My presentation on Free Will

At the Moving Naturalism Forward workshop, I gave a brief Powerpoint presentation designed to stimulate discussion (Dan had one too, and that, and mine, will eventually be on the YouTube videos. I’ll put it here as well; you can get a complete idea of what I said by looking at the slides. (Click to enlarge). The “reader comment” in one of the slides below was made by one of the readers of this website, whose name I didn’t save. If it was yours, weigh in below and claim credit.

My take on the reaction of the participants, and on the meeting as a whole, will be in the next post. The quote about the phrase that will replace free will comes from Marvin Minsky.

99 Comments

  1. Gordon Hill
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    For me, the important question goes to Gazzaniga’s point, “Are we responsible for our behavior and accountable for our actions?”

    If so, which I believe we are, within limits, what name shall we give it?

    • Posted October 29, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

      We are not fundamentally responsible for our actions, but must pragmatically “hold” ourselves accountable. There is a big difference between the two. When we hold ourselves fundamentally responsible, we become “deserving” of punishment and other forms of retributive reaction. When we pragmatically hold ourselves accountable, we address our actions and those of others with far more compassion, understanding, and intelligence.

      As a good example of what this would look like, imagine us treating each other and ourselves with the same kind of deference and kindness we apply to an infant or toddler, which we essentially consider as not having a free will. Cribs and time outs, but no malicious “just deserts.”

      As for a name, we can consider ourselves and each other as the “operative” (or salient) causes of our behavior. Such a designation does not seem to hold the pejorative connotations and resulting actions that go along with responsibility and free will.

      • Gordon Hill
        Posted October 29, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

        Thanks. As a visitor here with an interest in the discussion, but less well armed in science that may be preferred, I read your statement, “We are not fundamentally responsible for our actions, but must pragmatically “hold” ourselves accountable.” and wonder whether some form of will is needed to hold ourselves accountable.

        While I agree that the idea of free will, as an unconditional ability to choose, can be shown as unlikely, I believe we have the ability to make choices within limits.

        An interesting recent study (I did not note the reference at the time, but believe it was in Scientific American) noted that two groups of students were tested. Prior to the test, one group read an article affirming free will and the other an article denying it. The test results showed the first group was less prone to cheating than the second.

        So I’ll go along beleiving I have the will to choose, albeit within biological and experiential limits.

        • Posted October 29, 2012 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

          Since the causal regression behind every decision spans back to before the decider’s birth, the decider does not technically have a “will.” Perhaps rather than “holding ourselves accountable,” a better way of seeing it is that we are the “identified,” or “proximate” cause of our actions, like the next to last domino in a series.

          “I believe we have the ability to make choices within limits.”

          If you were to put such a choice to the test of it’s either having causes or being acausal, you would realize that free will is an absolutely black and white proposition. Light a light is either on or off, we either have free will or we don’t.

          The study you cite in Scientific American was done by Vohs, Baumiester and others with a clear agenda to defend free will. Once they saw that such a defense was futile, they began their attempt to show that disbelieving it leads to harmful consequences. An easy refutation to the study you cite would be to have the subjects disaffirming free will also receive the extremely important caveat that understanding free will to be an illusion in no way gives us license to act immorally. Such an experiment would, as with the cited experiment, very likely “prime” these free will-disaffirming subjects to not cheat.

          Another experiment could study free will believers and disbelievers, and have each group respond to some kind of aggression or insult. I would guess the free will believers would be far more vindictive in their response. In fact, among incarcerated populations, it is likely that free will-believing “victims” who were apprehended for “getting even” with others probably resorted to greater violence and acts of more extreme or pronounced vengeance than their non-believing counterparts.

          Similarly, among religious free will believing people, those like Calvinists who consider free will to be an illusion would be more likely to more strongly and consistantly express the Christian virtue of forgiveness than their free will believing counterparts from other Christian denominations.

          • Gordon Hill
            Posted October 30, 2012 at 5:15 am | Permalink

            Thanks again. I would disagree that “free will is an absolutely black and white proposition.” As a reference I cite SEP here as a suggestion that free will may be black and white to some, but not all.

            My view of free will as a term is that it has no agreed characterization, as seems to be preferred in scientific discussions.

            My question is about whether and the extent to which we have an ability to make choices from alternatives and, if so, what this ability is to be called. I call it ‘will’ in the sense that I ‘will’ or ‘won’t’ do something.

            • Posted October 30, 2012 at 6:08 am | Permalink

              “I would disagree that ‘free will is an absolutely black and white proposition.’”

              Put it to the test. Let’s say 99% of a decision is not freely willed and the other 1% would be. That 1%, or any other percentage, would still be subject to the causal regression and/or randomness that would prevent it from being freely willed.

              The other option for a partially free will would involve some, but not all, of our decisions being freely willed. The same rationale as above, however, would apply.

              “My view of free will as a term is that it has no agreed characterization,”

              The free will that virtually all individuals who have refuted free will refute is the free will that would render us essentially anything more than puppets, with absolutely no control over anything we think, feel, or do.

              Since identifying ourselves as puppets or robots tends to be justifiably disagreeable (I use the term essentially for explanatory purposes), I prefer to consider ourselves as manifesting God’s, (to me, God and the universe are synonymous) or the universe’s will.

              The way you’re using will grammatically suggests a future time frame for an action that may or may not take place. If it does take place, however, it is subject to the causality that makes it impossible for it to have been done freely.

              When you consider than any decision we make is the end result of a causal regression that spans back in time at least to the Big Bang, and that “will” means the power to decide, we humans really don’t even have a will, let alone a free will. We simply manifest, or act out, the will of the Big Bang.

        • Dan L.
          Posted October 30, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

          Dunno if you’re going to check back, but I tend to agree with George’s take. As an example, I have a lot of social anxiety and a few other behavioral quirks that I’m pretty sure are ultimately the result of how I was treated by my siblings as a child. In that sense, I don’t really have “free will” when it comes to social situations. I literally cannot will myself to start conversations with strangers sometimes — even when I really want to. But whenever I catch myself blaming my siblings for this I stop myself and remind myself that it’s my problem now and obsessing over the root causes won’t help me deal with them.

          I think certain personality types are more receptive to the idea that free will is an illusion. I have a lot of trouble willing myself to do the basic chores of life — I can stand in the middle of my messy living room for an hour trying to will myself to clean it and fail entirely some days. I often feel a deep disconnect between my intention and action. So the idea that “free will” is largely illusory resonates with me.

          I tend to think the illusion of free will comes from the fact that different desires and needs compete for space in the mind. Decisions are made when one need or desire wins out over others. Most people seem to feel this process is under their conscious control but it does not feel this way to me.

          • Gordon Hill
            Posted October 30, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

            Hi. Thanks. My two part model for how our views are formed is simple (probably invalid): DNA + experience. I concur it’s more involved than that, but use it as a basis to say, “No two of us are even close in our thinking although we try to be.”

            I have set aside the idea of free will for two reasons: ill definition and that our finite neurological organ is limited.

            My current interest is in the extent to which we can choose from alternatives and what term to use in addressing it. For me, ‘will’ seems appropriate. If adjective be needed, limited or bounded seems definitive.

            As for personality types, I agree that they have an effect, but also know that they are coarse descriptors, not to be confused with accurate assessments.

            Your references to personal experience may be the heart of the matter because assessments of self is subjective.

            finally, the concept of free will varies from one expert to another. Where I come from it is an expression meaning you are not expected to follow the status quo.

            Appreciate your taking time to comment.

            • Posted October 30, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

              “finally, the concept of free will varies from one expert to another. Where I come from it is an expression meaning you are not expected to follow the status quo.”

              That definition, with it’s sociological/peer pressure context, is not at all the one that has been debated for centuries now.

              Traditionally, free will has meant we would be free to choose independently of factors over which we have no control. That, at least, is the free will that has been refuted, and the free will St. Augustine described when he coined the term “free will” in his 380 AD book De Libro Arbitriro, which is latin for “On Free Will.”

              • Gordon Hill
                Posted October 31, 2012 at 5:38 am | Permalink

                I have no problem with that. My question is: “Are we able to make choices from what we perceive as alternatives and what term is used to name it?” For me that is ‘will’ The will to choose.

  2. Vaal
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    And awaaaayyy…we go!

    Thanks for posting this Jerry, I’m looking forward to the videos too.

    Vaal

  3. Posted October 29, 2012 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    Hi Jerry,

    Thanks for sharing the slides.
    One thing just, I don’t want to sound rude or anything similar, but I suppose you know about the slideshare. You can upload the presentation there, it is faster than just uploading the screenshots here, and also easier for future references and for people to find it. You can try it, but in case you already know about it and for some reason you don’t use it just ignore this comment.
    Cheers

  4. jose
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    I’d like this approach on other mental qualities like the ability to reason, leading to the conclusion that reason doesn’t exist.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted October 30, 2012 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      Losing the idea of vitalism did not mean life doesn’t eat, grow, live, or die. Why on earth would realizing our will is not free in any way affect ability to think and reaso? To imagine such a thing would require a profound misunderstanding of what is being said when we say we have no free will.

  5. Sastra
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    I enjoyed reading your notes, and played a little game with them: for “free will” I substituted “life has meaning” and had you arguing against a compatibilist version of that:

    1.) Cosmic meaning — the universe as a whole is moral and purposive, structured around a goal, and we were created for a reason.

    2.) Compatibilist meaning — though the universe as a whole has no meaning, our lives have meaning to ourselves. Meaning is measured against human morals, purposes, and goals.

    3.) Nihilism — Our lives having “meaning” — even to ourselves — is incompatible with the lack of a cosmic purpose.

    It’s fun! You just play out the analogy down the line!

    But this time it’s more obvious why your argument loses. And why you are actually playing right into what religionists want, giving them hope and comfort and sustenance.

    Of course, if two hours in an enclosed space with Daniel Dennett doing thought experiments isn’t going to sway you, then I doubt very much that my pointed analogy will give you pause. So I introduce it only as a fun little game.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted October 30, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      I can’t see why you are congratulating yourself here. I’m not seeing any analogy between your three points and Jerry’s arguments. You seem to assume that there is some kind of equivalence between how the idea of meaning and the idea of free will relate to natural reality. While meaning plays a role in human decisions, it does not have the same direct connection to human action that will and choice have. Unless you can elaborate, it looks to me like your equivalence is false and you are really showing nothing here about what free will is, and why the appearance of free will as subjective experience has no impact on the existence of free will in natural reality.

      Let’s turn this around. If you agree there is no inherent meaning in nature, but you understand that human subjective activity is the only source of meaning, would you then claim that there is inherent meaning in the way the brain generates meaning?

      As far as I can tell, as in your example, compatibilism is in fact just a game people play under the cover of equivocation. You argue that even though there is no magic dualism that enables humans to escape causality, human actions involve choices and actions advancing their own interests, therefore there must be something free in the brain. The reality is that there is no freedom, but a complex brain structured to compute intelligent self-interested decisions deterministically.

      While making decisions the brain creates an illusion, just as it creates the illusion we are really seeing objects before our eyes. The illusion makes us feel that there is a creative self “making” these choices from an internal source of freedom, while in truth our choices are computed deterministically. Just as our vision is involuntarily crafted with a massive amount of unconscious computational support (leading to a long list of optical illusions), so our internal sense that we are “freely choosing” is involuntarily crafted with the aid of massive unconscious support.

      So we can say that the compatibilist is one who is either unwilling or unable to see through the illusion of free will crafted by the brain, and who by not thinking too very hard about how the brain works is able to keep a safe firewall between themselves and the underlying reality in order to continue playing their comforting language games.

      Compatibilists really have no choice but to admit that either 1. they don’t understand or believe in determinism, or 2. they are playing deceptive games with language to cover up the true nature of human intelligence. You may as well be pretending that a thunderclap is a genuine expression of nature’s anger, rather than acknowledging the fact that it is an energetic sound wave generated by forceful collisions of air molecules. While you maintain that fiction, the natives have a reduced chance of overcoming their fears and superstitions. Thanks a lot for that.

      Who knows how long it will take before compatibilists will come clean on this charade?

  6. TJR
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    What exactly do you mean by “determinism” in the second slide?

    How does this fit with the “possible stochastic laws of nature” line in the third slide?

    • Posted October 29, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

      Stochastic (random) decisions would, of course, not be freely willed either. We need to remember that we arrive at quantum mechanical probabilistic predictions of single particles ONLY by first CLASSICALLY measuring and remeasuring the groups of particles we subsequently refer to for our derived probability equations.

      In other words, to say that nature is fundamentally stochastic, (meaning acausal or random) is wrong. Stochasticism (to coin a word?) relates to a method of prediction that relies on both classical mechanics and the probability equations of quantum mechanics rather than to the fundamental reality of the measured phenomena.

      Stochastic is taken by many to mean random, which is taken to mean acausal. Therein lies the real problem. Acausality is a linguistically, logically, and empirically incoherent concept. What would it even mean to assert that a physical event happens without it having been caused? Surely such an event would have to reside outside of the universe, which evolves moment by moment according to the flow of time. To assert an uncaused event is to assert an event that has no past.

  7. Michael Fisher
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    The reader comment is from [I think] nonfreewillist
    Posted August
    & HERE is the comment

    Those slides are very wordy !

  8. Posted October 29, 2012 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    Marvin Minsky, the computer scientist and AI pioneer.

    I will continue to state my belief that computer science has more to say about “free will” vs how we actually make decisions than any other field. Physics/chemistry/biology just tell us that free will doesn’t exist. It’s going to take computation—algorithms processing inputs into outputs—to explain any more than that.

    • Posted October 29, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      Physics, and not computer science, describes reality at its fundamental level. Refuting free will at the most fundamental physical level is as easy as asserting that decisions can either be causal or acausal (random), both prospects make free will completely impossible, and there is no third alternative.

      • Posted October 29, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

        I would ignore George everyone. He gets a boner in his pants when he says the word caused. Just another indivdual who makes excuses for not succeding at anything in life so why not just say ” I wasent responsible” Easy peasy but society doesnt accept that excuse George so grow up and take some responsibility!!!!

        • Posted October 30, 2012 at 4:51 am | Permalink

          “Just another indivdual who makes excuses for not succeding at anything in life so why not just say ” I wasent responsible”

          That’s funny. Check out the following web page on my site for a somewhat humorous account of how I, much more likely than not, am more responsible than anyone else on the planet for the current surge in popular interest and media coverage refuting free will -
          (it’s actually an incomplete account, but I have to wait for when fate decides to have me get the rest of it online)

          http://causalconsciousness.com/Claiming%20credit%20for%20public%20awareness%20of%20free%20will%20illusion.htm

          Thank goodness I can’t fundamentally take credit for this work, or it might tend to make me assume that highly offensive attitude we refer to as arrogance. I much prefer egalitarian humility.

          Lee, I take it you believe in free will. Causality is a hard one, isn’t it?

    • Gordon Hill
      Posted October 29, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

      Interesting that computer science is referenced. What computer anywhere real or imagined approximates the human brain even slightly? With its 80,000,000,000 neurons, each with hundreds to a thousand or more inputs and outputs, few, if any understood as to their operation (Are they digital or analog or hybrid?)

      I think William Utall was on target in his assessment that solving the mind/brain problem is intractable due to computational complexity. His book, Mind and Brain, covers the issue in detail with extensive references to the latest in neuroscience.

      For me, the question is whether what Dr. Coyne calls “decisions caused by forces I don’t understand” could include some form of “will” or “won’t” which would be willing as well.

      • Dan L.
        Posted October 30, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

        Your argument that computers aren’t the same as brains doesn’t actually do anything to rebut Minsky’s observation. His point is that physics, chemistry, and biology answer ontological questions about the brain — what it is — but don’t tell us very much about mind, which is presumably “where” free will “happens”.

        Minsky’s observation follows from some fairly basic premises:
        1. Mind is an information process (mind is the result of the brain processing information in a certain way).
        2. Computer scientists study information processes across all architectures, not just x86. For example, computer scientists study quantum computation even though it can’t be performed on the same type of architecture as “conventional” computation.

        • Gordon Hill
          Posted October 30, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

          Thanks. While my computer knowledge is rather basic, it does cover both digital and analog computation processes.

          Two points seem important to me:
          1. The complexity of the human brain with tis trillions of neurons, each with hundreds or more synapse/dendrite connections appears to be intractable problem.
          2. That each human brain, uniquely structured, forms a mind born of that organization as altered by experience, seems to further complicate the problem.

          One problem (not) with WEIT is it guides my reading into new domains. Do you have a preferred Minsky preference? Emotion machine seems to be his latest. I shall check it out.

  9. Posted October 29, 2012 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    Nice presentation. Three points:

    (1) On enabling religion: I’m not sure compatibilism clearly helps religion more than hard determinism. The reason is that traditional monotheistic religion seems to depend a lot on libertarianism (indeterminism + free will) about free will; at least, that’s the basis of the free will defense against the Problem of Evil. If you make the debate between hard determinism and libertarianism, people who really don’t like hard determinism may find themselves pushed toward libertarianism. On the other hand, if you can say, ‘We do have free will, but even that free will won’t help the theist against the Problem of Evil,’ you may at least score rhetorical points.

    (2) On dualism: I’m not sure why you think (at least, it seems to me) that dualism and libertarianism are closely tied together. I think the traditional arguments against libertarianism are almost just as powerful when targeting dualism; after all, there’s still the dilemma: Was your decision sufficiently caused or not? (If yes, then unfree; if no, then not your will.) Since most Anglophone people are committed to dualism (since they believe in a nonphysical afterlife, and that the people who have died outnumber the people who live currently), you may also be able to maintain a rhetorical advantage by emphasizing strongly that dualism definitely does not help the libertarian.

    (3) On compatibilism: I won’t say too much about this here, since it’s obviously a huge debate. But I wonder whether your anti-compatibilist arguments are more normative or merely descriptive. It seems to me that you think that we ought to stop defining free will in compatibilistic terms. But that’s consistent (right?) with the position that most people actually do define free will compatibilistically. (By far, most philosophers are compatibilists, and some empirical research suggests that most people in general are actually compatibilists.) So I take it your position is that while the common definition of ‘free will’ is compatibilistic, we should insist on a stronger, incompatibilistic definition.

    • Sastra
      Posted October 29, 2012 at 8:01 am | Permalink

      “Free will” is a deepity (there’s a Dennett term!)
      One popular interpretation is dualistic libertarian free will; another popular interpretation is compatibilist free will.In other words, you’ve got extraordinary but false and true but trivial.

      The religious love deepities. They are fuzzy thinkers. They blur distinctions,switch meanings back and forth, and grant credibility to the extraordinary view by letting it ride to credibility on the back of the ordinary view. They do it with “free will,” “spirituality,” “morality,” “mind,” “soul,” “life has meaning,” “alternative medicine,” “faith,” “mysticism,” “religion,” and, sometimes, even “God.” There are rational secular ways of translating every one of those terms. They are also open to deep supernatural infusion of woo.

      The question then is which side owns the term. Is it religious with a secular interpretation on the side — or is it actually secular, with a religious meaning tacked on. Priority may not necessarily rule here, since it’s well known that religion structured a lot of its concepts from basic human needs, experiences, and ideas.

      I am not willing to gift the religious for credit for coming up with morality, mind, or meaning.

      I’m not going to buy in to secularized interpretations of soul, alt med, religion, or God. Ever. Nice try. They’ll bait n’ switch.

      I might be swayed on naturalized spirituality, faith, or mysticism IF I am either in a small group or a wider culture which is being very CLEAR that they’re using secular interpretations and not playing a game with deepities. But I am cautious. Otherwise, no.

      So where does that leave “free will?”

      I place it in the first category. No freaking way am I going to allow the religious to co-opt what most people really think when they mean “free will.” They can – and often do — give up the levitated causation before they give up the controlled robot alternative. Saying we have no free will is like endorsing nihilism.

      Jerry seems to place it in the same category as “God.” Compatibilist definitions of free will are like calling Nature God. No thanks. That’s just stupid.

      It may belong in the last category, with “spirituality.” Negotiable, but not quite yet. I don’t know.

      • Vaal
        Posted October 29, 2012 at 10:10 am | Permalink

        Sastra,

        The “little game” you played with Jerry’s points was exactly what went through my mind reading those portions!

        Anyway, on the “who owns free will” question, I won’t give up free will or the other concepts you mention to religion for the same reasons. But to expand a bit more: I think there has often been (and continues to be) a confusing equivocation between the concept of “defining free will” and “accounting for free will.”

        The “problem” of free will arose long before any science seemed to threaten it, as an apparent clash between two of our strongest intuitions: On one hand we treat the world as a chain of cause and effect – the intuition that “X required a cause” drives most of our understanding of the world.

        “I live in a world where things are pre-determined by their causes.”

        And yet we seem to have this other strong intuition about our choice-making:

        “My choices are real choices, I could have chosen otherwise, and in that way I seem in control of my choice, not preceding causes.”

        In trying to reconcile these intuitions people have come up with various strategies, ONE approach being the general Libertarian view: “Well, I’m going with my intuition that my choices were not pre-determined. THE EXPLANATION for this is that my choices must be an exception to the way the rest of the material world is driven by cause and effect. I have a “contra-causal” ability in making my choices. Further “EXPLANATION” of this must be a substance excepted from material cause and effect), and to appeals to the supernatural and God(s) “The REASON my choices are excepted from pre-determination is that God GAVE me free will – I have a God-given soul, contra-causally excepted from the rest of the world. Therefore I have moral responsibility.”

        So the important point is that Libertarian/contra-causal, dualist versions of Free Will arise as EXPLANATIONS for how we could have “really-could-have-done-otherwise-choices” in a world that otherwise works as cause and effect. It amounts to a confusion to treat them as “definitions” of free will – as in “Free will is DEFINED as having contra-causal abilities for choice making.” No, our having some contra-causal/dualistic nature is an EXPLANATION for why our intuitions about our choice making must be right. It’s the same for other concepts, morality, human life etc: The Christian account for how we arose, or for why “X” must be wrong and “Y” must be right isn’t THE DEFINITION of morality or of human origins, they are EXPLANATIONS (false ones) for some propositions many people believe.

        It is from this type of confusion that compatibilism is accused of playing definitional or semantic word games, as if the definition of free will already exists – the Libertarians have defined it! – and challenging it is nixing the definition of free will. No, compatibilism is another ACCOUNT or explanation for how it is our choices could be “real” and “significant” and “have been otherwise” – an explanation for why those two intuitions we have do not in fact negate the reality of our being able to have “chosen otherwise.”

        Vaal

        (And, a compatibilist account would go on to explain how the clash of those two apparent intuitions is misleading).

        • Posted October 29, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

          Thankyou Vaal, an illuminating post (as usual).

      • Posted October 29, 2012 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

        “Saying we have no free will is like endorsing nihilism.”

        That’s like saying because we humans are around for only about eighty years, with an eternity before and ahead of us, life has no meaning.

        Understanding that we humans do not have a free will would not lead to abandoning laws and rules, nor a lessening of meaning because are hard-wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain, and to act morally. In fact, a world wherein we all get that free will is an illusion would seem far more wonderful, (in the literal sense) and unified than our present world, filled as it is with punitive vengeance and revenge.

  10. jeffery
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    When I looked up “free” in the dictionary years ago, one of the definitions was: “Not affected by any outside condition or circumstance.” In the case of human free will, I view the word “outside” as meaning not just events and conditions outside of our skin, but the events produced by our own brain chemistry, genetics, upbringing, etc. These influences are “outside” the locus of the “agent”; the “little man in the control booth” an entity that anyone believing in free will is forced to adopt in one form or another. The problem is that the LMITCR pulls levers and pushes buttons only as a RESPONSE to the conditions and input under which he labors and which are presented to him by the ever-changing conditions of life. To choose, as the result of a conscious decision, to NOT act on any demand or whim is also an action, and the manner in which the action takes place is determined by genetic instincts, habit,likes and dislikes, reflexes, etc. Unless one invents a “ghost in the machine” and backs it up with proof, I can find no reason to believe that my will is “free” (this doesn’t mean we don’t have will, and that it can be manifested in extraordinary ways).
    The reason free will is defended by religion so vehemently is that they all depend on it: Eve MUST have chosen the apple, else no original sin, and even Buddhism, which in its original form entertains little or no notion of a “god”, relies on a free-willed decision by the individual to escape the cycle of death and rebirth.

    • Posted October 29, 2012 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

      “I can find no reason to believe that my will is “free” (this doesn’t mean we don’t have will, and that it can be manifested in extraordinary ways).”

      Will as it is generally understood, means the ability to *make* choices. However, because every choice we “make” is subject to either a causal regression spanning back to the Big Bang, or to acausal or random agents, we humans really only “carry out” or “play out” choices that have already been made for us by factors completely outside of our control. Hence, we don’t really have a will at all; another powerful reason for why our having a free will is completely impossible.

  11. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    I have my usual disagreements with your arguments, Jerry. Unfortunately, you always seem to put this topic out on a weekday morning when I don’t have time to write a good response. So I’ll just pose two questions. The first concerns a purely personal preference:

    (1) Can you restart a free will thread on a Saturday or Sunday morning so thinking about this carefully will not cut into my ability to do my job?

    (2) Do your views about free will extend to all mental processes? Did Einstein and Gauss and Feynman and Darwin only entertain an illusion of having engaged in the activity of thinking? Or is it possible that even though their “thoughts” and “ideas” are entirely compatible with deterministic chains of events, the idea that people “think” is not actually negated by whatever scientific knowledge we gain about how they “think”? (Allowing, as usual, for the possibility that some intervening molecular/stochastic events occured during their thought processes.)

    • David
      Posted October 29, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      The question cannot be whether Einstein, etc. thought. It has to be whether or not they consciously or unconsciously determined the solutions. Is there a possible comparison here to the process of “choosing” left or right wherein the unconscious mind, some seconds after deciding, provides the consciousness with an understanding of the solution that the “zombie” has first processed and decided? Is it possible that Einstein, etc. were not consciously in charge of the processing of the solutions, that they were not consciously aware of the solutions as they were being unconsciously processed and that they only consciously understood the arrived at solutions some seconds after the the solutions were transmitted from the unconscious to consciousness?

      If the brain actually does work this way, what then?

      • Timothy Hughbanks
        Posted October 29, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

        I kinda suspect that the our brains must work such that they follow a sequence “unconscious” processing before “we” become conscious of what we’ve been thinking about. But that even that is hair splitting, it seems to me. We are unlikely to undertake to solve a problem before we consciously deciding to do so. The process of devising the special theory of relativity undoubtedly involved shuttling the subproblems to be addressed many times between processes of which Einstein was fully aware and processes to which he wasn’t (or couldn’t) pay attention. I don’t see the distinction you’ve drawn as essential at all – conscious or unconscious, it was all going on inside his head (and the heads of people he bounced his ideas off of). To me, all that comes under the heading of how Einstein was thinking, not whether he was thinking.

        My biggest gripe with Jerry (and perhaps even more so, with Sam Harris) in all of this is the conclusion that because there is a molecular-biological level at which we are learning to understand the process by which thinking occurs, “thinking” is therefore an illusion. I’m one who acknowledges that the modifier “free” in free will is a loaded word – perhaps we’ll come up with something better – but the word “illusion” used to describe either “free will” or “thinking” is not only loaded it is misleading, IMHO. Einstein and Gauss and Feynman and Darwin are just some of the most dramatic examples one might choose to make a point: after these people went through the “illusory” process of thinking, we have all had access to new, heretofore undiscovered, knowledge! (Yes, it all did require empirical verification too – of course!). Is “illusion” really an apt description of that result?

        • Posted October 29, 2012 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

          “I kinda suspect that the our brains must work such that they follow a sequence “unconscious” processing before “we” become conscious of what we’ve been thinking about.”

          Think about it. If we can only process what resides in our unconscious and our conscious mind is, by definition, not aware of the unconscious, the unconscious must process every thought prior to allowing our conscious minds (consciousness being a mechanism of awareness and not decision-making) to be aware of what it has independently processed and thought.

          Our unconscious IS our mind. Consciousness is only that very thin slice of its totality that the unconscious makes known, or focuses on, at any given moment.

          Think of the unconscious as a completely dark room. Consciousness is merely the unconscious momentarily shining a flashlight on (or highlighting) some aspect of itself.

          • John Scanlon, FCD
            Posted October 30, 2012 at 3:57 am | Permalink

            I like to watch someone figuring this out.

            ‘Consciousness’ is such a misused term (with all sorts of dualistic connotations, and basic linguistic lack of clarity whether it’s an abstract or concrete noun) that it can pretty much be thrown away, but ‘attention’ does all the work that can be done.

            An important distinction is that between ‘choices’ made by unknown causes in the dark, and those made while the light of attention is shining on them. I don’t think I’d use ‘free will’ for either of these, but it may be close to what is sometimes meant.

  12. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    I think I can agree with all of this! Especially the pointed and, I note, in principle testable definition of free will that Cashmore gives.

    Which is a sea change from a year ago. If you insist on this stronger, incompatibilist version of “free will” (which is a good idea – it is testable!), I have to reformulate the emergence folk psychology model of sufficiently complicated agents as “will”:

    Free will – incompatible with ‘behavior is precisely the unavoidable consequences’ et cetera.

    Will – compatible with ‘behavior is precisely the unavoidable consequences’ et cetera.

  13. Posted October 29, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    My problem with this is this:

    “…caused by events in our brain that we do not intend…”

    This uses a dualist notion of “intend” to argue against a dualist notion of free will. If there is a “we” that is not the sum of all “events in our brain” (conscious — whatever that is — or not) I am not interested in discussing it.

    • David
      Posted October 29, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      But if the events in our brain can be described such that some events are separate from others as measured by time, and some events are separate from others as measured by conscious awareness, then intention as involved in agency matters. If you cannot intend your heart’s next beat, have you killed yourself? What if you also cannot intend your unconscious thoughts? And what if your unconscious thoughts are the ones that process and decide matters for your mind and only allow your consciousness to know the decisions after they are made?

      This is not a dualist description of “intend”. It is simply an observation of how the brain works.

      • Posted October 29, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

        Without a coherent definition of consciousness it cannot be used as a way to empirically distinguish between any behaviors or brain states. Dividing things into things “you” do and things “your brain” does is nonsensical.

        “I” or “my brain” do intend my next heart beat as much as any other “decision” in a strictly materialist depiction of brain function. All brain states derive from the preceding brain state according to the laws of physics.

        Yes, I think this is simplistic and lacks categorization of brain states into useful classes, which is why I think a Dennettian definitions of intentionality and free will are useful.

        I have no idea why some people are spooked by talking about how “free” or “willed” a behavior is but have no problem using equally arbitrary concepts such as “intentional” and “conscious.”

        I get that “free will” has historical baggage, it just doesn’t bother me that much. All the ways we talk about mind and brain are tainted with our dualist past.

    • Posted October 29, 2012 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

      “If there is a “we” that is not the sum of all “events in our brain” (conscious — whatever that is — or not) I am not interested in discussing it.”

      Let’s accept your definition of “we.” The problem for free will still remains that any thought, feeling, decision, etc. we might have is either causal – in which case it would be subject to a causal regression spanning back to before our birth, and rendering such a cognition not a product of “our” will, but rather resulting from the will of the Big Bang – or acausal – in which case “we” cannot in any way claim to have originated the cognition.

      In essence, free will is impossible regardless of how, exactly, we might wish to define ourselves.

      • Posted October 30, 2012 at 11:50 am | Permalink

        Of course metaphysical free will is impossible. Not sure why we keep having that discussion here. But just as I am happy to discuss “life” in terms that ignore/reject vitalism, I am happy to discuss a Dennettian conception of free will that allows us to usefully discuss our evolved and essential intuitions about assigning responsibility for our own actions and those of others.

        If you think there is a useful operational distinction between brain processes that control breathing and brain processes that select what to have for lunch, you agree with me (and Dennett). You just object to the words “free will” either because of historical baggage or because you’re not really over dualism and still think there is “me” and a “my brain.” I just don’t have a problem with the term “free will” used this way.

        • Posted October 30, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

          Yes, my objection to Dennett’s use of the term free will to describe our actions is that this question of human “will” is already confusing enough to many people who have not really delved into it much yet.

          My understanding is that Dennett defines free will as simply having the will we desire. Considering that we don’t really even have a will, to avoid confusion, I think we would benefit from coining a new term for human agency that does not include either the word free or will to describe what we’re actually doing when we act out the universe’s will.

          I agree with you that, since everything is inexorably linked, we neither have an autonomous “me” nor a “my brain,” which is another good way of explaining why we cannot have a free will.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted October 30, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

          Interesting that you pose “brain processes that control breathing” in contradistinction to those used to select lunch, since breathing is the one function of the autonomic nervous system we can control, at least over the short run. (Control of other autonomic-nervous functions can be learned, through biofeedback or meditation.) Holding one’s breath would seem to be a quintessential act of “will,” as that term is usually understood — whereas, the learned control of other autonomic systems seems to require, at least as subjectively reported by those who have accomplished it, a relinquishment of such “will.”

          I’m frankly not sure how this fits into the overarching “free will” debate, but it would seem to be grist for a thought experiment, or at least an explanatory example, for one side or the other.

          • Posted October 31, 2012 at 6:27 am | Permalink

            That’s exactly right. Is there a difference between the brain activity that controls our breathing “automatically” and that which subjectively feels like “we” are controlling it? Objectively, no. Each would involve a different overlapping subset of brain areas, but this is a trivial distinction in the face of the fact of materialism: a physical causal chain is a physical causal chain.

            However, physics doesn’t get us very far in talking about neuroscience or anything else related to the brain. I think that there are useful operational differences between them in terms of talking about neuroscience, ethology, psychology, on up to ethics and the legal system. I think everyone does, it’s just some don’t like the term “free will.” It doesn’t bother me, because almost all the language we use to talk about behavior is loaded with dualism. You just have to know better.

            • Posted October 31, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

              “a physical causal chain is a physical causal chain. However, physics doesn’t get us very far in talking about neuroscience or anything else related to the brain.”

              Causality is not just a physical law, it is also a rational, logically binding concept. If you were to define a choice as spiritual, it would still occupy a space in time, and would either be causal or random (there being no third option), and either prospect completely refutes free will.

          • Posted October 31, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

            “I’m frankly not sure how this fits into the overarching “free will” debate, but it would seem to be grist for a thought experiment, or at least an explanatory example, for one side or the other.

            Both autonomic and brain processes over which we are conscious are subject to the same causality and randomness that make free will absolutely impossible, so I’m not sure what such an experiment would demonstrate.

  14. Posted October 29, 2012 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    I would have used different language and different examples with a different emphasis…

    …all to make essentially the same points with the same conclusions.

    You’re absolutely right to not give an inch to Dan on this one. He should be the one yielding to you.

    b&

  15. tombesson
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    An analogy entered my head as I was reading this post that likens the notion under discussion to breathing. Our breathing is involuntarily determined by our need to take in oxygen for survival purposes and physics (pressure changes, etc.). On occasion, and for very brief periods of time, we can voluntarily insert ourselves into this natural process and hold our breath. Holding our breath is synonymous with the illusion of free will. While we hold our breath, we can say, “See. I’m in charge of my own actions.” However, this doesn’t last very long, and we revert to what we do naturally. I welcome any and all comments that will enlighten me further.

    • Posted October 29, 2012 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

      “While we hold our breath, we can say, ‘See. I’m in charge of my own actions.’”

      This an any other free will assertion must pass the causality/acausality test. Since our holding our breath must be either causal or acausal, either prospect makes free will impossible, and there is no third alternative to causality and acausality, holding our breath intentionally cannot be said to have been freely willed.

      The mistake that Dennet and many other philosophers make in defending free will is neglecting to apply this simple causality/acausality test to whatever choice they are claiming as being freely willed.

      Holding a free will claim to the fire of this simple test quickly and easily moves through any and all obfuscations and inconsequentialities to address the question at its heart, and always leads to a powerful, in fact unequivocal, free will refutation.

      • tombesson
        Posted October 30, 2012 at 11:40 am | Permalink

        Thanks, George, for your reply. I appreciate that you took the time to respond to my contribution. You’ll note that I’m in full agreement with you. I only made the analogy to say that we delude ourselves when we think that we are ‘willing’ whatever is happening inside our heads.

        • Posted October 30, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

          You’re welcome, Tom. I re-read your post, and now see your point. Although I haven’t researched this at all, the understanding that we humans don’t even have a will may be a new element to the question of free will vs unfree will. I’m glad you got it.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted October 30, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      I wrote my comment above about breathing right before I read your comment, tombesson. Sorry.

  16. tombesson
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    “thinking” is therefore an illusion.”

    Illusion? Yes, but it is more accurately a metaphor to represent the process we go through to come up with that which we are “thinking” about. We often confuse the metaphor with that which it represents.

  17. Posted October 29, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, Your fourth point on the fourth slide “Some processing of our decisions goes on without our conscious knowledge” doesn’t go far enough. In truth, all processing of our decisions MUST go on initially without conscious knowledge. Consciousness has no part in the actual decision making. It only becomes aware of decisions made by our unconscious, at the discretion of our unconscious. Consider the following;

    1) All decisions are based on data stored in our mind (our unconscious) with or without additional data obtained from our environment.

    2) Data from the environment coming in from our five senses is fundamentally and initially obtained by our unconscious, which chooses what it will make us conscious (aware). That is why subliminal preception works. The unconscious is aware of not only what it makes us conscious of, it is also aware of incoming data it does not make us aware, or conscious, of.

    3) By definition and empirically, our conscious mind is not aware of our unconscious in real time, and hence cannnot beaware of the data in our unconscious. We call the unconscious the unconsious precisely because it is hidden from consciousness.

    4) That means that the only part of our mind that is aware of our unconscious IS our unconscious. It is the only part of our mind that has access to both the internal data and the sense perceptions that go into every decision. In essence, our unconscious IS our mind and our consciousness, or conscious mind, is simply that part of the unconscious that it (our unconscious) is choosing to make us aware of at any given moment.

    5) Since the unconscious is the only part of our mind that can access the data upon which to decide, and since it also holds the processes, principles (moral, logical, hedonic, etc.) by which we decide, it is the only part of our mind capable of making a decision.

    6) To summarize, our unconscious IS our mind. It is the storehouse of ALL internal data and the reciever of ALL sense perception data upon which it then processes to arrive at decisions. It then, at its discretion, makes us aware, or conscious, of what it has decided completely independently of our conscious mind.

    Consciousness is ONLY awareness; it cannot, and does not, decide.

    • Posted October 29, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

      Also, your modest proposal to replace the notion of free will with the statement “my decision was caused by internal forces I do not understand” is misleading. If the causal regression behind every decision spans back to before the decider’s birth, clearly external forces are ultimately, or fundamentally, determining what we decide.

      As such, not only is it incorrect to assert that we have a free will, it is equally incorrect to assert that we even have a will. WE are not willing anything. Most precisely, we manifest the will of the causal past, or Big Bang.

      • Vaal
        Posted October 30, 2012 at 6:17 am | Permalink

        George, egads, it’s the old “The Big Bang Made Me Do It” reductionaism-gone-mad.

        Essentially: “Since we can look past our choices to preceding causes that don’t have a will…viola!…we don’t have a will!”
        Which is ridiculous.

        It’s like saying “Hey, I know you think you are eating cherry pie, but you are mistaken.
        You see, if you actually examine what cherry pie is made of, it’s made of fundamental particles none of which are “savory,” “cherry,” “pie” etc. They possess none of those properties. And neither do the particles that make up your body have the property of “eating cherry pie.” There’s nothing about “eating cherry pie” in the fundamental constituents that make up your body. Hence, it’s simply a a misleading illusion that you are eating cherry pie.

        Uh…no…that analysis clearly fails to identify the higher level phenomenon that exists of people eating pies. Like saying a book can’t really communicate information, since if we look to the fundamental particles that make up the pages, we see no messages there.

        That’s what you are doing when you look past the actual phenomenon of decision making at the personal level, to attribute that “will” to the Big Bang – or to deny we could have a will since the causal forces preceding us don’t have a will.

        Your points 1 – 6, starting with the claim that “Consciousness has no part in the actual decision making” seems a pretty gratuitous claim to knowledge, especially given the baby steps we are taking at this point in investigating how consciousness works (and what, specifically, it even is).
        But even GRANTING the general proposal that consciousness would be essentially the reports from our unconscious about the decisions made there…what in the world amounts to a fundamental difference in terms of identity, the existence of person-hood, identifying persons as decision-makers etc?
        I don’t see any in particular.

        You would still be left having to describe and understand my behavior in the same way: to explain my choices you will still have to appeal to my beliefs, my desires, and the chain of reasoning I’ve used to connect the two to make choices and arrive at actions.
        How else COULD you explain, in any reasonably expedient (and true!) fashion why I would, for instance, have chosen to go skiing this winter rather than beach bathing in Jamaica? My beliefs, desires and rationalizing will be FUNDAMENTAL to your understanding and explaining my behavior, just as it would be if consciousness preceded the unconscious activity…so this idea that it follows from your proposal that we have “no will”
        and anything fundamental would change makes no sense. To think it would relies on “explaining away” something by looking to the wrong part of the chain, a la the cherry pie example.

        Vaal

        • Posted October 30, 2012 at 10:03 am | Permalink

          “George, egads, it’s the old “The Big Bang Made Me Do It” reductionaism-gone-mad.”

          Vaal, the answer to 2+2 will always be 4. As long as some continue to believe it’s 3 or 5, people like me have no choice, (no pun intended) than to keep restating the right answer. It is, indeed, a moral obligation!

          Will is defined as “The mental faculty by which one deliberately chooses or decides upon a course of action.” If what we “choose,” is the inevitable result of a causal chain spanning back to before we were born, we clearly, and obviously, do not have a will.

          Eating cherry pie is conceptually different from willing, or choosing to eat cherry pie. Your description of pie at its fundamental level does not negate its macro existence as pie, nor our power, also described at its fundamental level, to eat it. We, as fundamental particles, have the power to eat the fundamental particles that comprise a cherry pie; we do not have the will, because of the causal regression, to choose to have done so.

          Regarding consciousness, there is no mystery as to what it is; it is simply awareness. This fact does not answer the mind/matter problem, but this understanding is not contested by anyone from any scientific field.

          I didn’t clarify the limits of consciousness to address the identity issue your raise, just the misconception among many, even many neuroscientists, that conscious actually plays a role in decision making.

          • Vaal
            Posted October 30, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

            George, as per the math analogy: you are giving the wrong answer because you have misidentified the terms to be summed. “4″ isn’t the right answer if there is also a “5″ you are neglecting in the terms to be summed. ;-)

            Anyway…

            George: “Will is defined as “The mental faculty by which one deliberately chooses or decides upon a course of action.”

            Will is also defined as “Intend, desire, or wish something to happen.” And “The faculty by which a person decides on and initiates action.” It’s also often seen as synonymous with desire. And as Wikipedia puts it “”Will” does not refer to one particular or most preferred desire but rather to the general capacity to have such desires and act decisively based on them, according to whatever criteria the willing agent applies.”

            We are agents: beings with desires, beliefs and rational powers by which we evaluate which actions to take to fulfill our desires. Deny that and you essentially pull the rug out of anything you wish to say, since your argument will depend on assuming such things of yourself and your audience.

            And that is all we need to “have a will.” Further, even by the lights of your own supplied definition, it simply denotes that one would have a mental faculty by which one decides on courses of action. Clearly we have such faculties, given we decide on courses of action (again, explained by appeal to our desires, beliefs). So we have a “will” even by your own supplied definition.

            But where you go right off the rails is here:

            “If what we “choose,” is the inevitable result of a causal chain spanning back to before we were born, we clearly, and obviously, do not have a will.”

            That is just a flat out non-sequitur. Doesn’t follow at all. It’s a fallacy of composition, but only played out over time. All you are doing is pointing to all the “non-willing” entities preceding us, ignoring the fact WE are entices capable of willing/choosing things. It’s like disputing that rabies actually causes anyone to suffer and die, by saying “But if what the rabies virus does is the inevitable result of a causal chain spanning back to before it ever existed, then clearly the rabies virus doesn’t actually have the properties of causing sickness and death.”

            Uhm…yes it does. That the rabies virus was PRECEDED by non-rabies causes does not mean rabies doesn’t “do what it does” to it’s hosts. If you went looking for all the preceding causes rather than to the rabies virus in trying to understand the illness of it’s hosts, you’d be utterly out to lunch. And it’s these same, strange blinders you are putting on when talking of our “not really having a will.”

            WHATEVER causes preceded and culminated in human beings, human beings are entities who have desires, beliefs and the capability to reason about which actions to take. You have simply ignored the gist of my post, in which I pointed out how you can’t explain a human choice by ignoring this and pointing to all preceding causes – any more than you can understand and explain rabies by ignoring the characteristics of that entity and pointing instead to preceding causes. You still will appeal to our beliefs, desires and reasoning to explain our actions – EXACTLY what we do when under this purported “illusion” of having a will (or free will). You can’t make us vanish as rational actors who deliberate on actions related to our desires, simply by ignoring us and looking to other preceding causes. (This is the point Tom keeps making as well, whenever that misleading “we are like puppets” analogy is put forward).

            Vaal

            • Posted October 30, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

              “George, as per the math analogy: you are giving the wrong answer because you have misidentified the terms to be summed. “4″ isn’t the right answer if there is also a “5″ you are neglecting in the terms to be summed. ;-”

              HUH? (also, how’d you do that smiley?)

              “Will is also defined as “Intend, desire, or wish something to happen.”

              According to this wiki page, http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/will that usage is now obsolete – “(obsolete) To wish, desire. [9th-19th c.]

              To the extent wiki might be wrong, to avoid confusion it would probably be better that we use intend, desire or wish rather than will in the discussion of human agency.

              “And ‘The faculty by which a person decides on and initiates action.’”

              This is the usage I’m refuting. If our acts are ultimately decided upon and initiated by a causal regression that stretches back to before we were born, we can’t logically attribute such decisions or intentions to ourselves.

              “’If what we “choose,” is the inevitable result of a causal chain spanning back to before we were born, we clearly, and obviously, do not have a will.’

              That is just a flat out non-sequitur.”

              I see the confusion. Let me restate the point to clarify – If what we think, feel or do is the inevitable result of a causal regression spanning back to before we were born, we clearly, and obviously, do not have a free will.

              Here’s another analogy. Consider a series of 100 dominos where the first domino topples the second, the second topples the third, and so on to where the last domino falls. We could not say the next to last domino freely toppled, or chose to topple, the last one. The willing, or deciding, in this case, (not literally, of course) must be attributed to the first domino.

              • Vaal
                Posted October 30, 2012 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

                George,

                “This is the usage I’m refuting. If our acts are ultimately decided upon and initiated by a causal regression that stretches back to before we were born, we can’t logically attribute such decisions or intentions to ourselves.”,

                But that is simply re-stating the fallacy. A rational person recognizes that just because you can find precursor causes for A does not mean that A itself is not an identifiable cause for B.

                Your domino analogy is the perfect example of how you are making your mistake. You are imagining a string of effects that are all essentially of the SAME CHARACTER. But in real life, all the causes leading up to a human making a decision are NOT of the same character, and we have a specific set of attributes that we must identify as producing specific effects (i.e. the effects of our choosing actions). Science in fact depends on recognizing the specific contribution of individual causes (otherwise we’d be helpless in identifying rabies-and-it’s-effects, or anything else).

                An atom, or gust of wind, or field of gravity….or any number of preceding causes do not have our properties so it’s just as ridiculous to use preceding causes to deny OUR properties as it is to deny the cherry pie has it’s properties because the atoms that cause it do not have them.

                Again, substitute the rabies virus and see how it works: Take a dog that dies, exhibiting all the symptoms of rabies and the rabies virus is found in it’s system. Now enter the same logic you’ve just given: “If the dog’s ill health and death were ultimately initiated by a causal regression that stretches back to before we were born (and surely it does!) THEN we can’t logically attribute such ill-health to the rabies virus.”

                You’d be seen, rightly, as making nutty statement. When you are trying to ask “What caused this illness” it is MOST important to understand what it is about the rabies virus in particular that would cause those effects, vs looking past it to non-rabies-virus-preceding effects.

                Right?

                It’s the same with people. When we ask the question about human behaviour “Why did that car take the route it did?” Or “Why did Bill book a flight to Whistler?” we need to be able identify the contributions WE, our cognitive processes, make in explaining such behaviour. If we don’t, it’s like ignoring the rabies virus in trying to understand the effects it causes. Whatever preceded us, WE are entities with beliefs, desires, intentions, capabilities of modelling the world, reasoning between possible choices and choosing that which is most likely to fulfill the desire in question. A sperm entering an egg may have been part of the causal chain leading up to Bill’s decision to book his trip, but sperms and eggs DON’T book trips.
                They don’t have such desires, beliefs, mental history, ability to model possible actions and outcomes, use of logic and reason to choose between actions, etc. So if you want to know WHY Bill booked his trip, you will be looking to his beliefs, desires, reasoning etc, which IS what is commonly understood as making a choice, “willing” to do something etc.

                Vaal.

              • Posted October 31, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

                “A rational person recognizes that just because you can find precursor causes for A does not mean that A itself is not an identifiable cause for B.”

                The causally regressing states of the universe preceding A and B are the singular identifiable causes for both A and B.

              • Vaal
                Posted October 30, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

                geeze, sorry, only the first paragraph, the quote from George, is supposed to be in italics. Not the whole post. Format fail. Sorry. (Oh for an editing function here…)

                Vaal

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted October 31, 2012 at 8:09 am | Permalink

                Vaal,
                I agree that the complex actions of humans can’t be traced to a linear process of single identical causes. That domino analogy isn’t meant to be interpreted literally. Also, I don’t think it’s necessary to try to draw a chain of causality back to the big bang, or even to any time before our birth. It’s perfectly fine, for the purposes of considering free will, to assume our environment is entirely stochastic in terms of our interactions with others, the influences of our life as we develop, the events that occur in our surroundings, etc.

                What is at issue is how the brain reaches a decision or choice, how the brain creates will, desire, fear, how it makes predictions and assesses outcomes, how it formulates theories about what will improve our situation, and how it feeds these things back into future decisions.

                The way the brain does these things is by deterministic, highly complex, parallel processes. When a choice is to be made, there is no reason to doubt that the result of these processes will be a single option, and that result would be predictable if we had sufficient knowledge of brain structure and operation. So where’s the freedom to reach an alternate decision? There is none. It just feels free in our mind, just as our visual cortex produces optical illusions of depth, contrast, etc, our conscious mind interacting with the unconscious gives us an eclipsed view of what is going on that makes us feel like “we” choose freely. To the observer, viewing a human as a black box, the apparent freedom comes from brain plasticity over time, the ability of the brain to change it’s space of reachable states and thus change it’s decision making ability over time. Of course this allows us to interact with our environment as a self-interested agent that can resist external influences or modify external conditions to our own advantage. The point about free will is not about the fact that human behavior is the same as every human has always known it is throughout history. No one has ever doubted that we can decide what we want for breakfast. The point about free will is what is the underlying mechanism that enables such decisions. Is it an individual will that materializes thoughts, feelings, ideas out of nothing, or is it a complex deterministic biological machine. To say we have free will simply obscures the truth that it is the latter.

                What good is it to say that human behavior will be unchanged by discovering details of how the brain works? Isn’t that obvious? I mean isn’t the whole point of compatibilism obvious, that humans can do now what they did a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago when we thought we had a soul? What changes is our understanding of how it works, and what causes human behavior. Traditionally free will is an important part of this story of human behavior. Yet we really can’t find it. It seems not to exist. Thus the idea of free will was founded on false assumptions about what human beings are.

                Really the only true statement about free will is that we feel like we have it, and we appear to have it in our behavior, and we invented language based on that feeling and those appearances. We can still use that language, but if we want to be true to nature, we need to have a new understanding of what underlies those behaviors, not one based on the assumption that the human will is somehow free and independent, able to arbitrarily make uncaused decisions that it materializes out of nowhere based on sheer human “will power”. The pretense that we have free will is only sustained by stubborn convention, or as Dennett’s Erasmus prize quote above indicates, nervousness about how the general public will react to the truth of determinism. They certainly won’t think they are puppets and commit suicide. Nobody thinks they are a puppet. At least they will feel challenged to understand this new view of humanity, rather than lulling them into complacency with a pretense.

              • Vaal
                Posted October 31, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

                Jeff,

                “When a choice is to be made, there is no reason to doubt that the result of these processes will be a single option, and that result would be predictable if we had sufficient knowledge of brain structure and operation. So where’s the freedom to reach an alternate decision? There is none. It just feels free in our mind,”

                Here again we seem to talk past one another. You can talk about the determinism of the mental machine and that is all accepted on my end (and the compatibilist end). As usual the real issue boils down to your question “So where’s the freedom?” in which the debate comes down to what we would mean by “freedom.” This is the ground we’ve been over and over (and see my reply lower in the thread addressing it again).

                We agree that in principle our decisions could be predictable, and that any one brain state is going to cause only one effect. But the point I keep making is “who cares?’ That is not related to the way we conceive of and express “freedom” in the first place. When I say “I could have chosen otherwise” I’m not thinking “I could have chosen otherwise given precisely the same brain-state and state of the universe.” Rather, I’m thinking, ‘It’s within my power to have chosen otherwise in a similar situation, for instance one in which I had desired X instead of Y.” And this statement is TRUE on the same basis any of our other empirical
                claims about other entities are true: to any object that persists over time, we conceive it’s identity and attributes by combining it’s behaviour over time, NOT by appeal to that entity at one single frozen moment.
                Abstraction and counterfactual reasoning is simply a part of how we understand the world and it is part of our truth claims about the world. (It’s how we reason from many specific previous past instances of water freezing to the truth of the claim “Water will freeze at 0 degrees Celsius.”).

                Really the only true statement about free will is that we feel like we have it,

                No, we actually DO have the type of freedom I’m discussing, and that we generally think we have when making decisions. Abstraction, generalization and counterfactual reasoning is built in to the way we understand the world and decide our actions. When I’m trying to choose between vacationing in Jamaica or Mexico I am employing generalizations and counterfactual reasoning: “IF I go to Mexico I’ll save a few hundred dollars over Jamaica, but IF I go to Jamaica the schedule is better so I can complete my work, etc.” Nothing has been chosen yet and the fact only ONE choice will ultimately be possible is not the point. The point is that the IF/THEN propositions going on in my mind are TRUE. My belief that IF I do this, I get X, IF I do that I’ll get Y is true. Now I evaluate these options in light of my desires: Which do I desire more, saving the money or having a more comfortable schedule? In other words, which do I ultimately “will” to happen (that is I’m selecting the option that fulfills my desires which I will put into action). I find I desire the more comfortable schedule more than saving the money, and choose Jamaica. So now I have a choice that reflects my desires and which I have the power to put into action. None of this was an “illusion” because it was all based on investigation of my own desires combined with reasonable generalizations about places and identity, mixed with counterfactual reasoning that involved true If/THEN statements.

                So it’s not just an illusion. We actually can make the choices we think we are making, and by the lights of how we make our decisions, we really “can” choose otherwise. The brain-only-considered-frozen-in-time just isn’t the basis for our normal reasoning about choice, freedom etc.

                Vaal

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted October 30, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

          There’s nothing about “eating cherry pie” in the fundamental constituents that make up your body. Hence, it’s simply a a misleading illusion that you are eating cherry pie.

          Clever argument, but in the process of trying to demonstrate reductionism gone mad, you’ve actually exemplified strong emergence gone mad.

          Everything in our body combines to make eating cherry pie absolutely natural and normal, analyzed at every level, including the molecular level of all the biochemical systems of metabolism. We are fully capable of biting, chewing, swallowing, and digesting cherry pie, and no analysis at any level suggests otherwise.

          Nothing in our body, analyzed at any level, leads to free will. There is no gap to slip it in. Only a superficial external view of a human, or an unreliable incomplete subjective view into our own consciousness create the appearance of free will. The appearance of free will is not the same as actually having the actual freedom to make choices arbitrarily.

          When I appear to be eating cherry pie, I really am eating cherry pie.

          We eat cherry pie when we are hungry, when it is available, if it tastes good to us, and if we believe it is adequate nutrition or not overly harmful to our health.

          There is nothing in our behavior, at either a microscopic level or a macroscopic level that indicates we choose freely (even if we decide pumpkin sounds better than cherry). Our choices are determined by a complex fabric of causes carried out in parallel. Some people look at this complex set of causes and think they see freedom. They are being deceived. It is actually an extremely complex and skilled interaction with the environment, fully determined by the internal state and structure of our brain and body. Nothing is free.

          • Vaal
            Posted October 30, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

            Jeff,

            Of course the point IS that nothing about our physical constituents is in contradiction with our being able to eat cherry pie. It’s when you apply the wrong analysis that you would get this conflict, and the analogy illustrates how George (and apparently you) apply the wrong analysis to the temporal causal chain. If you point to an atom in our body and say “Look, that atom can’t smell or taste pie, can’t pick up a pie, eat it, taste it, digest it, etc.” You’d be perfectly correct. But if you moved from “since I can point to something non-pie-eating as being in the causal chain of human beings, it therefore means we can’t attribute the phenomena of pie-eating to human beings” then that is a fallacy, as I’m sure you’d agree. It’s the same fallacy to point to a non-decision-making causes preceding Bill and concluding “therefore we can’t really attribute to Bill the ability to make a decision.” And that is the type of fallacy George is repeating – he’s ignoring the analysis at the people-point of the chain. See my reply to him above.

            Nothing in our body, analyzed at any level, leads to free will. There is no gap to slip it in.

            That begs the question because you know by now that what we mean by “free” and “free will” has been the subject of debate between incompatibilists and compatibilists. Both claim to make an account of the common use of that term. If it turns out you are relying on your non-compatibilist version to dismiss “free will” then that clearly begs the question under debate. (It wouldn’t be an argument against compatibilism).

            “Nothing is free.”

            Only if you just define “free” out of the lexicon.

            Vaal

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted October 31, 2012 at 8:35 am | Permalink

              A molecule does not have temperature, volume, or pressure. But when you fill a balloon with air molecules, the balloon has these qualities.

              We have a good theory based on causality called statistical thermodynamics that shows how massive numbers of individual molecules colliding in a gas gives rise to these macroscopic thermodynamic properties.

              Admittedly we don’t know the details when it comes to the brain, but it is reasonable to anticipate that if the brain is material obeying laws of causality, as this material combines into aggregate phenomena, emergent properties, that these also obey laws of causality.

              On the other hand you have a hope that somehow they don’t, evidently. With digital computers we have a good analogy as to how very sophisticated systems of logic and decision making and learning can arise out of layer upon layer of structuring the results of very simple binary logic. I’m just saying that what has arisen in the digital arena over the last few decades is very surprising and suggestive, not that it’s in any way equivalent to how the brain works.

              So there is a missing link between qualia, consciousness, emotion, and our biochemical understanding of neurons. But what we have seen is that physical trauma or disease of the brain tissue, or ingestion of neurotransmitters or other chemicals, can fundamentally change these phenomena. So there is every reason to assume that causality at the microscopic level translates into causality at the higher levels of brain function. We just have yet to fully understand it, though our understanding has progressed significantly in the last two decades.

              So I can’t see any place for freedom as people have always understood it, that “I” generate new unique original thoughts and ideas spontaneously out of nothing with my own power as a human to materialize thought without internal constraint of any kind.

              Instead we have a complex protein based machine that leads to behaviors and subjective experiences that for all intents and purposes appear to people to represent this kind of freedom. Nobody doubts that we have the behaviors we so obviously have, so saying “we have free will” adds nothing to human intuition about human behavior. It just confuses people as to what underlies human behavior. Who would think that they can’t decide when to get out of bed simply because their “freedom” is really the computation of a meat computer? They will simply do what comes natural to humans. There is no need to reassure people that they have what they already know they have, the ability to do what they want. So claiming that humans have something that it makes sense to call “free will” even though it differs in fundamental ways from what people used to call “free will”, accomplishes nothing, except to perhaps provide some people a pyrrhic “victory” for the long standing idea of compatibilism.

            • Posted October 31, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

              “That begs the question because you know by now that what we mean by “free” and “free will” has been the subject of debate between incompatibilists and compatibilists.”

              Because a random choice cannot be freely willed, and because the causal regression spans back to before the chooser’s birth, the choice is made, or originates, in factors completely outside of the chooser. As such, there is absolutely no definition of free will, compatibalist or otherwise, that is not refuted by causality and randomness.

  18. Posted October 29, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    We dont have free will because The Newer Testament says so. Saying free will is an illusion is giving free will way too much credit. Its way too obvious that free will doesnt exist…an illusion is something that trys to trick you. there is nothing tricky about the law of causation…case closed. how anybody actually believes in free will is a total and complete mystery to me. every moment of ones brain state is dependent on the moment before…duh

  19. Jeff Johnson
    Posted October 30, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    The Dennet quote for the Erasmus prize is pretty much the smoking gun on what compatibilists always deny: that their stated position on free will stems from a concern about negative reactions from the general public. We now see they openly admit compatibilism is a strategy to stop the public from panicking, the same kind of patronizing we’ve seen in the past from church leaders.

    The idea that we are puppets controlled by our environment is a complete misconception. That we are controlled by our internal brain and nervous system, which are products of genes and environment and interact with the environment, is more accurate.

    Here is the essence of compatibilist equivocation: the word “choice” has two strands of meaning, 1. a meaning related to the pre-choice inputs, and 2. a meaning related to the post-choice output.

    In the first sense of “choice” there is a hope of freedom, that we are free to select any one of range of alternatives. A computer makes choices but does not have this kind of freedom. It’s choice is determined by its programming, so we can not say it has pre-choice freedom. The same is true of the human brain. The process of selecting an alternative is wholly caused by the state of the brain, and that state determines one and only one result of the choice. There is no freedom to deviate, even though our mind has a conscious feeling that there is such a freedom.

    In the second sense of “choice” there is no hope for freedom. The end result is a single option from a range of alternatives, and we act on that “choice” that is already chosen. It is our “choice,” that unique option our brain has found optimal for our purposes according to deterministic processes.

    When you see a person’s choice, in the second sense, we assume they had freedom to choose otherwise. This is the equivocation: say “choice” in the second sense of the word, while pretending it includes the freedom of the first sense of the word, which is an obsolete meaning, invalidated by a deterministic understanding of the brain.

    These meanings evolved in the context of humans believing in free will. This is exactly the historical linguistic phenomenon that enables compatibilists to play this game of equivocation.

    • Vaal
      Posted October 30, 2012 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

      Jeff,

      Dennet does not propound compatibilism because he secretly believes we have no free will, and is making his position up only to sooth the population. He deserves the same credit for being convinced of his view as you do being convinced of yours. Rather, he thinks BOTH that the doctrine we have no free will is false AND that particular falsehood will have profoundly unfortunate social consequences if not rebutted.

      It’s like us atheists who argue against religious faith. We aren’t forcefully rebutting the doctrine of “religious faith” because we think it true but are afraid it has negative consequences. No, we think that religious faith is false “knowledge.” But we also understand that the dissemination of the meme that “faith as a virtue” has likely bad consequences for populaces that embrace it. That is why we combat it publicly – it’s specific type of falsity has bad consequences. Same with the idea that we can not have “free will.”
      (Dennett may be wrong about the consequences for society, but he’s not a compatibilist because of such consequences).

      As to your analysis of compatibilism, it is mostly a depiction of your own concept, not ours (at least not mine and others I know). I would say my having “free will” speaks to my having desires, beliefs and the capability to conceptualize the outcome of taking different actions and choose which action
      will best fulfill my desire. I don’t see how you could deny humans have such characteristics. I am not “free” insofar as this process of acting on my desire/will is impossible or restricted in some way. But “freedom” is understood in it’s context of the same type of abstraction, generalization and counter-factual reasoning as we assume for understanding everything else about the world.

      So if I chose eggs for breakfast instead of cereal, of my own free will, that is to say “I could have chosen the cereal instead, but did not because choosing eggs fulfilled my desire.” To say “I could have chosen otherwise” is an empirical claim, in the form of a GENERALIZATION, about the type of agent I am and my powers in similar situations. I AM the type of agent for which empirical experience built up over time indicates I have the power to choose the cereal if I’d wanted to. The “me and my powers” that I refer to is never a frozen “me” of only one instant – the imagined scenario that incompatibilists keep propounding as the basis for free will. Rather, it is a generalization of my experience-over-time to arrive at conclusions about what I can and can’t do, in certain situations, given certain desires. Choosing eggs for breakfast over cereal is one of the things I can do, should I desire cereal, and visa versa.

      I don’t think you can actually deny any of that without undermining all your own empirical insights, as well as science as a whole, since you and science rely on all the same type of abstract, generalized inferences and descriptions. And/or you would have to be naive even about how you come to put an identity on anything. If anyone asks you to describe yourself, you will necessarily speak not of a set of atoms-frozen-in-time, but of an identity that comprises your experiences and behaviour over time. If you described yourself as enjoying both wine-making and sky-diving, it would be ridiculous for someone to object “but those are impossible to do at the same time, so it’s invalid for you to attribute both in describing yourself!” Of course the reply is “Well, don’t be ridiculous, I’m not SAYING I do both at precisely the same instance of time! But the ME who likes doing such things is the me who over time has enjoyed doing each of those activities.”

      Same with my choosing breakfast. If the objection is “only one choice was possible” – because your brain state will only cause ONE outcome at any ONE specific time! That is only a reference to ONE INSTANCE at one specific time with a specific brain states. But who cares about such things? The reply is the same for the sky-diving/wine making analysis: “Well, don’t be ridiculous. I”m not TALKING about choosing both at the same time, with the same brain state! I’m talking about my general nature, the abilities I attribute to myself gleaned over time in similar situations – I can have somewhat different brain states in roughly similar situations, and IF I had desired cereal instead I have the type of powers of eating cereal in such situations, as I’ve done before.”

      And, yes, I think this type of generalization from our experience over time does better capture the type of claims people tend to make about “having been able to do otherwise” and having “chosen freely,” better than the incompatibilist idea they think they are refuting.

      Cheers,

      Vaal

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted October 31, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

        I didn’t mean to imply Dennett secretly believes we have no free will. I assume he understands determinism and he knows we don’t have free will as people understand it. I don’t think he keeps this secret. You can tell from his arguments he understands this. My point was, based on his own words, is that his motivation for why he feels it is important to play a language redefinition game with the term “free will” in order to publicly claim there is “a kind of free will” that we do have, is because he worries that helping people to understand the full truth would be dangerous. He doesn’t trust them. This reminds me so much of the myth of the tree of wisdom in the Garden of Eden, and eating the forbidden fruit that gives knowledge of good and evil. Dennett and compatibilists are playing God because their paternalistic sensibilities make them worry about how it will blow the minds of the general public, the innocent children they must protect, should they see unadulterated truth. Dennett even has a big old beard and looks cuddly like Santa Claus or a popular anthropomorphic image of God the loving daddy. I don’t mean an ad hominem attack here. I like Dennett and think he’s right on practically everything. This is just an irony too funny to leave unmentioned.

        The individual frozen in time is not an argument about what characteristic behaviors people exhibit, so to say you are not frozen in time but changing from moment to moment is irrelevant to this thought experiment. The thought experiment is to say that the way the brain works (as opposed to how it appears to work) is based on a sequence of deterministic state transitions, determined by brain structure and environmental inputs, that are arbitrarily localizable in time, and that if we had sufficient information we could predict their choices, that their choices are not actually freely changeable or arbitrary in the way humans feel they are. This I believe is a deep fundamental truth about how the brain works that no amount of counterfactual speculation or linguistic equivocation can cover up or wish away.

        The fact that we can imagine counterfactuals says nothing about what the brain does physically to produce it’s effects. This is a kind of meta-level of thought that extends beyond individuals to society, as you said, a generalization, so you are going to some other level where an emergent property is that individual choices form some kind of statistical distribution, and obviously one individual can make a choice different from other individuals; they have different brains. You are now talking about what other people could do in the same situation, not whether an individual had any freedom. Certainly sociologists, political scientists, and economists work on ways to model complex societies based on such counterfactuals. And nobody would claim these things aren’t useful and important. None of this opens a door to “free will” for any individual. And certainly acknowledging that we don’t have free choices does not close the door for this kind of analysis and understanding of people as an aggregate with emergent social properties.

        As I said in another post (roughly), to say we have free will adds nothing to people’s understanding of why we are what we are, and it doesn’t change their views of what our possible behaviors are. It only confuses them about what causes our behaviors, what the underlying principles are, and it can even mislead them into thinking they can do things they can’t do, like choose a set of random numbers, or create an idea that is not connected in any way to any other idea that ever came before it.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted October 31, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

          By the way, the counterfactual analysis of people also extends over time for an individual, because our brain is plastic, can learn, and our environment changes with time. Still no free will, just the intelligent flexible development over time of a deterministic machine.

        • Vaal
          Posted November 1, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

          Jeff,

          Sorry, but Halloween beckoned yesterday. I’m back for the moment if you are.

          “I didn’t mean to imply Dennett secretly believes we have no free will. I assume he understands determinism and he knows we don’t have free will as people understand it.”

          You have to be very careful about the above claim. The point of compatibilism, and Dennett’s argument, is that we DO have the general type of free will as people understand and desire it. It’s just that some of the explanations people have given in support of this ability – appeals to a-causality, dualism, God etc, – are incorrect explanations. This is a point you really, really have to understand if you are ever going to address compatibilism. It’s from ignoring this that mischaracterizations like “compatibilism is just playing with words or inserting a new version/definition” arise. You can never beg the question by asserting that free will amounts to libertarian/contra-causal free will, because that is one of the issues of debate from compatibilists, who seek to account for the general basis we have for our claims about making choices.

          “that their choices are not actually freely changeable or arbitrary in the way humans feel they are.”

          But since this is a discussion about the basis on which people think they “have a choice,” and “could do otherwise,” all of what you’ve just said is moot IF you are wrong about the basis for our claims. And I have argued why you are wrong, with no actual rebuttal I can see from you.

          “The fact that we can imagine counterfactuals says nothing about what the brain does physically to produce it’s effects.”

          Are you kidding? You will have to invoke exactly the type of abstraction, generalization, and if/then counterfactual reasoning to even DESCRIBE what “the brain does physically to produce it’s effects.” The logic I’m appealing to when I say “I could have done otherwise” is so fundamental you can’t begin to dismiss it without employing it. Which is the issue I keep trying to get so many here to address.

          “This is a kind of meta-level of thought …snip…..You are now talking about what other people could do in the same situation, not whether an individual had any freedom. Certainly sociologists, political scientists, and economists work on ways to model complex societies based on such counterfactuals. And nobody would claim these things aren’t useful and important. None of this opens a door to “free will” for any individual.”

          Of course it does, given my description of free will. The very use of generalization and counterfactual reasoning that a sociologist or political scientist would apply to a group is the same we apply to any individual. The “You” that we will describe, your likes, dislikes, what you can and can’t do etc, will all appeal to a conglomerate history, putting together your performing various acts over time, and noting which acts you can choose between in similar situations, etc. to attribute to you an identity with certain characteristics and powers. Thus to understand “you” is to understand “you and what you can do” in various situations over time, including similar situations. It’s the only way we can actually understand what “you” are as an entity, let alone a human person. So this barrier you make for how a scientist might talk about other things in the world, vs an individual person, simply doesn’t exist. Hence it’s not a serious objection to what I’ve written.

          “None of this opens a door to “free will” for any individual.”

          Again, only of you require that free will entail non-causality or some separation from past causes. But if free will
          is as I’ve described it, then certainly we have free will. We are creatures who have desires, who have memories and the ability to reason, which allows us to learn from our experience about the world and our powers in the world, we have the ability to conceptualize various counterfactual/possible actions and evaluate which to choose in terms of our desires, etc. These are uncontroversial attributes of human beings – science even assumes them as areas of study! You
          deny these and you start getting into creationist-levels of denial.

          And IF we are beings with such characteristics, then free will as I have explicated it does follow. A free will that has nothing to do with being a-causal, but has everything to do with understanding our powers in the world in a way consistent with how we understand the powers and characteristics of EVERYTHING else in the world.

          Cheerio,

          Vaal

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted November 1, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

            “The fact that we can imagine counterfactuals says nothing about what the brain does physically to produce its effects.”

            Are you kidding? You will have to invoke exactly the type of abstraction, generalization, and if/then counterfactual reasoning to even DESCRIBE what “the brain does physically to produce it’s effects.” The logic I’m appealing to when I say “I could have done otherwise” is so fundamental you can’t begin to dismiss it without employing it. Which is the issue I keep trying to get so many here to address.

            It just doesn’t seem like we interpret the english language the same way. We are, as you say, talking past each other, and it doesn’t really seem like you read what I wrote, you read something else, a text that you edited and created in your mind as you read.

            For example, in my quote above, which you respond to with “Are you kidding?” (no I wasn’t) I didn’t say “says nothing about the language we need to use to describe what the brain does physically”, but you answered as if that is what I said. I was just talking about what the brain does, period, independent of any language or description. Can you visualize a physical process without talking about it? Because that’s what I was doing. When I say “what the brain does”, that refers to something physical happening, and it happens without anybody saying any words about it, and it can be visualized without words, just like you can visualize a river flowing, waves breaking, or a bird flying without talking about it, because they also do not depend on what you say or what words you choose to describe them.

            You can invent counterfactuals all day long, it won’t impact how my brain works and what it does.

            Your language descriptions of counterfactuals are not part of the brain’s decision process on the factual you are countering; your counterfactualizing is independent and unconnected to what the brain in consideration is doing. It seems totally and absurdly irrelevant that you even bring up counterfactuals.

            If you want to pop up a meta-level and examine the human subjective experience of thinking logically, of course we use counterfactuals. But nothing “counterfactual” happens in the brain when this counterfactual thinking is done. If I project a movie of people dancing, it doesn’t mean that people are dancing in the projector. Nothing of the kind is happening in the projector. You don’t seem to be able to escape from the images on the screen in your thinking about this. If a character in the movie makes a choice, will you say it was a free choice because as you watch the movie it looks like a free choice? You know what is happening in the projector, yet you ignore it because why? Because it makes you feel better to pretend that the movie is an independent reality with no underlying causes, and that they might do something different if the movie is played again?

            I just don’t think it’s interesting that if you have your own definition of free will, then you can say it exists. I can say that “the flying spaghetti monster” refers to the rats nest of cables behind my desk, therefore the flying spaghetti monster exists. This does not make me either proud or satisfied, but as far as I can tell this kind of thing makes compatibilists quite content.

            I think the history of the term “free will” means something, and the reason people think they have it means something. The Stoics had to invent the concept of a swerve to make their deterministic atomist view correspond to how it looked to them like people were behaving. That is how they thought free will could be compatible with determinism. Aren’t they the original compatibilists? They didn’t have computers and they couldn’t visualize the complex cascade of neural signals that could yield human behavior. Since the birth of compatibilism you have clearly redefined what free will means. It’s totally unsatisfying. There is nothing free about it if it’s determined.

            The apparent freedom comes from the spectacular complexity of the multiple parallel processes in the neurological fabric of the brain, which gives us behavior so complex that we could never have imagined it was anything but free to independently will arbitrary choices.

            But there is no freedom to think or decide differently unless my brain changes, and I can’t decide how to change my brain. That would be like deciding to upgrade my tennis game to Roger Federer levels, which I am also not free to decide. My body and brain is exactly what it is, not what I will it to be. The brain changes as it does based on genetics and the input from my environment, and a complex feedback between these things. I’m not controlling how my brain changes, which together with the initial state of my brain determines what I will think next. If I decide to type these characters it is because I want to, but there is no meta-me or meta-capacity to suddenly change what I want to do. I just keep doing what I want without controlling or fully understanding why the hell I want to keep beating my head on this wall.

      • Posted October 31, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

        “I would say my having “free will” speaks to my having desires, beliefs and the capability to conceptualize the outcome of taking different actions and choose which action
        will best fulfill my desire.”

        If the causal chain of events preceding your desires, beliefs and conceptualizations, and their resulting choices, all span back to before you were born, how can you rationally assert that you have a free will, regardless of how you might want to define the term?

        • Vaal
          Posted November 1, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

          georgeortega57,

          “If the causal chain of events preceding your desires, beliefs and conceptualizations, and their resulting choices, all span back to before you were born, how can you rationally assert that you have a free will, regardless of how you might want to define the term?”

          Your objection would make sense IF we required that Free Will be “a causal.”
          But a-causal free will does not make sense in the first place. So your objection that our choices are caused IS NO OBJECTION against what combatilism is arguing. Yes our choices are caused, and the causes extend backward through time. But we have to be able to identify entities along those chains as proximate causes themselves, due to their specific characteristics.

          So, again with the rabies analogy. What if a doctor said we can not attribute the ills of a patient, the fever, the convulsions, the hydrophobia, etc, to the rabies virus found in their system? The reason the doctor gives is:

          If the causal chain of events preceding this patients illness all span back to before you the rabies virus ever existed, how can you rationally attribute rabies as the cause, regardless of how you might want to define the term “rabies?”?

          Can you see how nutty that is? Yes the causal chain for any entity stretches back to the Big Bang, but that obviously does not negate the fact we must identify entities, like rabies, based on THEIR SPECIFIC ATTRIBUTES and be able to attribute certain effects to that entity that could not be attributed to the non-rabies parts of the Big Bang history. The fact that whatever the rabies virus does to it’s host was ultimately determined given physics since the big bang does not mean that the rabies virus DOESN’T produce the effects it does, due to it’s specific characteristics. We do not require the rabies virus to be a-causal in nature in order to attribute to it the things it does, vs “the big bang did it.”

          All reason and science would stop if we could not do this.

          Yet that is exactly the logic you are wielding against compatibilist free will.
          Compatibilism continually points out that the concept of “being able to choose otherwise” DOES NOT RELY ON A-CAUSALITY.
          So the fact that causes stretch back to the big bang simply doesn’t amount to any argument against it. Compatibilism simply looks at the nature of the entity in question – humans who have desires, memory, who learn from experience, who can produce conceptual models of various possible actions and rationalise about which action is likely to fulfill the desire in question. So long as we have these powers, we have “free will.” The only way to object to this by saying “But that’s not free because there were precursor causes leading up to our making choices” then you just are not addressing the compatibilist argument.

          And, again, this is not wishful thinking. It’s looking at what is the most consistent arguments. I am as open to the proposition that we do not have free will as much as I’m open to the idea that Christianity is true. I’d go with either proposition if I didn’t continually encounter such blatant special pleading and inconsistency in the arguments for them. Until then, I’ll stick to the consistency of compatibilism with the way we think of everything else in the world.

          Vaal

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted November 1, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

            That rabies example is nutty. Of course the virus, something external to the system in question, as an external input causes a particular state change in that system. This input causes rabies in the person who catches the virus. So how does this imply we have “free will”? Because it’s ridiculous to say that something else caused the virus before we caught it? Because our body freely causes it’s own rabies by it’s reaction to the virus? Or because another body might have the correct antibodies and not catch rabies? This counterfactual means now that the first body without the antibodies could have freely decided not to catch rabies, because some other body doesn’t catch it? I just don’t see how you’re making any progress with this rabies analogy.

            I agree with you that the endless causal chain back to the big bang confuses things and is totally unnecessary. We just need to look at the human organism as a complete system interacting with it’s environment. All of the human’s reactions to external inputs are based on it’s internal state and metabolism, how it processes food energy. Nothing internal to the body is doing a “swerve” from causality to free itself up from its deterministic actions. There is no tipping point or bifurcation point where the brain’s path through state space could go in either of two directions without any specific cause. Given any choice at any level of the brain’s processing, it’s not either A or B; it’s always the one of A or B that prevailing conditions absolutely determine must be followed. Where is that freedom now? In an imaginary counterfactual? Sheesh.

            Compatibilism simply looks at the nature of the entity in question – humans who have desires, memory, who learn from experience, who can produce conceptual models of various possible actions and rationalise about which action is likely to fulfill the desire in question. So long as we have these powers, we have “free will.”

            Compatibilism looks at the entity in question as a black box. That’s how Augustine and the Stoics looked at it as well. They saw free will, because that is how it appears, and that is how it feels.

            By your definitions you would also have to say the IBM computer Watson has free will (even if Watson told you he didn’t have free will if asked).

            How many people in the world will agree with you that Watson has free will?

            And when you stop looking at the human as a black box, and stop allowing yourself, as the Stoics and Augustine did, to draw conclusions from an incomplete understanding of how the human brain works, you can see that there is no place where freedom creeps in. You can only look at the autonomy, control, and self-interested displayed at the external boundary of the system known as a human being, and say it looks like there is some freedom. Well, the earth looks like it is flat. The atmosphere looks like it is blue. The sun looks like it orbits the earth.

            I’m not sure why you are satisfied believing things are what they look like, rather than understanding and accepting what they are. Because it makes for a better public face with the innocent children who need to be protected?

            • Vaal
              Posted November 2, 2012 at 9:30 am | Permalink

              Jeff,

              ” That rabies example is nutty. ….This input causes rabies in the person who catches the virus. So how does this imply we have “free will”? “

              Jeff, look at the claim to which I was responding, which was georgeortega57′s. It should be obvious that the rabies analogy is not meant as an argument for free will per se. Rather, it’s a reductio ad absurdum showing georgeortega57′s PARTICULAR line of reasoning raised against the possibility of free will is poorly conceived. It’s a non-sequitur to appeal to the fact that since you can’t attribute “X” quality to the causes preceding an entity, that you therefore can not attribute X quality to the entity itself. And his line of reasoning especially falls short given the free will we are talking about never implies a lack of causality at any point, hence his statement does nothing to get to the heart of the matter in dispute.

              “I agree with you that the endless causal chain back to the big bang confuses things and is totally unnecessary.”

              Good! So you will not appeal to the fallacy that georgeortega57 is using. But the fact was, his statement implied the fallacy I outlined, making the rabies analogy apt in rebutting it.

              “Compatibilism looks at the entity in question as a black box. That’s how Augustine and the Stoics looked at it as well. They saw free will, because that is how it appears, and that is how it feels.”

              Jeff, it’s really best if you do not keep raising strawmen to push down. It is utterly ludicrous to say this of compatibilism, Take the most famous compatibilist, most often noted here: Daniel Dennet. He is well known to have kept up with the forefront of evolutionary, behavioral, and cognitive science. He’s the Co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts for goodness sake, and no one familiar with his books (e.g. Consciousness Explained) lectures and writing could possibly, honestly, characterize his approach as simply ignorant about cognition, or portraying it as a “black box.” His view of consciousness inferred from the most cutting edge science treats consciousness as extremely counter-intuitive, e.g. his “multiple drafts” model of consciousness. His career has been spent trying to DISABUSE people of their naive subjective appraisal of consciousness, and he does this by appealing to the latest cognitive science. You are simply wrong here in your depiction of compatibilism.

              “By your definitions you would also have to say the IBM computer Watson has free will (even if Watson told you he didn’t have free will if asked).”

              Yes, this account of free will is essentially Dennett’s, that it evolves as the ability to have desires, model various possible courses of actions, and choose from among them which will fulfill the desires, and avoid undesired consequences. There is no easy dividing line, just as in the real world moral behavior and intelligence seems to come in gradations. Watson may have reached some degree of free will.

              How many people in the world will agree with you that Watson has free will?

              Wait, is this now an argumentum ad populum? Gee…how many people in the world would agree with you that we don’t have free will, could never really have chosen otherwise, and have the conception of their consciousness that you are promulgating? Not many. Does that mean you are wrong?

              “I’m not sure why you are satisfied believing things are what they look like, rather than understanding and accepting what they are.”

              This strawman of “I’m the grown up looking at the fact, willing to draw the right inferences, when will you grow up?” gets really tedious.
              Nowhere am I (let alone Dennett) ignoring the science of cognition. Dennet, for instance, thinks consciousness is quite unintuitive in how it actually works, but his point is that this does not entail our not having free will in a significant sense, and related to the issues attached to the questions of free will. I think he is correct that incompatibilists tend to make us “too small,” identifying the “me” with ONLY the moment of consciousness, rather than to the process as a whole. I continually see you guys doing this.

              So WHETHER consciousness is as it seems to us subjectively, OR whether it is the Multiple Drafts model propounded by Dennett, or eve whether consciousness is only ever after-the-fact reporting of our subconscious the decisions it has made…it STILL DOES NOT MATTER to the account compatibilism is proposing. The entity, “me,” still AS A WHOLE (the unconscious processing with the conscious) exhibits certain characteristics and abilities: We have desires. We have memories that allow us to learn from experience. We have a cognitive apparatus that allows us to create various possible models of our actions – counterfactual/if/then scenarios – and we have the faculty of reason that selects from among those possible actions which are likely to fulfill the desire(s) in question.

              Which of those claims about our attributes would you actually deny? (It’s going to be really weird if you deny any of them, since a good amount of scientific study of human cognition and behaviour appeals to such characteristics in explaining our behaviour).

              Now, if we have those abilities, then the picture of free will I’ve been describing follows. You have yet to actually get into the nitty gritty and show there is a disconnect. You rail earlier about my appeal to counterfactuals and if/then considerations involved in our making decisions.
              That was truly astounding to me. If you are deciding on where to vacation, or which job offer to accept, are you seriously going to deny that your reasoning does not entail considering the possible outcomes of various decisions you have not yet made? (Again, this includes the process of your unconscious). Are you seriously disputing you would not be using if/then reasoning as I argue? You DO think we have the faculty of reason, yes?

              As to the tired bit about me “making up my definition of free will” you are falling into exactly the mischaracterization I’ve already high-lighted.
              First, it’s not simply about “definitions” it’s about accounting for how we make choices, and the basis upon which we infer “I could choose otherwise.” You have to show the account I give is wrong (accusations of “black boxes” are not an argument).

              Further, whenever you accuse a compatibilist of “making up his own definition” of free will, it implies you have in your position the “real” definition of free will. After all, how can you call some definition ersatz if you can’t talk about the real version? So what IS the “real” definition of free will that you are wielding.

              If it is the libertarian/contra-causal “definition,” I and others here have already argued why they are in fact not “the definition” of free will, and why they are poor accounts for how people actually infer they are making real choices.

              And round and round we go….

              Probably time to step off the merry go round. (I still get the feeling that an actual conversation may go better, because then one of us can stop the other immediately when strawmen are raised, before much effort is spent on dealing with them).

              Vaal

              • Peter
                Posted November 2, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

                Jeff is under the impression that since many compatibilist arguments (e.g. that contra-causality is incoherent and not a requirement for free will) don’t necessarily depend on a modern understanding of how the brain works, that therefore no-one who subscribes to compatibilism can be interested in how the brain works.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted November 3, 2012 at 8:49 am | Permalink

                Peter,
                I think you are almost right here. I don’t think nobody who is a compatibilist is interested in the brain itself. That is a somewhat extreme and total conclusion to leap to. But I do think that compatibilist arguments often seem to ignore, in fact depend on a bracketing off of, the deterministic brain function while taking advantage of slippery play on linguistic meaning. This nonsense about counterfactuals providing latitude for human freedom is simply loony in my opinion. Counterfactuals are statistical generalizations of the behavior of many humans, or of one human over time whose brain changes and receives new inputs over the period in question, thus the same human may as well be an independent person, since the brains differ in both cases. And this case perfectly illustrates my point about how compatibilists are willing to forego careful attention to detail about what is happening physically when they talk about the human brain and human behavior. I think it must be vary rare for any scientist, people who best understand the necessity of detail to accuracy, to accept the fuzzy compatibilist claim that there is something “free”, in any real sense, in human behavior and intelligence.

                It does seem that compatibilists tend to be philosophers, psychologists, or others more interested in social sciences than they are natural scientists. I don’t have any hard data on this, so it is only an impression I have, which I’m willing to retract if proven wrong.

                And sometimes I get the nagging suspicion that some compatibilist arguments are founded upon a hope that some kind of actual freedom slips into the current “gap” between our observations of “emergent” human behavior and our still limited “reductionist” understanding of how the brain works.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted November 3, 2012 at 8:54 am | Permalink

                Vaal,
                I’m going to respond to this in a new post at the bottom, since this narrow space is a bit unfriendly to more detailed responses, and unfriendly to the reader, in my opinion.

                Also, some days ago I wrote a response to you at post #21 below. I don’t know if you saw this, but if you did, you chose not to reply.

              • Peter
                Posted November 3, 2012 at 11:11 am | Permalink

                Compatibilists arguments don’t *depend on* ignoring how the brain works, rather many of them are strong enough (or obvious enough) that they *can* ignore how the brain works.

                Lessee, computer science example: Suppose I tell you I have a program that can solve the halting problem. You don’t need to see the details of how my program works in order to be sure it doesn’t work. You already know it doesn’t work because Turing’s proof is so strong that it doesn’t depend on the details of any proposed solution.

                Similarly, you’ve seen many compatibilist arguments that the free-will question really doesn’t come down to the particulars of how the brain works, and that compatibilism isn’t a new response to the unsavory findings of modern neuroscience. People have been making compatibilist objections to the notion of contra-causal free will for a long time. New scientific findings that our minds aren’t contra-causal after all don’t refute those long standing compatibilist arguments, because those arguments have always been that our minds aren’t contra-causal.

                “This nonsense about counterfactuals providing latitude for human freedom is simply loony in my opinion.”

                Well, that’s not in response to me. And it is looney. And it’s not something anyone has said.

                The point is that when people talk about freedom in every other context, no-one means “contra-causal” freedom. They only ever mean the the type and amount of freedom implied as when one employs counterfactuals. The only people who are concerned with contra-causal freedom are people with a naive aversion to determinism and what it might suggest about how we value our lives. Jeff, PLEASE NOTE: You do not seem to get this. To Jerry and other incompatiblists here, the question of free will is a question of VALUES, not just of the facts of the matter. Jerry for example seems to think that our lives would be richer if we had “real,” contra-causal freedom, and that discovering we don’t have that should crush our spirits. And for facing up to these facts, he’s much braver than, for example, compatiblists, who when confronted with this depressing realization run and hide behind their obtuse philosophical redefinitions and rationalizations. Actually, I guess you do get this because you wrote the comment Jerry promoted here: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/02/05/sunday-free-will-pseudo-dualism/.

                So ok now we’re all on the same page. Everyone knows this is a question of values, not of facts or mere semantics, we can all try to engage each other honestly and maybe the incompatibilists can get around to making the argument that contra-causal free will is what everyone really should want, and why compatiblists are missing the point (or actually lying) when they say they’re satisfied with the deterministic freedom that we actually have.

  20. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 30, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    Taking on “free will” has something of a cart-preceding-the-equine feel to it. I doubt we will have an answer to the free-will question – the question of why we have the subjective experience (or illusion, if you prefer) of fee will – until we better understand consciousness, including consciousness’s Hard Problem. Once we do (or, at least, if we ever do) we may find the illusion of free will to be a lesser-included offense, so to speak.

    It seems “consciousness” and “free will” instantiate a corollary to Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced physiology is indistinguishable from magic. Of course, that’s not to say there’s any actual magic involved – no ghost in the machine, no dualism, no supernatural explanation. But there is something going on with consciousness — and as an outgrowth of consciousness (I think), free will – that we may as yet have not a clue to (and that we may never fully understand — anymore than my pet dog will ever fully understand my car stereo, even though he seems to enjoy the music when I push the button — though I certainly hope we will). After all, consciousness, and the perception of free will, are unique to humans on the face of this planet, unique in the universe as far as we know (although, admittedly, as to the latter, we don’t know much).

    Our primitive ancestors undoubtably had rudimentary understandings of the circulatory and respiratory systems – from killing game, and from watching their contemporaries bleed out and asphyxiate – though they knew nothing of red blood cells, or plasma, or the clotting cascade. Our understanding of consciousness may well be at a similarly rudimentary stage now (though with our scientific tools and technologies let’s hope we can advance at a bit more rapid pace).

    It may turn out that the difficulty of consciousness is a direct function of brain complexity; it may also turn out that consciousness arose as a spandrel to the adaptive advantages our ancestors gained via their large brains. But even so, the study of that complexity may reveal secrets of nature that are as mysterious to us (even though, ultimately, susceptible of purely physicalist explanations) as quantum mechanics or general relativity would have been to the Victorians. But even should such answers exist (and even if they prove to be within our ken to discover), those commenting here who contend that free-will’s resolution is already “obvious,” or “clear all the way back to the Big Bang” or are like “2 + 2 = 4,” ignore that all vexing questions begin with an answer that is simple, direct, and wrong.

    • Posted October 31, 2012 at 7:00 am | Permalink

      I think those who claim it is obvious are those who claim there is only one possible kind of free will: metaphysical, dualistic free will. They ignore any other conception of it, including Dennett’s, and they especially ignore it as a conscious phenomenon requiring explanation.

      I don’t think language-policing discussions like that are particularly useful and certainly have not been the historical norm for any scientific concept I know of, but unfortunately the semantics is the crux of the debate.

      I think the phrase “free will” is a good conceptual placeholder for a set of conscious experiences and brain functions that are useful to discuss and to attempt to explain (neuroscientifically, ethically, legally). We used to have bad explanations for these experiences (souls, Cartesian dualism, whatever), hopefully in the future we’ll have better ones.

      • Posted October 31, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

        “I think those who claim it is obvious are those who claim there is only one possible kind of free will: metaphysical, dualistic free will. They ignore any other conception of it, including Dennett’s, and they especially ignore it as a conscious phenomenon requiring explanation.”

        How you define free will is inconsequential. Because the causal regression behind every human action, including every human choice, spans back to far before the actor or chooser was born, we can neither accurately describe it as humanly willed nor free. If you were to claim some human acts or choices are not causal, you are left only with a random origin which also cannot be ascribed to human will, free or otherwise.

    • Posted October 31, 2012 at 7:05 am | Permalink

      Put another way: arguing that “free will is an illusion” is completely empty. First, illusions are real things (just not what they seem to be). Second, identifying the mechanisms by which illusions work (particularly but not only optical ones) has been one of the great ways forward in cognitive neuroscience.

      So yes… free will and consciousness and the self and most of our phenomenological states are, indeed, illusions. Super interesting ones that teach us about our minds.

      • Posted October 31, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

        “Put another way: arguing that “free will is an illusion” is completely empty.”

        To argue that free will is an illusion is to argue that it does not exist. Considering that Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other religions hold this illusion as one of their founding doctrines, the argument could hardly be considered empty.

    • Posted October 31, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

      “I doubt we will have an answer to the free-will question – the question of why we have the subjective experience (or illusion, if you prefer) of fee will – until we better understand consciousness, including consciousness’s Hard Problem.”

      We have two unequivocal refutations of free will – causality and randomness. That some of us cannot either accept or understand those refutations should not lead us to mistakenly conclude that the matter has not yet been unequivocally solved. It has.

      Because the causal regression behind every choice that makes free will impossible spans back to before the chooser’s birth, the issue of consciousness is completely inconsequential to our analysis.

  21. Jeff Johnson
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    @ Vaal: in this post.

    “who cares?’ That is not related to the way we conceive of and express “freedom” in the first place.

    Well, a brain surgeon should care, or a future neurologist repairing a brain would care, or a future cyber-outfitter installing some extended features or capabilities to the brain might care. Psychologists and Psychiatrists ought to care, and any doctor really, plus those who believe in mumbo-jumbo, souls, spirits, the afterlife, out of body experiences, etc. ought to care about what we know and understand about the brain.

    I would turn that around and say “who cares” that humans behaving as they always have, as everyone understands they behave, can be described as involving “free will” if you squint a certain way and play with the meaning of the words just right, and engage in an elaborate rationalization process to define a limited form of “free will” that differs from what people think they have, but correlates pretty well with how they actually behave (not coincidentally, or for any profound reason, but precisely because we invented our language under the misconception that we had free will)? People know how they behave, and they don’t need a confusing specialized limited compatibilist definition of free will to decide what to cook or to go out to the movies. What does compatibilism add? For anyone? Only pretense as far as I can see. And Dennett’s Erasmus quote confirms that.

    I’ll just quote myself. I think the following describes how we conceive of and express “free will”: “the assumption that the human will is somehow free and independent, able to arbitrarily make uncaused decisions that it materializes out of nowhere based on sheer human “will power”.” This is how the typical person feels. It’s how I feel, but I know enough to understand this is an illusion, just as our occipital lobe creates optical illusions.

    This sense of freedom makes people think they can randomly choose numbers, or create a new idea that isn’t derived from other ideas already learned and understood. People understand their limits based on how smart they are, but among those capabilities they feel are firmly within their intellectual grasp, they feel like they can without friction or constraint flit from one thought to another, one idea to another, from one choice to another without any limit or constraint. And this conception of freedom is wrong.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted October 31, 2012 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      By the way, I generally think everything else you wrote in that post is true.

      But I don’t think you really know why Jamaica wins over Mexico, even though you are conscious of an if/then/else process. You don’t understand why you desire a comfortable schedule more than saving money. Your decision is kind of like your conscious mind watching a horse race (though you can’t see the entire track because most of it is in your unconscious mind). When a horse wins, it’s either Jamaica or Mexico, but you don’t really know why that horse won. You think you know. You tell yourself I’m the kind of person that prefers comfort to economy, and I’m proud of that, or some such story. But what really makes you that kind of person is something you aren’t aware of. Thousands of past experiences in your memory, and unimaginably complex networks of neurons firing determined that desire because of countless tiny experiences in the past that sculpted your brain that way. This is exactly what, I believe, Schopenhauer meant by saying we do what we will but we don’t will what we will. And that is why our will is not free in a meaningful way, because there is no “we” that wills our desires, only a “we” that observes what our desires are and feels them, and allows them to determine the outcomes of our if/then/else internal narratives, which thankfully our unconscious mind calculates with our own best interest in mind. Any other approach wouldn’t be evolutionarily successful.

      Though what you wrote is generally true, I don’t see anything there that justifies an assertion that humans have free will. We have a complex intelligence that is flexible, and it is able to create the illusion we are choosing, just as our visual cortex creates the illusion of three dimensional perspective, contrast, shading, etc.

      No explanation of compatibilism I’ve seen so far shows that there is anything free in human will, and no reasoning for why it is important or desirable to call it “free will” makes any sense to me. In fact the reasoning for calling it “free will” all seems counterproductive and explicitly misleading to people wanting to understand the brain.

  22. Posted October 31, 2012 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    Jerry,

    I hope you will decide to write a book refuting free will sometime soon. From your blog articles alone, it is clear you are a prolific writer, and you understand this matter of human will. I’ve no doubt that if you devoted a few weekends to the task, you could draft a 200 page book in a month. After that, just have a grad student edit it, and send it off to a major publishing house.

    Harris did the world a great service with his March 3, 2012 book Free Will. (Coverage on the topic among major publications soared during the four months following its release) It is, in fact, the only recent (actually, going back a couple of decades) popular book refuting free will that is not self-published. However, at only 83 pages, it hasn’t really been enough to seal the deal on refuting free will in the public eye.

    You began 2012 with a landmark January 1st refutation in America’s most popular newspaper, USA Today. I hope fate makes you write what would easily become a historical document. Philosopher John Searle said that free will being proved to be an illusion would be “a bigger revolution in our thinking than Einstein, or Copernicus, or Newton, or Galileo, or Darwin – it would alter our whole conception of our relation with the universe.” Searle is the 13th most cited of our contemporary philosophers (post 1900) I imagine many philosophers and scientists throughout the world would agree with his assessment.

    Hey, maybe humanity’s collective awakening from the truly insane belief that we have a free will to a brand new consciousness is what the Mayans were referring to with their 12-21-12 calendar/age end date.

  23. Jeff Johnson
    Posted November 3, 2012 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    @Vaal, in response to this post

    I don’t think it much matters whether you assign the cause of rabies to the virus, to a compromised immune system, to the vector that caused infection, or to any number of other ultimate or proximate causes in the causal chain.

    What matters to the organism is that the virus crosses it’s boundary with the world outside and infects it. In any case, I don’t think you achieve any kind of support for any compatibilist ideas however you look at this example.

    This confusion about causes does illustrate that in macroscopic or “emergent” properties, especially in the crude course grained human language categorization of human subjective experience, causation is less clearly identifiable. If I buy something, is it because I thought it was pretty, because I needed it, because it resonated with some childhood memory, because I was victim of advertising suggestibility, because I smelled something appealing during the decision, or some combination of these things? Usually we don’t know what causes us to do things, but we think we do because our brain’s habit of rationalization always causes it to invent a narrative, a linguistic explanation for why we did what we did. There is often some truth in these rationalizations, but they also can omit much or invent much as well. This slippery set of human dreams, fantasies, and stories are the linguistic quicksand compatibilists seem to be willing to found their notion of freedom upon.

    I sort of skipped over the argument from authority about Dennett. His authority is not what I’m interested in, just the actual ideas. I will read up on “multiple drafts”. No matter how much authority or respect he has, and I do respect, like, and admire the man, he can still be wrong about things.

    How many people in the world will agree with you that Watson has free will?

    Wait, is this now an argumentum ad populum?

    You act as if you can toss this point aside, but you can’t have it both ways. Does it matter what people think the words “choice”, “intend”, “will”, “want”, “desire” mean? Does it matter what the English language or any human language means? Most certainly it does. And the meaning of a language is descriptive, contained in the minds of its users. Either people commonly believe that “free will” is a special human quality that gives us a freedom from divine determination and allows our unique personality and character to express itself without limits, a pure kind of mental freedom to materialize new thoughts out of nowhere, or else they don’t believe this. I think this is roughly what most people believe. In other words either people believe they have the “free will” humans have for millennia thought they had, what compatibilists are fond of calling “contra-causal free will”, or else they do not believe this. So it matters a lot what people believe “free will” means, because the whole premise of the claim that “free will” is compatible with determinism, is predicated on what the meaning of “free will” is. To me it is obvious that compatibilists have their own peculiar definition of “free will” because they think it is important to say “compatibilism is right”, or they think it is important to say “we have free will” (as Dennett evidently does, in his own words). The importance of these things seems to me to be very much more related to various peculiarities and frailties of humans than it is to how the human brain works. Compatibilists have often argued that what humans really think they have is the compatibilist kind of free will, which really isn’t freedom from anything, but it is ability to act in one’s own interests.

    I suppose you could say “compatibilist free will” provides freedom from being like a passive rock or a bit of paper blowing in the wind, but that doesn’t rise to the level of what humans believe they have. Humans believe they have something that is not only beyond Watson in degree, as you indicated, I believe, is how Dennett would distinguish humans from Watson, but also fundamentally beyond Watson in kind. So I don’t think there is any evidence for the claim that humans believe they have “compatibilist free will”, and I think it’s a maneuver on the part of compatibilists to protect their shaky claim about what “free will” means. So you really can’t dismiss a discussion of what “free will” means, nor can you dismiss an appeal to what most humans think “free will” means. If we were to accurately survey the public at large in a questionnaire that avoids planting ideas or otherwise training or tainting the subjects, I sincerely believe that we would find the vast majority of human beings believe in some kind of “free will” that is contra-causal, and that they believe Watson could never have this or anything like it.

    I think [Dennett] is correct that incompatibilists tend to make us “too small,” identifying the “me” with ONLY the moment of consciousness, rather than to the process as a whole. I continually see you guys doing this.

    I think you are completely wrong here. This echoes the common anti-reductionism straw man, supposing that scientists who are analyzing something in detail blind themselves to the bigger picture. Of course we are humans, we are alive, we have the same feelings and experiences as others, so how could you seriously think for a second that scientists can’t perceive the continuity of the human individual over time? This is perhaps you engaging in the same “I’m the only adult here” tactic you criticized me for, or perhaps you are playing “Compatibilists are the only full and whole human beings here”.

    I agree with you that humans have the attributes of desiring, planning, predicting outcomes of actions, assessing results, feeding that back into future decisions, thinking logically and imagining counterfactuals, but I don’t think there is any requirement that there be something “free” in the human mind in order to have those capacities. You can call this freedom, but I think it’s a weak notion of “free will” compared to how people generally think of it. I don’t think you are offering any real consolation to people, just a phony consolation, not very unlike in nature the consolation that “God has a plan for us,” which Darwin fretted over destroying by publishing his picture of life arising out of a brutal struggle for survival. Compatibilists, in a very real way, are replicating the struggle Darwin had about revealing the truth, which they avoid by playing equivocation on “free will”: the public notion, Descartes’ notion, “contra-causal free will” vs the “compatibilist free will” which effectively boils down to no freedom from the constraints of determinism, but the worthwhile features all human beings know they have, which is that ability to resist coercion and act in one’s own interests. You can call this a kind of freedom until you are blue in the face, it does not amount to what the traditional and most widely accepted meaning of “free will” is. Maybe if you guys hired Karl Rove you could massively re-engineer public conceptions of “free will”. But that would be a pyrrhic victory, merely appearance for appearance’s sake.

    I’ve already responded to your vacation planning model in this post

    Here is an analogy that I hope illustrates why I can’t say there is any freedom, even though the subjective apparitions of human emotion, logic, memory, and their linguistic correlates do paint lovely pictures about yearning, choice, reflection, and action that give a very convincing simulation of “free will” (which is exactly why people believe they have it).

    If I have an algorithm to select one of a group of varying length sticks, let’s say to always select the longest of the bunch, is there any free will here? You may try to say there is in selecting the algorithm, but putting that aside, is there freedom in the algorithm driven choice itself? No there is not. The outcome is determined by the lengths of the sticks. By examining the sticks, you could easily predict in advance which stick the algorithm would select.

    Now if my brain has an algorithm wired into it genetically (no choice here) for choosing from among a group of perhaps thousands or hundreds of thousands of parallel competing signals from different parts of the brain, based on say the strength of those signals, or based on the breadth of those signals as determined by number of connected synapses, whatever the actual process is, somehow it is filtering and weighting and comparing emotional signals and logical signals and coloring those signals with memory inputs in ways that we do not control. The unconscious mind is effectively mindlessly executing a competition between all the sources in our brain that impact what choice we might make, or what action we perform next. Here the brain is doing something essentially equivalent to, but more complex and hierarchical than, comparing the lengths of sticks and awarding “winner” status to the “longest” or “strongest” coherent combination of signals, like the horse race analogy I described in another post. We feel like we participate in a controlling role in the decision, but the actual valuing of options and the determination of which one is “best” happens, I’m convinced, beyond our control. We really aren’t choosing willfully and consciously, we feel like we are doing this willfully and consciously. We never really know the full explanation for why one choice seemed better than another.

    And these facts are obscured by compatibilists incomprehensible need to insist that at some point the unfathomably complex fabric of neural connections and it’s range of capacities is so complex, so unpredictable to us, and so well suited to how we want to be, compared to say computers, that we christen it as “free willing” its behavior. I don’t know when a complicated network of neurons crosses that line into “free will land”. In fact, I don’t believe such a line exists, but compatibilists pretend as if it does exist because their main concern is, as I said before, not how the brain works, but how people feel about how the brain works. And for doing this, compatibilists are obscuring truth and doing humanity a disservice in my opinion.

    I agree this could be easier in actual dialog, but on the other hand sometimes it helps to have the quiet time to reflect deeply. This is a complex and elusive subject, to be thinking about the brain using the brain, which I think creates at least part of the confusion.

  24. Gregory Landry
    Posted November 6, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    To all,

    I will defer to the expertise in this group. I believe based on the facts that we are not “outside” the realm of causality. BUT, when I say “I am going to open the door.” and then do so this is what most of I consider “free will.” I can consistently propose hypotheses about what I will do in the future within a given framework of time and fulfill those hypotheses. The scientists can continue to argue about the plethora of physical interconnections that are necessary for an event to take place, i.e. dependency on the causal nexus, but this has no significant relevance on the average persons use of the phrase “free will.” I act as IF I can make decisions on “my own” and those decisions blossom to fruition.

  25. Posted January 21, 2013 at 4:51 am | Permalink

    Hi Jerry,

    I was interested to see your quote from Dennett that implies Erasmus believed free will is an illusion. I was of the understanding that Erasmus argued FOR common-sense free will against the Luterians who were advocating predestination.

    Am I in error about this?

    Thanks,

    James

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted January 21, 2013 at 6:30 am | Permalink

      I think you’re correct on Erasmus, but misunderstood what Dennet said.

      Dennet’s wording is ambiguous. Dennet and Erasmus share the view that, should the doctrine of free will as an illusion become widespread, it would have negative consequences for society. This is revealing of Dennet’s motives for insisting on compatibilism even though he seems to fully accept determinism.

      This doesn’t mean they agree on what free will us, but they both believe we have it. Dennet would not agree we have the kind of free will Erasmus believed in, which would have been contracausal free will.

      Dennet seems concerned that people knowing our will is not free in the traditional sense of Erasmus, but rather fully caused by deterministic forces, would convince them they are helpless puppets, despite the abundance of evidence of actual observed human behavior, that even a child can see, which shows we are not puppets. Puppets are controlled by external forces, and humans are not.

      I don’t really get Dennet’s fear here. It seems to me akin to the fear religious people hold that absence of the fear of god would make people immoral. I don’t think fear of god causes moral behavior, it’s just a rationalization for moral behavior. I think the causes of moral behavior are more deeply ingrained in human nature, and are driven by the need to have the approval of our family, our peers, and our communities.

      Just because our will is caused rather than free doesn’t mean we have no will. But Dennet remains nervous and still insists on attaching the qualifier “free” because he thinks it makes people feel better.


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  1. [...] The rest of the slides for Coyne’s presentation are available at his website, under his post: “My presentation on Free Will“ [...]

  2. [...] Jerry Coyne has post the power-point presentation he used on his blog Why Evolution is True: My presentation on Free Will He also has posted a summary of then workshop: Moving Naturalism Forward: my summary, and a [...]

  3. [...] My presentation on Free Will [...]

  4. [...] been promising a substantive report from the meeting myself, to join those by Jerry (one, two, three) and Massimo (one, two, three). Other obligations have made it very hard to find time for [...]

  5. [...] summaries by Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne first, second and third, and Massimo Pugliucci first, second and [...]

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