, it’s a subject that you find in most philosophies).

        Vaal

    • Posted April 1, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

      I think noting that person/substance/thing A has the potential to do B, C or D under circumstances B’, C’ or D’ is a different conversation altogether. It seems you’re simply saying that A will behave differently under different circumstances, and I don’t think this is at odds with the claim that A must do B given circumstances B’.

      Yes, water is capable of freezing and boiling. This doesn’t strike me as particularly relevant to the free will issue. What would be relevant would be noting that if all the criteria for freezing or boiling are met, the water must freeze or boil.

      • Vaal
        Posted April 1, 2012 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

        “I think noting that person/substance/thing A has the potential to do B, C or D under circumstances B’, C’ or D’ is a different conversation altogether.”

        No. Same thing. Watch:

        Claim: The water remained frozen, but it COULD HAVE thawed into a liquid state.

        (This obviously rests upon “had something about the circumstances been different” e.g. temperature).

        Skeptic: Sure no problem. Valid observation there.

        Claim: I kept the water in the freezer, but I COULD HAVE thawed it into a liquid state.

        Skeptic: HOLD ON THERE! No, you couldn’t really have done so. You were determined to do only one thing, in this case you were determined to keep the water frozen. It’s simply false to say you could have done otherwise.

        Claim: But…if I’d wanted to, I COULD have kept the water frozen.

        Skeptic: All you are doing now is introducing a hypothetical situation that never happened. You aren’t talking about reality. It’s not actually true that you could have done otherwise. Not only that, you couldn’t have “wanted” to choose differently because your desires are also determined, so you never would have had a different desire IN REALITY. So in saying you could have done otherwise, you are appealing to fantasy, not reality.

        Claim: But, you didn’t seem to have any problem with acknowledging that water could have been frozen or thawed, which rests on the same assumptions as my claim about what I could have done: both are statements about potentials, given slightly different circumstances. In the case of the water it “could have” remained frozen if the temperature remained below zero (though it didn’t). In the case of my choice, I “could have” kept the water frozen had I desired to.

        Further, to say “but since your desires were also determined, you never could have had a different desire”…the same could be said about the water: the cause of the water turning into liquid was also determined and NEVER WAS going to be anything different.

        But, strangely, you seem perfectly happy to make statements about the nature and potential of water, by appealing to hypothetical circumstances…and yet you suddenly deny the validity when a person is involved, and I use the same logic, appealing to hypothetical circumstances to describe my powers and potentials. I was “free to choose” in the sense I have the powers under similar but NOT EXACT circumstances to choose differently. I infer this from noting that I’ve chosen differently in similar circumstances in the past, and hence have this potential, just as I’ve noted water in the past has the potential to freeze or remain liquid.
        If it is only an “illusion” and irrational that I use this as justifying my claim “I could have chosen differently,” then for the same reason all talk about the nature of water is an “illusion” and irrational, because it relies on the same logic.

        Skeptic: I don’t get the connection.

        Sigh…

        Vaal.

        • Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:05 am | Permalink

          I think the hard determinist is just as prepared to acknowledge that ‘humans’ are not a special case requiring different rules or different descriptive protocols.

          The puddle can freeze or evaporate, and the person can select a hamburger or a hot dog. Certainly, it can’t be denied that the person is capable of eating either a hamburger or a hot dog.

          But noting these capabilities in the abstract doesn’t particularly bear on the conversation about how and why one of those events actually happened.

          The water froze because of an entirely material causal nexus. Likewise for the person and her hamburger.

          All that writ, I have to admit I’m not sold on the idea that this isn’t bad reductionism. I don’t think I have the expertise to comment much further, but I thought I’d try responding to your call for a, well, response.

          I just don’t think noting capabilities that are dependent on certain circumstances is relevant to the free will war. Such an observation comports with both sides.

        • Kevin
          Posted April 2, 2012 at 8:34 am | Permalink

          The problem lies in that when you are talking about the water, you are talking about an issue that is irrelevant to the issue of free will. Given a certain set of starting conditions, the water is ice or it is liquid, it is completely determined. Given a certain set of starting conditions, you either ‘choose’ a hamburger or a hotdog, it is completely determined. All you are saying is if the starting conditions are different, then the outcome is different, which is an implication of determinism.

          Lets say that you consider the above choice to have a hotdog to be considered a free choice, that also means that the water freely chose to be a liquid instead of ice. How is this considered ‘free will’? The water molecules have no say in the matter, they have no influence over their surrounding environment, which determines whether it will freeze or stay liquid, where is the ‘free will’?

          • Another Matt
            Posted April 2, 2012 at 9:15 am | Permalink

            Lets say that you consider the above choice to have a hotdog to be considered a free choice, that also means that the water freely chose to be a liquid instead of ice.

            I don’t think this is fair to Vaal’s arguments. What you’re saying makes almost exactly as much sense as:

            “Let’s say that you want ‘driving to work in a car’ to be considered a real activity; that also means you can drive to work in a grapefruit.”

            You know how we sneer at theists who tell us, pointing at a person and a rock respectively, “Under atheism, we would have no reason to regard that riot of atoms over there any differently than that conglomeration of atoms over there, because according to atheists it’s all just matter.” It’s a ridiculous argument because it assumes that there isn’t any meaningful difference in the way the matter is organized in brains and boulders.

            You’re making their argument for them.

            • Kevin
              Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:07 am | Permalink

              I don’t see how I inaccurately described his position. His defense of free will was that had the starting conditions been different, a different outcome (i.e. choice) would have happened. Had my mental state been different, I would have chosen the hotdog over the hamburger. Had the temperature been different, the water would have been ice instead of water. The distinction being made is the difference in starting conditions. Both the food choice and the water’s physical state are influenced by the starting conditions that could result in a different outcome, so they both have ‘free will.’

              I could replace the water with a computer if you so wish? Do computers have free will? I would make the argument that computers have the same propensity for free will that humans do; so either we both have free will or we both don’t. Does this example come off with less sneer?

              As for your examples, I don’t really want to dive into morality, as that would take too much time to set the groundwork, but there are crucial distinctions to be made between rocks and humans when it comes to moral evaluations. When it came to the free will discussion above, no distinction was made, which is why your example is not analogous. Also, your grapefruit example is simply incoherent. Please demonstrate the connection to my previous comment. Actually, you haven’t really responded to my comment with any substance; you basically said “You’re making us look bad for being so wrong.” For future comments, please actually contribute to the discussion.

              • Another Matt
                Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

                Had my mental state been different, I would have chosen the hotdog over the hamburger. Had the temperature been different, the water would have been ice instead of water. The distinction being made is the difference in starting conditions. Both the food choice and the water’s physical state are influenced by the starting conditions that could result in a different outcome, so they both have ‘free will.’

                What you’re missing from his argument is that there are other empirical distinctions between “water” and “brains,” where we can describe brains as “computing,” “deliberating,” “making choices” — all deterministic, but perfectly real and accurate descriptions of what brains can do in different instances, and that puddles can’t ever do.

                Do computers have free will? I would make the argument that computers have the same propensity for free will that humans do; so either we both have free will or we both don’t.

                Yep, both have compatibilist free will, but in completely different degrees. The classic example of this is if you put two different chess programs up against each other and ran 1000 games, one of them might fare better. You could run the same games with the same initial conditions and determinism and the one that won last time will still win this time – but we still say it has more chess-playing capabilities than the other program. And it’s something we can find out empirically about programs. I’m just as deterministic as my computer, but the latitude of my actions, based on my organization are exponentially more varied, complex, and so forth. It’s meaningful to make these distinctions! As Vaal pointed out, empiricism can’t get off the ground without them.

                Also, your grapefruit example is simply incoherent. Please demonstrate the connection to my previous comment.

                I think the “driving to work in a grapefruit” example is incoherent for the same reason it’s incoherent to ascribe “choice” to a puddle. A car is the kind of thing that can be driven – a grapefruit is not. Both are made of matter. A brain is the kind of thing that can make choices (i.e. “select from among alternatives in its model of the world”) – a puddle is not. That’s the analogy.

                Actually, you haven’t really responded to my comment with any substance; you basically said “You’re making us look bad for being so wrong.” For future comments, please actually contribute to the discussion.

                I hope this reply is sufficiently substantial. I’m not worried that any of us make atheists look bad – I just want to be consistent, and your arguments are enough like theists’ about the incompatibility of matter with “deliberation” and “value” that I just wanted to point out the similarity.

              • Kevin
                Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:18 am | Permalink

                What do you mean by ‘free will’? If I become paralyzed, have I lost ‘free will’? If I become stronger, do I gain ‘free will’? Is free will simply the ability to “select from among alternatives in its model of the world” or is the number of selections significant. It would seem that if it were simply the ability to do so, then computers and humans would be equivalent in that respect. However, you said that humans have it to a greater degree, based on the number of options. This means that different people have different amounts of ‘free will’ depending on their physical attributes/relations. It seems kind of strange to say “I lost free will over the weekend; I broke my leg” or “I gained some free will; I got a job offer!” I have never heard of ‘free will’ being used in this context.

                I would agree that these can be meaningful distinctions in regards to some empirical questions, I just don’t see their relevance to the issue of free will. This seems more like a discussion about physical/mental ability rather than whether a choice was freely chosen.

              • Another Matt
                Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:50 am | Permalink

                I actually would use “free will” in the ways that you do in your examples. The historical mistake, I think, and one that is tempting to make still is to regard “free will” as some kind of essence which something either does or does not have.

                It’s a lot more like “consciousness” in that respect – we’re happy to say that dogs and humans are both conscious but dogs in general have less of it than humans do in general. I’ve no doubt that Darwin and Newton had way more of it than I do. But in any case, “consciousness” was historically considered some kind of essence rather than an emergent property of matter (thus Descartes could plausibly have believed that dogs weren’t conscious because they were unensouled). We’ve updated our language to reflect new understanding about consciousness, gleaned empirically; I think the “free will” concept can be similarly updated without all this handwringing.

                Or, maybe less spookily, the “free will” concept is a lot like “locomotion.” “X has locomotion” is not a true or false proposition – it comes in degrees, is contextual, and is fuzzy at the margins. Do I have more locomotion than a helium balloon? Both of us move, after all. Do trucks have more of it than roller-coasters or trains? Do we care?

              • Kevin
                Posted April 2, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

                “It’s a lot more like “consciousness” in that respect – we’re happy to say that dogs and humans are both conscious but dogs in general have less of it than humans do in general.”

                I don’t think of consciousness as on a spectrum. I think of it as a binary proposition. Someone who is alert is not more conscious than when they are drowsy, they are merely more alert. They can react quicker, perhaps solve more problems, but that doesn’t make them more conscious. Consciousness refers to the ability to feel sensations; IQ doesn’t play a part in determining consciousness.

                I wouldn’t say that dogs have less consciousness than humans, since I don’t think being self-aware, ability to do calculus, etc. factors into whether something is or is not conscious. I agree that we have updated our language, and that consciousness is not some essence, but where is this spectrum of intelligence being the measure of consciousness coming from? I feel like the chosen measure for the degree of consciousness (and for the free will example earlier) doesn’t add anything of relevance to the original question and detracts from overall clarity.

              • Another Matt
                Posted April 2, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

                I don’t think of consciousness as on a spectrum. I think of it as a binary proposition.

                Fair enough – I disagree wholeheartedly, but I don’t think we will make much progress on that.

                Anyway I think the analogy holds even in case consciousness is a binary proposition. If it is, the boundary between things that are conscious and those that aren’t is pretty fuzzy – we don’t think paramecia have it, and we think mice and cuttlefish do, but we can’t say for sure about clams and insects, and we may one day not be so sure about sophisticated computers and robots.

                If the “free will” concept is binary, the boundary between things that have it or not is equally fuzzy. Maybe in that case the analogy would be something like:

                “consciousness” : IQ :: “free will” : ability

    • Piero
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

      Oh my God! I’m really getting fed up with these ludicrous compatibilists arguments.

      Look,if yoou boil a kettle of water it will become gaseous, though most of it will just become fog: tiny droplets of liquid water, like those found in clouds.

      Could it have turned into ice? Yes, BUT NOT IN THOSE CIRCUMSTANCES. Can’t you understand that it is true that our choices could have been different, but only IN DIFFERENT CIRCUMSTANCES?. Or, as Sam Harris put it, yes, you can make a different choice in a different universe.

      Causation applies not only to your brian, but to everything else; so, to hypothesize different circumstances is tantamount to hypothesizing a different universe, where a 14-bllion-years chain of causation led to a different set of circumstances, and hence to a different choice.

      Please watch Harris’s talk on free will, and then answer this question: can you choose what you will think next? In order to do so, you would have to think of that before you think of it. Can’t you see the blatant incoherence? If you cannot even choose what you will THINK next, how can you claim that you can choose what you will DO next?

  25. Vaal
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps I missed this update:

    “UPDATE: I’m still confused about what Russell means by the difference between “could have done differently” and “could have done differently if I wanted to”. If by the latter he means “I could have made a different decision had circumstances been slightly different,” then I agree with Russell completely. But that was never my argument to begin with, and I doubt that anyone takes issue with it.”

    The crux remains you seem to refuse this as a valid basis for “could have done otherwise” and you apparently deny that we would be talking about anything “real” in appealing to such hypotheticals in our descriptions. Note:

    What Russell doesn’t address is whether his ability to deliberate really could lead to more than one possible outcome in a session of deliberation (it can’t),

    Why “can’t” it? Why couldn’t his ability to deliberate have led to another possible outcome? I’ve deliberated about which cereal to choose in the morning; sometimes I choose Cheerios, other times, Corn flakes.

    Do you mean it “can’t” if “every atom in the universe were the same and all the same causes were in effect?”

    If so, then of course he “can’t” or “couldn’t” come to another conclusion by deliberation. But that is not what Mr. Blackford would mean: he’d be talking about his powers in roughly similar situations, derived from past experience of deliberating, and making hypothetical inferences about his powers.

    And if this is an unreasonable way to speak about “could have been otherwise,” or one is not talking about anything “real” in incorporating hypotheticals, then one must presume you reject all such talk about the nature of all other empirical reality. (See my post above).

    Unless I’ve missed something…(please explain, if I have).

    Vaal.

  26. Pray Hard
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    I must read much more on this before I can even begin to comment halfway intelligently. It’s way over my little pointed head.

    • Piero
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

      I disagree. As far as I can see, the matter is very simple: free will implies that you can choose what you will do next, and by doing i mean any action, including thinking itself. Now, can you choose what you will think of next? No, you cannot, because in order to choose what you will think of next implies that you think of it before you think of it. That’s incoherent. Hence, free will does not exist. (Argument by Sam harris; I would never have thought of such a simple and powerful refutation of free will).

      • Steve
        Posted April 3, 2012 at 4:50 am | Permalink

        Piero,

        Never say never. :)

        Who can say that eventually you would have come to the same conclusion?

        To those who say they have the power to freely will their brain to think the thoughts that they think, are easily answered by pointing out that they are invoking an infinite regression, for they then would have to think the thought to think the thought to think the thought to think the thought… ad infinitum.

        • Piero
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

          Exactly! As Harris put it, the only way to avoid that infinite regress is to accept the fact that thoughts just pop up into put consciousness, surely driven by uncontrollable mechanisms in our unconscious brain.

  27. Ron Krumpos
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    It would seem that causal determinism and free will are incompatible. Transcending the self, as mystics are prone to do, would see that both are true to a greater or lesser extent. It depends on your perspective.

  28. Posted April 1, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    If determinism is true, then everything said, thought, or done by determinists, compatibilists, free-willers, and fence-sitters is said, thought, or done simply because they are predetermined to (including my comments) and they have no independent way to check on whether their predetermined thoughts, etc. are true or false. Of course one may be predetermined to think reasonably and correctly, and some determinists are fond of emphasizing that; what they don’t emphasize, or even seem to be aware of, is that they may be predetermined to think that their views are based on solid evidence, etc. even though it isn’t. So, seems to me that if determinism is true, then it is an illusion for anyone to think that they have good, independent reasons for anything at all. If determinism is true then not only is free-will and illusion – so is determinism!

    • dschealler
      Posted April 1, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

      If you’re just nose-tweaking, then: Yes! Jolly good show, what? Pass the brandy!

      But on the off chance you’re a little bit serious: Not so.

      “So, seems to me that if determinism is true, then it is an illusion for anyone to think that they have good, independent reasons for anything at all.”

      This is incorrect.

      Under determinism, it is possible for someone to have good, independent reasons for something AND for those good, independent reasons to be the consequence of deterministic processes.

      The trick is that under determinism, perhaps those with good and independent reasons shouldn’t take too much credit for their position. But otherwise? Their good and independent reasons are still a good and independent reason.

      • Posted April 1, 2012 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

        But it’s also possible under determinism for someone to THINK they have good, independent reasons for something when they don’t, and to THINK that those (illusory) good, independent reasons are the consequence of deterministic processes. How, under determinism, can they tell which possibility is an actuality? (I’m more than a little bit serious.)

        • dschealler
          Posted April 1, 2012 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

          So under determinism, it’s possible for someone to be wrong?

          Egad!

          STOP THE PRESSES!

          • Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:35 am | Permalink

            That’s not the point – which is, how to tell which possibility is present. Under determinism, you just pick the one you are predetermined to pick (whether it is true or not) and that’s all there is to it.

            • dschealler
              Posted April 2, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

              If you’re playing pool, strike the cue ball, the cue ball then strikes a ball of your color, and then the ball of your color strikes the eight ball, and then the eight ball is sunk, then under determinism this is predetermined, true.

              But the eight ball was still sunk because it was struck in just the right way, which happened because the coloured ball was struck in just the right way, because the cue ball was struck in just the right way, because of the positioning of the atoms in the air, your body, and your brain at the time when you struck the cue ball.

              The sequence of events that lead up to the black ball being sunk does not cease to exist just because it was predetermined, do they?

              Similarly: The sequence of reasoning that a person goes through to arrive at a given conclusion does not cease to exist just because it was predetermined. If the reasoning is good, it continues to be good.

              Determinism is irrelevant to that situation.

              Methinks you are confusing determinism with fatalism.

  29. Mat
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    Jerry I’m with you 100% here, the compatibalist arguments being made are baffling. A reductionist view (everything is governed by and thus pre-determined by the laws of physics) is the only one that ultimately matters here. All these half-baked, vague, higher-levels of viewing intentions (I could have acted differently if I had wanted to because sometimes I act differently just like water is sometimes ice *roll eyes*) are missing the point.

    Ultimately I think Blackford is saying the same thing you are he’s just saying it in a confusing way.

    P.S. This made me cringe a bit:
    “but in my view Russell had no “moral responsibility” to save the child: he could only do what he did”. This doesn’t come accross well, perhaps you should leave moral responsibility out of the argument for now.

  30. Posted April 1, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    “How can he affect his own future by ruminating and deliberating if that future has already been determined before his deliberations?”

    If it hasn’t already been addressed above, it’s worth pointing out that it’s the deliberations as much as anything else that determine his future. They are just as causally effective as what caused them. But of course all this is from our time-bound perspective in which events unfold serially in consciousness. According to the standard block universe view held by many (most?) physicists including Brian Greene and Sean Carroll, all events, past present and future, are fixed in four dimensional spacetime. See http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/physics/fabric-of-cosmos.html#fabric-time and http://www.naturalism.org/spacetime.htm

    • Vaal
      Posted April 1, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

      Agreed, Tom.

      The criticism is actually pretty bizarre. It’s the equivalent of noting that a cat caused a bowl of cat food to become cleaned of food. “But that makes no sense” says the incompatibilist: “How can the cat affect the state of that food by chewing and digesting, if that future has already been determined before the cat ever started eating?”

      Well…because the cat’s eating of the food was the proximate cause of the food disappearing! Yes, of course, the chain of causes stretches back from there to…what?…the big bang if you want to play that game. Does that mean we can’t also identify the cat as the cause of the food being eaten? That would be silly. As silly as refusing to note that we can point to someone’s deliberations as a proximate cause of the direction his future takes, even though, yeah, there were causes for that, and other causes for that, and previous causes…

      If we couldn’t do this type of identifying of causes, we couldn’t talk about or understand anything about the world.

      I don’t get these weird exceptions some incompatibilists make for talking about people’s choices as causes, vs every other object of cause and effect in the universe.

      Vaal

  31. Another Matt
    Posted April 1, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    Jerry Coyne:

    … Russell thinks he is deliberating, and he is insofar as his brain is working and mulling over alternatives when he makes a decision. But he’s sorely mistaken if he thinks he has any control over those deliberations. They are the result of the laws of physics, and are largely deterministic…

    This is about the best example I could hope for to show why compatibilists in previous threads have accused Jerry and those who sympathize with his position of relying upon an unspoken dualism in their arguments. I understand that it is just off-the-cuff/metaphorical use of language that we all use, but I think the intuitions behind it are, as some of us have pointed out before, insufficiently reductionist.

    Consider the first sentence: “Russell thinks he is deliberating, and he is insofar as his brain is working and mulling over alternatives when he makes a decision.” This point is, in fact, straight from the compatibilist project, except for the phrasing: “Russell thinks he is deliberating…” We could say that Russell’s brain has come to think that it mulls things over after having mulled over whether or not it mulls things over. Coyne has phrased it in dualist terms, though, and uses the dualism for rhetorical effect: “Russell thinks he is deliberating [but really his 'deliberations' are merely illusions.]”

    The second sentence goes even a step further: “But he’s sorely mistaken if he thinks he has any control over those deliberations.” Just who or what is this “he” that has no control over deliberations? If those deliberations are merely illusions, surely “he” is merely an illusion as well. Jerry’s analysis is inconsistent with regard to levels of organization – by making it sound as though “we” are “compelled” by physics as though it were tugging on strings from “outside us,” he seems willing to think of “thinking,” “deliberating,” “mulling,” “analyzing” and the like as emergent properties of bodies and brains, but not “I,” “he,” “us,” etc., which retain their essentialist senses.

    The compatibilists in previous threads, and others like Dennett seem to be consistent on this matter – the words “he,” “chose,” “hot dog” are all shorthands for organizations and behaviors of matter, so that it’s clear when I say “upon deliberation, I chose a hot dog, but could have chosen a hamburger,” that I’m talking about the capacities of my brain to emerge an “I,” to make deliberations about the organization of matter reflected in its own organization (i.e. “my brain’s model of the world”), and choose from among those alternatives. It even has the capacity to choose differently when it encounters a situation with sufficient similarity to a previous situation vis-à-vis its model.

    What does not work at all is to suggest that I am some kind of “soul” that is stuck in a body and brain that has a master-puppeteer called “the laws of physics” pulling its strings, making me do all kinds of things over which I have no control. “I” just can’t be described that way without breaking the reductionist-emergence model, and badly.

    To say that “I have some control over my actions” from the compatibilist perspective, is to suggest that some things my body does have roots of causation within my body, and that some actions emerge causally from the same place “I” emerge from. This might be how we distinguish “voluntary” from “autonomic” without breaking determinism, reductionism, or emergence – it just reflects a different kind of organization that is meaningful to research and discuss.

    Sorry, as always, for a long post. No time for editing!

    • Stephen Lawrence
      Posted April 1, 2012 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

      “but I certainly don’t think those compatibilists are intellectually dishonest. They’re trying to rearrange their ideas to match their emotions.”

      I think this quote from Jerry is worth commenting on. Is he right? In a lot of cases yes.

      Our moral intuitions start out as incompatible with determinism. Our feelings about deserved outcomes are incompatible with what we do being dependent upon our distant pasts.

      If a compatibilist’s emotions haven’t changed as a result of her philosophy then the compatibilist hasn’t got the significance of “Luck swallows everything” as Galen Strawson puts it, or even denies it.

      • Vaal
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 12:11 am | Permalink

        Stephen,

        In other words: compatibilists don’t want to accept an awkward or uncomfortable truth about reality, and simply engage in finding ways of justifying our intuitions and emotional needs.

        May I suggest: Incompatibilists aren’t the only ones grown up enough to accept counter-intuitive, or awkward, or uncomfortable facts about reality.

        I’m certainly not happy about global warming, the effects of certain diseases on my family, the fact my loved ones and I will die…I don’t like that I live in a world armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, I don’t like the reality of disease and disaster. And certainly I accept all those extremely counter-intuitive findings delivered by science (probably most things science discovers about reality are in some way counter-intuitive). One could go on and on listing the things I accept but really wish weren’t true. But like any rational person I accept the reality of these things because I think that is where reason leads.

        And that is also why I find compatibilism more persuasive than the alternatives. It explains things more coherently, and I see glaring inconsistancies in the alternatives, and critiques of compatibilism.

        Incompatibilists aren’t the only Big Boys willing to look at reality in the face. Really!

        Vaal.

        • Stephen Lawrence
          Posted April 2, 2012 at 1:28 am | Permalink

          Jerry,

          “UPDATE: I’m still confused about what Russell means by the difference between “could have done differently” and “could have done differently if I wanted to”. If by the latter he means “I could have made a different decision had circumstances been slightly different,” then I agree with Russell completely. ”

          Firstly, the problem is you believe in “alternatives” you’ve said so.

          So, what are these alternatives if not (roughly) things you could do if you wanted to?

          Secondly, of course Russell means could have (or the same thing but more normal to say would have) had circumstances been slightly different because having a want he didn’t have is slightly different cirumstances.

          • Stephen Lawrence
            Posted April 2, 2012 at 2:00 am | Permalink

            Vaal,

            “In other words: compatibilists don’t want to accept an awkward or uncomfortable truth about reality, and simply engage in finding ways of justifying our intuitions and emotional needs.”

            I genuinely don’t understand that response.

            What awkward or uncomfortable truth?

            I’m a compatibilist b.t.w, meaning the only freedom and responsibility we can and do have is compatible with determinism. And by that I simply mean because could really means could if… whether we could or couldn’t have done otherwise in the circumstances is not of interest regarding that freedom and responsibility.

            But the reason this subject matters is that people do intuitively believe in another version of free will, which is could have done otherwise in the actual situation. As you say compatibilism is counter-intuitive.

            What I think is belief in Libertarian free will, negatively influences how we think feel and behave towards ourselves and others.

            So, the good news is we don’t have Libertarian free will.

      • Another Matt
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 9:27 am | Permalink

        “but I certainly don’t think those compatibilists are intellectually dishonest. They’re trying to rearrange their ideas to match their emotions.”

        I think this quote from Jerry is worth commenting on. Is he right? In a lot of cases yes.

        It’s worth commenting on, yes. If Jerry’s other arguments hold, I think we could easily respond by just dismissing ideas and emotions as illusory – none of us has real ideas or emotions because almost everyone in history has believed that ideas and emotions depend upon souls. Since we suspect there are no souls, we should get rid of these two concepts in our discourse.

        • Piero
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

          Why? I can certainly vouch for the existence of emotions. During the last earthquake in Chile, I was shit scared. It was a real, physical phenomenon: my pulse rate went up, my stomach ached, I sweated, and I felt the urge to run. In fact, I did run, and managed to reach the street before the lights went out. While the apparently solid pavement curled and shook like a rubber sheet, I thought of my daughter, who lives about a mile away. When it was finally over, I picked up a flashlight and run to my daughter’s place. My mouth and throat were dry, my pulse was still racing, my whole body was trembling. Unless you have a very idiosincratic definition of “emotion”, I would say that I experienced very strong emotions on the 28th February 2010.

          • Another Matt
            Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

            What I was trying to express is that saying “we feel we have made a choice, but that is just an illusion – we haven’t made a real choice” uses idiosyncratic definitions of “real” and “illusion,” and ones that would apply to all the other activities that our brains do.

            I agree that “emotions” and “ideas” are valid concepts. But so is “choice,” the way we use it. Perhaps “emotions” and “ideas” don’t hinge intuitively on determinism as “choice” does, but all of them are tied to the way in which your brain models the world, and models itself as part of the world.

            If it’s only an “illusion of choice” when your brain mulls something over, deliberates, and selects from 5 alternatives in its model, it’s also got to be an “illusion of an idea” when your brain adds something to its model, and an “illusion of emotion” when it “thinks” it “feels” something and causes changes elsewhere in the body as a result. None of those uses of “illusion” really comport with how we use it elsewhere, as we do with “optical illusion.” Under the incompatibilist scheme, all visual perception itself would need to be called an “illusion.” We’d end up having to put every single thing the brain does that has a mental correlate in scare quotes because we’d have to “think” it’s all “merely illusion.”

            I’m very sorry, by the way, about the earthquake.

            • Steve
              Posted April 4, 2012 at 6:07 am | Permalink

              Another Matt,

              No, you are focused on the wrong element. The thing that is illusory in “free will” is the FREEDOM part. We have “will”, just like we have “emotion” and “sight” and “ideas”. Nobody talks in terms of free emotions, or free sight or free ideas, but they do talk about free will (the concept of having freedom of the will has been knocking about since time immemorial).
              The human will is a function of causal determinants and therefore lacks freedom. To think that there is libertarian freedom to the human will is the illusion.

              If people went around asserting that humans had free emotions… oh never mind, you either understand better what Jerry is talking about when he says free will is an illusion, or you still don’t.

              But no, saying free will is an illusion does not mean we have to “put every single thing the brain does that has a mental correlate in scare quotes because we’d have to “think” it’s all “merely illusion”.

              • Another Matt
                Posted April 4, 2012 at 7:00 am | Permalink

                I largely agree with this, actually, if “free” necessarily means “freedom from constraint” or something like that. You won’t find many people who would disagree with this.

                The problem I’m having is that Jerry and others have consistently used “choice” as the test for whether or not we have “free will.” I maintain that the way we use language, there is nothing contradictory in affirming determinism (if evidence confirms it) and believing that we make real choices.

                If the activity of the brain we call “choice” or “selection” or “decision” is “just an illusion” then I don’t see why those activities and not others are illusory. If “choice” is illusory, how is “thought” not? Consider how the phrase “could not have thought otherwise” might lead a metaphysician to believe that under determinism we wouldn’t have “real thoughts” because a “real thought” would have to be materialistically unconstrained — a “real thought” has to “original to a person” and not “determined by mere matter in motion,” otherwise there’s nobody to attribute it to. Edward Feser makes this very argument to “prove” that we have immaterial souls, in fact.

                On the other hand, if the argument is that I was forced into a given decision by the laws of physics and thus made no “real choice,” I maintain that this is a subtle form of dualism, affirming an “I” that is somehow separate from the other deterministic processes of my brain. It’s saying “physics made me do it!” while ignoring “physics created me!”

                If we’re serious about reductionism and emergence, we ought to use words like “I” and “choice” and “thought” and “feel” as shorthands for the real emergent activities of our brains, and we ought to do it consistently and thoroughly. And if “free will” just denotes “making choices,” there’s a reasonable, deterministic, reductionist, and emergent way to interpret “free will” without the other ontological baggage.

                Sorry again for the long reply, but there was a lot to say.

              • Steve
                Posted April 4, 2012 at 7:36 am | Permalink

                Another Matt,

                No.

                Realize that it is the same situation with the term “choice” as it was with the term “will”. In the example you referenced “choice” was shorthand for “free choice”. As before, it is not the choosing that is illusory it is the FREEDOM of the choosing which is the illusion.

                And secondly, don’t confuse the metaphorical reference to an “I” as asserting even the hint of dualism.

              • Another Matt
                Posted April 4, 2012 at 8:11 am | Permalink

                I’d like to point out that others here have argued, as has Jerry sometimes if memory serves, that in order to maintain that a choice was actually a real choice, it had to be a “free choice,” otherwise the word “choice” is meaningless. In other words, to some people, the word “choice” already has the freedom concept wrapped up into it.

                If you ask me to select one of five cards, and I do, to some people that was not a “real choice” because the one I chose was determined by physics, and where’s the choice in that? Otherwise, I totally agree with you, and would say most people, on reflection, don’t actually feel completely free from being determined by the past. Whatever happens is what will have happened.

                By the way, people do speak of “free thought” – there’s a collection of blogs called “free thought blogs” that you may or may not read. Where’s the freedom in thought if it’s all determined? Or maybe freedom can sometimes mean something other than “freedom from cause.”

              • Steve
                Posted April 4, 2012 at 8:18 am | Permalink

                AM,

                “Free thought” is a euphemism for atheism. Meaning thought free from dogmatic constraints.

                (sometimes at least, certainly that is what you would find at all most all of those blogs.)

              • Another Matt
                Posted April 4, 2012 at 8:26 am | Permalink

                Or to put it another way: some have been arguing that we don’t make any choices at all – the laws of physics make all our choices for us.

                This idea inheres in this quote from Jerry’s original post:

                “How can he affect his own future by ruminating and deliberating if that future has already been determined before his deliberations?”

                I just think it’s a poor way of looking at things, given how we do science elsewhere.

                One could just as easily ask:

                “How can a species affect its own future by learning how to use tools, if that future has already been determined before it learned?”

                or more absurdly:

                “How can I kill myself with a gun if my death by gunshot has already been determined before I fired the gun?”

              • Steve
                Posted April 4, 2012 at 8:38 am | Permalink

                AM,

                Let us not get sloppy here.

                “How can I kill myself with a gun if my death by gunshot has already been determined before I fired the gun?”

                To be correct that should read, “How can I NOT kill myself with a gun if my death by gunshot has already been determined before I fired the gun?”

                But to answer your bigger concern, there is no such thing as a KNOWN future. When people talk in terms of changing the future what they are really talking about is diverting events away from a projected or imagined future. Nobody really changes the future, just in the same way nobody really changes the course of history. Kennedy getting shot didn’t change history, it WAS history. Man developing tools didn’t change man’s future; because, man’s future was to develop tools.

              • Another Matt
                Posted April 4, 2012 at 8:51 am | Permalink

                I’d agree with you if Jerry had asked, “How can he change his own future by ruminating and deliberating if that future has already been determined before his deliberations?”

                He didn’t; he asked, “How can he affect his own future by ruminating and deliberating if that future has already been determined before his deliberations?”

                Here’s another example to make this clear:

                “How can what we learned about the Challenger explosion have affected the future success of Discovery if that future had already been determined before we learned anything?”

                Maybe I’m just hung up on a casual use of the word “affect” in the original post. But if he really does mean “affect” in the usual “cause and effect” sense, to be consistent he would have to say that Discovery was successful because it was determined to be and not because of anything we learned about Challenger.

                That’s what I was getting at with the gun example. Let me add some words to make it more clear:

                “How can I decide to kill myself with a gun if my death by self-inflicted gunshot has already been determined before I decided fire the gun? Why, that wouldn’t be a decision at all.”

              • Steve
                Posted April 4, 2012 at 9:55 am | Permalink

                AM,

                “How can I decide to kill myself with a gun if my death by self-inflicted gunshot has already been determined before I decided fire the gun? Why, that wouldn’t be a decision at all.”

                I don’t see any problem here, just realize that your deciding to kill yourself is just as determined as your deciding to fire the gun, and is just as determined as your death by self-inflicted gunshot.

                And… I think/agree that is a small nit-pick about the word use “affect” vs “change”.

        • Piero
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

          As to ideas, I don’t see what the problem is or could be. An idea is just a mental representation of a past or future possible state of the world. If you say “I have an idea: why don’t we all get drunk and go around scaring old ladies?” I think the meaning of “idea” is perfectlu clear: it consists of a mental representation of a possible future state of the world. I don’t see why we should do away with the concept.

    • Mat
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      Thanks for this post, this helped me better understand the compatibilist argument.

      “To say that “I have some control over my actions” from the compatibilist perspective, is to suggest that some things my body does have roots of causation within my body, and that some actions emerge causally from the same place “I” emerge from.”

      OK, fair enough. I still can’t see why this would be called “free will” though. What’s free about it? It’s still a will held hostage by determinism (Provided that you accept the deterministic nature of the universe). A storm system may “decide” to rain based on roots of causation within the “body” of the storm system. The act of raining may emerge (more or less) from within the storm system but I don’t think it has free will. Ultimately our brains work in the same way. Yes, they are more complicated, yes we experience an illusion of consciousness and free will, but we are just as deterministic and just as lacking of free will.

      • Another Matt
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

        Mat. Yes, I largely agree with you, except that the layers of complexity you note is pretty much the whole game when it comes to empirical observation and theory construction. Lots of things emerge from the elementary particles and the fundamental forces, and if science has any valuable explanatory power, it’s because it shows how these things emerge in tangled hierarchies.

        Much of this has to do with our limits as a species, and much of it has to do with language, which is why these discussions largely do hinge on semantics, and it’s why I think it’s important to get the semantics right. Consider:

        Under the versions of hard determinism laid out here, what could it possibly mean to “hold in a sneeze” or “suffer from incontinence?” Both of these depend on the compatibilist perspective to make sense at all linguistically, and I don’t think anyone would think they’re meaningless concepts.

        A storm system rains under the right conditions – those conditions are orders of magnitude more simple and easy to lay out and discover than anything humans do (or for that matter, slugs and fruit flies).

    • Posted April 2, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

      I think you’ve latched on to what is simply an artifact of language – of (apologies to Dr. Coyne) poor word-choice.

      It seems clear to me that incompatibilism requires no hint, no “ghost”, of dualism (please forgive the pun).

      But as Vaal pointed out in response to Tom Clark, it does seem to me to be at least verging on bad reductionism not to acknowledge the higher-level phenomena that take place in our brains (that don’t take place in other kinds of matter) as proximate causes.

  32. Stephen Lawrence
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 2:43 am | Permalink

    Jerry,

    I’ll add one more comment on how we use “could” and leave it there. I agree with you on what matters most and I’m just hoping you’ll reflect on what we really mean by could because it will help your argument.

    I just looked through other posts from you to find an example of something. It took me about 30 seconds to find a good one. Here it is:

    ” “Political” perspective? Let’s pin the tail on the donkey where it belongs: the bill advances a religious perspective. Anybody at Vanderbilt University could tell you that.”

    Ok, so you are talking to me the reader. And what you are saying is that every person at Vanderbilt University, each and every one who has never told me that and never will tell me that could nevertheless tell me that.

    This is could do otherwise because it’s other than what they did do, are doing or will do.

    This is an ordinary, everyday example of how we use could or have the ability to, or have the power to.

    What do we really mean by it? Well, what did you really mean? :-)

  33. Joey Frantz
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 3:24 am | Permalink

    Although Jerry repeatedly accuses compatibilists of equivocation, I think he has been very equivocal about key terms himself, and continues to be. When he calls people “mindless automatons,” are we to take that as a fair use of the terms “mind” and “automaton”? If he wants to say the word “mind” is meaningless, he can argue that (though I would disagree), but he doesn’t; he just says people are mindless, and that’s bull. In this article, he implies that Russell Blackford wouldn’t be Russell Blackford if he had wanted something different. But that’s not consistent with how we refer to persons. And the word “could” has meanings other than the metaphysically lofty meanings Coyne rails against. Many people say things like “you could apply to UChicago”; such a use of language is not captured by Jerry’s apparent understanding of the word “could.”

    I can only agree with Russell Blackford that Jerry has a very cynical view of compatibilists; a tone of exasperation at the mere fact that they believe in free will colors all his posts on the subject.

    • Vaal
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      “In this article, he implies that Russell Blackford wouldn’t be Russell Blackford if he had wanted something different. But that’s not consistent with how we refer to persons.”

      Exactly.

      Jerry is saying the alteration of a desire would change Blackford from being Blackford.
      That is just bizarre.

      Yesterday I had a desire for cheerios in the morning. Today I had a desire for corn flakes. I guess today I was “no longer Vaal.”

      – Vaal.

      • Piero
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

        Nonsense. Of course we can make different choices in differenet circumstances. YOU yesterday were not YOU today, hence your variation in choices is perfectly possible to incorporate into a causal chain.

        What Dr. Coyne meant was that if you had TODAY made a different choice from the choice you made TODAY at that very same instant, then you would be living in a different universe, and YOU wouldn’t be YOU.

        Please read Sam Harris’s “Free will”. It’s cheap, and even cheaper if you download the Kindle version (you can also download for free a Kindle application for PCs from the Amazon site). If his arguments don’t convince you, then you are either incapable of rational thought or have adopted such a stubborn posture that now you would feel ashamed to recant.

        • Steve
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 4:54 am | Permalink

          then you are either incapable of rational thought or have adopted such a stubborn posture that now you would feel ashamed to recant.

          Piero,

          Yes but we should emphasize that if either of these two scenarios is true they not ones of his own libertarian choosing.

          • Piero
            Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

            Sorry, you lost me there. Can you expand and clarify?

          • Piero
            Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

            Oh, I see what you mean now. I agree, of course. If our choices are predeterminded then we cannot be held responsibe for those choices.

            But let’s take the case of a psychopathic serial killer. Should we let him keep roaming the streets searching for new victims because he cannot really choose his choices? Of course not. We should lock him up, or even execute him, so that other psychopaths may be deterred from acting on their impulses.

            Similarly, an irrational statement does not cease to be irrational because it was expressed by someone who had no choice but to express it, given his or her present condition. We can, however, change his or her current condition through an appropriate amount of criticism. The same applies to those who manifest their criticism, of course. But the fact that those who criticize our staments are not free to choose whether to criticize or not to criticize us has no bearing on the validity of the criticism, which will constitute a new input in the deterministic chain of events within my brain.

            • Steve
              Posted April 4, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

              I agree with you except for one thing.

              I am against the death penalty. Let’s keep individuals locked up as you say until they are safe, and if they are never safe then that ends up being for the rest of their life.

              I believe it has been shown in studies that the death penalty is not a deterrent in the way you imply.

              The rest of what you say, I agree with.

  34. Posted April 2, 2012 at 5:50 am | Permalink

    Good comments by Vaal and Another Matt.

    Another point that should be made is that we really NEED (a certain amount of) determinism to make sense of free will.

    For a choice to be truly MY choice, it ought to be determined by me: that is, by that bundle of wants, thoughts, desires, predilections, and habits that makes me an individual. So I will have made a choice if my action at time t2 is determined by that bundle of wants, thoughts, etc. at an earlier time t1, together with the process of deliberation that takes place between the two times.

    If the action at time t2 were NOT determined by that bundle of wants, thoughts, etc., then it’s hard to see how it could be MY decision. That is, if my actions at t2 were not strongly correlated with my wants, etc. at t1, as processed by my deliberation, then they wouldn’t in any meaningful sense be the result of my choices.

    To acknowledge that that bundle of wants, thoughts, etc. is also a physical system of atoms, electrons, etc, that operates according to fixed laws doesn’t undermine the idea that my actions are the results of my thoughts and my deliberation process. In fact, it supports it. Those physical processes are the means by which my deliberations are carried out.

    • Another Matt
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:33 am | Permalink

      I agree with this comment, and would point out that it would even hold under dualism: if it is our “immaterial souls” making decisions, they wouldn’t in a meaningful sense be “my soul’s” decisions if they were not strongly correlated with “my soul’s” wants, thoughts, etc. in some deterministic fashion.

      That’s even how we talk about god(s) when discussing theodicy and the three omnis.

  35. Stephen Lawrence
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    “It seems kind of strange to say “I lost free will over the weekend; I broke my leg” or “I gained some free will; I got a job offer!” I have never heard of ‘free will’ being used in this context.”

    Good point Kevin, this is counter- intuitive to just about all of us, I’m sure.

    And yet although it wouldn’t be quite true to say “I lost my free will over the weekend; I broke my leg”, under compatibilism, it would be true to say your degree of free will was dramatically reduced.

    But most would say that all you lost was freedom, your free will was just as it was.

    • Kevin
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      I agree. It seems like compatibilists have taken the liberty of updating the term by redefining ‘free will’ to mean something that is actually real. This poses a problem, they have simply conflated it with freedom. We already have a word for that concept, its called ‘freedom.’

      It reminds me of someone trying to update the word God to mean something like love. It does nothing to add to the discussion and only makes things more obscure. I object to such efforts on the basis of preferring more clarity.

      • Vaal
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

        Kevin,

        Whether you substitute the term “freedom” for “free will,” the question still remains “are we, in fact, free?” And the question remains for any act, does it make sense to say, under determnism, “I could have done otherwise.”

        That remains at the heart of this debate, and the heart of “free will” whatever you call it.

        As for compatibilists re-defining the freedom, I disagree. I find compatibilism actually makes sense of our normal, everyday use of the terms “free” and the beliefs that “I could have chosen differently.” (And, hence I disagree that everyone naturally holds to contra-causal free will of the type described by Jerry).

        For more on why, see my post further up the thread, on April 1, 2012 at 3:48 pm.

        Cheers,

        Vaal

        (BTW, I like to emphasize that I do not see that any “side” of the debate is “obviously” correct. This is a thorny issue and I respect that we are going to have differences).

        • dschealler
          Posted April 2, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

          Also: Free from what?

          If ‘free will’ means ‘free from determinism’ and we assume the world is deterministic, then it is trivially true that we do not have free will.

          If ‘free will’ means ‘freedom from coercion’ then it is trivially true we do have free will so long as no-one is pointing a gun at our head (or something similar).

          Other definitions of ‘free will’ will give different answers.

          • Kevin
            Posted April 2, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

            Exactly. See how simple it comes when we stick one set of definitions to a set of words and don’t switch them around?

          • Another Matt
            Posted April 3, 2012 at 6:48 am | Permalink

            Free from what?

            “Free” doesn’t always mean “free from.”

            When we speak of “degrees of freedom” in a mechanical system, we’re describing how many ways it can move in its space as determined by its physical situation. A train has one degree of freedom under normal circumstances (forward and backward along a track), while a car has three (forward/backward, rotation left and right, and skidding sideways left or right). Two of a car’s degrees of freedom are “more free” than the other because of friction, and usual driving habits reflect this.

            Let’s say I show a brand-new self-driving car that has never been driven to an engineer, and ask her how many degrees of freedom it has. She observes the usual three based on its physical construction. I say “oh yeah?” and program it to drive straight-on into a wall at top speed, never turning the steering wheel or skidding, and totaling the car. I say, “looks like it only had one degree of freedom after all!”

            Was she wrong before to note the three, not knowing whether all three would ever actually be instantiated? Is the right answer, “gee, I don’t know?” Was her observation a prediction, or just an observation based on plausible hypotheticals? Maybe I’m stacking the deck with my language, but I think we’d rather say that this car only expressed one of its degrees of freedom, not that it only ever had one to begin with.

            • dschealler
              Posted April 3, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

              “A train has one degree of freedom under normal circumstances (forward and backward along a track), while a car has three (forward/backward, rotation left and right, and skidding sideways left or right).”

              So the car has greater freedom from restricted motion than the train. Huzzah!

              “I say “oh yeah?” and program it to drive straight-on into a wall at top speed…”

              So as a result of your programming, the car had significantly less freedom from restricted movement than it had previously. Huzzah again!

              “Was she wrong before to note the three, not knowing whether all three would ever actually be instantiated?”

              No. At the time she gave her opinion – before you reprogrammed the car – her opinion was correct.

              Furthermore, if you had reprogrammed the car first and not told her, then her opinion would have been incorrect but still fully justified based on the information she had available.

              “Maybe I’m stacking the deck with my language, but I think we’d rather say that this car only expressed one of its degrees of freedom, not that it only ever had one to begin with.”

              To be honest, that’s all totally fine. I’m just being facetious. ^_^

              By using the phrase Freedom from what? I was really just trying to express the notion: What does the word ‘free’ in this context actually mean? in a snappy and concise way that would lend itself to diving into a couple of examples without much preambling.

              How we formulate the question is irrelevant to me, so long as we formulate the question.

              Your examples are all still really good for my purpose, which is to show that there are possible fair usages for what is meant by ‘free’ that don’t necessarily have anything to do with determinism or indeterminism.

              After all, if the universe is deterministic then in your example the car continues to have three degrees of freedom based on how you are using the term ‘degree of freedom’.

              Consider if I were to argue the following:

              You’re wrong. *sneer* You must secretly be a dualist to believe that the car has any degree of freedom at all! Because at any point in time the car is moving in a way that is entirely determined by previous conditions. If we rewound the tape of causality and replayed it, the car would still move in exactly the same way. So therefore it only has one degree of freedom – to move as it is predetermined to move. Which is to say that it has no real ‘freedom’ at all. You must secretly be a dualist, and therefore are stupid. To prove me wrong you must show me a car that can move forwards and backwards at the same time. But that’s impossible. So I win and you’re a big dumb-dumb.

              Given how you are actually using the term ‘degree of freedom’ then this kind of response to you would be premised on a ridiculous conflation of distinctly incompatible usages of the term ‘freedom’.

              I think that is what is happening all over this thread. That is the tendency that I’m trying to highlight and criticize by asking the question: Freedom from what?.

              • Another Matt
                Posted April 3, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

                So as a result of your programming, the car had significantly less freedom from restricted movement than it had previously.

                I agree with this analysis. However, the incompatibilists here would need to say that it never had more freedom from restricted movement before I programmed it than after, because it was determined to smash into the wall straight-on. Its “curtailed freedom” was not a result of my programming — it was a result of determinism.

                I think we learn almost nothing from that kind of analysis: Why did Challenger explode? Because it was determined to!

                All of this, as per your “sneering rejoinder” in italics.

        • Kevin
          Posted April 2, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

          “And the question remains for any act, does it make sense to say, under determnism, “I could have done otherwise.””

          I don’t realize why this is even a question. Given determinism, every outcome is pre-determined so, no, you could not have done otherwise. The only question would be, “Is determinism true?” Why do you think that you could have chosen differently?

          • Vaal
            Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

            Kevin,

            “Given determinism, every outcome is pre-determined so, no, you could not have done otherwise.”

            And that assertion rests on what one means by “could have done otherwise.”

            As has been pointed out so many times here: This assertion depends on what is meant by “could have done otherwise.”

            I chose to eat corn flakes this morning. But I say I could have done otherwise – I could have chosen cheerios instead.

            If you mean by “could not have done otherwise” that could have done so had EVERYTHING been precisely the same, every atom, my brain state, my desires, etc. then you are right. I couldn’t have done otherwise.

            But that’s a nonsensical request to begin with and it’s not what I mean by “I could have chosen otherwise.” I mean, roughly, “I could have done otherwise if I wanted to.”

            In which case I’d be right and you’d be wrong.

            Or…do you think it is false that I could have chosen cheerios instead of corn flakes, had I wanted to?

            And if you want to say that your conception of “could have done otherwise” is the only one related to the issue of free will…there have been plenty of arguments given as to why that isn’t the case.

            Vaal.

            • Vaal
              Posted April 2, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

              Ugh…very little sleep last night. Sorry for the typos…I’ll get it together.

              Vaal

            • Kevin
              Posted April 2, 2012 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

              I don’t see the value of positing a hypothetical of different starting conditions. I don’t disagree that you could have chosen different if your brain was different. Similarly, I don’t disagree that you could run a 4 minute mile if your body was different. However, you are not that other person. Like it has been said before, this is like talking about a different universe that doesn’t exist.

              • Vaal
                Posted April 2, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

                — “I don’t see the value of positing a hypothetical of different starting conditions.”

                Why not? You assume just such hypotheticals/counterfactuals in your attempt to describe reality every day, as does science. Why are human beings suddenly excepted?

                — “I don’t disagree that you could have chosen different if your brain was different. Similarly, I don’t disagree that you could run a 4 minute mile if your body was different.”

                But this is a claim about my actual powers. I COULD have chosen the cheerios – it’s within my power to do so each time I walk into my kitchen in the morning. I COULD NOT have any choice to run a 4 minute mile, since I can not physically do so.

                —“However, you are not that other person. ”

                What could you mean by that?

                You seem to be saying that if I simply had the desire to eat cheerios today instead of corn flakes I would have been a different person? I would not be me?

                That seems bizarre, and out of sync with how we normally think of persons.

                Yesterday I desired cheerios, today I desired
                corn flakes. Does this mean yesterday I wasn’t “me” or today I wasn’t “me?”

                Vaal.

              • Kevin
                Posted April 2, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

                “But this is a claim about my actual powers. I COULD have chosen the cheerios – it’s within my power to do so each time I walk into my kitchen in the morning. I COULD NOT have any choice to run a 4 minute mile, since I can not physically do so.”

                The problem is that in order for the person to have chosen the cheerios, they would have to be physically different. If we are free to say that you “could have done something different” if we change the initial conditions, why not change the initial conditions regarding your muscle mass, oxygen saturation, etc.? You seemed to have no problem with postulating a person with a different brain, but postulating that they have a little more muscle mass becomes unthinkable? I simply chose this example to make what you are proposing more visually significant. If we postulate this person, it becomes painfully obvious that you are not this other person.

                “Yesterday I desired cheerios, today I desired
                corn flakes. Does this mean yesterday I wasn’t “me” or today I wasn’t “me?””

                It means the hypothetical person who desired cheerios yesterday and corn flakes today is not you, despite being visually identical to you in your thought experiment. The relevant question is whether you could have had corn flakes yesterday.

                “But this is a claim about my actual powers. I COULD have chosen the cheerios – it’s within my power to do so each time I walk into my kitchen in the morning.”

                The question becomes “Do you actually have the power to choose other than what your brain forces you to choose?” Hypothetically, I could imagine a person who would choose cheerios every morning, this might be you or it may not be. If it is not, it is because the mental states between you and the person are different in such a way that you will not choose the cheerios day after day. In such a case, no, you don’t have the power to choose cheerios every day because your brain has chosen otherwise.

              • Another Matt
                Posted April 2, 2012 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

                The problem is that in order for the person to have chosen the cheerios, they would have to be physically different. If we are free to say that you “could have done something different” if we change the initial conditions, why not change the initial conditions regarding your muscle mass, oxygen saturation, etc.? You seemed to have no problem with postulating a person with a different brain, but postulating that they have a little more muscle mass becomes unthinkable?

                Why not indeed?

                These are all empirical questions, and if we want a good view of the world, we want to know whether I couldn’t have chosen cheerios in that instance because I chose the cornflakes instead, or because I had a phobia of cheerios, or I was allergic to oats and would never choose cheerios because I value my life, or because the cheerios box was empty and I remember putting it back on the empty shelf, or because the cheerios were an april-fools day hologram to prank my roommate, etc. I think we still want “because” to have some English meaning.

                I think we also want some persistence of identity, so that if I notice myself eating waffles one day and pancakes the next, I don’t declare on pancake day, “I’m incapable of eating waffles because I’m a different person right this moment than I was when I was eating waffles.” Note that this persistence is also a matter of degree – there needn’t be an “essential identity,” just a degree of persistence over time.

                This is one reason why some hypotheticals are meaningful and others aren’t; and again, empiricism hinges on being able to make these kinds of distinctions. If a man’s sexing is not leading to a wanted conception, he goes to a fertility doctor if he suspects he has a low sperm count, but not if he’s using a condom or his sex partner is on the pill or is male. It’s not enough to tell him “your problem is that your sperm are failing to fertilize human eggs.”

              • Kevin
                Posted April 2, 2012 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

                I agree that such testing is required for gaining understanding of the world, but it doesn’t change anything I have said. Let’s say you always eat a salad instead of a burger for lunch. We don’t know the reason for your eating habits. It might be because you’re a vegetarian, you might be cutting out carbs, you might prefer salad/dislike burgers, etc. We can test these hypotheses, but that doesn’t change the fact that your brain chooses salad and we would have to alter your brain in order to change that.

                I don’t see how the persistence of identity comes into play, changing your food preferences doesn’t change other preferences, habits, etc. However, you may take on a new “identity;” you might go from a junk-food junkie to a health-nut and vice avers. However, I would rather leave identity out of the picture since it is a fairly vague notion.

              • Vaal
                Posted April 3, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

                Kevin,

                —“It means the hypothetical person who desired cheerios yesterday and corn flakes today is not you, despite being visually identical to you in your thought experiment.”

                But that is a very strange deviation from our normal conception of identity, and one that seems obviously unsustainable.

                Just how much strength are we to give your refusal to admit, in this case, that I’d be the same person (if I chose cheerios or cornflakes)?

                All the evidence shows Fred committed a murder yesterday. He’s on trial today. Fred protests: “Your honor, I’m not the one who murdered the girl. The Fred who murdered the girl yesterday desired and chose cheerios for breakfast. The Fred before you today desired and chose corn flakes for breakfast. Therefore, I’m not the same person who killed the girl – that was another guy. I’m innocent!”

                Would you accept such logic in real life? Obviously not. Why? Because we hold there is something real, robust, and necessary about the continuity of identity, even through changes in brain states.

                That is also the case for how we understand the nature of ANY entity (the water that was frozen as an ice cube an hour ago is the same water we find as liquid after sitting in the glass at room temperature. If we didn’t allow such continuity, then we couldn’t describe nature, and surely we think holding such continuity is necessary for apprehending actual truths about nature and physical objects.

                So your objection here, that it makes no sense I’d be referring to the same person given a different desire, seems quite bizarre, if not outright special pleading.

                —“The question becomes “Do you actually have the power to choose other than what your brain forces you to choose?”

                What do you mean? What “I” am IS the outcome of what my brain is doing. (In Agential terms). Your question seems to presume dualism which I would think we agree we both reject. Hence it seems nonsensical.

                —-“if we change the initial conditions, why not change the initial conditions regarding your muscle mass, oxygen saturation, etc.? You seemed to have no problem with postulating a person with a different brain, but postulating that they have a little more muscle mass becomes unthinkable?”

                Because to do so mistakes the claim being made.

                Again, the claim “I could have done X instead, had I desired to” concerns the powers I had at the time, under similar circumstances. And since we are trying to get at something “real” about my powers we are trying as much as possible to stay in the “real world” of possibilities. And we try to ground our claims in the “real world” by appealing to previous (or current, depending on the claim) evidence.

                So…IF I desired to choose Cheerios yesterday, I could have (would have been physically capable, nothing stopping me).
                Why is this a “true claim?” It’s an inference from my having been able to choose either cheerios or corn flakes in similar circumstances – a power I’ve displayed before. (And could display now…given a few trials).

                But IF I desired to run a 4 minute mile I would NOT have been able to do so. If I’d made that claim it would have been false, or at least highly doubtful. Why? I’ve never done it before, and I’ve no evidence whatsoever from either past experience or my present physical shape that I could do so.

                This is the normal form of reasoning we use to understand the nature and powers of ANYTHING.

                The water yesterday COULD have remained frozen or it COULD have become liquid had I desired to place it at room temperature.

                Following your line of questioning, you can ask “Well, if we are going to allow ourselves to just postulate alternate physical properties…why stop there? Why not just give the water the property of Exploding with the force of an H-bomb when it hits room temperature?”

                Why not? Because that’s an unjustified inference from what we’ve observed about the powers and potentials of water! Just as it would be an unjustified inference that I could have run a 4 minute mile if I’d wanted to (but it is justified to infer I can choose between cheerios and corn flakes).

                Again….the types of objections you are throwing up appear to be mere special pleading. You accept the train of reasoning given in your everyday descriptions of the “real” world, but suddenly reject it when it is applied to describing real-world properties of human beings.

                Why?

                Vaal

              • Kevin
                Posted April 3, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

                (Court scenario) “Would you accept such logic in real life?”

                Yes I would. Make the actual crime the choosing of the cheerios on yesterday’s date. You go on trial and say that it wasn’t you that chose the cheerios, it was Fred. You chose the corn flakes. Obviously, you are not the one guilty of the crime, it was Fred. You never chose the cheerios during the period when it was illegal to do so, so why are you guilty of anything? One person chose cheerios (committed the crime), one person did not (is innocent).

                “That is also the case for how we understand the nature of ANY entity (the water that was frozen as an ice cube an hour ago is the same water we find as liquid after sitting in the glass at room temperature.”

                Is the water that was frozen an hour ago the same as the water that was liquid an hour ago and is the water that is liquid now the same as the water that is frozen now? I would suspect not. This is the problem; you are changing the tense of the problem. We ask at time t=10, could you have done something else? It is irrelevant if you did something else at time t=9 or t=11, we are interested at what happened at t=10. Could you have done something else at t=10? I almost feel insulting adding this, but this question is referring to this universe.

                “Again, the claim “I could have done X instead, had I desired to” concerns the powers I had at the time, under similar circumstances. And since we are trying to get at something “real” about my powers we are trying as much as possible to stay in the “real world” of possibilities. And we try to ground our claims in the “real world” by appealing to previous (or current, depending on the claim) evidence.”

                But you are not accurately describing the real world. You are creating a hypothetical that has characteristics of the real world with a slight modification. In the hypothetical, your brain has been altered to allow a different outcome. What use is this? How is this any more helpful than saying “I could have run a 4 minute mile, had I been more physically fit.” Taking the same form; so…IF I were more physically fit, I could have run a 4 minute mile (would have been physically capable, nothing stopping me). Is this hypothetical person “you”?

                “Following your line of questioning, you can ask “Well, if we are going to allow ourselves to just postulate alternate physical properties…why stop there? Why not just give the water the property of Exploding with the force of an H-bomb when it hits room temperature?””

                Actually, I would question the merit of positing alternate universes; we can investigate this one just fine without such thought experiments.

              • Vaal
                Posted April 3, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

                (Court scenario) “Would you accept such logic in real life?”

                Yes I would.

                No you wouldn’t think my scenario a good excuse for getting Fred off a murder charge. Not really. That would be insane and we both know it. Or..I shudder at the idea of living in your world of identity-logic, if you would.

                As to switching the crime to choosing cheerios. Sure. If the Fred you are talking about is another person – that is in the way we normally understand “other people” – then Fred would indeed be guilty, not me. But if you are positing Fred as identical to me, including previous physical history, the only difference being a desire for cheerios, then that would be “me” and I’d be guilty.

                It’s really strange the lengths you want to go to, even to deny normal empirical reasoning and normal attributions of identity, in order to argue against compatibilist logic.

                —“But you are not accurately describing the real world. You are creating a hypothetical that has characteristics of the real world with a slight modification.”

                But that IS how we describe the real world! A combination of observation of specific instances and counterfactuals and hypotheticals. Imagine you were trying to convey to a classroom the nature and properties of water. You have a jar of water. In normal, empirical reasoning, you would be able to tell them that water will freeze at below 0 degrees, or remain liquid at room temperature for a while, and it could evaporate. All those are necessary to understand the nature of water, and to predict what it will do in given X conditions.

                You’ve taken all sorts of specific instances of water freezing, being liquid, boiling, evaporating and abstracting from that some “real” knowledge about the properties of “water.” To say of past experience “water did X, y, and Z under X, Y and Z circumstances” is to make such an abstraction. If you are going to say that each separate instance denotes a different entity, then you can no longer sensibly refer to all those empirical observations as the same thing “water.”

                Further, to explain what water “can do,” for instance the water in the jar, you will necessarily have to appeal to hypotheticals – “IF you put the water in sub-zero conditions, it will turn into ice. IF you put the water over a flame, it will boil and turn into vapour. Etc.” This type of abstraction -what you are calling “not the real world” is exactly how we understand, explain and predict the nature of anything. It’s why it is just as informative, and TRUE, to say counterfactually “HAD we placed this water in the freezer, it WOULD have frozen.”

                You simply could not convey information about water, or understand it, or predict it’s behaviour, without these types of abstractions. Which are precisely the same abstractions -a combination of empirical inference from separate observations, with hypotheticals and counterfactuals, that we are applying to human powers.

                Now, if you deny this, go ahead and show me how you could explain the nature of water to someone, with no explicit or implicit appeal to the type of abstraction outlined above.

                Vaal.

              • Kevin
                Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

                (Court scenario) “Would you accept such logic in real life?”

                I misread, the logic is flawed because Fred’s statement is false. If he had chosen corn flakes, then his statement that Fred chose cheerios would be false. However, if he had chosen corn flakes and the killer had actually chosen cheerios, then they would be two different people.

                “But that IS how we describe the real world! A combination of observation of specific instances and counterfactuals and hypotheticals.”

                Again, you are missing the significance of tense. When we ask, could we have done otherwise, we are talking about the past. As in, at the specific point in time in the past, could a different action have been performed in this universe? Talking about what happens in the future is irrelevant. Talking about antecedents that don’t apply to this universe is useless, because it doesn’t describe the real world! The antecedents that are relevant are already set in stone since they have already happened.

              • Another Matt
                Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

                I think you might still be misreading the “court scenario.” Here is Fred’s defense:

                “I, the Fred you see before you today might look the same as the Fred who — as the evidence shows — committed the murder. I, the Fred you see before you today even has the ‘same DNA’ as the Fred who committed the murder. However, on the day of the murder, that Fred chose cheerios for breakfast.

                “This morning, a different Fred who looks like me and has the ‘same DNA’ chose corn flakes. Obviously then, those two Freds Of The Past are different people, and they are different from me, the Fred you see before you today, for as you see I am currently choosing neither corn flakes nor cheerios. Their atoms were arranged significantly differently from mine despite the so-called ‘similarities,’ and as we know, identity is a fairly vague notion. Therefore, the person who committed the murder was not me, and therefore you must acquit.”

              • Kevin
                Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

                “However, on the day of the murder, that Fred chose cheerios for breakfast. “This morning, a different Fred who looks like me and has the ‘same DNA’ chose corn flakes.”

                This is a different example. The example is of someone who could have done otherwise had they wanted to. So you have Fred who chose cheerios for breakfast on the day of the murder and you have Fred (who has slightly different desires) who ate corn flakes on the day of the murder. Are they the same person? If they are, how can a single person perform contradictory actions?

                Looking at the original: “You seem to be saying that if I simply had the desire to eat cheerios today instead of corn flakes I would have been a different person? I would not be me?

                That seems bizarre, and out of sync with how we normally think of persons.”

                This is exactly what I’m saying. If someone takes an action that is contradictory to your own, then you can’t be that same person. Notice the restriction on tense, the choice in question is a given choice at a specific time. If you choose option A and then someone (for our purposes hypothetically) chooses option B, then you and the other person are not the same.

            • Jamie
              Posted April 3, 2012 at 9:56 am | Permalink

              “Could have done otherwise” invokes the past. It is not fair to invoke the past and then complain that people are too picky about circumstances being *exactly* the same when what is really meant is some kind of probabilistic many trials abstraction rather than a specified past event. “Could have done otherwise” always references a specific past event. A single past circumstance can only ever be exactly the same. No one would object if you said instead, I might do differently tomorrow… because everyone recognizes that tomorrow is a situation beyond our power to completely know or specify (where the past has already been completely specified). If you want to locate a variety of free will in the possibility that you might do differently tomorrow in some unknown unspecified circumstance, that is much more palatable and avoids the vulnerability to the charge of being unrealistically hypothetical.

              • Another Matt
                Posted April 3, 2012 at 10:21 am | Permalink

                I think incompatibilists would actually need to quibble with “you might do differently tomorrow” in order to be consistent. If there is literally no interpretation of the phrase “could have done otherwise” that comports with reality, we don’t really have any way to justify calling something “the next time” in order to say “might do differently the next time.”

                All we would have is a sequence of different events, and there would no way to learn. There would be no “tomorrow” because when the sun comes up again all the physical circumstances would be totally different. We certainly would never get to “repeating an experiment.” Language itself is impossible without some abstraction away from particulars.

                The compatibilist project seems to me to be the only consistent description of the world that we can muster using our own language and the scientific method. There might be other consistent ways of doing it (the Laplace Demon would do it totally differently because it wouldn’t have to learn anything), but humans are stuck having to learn and abstract away from details.

              • Peter Beattie
                Posted April 3, 2012 at 10:36 am | Permalink

                +1 for Matt. As I also said in another comment here, it seems odd to look into the unchangeable past for opportunities to do things differently and not into the future.

      • Steve
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

        Yes, Kevin, that is what some compatiblists are doing. Other compatibilists are merely saying that there really is contra-causal free will even though the universe is deterministic.

        • Vaal
          Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

          “Other compatibilists are merely saying that there really is contra-causal free will even though the universe is deterministic.”

          Can you cite a single compatibilist saying this, please?

          Vaal.

          • Stephen Lawrence
            Posted April 2, 2012 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

            Vaal,

            ““Other compatibilists are merely saying that there really is contra-causal free will even though the universe is deterministic.”

            Can you cite a single compatibilist saying this, please? ”

            Norman Swartz. Don’t have a link at the moment but what he says is we could have done otherwise in the circumstances in a deterministic world. His reason is that the laws of nature are not necessary. And this is his argument for free will being compatible with determinism.

            I have come across a number of others who’s views are influenced by his writings on the subject and are also contra-causal compatibilists.

  36. Douglas E
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    I have no choice but to say that this entire discussion is ‘aikin banza’ – Hausa for ‘worthless work.’ I have ‘chosen’ to ignore anything forthcoming on this topic because the summation of all of the inputs to my meat processor has yielded the output that this is all inane, intuitively obvious, and not worthy of any more input processing. Whether or not this is free will is trivial.

    • dschealler
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

      Some of us are having fun: So to the fun-havers, it’s worth something.

      But if it’s not turning your crank, that’s fine too. Each to their own.

    • Piero
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

      On the other hand, my meat processor has, through a laborious and mathematically intractable (but fully determined) process, concluded that the question of free will is of the utmost importance, because most religions assume its existence. A rational argument for the non-existence of free will would deal a fatal blow to many religious assumptions.

      Therefore, I can’t help but expressing my total disagreement with you comment. Your comment did nothing at all to intervene in the causal chain of events within my brain. I hope my comment does lead your brain to accept another input and reconsider the matter.

      Of course, since everything must follow a chain of causation, expression such as “I hope” might seem out of place; but if we take into account the unpredictability (even in princiole) of mind phenomena, then they can be regarded as coherent constructs.

      • Douglas E
        Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

        I said I wasn’t going to listen, but I lied :-)

        • Steve
          Posted April 3, 2012 at 5:59 am | Permalink

          Did you lie, or were you merely mistaken?

  37. Piero
    Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    I have a simple demonstration for the non-existence of free will. Just read the following sentence, but all the while thinking of a seagull in flight:

    “She begged ans pleaded, but the knife struck her again and again, till her blood flooded the kitchen floor, and her head was joined to her body only by a slender bundle of muscle fibres, a few splintered bones and some almost severed but still pulsating arteries.”

    Could you do it? If you could, you did not actually read the sentence; and if you read the sentence, you couldn’t have been thinking of a flying seagull. Maybe you could go back and forth between both images, but you could not do it simultaneousy.

    • Another Matt
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

      I have a simpler one:

      Stand in one place and move your legs as though they were running, until you kick up a cloud of dust. When you want to move forward, simply let yourself go, and run at 80mph.

      If you didn’t go 80mph and look like this when you did:

      http://bit.ly/H8J5UL

      You don’t have free will.

    • Vaal
      Posted April 2, 2012 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

      I just chose not to read your paragraph.

      Looks like I have free will ;-)

      Vaal.

  38. Posted April 3, 2012 at 4:33 am | Permalink

    From above (#35):
    “If ‘free will’ means ‘freedom from coercion’ then it is trivially true we do have free will so long as no-one is pointing a gun at our head (or something similar).”

    It’s a good idea to ask what we mean by “free” in “free will.” Why not just drop it and talk about “will”?

    I think what we normally mean is “free from external constraints.” If I am under house arrest, I am not free, because someone is preventing me from leaving the house. But if I stay home because I prefer to be there, then it is an internal constraint and not a loss of freedom.

    The mistake Jerry and others are making is to consider the laws of physics as external constraints on our behavior. They are not external: physics is what allows me to be me. I have desires, thoughts, etc. because certain physical states obtain within me. To say that those physical states determine my actions is the SAME THING as saying my thoughts, desires, etc. determine my actions.

    These are internal, not external, constraints.

    • Steve
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 5:57 am | Permalink

      What is your point?

      • Posted April 3, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

        That there is a common and legitimate sense of “free” that is perfectly compatible with determinism.

        Jerry keeps making the claim that nearly everyone intends by “free will” a contra-causal sense. I don’t know if he’s right or wrong, but I suspect that if you asked people whether “free will” means to them the ability to contradict the laws of physics, they would say “No.”

    • Jamie
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      I think you make too much of the internal/external distinction. We think of ourselves ecologically, as organisms embedded in a web of environmental constraints, but the laws of physics pervades both domains. You can’t escape them by invoking ‘internal.’

      But I think you’re right that the hot-button word “free” presents difficulties to clear thinking. We should jettison the word and just talk about ‘will.’ We will encounter the same disagreements and confusion about what it means to ‘will’ something without the distraction of the adjective and the confounding “external coercion” arguments.

  39. Peter
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Even if Jerry is right that most people would agree that “free will” implies something contra-causal, I’d argue that for the most part, physical determinism only amounts to an obscure edge-case violation of their contra-causal expectations. And just because people might say that they think free-will means something contra-causal, they’d be under no obligation to throw out most of their intuitions and values about free will if they are convinced that physical determinism is in fact true. (and I think it would be a good summary of the compatibilist position to say that they actually should not throw out their other intuitions about free will just our intuitions fail us at that edge-case).

    • Piero
      Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

      It’s not clear at all to me why free will should constitute an edge-case. You intuitively feel you have free will, but your intuition is wrong. That’s all thes is to it.

      When you go to the cinema, you think you are seeing motion. In fact, you are seeing a series of still photograms in rapid succession. Cinema takes advantage of our eyes and brains deficiencies. Similarly, the concept of free will arises from deficiencies in our brain’s perception of its inner workings. You believe you are YOU, but in fact what you really believe is that you are your CORTEX, because the rest of your brain is inaccessible to conscious reasoning.

      Can you choose your dreams? I’ve been trying for years to dream that Sarah Chalke and I spend a night of wild, unrestrained passion. Has it ever happened? Of course not: I dream of incoherent things that probably could tell a psychiatrist a lot about myself, but so far Sarah Chalke has never even made a cameo apperance.

      • Peter
        Posted April 4, 2012 at 5:08 am | Permalink

        Well, I didn’t say “free will” is the edge case, I said that people’s contra-causal intuitions are only violated in (obscure) edge-cases.

        That actual contra-causality is only important in obscure edge-cases should be clear enough: as has been pointed out several times in these discussions, no-one ever has had seriously worry about what would happen if they made the same decision in identical circumstances, since no-one has ever had that opportunity. All anyone really worries about is making the same decision in similar-enough circumstances.

        So yes, it’s true that people’s intuitions about free will are wrong if they think they have something contra-causal going on, but I’m again trying to explain why it’s wrong to think that contra-causality is an important part of what people think about when they think about free will.

  40. Stephen Lawrence
    Posted April 4, 2012 at 2:06 am | Permalink

    dschealler,

    “Are you just trying to tell me that some people have a mistaken belief that Libertarian free will (whatever that is) justifies free will?”

    You asked do we disagree? Not sure at the mo.

    Firstly I’m assuming you meant justifies punishment.

    1) It’s not some people, just about all people think it’s wrong to punish someone if they don’t have free will.

    2) I wouldn’t put it quite like you.

    Some people have the mistaken belief that there is such a thing, they call it free will and that a therefore follows from it in certain cases. The therefore is we deserve praise, we deserve blame, we deserve to be punished and so on.

    This deservedness is of the sort that denies that it’s a matter of luck in an important sense.

    So I get the bad distant past I get the punishment, you get the bad distant past you get the punishment etc etc.

    As you rightly point out there is no therefore really because there can be no such thing that the therefore follows from.

    So yeah we agree about that.

    But what you’ve asked for is the real world implications.

    the real world implications of people believing in this myth is that it changes the nature of blame, praise etc from functional to deserved, in the sense I’ve explained.

    So in a nutshell what does belief in Libertarian free will do in the real world.

    It often makes praise, blame, guilt, regret etc etc disfunctional.

    So far from having no real world implications,it’s hard to imagine we could have a more serious problem.

    You ask what Libertarian free will is.

    Here is a nice old definition from Thomas Hobbes:

    http://www.ucl.ac.uk/~uctytho/dfwVariousHobbes.htm

    “Lastly, that ordinary definition of a free agent, namely, that a free agent is that, which, when all things are present which are needful to produce the effect, can nevertheless not produce it, implies a contradiction, and is nonsense; being as much as to say, the cause may be sufficient, that is to say, necessary, and yet the effect shall not follow. ”

    Modern libertarian philosophers have dropped this because it’s nonsense. (and replaced it with more nonsense :-))

    So now we have two stage theories, which are ones in which your will causes the action, but some indeterminism in the decision making process means you could have had a different will in the actual situation.

    Others that rely on causes not necessitating effects.

    contra-causal compatibilism (my name for it) which is the idea that we could do otherwise in the actual situation because the laws of nature aren’t necessary.

    They are all the same thing and i think my simple definition is correct and covers all these and it is: could have done otherwise in the circumstances in a way that makes us morally responsible.

    They are all looking for something that overcomes the luck of determinism.

    So That’s what it is, belief in some way we could do otherwise in the actual situation which overcomes the luck of determinism, because without it outcomes cannot be deserved in the way that people believe they are.

    • Stephen Lawrence
      Posted April 4, 2012 at 2:21 am | Permalink

      “They are all the same thing and i think my simple definition is correct and covers all these and it is: could have done otherwise in the circumstances in a way that makes us morally responsible.”

      Oops, that’s not quite good enough because the problem is what we really think about when we speak of the “same circumstance”

      So we could toss a coin and get a head or a tail and we do think of either coin toss as the same circumstances even though they are slightly different.

      Also we talk about doing the same experiment when really each experiment is slightly different.

      So we do use the same to include slightly different circumstances, which is what much of the confusion is about. Same as we might say two women went to a party wearing the same dress. These dresses will be slightly different.

      Anyhow here is the correct definition of Libertarian AKA Contra causal free will.

      Could have done otherwise in the actual situation in a way that makes us responsible for our actions.

      • Another Matt
        Posted April 5, 2012 at 7:19 am | Permalink

        I’m sorry to post so much in this thread, but something occurred to me about what you said. This should probably be my last post. tl;dr – I think the usual use of “the same” is almost always abstract, and the usual use of the modal “could” is almost always hypothetical and anti-deterministic, so it loses its meaning when forced into a deterministic perspective. Compatibilism is about treating the word “could” in its usual, hypothetical sense, the way other science does.

        How often does “the same” ever mean “100% identical in all respects?” My imagination is not fertile this evening, but all I can think of is abstractions like “amount,” “number,” “law,” – “the same amount of saline,” “the same number of bricks,” “the same law Jack the Ripper would have been guilty of breaking.”

        The labels we attach to objects in the world are likewise abstractions, and in a sense we’re referring to those abstractions as much as the thing itself when we speak of something as a thing, set apart from its cosmic complement. So when we say “that’s the same star I pointed out last night,” much has changed about the star since I pointed it out – it’s lost some mass, maybe sprouted a flare or some spots. But when we refer to the star, we’re referring to a physical process as much as the matter itself – it will continue to be “the same star” as long as it is doing what stars do.

        What has been frustrating sometimes in this conversation has been the extent to which some insist upon affirming the deterministic Heraclitan Flux view of the world when it comes to free will. Much of human activity, from language to science, is about finding patterns of regularity that emerge from that flux, so while the flux view is “true” as far as things go, so the patterns are “real.” The modal “could” has a hypothetical meaning almost 100% of the time (except for when we’re talking about actual physical indeterminacy), and we use it when we set apart chunks of the flux for further inspection. Someone above thread said “could” means “could if…” It’s always anti-deterministic when the focus is a single instance; it gains meaning only when viewed on repetition of activity or inspection to generalize away from particulars.

        When I admonish a child for running in front of a car by saying “you could have been run over and killed!” I am never saying “determinism is broken and and if we played back the tape of time there would be a chance you would have been killed in that instance.” The “could” has almost exactly the same meaning as when I say “Running into the street without looking could get you killed.” It’s a hypothetical generalization based on past observation of persons having been killed when running into the street (or imagined instances thereof).

        The skeptics here would need to say “but that’s not true – you’d have to look at each instance of someone running into the street to see if, in that instance that person could have been killed – if they weren’t killed, then they could not have been killed (in fact to suggest that they had been killed when they weren’t is no different from suggesting they were a different person).” That is in the spirit of Jerry’s “could have done otherwise,” but I don’t think that’s how we use “could.”

        It has also been frustrating when posters here have treated all hypotheticals as though they were equally valid or relevant. The child learns nothing if I tell it “don’t ever run into the street: you could explode in a megaton blast!” The hypothesis that the child’s mass could be turned to energy if certain physical criteria were met has nothing to do with why it should not run into the street. Similarly, if I’m in McDonald’s and order a hamburger and you say “you could have ordered filet o’ fish [if you wanted],” that is more relevant when you’re talking about my behavior than “you could have ordered roast octopus [if McDonald's carried roast octopus],” unless your hypothesis is that I can’t resist roast octopus when it’s available.

        Compatibilist free will agrees we cannot master or overcome determinism. Instead it is a project to find which hypotheticals — which uses of “could” — are appropriate and relevant to human behavior, and how we can describe them using language. In other words it’s like the rest of science.

    • dschealler
      Posted April 4, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      First thing in the morning and I’m pre-coffee again.

      I was about to reply, but methinks I should actually read the essay you linked to while in a frame of mind where I can actually process the information before I respond. ^_^

      Also, I’m expecting to have a busy day at work today so I may be a little slow in getting back to you.

  41. Stephen Lawrence
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=4597#comment-46631

    worthwhile checking out the debate at the above link.


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