A physicist gets muddled about free will

Physicist and broadcaster Jim Al-Khalili is apparently a big macher in the UK, though I confess I hadn’t heard of him before today. His webpage notes:

Jim Al-Khalili OBE is a British scientist, author and broadcaster. He is a professor of Physics at the University of Surrey where he also holds a chair in the Public Engagement in Science. He is president of the British Humanist Association.

OBE and President of the BHA! Those are some impressive credentials. I was thuys doubly disappointed to see Al-Khalili go badly wrong in a recent essay he wrote for his website, “Do we have free will—a physicist’s perspective?“.  Now the question mark is in the wrong place and all implying that we don’t know whether it’s a physicist’s perspective, but that’s the least of his errors. Prompted by a piece at i109 by George Dvorsky (“Scientific evidence that you probably don’t have free will“), Al-Khalili tries his hand at defending the concept. His essay is apparently an excerpt from his recent book Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas of Science.

Before I show briefly how Al-Khalili goes wrong, let me again note that when I assert that one doesn’t have free will, I am arguing about classical dualistic free will. So when I ask whether we have free will, I am adhering to Anthony Cashmore’s definition (in bold):

I believe that free will is better defined as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature. Here, in some ways, it might be more appropriate to replace “genetic and environmental history” with “chemistry”—however, in this instance these terms are likely to be similar and the former is the one commonly used in such discussions. (Cashmore A., 2010, Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA, 107:4500).

Now before you say that “nobody believes in that form of free will any more,” let me add that I’ve talked to plenty of people who do, including scientists. One of my colleagues recently told me that she got into an argument with a well-known scientist who was an adamant dualist, frankly admitting that he thought there was the equivalent a little man in his head making free decisions.

And yes, I know you can define free will so that we have it by definition—it’s our ability to make apparent choices without having a gun to our head, or our evolved ability to consider many factors before “deciding” on a course of action, or the fact that a mammal named Jerry is seen to make decisions, and so on. Hell, I could define free will as simply “it looks to an outsider as if we’re making choices,” and then everyone has it!

To me, the important task of philosophers should not be finding some new definition of free will so that the masses can think that they have it and thus be reassured (after all, false reassurance is what theologians do), but letting people know that our decisions are behavioral outcomes of physical processes in our brain, determined by the laws of physics or indeterminate according to quantum mechanics. Either way, dualism is dead, and educating people about this is the most important thing philosophers can do vis-à-vis the free will question.

But philosophers don’t like to do that since, as some explicitly admit, it’s bad for society if its members feel that their choices are predetermined. I find that a condescending and almost dishonest attitude. Catering to the idea that people must think that they are free agents is like theologians catering to people by saying that they must have a God because otherwise they’ll act immorally.  It’s time to admit that our choices are made by our genetic and environmental history, for only that admission will enable us to adddress the legal and moral changes that must accompany an understanding of how our brain works and why we behave as we do.

And the most important task for scientists in this area is, of course, to find out how our brain works and what factors determine our behavior.

At any rate, Al-Khalili does the same thing that many philosophers do: admits physical determinism (with perhaps some quantum indeterminacy), but then argues that we have free will anyway:

Our physical brains, consisting of a network of a hundred billion neurons that are linked together via hundreds of trillions of synaptic connections are, according to everything we know about them so far, nothing more than sophisticated and hugely complicated machines that run the equivalent of computer software, albeit involving a complexity and interconnectedness far beyond anything a modern computer can achieve. All those neurons consist ultimately of atoms that obey the same laws of physics as the rest of the Universe. So if we could, in principle, know the position of each atom in our brains and what it was doing at any given moment and we understood fully the rules that govern how they all interact and fit together, then we should in principle be able to know the state of our brains at any time in the future. That is, with enough information I could predict what you will do or think next – provided of course you are not interacting with the outside world, otherwise I will need to know everything about that too.

Were it not therefore for the weird and probabilistic quantum rules according to which those atoms behave, and in the absence of any non-physical, spiritual or supernatural dimension to our consciousness of which we have no evidence, we would have to admit that we too are part of Newton’s clockwork, deterministic universe and that all our actions are preordained and fixed in advance. In essence, we would have no free will.

It would have been good had he stopped there! (Note that here he appears to be adhering to a classic dualistic definition of free will.)

But no! Like a good philosopher, Al-Khalili simply redefines free will, but in a way that few philosophers accept: it’s based on the unpredictability of our behavior. (Chaos theory shows that in complex systems, sometimes very small changes in initial conditions will lead to radically different outcomes. It’s still deterministic, but prediction may require information that is very hard to get.)

So do we have free will or don’t we? The answer, despite what I have said about determinism, is yes I believe we still do. And it is rescued not by quantum mechanics, as some physicists argue, but by chaos theory. For it doesn’t matter that we live in a deterministic universe in which the future is, in principle, fixed. That future is only knowable if we were able to view the whole of space and time from the outside. But for us, and our consciousnesses, imbedded within space-time, that future is never knowable to us. It is that very unpredictability that gives us an open future. The choices we make are, to us, real choices, and because of the butterfly effect, tiny changes brought about by our different decisions can lead to very different outcomes, and hence different futures.

So, thanks to chaos theory our future is never knowable to us. You might prefer to say that the future is preordained and that our free will is just an illusion, but the point is our actions still determine which of the infinite number of possible futures is the one that gets played out.

When he says “the choices we make, are, to us, real choices,” he’s punting: what he means is, as he admits, “the choices we make seem like real choices, even though they’re pre-determined.” They are illusions, for they aren’t what they seem to be; and in that sense free will is purely illusory, based on our false sense of agency.  And Al-Khalili knows this:

Whether we call it true freedom or just an illusion in a way does not matter. I can never predict what you might do or say next if you really want to trick me because I cannot in practice ever model every neuronal activity in your brain, anticipate every changing synaptic connection and replicate every one of those trillions of butterflies that constitute your conscious mind in order for me to compute your thoughts. That is what gives you free will.

Most distressing is his notion that free will is based on predictability.  Yes, chaos theory means that some choices aren’t predictable, but what if, as seems likely (and recent experiments demonstrate), we’ll be able to predict some decisions moments or even hours before we’re conscious of having made them? We’re already able to do that with some accuracy over ten seconds or so, and we all know of people whose behavior seem predictable—to us, not to them—because we know them so well that we’re able in some sense to figure out what their neurons are going to make them do.  I fully believe that, as brain science develops, our behavior will become predictable with increasing (but not perfect) accuracy and increasingly far in advance. What then becomes of Al-Khalili’s notion of free will? Will some of our “free” decisions really be free because science isn’t good enough to predict them, while the other decisions eventually become “unfree”?

According to Al-Khalili’s definition, the problem of free will resembles a problem of theology.  Just as theological tenets are dispelled one by one as science advances, so Al-Khalili’s notion of free will (and other notions, too) is gradually eroded as brain science advances. What Al-Khalili is trying to do here resembles what accommodationists do with faith and science: reassure people that they can have their determinism and free will too.

I find the whole enterprise intellectually dubious: a sop to the average person who, according to some philosophers, will become a beast or behave erratically if he doesn’t think he makes real choices.

But that won’t happen. As I and real experts on brain science know: we have no choice but to feel that we make real choices!  We won’t become bed-bound nihilists if we accept the notion of determinism.

In the end, it’s always better to know the truth about our behavior than to remain ignorant or hide the truth with sophisticated definitions. And in the case of free will, knowing the truth is vital for thinking about punishment and reward, or pondering the concept of moral responsibility. (I happen to feel that for societal reasons we should be held responsible for our actions, but because of determinism we don’t have real moral responisibility.) Surely advances in brain science should change the way we think about reward, punishment, and responsibility, but if you desperately try to save the idea of free will with definitional tricks, that won’t happen.

Sam Harris is right.  We are puppets of our genes and environments, and it’s bloody well time we admitted that.  Philosophers should be telling us that too, as did Sam, instead of retooling notions of free will so we can reassure a public that’s wary of determinism. We’ll still behave as if we have choices, but we can then move on to a more meaningful dialogue about punishment and moral responsibility. By playing with words, Al-Khalili isn’t helping here.

163 Comments

  1. Sunny
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    I think you will be amused to see your ‘friend’ Platinga’s review of Harris’s book:

    Bait and Switch: Sam Harris on free will.

    http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2013/janfeb/bait-and-switch.html?paging=off

  2. Steve Reilly
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    I liked his book The House of Wisdom, but yeah, I’m with you on free will. As far as I can tell, he should think that weather patterns have as much free will as humans do.

  3. coozoe
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    An interesting book on that and other subjects is by Alex Rosenberg, “An Atheist’s Guide to Reality.” I avoid philosophers but this book does a nice job of crediting science for everything.

  4. agentwhim
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Just to correct you there, Jerry: OBE is *not* an impressive credential.

    • Sawdust Sam
      Posted January 18, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      Officially, ‘Order of the British Empire’, but colloquially referred to as ‘Other Buggers’ Efforts’.

      • GrahamH
        Posted January 18, 2013 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

        Actually it is Officer of the Order of the British Empire. Which puts it above MBE (Member of the order…) and below CBE (Commander), at the top are KBE and DBE (Knight and Dame, depending on sex).

        It’s all Ruritanian bollocks…

  5. eveysolara
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    I’m Ron Burgundy?

    • Persto
      Posted January 18, 2013 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

      “God damn it! Who put a question mark at the end of the sentence? You know Ron will read whatever you put on the screen.”

  6. @eightyc
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Jerry, correct me if I am wrong. It seems to me that your definition of the absence of “free will” rests entirely on the fact that the fundamental laws of nature are never violated.

    Is that correct?

    If decisions come from the interaction of those atoms, molecules, etc., then the number of combinations and permutations of the different ways it can happen get really really large.

    Perhaps this is what Al-khalili is getting at.

  7. Alex T
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Wonderful.

    He saved Free Will in humans but at the cost of giving it to electrons and the weather.

    • Posted January 18, 2013 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      +2

    • Posted January 18, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      +1

    • Posted January 18, 2013 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      I would actually seriously suggest something that’s a variation on that theme.

      “Free will” is an incoherent concept. Either things happen according to a set of rules or randomly (or some combination thereof), and that extends even to any hypothesized supernatural soul / whatever that’s acting as a ghost in the machine.

      However, there is a very real phenomenon that people are pointing to when they say they’re exercising their free will. What they’re doing is imagining the outcomes of various actions they might take, and choosing amongst those actions based on their mental modeling. The process is entirely deterministic (with the usual caveats of chaos and quantum indeterminacy), but it’s very real and really what people do when freeing their willies.

      It should be obvious that, if we are to adopt that process of decision making based upon an analysis of likely outcomes of multiple choices, then every computer chess program has free will in exactly the same sense as humans do.

      However, I personally don’t think it’s valid to actually identify that type of decision-making as actually being the “real” free will; I instead think it best to leave it at this level of clarification.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Alex T
        Posted January 18, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

        I don’t know if it’s incoherent but it does seem self-defeating. Even our spiritual self would still be constrained by its fixed internal state and the external stimuli and so wouldn’t be “free”. If, on the other hand, decisions weren’t constrained then they’d be effectively random and we would get lots of freedom but lose our “will”. Free will at the expense of the self.

        I bet there’s lots of internet fame for the first person to find a pithy way of expressing it, along the lines of the Epicurean paradox.

        • Prof.Pedant
          Posted January 18, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

          How’s about: “Contemplating options that you are not going to choose is not free will.”

      • Posted January 18, 2013 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

        And I think what someone like Jerry or Sam would say next is that “imagining outcomes” is a superficial level that only appears to be closer to “free”, or at least different, than a rock rolling down a hill. The outcomes we imagine, the modeling we do before acting, is just as determined, just as much a part of the causal chain, as anything else.

        I think this is what they’d say. Me, I think I need to do a lot more study before I take a firm position.

        • Posted January 19, 2013 at 10:05 am | Permalink

          And I would agree with Jerry and Sam were they to claim that the decision-making process I described is not actually free will, that it’s still subject to determinism with a bit of randomness.

          My point is that, though it isn’t actually free will (which I argue is as incoherent as “north of the North Pole), it is a real phenomenon, and it is what most people are pointing to when they say they’re exercising their free will.

          Think of it like homeopathy. There are, indeed, cases when drinking water or taking a sugar pill will help somebody get better. But it has fuck-all to do with molecular memory or whatever; it’s just the placebo effect (which is very real) with fraudulent marketing.

          Cheers,

          b&

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted January 19, 2013 at 2:37 am | Permalink

        I think it’s a good practice to try to behave in a morally responsible manner, and also not to adopt definitions that make this automatically futile. So I think I’m with Ben on this.

        • Posted January 19, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink

          There are fascinating considerations of whether there’s ultimately any meaningful difference between illusion and reality. However, as a practical matter, whether illusion or not, I experience the world as if I actively make choices. The ghost in the machine isn’t there, but it sure feels like it is.

          And that ghost will feel very bad if I make poor choices. I don’t like it when that happens, so I try to make the best choices I can.

          Ultimately, you have a choice as to whether you will try to choose wisely. And you will reap the rewards of your choice. I cannot imagine any more compelling justification for making good choices.

          b&

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted January 18, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      Alex’s comment takes the thread–at least so far!

  8. Ken Pidcock
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    I happen to feel that for societal reasons we should be held responsible for our actions, but because of determinism we don’t have real moral responsibility.

    I’m afraid that I’ve yet to get this or the associated claim that wider acknowledgment that we lack free will allow us to move on to a more meaningful dialogue about punishment and moral responsibility. I’m not saying that you don’t have a point, just that I don’t get it.

  9. TheSkepChem
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    It’s interesting to note that the Norse were fatalistic but still believed in law and punishment, even in cases where the action was unintentional (like when Loki tricked the blind Hoder into killing Balder). While I think that a distinction should be made between intentional and unintentional actions (with unintentional actions receiving lighter punishments), and I also am aware that there are many aspects of Norse civilization which we should not seek to emulate, I think an ethos where we behave as though we are responsible for our actions because it is good for society is perfectly compatible with the widespread knowledge that we are not, in fact, responsible for our actions.

  10. ianpkirk
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Jerry, don’t be so hard on our Jim. It’s not like he could have chosen to write anything else.

    Whilst sympathetic to your position on this, the phrase ‘We are puppets of our genes and environments, and it’s bloody well time we admitted that’ isolates an important problem. What would such an ‘admitting’ constitute? How can we talk about admitting something like that without appealing to a concept of free will, to something that can make choices, to changing minds, to the possibility of persuasive argument?

    The problem of how a whole society could ‘admit that’ and move on is similarly problematic. Why would such a collective system experience this state-change if the system is entirely described by genetics, physics and whatever ‘environment’ is supposed to mean?

    • fliessgleichgewicht
      Posted January 18, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      +1

      If dualism is wrong, then the idea of the self dissolves, further dissolving concepts like “puppet” or “free will”.

  11. Gasper Sciacca
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    As far as I am concerned, you can’t really define free will. Our decisions are either predetermined or they are arbitrary. Either way where is free will?

    • Christian
      Posted January 18, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. And even if dualism were true, you’d basically run into the same problem.

    • Posted January 18, 2013 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

      Predetermined or arbitrary! Both are rationally unacceptable – therefore, those are NOT the only options! So what’s another one? Damned if I know. But, like Socrates, I know that I don’t know, but both determinists and arbitrarians don’t know that they don’t know.

      • Posted January 18, 2013 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

        What do you mean by, “rationally unacceptable”?

        Alternatively, what third option would you suggest? Either something happens in accordance with some set of rules or it doesn’t.

        That also applies to any hypothesized ghost in the machine, such as a soul or spirit; even if it’s not constrained by the laws of the natural world as we know it, it either has its own set of rules that it follows, thus making it deterministic, or it just does whatever without rhyme nor reason, making it random.

        (There are, of course, weighted probabilities — indeed, that’s the most common case. But it’s pretty clear that that’s nothing more than a blending of determinism and randomness with no more room for “freedom” than pure forms of either alone.)

        Cheers,

        b&

  12. Sastra
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    We are puppets of our genes and environments, and it’s bloody well time we admitted that.

    Well, it’s even worse than that for me — I am a puppet of my brain! It’s responsible for everything I do! There’s no use in my fighting it. God knows I’ve tried.

    If you make yourself small enough, you can externalize anything.

    • Jeremy Pereira
      Posted January 18, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      To claim you are a puppet of your brain is to claim you are something other than your brain. i.e. it is dualistic. You are not a puppet of your brain, you are your brain and your brain is you.

      In that sense you do sort of do have free will although it’s not the classical free will that Jerry defines – that requires an external-to-physical-reality entity. You take sensory inputs and your brain reacts to them in a way that is dependent on its configuration and since you are your brain, you can be said to be making choices. However, those choices are entirely deterministic. It’s not real free will, but it’s enough to assign responsibility to you for your actions (in my opinion).

      • Posted January 18, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

        Jeremy an interesting question. When someone says my body or my brain, who owns who?

        On matters this post, I need a little help understanding the classical dualist view of free will. I think I get the deterministic idea a bit.

        • Baba-gaouch
          Posted February 4, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

          When you say ‘my’ body and my brain, it belongs to the sense of individuality, self-hood or existence that expresses itself a the emergent phenomena we call consciousness/self-awareness during the waking state. Consciousness translates as ‘I’. Same, same. Awareness of one’s own existence is ‘I’ am or ‘I’ exist.
          The poison of Eastern and Western religious ideology or philosophy is to mystify consciousness as being something ‘spiritual’ when in fact it is truly natural. Nothing else. When someone dies, the sense of self, I or consciousness ceases to exist, because the brain and body cease to function. Just like being in deep sleep, there is no ‘I’ or awareness of being. Death is the final destination for everyone alive. Full stop!
          That is the reality of one’s own being or existence verses the illusion of religion that makes people seek the imaginary or mythology of ‘divine’ self-centerness or egotism.

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted January 19, 2013 at 2:50 am | Permalink

        you are your brain and your brain is you

        I think that’s one of the unjustified assumptions Sastra was criticizing (did you miss the irony?) by saying If you make yourself small enough, you can externalize anything.

        Do you include your cerebellum? brain stem? glia? Are they necessary? – is there any more loss of self by losing a bit of brain than a few limbs? Why just the brain, why not draw a boundary at the skin rather than the dura mater? From the point of view of causality, why single out a boundary anywhere?

        I like Tim Minchin’s take on the question.

  13. Posted January 18, 2013 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    There are two models to explain human behavior: one with free will and one without free will. Occam’s Law of Parsimony would dictate that there is no free will and behavior is an emergent property of our chemistry.

    But if someone is able to believe in a supernatural god then free will is an easy dropkick from there.

    Jerry is correct that this guy is just re-defining free will…I doubt, say, an orthodox Catholic would agree with his re-definition.

  14. WiseApe
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    I am undecided on free will. I’ll get back to you when I’ve made up my mind….

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted January 18, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

      I knew you were going to say that.

      • WiseApe
        Posted January 19, 2013 at 6:46 am | Permalink

        My indecision is such that I may have to flip a coin on this one.

        • Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

          Are you sure about that?

          /@

          • WiseApe
            Posted January 20, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

            Heads or tails? Decisions, decisions…

  15. Posted January 18, 2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    “…frankly admitting that he thought there was the equivalent of a little man in his head making free decisions.”

    Didn’t he mean to say “pants”, or is that a typo?

    Our decisions are determined but often not predictable. Next subject please?

    • Christian
      Posted January 18, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      +1 :mrgreen:

      I wonder if he ever had the idea that this little man probably needed an even littler man in his head (ad infinitum) to make a decision.

      • TheSkepChem
        Posted January 18, 2013 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

        It’s turtles all the way down.

        • Christian
          Posted January 18, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, and this might also explain why it always took him so long to come up with a decision.

  16. Chris Quartly
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    I’m a fan of Jim Al-Khalili, and very happy at his appointment in the BHA, he’s done numerous BBC science documentaries and I’ve enjoyed all the ones I’ve seen, in particular I liked “Everything and Nothing” http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00yb59m

    However, I agree with this post that he is playing with words a little bit and don’t agree with him.

    • Posted January 19, 2013 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

      I thoroughly enjoyed the ‘Everything and Nothing’ documentaries too!

      I’m bemused as to why he’s started farting around with the Free Will notion.

  17. Posted January 18, 2013 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    “Either way, dualism is dead, and educating people about this is the most important thing philosophers can do vis-à-vis the free will question.”

    Yes, right on, since the personal and policy implications run deep, plus it’s the naturalistic truth about ourselves. As you put it, “only that admission will enable us to address the legal and moral changes that must accompany an understanding of how our brain works and why we behave as we do.”

    “We won’t become bed-bound nihilists if we accept the notion of determinism.”

    Right. As law prof Stephen Morse puts it, we can’t wait for determinism to happen.

    “I happen to feel that for societal reasons we should be held responsible for our actions, but because of determinism we don’t have real *moral* responsibility.”

    Agreed, where being morally responsible is standardly defined as meriting praise and punishment independent of any consequentialist justification. Dennett takes a consequentialist, non-retributivist stance in his review of Bruce Waller’s book Against Moral Responsibility, and like you and other progressive naturalists, advocates for criminal justice reform.

    “Sam Harris is right. We are puppets of our genes and environments, and it’s bloody well time we admitted that.”

    Disagree with Sam on this, since as organisms we are real, causally effective links in the deterministic chain that runs from our antecedents, through us, to our actions. A puppet has no internal behavior-guiding machinery and can’t initiate action; it doesn’t make its own contribute to its fate, but we do. It’s only by holding on to the dualistic standard of agency as contra-causal control that we can be seen as puppets. And it’s that view of ourselves, a misconstrual of determinism, that might lead people to nihilism and passivity.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted January 18, 2013 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

      I am afraid that I feel the only important words in Jerry’s piece are these: ‘the most important task for scientists in this area is to find out how our brain works and what factors determine our behavior’. Rather than spending time on what seems to me to be a sterile debate that surely does not have the huge implications that Jerry asserts it does, it would be better to examine more deeply the differences between ‘normal’ people and, say, patients with damage to the frontal lobes such as Damasio describes in ‘Descartes Error’, as well as the kind of psychological damage resulting from, say, being abused as a child, and only then start talking about moral responsibility and reforming codes of criminal justice – and comparing what is done with criminals in, say, Norway with what is done with them in the US. Again, as I have said before, why should a belief in determinism, or an acknowledgement that we are determined lead to the kinder treatment of criminals? Since punishments designed to deter by instilling fear have an effect on minds, why not make punishments as draconian as possible? It was not so long ago that Jerry himself was calling for severer punishments for a Harvard (as I recall) biologist who faked his data on the grounds that the punishment that had been meted out to him wasn’t sever enough to have a deterrent effect. As for Sam Harris, well… I see, now, that, having in the past defended torture, he is now defending gun possession, despite what grieving parents such as those on the video Jerry embeds elsewhere. I have little time for SH.

  18. Posted January 18, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I happen to feel that for societal reasons we should be held responsible for our actions, but because of determinism we don’t have real moral responsibility.

    Just wondering, would you want to eradicate the concept of morality from society and the language, or would you be happy to (re-)interpret morality in a compatibilist way?

  19. Posted January 18, 2013 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see that Al-Khalili is saying anything dualistic or particularly controversial from a computational theory of mind POV. the question just seems to be a semantic one as to whether he wants to call the process he describes “free will” or not. That phrase has never really had any fixed meaning.

    I don’t see why it matters for what period the choices we make are predictable in advance, after all it takes some time to make a database query. And surely the choices we make are affected by our current environment: I can’t choose to catch a ball before you have thrown it, so we couldn’t possibly predict someone’s choices ten minutes in advance.

    Also it seems pretty uncontroversial that some of our choices come from subconscious processes that aren’t always accessible to the conscious mind – something I try to consider before firing of my replies on the internet :).

    • neil
      Posted January 18, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      Once it is agreed that free will cannot involve a violation of natural law, I believe the debate about it does become a semantic one.

      • Posted January 18, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

        I agree. But, after accepting a deterministic explanation of brain function, people then tend to conflate determinism and fatalism, which is I think the root of all these arguments.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted January 18, 2013 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

          I think there’s also a tendency to conflate physical determinism (the idea that mental events have physical causes) with biological determinism (which in extreme form holds that mental events are irrelevant and ineffectual, and that behavior is fully accountable by genes and upbringing).

          • Posted January 18, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

            Not sure I can parse that one. In a deterministic universe how could we exhibit behavior that wasn’t some kind of interaction between how we were at inception (our genetic make up) and what happened to us after that (the environment we grow up in). Surely those two things, interacting together, form the sum of the possible deterministic events that lead to our actions.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted January 18, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

              Well, if you want to include this conversation, for instance, as part of our upbringing, then I guess there’s no difference, although I think that’s a rather strained interpretation of “upbringing”.

              The different I’m getting at is whether mental events matter. If it’s all genes and upbringing, then they don’t; we act purely out of reflex, and what goes on it our head is just an epiphenomenon of no causal consequence.

              I don’t think this is an accurate picture of reality. What we think and feel right now does matter to what we do next. Cognition is part of the causal chain, contrary to biological determinism e.g. of the Skinnerian school, which explicitly denies any causal role for mental events.

              • Posted January 18, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

                Ah – I see what you mean. I was interpreting the nurture part of that argument as every single causal interaction one has with the environment after inception. That just goes to show how careful one needs to be with language in these arguments. That’s mostly where the disagreements arise.

                I thoroughly agree that mental events are part of the causal chain and don’t see how anyone can deny that – and I’m not sure they really do.

                My take on Skinner is that his point was that mental events can’t be measured and so don’t constitute empirical observations, since you can only measure the results of behavior. Asking people about their feelings isn’t science. And maybe he had a Machian / instrumentalist approach to science. I’m sure he didn’t actually take the view that because mental events can’t be measured they don’t therefore happen.

              • Leigh Jackson
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

                What we think and feel right now is occasioned by the total substrate of brain processes occurring right now. Those processes involve comparisons of stored models of personal history with real time modulation from internal and external signals. The result may be experienced as a conscious “act of will”.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

                This comment really strikes me as failing to fully appreciating the role of genes in the brain:

                The different I’m getting at is whether mental events matter. If it’s all genes and upbringing, then they don’t; we act purely out of reflex, and what goes on it our head is just an epiphenomenon of no causal consequence.

                I fail to see how mental events could be possible without genes. The separation of biological determinism from physical determinism is very suspect, and seems like a minor form of dualism, as if there were something physical but non-biological going on in our brain.

                I agree that Skinner was wrong to bracket off mental events as somehow unimportant, but I think it’s at least as wrong to bracket off biology and genes from mental events as something entirely distinct and unrelated.

                Babies are born with nearly complete apparatus to learn language, process visual information, hear sounds, and apparently to make moral judgments of a very simple nature. Without being taught these things they simply develop using feedback between sensory and cultural inputs and genetically controlled brain development. Genes determine the fact that we can learn at all, the plasticity of our brain, that we can store and retrieve memories, that we have emotions, that emotions associated with memories, that we can form abstract concepts and manipulate them in reasoning processes. It’s all genes, finely tuned by feedback with our environment.

                Perhaps the problem is thinking of genes as a kind of blueprint, or thinking of the brain as a kind of blank slate upon which our environment imposes knowledge and experience. Neither of these things seems to be true.

                The development of the knee socket for example is not determined by a blueprint that specifies the exact shape and dimensions. Instead genes coordinate the growth of the tissue in concert with feedback from genetic instructions to kick in the womb. This movement of the baby kicking in the womb is providing feedback to the growth processes so that the components of the knee fit together and move properly.

                I think most if not all of our development, and our learning throughout our entire life, involves this kind of feedback between genetic information and environmental input.

                It seems our genes figure quite heavily in our mental events, such as what kinds of experiences we like, how we react emotionally to events, what flavors we like, what types of sounds we like, and even to a degree what kinds of political opinions we have.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

                Jeff, it would be foolish to deny the role of genes in brain architecture and development, or the role of brain architecture in behavior. If that’s what you think I’m doing, then I haven’t expressed myself clearly.

                My claim is that architecture isn’t the whole story. The precise details of our behavior (such as the exact sequence of words in this comment) are not genetically determined; they depend on instantaneous brain state. I hope nobody here is going to argue that (say) the contents of short-term memory are genetically determined. (Gene expression may play a role in producing the neurochemicals that underlie such states, but that’s not what people mean by genetic determinism.)

                So we have at least one class of mental event whose details are primarily the result not of genetics or development, but of the instantaneous flow of information through the brain. Such information flows undoubtedly play a significant role in behavior; that’s why we take the trouble to speak our thoughts and entertain thoughts spoken by others. Information processing in the brain obviously makes use of neurological structures produced by genes and development. But the information content is not a product of genes and development, and that’s where biological determinism falls short as an explanation of behavior.

                Whether this counts as “something physical but non-biological” is a question I leave up to you.

  20. Jeremy Pereira
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    It should be pointed out that a non deterministic Universe does not help those who want free will.

    In a deterministic Universe your choices are determined by physical law. In a non deterministic Universe, your choices are determined some of the time and are totally random at other times. Nobody would suggest that somebody who makes all his choices by tossing a coin is exercising his free will. Well a non deterministic Universe is that in spades.

    • Posted January 18, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

      Yes. Dennett makes this point and claims that a deterministic universe is the best possible environment for any sort of free will, since clearly any random event can’t be considered to be a free choice, *whatever* (reasonable) definition of free will takes your fancy.

  21. Lowen Gartner
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    The same problem exists for the woo-minded.

    “Every Cause has its Effect; every Effect has its Cause; everything happens according to Law; Chance is but a name for Law not recognized; there are many planes of causation, but nothing escapes the Law.”–Hermetic Principle #6 from The Kybalion.

    So if you then ascribe to dualist free will where there is something outside of biological existence than can override the otherwise unavoidable consequences of chemistry, is this not from a different “plane of causation” and itself subject to the unavoidable consequences of whatever the equivalent of DNA, environment and chemistry is on that plane?

    Does this not create an infinite regress up to First Cause or better yet, if there is no first cause, only infinite cyclical existence to an endless chain of physical and metaphysical cause and effect where there is no room for the idea of causeless choice.

  22. DV
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    1. Dualism. Jerry doesn’t believe it. Al-Khalili doesn’t believe it. Nobody here believes it.

    2. “it’s bad for society if its members feel that their choices are predetermined”. This is a straw man. Nobody seriously argues for this.

    3. “Most distressing is his notion that free will is based on [un]predictability.” I don’t see why this is distressing. It is essentially the same notion of free will as Jerry’s but just opposite claims about whether actions are predetermined. There is a bit of semantic argument possible about whether predictability should be taken as synonymous to predeterminism, but aside from that the notion itself is basically a familiar one.

    3a. What about the evidence? Does detecting the choice from neuronal activity before it registers in the subject’s consciousness refute free will? There are 2 problems: 1) Is the experiment rigged to test exactly the opposite of free will – split-second choices where the choice is anything but deliberative? 2) Is the test cheating by looking at the output of the choice-making process such that there is no longer any forks in the future path of the decision? That would be like predicting the winning lotto number after it had already been picked by the machine but before it was printed in newspapers, and then claiming “see, it’s predictable!”.

    4. “We are puppets of our genes and environments, and it’s bloody well time we admitted that”. This is the ultimate demonstration why the concept of free will is not easily dismissed. In the same sentence a resignation that we are automatons and an exhortation that we do something about it? If we are the former, what choice do we have about the latter?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted January 18, 2013 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

      1. A lot of people believe it–I’ve encountered many. It doesn’t matter if people on this website believe it; I’m concerned that a lot of people, particularly religious ones, believe it.

      2. You’re simply wrong here. Here are two quotes from Dan Dennett’s recent Erasmus Prize essay talking about the dangers of refuting determinism in public (I could provide more):

      There is—and has always been—an arms race between persuaders and their targets or intended victims, and folklore is full of tales of innocents being taken in by the blandishments of sharp talkers. This folklore is part of the defense we pass on to our children, so that they will become adept at guarding against it. We don’t want our children to become puppets! If neuroscientists are saying that it is no use—-we are all already puppets, controlled by the environment, they are making a big, and potentially harmful, mistake.

      and

      “we [D.D and Erasmus] both share the doctrine that free will is an illusion is likely to have profoundly unfortunate social consequences unless rebutted forcefully.”

      See? I don’t think this could be a clearer refutation of what you say.

      3. Detecting choice before someone says he’s made a conscious choice not only refutes dualistic free will, but also other forms, including the one described in this post.

      4. You are not thinking carefully about #4. I may not have had a choice about what I say, but I can affect your choices by what I say, because I’m part of your environment. It’s a profound misunderstanding that the absence of free will means that our actions or environments do not influence our subsequent behavior.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted January 18, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

        It’s a profound misunderstanding that the absence of free will means that our actions or environments do not influence our subsequent behavior.

        It seems like you’re agreeing with Dennett here. Believing we have no control over our own behavior (or anything else) is a profound misunderstanding that is likely to have unfortunate social consequences. So it behooves us to phrase our arguments in such a way as to avoid that sort of misunderstanding.

        • Notagod
          Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

          No, Dr. Coyne is advocating accepting reality then working from that position. Dr. Dennett is advocating hiding from reality then working from an imaginary position at least as far as the “other” members of society are concerned. How is it to be determined which members of society get the honesty and which members get the bullshit? What happens if a member gets honesty when bullshit should have been given? Who or which group gets to determine who gets the bullshit? What happens if it turns out the group doing the determining actually contains a majority that should have been given the bullshit? (Christianity comes to mind for some reason) What happens if some that would have thrived under honesty are destructive under bullshit?

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted January 19, 2013 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

            I’ve read a lot of Dennett and I’ve never seen him advocate lying to people about free will. If you have such a citation, produce it.

      • Posted January 18, 2013 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

        Why would you ascribe primacy to the part of the brain that reports to an observer over the part of the brain than made the decision? I’m assuming that you aren’t actually denying that brains are involved in making decisions.

      • DV
        Posted January 18, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

        Ok, I’m very surprised about that Dennett quote. I don’t think there is even a sliver of danger that our children will become puppets. Could it really be that Daniel Dennett is so unfamiliar about the nature of human beings as to be worried that anyone could be convinced of lack of free will to the point of depression or nihilism or to the point of rescinding autonomy? Evolution has honed our competitive agency too well, there’s no chance we will stop making choices for ourselves, just because of philosophy. And if some of us do, then evolution guarantees the free-willed among us will outcompete the puppets.

        The way I see it, the problem is how to explain our experience of free will with a concept of free will that is compatible with reality. We cannot avoid the experience of free will so we better have a good explanation of it. Dualistic free will won’t do because we already know dualism is dead.

        We can say the source of free will is NOT dualism. But we cannot say there is no free will. That would be denying our experience instead of explaining it. I thought Dennett has done an excellent job of explaining, except that I didn’t know he was motivated with saving society from nihilism.

        The problem of Free Will is related to the problem of Consciousness. Just as it won’t do to deny consciousness (or even say it is an illusion) it won’t do to deny free will.
        The start is Consciousness. Then comes ownership of action. What does it mean for a Conscious thing to be the owner of an action? Intention then comes into play. Then crucially, the recognition that competing conscious individuals can have competing intentions. And in an environment of competing intention-capable individuals it is important to determine when the intention for an action performed by the body of an individual is owned by another individual. This is where the idea of Free Will comes into play. Did I do what my body just did out of my own free will, or did someone else make me do it? I think this is the central concept of Free Will. Among theists, God also comes into play as another competing intentional (if imaginary) being. But the whole concept is from the competition of intentions.

        • Alex T
          Posted January 18, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

          This is where the idea of Free Will comes into play. Did I do what my body just did out of my own free will, or did someone else make me do it? I think this is the central concept of Free Will.

          Are you then defining “Free will” as those decisions free from duress or is there more to it?

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted January 18, 2013 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

            That’s more or less how the law defines it.

            • Alex T
              Posted January 18, 2013 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

              We let people slide for actions they take when they are being compelled by other people and we take into account whether a person has been drugged or suffers from brain damage which explain or cause their actions. So does your proof/definition of Free Will really rely on our ignorance of the detailed mechanisms of the brain? And if not, are you drawing an arbitrary line, saying we have free will when we are free from the physical compulsions from other people while ignoring the physical compulsions of our own biology?

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted January 18, 2013 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

                There’s a line, and it’s a fuzzy one, but it’s not arbitrary. Bad behavior caused by a brain tumor is generally not amenable to correction by legal or social sanctions. Bad behavior caused by bad upbringing tends to be more amenable to correction. That’s why we punish the latter but not the former: because the punishment might actually do some good in one case but not in the other.

                We don’t need to know the detailed brain mechanisms. We just need to observe that folk psychology has identified these two categories of behavior, and for whatever reasons of linguistic history has attached the label “free will” to one of them.

              • Alex T
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 9:46 am | Permalink

                So you’re cool with the fact that, according to your definition of “free will”, the individual could still be physically compelled to act?

                And no, I don’t think you’re correct in your summary. When people are under the influence of drugs (especially if they did not “chose” to take them) or extreme passion they are given lighter sentences or let off completely. If a person acted badly and then had a brain tumour surgically removed and found their behaviour totally changed, I think their earlier bad behaviour would be excused as well.

                When you talk about our current view, you are really just making an argument from ignorance. Our understanding is poor enough that the law can use the idea of a soul that is free from physical constraints and which gives us free will. You aren’t giving a new definition but showing why the old, discredited definition needs to be changed. Since we don’t have free will, we can’t justify *punishing* people as if they are bad or evil and instead we should be moving to a public health and rehabilitative model of justice – an argument that has been made by Sam Harris and others covering this topic.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

                If by “physically compelled” you mean “subject to physical causation”, then yes, as a materialist I’m perfectly OK with that. That doesn’t change the fact that some bad behavior is corrigible by legal and social sanctions (“punishment”) and some is not. Behavior that can be changed only by medical intervention falls into the incorrigible category and is therefore not an appropriate target for such sanctions; no disagreement there.

                I’m not promoting any particular definition of “free will”; I’m simply observing that in folk usage and jurisprudence the “free will” label seems to map onto this notion of corrigibility. Folk theories about how “free will” works may be incoherent, but again that doesn’t change the facts of human behavior.

                I said nothing about souls or about punishing people because they’re evil. All I said is that corrective measures should be applied where they’ll do some good, and not where they won’t, and that the folk notion of “free will” can be viewed as a social heuristic for figuring out which is which.

          • DV
            Posted January 18, 2013 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

            That’s it, there’s nothing more to it.

            I would argue that the “legal” definition is really the ordinary sense that people understand the idea of free will. The problem is that there is a history of bad explanation coming from the theory of dualism that confuses the whole issue as a problem of freedom from causation. The dualism explanation was only an attempt to explain the mechanism of thought or consciousness. Even then I think the problem of free will was essentially a problem of competing wills. But there’s now so much baggage from the drummed up opposition of free will versus determinism (really a bad idea; determinism makes free will possible, just imagine what/how “free will” would be in an indeterministic world), that I think we sometimes lose sight of the ordinary meaning.

            But not to be too harsh, I think the confusion is understandable. Both ideas of freedom from causation and competition of wills hinge on the same question of “can we make free choices” (answer: sometimes yes, sometimes no). It’s basically a problem of autonomy.

            Btw, I think when theists talk about free will, they really mean it as free from the forcing will of God – freedom to oppose the intention of God. Most definitely not freedome from causation. So I don’t know how fighting dualism by denying free will helps against theism. If you deny free will, to a theist that would only mean we are always forced to act according to God’s will. But clearly we sin, so argument fails.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted January 18, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

          I don’t think Dennett is worried about saving society from nihilism as such. His concern is with bad decisions made by people who mistakenly think there’s no point in putting in the effort to make good decisions.

          And I seem to recall that there have been studies showing that people become more impulsive if they’re told that their decisions are predetermined and that deliberation has no effect on the outcome. So Dennett’s concern is perhaps not entirely misplaced.

          • Posted January 18, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

            Is anyone here saying that deliberation has no effect on the outcome of our decisions? … surely not.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted January 18, 2013 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

              Whether or not anybody is saying it explicitly, the point is that that’s what some people infer when you declare that free will doesn’t exist (without offering an alternate theory of agency).

              • Posted January 18, 2013 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

                Again, it all comes down to a question of definition.

                That’s why I first like to point out that “free will” is as incoherent as “north of the North Pole” — everything either follows rules or is random, including the purported ghosts in the machine, and neither option is “free.”

                And also why I like to immediately follow that with observing that there is a common experience that people are pointing to when they say they’re actually exercising their free will, and that’s the (entirely deterministic) process of imagining the outcomes of various actions and choosing which action to take based on that mental simulation.

                I wouldn’t call that decision-making process “free will” (though some certainly do) any more than I’d say that Polaris is north of the North Pole. But it is important to lay all of this out up front at the start of any discussion on the topic.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted January 18, 2013 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

                I might add that saying we’re puppets comes pretty darned close to saying that deliberation doesn’t matter, since puppets are incapable of deliberation and therefore completely at the mercy of external forces.

                So if Jerry and Sam Harris think deliberation does matter (and I presume they do think that), then they should jettison the puppet rhetoric, since it implies something other than what they mean to say.

              • Posted January 18, 2013 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

                Gregory, maybe we’re not so much puppets as we are popsicles?

                b&

              • whyevolutionistrue
                Posted January 18, 2013 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

                I don’t know what it means to say “deliberation does matter”. Under determinism, you have no choice about whether or not you deliberate, how you deliberate, and what those deliberations result in. Certainly you can’t change the course of your deliberations in some contracausal way. “Deliberating” means that you come to some decision after your brain processes the possibilities. It doesn’t mean that you can choose which possibility you arrive at, or what exactly goes into your deliberations, or which directions your thoughts take. But it doesn’t rule out that those directions can be influenced by your environment, which includes other people.

                Saying that “deliberations matter” as a refutation of contracausal free will is both ambiguous and, if interpreted as I have above, no affirmation of free will at all. A computer’s deliberations also matter–does it have free will?

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted January 18, 2013 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

                “Deliberations” mean that you come to some decision after your brain processes the possibilities.

                Correct. This is something we can do that puppets cannot. Therefore we are not puppets, and it’s simply confusing the issue to assert that we are.

              • Posted January 18, 2013 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

                Does my chess program make a choice as to what move to make, by deliberating on the options? Sure it does. Whether that is free will or not is just a matter of semantics.

              • DV
                Posted January 18, 2013 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

                There are 2 hurdles that your chess program has to pass before you can say it has free will. Does it have consciousness? Does it own its actions?

                It makes its moves of its own free will to the extent that you can answer “yes” to the above questions.

              • Peter
                Posted January 18, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

                “Under determinism, you have no choice about whether or not you deliberate…”

                But Jerry, you’ve repeatedly invoked something along the lines of “But my words are part of your environment…” to say that it’s worthwhile to for us to try to change other people’s behavior, even if they can’t change it themselves.

                But now it doesn’t matter what you imply about whether deliberation is worthwhile, because we don’t have free will about whether we deliberate?

              • Posted January 18, 2013 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

                @DV – If you could precisely define those terms then I would be able to tell you whether my program has them.

              • neil
                Posted January 18, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

                Free will is simply the subjective knowledge we (most of us) possess that, at least for some of the choices we make, we could have chosen differently “if we had wanted to.”. Like other subjective knowledge, such as color or pain, this knowledge is not open to external review, which is why we can argue endlessly about whether free will “exists”. But that does not make it any less real. For some reason, we do not argue about whether someone really has a headache or whether it is just an illusion.

                To have subjective knowledge, an entity must have some degree of consciousness. A computer does not. (How do I know, because no one has ever programmed consciousness into a computer because nobody knows how to do that.) That is why a computer does not have free will. Some day, I believe, computers will be conscious,and then they too will have free will. Computing science will figure out how to write a program once we have a clear understanding of exactly what consciousness is. Until then, argue on.

              • Posted January 18, 2013 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

                If we have no idea what the term “consciousness” means how can you then claim that we have it and computers don’t? Simply nonsensical.

              • Posted January 18, 2013 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

                I would suggest that “consciousness” is best understood as metacognition — that is, of thinking about thinking.

                At least at a rudimentary level comparable to that of a chess program’s “free will,” a computer hooked up to some sort of self-diagnosis might qualify. Or, perhaps, a chatbot talking to itself, assuming it was also doing some sort of predictive chess-style analysis of the conversation in order to steer it in some sort of direction.

                Again, this is obviously much less sophisticated than what humans do…but we’re now talking differences in degree, rather than differences in kind.

                b&

              • Posted January 18, 2013 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

                @Ben: If a brain is a Turing machine, which is probably implicit in it being deterministic (although Penrose and Searle might deny this), then it’s in principle no different to a chess program in that it is performing a series of computations. It’s relatively trivial to write a meta program that comments on chess games in an apparently human way: “I played g3 in order to open up lines for my bishop”.

              • Posted January 18, 2013 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

                Roq,

                I’d go one step further, and suggest that a violation of Church-Turing at the least very strongly implies, if not actually demands, a violation of conservation.

                Every proposal I’ve encountered for building a super-Turing device requires some variation on the theme of infinite resources in finite time or the like. Further, one can reasonably suggest that something that violates Church-Turing could perform calculations that would let one know how to, for example, let Maxwell’s Daemon actually do his job more efficiently than is otherwise possible.

                Or, take it to another extreme. Imagine a computer that modeled a human brain down to the atomic level. Either that model is as conscious / freely-willed / whatever as you and I, or else we’re right back to dualism.

                So, yeah. We are meat computers, as surely as the Sun rises in the East. The only question is how the software is actually running.

                Cheers,

                b&

            • neil
              Posted January 18, 2013 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

              “…how can you then claim that we have it and computers don’t?”

              We have every reason to think that consciousness is an evolved complex capacity that increases an animal’s fitness. Computers are designed by humans who are not even sure exactly what consciousness is, although we know it exists. How could a computer obtain such a complex capacity? By magic?

              • Posted January 18, 2013 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

                The problem is that you are using a word “consciousness” for which there isn’t any agreed definition and assuming that everyone knows what it means. Consequently one can’t use that term as any kind of litmus test of free will, which, in any case, is a similarly ill defined concept!?

              • neil
                Posted January 18, 2013 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

                There are most certainly definitions of consciousness, some better than others. Hundreds of books have been written on the subject for goodness sake. Do you think Crick wrote The Astonishing Hypothesis without defining it? Because it is a subjective phenomenon and because we do not understand how the brain creates it does not mean we can’t make statements about it. One such statement is that I have it and I have good reasons to believe that other humans and some animals have it but modern computers do not because we cannot program something into a computer we do not understand.

              • Posted January 18, 2013 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

                I don’t mean to be facetious, but surely the fact that hundreds of books have been written about consciousness reinforces the point that noone actually agrees on what it is.

                The guy who wrote the program “Deep Thought” (Fsu) certainly didn’t know enough about chess to beat Gary Kasparov himself, but the program he created did. Creating a program that we agree exhibits “intelligence” isn’t likely to be something that happens in one step and there is no necessity that any one person should understand it. Probably there is no Platonic essence of intelligence / consciousness: That is there isn’t going to be any exact dividing line between what we agree to be conscious and what isn’t, just as there is no dividing line between life and non life (is a virus alive?).

              • neil
                Posted January 18, 2013 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

                Faithists like to argue “we don’t understand quantum uncertainty, ergo jesus” or “we don’t understand biogenensis, ergo god.” It has been pointed out many times on this site that this is nonsense. So is “we don’t understand consciousness, ergo there is no free will.”

              • Posted January 18, 2013 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

                Think you have that backwards – Free Will is a nebulous concept, not dissimilar to the concept of a transcendent deity (and sometimes associated with it). If you wish to show that there is such a thing, you need to first define exactly what the term is meant to mean and then secondly provide some evidence as to why we should have that.

                Introducing further undefined terms such as “consciousness” doesn’t make anything clearer.

              • neil
                Posted January 18, 2013 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

                Bull. I have put forward the hypothesis that free will is a subjective reality like color and pain. Do you think that color and pain are equivalent to a belief in a deity?

                No one can prove or disprove my hypothesis yet because we don’t have a good theory of subjective experience. That is often the case in science. Perhaps in the future it will be shown that free is an illusion. But no one can do that now, so you and other non-compatibilists should dump the epistemological superiority you think you have and don’t.

      • Posted January 19, 2013 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

        Did you really mean to say “dangers of refuting determinism in public”? From the context I would have thought that you were quoting Dennet as alleging dangers of *asserting* determinism in public.

    • Posted January 18, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      “‘it’s bad for society if its members feel that their choices are predetermined’. This is a straw man. Nobody seriously argues for this.”

      Actually, Israeli philosopher Saul Smilansky argues that it would be bad if philosophers destroyed the illusion of contra-causal free will, see his book Free Will and Illusion and this summary of his position by Bob Doyle, http://www.informationphilosopher.com/solutions/philosophers/smilansky/

  23. jcm
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Tangentially related: he also wrote a wishy-washy column. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2012/12/24/should-the-president-of-a-humanist-organization-be-more-aggressive/

    • Explicit Atheist
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      If we were both British I would elect Hemant Mehta over Jim Al-Khalili as president of the BHA. I think it is important that we be self-consistent and self-confident with our evidence first method and philosophical naturalism conclusion and not conflate politeness or good pulic relations with refusing to publicly and fully discuss the disagreements out of fear of hurting other people’s feelings.

  24. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    They are illusions, for they aren’t what they seem to be; and in that sense free will is purely illusory, based on our false sense of agency.

    What’s false about it? It’s a fact that the chain of physical causality flows through us. Our brains states really do influence our own behavior as well as external events. Our thoughts and intentions have tangible consequences; we are agents of change in the world. Agency doesn’t get any realer than that, so why it is false to believe we have it?

    Once again it seems like you’re defining “real” agency to be something that’s by definition impossible or nonexistent, while labeling the kind of agency that actually exists in the real world as false or illusory. If your goal is to help clarify thinking on this subject, I suggest (again) that this counterintuitive use of language is not a good way to do it.

    • Posted January 18, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      Yup.

    • abandonwoo
      Posted January 18, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      It is necessary to comment to be able to follow this thread. I’m reluctant to expose the fact that this topic continues to baffle me after over a year of effort to understand it, but I guess I have no choice other than to do so. Terms that contain clear meaning to proponents explain nothing to me, instead serving well to confuse. A parsimonious Epicurus-type explanation is badly wanted.

      • Posted January 18, 2013 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

        I with you abandonwoo, and this still appears to me to be molecular Calvinism.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted January 18, 2013 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

      Yes.

  25. Prof.Pedant
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    “what if, as seems likely (and recent experiments demonstrate), we’ll be able to predict some decisions moments or even hours before we’re conscious of having made them?”

    It occurs to me that tools that enabled a person to be aware of his or her internal brain state might have some interesting effects. What would it be like for me to learn what I intended to do next before ‘traditional biological processes’ notified me of my decision? Or what would it be like to be aware of your sub-conscious priorities while thinking about your conscious priorities? Thinking may become an even more interesting experience in a few more decades or centuries.

  26. Sam
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    I read Sam Harris’s book on Free Will (which read like it was written over a couple of weekends) and came away less persuaded that I am a mere puppet. David Eagleman makes a better case, for me, in his book “Incognito.”
    To me the issue is whether or not we are responsible for our actions, and I agree with Gazzaniga on his point that nobody would rob a house if there were police out in front. That would cause them (or I guess their brains, since that’s all we are) to rethink their intent to rob.
    And I’m still not clear that if there’s such a thing as willpower, there can’t be such a thing as a kind of will. When I am tempted to steal candy out of a broken vending machine, with whom am I debating? Who in my brain wins that argument? Why did I decide to move to California to attend graduate school? It felt like I put a lot of thought in the decision, weighing the pros and cons. Is that part of my automoton nature? Are words like reflection, debate, discussion, thought, introspection, doubt, reflectiveness, comparison, meditate, think useless? If the outcome is ineluctable, how can we ponder, silently, using that protein in our skulls, anything?

    • Posted January 18, 2013 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      Eagleman would call reflection, debate, discussion, thought, introspection, etc, as what our ‘brain parliament’ does. I prefer Eagleman over Harris also.

  27. Posted January 18, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Incorporating chaos theory just strengthens the illusion of free will. It allows me to act as if I do have free will, even though I know I do not.

  28. Posted January 18, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Once again, I don’t “believe” in free will, nor do I see any reason to put that term onto something because it will give comfort to believers.

    It is just so that the term “freiwillig” is literally synonymous with “voluntary” in my native language, German, i.e. whenever we want to say we undertook some action without somebody else forcing us at gunpoint we have no choice but using it.

    What is more, there is an undeniable difference in autonomy of behavior between a rock and a human, or between a human who is mentally ill and a human who is sane, and it is nice to have a word to describe that autonomy. Call it volition, I will continue to call it free will. Again partly because in my language it is a complete non-issue, because “freiwillig” does not imply dualism at all.

    Sam Harris is right. We are puppets of our genes and environments, and it’s bloody well time we admitted that.

    Also once again, who is “we”? We are, in part, our genes. Consequently a sentence like the above is precisely equivalent to the claim that I should not be allowed to say that my pocket calculator computes the answer to 6.25 x 44 because in reality it is a chip inside it that does the computing.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted January 18, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

      Yes, what gets lost in this endless debate that goes on and on to no purpose are such important distinctions as between those who are (relatively) mentally healthy and have undamaged brains and those who are not and who have brain damage.

      • Explicit Atheist
        Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink

        This distinction retains its significance under Sam Harris’ argument. The significance here is that someone with a healthy and fully functioning brain is more likely to be influenced by social sanction and punishment than someone with brain damage.

  29. fliessgleichgewicht
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    The argument of “free will” suffers from, as Gödel proved, the limits of a language that cannot be both complete and consistent. This can be seen in confusing language regarding what exactly the “self” is. Is it found in the brain? The brain is an internal reconstruction of its environment whose basic “pre-environmental” architecture is defined by instructions that were themselves shaped by physical laws/evolutionary processes. Where in all this is the “self”? As such, I wonder if it is possible to separate a “choice” from the process that generated an action and the process that responded to it?

  30. Posted January 18, 2013 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Very intriguing. I enjoyed the debate between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens where they spoke of freewill.

    Lane Craig said that free will or free choice is necessary for sentient freedom to obey God.

    Hitchens responds cleverly that he never had free will to have a free will and for it to truly be free he must have the will to not have a free will.

    I’m a devout of the Christian religion – but I love the questions you ask. I love to wrestle with them. Thanks for asking quality questions.

  31. MNb
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    I must admit that I don’t understand how a scientist can be a dualist too. Maybe that’s a subject for another article?

    • Posted January 18, 2013 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

      I think it has something to do with tripartite waterfalls, or perhaps the rape of one’s daughter….

      b&

      • Posted January 20, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

        I don’t know whom or what you are referring to in that second instance, but regardless, it is an inappropriate “low blow” and should be removed.

  32. Posted January 18, 2013 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see what’s so scary or negative about not having free will. It just means you’ve always been doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing.

    Maybe not in human terms, as in the ideal thing that would lead to the flourishing of you and those around you, but then those terms themselves are just as much of a natural phenomenon as your behavior relative to them, and your deliberation on how to better align yourself with them.

    But… If you had all the info about all the particles in my brain and calculated their evolution to predict my behavior, wouldn’t that then actually just be a copy of me, whose behavior you’d be equally unable to predict?

  33. kelskye
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    I’m really not sure what the difference is between Jerry as a brain making a decision and a brain making a decision is. How do we separate ourselves from our decisions without committing to the self being an epiphenomenon?

  34. cherrybombsim
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never had a problem reconciling a belief in determinism and acting as if I had free will. To me, it is like rolling a pair of dice: in principle, the number I roll is predetermined by various velocities, mass distributions and properties of the table from the moment the dice leave my hand. In practice, I am better off calculating the probabilities as if it were truly random. I dunno why so many people bother to drag quantum mechanics into the question, you can easily get the necessary level of complexity without it.

    • Posted January 18, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

      It is a very curious fact of nature that the more fundamentally random something is the easier it is to predict at large scales, and the more fundamentally deterministic it is the harder it is to predict at large scales.

      For example, radioisotope decay is as random as it gets, but you will not find anything better for measuring long timespans — even out to billions of years. And nothing is more deterministic than orbital mechanics, but good luck solving the three-body problem.

      We see it at less dramatic scales, as well. Casinos make lots and lots of money from very easy-to-make predictions of random events. There’s nothing random about the weather, but predicting it is nigh-on impossible. Climate, though, as an aggregate of the de-facto randomness of weather, is quite predictable….

      Cheers,

      b&

  35. Posted January 18, 2013 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    JAC: “. . . our decisions are behavioral outcomes of physical processes in our brain, determined by the laws of physics or indeterminate according to quantum mechanics. Either way, dualism is dead . . .”

    Therefore, when JAC himself decides that our decisions are behavioral outcomes of physical processes in his brain, determined by the laws of physics or indeterminate according to quantum mechanics, that decision of his itself is a behavioral outcome of physical processes in his brain, determined by the laws of physics or indeterminate according to quantum mechanics. And it is not, one should add, a decision based on evidence and reason! And likewise for the sophisticated theologians who decide that dualism is true: their decisions, like JAC’s, are merely the behavioral outcomes of processes in their brains. They are simply predetermined to think what they think, and so is JAC. . . IF determinism is true!

    Determinists seem oblivious to the implications this for determinism.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted January 18, 2013 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

      So you’re saying that because computers obey deterministic laws of physics, their calculations are not based on mathematics and we have no reason to expect them to give correct answers?

      Clearly that can’t be right. So if deterministic physical computers can implement mathematical reasoning to arrive at correct answers, why can’t deterministic biological brains use evidence and reason to do the same? Wouldn’t one expect brains that yield mostly correct answers to have an evolutionary advantage over those that don’t? How does determinism undermine that?

      • Another Matt
        Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:24 am | Permalink

        Right. And notice how “evolutionary advantage” is itself a curious concept under the variety of hard determinism we’ve seen Prof. Coyne espouse.

        Imagine someone saying:

        “All life forms are puppets of their genes and environments, so no organism can really do anything about its chances of survival.”

        Or even:

        “All life forms are puppets of their genes and environments, so no organism can really do anything about its chances of survival, and in fact there is no such probability involved in its survival because the moment of its demise is predetermined.”

        Etc.

      • Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

        Noo, I’m not saying computers can’t do math correctly; they can, but only because they’ve been designed by people who can do math, and that’s why we can trust them (usually). And computers can also do math INcorrectly due to either their hardware or software. But a computer itself (not us people) can’t tell if it is doing its math correctly or incorrectly – it just “thinks” (excuse the anthropomorphism) it’s calculating correctly, whether it is or not.
        IF determinism is true, we are in the same boat – we can’t tell whether our reasoning is good or bad, although, like the computer, we think we reason well, and we are predetermined so to think, no matter what conclusions we reach. And I’m NOT saying there’s an intelligent designer! I’m just saying determinism isn’t (completely) right because it can’t account for rationality – and I have no idea what a viable alternative is.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted January 19, 2013 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

          Hang on. You’re saying we can trust computers to give correct answers because we trust the people who designed them to design them correctly.

          But at the same time we can’t trust ourselves to reason correctly, because we can’t trust natural selection to design us correctly.

          Do you really not see a problem with this line of argument?

          In fact computers can self-test and self-diagnose to make sure they’re functioning correctly; this is common engineering practice. They can’t verify that their programming is correct (and neither can we, in most cases), but they can verify that the answers they get make sense and are self-consistent — and so can we (in most cases). That’s what science is all about: double-checking and testing for consistency in order to catch errors resulting from cognitive bias.

          Determinism can’t make us believe that 1 + 1 = 3.

  36. marycanada FCD
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    sub

  37. Jim Bradley
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    “I happen to feel that for societal reasons we should be held responsible for our actions, but because of determinism we don’t have real moral responisibility.”

    I don’t see how those two views are consistent.

    • kelskye
      Posted January 18, 2013 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

      It’s two different levels of description. What laws we make about society and how we value other agency in the world is different to a level of description of how the agency comes to the decisions it does. Whether or not an agency can choose otherwise, from a societal perspective choice matters.

      So I don’t think there’s anything inconsistent between the two statements. However, I do think there’s something inconsistent between the use of the word “should” and that we have no free will. There is no should if we cannot choose otherwise, there is only is. In other words, we cannot change the laws we make, the judgements we make, the actions we do, etc. It’s nonsensical to talk about what we should do if there is no free will.

  38. Posted January 18, 2013 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    So very late to the party. Anyway…

    Al-Khalili:

    “I can never predict what you might do or say next if you really want to trick me because I cannot in practice ever model every neuronal activity in your brain, anticipate every changing synaptic connection and replicate every one of those trillions of butterflies that constitute your conscious mind in order for me to compute your thoughts. That is what gives you free will.”

    So, because he also can’t predict the path a canyon will take over centuries of erosion, the river has free will?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 3:01 am | Permalink

      That depends on your definition of “free will”, but if it is the ability to make “choices”, go separate pathways, yes a river haz it.

  39. Another Matt
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    I wholeheartedly agree with Gregory Kusnick in this thread. In these discussions I’ve noticed two types of commenters who explicitly deny free will.

    The first says yes, we have various capacities and competencies. We recognize opportunities and make decisions based on our brains’ models of the world. But none of that amounts to free will because free will is an inherently dualistic or otherwise flawed concept and should be jettisoned.

    The second says that determinism implies that there there really aren’t capabilities — no ability to make decisions, etc. If pressed, this commenter will say that in principle determinism implies that there is no real difference in capable behavior between a car that drives itself and a roller coaster: both are puppets, totally controlled by the deterministic unfolding of the consequences of their organization.

    I take Ben Goren as an example of the first, and Jerry himself as an example of the second (and I hope this isn’t caricature). But as I’ve said before around here, this second stance, with its puppet rhetoric, makes it sound as though I am somehow stuck in a body that I can’t control. For the life of me, I don’t see how this isn’t just another form of dualism.

    • Another Matt
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 1:03 am | Permalink

      One more thing:

      I wonder what it is about chess programs that makes them so appealing to refer to. We so often hear, “so, by your logic, chess programs have free will!”

      I think there is a coherent way to think about this from a normal compatiblist stance: a good chess program has a great deal of free will with respect to playing chess, but none with respect to any other activity that requires ability (which is to say, any other activity).

      I myself have almost no ability at chess, and so I’m happy to deny that I have free will with respect to chess — I can make any move I want that complies with the rules, but not much more, and I certainly will never experience defeating a grandmaster as the outcome of my decisions.

      I think the reason humans recognize free will in themselves and less (or none) of it in other things is that the collection of our abilities is so much more varied and general.

      (Feel free to substitute “capability” for “free will” above — I think compatiblists who are tired of this endless argument will eventually feel comfortable with ditching the term “free will” altogether and talking up capabilities, capacities, and so forth.)

      • Posted January 19, 2013 at 6:25 am | Permalink

        Again you are defining your own particular set of properties that constitute what the term “free will” means, as you recognize in your last paragraph: If you define “free will” as a set of properties we have, then we have it. If Jerry and Khalili adopted your bracketed approach, then would there be any real difference between their positions?

    • Posted January 19, 2013 at 6:08 am | Permalink

      Precisely!

      • Explicit Atheist
        Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

        It took me awhile to appreciate JC’s perspective on free will. It likewise took me awhile to appreciate your criticisms of some aspects of JC’s arguments. I think I am getting your perspective now. Nuance is needed to find the proper balance for accuracy, and both JC and SH, in their eagerness to dispute contracausal free will, are sometimes missing that nuance.

    • Posted January 19, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

      Without declaring allegiance to one view or another, I will say that, at least for me, part of the problem of accepting compatibilism is that it’s never very well explained why mental modeling and/or deliberation should be placed in an exceptional category. Yes, I can see that there’s a difference we should acknowledge between the way a person arrives at an action and the way a rock arrives at an action. But there are differences between the way a rock finds its downhill course and the way a tree grows, or a paramecium moves. In these latter two instances we don’t call the differences free will.

      Further, it’s never very well explained how the process of modeling/deliberation/selection actually confers control. Where and how does any control sneak into the causal chain?

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted January 19, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

        This strikes me as another linguistic dodge of form “Real control is the kind that can’t exist. The kind that guided missiles and other cybernetic control systems have is just the illusion of control.”

        Nevertheless the fact remains that guided missiles can use feedback loops to actively stabilize their trajectories against external forces in a way that dumb bullets can’t. There is a real difference there, and if you’re going to deny us the use of the word “control” to describe that difference, then what word will you permit?

      • Another Matt
        Posted January 19, 2013 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

        Further, it’s never very well explained how the process of modeling/deliberation/selection actually confers control. Where and how does any control sneak into the causal chain?

        This is where essentialism gets us into trouble. You seem to be thinking of “control” as some kind of essence that can be injected into a situation over and above anything that might otherwise constitute control from another perspective.

        Compatibilist: “My truck has a thermostat that controls engine temperature.”

        Incompatibilist: “Well, actually it doesn’t really control engine temperature — it merely monitors the temperature and then makes something mechanical happen when that temperature gets higher or lower than a specified range, which later brings the temperature back into range. I can’t see where control has sneaked into the causal chain.”

  40. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 2:48 am | Permalink

    Ah, finally! I have waited for someone to put the physics of this in a way that would make Jerry react.

    I must admit I don’t understand his reaction though, since Al-Khalili nowhere supports dualism (in the here presented material) but just present the physics. Also there seems to be some lingering misunderstanding here:

    Chaos theory shows that in complex systems, sometimes very small changes in initial conditions will lead to radically different outcomes. It’s still deterministic, but prediction may require information that is very hard to get.

    It is impossible to get, that is the very point of deterministic chaos. The system is deterministic in microscale physics, but unpredictable in macroscale behavior because of exponential divergence.

    The reason is that you would need infinite resources for the infinite precision needed to characterize initial conditions expressed as real numbers.

    This is why there is an open field whether or not the relativistic version of Laplace’s clock work universe, the Einstein block universe, is valid. See for example Deutsch’s “The Fabric of Reality” for an alternate version of how time progresses.

    [Personally I think neither is correct, because entanglement forces yet another theory of time. But it is neither here nor there.]

    So this:

    … if its members feel that their choices are predetermined. … It’s time to admit that our choices are made by our genetic and environmental history, …

    is wrong!

    We don’t know if the physics is “predetermined”, even modulo quantum mechanics. This is an open question.

    And even if it was “predetermined”, chaos prevents us from generally tell us what happens in complex systems. It is possible that we can’t go from our genetic and environmental history and say which way a system jumps.

    AFAIK we have reason to believe the brain is “poised on chaos”, because it predicts how signals can be transmitted across the brain without attenuation but with relevant processing.

    Yes, chaos theory means that some choices aren’t predictable, but what if, as seems likely (and recent experiments demonstrate), we’ll be able to predict some decisions moments or even hours before we’re conscious of having made them? We’re already able to do that with some accuracy over ten seconds or so, and we all know of people whose behavior seem predictable—to us, not to them—because we know them so well that we’re able in some sense to figure out what their neurons are going to make them do. I fully believe that, as brain science develops, our behavior will become predictable with increasing (but not perfect) accuracy and increasingly far in advance.

    This is better, since it describes what we are observing, and it admits that there is a problem of perfect prediction.

    But I doubt this is a generic situation, since our environment changes on timescales much less than hours, tens of seconds or even seconds, and our reaction time is set appropriately. You can find such choices I’m sure, but it doesn’t enable us to predict every response.

    In the end I am yet again assured that this is another area where philosophy and hence a discussion in terms of “free will” is ill poised to help understanding. It is better to identify the biology, our genetic and environmental history controls our brain function, and the physics, we can never fully predict “choices” (outcomes) of sufficiently complex systems as guaranteed by already known physics.

    • Posted January 19, 2013 at 6:10 am | Permalink

      Dennett would say that a fully deterministic universe is the best environment for any kind of freedom that is worth having. Since, if there is anything random in the chain of events that leads to us making a decision, then that would detract from our freedom in making a choice and not enhance it.

      I don’t think that chaos theory changes the freedom landscape in any meaningful way, since it’s fully deterministic and it’s not as if people thought the number of interactions between particles in a billiard ball universe was manageably predictable before chaos theory was dreamt up. Laplace’s famous remark: “We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future…” still applies.

      In the light of the above, we can ignore physics and ask the simpler question: “Would it be possible to have free will in a deterministic universe of the kind that might be modelled by a cellular automata”. And I don’t think the answer would be any different to asking the same question about the universe we are actually in, whatever rules might apply to that.

  41. Chris
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    You’ve never heard of Jim Al-Khalili? Erm, he’s god. Thor to be precise: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00kjq6d. His stunt atop the Tesla Coil is one of the most stupendous bits of telly I’ve ever seen, worthy of the largest TV and sound system you can throw at it. He’s probably the best science programme maker in the UK.

  42. Blaise
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    “Sam Harris is right. We are puppets of our genes and environments, and it’s bloody well time we admitted that. Philosophers should be telling us that too, as did Sam, instead of retooling notions of free will so we can reassure a public that’s wary of determinism. We’ll still behave as if we have choices, but we can then move on to a more meaningful dialogue about punishment and moral responsibility. By playing with words, Al-Khalili isn’t helping here.”

    There is a logical paradox in that paragraph. If puppets behave AS IF they have choice, but actually have no choice in determining their behavior, then what is the purpose of punishment? It seems to me that information moves in a non-random manner during a discussion of punishment. If information moves non-randomly, then some force moves it. Physically determined forces creating non-randomness at the scale of human behavior does not seem homologous to the concept of those forces making people puppets. Human behavior that takes random information and organizes it into non-random forces implies some level of agency that puppets do not possess. That agency may be determined by purely physical phenomena, but somehow it can make an intended difference in the future interaction of other phenomena. If not, then why punish the carrier of the agency? What do we tell that carrier when we are punishing it? What if it disagrees?

  43. Peggy
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    I think that what is usually missing from these discussions is an attempt to define what is meant by the self. If I say that “I” don’t have free will (and I know that I don’t), the problem isn’t so much what I mean by “free will,” it’s what I mean by “I”. Since we apparently don’t have little “I” agents in our brains, it means that what we really have is a feeling of “I” and that feeling does not have free will. How could it?

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      Fine, but if you’re going to make your “I” that small, then you forfeit the right to say things like “I think”, “I say”, “I know”, and “what I mean”, since thinking, knowing, saying, meaning, and so on all happen outside this feeling of self you’re calling “I”.

  44. Posted January 19, 2013 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Colin's mind.

  45. Leigh Jackson
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Jim’s humanism can sometimes lead him towards a rosy presentation of science’s big picture rather than a purely objective one. He recently had a tv programme on information theory which managed to end with a vision of entropy as the elixir of life – reason to be cheerful for the next million years or so.

    Ironically, I had just finished reading Charles Sieff’s cracking tour of the same territory “Decoding the Universe” which ends with the calculation by Lawrence Krauss that guarantees an eventual end to all life in the universe.

  46. Chris Quartly
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    I just remembered that Jim Al-Khalili hosts The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4, which has featured Jerry talking about Steve Jones (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01lhfs5) and a show that Jerry has mentioned on this blog before (Richard Dawkins was on it as well).

    So he should have heard of Jim before, even if he can’t remember him :)

    • Barney
      Posted January 21, 2013 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      And Jerry also linked to Jim’s website when talking about the not-faster-than-light neutrinos: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/11/19/faster-than-light-neutrinos-observed-again/

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted January 21, 2013 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      All right, all right, so I forgot. What point are you trying to make here? If it’s that I forgot, I admit it. Or is it something else?

      • Chris Quartly
        Posted January 21, 2013 at 10:31 am | Permalink

        Nothing untoward! Jim is working his way towards national treasure status back home (as is Brian Cox) so maybe we’re just a little sensitive, even if he is wrong about free will :)

      • Posted January 21, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

        Something else??? Well I hadn’t considered that possibility, but now that you mention it maybe I should…

  47. Posted January 21, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Surely if you are going to assert the error of those who believe in something, then it makes more sense to adopt or criticise the definition of someone who DOES believe it exists rather than someone who does not.

  48. tytung
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 1:12 am | Permalink

    My view is: there is of course no free-will from the level of neurons and genes and molecules. I don’t believe in mind-matter duality.

    However it is not mere illusion. It is as `real’ as our consciousness, our ‘self’ and agency. We can think of it as illusion only if we are also willing to accept there is no ‘me’ and our own consciousness are fake.

    So, we make our decisions based on our decisions, and thus we are responsible for our choices.

    Genes and environmental history can’t do the actions by themselves, it is done through a conscious agent – us. Yes this is unfair because some people with genetic/neurological disorders have limited choices in their actions but we have no choice but to punish the agent.

    BTW, I think you misunderstood Jim’s use of chaos theory on the issue of free-will. It means that no matter how detailed we might know about the state of all the neurons of a person, plus his entire history in every minute details (perhaps down to a flash of light that he unconsciously felt when he was 2), we still may be wrong about what he might do.
    Although chaos theory may not be the key essence of free-will, I think it does play an important part.

  49. Posted February 18, 2013 at 2:31 am | Permalink

    It occurs to me that this “brain science” you speak of is equivalent more or less to a real person learning what another real person behaves like. It seems no more remarkable than the fact that humans can learn what other humans are like, to the point where we can guess their behaviour with some reasonable accuracy ahead of time in a situation which we control. While that is remarkable, all it seems to demonstrate is that *humans behave in a manner which is roughly internally consistent* rather than *humans have no free will*.

    If the predictions were made absolutely flawlessly, every time, then perhaps I could reconsider such a conclusion. Admittedly, I’ve not read the paper.

    • TheSkepChem
      Posted February 18, 2013 at 8:49 am | Permalink

      stoove, what does it mean for a person’s actions to be “internally consistent”? I submit it means that their actions are based on certain personality traits or other mental factors. Put another way, their actions are dependent on prior causes, and therefore they are not “free” in the sense of free will.

      • Posted February 18, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

        By “internally consistent” I mean that as a rule, the person under discussion holds to a set of beliefs/opinions/behavioural traits. These need not be either strictly deterministic (i.e. there is some room for variance, but the mean is close to the expectation value) nor random.

        My point is that, as with any observable, there must be some variation in the ability to “predict” an outcome. Since the coincidence rate is not 100%, it follows that the predictions demonstrated are following a general principle which is analogous to those which people use to predict the behaviour of people unconsciously.

        That is: their behaviour is “only roughly” internally consistent; this demonstrates that the behaviour has some not-predictable (or “free”) element. Hence this is a somewhat interesting, demonstration of what humans have known for millennia. Namely; people behave according to how one would expect them to, except occasionally when they don’t.

        • TheSkepChem
          Posted February 18, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

          Regardless of whether someone’s behavior is predictable or not, it still depends on prior causes, and is therefore not free. And even if it were shown that some actions were uncaused, they would still not be freely willed, for they would be entirely beyond your control. The same goes for any actions arising from quantum processes in the brain, which would depend on probabilities.

          The problem boils down to the fact that there is no way for an action to arise which would make sense of the notion of “free will”. I recommend Sam Harris’s brief discussion of the topic in the endnotes of The End of Faith (I believe it’s the first endnote from the chapter entitled “A Science of Good and Evil”). Reading that pretty much put the last nail in the coffin of my belief in free will.

          • Posted February 18, 2013 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

            I too can see “no way for an action to arise which would make sense of the notion of “free will”” – at least in terms of any attempt to define the notion which I have yet come across. But if I haven’t seen a coherent definition of it, then it makes no more sense to for me say we *don’t* have it than to say that we do.

            If I could *prove* that the concept was undefinable then I suppose I could legitimately say that we don’t have it, but I can’t see any feature of the word “will” that makes it impossible to define it as something which could actually accept the modifier “free”.

  50. Nick
    Posted October 26, 2013 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    About 6 months ago there was a discussion about free will on a scientific forum I frequently go to. I was surprised to see that quite a lot of scientists actually believe in free will.

    I tried to argue the contrary, only to find out that they were quite convinced and stubborn.

    I also brought up the point that the fact that free will does not exist had consequences for ethics and morals, and on how one should live his life but the responses I received were for the most part negative.

    Another example was last week when I watched a presentation of Lee Smolin ( the cosmologist who invented the theory of cosmic natural selection with black holes ) on youtube in which he clearly said he believed in free will.

    I know that people tend to hate the idea that they have no free will but I expected better coming from scientists.


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