What is compatibilism, really?

By way of getting feedback from readers, I want to highlight a comment by reader Jeff Johnson on a post I did a few days ago about moral responsibility. Here’s part of what he said:

All that’s really going on here is that people called compatibilists have an emotional attachment to the idea of “free will”, so they have reassigned the conceptual target of the phrase to enable them to retain a cherished relic. This doesn’t add any new knowledge. It preserves a tradition that should have become obsolete by now.

If you visit here often, you’ll know that I pretty much agree with this. The history of the notion of “free will” seems clear. It began as frankly dualistic—the idea that there was part of your brain that could make decisions, and that part was somehow autonomous, non-determined, and could override the regular workings of your neurons.  This was, of course, the basis for Christian salvation, and is still the notion held by many religious folks, as well as those theologians who rationalize moral evil as a necessary byproduct of “free will.” That “free will,” of course, means that “one could have chosen otherwise.” (Yes, I know about Calvinism, where salvation is predetermined).

Now most of us think that the notion of “free choice,” as in the sense of “could have chosen otherwise at a given moment,” is wrong.  Excepting quantum mechanics—whose effects on behavior are unknown, and whose pure indeterminacy doesn’t fit most people’s idea of ‘ “free will”—our behaviors are determined by physical laws, and can’t be overridden by some spirit in the brain.  Ergo, as Jeff said, libertarian free will is dead. I think that nearly all of us agree.

Nevertheless, philosophers have redefined free will, assuring us that everything is all right (the nasty fact and implications of determinism are swept under the rug).  To me, this redefinition resembles the ways that Sophisticated Theologians™ have redefined God in a scientific world that has increasingly made personal deities obsolete. Instead of being a personal humanoid God,  he’s seen as a “ground of being,” a “thing which can’t be spoken of” or “the vast and inexhaustible depth of the universe.”  Just as the ghost has been removed from free will, so the human has been removed from God. In both cases, an idea that was tangible has been replaced with something nebulous and unclear.

Over the past months, I’ve been surprised at the number of readers who are compatibilists, comfortable with a notion of free will that accepts material determinism.  So, if you’re one of these, I’d appreciate your answering the few questions below. Feel free to discuss other peoples’ definitions, but if you’re a compatibilist you have to answer the questions first.  Think of it as a pop quiz given by Professor Ceiling Cat, and your answers can be short. If you’re an incompatibilist, like me, first declare yourself and then feel free to join in—in a civil manner, of course. The object of this exercise is for me to learn how readers see compatibilism by asking a few brief questions rather than divining the answers from discussion and argument.

For compatibilists:

1. What is your definition of free will?

2. What is “free” about it? Is someone who kills because of a brain tumor less free than someone who kills because, having been brought up in a terrible environment, he values drugs more than other people’s lives?

3. If humans have free will, do other species as well? What about computers?

4. Why is it important that you have a definition of free will rather than discarding the concept completely in favor of something like “agency”? That is, what “new knowledge”, as Jeff noted, does your concept add beyond reassuring people that we have “free will” after all?

Keep in mind the implicit incompatibilism of Jessica Rabbit.

Pencils up!



  1. Jeff D
    Posted May 7, 2013 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    I have long been convinced that “free will” (contra-causal, Cartesian, Roderick-Chisholm-type, whatever) doesn’t exist and never did.

    But we human beings are still faced with “choices” or “decision points” that seem, subjectively, to be situations or opportunities for us to “decide” or to “choose,” even though our “decisions” and “choices” are completely determined — in ways that we cannot discern completely or clearly at the time — by prior concatenations of events.

    I think it still makes sense for us human beings to think about and talk about “responsibility,” and “decisions,” and “choices,” and to make what seem to be the best, the wisest, the most rational decisions in light of our limitations, because we have to live our lives. What is the alternative? To passively sit and rot, or to flip coins every time we are faced with a “choice.” Does my “clinging” to th idea of personal responsibility make me a compatibilist? I don’t think so.

    Whatever I think I’ve learned about these issues I have learned from living, and from reading stuff by the likes of Owen Flanagan (The Problem of the Soul), Dan Dennett, and (most recently) Ronald Dworkin. Dworkin said that for us human beings who realize that there is no free will, the task of coming up with a sensible “responsibility system” puts us in a position analogous to the characters in Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author: We know that we are in a play and that what we do and say is entirely scripted in advance, but we don’t have the script.

    • Vaal
      Posted May 7, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      Jeff D,

      I’m not sure I have read you properly, but it seems to me you start with first acknowledging that we experience a subjective feeling of having a choice. But that this is an illusion since only one path is ultimeately possible or determined (and from this “we don’t really have the free will, freedom to choose, that we think we do).

      If that is where you were starting from I would ask you to think about how we really make choices and consider whether we really are incorrect or under an illusion.

      Whenever you think you have possible actions to choose between, to fulfill a desire, you will reason among these by appealing to counter-factual thinking. “I want to finish building my deck today, but I could also choose to finish it tomorrow. If I leave it to tomorrow, the weather says it might rain so that might not fulfill my desire. If I continue trying to finish it today, I might have to work into the night and miss the game, or I’ll be really sore, etc.”

      Notice that you are in the world of making “true inferences” when you do this rationalizing in exactly the same way you think about any other possibilities in the world. It is (likely) TRUE to say that if you leave building the deck until tomorrow it might rain, or that you won’t be able to finish it tonight before dark.” You are not under any delusion, or illusion, in contemplating these truths about “what will happen if I take X option over Y option.”

      You just have to figure out which option is most likely to fulfill your desire.

      And not that nowhere in this typical decision making is the premise “I am a contra-causal agent” making any appearance.
      It’s just not what you are thinking, when you are weighing choices.

      So your attitude that “I can choose either action” is no more an illusion at the time you are deliberating (or reflecting on your deliberation afterward) than it is an illusion to say “This deck wood will last longer if I put that sealant on it afterward.”

      So I think this idea that keeps getting floated that we make our decisions under illusory terms is just wrong. We are always
      employing counter-factual reasoning in making decisions and counter-factual reasoning is how we actually come to make true statements about the rest of the world as well as ourselves.


      • Jeff D
        Posted May 7, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

        Yes, the subjective feeling or sense that “I” -as an “independent” agent, as an “uncaused” cause — am “making” a “choice” is completely illusory, even though the alternatives are real enough. The choice that I make is predetermined, even though I don’t know (and generally cannot know) what combination of prior events determines my choice, and even though I did not really have the ability to choose or do otherwise.

        I still need to go through the motions of grounding the “choice” (or call it a post-hoc rationalization if you prefer) in my own preferences and values and also in the most accurate picture of the world that I can form. Going through these motions is, for me, a key part of living as a human being and trying my darndest to live life well.

        I commend to you the tenth chapter of Ronald Dworkin’s 2011 book, Justice for Hedgehogs, in which Dworkin argues for the “capacity” model of “control,” rather than the “causal” model of control, as a better basis for a system of personal responsibility (both ethical and moral), despite the absence of anything that deserves to be labeled “free will.”

        • Vaal
          Posted May 7, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

          But what I’m saying is that the “illusion” you describe rarely, if ever, actually figures into our decision making process.

          How often does “I am an un-caused cause” actually arise in your mind, or figure in your reasoning when making a choice?

          I suggest probably never. It really is’t the basis on which you are making decisions, hence you are not actually “wrong” when you are reasoning about which choice to make.

          If all the ocunter-factuals forming the basis of our choice-making were wrong THEN we’d be under an illusion.

          No one is thinking “I have to make this decision based on me being a counter-factual being.” That doesn’t play because it wouldn’t help make any decision.

          Most of us are thinking “I have the power to do X or Y IF I desire to, so I just need to decide what I desire and which action will fulfill that desire.”

          And this is not an illusion.

          (Or, does not entail necessarily being an illusion).


          • Jeff D
            Posted May 7, 2013 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

            Agreed. I don’t consciously think about the illusory nature of my decision-making processes.

            Within the last year or so of his life, Christopher Hitchens was asked if he believed in free will despite its non-existence, and I think he quipped “Of course I believe in it. I have no choice.”

            It’s one byproduct of how our brains are wired.

  2. JBlilie
    Posted May 7, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    I hope this is a sign that you are feeling better! (?)

  3. Robert
    Posted May 7, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    So many of the above posters have given answers I can endorse (starting tih Coel) so I won’t go through all 4 questions but will make a couple of general points.

    Part of the reason I am a compatibilist is that I am a determinist. Free will is an entirely meaningless concept in a non-deterministic world (I agree with Dennett’s reasoning).

    In a deterministic world it means I have the capacity to take actions and whatever it is that makes up “me” (my brain and body basically) is what takes those actions. In this deterministic universe such actions are referred to (and have always been referred to) as free even though they are entirely contingent on prior states and cannot be done otherwise (there’s no rewinding). The fact that theologians and philopsophers have incorrectly described “free” doesn’t change this.

  4. gluonspring
    Posted May 7, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    I have a question for everyone. As I read and think about this, it seems to me that what everyone refers to as “free will” revolves around one of these three dimensions:

    1. Having a brain that processes inputs as normal brains do.

    2. Determinism (or inevitability).

    3. Predictability.

    The disagreement between compatabilists and incompatabilists seems to me do depend on whether you define “free will” to be primarily about #1 or primarily about #2. Since this is a matter of definition, there is a lot of talking past each other. #3 is mainly just a point of confusion for all sides.


    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted May 7, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      I think point 1 is on the right track but doesn’t go far enough. It’s not just a matter of having a properly functioning brain. It’s that a properly functioning human brain has many more behavioral options available to it — many more degrees of freedom — than other organisms or cybernetic systems, and that’s where our greater freedom comes from.

      With regard to point 2 and inevitability: I do not think that word means what you think it means. Inevitability is not a synonym for (or a consequence of) determinism. If someone throws a punch at you, you can duck to avoid it. Getting hit is not inevitable (un-evade-able) because you have the ability to evade it (even if all the physical processes involved are deterministic). If someone strapped you to a chair and then threw a punch at you, that would be a different story, because then your ability to evade would be compromised and the punch would no longer be evitable (evade-able).

      This is why Dennett calls us “evitability machines”. There’s no doubt that we are machines and that our behavior has physical causes. But part of that behavior is the ability to see bad things coming (both literally and metaphorically) and work to avoid them. And that ability has been enhanced in us by evolution so that we can now see farther into the future and avoid more bad stuff than ever before in the history of life. So our mechanical nature does not imply inevitability; on the contrary, it’s our physical, reliable, information-crunching brain that gives us the power of evitability.

      So (in)evitability really belongs under point 1, not under point 2.

      • gluonspring
        Posted May 7, 2013 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

        I think Dennett has bamboozled you on the meaning of inevitable. Whatever you do, duck or not, it could not have been otherwise. We can imagine it otherwise. We can run a little mini-simulation in our brain two times, and in one simulation we duck, in the other we don’t. There is nothing stopping you from taking one path or the other… that is if you are willing to completely ignore the deterministic working of your brain and the fixed starting circumstances you find yourself in. Now if you are content with the merely hypothetical ways the world could be in our imagination, well, there is a very big difference between inevitability and determinism. If you are concerned with what actually does or even can happen, determinism can not be so easily swept under the rug.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted May 7, 2013 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

          Here’s the difference: You think “inevitable” means “certain to happen”. I think it means “certain to happen, no matter what you do“. But of course it does matter what we do; our decisions are part of the causal chain, with real causal power to avert bad outcomes, and for that reason not everything that happens is inevitable (even if it is determined).

          So when you say that determinism implies inevitability (under your definition), people who accept my definition hear it as an endorsement of fatalism. I’m pretty sure that’s not what you meant, so my suggestion is that you use words like “inevitable” more carefully.

          • Peter
            Posted May 7, 2013 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

            I’m “apathetic” about the semantic debate, but the distinction that Gregory is expressing is important.

          • Posted May 8, 2013 at 1:44 am | Permalink

            The point Gregory makes that “the decisions we take are a part of the causal chain” is critical, I think. Instead if you think of the causal chain as one thing and ourselves as something outside of, but controlled by it, then we really would be puppets.

        • Posted May 8, 2013 at 2:01 am | Permalink

          Imagine you try to evade a flying rock. Would it make any difference to your ability to avoid it, whether the flying rock was a part of the causal chain leading back to beginning of the universe or whether the rock had somehow emerged due to a random indeterministic event. If your answer is that it would make no difference, then you have to accept that our decisions are not inevitable and they we can make choices that are independent of the particular universe we are in.

  5. DV
    Posted May 7, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    For compatibilists:

    1. What is your definition of free will?

    Uncoerced will.

    2. What is “free” about it? Is someone who kills because of a brain tumor less free than someone who kills because, having been brought up in a terrible environment, he values drugs more than other people’s lives?

    Free from coercion by another intentional agent. Free will is a question that applies only when considering competitive ownership of the intention (or responsibility) for the action. This is on top of the action being intentional in the first place, as opposed to unintentional. The question of premeditation is I think separate from the question of free will. Free will has a narrower domain.

    3. If humans have free will, do other species as well? What about computers?

    Only as much as we consider them intentional agents. How loose you define “intention” determines how loosely free will applies. If you consider computers as intentional agents, then you can ask things like – did this computer produce this result of its own free will or not? If that question sounds ridiculous that’s probably because you don’t think computers are capable of intentions in any non-metaphorical sense – at least not yet.

    4. Why is it important that you have a definition of free will rather than discarding the concept completely in favor of something like “agency”? That is, what “new knowledge”, as Jeff noted, does your concept add beyond reassuring people that we have “free will” after all?

    Free will not new knowledge. It is a useful old concept. How else will you ask “Did you sign this contract of your own free will”? “Did you sign this contract of your own agency?”, doesn’t capture what you are really asking.

    • Jeff D
      Posted May 7, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      As a lawyer, I can phrase the questions without using the words “free will” or “freely”: “Did any person coerce you or pressure you into signing this contract?” “Did anyone trick you or mislead you into siging this contract?” “Did you understand the contract’s contents and its practical and legal effect before you signed it?”

      Still, the law is chock-full of verbiage and terms-of-art that seem to assume the existence of “free will,” such as the statement in the self-proving clause for an Indiana “Last Will and Testament,” that the signer signed the Will has his / her “free and voluntary act . . . .” All this actually means is “apparently free” and “in the absence of duress or obvious undue influence.”

      • DV
        Posted May 7, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

        Yes you can avoid using the words “free will” but why? It is a pretty succint phrase capturing the essential concept you are really concerned about – competition of wills. I submit that in a scenario where there is complete absence of competitor intentional agents then “free will” may be discarded and in fact would be meaningless.

  6. Posted May 7, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    It is becoming clear from the combatibilists’ responses that they are speaking a different language and basically just re-defined free will as the ability to make a decision without someone pointing a gun at your head and telling you what to decide. I think the two sides here are just talking past each other. We all seem to agree on the details, but one side says “that’s free will,” while the other side says “that’s not free will.” For example, someone wrote “In this deterministic universe such actions are referred to (and have always been referred to) as free even though they are entirely contingent on prior states and cannot be done otherwise (there’s no rewinding).” How is that free? That is precisely the opposite of free. We pretty much all agree that “such actions…are entirely contingent on prior states and cannot be done otherwise.” The disagreement is only if “such actions are referred to as free.” It’s semantics.

    • Peter
      Posted May 7, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

      The difference is how we attach values to those facts.

      Compatibilists think that the facts can be different from what we naively suppose, but that our values might be the same. In particular, small differences from our naive intuitions might lead to small changes in our values, but probably wouldn’t completely undermine anything.

      Incompatibilists (around here) think that if the facts are different than we naively believe, then they should be able to make up new values and everyone should accept them, without argument or discussion. Basically, they pretend that they are only talking about facts, then sort of try to Trojan horse the values and claim victory.

    • Vaal
      Posted May 7, 2013 at 2:56 pm | Permalink


      pacopicopiedra, somehow my reply didn’t end up below your comment. My reply to you is post #57.


    • DV
      Posted May 7, 2013 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

      Actually, with regards to actions being free from causation, both incompatibilist and compatibilits agree – that’s not free will.

      So what’s the problem? The problem is that is that incompatibilists are hung up on the above definition of free will. I think the proper conception of free will is freedom from coercion by a competitor will. There are 2 reasons why I think this:

      1. The historical problem of Man’s Will versus God’s Will – can we act freely contrary to the will of God – clearly is a question of competition of wills.

      2. Before there was life on Earth, the problem of free will is meaningless. Somewhere between 3.5 billion years ago and now, free will became a problem. The only way I see the problem of Free Will coming up in the first place is if you get more than one intentional agents interacting together. In other words the evolution of conscious and social living things created the problem of free will. Obviously this is because intentional agents don’t agree in their intentions all the time. Physical causation predates the conscious social creatures – physics predates biology. So it is really strange that today incompatibilists tie down the concept of free will to physical causation and then deny it as if evolution didn’t happen.

  7. Gary W
    Posted May 7, 2013 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    1. What is your definition of free will?

    The subjective feeling of control over one’s actions.

    2. What is “free” about it?

    It’s free of the feeling that one’s actions are physically compelled.

    3. If humans have free will, do other species as well? What about computers?

    Some other species probably do. Probably not any computer.

    4. Why is it important that you have a definition of free will rather than discarding the concept completely in favor of something like “agency”?

    Cannot answer until you describe what you mean by “agency.”

    Here’s a set of related questions for you:

    Given that you deny there’s any such thing as free will (not just in the sense of contra-causal, “libertarian” free will, but in any sense), what do you think it means to “hold someone responsible” for something he did? What does it mean to say that someone is “guilty” rather than “innocent?” What does it mean to say that someone “ought to do” or “ought to have done” something? What does it mean to say that someone is “culpable” or “blameworthy” or “deserves blame” for something he did? What does it mean to say that someone is “praiseworthy” or “deserves praise” for something he did? What does it mean to say that someone “chooses” to do something?

  8. Vaal
    Posted May 7, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    “It is becoming clear from the combatibilists’ responses that they are speaking a different language and basically just re-defined free….”

    Hold on, there you go…

    Who “defines” free will such that the compatibilist is the one “re-defining” free will? You?

    Perhaps you meant “the compatibilist defines (not “re”- defines) free will as..”

    That would be a more appropriate start.

    “For example, someone wrote “In this deterministic universe such actions are referred to (and have always been referred to) as free even though they are entirely contingent on prior states and cannot be done otherwise (there’s no rewinding).” How is that free? That is precisely the opposite of free.”

    How is that free?

    How do you normally employ the word “free?”

    Take a swing-set that has become tangled in a tree branch, stopping it from being able to swing. There is nothing wrong with pointing out that “it has been prevented from swinging freely.” And once untangled there is nothing controversial about saying “Now it works, it is swinging freely.”

    What does “free” mean here? Obviously it does not mean “Free Of All Causal Forces In The Universe.” Who the heck would think like that? No, “free” or “not free” usually refers to some *specific set of possible influences” for any system. In the case of the swing, it is the influence of the tree – without being tangled in the tree the swing
    would swing back and forth. So to “swing freely” is just to say that, the swing is capable of moving in a certain way, when unimpeded.

    Same for being free to make a choice.
    To say that a choice was made “freely” is not to claim it “Free Of All Causal Forces In The Universe.” It just refers to a specific, local possible set of influences and constraints. I would have made it free of any disability to do so, or free of being strongly coerced by someone else, etc.
    Just how we normally use the word in actual use.


    • MM
      Posted May 7, 2013 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      Very well said.

      I’ve always thought it quite gratuitous the way compatibilists are accused of redefining terms to suit them (or to suit their “emotional attachment to the idea”) better. The facts of the matter are that our interpretation of freedom and will are actually much closer to the common use of these words.

      • Vaal
        Posted May 7, 2013 at 4:01 pm | Permalink


        The attitude around here tends to be where incompatibilists assume they are the grown ups willing to deal with reality, with compatibilists trying to work magic or illusion into the mix. It is very tiring and it has led to quite a bit of pop-psychoanalyzing “they want to hang on to magic free will due to this emotional need…” in place of counter arguments.

        Though it seems to me there is less of that these days in Jerry’s posts, happily.

        Jerry seems to mostly acknowledge compatibilism isn’t some emotional attachment to dualism, trying to sneak magic in through a back door, and is more concerned about compatibilism “re-defining” free will and causing confusion that might preserve an illusion he prefers would go away.


    • Posted May 7, 2013 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

      Very well said, Vaal. Your comments on this topic are always among the most clearly and carefully argued.

      One could add a few more examples of free, such as “not in prison”, “degrees of freedom in statistics”, or “degrees of freedom in mechanics”, none of which contain any magical component. It is quite simply wrong to claim that the term free, whether applied to will or elsewhere, has magical connotations.

    • Posted May 7, 2013 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

      Vaal, I wrote “redefine” instead of “define” because there is a historical context. For a long time, the phrase free will has been interpreted to mean when Dr. Coyne uses as his definition of free will. Specifically, that our choices and actions are not entirely determined by the state of the universe. That we *could have done otherwise.* To say that free will does not mean this, I think, is to redefine it.

      • Posted May 7, 2013 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

        “what Dr. Coyne…” not “when.”

      • Peter
        Posted May 7, 2013 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

        May I? It *is not an abuse of language* to say that we *actually could have done otherwise*.

        Also, compatibilism has a long historical tradition.

        And in all really, this: “Specifically, that our choices and actions are not entirely determined by the state of the universe” isn’t quite fair. By “state of the universe,” you mean those people (not everyone who’s thought about it) who have been concerned about our freedom from *God*. And since I think we’re mostly atheists here…

      • Vaal
        Posted May 7, 2013 at 8:02 pm | Permalink


        It’s just incorrect to think that Free Will *means* Libertarian/dualist/contra-causal powers. Some people seem to imagine that it’s the current scientific knowledge or world view that has threatened Free Will, and that compatibilism is a new defense. No. As has been pointed out a number of times over these blog points, compatibilism goes about as far back as the Free Will debate, in any realm.

        People contemplating a Creator God immediately ran into the implications of such a God’s foreknowledge of our actions for our free will. (“If a God knew we’d chose A over B, how can we say we were ever free to choose either one?’). You had the Greeks arguing over this, some falling to incompatibilism/fatalism for free will, others claiming a sort of Libertarian Free Will, and others going for a compatibilist stance. Aristotle apparently argued for a compatibilist view of free will in this context.

        That continued into Christian theism, and throughought Christian history you had church figures debating human free will given God’s Omnipotence, Omniscience and His Plan for us. See 6th Century Boethius’s compatibilism, taken up by Acquinus, William of Ockham’s compatibilism, the famous Molinist “Middle Knowledge” response, and on and on.

        There are many approaches to answering the free will question; one approach is not “The Definition Of Free Will.”

        Further, just think about how and when the term “Free Will” is actually used in society.
        Even IF it were some assumption among the population that we were contra-causal creatures, that doesn’t seem to be what motivates questions of Free Will in practice.
        When people say “are you here of your own Free Will?” and “did you sign that contract of your own Free Will?” why would they ask this if they already assumed we have free will as contra-causal entities? Obviously they must be asking about *some other factor* and clearly that factor is whether someone was actually physically able to make one choice over another, or whether their actions were under duress or coercion. They aren’t asking metaphysical questions like “Were you suddenly part of the causal chain?” or something.

        And generally if someone wasn’t coerced into a decision, it’s said they made the decision of their own free will. This typical application of the term is just what compatibilists ratify.

        So whenever I see incompatibilists saying compatibilism is making up some other sense of freedom of the will, it just doesn’t wash. The compatibilist notion seems more in keeping with how most of us use the term, and how we reason about our choices.



        • Posted May 8, 2013 at 2:31 am | Permalink

          Just to add, there is something a bit peculiar about incompatibilists insisting that the only proper meaning of “freedom” is such that freedom does not exist.

          And if they did succeed in eradicating the words “freedom”, “choice”, “morality” etc from the language (on which they stand no chance), they would then just have to invent a set of terms to use in the compatibilist senses of the words.

          • Posted May 8, 2013 at 3:38 am | Permalink

            Just to add, there is something a bit peculiar about incompatibilists insisting that the only proper meaning of “freedom” is such that freedom does not exist.

            Hehe, well said.

          • Peter Beattie
            Posted May 8, 2013 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

            » Coel:
            there is something a bit peculiar about incompatibilists insisting that the only proper meaning of “freedom” is such that freedom does not exist.

            Peculiar indeed. Although I might want to claim priority on that:

            What you (and Jerry) are doing is to insist that ‘freedom’ may only ever mean one thing, viz. being suspended from a skyhook. But that’s impossible, which is exactly why Dennett explains at length that freedom must evolve. To insist that this evolved thing cannot be freedom is like saying that ‘species’ can only mean something separately created, because that’s what “the whole world has meant for thousands of years” when they used the word.

            Why is it so hard to engage with Dennett’s arguments, instead of dismissing his ideas out of hand for looking ridiculous if seen through a very ridiculous-looking pair of glasses? After all, Dennett is just as good at dispelling magical notions of contra-causal free will as the incompatibilists think they are. But he at least makes people think about the issue, instead of hitting them over the head with a plank for coming to the ‘wrong’ conclusion. (That’s indoctrination, by the way. Cf. a Dawkins quote on that very point here, at 23:38.)

        • PascalsGhost
          Posted May 8, 2013 at 4:17 am | Permalink

          My understanding is that Aristotle’s views can be interpreted as either compatibilist or incompatibilist, but certainly the Stoics argued for compatibilism more than 300 years before Jesus was a twinkle in Yahweh’s eye.

          But yeah, it’s annoying that thousands of years of compatibilist thought among some of the leading lights of early naturalists via Hume and up to modern anti-theists like Dennett just gets hand-waved away as “changing the subject”.

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted May 8, 2013 at 7:46 am | Permalink

            The Stoics were in a very different situation.

            They had a very vague atomist conception of natural reality, but they had to contend with the apparent contradiction of human freedom all around them at the macroscopic level. Epicurus “swerve” was the solution, conceptually perhaps some relief to the contradiction, but technically not a satisfying explanation.

            Today the question that should be asked about the Stoics, the earliest known compatibilists I believe, is whether given all the knowledge we have today, they would continue to insist that human behavior is based on a free will, or whether they would say we have a good enough understanding of physical nature to see how a deterministic system leads to complex behavior without free will, in a way that is not the same as the freedom originally envisioned 2500 years ago.

            • PascalsGhost
              Posted May 8, 2013 at 9:16 am | Permalink

              Again, what we have hear is a particular assertion: “The history of the notion of “free will” seems clear. It began as frankly dualistic[...]”

              This assertion along with the claim that philosophers have merely “redefined free will” is refuted by the fact that the compatibilism has been around since the free will debate started cf. the Stoics.

              And instead of getting an acknowledgement that the claims are false, we get ‘oh, well the Stoics would probably not be compatibilists today’.

              So do you stand by the claim that the history of free will is dualistic or not?

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted May 8, 2013 at 10:04 am | Permalink

                I think that the soul has a long history and has been a dominant belief for nearly all of humanity. I think that people have almost exclusively felt that their sense of free will is attributable to the soul.

                There are plenty of philosophers and theologians who have formalized this belief.

                Cartesian duality has been fairly dominant in Western Civilization. Challenges have been mostly limited to formal academic environments, and not really reached widespread visibility in our culture and society until the advent of modernism and perspectivism in the early twentieth century. This was the era of Freud. Art, film, and music started to challenge a long standing consensus that included religion and belief in the soul.

                There have been of course the Stoics, who were not responding to a challenge to free will, they were responding to the challenge of dualism. They were not so much pro-free-will as they were anti-God’s-will. Nobody questioned human free will at this time, unless it was based on fate as willed by dieties.

                Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment philosophy has included compatibilists, notably Hume among others.

                So it is clear that the history of free will has included both dualism and compatibilism. I even feel compatibilists are correct that we have a kind of freedom that can be seen as latitude to react in complex ways to our environment, and that it is worth having. They are also correct that this is the only kind of freedom possible. But I don’t feel that this kind of freedom is what people in general arrive at if left to their own devices and tendencies. People have deluded themselves with spirit illusions for millenia. And they have connected our sense of internal freedom to these delusions.

                I can only assert that my impression is that religion has been far more dominant than compatibilist philosophy over the course of our recorded history, where by dominance I don’t mean consensus among experts, but rather as measured in the number of people influenced. I imagine it to be reasonable that this dominance extends pretty far beyond the advent of our recorded history. There is plenty of archeological evidence of animism and other spirit beliefs going back at least 30 to 50 thousand years, and many believe much further. I suspect that much of that ancient religion and shamanism was driven by human intuitions in a fully natural setting, and that we haven’t really changed that much in the last thirty thousand years that these tendencies have disappeard.

                Obviously knowledge and education can counteract these natural instincts.

                We only have one real kind of behavior, and I think the compatibilist description is a good one. It is far more true than dualism or libertarian free will.

                I don’t think I will ever feel that the compatibilist description of human freedom is the same thing as a fully satisfying description of “free will” based on this history. I will always feel that saying compatibilist freedom is “free will” is a kind of compromise or convenience, not a natural and accurate description of what “free will” has meant to most people who ever lived, or what human freedom actually is based on.

                I must add that the usage of language, including “free will”, has always been applied to real human behavior, and so there is a good correspondance between the two, which compatibilism takes full advantage of. In fact this behavior is compatibilist in reality, even though that hasn’t always been understood.

                But I still insist that what people have thought their behavior was does not match compatibilist free will. It matches libertarian free will, which is wrong.

        • Posted May 8, 2013 at 5:04 am | Permalink

          Thanks for that Vaal. I have officially changed my mind – about definitions, not about free will. But that was very helpful.

          • Vaal
            Posted May 8, 2013 at 5:25 am | Permalink


            This was a good thread. Thanks goes out to Jerry for asking. There were lots of well-put responses and it was great learning from others.


  9. kelskye
    Posted May 7, 2013 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    1. The ability to act on one’s volition, to think through and reflect on choices, and that one’s desires and knowledge play a role in decision making. If our conscious deliberation played no role in decision making, that would mean epiphenomenalism.

    2. Generally speaking, the tumour case is something outside of how cognition works, while someone brought up in a terrible environment still has some conscious control over his body.

    3. Other species? To an extent. Chimpanzees can plan for future mental states, fashion tools, etc. Computers? No. There’s no reason to think that emergentism can satisfactorily be accounted for my mere symbol manipulation.

    4. It’s like calling something art. People tend to privilege what is art in terms of pursuit and meaning. So calling something art has an immediately recognisable meaning to it. Free will has enough overlap with the idea of compatibilism that it’s not misleading to call it free will. Free will doesn’t entail contra-causal free will, but capacities of the mind and its effects on behaviour.

  10. Posted May 7, 2013 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    Ah, the problem of living in the wrong time zone. 204 comments already! In case somebody is still interested…

    1. What is your definition of free will?

    The capability to use reason and careful deliberation for choice-making, as opposed to reactions being driven by instinct, impulse or obsession. Also, I might say that I did something out of my own free will to indicate that I was not coerced by another human; in that second use, it is synonymous with voluntary.

    2. What is “free” about it? Is someone who kills because of a brain tumor less free than someone who kills because, having been brought up in a terrible environment, he values drugs more than other people’s lives?

    See above. If the first person is pathologically unable to control themselves but the second person can then I see more free will in them than in the other person.

    3. If humans have free will, do other species as well? What about computers?

    Yes, it comes in degrees, just like “different-biological-species-ness”. A cat has more free will than a tree, and we have more than a cat. A very sophisticated computer who could weigh a lot of things before making a decision would have more than a pocket calculator.

    4. Why is it important that you have a definition of free will rather than discarding the concept completely in favor of something like “agency”? That is, what “new knowledge”, as Jeff noted, does your concept add beyond reassuring people that we have “free will” after all?

    I do not accept several of the assumptions hidden in this question. As I have pointed out repeatedly before, in my native language, German, voluntarily quite simply translates into freiwillig. It is thus the case that I fail to understand why it is so important to discard the concept, not that I have a positive reason to keep the concept to communicate some “new knowledge”. The knowledge that it communicates, if any, is indeed that I have more agency than a rock. If everybody takes up the use of “agency” in English, I have no problem with that but at the moment it would sound unnatural in everyday communication, and especially so in German.

  11. MM
    Posted May 7, 2013 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    1. What is your definition of free will?

    The ability of an agent to pursue its own goals by choosing a course of action (by some internally computed algorithm) and then acting according to it.

    2. What is “free” about it?

    That the choices it makes are internally caused (i.e. by the agent itself) and not merely injected into it ready-made, or imposed by outside forces. Thus, in particular, “freedom” is not a magical property that something either has or doesn’t, but rather it depends on exactly where one puts the boundaries of what constitutes the agent and what instead should be considered to be outside of it. Different analyses of the same system may lead to different interpretations of whether something is free or not, or even whether something constitutes an agent or not in the first place.

    3. If humans have free will, do other species as well? What about computers?

    Yes and yes. I don’t have any problem with attributing agency – goals, choices, strategies, actions – and therefore free will to animals and computers. But I think that, depending on the level of analysis, one can distinguish between various degrees of freedom. Very roughly speaking, the more complex and refined are an agent’s goals and especially its decision algorithms, the more will and freedom of choice one can (or should) ascribe to it. For instance, if the agent’s decision making is very random or on the contrary very predictable, then it is usually not very useful to analyse it’s behavior in terms of strategies and choices.

    4. Why is it important that you have a definition of free will rather than discarding the concept completely in favor of something like “agency”? That is, what “new knowledge”, as Jeff noted, does your concept add beyond reassuring people that we have “free will” after all?

    At some level this is just semantics, so not very important (“agency” is perfectly fine with me). But, on another level, it is just plain useful to analyse the behavior of certain complex systems in terms of free choices. Sometimes, the useful questions to ask really are: What are the system’s goals? Could it choose freely on that occasion, or were there external constraints to its behavior? Because sometimes this is precisely the level of analysis that would best illuminate a situation, better compress information about it, better help us predict the future behavior of the system, etc.

    The very fact that even you, a staunch incompatibilist, find it almost impossible to think about your own behavior without using the language of agency and free will, shows how useful these notions are.

    To me this is simply analog to how certain very complex chemical systems are better studied in terms of “homeostasis”, “survival”, “reproduction” or “development”, although of course at a deep level life is just chemistry and there is nothing magical or essential about it. But it’s just a whole other level of analysis that biologists are usually interested in.

    Is a virus alive? Does Deep Blue really choose its moves? Same difference.

  12. Peter Beattie
    Posted May 7, 2013 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, you have read Freedom Evolves, haven’t you? Maybe you should do a proper review of that book (and perhaps Elbow Room), because very serious answers to your questions are contained in those books. I would expect your engagement with the carefully thought out ideas of a professional (and a friend of yours) to be much more fruitful than with the more or less off-the-cuff remarks your talented commenters can offer.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted May 7, 2013 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

      If I were going to read one of these two, which is most recommended? Would you choose Freedom Evolves over Elbow Room?

      • Peter
        Posted May 7, 2013 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

        Freedom Evolves is more recent, and bigger, so…?

        But honestly I think Elbow Room benefits from its concision, and does a fine job of laying out the stakes of the free will debate (as compatibilists see them). The work at tying it all back to evolution is fine, but sort of beside the point.

        On the other hand, if you’re interested in how brains/minds work, Consciousness Explained (for all that it doesn’t come to conclusions, it’s still a good book), and Godel Escher Bach, and of course plenty of neurosciencey stuff like by say Oliver Sacks.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted May 8, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

          Thanks. I recently downloaded “Intuition Pumps”, and I’m going to add “Elbow Room” to my reading list.

  13. Myron
    Posted May 7, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    “For hundreds of years it has been thought by some philosophers, and not by others, that determinism in the natural world is incompatible with freedom of the will. If everything that happens in the world is causally determined by what went on before, then one’s actions, in particular, being events in the world, are causally determined from time immemorial, and there is no scope for freedom of action. I count myself among the others. One is free, in the ordinary sense of the term, when one does as one likes or sees fit; and this is not altered by the fact, if fact it be, that what one likes or sees fit has had its causes. The notion that determinism precludes freedom is easily accounted for. If one’s choices are determined by prior events, and ultimately by forces outside oneself, then how can one choose otherwise? Very well, one cannot. But freedom to choose to do otherwise than one likes or sees fit would be a sordid boon.”

    (Quine, W. V. Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987. pp. 69-79)

  14. Kevin Henderson
    Posted May 7, 2013 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    1. Free will is unpredictability (for those who think the future is predictable).

    2. If you cannot know (predict) the future that is the same thing as something has free will. No particle or field in the universe has free will. None. They are completely determined. Humans cannot predict what simple systems (not yet), therefore we cannot predict what the outcome of events will be for any system. For humans, who require knowledge in order to make predictions, there is freewill, because we cannot know the future (at least not yet). People have free will because we cannot predict the future.

    3. Only things that care about predictions have free will so long as they cannot predict the future? As far as I know other species and computers have no free will because they do not care to predict the future (nor can they).

    4. It is not important to me. It is just a fact. Physics reduces free will to epistemology: the fact that the future cannot be precisely known is indistinguishable from free will.

    Why is it that everyone else seems to think humans are relevant. The universe does not care about us but we cannot do anything about it and we cannot predict the future, ergo, free will for anyone who cares about knowledge. Brain tumor or not, we are all free agents with regard to knowledge.

    • Vaal
      Posted May 7, 2013 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      I simply do not see the logical or practical connection you are drawing between free will and unpredictability.

      First, I have been able to, and will be able to, successfully predict many of my wife’s actions. My wife will not accept me getting another parking ticket calmly. I guarantee it. I can reliably win money from anyone who will bet against me.

      Does being able to successfully predict anyone’s reaction mean they didn’t have free will to make their choice? I do not see how that follows at all. We actually base much of what we do each day on the premise that our fellow man’s behaviors tend to be predictable. I don’t see how this relates to free will.

      Further, “I couldn’t predict his choice” seems to have little to do with what is generally held to be the central concern of free will. That’s why we ask “Was he free to choose either A or B?” Your predictability account seems very odd, in implying that someone is only free if a choice wasn’t predicted before hand.

      Since you pose it as an epistemological problem: You seem to say that if we knew the choice taken, it wouldn’t be free.
      Well, that is true of every past choice ever made – once we know what choice was made, we see the other choice was never going to be made. The point of determinism is that the future would be as fixed as the past. That you DON’T NEED to even see what someone chooses A over B to already know that one will never happen and (in that sense) one always knows before hand that “we never truly have a choice.”

      So knowing the individual choice is neither here nor there for the usual debate about free will: the problem is knowing before hand that ALL CHOICES are illusory, insofar as only one act was ever determined – the future being as fixed as the past.

      And I do not see how your epistemological account meets that aspect of the incompatibilist argument.


      • Kevin Henderson
        Posted May 7, 2013 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

        Hi Vaal,

        I agree that we truly never have a choice. There is no free will since all choices are illusory.

        Everything is determined. I have no doubt about that. Causality is fixed.

        However, take any atom in the universe and place it in a real enviornment that we can monitor and no one on this planet will be able to predict precisely what it will be doing tomorrow at a given time.

        We build clocks, based on single ions, that tell time to 1/10^18 seconds, yet not 1/10^24 seconds. Why not? There are theories that suggest 1/10^20 may be a bound, not surprising due to fluctuations in black body radition, which we know about. There could be other theories we will learn that will lower or raise this bound, but it is no where near the precision of other measurements (EDM, proton mass). Arbitrary precision may never be known for such systems and yet they are detemrinist. This puts constraints not only on our knowledge but our ability to control the future.

        Further, take all the supercomputers in the world and they would not be able to predict the classical trajectory (let alone quantum) of a molecule of water in a cup of water less than a couple of picoseconds (10^-12) after the experiment began.

        Humans are interesting to think they know what can be predicted, when it is known that we can not predict the future for anything with arbitrary precision. It may be shown that deterministic laws of our universe are unpredictable at their foundation. All evidence (chaos, complexity theory, quantum theory) all suggest this already.

        I know for certain that I do not have free will. So I am probably not a compatiblist. But I also know nothing is predictable with arbitrary precision (at present) and that is indistinguishable from free will, because I cannot predict what anything will be with certainty tomorrow. I will be close, but not precise. And if that is an illusion, then it is an illusion that is real as anything I have ever measured.


        • Vaal
          Posted May 7, 2013 at 8:21 pm | Permalink


          I think your calling our ability to make choices an “illusion” is out of sync with how we talk about the rest of the determined world. Consider:


          A science teacher holds up a beaker of water.

          The science teacher declares: This water can either remain in it’s liquid state if kept at room temperature, or be made to boil if subjected to high enough heat, or be made into solid ice if frozen below 0d Celsius.

          Is that claim illusory? Or is that a claim you would admit to be passing actual “knowledge” to the class (and hence, truth)?


          I can drive myself to work, or walk to work tomorrow. (I live close to work, and have done either many times).

          Would that statement about my powers of choice be “illusory?” Or would it be conveying actual knowledge, and hence truth?

          In other words, it seems to me that if you are going to start calling our claims “we can do either/or” to be untrue, an illusion, then this logic would also go for any such either/or statements about the rest of the determined world. In which case…how do we continue to infer and convey any knowledge about the world (e.g. the nature of water?

          There is a sense of abstraction – identity over time and the powers attributable to a “thing” over time – in our every description of the world. How would you deny this as a way of getting at truths about our choice-making ability, without undermining it everywhere else? Including, undermining any
          of your own empirical appeals to atoms etc?


          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted May 7, 2013 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

            That water behaves according to deterministic physical laws is not an illusion.

            That the brain has emotional states or decision processes that are caused by the deterministic transitions of a biochemical system is not an illusion.

            The illusions come into our subjective conscious experience of how our mind works. To make your water analogy accurate, the water would need to be conscious, and having been placed in the freezer by the science teacher, it would need to be telling itself it wants to turn to ice, and that it had decided to freeze itself.

            • Vaal
              Posted May 7, 2013 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

              I’m talking about valid ways to describe reality, and if they are valid and true, they are not an “illusion.”

              So, is it true and valid to claim “I can take the car to work or choose instead to walk?”

              Because that ability to choose is what you seem to be calling an “illusion.” But if it’s an illusion, is the above claim false or true? If it’s false…well…I’ve already mentioned the consequences.

              As to the water analogy, water does not have a “will” – desires, goals, the ability to consider different actions and choose among options that are likely to fulfill a desire.

              That’s why it can be informative in the case of humans to talk about desires/wills being obstructed or free to act.

              So, no, I think the analogy *you* are trying to draw between people and water isn’t apt.
              However, the analogy holds insofar as we use the *same logic* to make truth claims about other empirical entities like water, and ourselves. That is, abstract, counter-factual claims that nonetheless convey truth about the object being described (“Water can be frozen or boiled,” “I can drive to work or walk to work…”)


              • Kevin Henderson
                Posted May 8, 2013 at 5:33 am | Permalink

                All choices are an illusion. Nothing inanimate has free will, as far as the laws of physics prescribe motion, i.e., no supernatural forces. However humans have knowledge and we are limited in our capability of predicting the dynamics of systems with accuracy that can produce reliable forecasts.

                Phase transitions are very complicated, classical or quantum. A kindergarden class can watch a cup of water freeze in front of their eyes, but no one has, yet or ever, the ability to predict which molecules in the cup will undergo the process first. Nothing in the cup has free will, but our conscious ability not to be able to predict what will happen in the cup makes our sentient experiene indistinguishable from having free will.

                Tomorrow I shall make a choice to ride my bike to work (I do everyday). The universe knows what decision I will actually make, but I do not know. I think I do and I am 99.9% sure I will. Until I have 100% certainty of what will happen, I live as if I have free will; and that is not a choice, it is because of limited knowledge.

              • Vaal
                Posted May 8, 2013 at 8:30 am | Permalink

                Kevin Henderson,

                You are making claims, but you are not showing the logic that fits them together, to show they are coherent.

                First you say:

                “All choices are an illusion.”

                An “illusion” is a state of untruth, a “false belief or idea.”

                So, if I talk about a choice like: “I could freeze this water solid by placing it below 0 Celsius or instead evaporate it by boiling” you are calling such a claim an “Illusion.”

                Unless you are using “illusion” in some non-standard way, that means that claim about what I could do with water is FALSE.

                Do you realize that you have rendered FALSE every such empirical claim. Including any claim you have used to support your own argument?

                Then you go on to say:

                “However humans have knowledge.”

                Really? How?

                You just rendered empirical claims about the nature of any object FALSE.
                Try to convey “knowledge” especially the type of knowledge that allows us to predict the behavior of any entity – a car, water, apples, the weather…WITHOUT appealing to some necessary abstraction (in terms of identity) and hypothetical if/then descriptions. You won’t be able to do it.

                Because knowledge – and truth is a necessary component of knowledge, not “illusion” – is built from abstracting generalized claims from many particular instances. Which is why you will convey knowledge about the properties of water via if/then description “If you apply X cause water will reach this state, If you apply Y cause water will reach that state…”

                That conveys truth, not illusion.

                On precisely the same logic when I say “I could choose to freeze or boil the water” it is conveying knowledge about my powers to affect water. That I can freeze the water IF I desire to or boil it IF I desire to is the claim, and it’s built on precisely the logic we use to convey truth about all the rest of the deterministic, empirical world.

                It is special pleading to say only in the case of human choice-making that such claims are “illusions.” You can’t do that consistently, without undercutting the very logic we use to make truth claims about everything else.


  15. JB
    Posted May 7, 2013 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    1. What is your definition of free will?

    I usually think of it in legal or ethical contexts — i.e., I want to be treated and held responsible as if I have it. So maybe “Done of ones own volition.” I’m somewhat perplexed by arguments that the obvious physical/genetic source of our actions is evidence against personal responsibility or credit. If “I” am not the sum total of my physical/environmental/genetic history (manifested in my current neurochemical state), what am “I”? Or, in half-baked syllogism form:

    My neurochemical state is responsible for my actions.
    “I” am my neurochemical state.
    Therefore, “I” am responsible for my actions.

    Alternatively, I might go with something like: “rationally deliberated decision.” In this sense, impulsive choices and actions might not be “free”.

    2. What is “free” about it? Is someone who kills because of a brain tumor less free than someone who kills because, having been brought up in a terrible environment, he values drugs more than other people’s lives?

    In the legal/ethical sense above, it is free because it is not compelled by outside authorities. In the second sense, an action would only be free if it were rationally deliberated– so in this example, the first killer is not acting with free will, and it’s questionable as to whether the second killer is. An able-minded person who murdered for personal gain, after planning it over several months or years with multiple opportunities to make a better decision, would be acting with free will, and in my opinion would deserve harsher punishment.

    (In general, while I think the US criminal justice system is grossly brutal and dysfunctional, I still think punishment has a role in it. Even if we embrace determinism, there are no stronger behavior modifiers than punishment and reward. But punishment in absence of rehabilitation– or treatment for underlying illness– is both unethical and socially counter-productive.)

    3. If humans have free will, do other species as well? What about computers?

    Not in the legal/ethical sense. Unlikely but possible in the “rational deliberation” sense.

    4. Why is it important that you have a definition of free will rather than discarding the concept completely in favor of something like “agency”? That is, what “new knowledge”, as Jeff noted, does your concept add beyond reassuring people that we have “free will” after all?

    As long as I and my fellow citizens continue to be treated legally as responsible adults, semantics are not very important to me. “Free will” is convenient short hand, at least superficially understood by everyone. If alternative but practically equivalent terms became common, I would have no qualms adopting them.

  16. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted May 7, 2013 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    An interesting question raised is how to re-interpret the word “premeditated” in the absence of free will.

    Each interpretation of free will is entangled with a corresponding definition of identity.

    Descriptions of the universe as “deterministic” are best accompanied by an explanatory aside to the effect that, as best we can determine, the specific form of determinism referred to happens to be one whose character is in principle not fully determined (or determinable) wherever it isn’t measured.

  17. Jeff Johnson
    Posted May 8, 2013 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    @Pascals Ghost:
    Here is a repost of my disastrous single column HTML failure above, in response to this post: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/what-is-compatibilism-really/#comment-434534

    Aren’t we supposed to be good empiricists here?

    Well, a good empiricist is very wary of believing early results. For example I never felt there was much chance that the reported super-luminal neutrinos from the LHC were real. I didn’t analyze the experiment in detail because I don’t have the time or the expertise. I went with my intuitions based on my undergrad degrees in math and physics from over 30 years ago.

    I have pretty strong intuitions about what I thought free will was growing up, which came from my subjective experience and the cultural environment. Until I spent a lot of time thinking and reading about it, my view of free will was that it was radically free, that I could randomly pick things, that I could decide whatever I wanted without limits. My mind felt like a bird in the sky that could go anywhere.

    With time I experienced real constraints, like depression, and it started to occur to me that people who said “just be happy. Just think positive and change your attitude. You can decide not to be depressed anytime you like” were assuming a kind of freedom unimpeded by biochemistry. There is a tendency for people to think that people with depression are weak, lazy, and they choose to be depressed. People who haven’t experienced depression often think escaping it is only a matter of discipline and making the right choices. It’s a lot like people who think homosexuality is a choice.

    I think overcoming depression is something that requires a great deal of training and years of practice, more like playing the piano than picking a laundry detergent. It’s not a simple matter of attitude or choice, it’s a matter of rewiring the brain over years of practice.

    People understand you don’t just decide to play the piano. You work at it. So this is a kind of compatibilist understanding that is consistent with the brain’s capabilities depending on its physical state, which slowly changes with time as one works at playing. That one can learn it with time is a kind of freedom, but the freedom to simply sit down and decide to play was never there.

    But people also make a huge number of assumptions that are more libertarian in spirit, based on the optimistic belief that changing habits and attitudes is as easy as making a simple choice. This is a very strong trend in folk wisdom that goes against compatibilist and incompatibilist ideas.

    So it will take a lot of convincing to overcome my intuitions. My mind isn’t closed, but I firmly believe it is correct that most people have a view of free will that, as compatibilists are fond of pointing out, does not exist. The kind of freedom that does exist requires some careful thinking and some abandonment of natural predilictions and assumptions. I don’t think compatibilist free will is the natural conclusion for humans to make based on their personal subjective experiences, even though it is the only kind of “free will” that could exist.

    • PascalsGhost
      Posted May 8, 2013 at 8:42 am | Permalink

      Are you seriously comparing the proposition that folk intuitions are libertarian to the proposition that nothing can travel faster than light? That proposition is as firmly established empirically and theoretically as any proposition could be, and your personal experience of how you feel is supposed to be a good analog?

      I give up. You have no evidence in favour of your assertion, and while I agree that the evidence I have provided is far from conclusive it is at least some evidence.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted May 8, 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

        No, I have no evidence, just my folk intuitions, which I’m bold enough to assume are similar to many other people’s folk intuitions. I described some of the reasons for my folk intuitions.

        I wasn’t comparing super-luminal neutrinos to folk intuition about free-will. I was comparing my reaction to empirical results in the two cases, and how that depends on my intuitions, which depend on my experience.

        I happen to think empirical results about physics are far more reliable than empirical results in psychology, sociology, or experimental philosophy. I realize there are methods to increase confidence in such results, but the danger of subjective errors in design or interpretation is very high.

        I was skeptical about Vohs and Schooler, and now results have come forward that throw that study into question. At one time it was touted by compatibilists.

        So I think the jury is still out, in spite of some indications that support the view that compatibilist free will is consistent with folk intuitions about free will. There are other results that go the other way. So the net result is still inconclusive. At this point it wouldn’t help much or change this conversation much if I provided some tentative results showing the opposite. Even a couple of your links indicated that studies exist which show that folk intuitions are more incompatibilist. Hopefully I will get around to reading the links you have provided in full.

        Given the present uncertainty, I can only fall back on my intuitions and experience, some of which I’ve described above.

    • Vaal
      Posted May 8, 2013 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      Jeff Johnson,

      I can understand where you are coming from.
      You, Jerry, others here, Sam Harris, all raise cogent points about facts that impinge on our concept of free will. I’m on board with most of what Jerry and Sam say about how our attitude toward criminals ought to be measured against various out-of-their-control causes, and *generally speaking* why we ought to have this attitude.

      I think, though, when you keep consistent with the rest of our empirical talk about the world, you end up with compatibilism :-)
      You still need words and concepts that make expressing when you “have a choice” and “don’t have a choice,” when a choice was more an expression of someone else’s desire than the one you’d choose if not coerced,” etc. There are still these truths about the world that need to be expressed in a way that makes sense while acknowledging determinism…and this is pretty much what compatibilism is.

      As to your personal experience of free will, I can’t of course categorically deny it, but I remain suspicious that your characterisation doesn’t capture the full

      The problem of Free Will goes back so long because, even before you bring in Gods, people recognized what *appears* <— very important, we are often wrong about appearances – to be a clash between two basic intuitions.

      1. That I seem to have the ability to choose between various options.

      (Which underlies much of our behavior)

      2. That everything must have a cause.

      (Which underlies our attempts to explain anything we observe).

      For number 1, I think this is expressed best in the classical manner: When I seem to have a choice, I really do believe I have that choice. And *I* am the cause of that choice. It's me choosing, not something else outside of me, forcing me only to one choice. So in this way, really having a choice and ME being the cause of whatever I choose, I am indeed free to choose (I have Free Will).

      But…everywhere else I appeal to chains of causation for explaining why something behaves as it does. Now, if I am part of the causal chain like everything else, that means the causes must extend outside of myself, for instance the historical causes leading up to me making my decision. Well then, this seems to be trouble for my other intuition about having free will. If my whatever I do is as determined as past events, and if whatever I choose was set in path by causes before I made my decision, then how is it I am the author of my choices and if one path was only ever determined via causation, how can I say I actually had a real choice in the way I thought I had?

      This generally seems to capture the problem, the clash of our intuitive experience as choice-makers with our empirical reasoning about the world, doesn't it?

      Compatibilism, at least as I understand and express it, takes the stance that it is when people try to deal with this clash of intuitions that mistakes are made.
      One mistake to try to get out of this conflict is to appeal to dualism/supernatural: "I've been given the magic ability to make choices outside the causal chain."

      Another mistake is to say "Well, that must mean that I don't have the free will I thought I had. What I thought when I was deliberating about my apparent choice was false."

      But the stance that makes the most sense, taking our experience all together is to notice: Actually, most of what you were thinking when you were deliberating between a choice was actually true.
      When you thought "I could do X if I desire to or Y" that is true, because you were deliberating on the assumption of if/then scenarios. Contra-causality didn't enter into it – it arose only as an explanation when you later tried to examine how it was you had a choice, given other ideas that seem to put pressure on that intuition.

      Further, it turns out that "everything has a cause" is not an intuition that is contradictory to your being a real choice-maker with real options. Actually, causation is NECESSARY for you to have the type of powers you intuitively thought you had when making a choice!

      This is why compatibilism isn't some Hail Mary emotional move to try to save Free Will. It's just what seems to make the best sense and coherence (to me and others) of everything when you keep following the logic through.

      But that does not mean that EVERY intuition we have, in every choice we make, is correct. As you point out, we can become aware of influences on our freedom-to-choose in various areas – depression being your example, brain tumors, environmental causes and all sorts of other causes as well.



  18. Jeff Johnson
    Posted May 8, 2013 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Re: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/what-is-compatibilism-really/#comment-434538

    I think it is important to keep in mind three components of punishment:

    1. Deterrence: the threat of possible future punishment affects people’s choices in favor of following norms.
    2. Reinforcement: the memory of past punishment affects the recipient’s future choices in favor of following norms (to avoid more punishment).
    3. Retribution: Inflicting pain and suffering on transgressors as a cathrtic experience for victims and indignant upstanding members of society.

    I think the first two are rational and belong in a system based on a deterministic understanding of human behavior.

    The third is a primitive vengeful emotional holdover from our evolution in the context of competing hunter gatherer tribes. This is something we should dispense with, and can dispense with as more and more people understand that offenders don’t have the kind of freedom most people assume they do.

    I think this third component really affects our sentence lengths and prison conditions. It provides the continuing motive for preserving the death penalty. It leads to tolerating treatment of prisoners that is counter-productive and incompatible with the goals of rehabilitation. It is Old Testament morality, which ought to be obsolete.

    If the studies didn’t carefully explain these distinctions to the subjects, I doubt most people could have applied these concepts to their responses.

    • PascalsGhost
      Posted May 8, 2013 at 8:51 am | Permalink

      I agree that the third component should have no place in civilised society, but what does that have to do with anything? Again, you and others want to argue that compatibilism somehow opens the door for this third component but you are satisfied just asserting that that is the case. All you provide is emotional appeals about how terrible this third component is (which I fully agree with) but you have no compelling argument for why the widespread acceptance of determinism would lead to it’s eradication or reduction. “It seems to make sense to me” is not an argument.

      Frankly the way compatibilism is being constantly linked to accommodationism, senseless vengeance and some strange yearning for the comfort of religious platitudes amounts to nothing more than a sustained smear campaign and it is really tiring.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted May 8, 2013 at 9:18 am | Permalink

        I don’t think I’ve made an airtight evidence based case that everyone should accept.

        I think I’ve at least answered compatibilist questions about how incompatibilists might think that understanding determinism and a relaxation of the traditional notion of free will can have positive impact on how people view punishment and how we order our penal system.

        For me personally, and I imagine for many other people, fully internalizing the notion that people aren’t really free to simply make alternate choices when they act, that they are often driven by overwhelming compulsions that are the result of their particular development, environment, genetic code, and gene expression, helps me to dispel feelings of anger and vengeance, and to view the person not as an evildoer, but as a somewhat helpless victim of circumstances.

        This doesn’t mean I think they should go unpunished. The first two components of punishment can still rationally be applied. But there is more room for treatment that helps offenders still feel like there is a place for them in society, like they can be reformed and treated as human beings, and that they need not be discarded as useless garbage.

        This is how I feel. I’ve noticed there are others who feel the same.

        I don’t expect that you have to accept these opinions as valid evidence or argument.

        • Peter
          Posted May 8, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink

          “I don’t expect that you have to accept these opinions as valid evidence or argument.”
          -Jeff Johnson

          I wonder if maybe Jerry will promote this comment to it’s own post next time he wants to taunt compatibilists.

          • Posted May 8, 2013 at 10:05 am | Permalink

            The purpose of my post was not to taunt compatibilists; it was for me to learn about how they answer my most common questions about compatibilism.

            And you, sir, need to learn some manners. This is an extremely snarky comment that violates the roolz.

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted May 8, 2013 at 10:08 am | Permalink

            Let’s be honest. Nobody presents complete evidence or completely unassailable arguments in comments on a website thread.

            You can mine that quote in and attempt to embarrass me, but that is a cheap shot, not a substitute for substantive response to the arguments and opinions I’ve expressed.

    • Posted May 8, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

      Jeff Johnson,

      As I have written here before, it seems to me that every civilized person already thinks in terms of deterrence and reinforcement, that the vast majority of people accept the fact that we are the product of our genes and experiences quite matter-of-factly. This in a state of things where many people would presumably be under the illusion that they believe in dualist free will.

      Which just shows that nobody actually does. No matter what they think they believe, everybody on the planet knows that we are the product of our genes and experiences and acts accordingly in everyday life. This is just like the intellectual posturing of postmodernists, who are under the illusion that they believe all knowledge to be mere opinion but who still act as if they had reliable knowledge about physical reality in their everyday life.

      What is more, everything you wrote is completely irrelevant for compatibilism anyway because compatibilism includes determinism.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted May 8, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

        the vast majority of people accept the fact that we are the product of our genes and experiences quite matter-of-factly.

        In the US, the vast majority of people believe either in creationism, or guided evolution.

        This majority also believes in angels, the soul, and life after death.

        In Africa and Asia the percentages of such beliefs are higher. I don’t know how South and Central America compares, but they’ve got a whole lot of Catholics.

        What is more, everything you wrote is completely irrelevant for compatibilism anyway because compatibilism includes determinism.

        I’ve frequently seen compatibilists ask on this site how the absence of belief in free will could change anything in our penal system. This is an attempt to answer that question.

      • Vaal
        Posted May 8, 2013 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

        Alex SL,

        Agreed. That’s what I keep getting at too.

        Even IF it were assumed everyone held some dualistic belief about the self, and with Christians that is assumed, it’s clear that
        people don’t really act like (or fully believe) we are out of the loop of causation.

        Most of our interactions with our fellow man presume some reasonable level of predictability for how someone will act – and the more you know someone the more you can predict about their behavior. And that’s because we really do think there are causal reasons behind people acting as they do.

        Purportedly libertarian/dualist/contra-causal believing Christians clearly believe this by their actions as well. The very fact Christian engage in the project of parenting presumes we can have a causal effect on the behavior of our children (pass on our beliefs, values, culture, behaviors, etc). Not that our choices and actions are some contra-causal wild-card free of all causal connection or predictability.

        So, as you say, even the purported dualists in the population recognize causal influences on behavior. Certain facts of life are just too hard to ignore.


        (This is also one reason why the theistic Free Will defenses for the Problem Of Suffering and Evil don’t work. They try to use our free will to cut off God’s culpability for any suffering humans cause to one another. One of approaches is to say Free Will was necessary for morally relevant creatures, but ALSO that God could not predict how things would turn out because Free Will is indeterministic and thus can not be predicted by God. So…He’s not responsible. Yet this is obviated by the fact that even granted we have free will, this clearly does not mean people’s behavior is unpredictable. We RELY on the fact that our fellow man’s behavior IS roughly predictable to get along in the world. And we often hold ourselves accountable for not acting in cases where someone’ behavior could reasonably have been predicted. We mere humans can do this with our free willed brothers and sisters, but a God who knows everything about human nature and all the reasons why anyone does anything apparently couldn’t predict human behavior. Yeah. Right).

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted May 8, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

          I’m not saying people behave as if they have contra-causal free will. They behave as we observe them to behave, as intelligent deterministic beings.

          But an intelligent deterministic being can be under the sway of (possibly false) beliefs, which can greatly influence its opinions.

          So if a deterministic human without free will (but with the compatibilist version of free will, which is real but badly named in my opinion) believes for some reason that the person knocking at the door is a dangerous psychopathic murderer, and another person believes it is Ed McMahon of Publishers Clearing House to award a $10 million prize, these people’s behavior will be very different based on what they believe to be true.

          So people who believe in the soul and contra-causal free will can be fully deterministic beings exhibiting the abilities that compatibilists say they have, and still support different political policies or social norms as a result of their false belief in the soul and contra-causal free will.

  19. DV
    Posted May 8, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    More about “agency” versus “free will”:

    Agency is actually on the same level of abstraction (or non-reduction) as free will. This should pose the same problem for incompatibilists who think there is no free will because all effects have prior causes. Agency has the same problem – all actions of an agent is reducible to the effects of all the prior state of the world. So how can you say an “agent” “acts” towards a “goal”, when the physical chain of causation blows right through the agent boundary. The fact that an incompatibilist would suggest “agency” as a better choice of words than “free will” shows the lack of clarity of the idea of incompatibilism. Once you allow the level of abstraction where agents and goals exist and we can talk about agents pursuing (different) goals, then incompatibilism is already lost. The only thing needed for “free will” to enter the discussion is to allow that those goal-pursuing agents have consciousness and intentions.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted May 8, 2013 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      Almost any word would be better than “free will” as long as it didn’t have the long contentious history that “free will” has.

      The human, viewed as a metabolizing system that expends energy to act on behalf of its own interests within its environmnt, in a fully deterministic way, can be called an agent that represents its own interests.

      The first and major problem with “free will” is that it has too often meant contra-causal free will. No matter how many times you say that it doesn’t exist, the usage of the term for this non-existent thing is real. So there is natural confusion. There is an inevitable collision in the terminology, and I find it very hard to understand the motives for being so attached to “free will” as an important term. “Agent” doesn’t carry the same cultural baggage.

      More practically, when we look for the will, and its freedom, can we find that inside this system? If you say “At noon I decided to have sushi because it was my free choice”, how confidently can you say that choice was not predicated on something else involuntary and unconcious? The inputs to that choice were probably an unfathomably complex combination of hunger signals, concerns for health, raw pursuit of pleasure driven by unconscious processing of sensory input from taste buds and memories of past experience, maybe concerns about transportation and cost factored in, perhaps other emotional reasons for choosing that, such as wishing to win the admiration of a love interest, or a belief formed by something a friend said, or an advertisement that entered the periphery of your conscious attention without really registering consciously, but nevertheless triggered the unconsciuos process of building a desire to eat sushi and as a result forming a conscious impression of that desire.

      It’s fair to say that eating sushi was my will. It just doesn’t seem very fair to say it was a free conscious choice. It’s more like the conscious choice is the story the conscious mind makes up to explain to itself why it is doing what the unconscious is making it do.

  20. Joe
    Posted May 8, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    It sounds like a lot of you are discussing something similar to “Euthyphro’s Dilemma”:

    Did I choose this becuase it was my choice (My brain physically cannot choose something else determined by its processes and environment), or was it my choice becuase I chose it (Some “I” that is independent of the physical processes of my brain and the evironment)?

    I don’t see how it can be anything but either determinism or dualism?

  21. Gary W
    Posted May 8, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    I think the first two are rational and belong in a system based on a deterministic understanding of human behavior. The third is a primitive vengeful emotional holdover from our evolution in the context of competing hunter gatherer tribes.

    They’re all rational in that they serve our goals. The first two are really the same thing (deterrence). Deterrence serves the goal of reducing crime. And the third (retribution) serves the goal of making criminals suffer for their crimes. Both of these goals ultimately rest on unprovable moral beliefs. We want to reduce crime because crime harms innocent people and we think it’s wrong to harm innocent people. We want criminals to suffer because we think it’s wrong for them to get away with their crimes without paying a price. And it doesn’t make any sense to claim that retribution is “primitive.” So is the desire to protect the innocent. All emotions are “primitive.”

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted May 8, 2013 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

      Good point, all emotions are primitive, including the desire to protect the innocent. So scratch the word primitive from my explanation in #68 above. Primitive is not necessarily a bad thing.

      I don’t believe #1 and #2 are the same thing, because #2 only serves to prevent a specific offender, the one who experienced the punishment, from repeating, while #1 acts as a deterrent in advance to everyone.

      But assuming #1 and #2 have been determined at effective levels, the third becomes unnecessary to protect the innocent, even if you can conceive of it serving a goal.

      So we may disagree on whether it should be a goal to make people suffer. I don’t think they should be made to suffer beyond paying the price of loss of freedom included in #1 and #2. Others want to inflict more suffering. We used to draw and quarter people in the public square if they displeased the monarch. No longer, and I think this was the start of a good trend that we need to carry further.

      So we may disagree on whether or not people need to pay with pain and physical suffering in addition to loss of freedom by incarceration in service of #1 and #2.

      But hopefully you can’t ask the question: why do incompatibilists think that doing away with the concept of “free will” might change anything in our penal system. This is an explanation of how it could change things.

    • Gary W
      Posted May 8, 2013 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      I don’t believe #1 and #2 are the same thing, because #2 only serves to prevent a specific offender, the one who experienced the punishment, from repeating

      #2 doesn’t “prevent” crime. It deters crime. Just as #1 deters crime. You’re confusing deterrence with incapacitation. The only difference between #1 and #2 is in who is deterred.

      But assuming #1 and #2 have been determined at effective levels, the third becomes unnecessary to protect the innocent, even if you can conceive of it serving a goal.

      #2 isn’t intended to protect the innocent. It’s intended to satisfy our sense of justice, our belief that criminals deserve to pay a price for their crimes.

      So we may disagree on whether it should be a goal to make people suffer.

      I still have no idea what you think it means to say that we “should” do something, given your claim that there’s no such thing as free will and that we have no control over our actions. On your account, we just do whatever we are compelled to do by physical processes over which we have no control, regardless of what you think we “should” do.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted May 8, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

        I still have no idea what you think it means to say that we “should” do something, given your claim that there’s no such thing as free will and that we have no control over our actions.

        I’ve never said we have no control over our actions. That would really be contrary to our routine daily experiences, wouldn’t it?

        I recognize that we have what compatibilists call free will. I just think it is wrong to call this kind of freedom “free will”. What I see we have is the ability to respond to our environment in very complex and intelligent ways. This can be called degrees of freedom, but I don’t see it as related to our will. It is based on our intelligence and the plasticity of the brain, our ability to learn. I still believe what we will is heavily determined by the unconscious mind. I can’t see our will as a free agent, but rather a servent in the conscious mind of a complex set of determining causes, most of which we are not aware of.

        Given that our choices are determined, keep in mind that they are in large part determined by the information and knowledge that we have gathered over time.

        So people without free will who encounter such a prescriptive statement will parse it, understand what it says, and either reject it or decide it is a good prescription, and learn to incorporate it in their decisions and and opinions in the future. I don’t see why determinism should prevent people from thinking and learning.

      • Gary W
        Posted May 8, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

        Your position just boils down to an irrational aversion to the term “free will.” Telling people what you think they “should” do implies that you believe they are in some meaningful sense free to choose what to do. You even acknowledge explicitly that this is a “kind of freedom.” You don’t seem to object to the word “choice,” either. The “will” part of “free will” simply refers to the subjective experience of making choices. Your argument has dissolved into a quibble about words.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted May 8, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

          It means I think they are capable of choosing. Sure, that’s a kind of freedom. But the choice is made via a deterministic will, not a free will.

          My argument has always been about words as they are applied to the human brain. Words matter. If you use words that are not accurate or that give false impressions, you create confusion. Calling something free will when that is confusing and non-sensical is not a good idea.

          You can say my argument boils down to an irrational aversion, but I can say compatibilism, even it’s very definition, is based on an irrational attachment to the term “free will”.

          • Posted May 9, 2013 at 12:01 am | Permalink

            But, the fact is that it’s taken many threads with hundreds of posts to get to the stage where you have clarified your position that we don’t have “free will” sufficiently for anyone to understand that it’s really just a definitional difference to do with the term “will”. That hardly bodes well for your and Jerry’s claim of enlightening public understanding.

            The fact is that everyone else is just as confused as compatibilists on this site are by these no free will claims and thinks, with some justification, that you are claiming that science has proved fatalism. That’s particularly the case, since it is already what many think determinism implies in the first place.

            Hence, it would seem sensible to stick with terminology that is comprehensible to most of us and just clarify that libertarianism is incoherent. And that’s what compatiblists such as Pinker and Dennett are already doing.

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted May 9, 2013 at 2:21 am | Permalink

              Reply at #73 below.

  22. Posted May 8, 2013 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know whether I am a compatibilist or not. Although I am self-aware, it is clear that no part of my brain is immaterial or free from material causation. Sam Harris pointed out that despite the feeling of being a witness to what we are, and the feeling that we make decisions on our own, introspection will show us that our thoughts are unpredictable, even by ourselves. Ideas come into our heads and there is sometimes no apparent connection between one thought and the next. This fact fits with the evidence that psychological experiments have provided, that events in the brain that permit researchers to predict with some precision what we will decide, occur in people before they themselves are aware of what they will decide. A short review of Harris’ Free Will is on my blog, which might be helpful to those who have not yet read it.

  23. Jeff Johnson
    Posted May 9, 2013 at 2:20 am | Permalink

    @Roq from: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/what-is-compatibilism-really/#comment-434978

    I’ve made it clear many many times I’m not arguing for fatalism. I think people often assume they know what I’m saying without carefully reading what I’m writing. The phrase “free will” seems to act as a shibboleth at times.

    I’ve seen people grappling with determinism and its implications, and there is a common confusion that leads people to think it means we are some kind of helpless puppet. I’m always arguing against this. This isn’t the incompatibilists position. At a minimum, whether you are a compatibilist or incompatibilist, your understanding of determinism must be consistent with the obvious every day observations of human behavior, human history, and our own subjective experience. People worried about fatalism haven’t understood the capabilities of the human mind well enough yet. It doesn’t mean they are incompatibilist. It means they still suspect we have libertarian free will of some sort.

    I believe that we make choices, that we arrive at our choices through a very complex process that takes our history and our needs and interests fully into account, but that contrary to the typical understanding of the word “choice”, when we choose, we could not physically have chosen otherwise. There is an important sense in which we can say we don’t make “real” choices in the way people typically understand the word choice, just as a stage magician doesn’t do “real” magic in the way the word “magic” is traditionally understood. It just doesn’t impress me that you can artificially constrain the referent of the word “magic” to these stage illusions as “the only kind of magic that really exists”. It is not real magic, and any child knows what this means. Compatibilists get all snarky about this, pretending it is the same thing as saying we don’t make choices, or that it amounts to advocating that the word “choice” should be obliterated from the language. It is not the same, and does not mean these things.

    Many times I’ve made the point that, even, for example, if before I go to the grocery store it is already determined what I will buy, it doesn’t bother me for two reasons: 1. I will come home with the things I want to eat, and 2. If I were instantaneously removed from existence it would change things in the world. I play a role. I matter. I’ve seen compatibilists expressing this as the importance of us being part of the causal chain. Over all a satisfying existence is enabled regardless of the extent to which events may be in principle if not in practice predictable in advance. I think this is an area where I agree with compatibilists, and so should any incompatibilist in my opinion.

    What bothers me about compatibilism is that it rests on language. The fact of human intelligence is that it is deterministic, but the complex ways in which it can respond to the environment, and the capacity to learn, enable it to appear to have free will, that is it appears as if “I” simply “want” something and “will” the acts to make it so. This appearance has always been present as language evolved, so our language is full of these presumptions of free will. The truth is this view ignores the very complex questions, what is “I”, what makes it “want” something, and how does it “will” it? We view these words as referring to integral units, but this is as much a creation of our subjective experience as the color red. It makes sense to call it an illusion. We really experience “red”, but “red” is not out there in the world as it seems to us when we see. We really experience mirages, but that also is not out there, it’s how we experience reflected light in our head, and we call them illusions.

    So when compatibilists use language based arguments, e.g. counterfactual usage of language, or descriptive usage of language, and claim that this implies we have free will, it makes me alternately want to pull out my hair or laugh. Isn’t it clear that this is circular because this language evolved in a context of presumed libertarian free will based on the subjective illusions I just described?

    Just as with the stage illusionist, calling his tricks “magic” doesn’t make them magic, and using “free will” to refer to our subjective illusions and our substantial ability to exhibit complex intelligent behaviors in our own interest doesn’t make us free. To be a compatibilist you have to agree that a dog on a chain is free. One can debate whether a five foot chain is relatively free compared to a one foot chain. A hundred foot chain gives even more relative freedom. The dog has a good deal of latitude or elbow room to do dog things. But it is still constrained by being a dog and by being on a chain. So is the relative freedom of the human on a very very long cerebral chain actually free will? I have to say no, but it at least amounts to some reasonably satisfying simulation or approximation of what we traditionally thought free will is. So I can agree with compatibilists that we have relative degrees of freedom, and what we have is worth having, but it doesn’t clear the bar of what I think freedom means. It seems to me a compromise to adjust my notion of freedom to refer to this lesser thing compatibilists are willing to call free will. Compatibilists seem to have strong motives to call it “free will”. I just don’t have those motives to make this compromise. I’d rather say we have a lot, but not “free will”.

    If we had free will, as I see it, smokers could easily quit in an instant as soon as they form the thought “I really ought to quit”. Dieters could effortlessly succeed in following their regimes. Many errors we make would not be made. Nobody would be depressed or have PTSD or OCD. The self-discipline to avoid procrastination would never be a struggle. Instead we struggle with ourselves internally all the time.

    • Posted May 9, 2013 at 3:36 am | Permalink

      >> “We could not do otherwise”

      When we make a choice, what we are doing is deciding which *one* of a number of alternatives is best for us. Our brain processes narrow down the options and we end up choosing the one option that, we think, best fits our needs in the particular circumstances we are in. To say that “we couldn’t do otherwise” is missing the point, it’s not that we couldn’t, it is that we didn’t *want* to do otherwise in the particular circumstances in which we made the choice. If we end up doing otherwise, than what we want to do, it can only be through something impinging on our thinking and preventing us from doing it.

      The mistake people are making here (See Dennett: Freedom Evolves, Ch 3 Austin’s Putt) is to imagine that when we talk about choices we mean being able to do otherwise in *precisely* the same circumstances, when what we actually mean is if circumstances were slightly different. Austin couldn’t have holed his putt in *precisely* the circumstances where he failed to hole it (that’s obvious as he didn’t hole it then), but what he means by “I could have holed that putt” is that there are very many possible worlds close to this one, where if he happened to be in one of them, he would have holed the putt. So, his not holing the putt, in the particular circumstances he was in, was an aberration; in almost any other circumstance he would have holed that two footer.

      >> Smokers

      Smokers don’t quit, because they don’t want to quit, they don’t have the character to quit. People get depressed, because it’s in their genes to be depressed. Compatibilists are fully aware that we can’t create ourselves, as we agreed in past posts, because that is logically untenable and in no way differs in deterministic as opposed to indeterministic worlds. Hence this kind of reasoning is a non sequitur in this discussion.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted May 9, 2013 at 4:46 am | Permalink

        I don’t at all miss the point that we do what we want to do. As I wrote, for example, when I come home from the grocery store I have the food I want to eat.

        This does not change the fact that as a deterministic thinking machine my brain physically could not have chosen otherwise. Our wants are incorporated into the deterministic processes. They don’t give us freedom to do otherwise.

        You say that when “we speak” of choices, we mean we could do otherwise in different circumstances. I think you are putting words into “our” mouths, and you are helping to make my case that compatibilism is based on language meanings, not physical facts about the brain.

        I would change that to what “we mean” when we talk of choice is based on the presumed libertarian free will that was the context of language evolution. What we mean is that in precisely the same circumstances we could have chosen otherwise. Holing a putt is not a choice, it is an ability. We can’t choose to fly any more than we can choose to hole a putt, but trying we are more likely to succeed at the putt.

        However, given the reality of determinism, you would be correct that the only sensible interpretation of being able to choose otherwise would be in another circumstance, because obviously the surprising fact is that we could not do differently in the same situation. Your reinterpretation of “choice” is the only meaning that could possibly make sense once you have properly understood the implications of determinism. This is much different from saying it is what “we mean”. In fact it is a narrowing of the semantic value of the word choice to accommodate the compatibilist project of “proving” that free will and determinism are compatible. It is a proof that depends on subtly moving the goalposts using language equivocation.

        The final discussion of how we exercise our will is in no way a non-sequitur. Again you are following the compatibilist paradigm of redefining things so that the round peg of free will can be jammed into the square hole of determinism. It is clever and true to say that indeterminism would not change things, but it doesn’t address my point, which was not the claim that indeterminism would give us freedom. My point was that if we had freedom to choose what we can logically want, e.g. to immediately quit smoking, then we would have freedom in the way people are able to conceive of it. It matters not whether such freedom is possible. People can conceive of it, people have long imagined that a good and perfect soul could give them this freedom, and our language has evolved its meanings based on such false beliefs about people. As I mentioned, to be a compatibilist you have to lower the bar of freedom from what people can conceive it to be down to the possible meaning of freedom that can agree with deterministic reality. This is practical, and it involves relative degrees of freedom, not what human beings highest aspirations to freedom have always been.

        If you belong to the compatibilist tribe, you have strong motives to be able to say “humans have free will”. It seems no other words will do because the very definition of compatibilism is in terms of free will. I don’t have this motive and it seems silly to me.

        As I see it, saying we have “free will” is a distortion of language to fit the facts, rather than an accurate use of language to describe the facts.

        • Vaal
          Posted May 9, 2013 at 7:13 am | Permalink


          This debate between incompatibilists here and those defending compabilism has had 3 essential components, in terms of criticizing compatibilism:

          1. Whether compatibilism is trying to sneak some sort of non-empirical magic or dualism in the back door.

          2. Whether, given determinism, we can still as compatibilism argues, justify applying terms like “choice,” “freedom to choose” “free will” that make sense in the context of determinism.

          3. Whether the type of freedom to choose compatibilists argue for actually captures the sense in which most people think they have the freedom to choose (Free Will).

          It seems to me we’ve at least moved past issues 1 and 2. No matter how much they are poked and prodded, no magic or dualism is found hiding in the compatibilist arguments here. And it seems conceded that we still need words to do essentially the same job as “being free to choose” even given determinism. And so long as “free will” would be understood in this compatibilist sense, it would be acceptable.

          The problem being left over is #3: if you don’t think compatibilism adequately captures what most people think they can do when making a choice, then continuing to use the term Free Will – even if WE here understand the caveats – will add to public confusion and appear to validate dualism and magic thinking about our choice making abilities.

          Agree or not?

          I’ll again address # 3.


          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted May 9, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

            Yes, I agree. I’ll add just a bit more.

            It seems to me that the history of the term “free will” has influenced the choices compatibilists and incompatibilists make with respect to it.

            Compatibilists feel it is a good thing to say we have free will. Why? I assume it is because it is reassuring to people, and that it fulfills a long term committment that compatibilists have. Incompatibilists feel it is a bad thing, a mistake that hides an illusion.

            I still wonder if compatibilist feelings about “free will”, the words, don’t involve some emotional attachment. I wonder if a martian scientist would agree that human behavior actually involves something real that fits the description “free will”.

        • Vaal
          Posted May 9, 2013 at 7:57 am | Permalink

          About #3, let’s consider whether your account of what people think when they make “free choices” or the compatibilist account (at least my version) captures more of the reasons why people think they can choose freely.

          I keep arguing: It’ not that some portion of humanity goes around thinking “I have libertarian free will.” It’s that they think they have Free Will and to the degree they ask themselves why, some think it must be because they are dualistic entities. The sensation of actually having the ability to choose A or B is one thing, the ACCOUNT FOR WHY that would be the case is another, which is why we have had compatibilist and libertarian accounts ever since people asked the question. The answers are philosophical/theistic positions or answers – they do not form part of the experience being explained.

          You can see this just by going through the typical process of making a choice.

          Take “Sam” who sometimes takes the subway to work, other times drives his car. Sam took the subway to work today. You ask Sam: “Sam, did you truly have a choice between taking the subway or the car? Were you free to do either?”

          Sam will answer: Sure.

          If you ask Sam to justify his answer, he’ll in all likelihood explain that he owns a car, and obviously that he can drive and has driven to work many times. In other words, the reason Sam thinks he had a choice
          is due to his appraisal of his own abilities, his own powers in similar situations, inferred from previous experience over time.

          If you had asked Sam “Did you really have a choice between, say, driving or flying through the air to work by tapping your heels?” what will Sam answer?
          “No,” of course. The same principle explains this: The reason Sam rejects this as a choice he is free to make is that it isn’t something he thinks is within his powers.

          People clearly evaluate whether they “have a real ability to choose between A and B” or not by evaluating whether they have the physical powers and opportunity to do either one…NOT on the consideration of “I am a contra-causal, dualistic being.” And not as if they are considering “If every atom and cause were frozen in place, could I choose either one?” Those type of thoughts just don’t enter in to the thinking process, the WHY someone thinks he has a choice in front of him.

          Our perception of our abilities is drawn not from any “every cause in the universe exactly the same” frozen moment. Our typical inferences about our powers are drawn from multiple instances over time, and in the same way when we are pondering whether we have a choice or not, or whether we HAD a choice or not, we evaluate “yes” or “no” based on our performance in similar-but-not-precisely-the-same situations in the past. This abstraction is simply part of our thinking and far from being a magical residue, it’s actually *necessary* for our rational inferences about anything. It’s both how we think about things and how we have to think about things.

          And part of the variables that we explicitly or implicitly jiggle when saying “Yes I could have taken the car instead of the subway” is imagining our having a different desire. “I could have
          taking the car if I’d wanted to.” After all, who goes around thinking much about “What can I do that I do not want to do?”

          Surely in asking whether Sam was free to choose either the car or the subway, Sam would not think you were asking “Could you have taken the car if you had no desire to take the car?” Why would he presume someone would be asking that question? We presume we’d take the car IF WE’D WANTED TO.

          To ask of someone whether he could have taken the car to work if he had no desire to, or if every cause in the universe and in his brain were precisely the same, just does not seem at all to be part of the process when people are thinking “I have the choice between A and B” or “I had the choice between A and B.” That is in the realm of philosophical thought problems.

          And if you’d ask me that question I’d wonder: Well, are you asking me if, even lacking the desire to drive whether I was capable of driving? Well, yes, I’m capable of driving to work. I just don’t see why I would if I didn’t want to.

          So to sum up, I just don’t think your view captures the type of freedom people assume they have when making choices, or when thinking “I had the freedom to choose.” It’s just not part of the thought process.
          People infer they have a choice insofar as they think their abilities and the situation allows them the choice. And their appraisal of their ability to choose either action is an inference of their powers over time, not thought of as “what can I do given every cause in the universe being the same.” Since that is not how they came to infer their powers in the first place. And further, counter-factual desires are explicitly or implicitly assumed in most cases “I could have taken the car to work instead of the subway IF I had desired to do so.”

          All of which amounts to the compatibilist account of “Freedom.” And since the very type of generalized thinking underlies our true claims about the rest of the determined world, our claims about our having and making choices carry the same type of truth.

          Incompatibilists denies free will
          by falsely equating the Libertarian/dualistic *explanation* for our freedom to make choices, thinking if dualist explanations are false, the phenomenon being explained, our being free to choose in certain situations, doesn’t exist.


          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted May 9, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

            this took a while. Here is my attempt to answer these points.

            I agree that people don’t go through the kinds of detailed thought processes that incompatibilists or compatibilists go through when thinking about choices.

            I agree that physical capacity or ability is a necessary prerequisite to being able to make a choice, e.g. living near a subway and owning a car.

            I don’t agree that these physical prerequisites are sufficient to explain what people think their choices mean. There is another level to the choice once the prerequisites are established. The prerequisites just set the range of possible options. So whenever we discuss choices here, it makes sense to simply stipulate the actual possibility of the options available and not confuse the discussion with that detail.

            I agree that imagining hypothetical counterfactuals is a usual part of such a decision process. This is not a matter of free will, but one of intelligence.

            We both agree that, whatever Sam thinks, he does not possess contra-causal free will, and that his choices are determined.

            I’m not claiming that Sam needs to explicitly think he has contra-causal free will, or know what that means, to be under the influence of the belief that he has contra-causal free will. In order to believe he has contra-causal free will, he needs to perceive his choices as being entirely products of his conscious thought and will. I think this is a very natural human subjective experience. This is an important point that I think is often misunderstood when people respond to my comments (it showed up in your response to the T-shirt purchase scenario). Sam doesn’t need to know what contra-causal free will is, or be able to consciously formulate the thought “I believe in contra-causal free will”, or even have any thoughts at all about free will, to be under the impression that his will is free and that it is contra-causal, i.e. that it is 100% based on the prerogative and descretion of the “I” in Sam’s conscious thought. I’m talking about what seems to me the default experience of what it feels like to be a human thinker.

            So let’s imagine peering into Sam’s head during his decision. He goes to work every day, and he has already decided that today is no exception. Let’s assume he gets through showering, dressing, and is ready early, so that he has time for either option, the car or the subway. He now turns his mind toward thinking about how he will go to work, and what he may have for breakfast. Will he eat at home or on the way to work? This can impact his choice about how to travel.

            He fairly effortlessly calls to mind what his options are. How does he do this? He certainly doesn’t consciously go through a lookup algorithm to calculate a memory address and will a sequence of internal steps to retrieve the memory of what ways he might go to work. Instead his unconscious mind effortlessly arranges for the information to pop into his conscious mind in some way that Sam has no clue about. Perhaps his desire to travel is associated with memories of modes of transport so this particular act of desiring (set off by some other signals) automatically triggers signals that cascade and resonate through the brain in a way that awakens awareness of modes of transport available, familiar, used before, with the right characteristics to get to work on time. A lot has happened already just to get to the leading candidates in the choice, and Sam has no idea of it. He just sees full concepts spring into existence, apparently uncaused and from nowhere, in his conscious mind. He would have to do some serious and unusual introspection to conclude “Hey, this feeling or that idea was caused by something in my brain”. Normally we just flit from thought to thought while taking it entirely for granted.

            Now he will do something we might call “testing” the options. The conscious thought process will seek to compare, to ask something akin to “how does a drive sound?” This automatically invokes some kind of emotional response, a feeling or sensation that either diminishes or augments the attractiveness of that option. How does this happen? Not consciously. Somehow by just consciously testing the options, by visualizing what they might be like, Sam may form a positive or negative feeling about each, and he doesn’t know how. He didn’t really will the positive feeling associated with the idea of driving, or the negative feeling associated with the subway. But he may now seek to explain to himself his feelings. “Well, it’s a really nice day and the drive will take me by my favorite bagel shop. I still have time to stop for breakfast and read the paper if I drive.” Or, “I take the subway most of the time. I know it’s better ecologically, but today can be an exception. I just don’t feel like dealing with the crowds. And a bagel with lox and cream cheese sounds really great”.

            Sam doesn’t know how he thought all of this. He just did it. The thoughts and ideas just sprang into his mind. He feels that “I” am just “thinking”. But how? Each word, each memory, each visualization, each emotional reaction to the visualizations, is relying on tremendously complex support from what we might call unconscious infrastructure. And the value judgements about how each possibility seems, how it sounds, how it feels, what really appeals to “me”, imagining the taste of the lox and bagel, imagining the subway crowds, etc. is for Sam’s conscious mind a nearly effortless dance from thought to feeling to idea to reaction to the next thing. But we have to understand that much happened underneath and between each conscious moment, most of it involuntary and invisible to Sam.

            To complete this exercise could be endless, but I hope this establishes some flavor of what the difference is between Sam subjectively experiencing a conceptual process involving symbolic, linguistic, and emotional evaluation of memories and ideas, vs. the far more complex processes of the full set of activities in the brain.

            Some people goes as far as to say that the conscious mind is inconsequential, that all of this thinking is unconsciously controlled and the consciousness is epiphenomenal, a mere observer. I think this is terribly wrong. I figure consciousness evolved for a reason. If I had a chance to bet on a reason consciousness evolved, I’d say it is for the sake of efficiency. The conscious mind seems to have a very flexible set of abilities, unlike say the visual or auditory processing. The ability to abstract, use symbols, logic, use recursion, full language abilities, and combine that with memory storage and recal is very powerful. These behaviors are “parameterizable” in a sense, not just by values, but by types or classes of information, so that we can do the same kinds of things with vegetables, movies, cars, friends, sentences, colors, objects, emotions, numbers, and visual images, etc. So the brain capacity dedicated to consciousness must use a small fraction of the brain capacity that would have been needed to implement all these different kinds of conscoius activities unconsciously. The unconscious processes seem to be more special purpose, geared toward doing one kind of function really really well.

            But regardless of why we have consciousness, examining our thought processes more carefully than with a simple descriptive language based schematic model of our choices reveals pretty quickly that a lot is going on that we have no conscious control over. So when our conscious mind tells us that “we”, the subjective conscious mind, are controlling something, or liking something, or deciding something, or feeling something, it seems to me pretty clear that the basis of these wants, preferences, attitudes, etc. that heavily influence what choices we make, is not conscious free will. It is mostly activity of unconscious involuntary origin that is determining outcomes, albeit with the partnership of the conscious mind.

            And more, just looking at the conscious part of our thinking, the way ideas, concepts, words, emotions, just pop fully formed into our consciousness seemingly coming from nowhere, and not consciously or intentionally constructed, seems very much like a reasonable prototype model for the invention of the idea of dualism and contra-causal free will.

            The conclusion for me is that compatibilism is a really good story based on our subjective experience and how our language evolved, and it has many true aspects, but it is just not true that it describes how we will things, or in its characterization of the will as free.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted May 9, 2013 at 7:27 am | Permalink

        The mistake people are making here (See Dennett: Freedom Evolves, Ch 3 Austin’s Putt) is to imagine that when we talk about choices we mean being able to do otherwise in *precisely* the same circumstances, when what we actually mean is if circumstances were slightly different.

        We are very familiar with people, after having made a choice, and suffering from a touch of “buyer’s remorse”, saying I should have chosen the green one, or I should have got the large instead of the medium.

        They do not mean if they were in a nearly identical but different situation, that they would have the ability to choose differently. They mean that in that *precise* situation they believe they could have chosen differently, and they now feel they should have chosen differently. This reveals a false presumption of libertarian free will.

        This point about how we can behave in slightly different circumstances is instructive though. If we imagine a space of slightly different but substantially similar situations to one in which we made some choice, we can see that we have a wide range of possible behaviors. If we had slightly different inputs, if we had been priviliged with some new information, if we had a recommendation from a trusted associate, if we were in a slightly different mood, etc. can lead to diverse behaviors. This is not a testament to our free will, but to our intelligence. Our will in all of these situations is a product of our brain structure and the information and knowledge and patterns of behavior we have accumulated over a lifetime. The relative degrees of freedom we have to exhibit diverse behaviors in slightly different circumstances is thanks to our intelligence, the complexity of our mind. Nonetheless in any one situation we can only behave *precisely* as we do. This is a physical property of the brain.

        If we look at a different variable, time, and consider how we might behave in exactly the same external circumstances at different times in our life, we see another kind of relative freedom we have, and that comes from our ability to change, to learn, the plasticity of our brain. Again as we learn and grow and gain experience our intelligence, our repetoire, our skill sets increase, which means our behavior could vary from time to time in precisely the same circumstances, where the only differences were in our internal state.

        This is why I keep saying our freedom, what there is of it, the relative degrees of freedom to exhibit complex behaviors and represent our own interests, is not derived from a will that is somehow free. It is derived from the complexity of our intelligence, and from the plasticity and learning ability of our brain.

        Understanding this, to me, makes the characterization of this behavior as “free will” seem like nothing but a vague but pleasant metaphor, but not a carefully considered and empirically accurate description. I’m fine with saying there is a kind of human freedom, derived from our intelligence and learning ability. But to call it specifically “free will” seems a bad conceptual fit that is largely based on wishful thinking, and other human factors related to the committment people feel toward realizing the long standing project of compatibilism.

        • Posted May 9, 2013 at 7:51 am | Permalink

          >> “Buyer’s Remorse” … “They do not mean if they were in a nearly identical but different situation, that they would have the ability to choose differently. They mean that in that *precise* situation they believe they could have chosen differently, and they now feel they should have chosen differently. This reveals a false presumption of libertarian free will.”

          Yes, they *do* mean that if they were in a slightly different situation they would have chosen differently!

          Buyer’s remorse arises from new knowledge or further processing of old knowledge that only becomes available after they made their first ill fated choice. If that new information was available when they made their original choice, then the circumstances would have been different and they would have chosen differently. If, for instance, I chose the red suit over the green suit and then look in the mirror the new information I got from seeing my profile is not information I had when I walked into the shop and so the circumstances are entirely different.

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted May 9, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

            I agree that buyer’s remorse is often triggered by new information, or what we call second thoughts.

            But this doesn’t mean that when they say I should have picked the other thing, that they are thinking “in a similar situation with new information”.

            I think, based on my own experiences, that what goes through the mind is a regret that at that original exact moment they did not choose otherwise. They don’t usually need to or care to consider the fact that physically they could not have chosen otherwise. But they do learn from this feeling of regret and use it in the future.

            There is another kind of situation, when people usually say “If I knew then what I know now” I would have done X. This isn’t the same feeling as buyer’s remorse. This is more a regret about the passing of time, about past opportunities squandered. In this case they really are thinking I wish this substantially different me could have that chance over again. Buyer’s remorse occurs very soon after a decision, and the feeling is that I’m exactly the same person as I was when I made that choice (granted this is false), and I made a mistake (which implies the belief that at that time they could have not made the mistake). So this indicates a belief in free will, but I think it is a belief in libertarian free will.

            • Posted May 9, 2013 at 9:41 am | Permalink

              But that’s a very superficial analysis of what is happening when you make a poor decision. Have you ever had this kind of conversation?:

              A: “I have no idea why I made that decision, I should have known better”.

              B: “Ah well, decisions are always easy with hindsight”.

              This is surely the reality of what’s going on when you imagine that you could have done otherwise. B’s sentiments are something that we can all relate to. And sure you should learn that making snap purchases is not always advisable – best to sleep on it :).

        • Vaal
          Posted May 9, 2013 at 8:14 am | Permalink


          “They do not mean if they were in a nearly identical but different situation, that they would have the ability to choose differently. They mean that in that *precise* situation they believe they could have chosen differently, and they now feel they should have chosen differently. This reveals a false presumption of libertarian free will.”

          But think about *why they think they “could have bought the large over the medium car!

          Think of ALL the assumptions that go into that. If they did not have money for the large car, for instance, they would not think they “could have” or “should have” bought the larger car. The reason they infer that buying the larger car was a possibility at the time has to do with their inferences about the general physical facts related to the question – e.g. they are capable of buying such a car and driving such a car. They aren’t basing their inference on ‘I am a contra causal agent’ because that wouldn’t actually explain why they would have made the choice to buy a car, or why they think they could have bought the other car.

          You may want to say “Well, of course we acknowledge they must be assuming they are capable of buying and driving the bigger car…but that’s not the real reason they think they could have done so, the real reason is they think they are dualistic agents.”

          No. It IS the real reason. I don’t think your thought process, or mine is any different when buying a car vs a Christian in terms of evaluating possibilities, even though neither of us is a dualist. Because it just doesn’t form part of the inference/thought process when we consider which choices to make.

          But, there seems little left to do at this point but repeat what it seems to me has not been adequately rebutted, so I suppose I’ll end there.


          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted May 9, 2013 at 9:17 am | Permalink

            I was thinking of a large shirt rather than a medium shirt. I was thinking of a T-Shirt, and I presumed they were exactly the same price. I wasn’t talking about external constraints like cost.

            They don’t consciously think “I am a contra-causal agent”.

            The remorse about the size might be that the medium is very fitted, but the large is loose and more comfortable. A person might wish they had gone for comfort rather than sexy appearance. They think “What was I thinking? I made a mistake.” Here is a presumption that they really could have made another choice, and it really is a presumption of libertarian free will. It doesn’t incorporate the understanding that “I couldn’t have physically done otherwise”. It involves an intuitive assumption of libertarian free will, that they really could have done otherwise, even though they could not have.

            • Vaal
              Posted May 9, 2013 at 10:42 am | Permalink


              I wasn’t talking about external constraints like cost.

              I know you weren’t. My reason for bringing up such possible constraints is to get you to think about the assumptions you (and anyone buying a car) make in these circumstances. In buying the shirt you ASSUME you CAN buy either shirt based on your appraisal of your physical abilities and situations like this. Bringing up constraints like one shirt being too expensive for you to afford shows this to be true, because you would never have inferred you had the choice between two shirts if you thought
              one choice was physically (in this case, financially) impossible.

              The premise that the reason people think they have choices is due to their assuming dualism simply does not explain this feature of why people believe they have any particular choice between A and B. That theory is about as viable as God being necessary for any scientific explanation. Try to fit it into the chain of explanation and it just doesn’t fit, it’s gratuitous. It’s at best an ad hoc rationalization, not part of the choice-making process for most people.

              “A person might wish they had gone for comfort rather than sexy appearance. They think “What was I thinking? I made a mistake.” Here is a presumption that they really could have made another choice, and it really is a presumption of libertarian free will.”

              But obviously they presume that “what they were thinking” at the time was the cause of their choice. They may think ultimately they reasoned to a wrong decision, but they don’t think (in most normal circumstances) that they’d made the choice for no reason at all. They had a certain desire and if they regret their decision afterward either their desire changed, or they figured they’d made the wrong choice to fulfill their desire. In either case they would be thinking “I could have made a different choice if I’d wanted to.” The “wanted to” even when not stated is at least implicit because no one goes around wondering what she could have done if she didn’t want to do it.

              So if they have a different desire now that makes them regret their choice, it is having that new desire that sheds light on what they would have done, had they that new desire. But if they had the same desire but just figured things wrong, then the difference is that they have new information about what would have fulfilled their desire at the time. So they could have altered their choice IF they’d thought more clearly about it not IF they’d been in precisely the same mindset and misunderstanding that led them to the mistake in the first place.

              Your explication of how people think just doesn’t make sense. We naturally think using assumptions that are abstractions and counterfactual when we are thinking what we “could do” or “could have done.” We could not think coherently any other way.

              (But we DO think coherently, generally, about our choices which is why we so often make decisions that connect our actions to our desires).


    • Posted May 9, 2013 at 7:22 am | Permalink

      >>> However, given the reality of determinism, you would be correct that the only sensible interpretation of being able to choose otherwise would be in another circumstance, because obviously the surprising fact is that we could not do differently in the same situation. <<> Our wants are incorporated into the deterministic processes. They don’t give us freedom to do otherwise. <<>> My point was that if we had freedom to choose what we can logically want, e.g. to immediately quit smoking, then we would have freedom in the way people are able to conceive of it. It matters not whether such freedom is possible. <<>> If you belong to the compatibilist tribe, you have strong motives to be able to say “humans have free will”. <<<

      The only motive I have in using the word free is because it accords well with the language that I learned when growing up. And after I press the post button I intend to freely go about doing what I will, a construction that everyone (including incompatibilists) have perfectly well understood for millenia, even if they appear to be claiming that they don't.

      • Posted May 9, 2013 at 7:29 am | Permalink

        Woops! gremlins. Lets try again.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted May 9, 2013 at 8:34 am | Permalink

        Okay, fair enough. I agree that we have always used language as if we have free will. This is a key part of my argument above.

        The question becomes one, which we have debated until we are all blue in the face, and as I believe Peter (or PascalsGhost?) pointed out, one which we don’t really have the data to answer, of what do people think when they talk about free will? We all agree they can’t actually have libertarian or contra-causal free will, but this doesn’t preclude people from believing they have it.

        To me is seems very plausible, in fact likely, that even though we behave deterministically in ways that compatibilists and incompatibilists agree on, our subjective experience and our observations of others leads us to assume libertarian free will, as Decartes did, and that this phenomenon, which goes way back, has heavily influenced the way our language has evolved.

        1. If we have always interpreted human behavior as being based on libertarian “free will”, that means compatibilists have a large part of their work done for them in language and culture. They just need to reinterpret certain existing words with respect to determinism and show why what we once thought was libertarian is not so, but the “free will” language still has a conceptually consistent usage (and why shouldn’t it? It always has had).

        2. On the other hand, if we have always intrepreted human behavior as being based on libertarian “free will”, the incompatibilists have to show that this is a mistaken illusion that can’t be justified by any mechanism in the human brain, and the job is to show how human subjective conscious experience and our languistic and cultural assumptions create the false appearance of libertarian free will.

        In the first instance, it still makes sense to call it “free will” from the view point of how humans use language and interpret one another’s behavior. This view point doesn’t involve drilling down into the mechanisms of will to find freedom. It stays largely at the conceptual level of human language.

        In the second instance, from the standpoint of the mechanisms of the brain that give rise to intelligence, it makes no sense to say we have free will. This is why I sometimes say it seems the incompatibilist approach is a more scientific or engineering perspective than compatibilism.

      • Posted May 9, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

        >> The question becomes one, which we have debated until we are all blue in the face, and as I believe Peter (or PascalsGhost?) pointed out, one which we don’t really have the data to answer, of what do people think when they talk about free will? We all agree they can’t actually have libertarian or contra-causal free will, but this doesn’t preclude people from believing they have it. <<

        I think this is a bit of a red herring. It really doesn't matter what *theory* people believe; it is how they actually behave and use language, both internally (in the dialogue they conduct with themselves) when justifying a decision and in social situations that matters. And for that I agree pretty much with Vaals recent post dissecting how we think about decisions. Does a dualist really imagine decision making totally differently to the way you or I do?

        Similarly, theists claim to believe in a paradise after death, if they are good, but there is no reason to believe they actually behave any better that other people; it's a theory that has little applicability with their internal models of how to behave in an environment replete with other agents and that they hold for other reasons than utility. A sort of schizophrenia, if you will.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted May 9, 2013 at 9:44 am | Permalink

          Actually, I think determinism implies that what we believe can have tremendous impact on how we behave. You are far less likely to fly a plane into a building if you believe you have only one life, and there is no reward waiting in heaven.

          And this goes for all our behavior, down to very simple beliefs (like I thought you were going to stay home, or I thought this store closed at 5pm). Our deterministic behavior is predicated to a great extent on the things we believe are true, whether they are true or not.

          This is why my point is that the way people use language is no evidence for compatibilist free will. It is more likely, given the lengthy dominance of religion, spiritism, animism, and shamanism, a sign that our language usage has evolved in the context of an assumed libertarian free will. Compatibilists have the good fortune of having a ready made set of free will concepts thanks to libertarian free will beliefs. All they have to do is tweak the semantics of some key words like choice, intend, decide, etc. This doesn’t mean that language usage is founded upon compatibilist concepts or beliefs.

          • Posted May 9, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

            Compatibilism is just the assertion that our ability to freely choose between alternatives, available to us, is not diminished by the theory that we have a physical brain which makes decisions deterministically. We can, even after accepting that, still go on talking about alternative courses of action we might have taken, without having to propose that we are living in some kind of mental la la land where these things are nothing but illusion. When I go into a restaurant, I really do choose the fish and I could, if I had wanted to, have chosen the meat.

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted May 9, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

              I agree with this. Just because we have more and more clearly understood the determinism of the brain doesn’t necessarily change the way we think and make decisions.

              I understand what you mean by saying “I could have chosen differently if I had wanted to“, which amounts to saying I could have chosen differently if I were a different person that wanted something other than I wanted, or if I were a different version of myself at some alternate time.

              On the other hand, if after having chosen the fish I say that “I” (specifically that person at that moment) could have chosen the meat, it seems quite untrue to me, only an illusion of our subjective thinking and imagination.

              And, as always, I don’t see a description of freedom of will here in this discussion of choice. To me “flexible intelligence” seems a better description.

              • Vaal
                Posted May 9, 2013 at 5:07 pm | Permalink


                “On the other hand, if after having chosen the fish I say that “I” (specifically that person at that moment) could have chosen the meat, it seems quite untrue to me, only an illusion of our subjective thinking and imagination.”

                You are appealing to a version of “I” that does not make sense. This is why I’ve brought up the issue of identity numerous times. Identity, you, me, apples, water, your car – is necessarily an abstraction, a generalization about the nature of an entity over time.

                Try giving a description of yourself. Who “you” are. You will start mentioning all sorts of attributes, interests, abilities etc
                that you feel will identify this “you.” Maybe it’s “I love drinking fine wine, arguing about religion, hiking, sailing, I get angry with X and I am made happy by Y…”

                Note how what you think of as “you” is a stand in for all these experiences of yours over time. If someone said “Hold on, are you telling me you do these things all at precisely the same time, including hiking and sailing and being made angry and happy..?

                Obiously you’d say “no.” That would be impossible to do all the things that make “you” “you” at any one single nanosecond of time or something. You would say “These things I know about myself because I have experienced them over time and I think of the thing that had all these experiences as “myself.”

                That goes for anything we would want to identify. That liquid in the pot that is evaporating? It seems to be the same type of thing that was liquid yesterday, and frozen the day before. Let’s call this class of things “water/H20.”

                So all this is to say that the “I” we normally refer to as having been able to choose either option DOES stand in for the various powers “I” have displayed *over time.* Including being capable of different desires. We are not thinking of a “different person” if the range of desires we are imagining we could have had are within our previous experience of having such desires.

                The frozen-in-time-one-action-only version of the self you keep appealing to just isn’t the way we normally think – identity involves more abstraction than this.


              • Posted May 10, 2013 at 1:12 am | Permalink

                <<< Popped

          • Posted May 10, 2013 at 1:11 am | Permalink

            >> “On the other hand, if after having chosen the fish I say that “I” (specifically that person at that moment) could have chosen the meat, it seems quite untrue to me, only an illusion of our subjective thinking and imagination.” <<

            But this has nothing to do with determinism. When an event actually occurs in any world, whether it is deterministic or indeterministic, it is done, it enters the history of that world and there is no way that it can be undone. So at that point, when you finally chose and ate the fish, you clearly couldn't have chosen the meat in that world (the situation you are now in). There would be no difference here in a libertarian interpretation. In order to change an actual outcome you would have to time travel, whilst at the same time erasing the experience you first lived through (which is incoherent), like Groundhog Day.

            So When you say "I could have chosen the meat" after you in fact chose the fish, what you really mean is that "if the circumstances in the past were slightly different, I would have chosen the meat". There just isn't any other interpretation that is coherent, however you view causality.

    • Posted May 9, 2013 at 7:28 am | Permalink

      >> “However, given the reality of determinism, you would be correct that the only sensible interpretation of being able to choose otherwise would be in another circumstance, because obviously the surprising fact is that we could not do differently in the same situation.”

      But, choice making has nothing to do with “the reality of determinism”. It would be more accurate to say that given the constraints of not talking total nonsense you can’t make more than one choice in a particular circumstance where you can only have one of several alternatives, unless there is a constraint that is restricting your freedom to choose the alternative you actually want. And any randomness (indeterminism) can not be anything other than a constraint on your ability to choose what you want.

      It is not just that dualistic free will is impossible, it is that isn’t even logically coherent. The only situation where you can logically make multiple choices is when you aren’t constrained to make a single one. If someone offers you a choice of three candies and you grab the whole packet at once and scoff all three of them, you weren’t really constrained to a single choice in the first place.

      >> “Our wants are incorporated into the deterministic processes. They don’t give us freedom to do otherwise.”

      Just doesn’t make any sense. We only want to to do otherwise when circumstances are different and then we are perfectly free to do so.

      >> “My point was that if we had freedom to choose what we can logically want, e.g. to immediately quit smoking, then we would have freedom in the way people are able to conceive of it. It matters not whether such freedom is possible.”

      But this is clearly false. Everyone who smokes knows that they don’t have the freedom to give up smoking “just like that”. So they would reject any theory that asserts that kind of freedom, if they understood it. People know very well that they can’t choose to think like Einstein, in the same way that they can’t choose to look like Ingrid Bergman (a very logical thing to want). And they know why too: They just were not born with such capabilities.

      >> “If you belong to the compatibilist tribe, you have strong motives to be able to say “humans have free will”.”

      The only motive I have in using the word free is because it accords well with the language that I learned when growing up. And after I press the post button I intend to freely go about doing what I will, a construction that everyone (including incompatibilists) have perfectly well understood for millenia, even if they appear to be claiming that they don’t.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted May 9, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

        Everyone who smokes knows that they don’t have the freedom to give up smoking “just like that”.

        Actually my point about smoking was not about what smokers believe. It was that if we observe smokers trying to quit, it is very difficult for us to see freedom of the will involved. If our will were truly free, we could will what we want, and our will would be perfectly effective.

        • Posted May 9, 2013 at 10:41 am | Permalink

          Saying that we have a certain degree of freedom in what we choose does not imply that we have infinite superpowers. The freedoms that we do have operate within certain constraints. You can hardly argue that humanity evolved with some kind of instinctive belief in their own superpowers owing to their innate dualistic tendencies, because people are very aware of their own limitations.

        • PascalsGhost
          Posted May 9, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

          Why are you now talking about libertarian free will again? The point is that (many)smokers do NOT believe they can freely choose to stop. You say that they DO believe they can freely choose to stop, as they are natural incompatibilists.

          Besides, these are empirical questions and as you have literally zero evidence for your position and have been provided with (limited) empirical evidence to the contrary you should at minimum suspend judgement and stop asserting the same thing ad nauseum.

  24. Posted May 11, 2013 at 4:26 am | Permalink

    Answer to:


    The post seems somewhat retrogressive in part, treading some old ground that I think was well clarified by Vaal, Coel, Gregory Kusnick, Pascals Ghost and others. And it doesn’t appear to address the points made by Vaal and myself in recent posts. You still appear to be imagining that compatibilism is some kind of counterpoint to dualism and that compatibilists don’t take determinism seriously (when that is in fact the whole point of compatibilism): Compatibilism, in it’s modern form, is most closely associated with computational theory of mind and physicalism. It is the incompatibilists, such as Searle, Kane etc. who are proposing mystical solutions to mind/brain problems.

    Pretty much everyone (who thinks about these things) agrees that agents can act autonomously in the present (or close to it) to predict future incursions and to react to them, which is the basis of decision making – that’s the reason why compatibilists answer, “yes, in a limited sense”, to Jerry’s question as to whether computer software can make decisions (i.e. the free will question, simple decision making being the rudimentary of free will). But, this already presents problems for the view of determinism that you describe, which is frozen and inevitable. That’s because you have been looking at decisions in retrospect after they have been made and don’t (didn’t?) appreciate that when we talk about alternative decisions we are really talking about our ability to deal with differing circumstances (as Vaal and I have tried to clarify in recent posts) rather than an incoherent ability to “choose otherwise” in precisely the same circumstances.

    Part of the problem of these discussions is that Free Will is really a two stage issue:

    Firstly, you need to decide whether it is possible for agents to act autonomously in the present (are they free to do what they want to do). That’s only feasible if determinism does not imply inevitability (unless you wave a magic wand). This is the real arena in the academic battle between compatibilists and incompatibilists, with those on the incompatibilist side claiming that autonomous behavior is inconceivable without some magic input into the brain (Godel’s theorem, quantum events typically).

    Secondly, you need to decide whether human beings have sufficient degrees of freedom (over say computers) to justify the very ill defined tag “free will”. This is largely just a semantic issue. And frankly I don’t see a lot of interest in the POV that says we should stop talking about free will because some people are muddled about dualism. Many of us would not object to seeing a term that hasn’t been muddled by centuries of misuse used in discussions like this one, but trying to alter the whole language for everyone is a fruitless task that would just encourage other mis-perceptions such as fatalism.

    Finally, your “Flexible intelligence” appears to me pretty meaningless and vague, not least because intelligence isn’t sufficiently well understood that we have a mechanism for it; likely enough there are many different ways of being intelligent. So that just isn’t helpful in this argument.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted May 11, 2013 at 8:25 am | Permalink

      What I mean by flexible intelligence is not meaningless. I don’t mean flexible in the sense of bendable, but more in the sense of being manifold and thus very adaptable. Perhaps “flexible” is a poor word in this case.

      Here is my response to your points. Hopefully this will add meaning to the difference between free will and complex and plastic intelligence.


    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted May 11, 2013 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      trying to alter the whole language for everyone is a fruitless task that would just encourage other mis-perceptions such as fatalism.

      This us a small supplement to the longer post I linked to.

      I agree, it would be foolish to change the whole language, and generally words with dualist connotations have alternate deterministic ones as well.

      As per the explanations at the link I posted, I just think its important to have a consensus that we don’t have “free will”, a term whose dualist connotations continue to exist side by side with the compatibilist deterministic version of “free will”. Free will, unlike words like choice, intention, decision, ought, could, should, has a special status in dualism, it is like a lynchpin of dualism that ought to be pulled.

      We should say humans have latitude, control, autonomy, plenty of good things that enable happiness and satisfying existence, that can even be called a kind of relative freedom, but it is not “free will”.

    • Posted May 13, 2013 at 3:56 am | Permalink

      @Jeff. I think you already see the problem with your viewpoint that determinism implies inevitability (which is hard Determinism): i.e. it leads to fatalism and makes us puppets. You go to great (ultimately futile) lengths to try and avoid this in your walls of text, by inventing fuzzy concepts: ”flexible intelligence”, “unfathomable complexity” (sorry makes no difference) to try and sweep the difficulties under the carpet. But, the central point of modern compatibilism is that you don’t need any of this kind of explanatory woo, because although it may appear that determinism implies inevitability it actually doesn’t. This has nothing to do with accommodating the general public or wishful thinking, in fact it’s best explained by an insight on deterministic systems from a branch of computer science:

      What happens is that deterministic systems of sufficient complexity can spontaneously construct autonomous agents (predictor/avoiders) that are *not dependent on causal antecedents* (i.e. agents that operate independently of causal chains). The best way to see how this works is to play around with a cellular automata, such as John Horton Conway’s life (try: http://www.winlife32.com/). The insight is that particular configurations, capable of predictor/avoider behavior (aka decision making) can arise in Life worlds; and these agents are transferable (work identically) into different life worlds with *different starting conditions* (but the same underlying rules). If you think about this strange fact, you should get a feel for how autonomous behavior (agency) is perfectly compatible with deterministic systems and why determinism does *not* imply inevitability.

      This kind of autonomous agency is all that compatibilism really implies for many (especially from a cognitive science point of view). If you wish to go to the second level and say that we need something more to truly claim we have “free will” that is more of a question of taste & semantics: See for instance Sam Harris’s view here: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/free-will-and-free-will. He’s perfectly happy with the first part of the compatibilist programme (that determinism doesn’t imply fatalism), he’s just arguing with Dennett as to whether it makes sense to refer to our limited agency as “free will”, since he claims that is tied up with old dualistic concepts.

      • Posted May 13, 2013 at 4:10 am | Permalink

        A clarification: when I say “agents that operate independently of causal chains” I mean independently of the causal chains that lead to their construction, since agents are, of course, deterministic within their own operation, in a deterministic universe.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted May 13, 2013 at 9:46 am | Permalink

          I guess this anticipates most of what I identified as the error in your other post.

          So what is the point then of saying they are independent of causal chains? It isn’t actually true unless you partition the system and only analyse causality external to the automaton.

          It means, and this is a point I’ve made many times, only to have it rejected or not understood, is that compatibilists, in order to make their case, more or less have to view the deterministic system that is a human organism as a black box, ignoring its full internal causality.

          If you draw a boundary between a person and its environment, you can identify behaviors that are autonomous, that resist coercion, that forward that organism’s interests. This is pretty obvious, and nobody would dispute it.

          These behaviors, when you examine their source, which is internal to the organism, don’t seem to be produced by something you could call the will or freedom. It’s the intelligence and complexity, driven by energy (metabolism) that enables the organism to behave this way. Will, want, desire, goals, etc. are at the level of human subjective experience, which maps nicely onto human language and social conventions, so if you limit your analysis to human linguistic and social convention, as compatibilists almost exclusively do, of course you can identify kinds of things that in our language are represented as “freedom”. But this is circular. The internal mechanisms, driven by determinism and physics, don’t include anything you can identify as “free”, and what qualifies as “will” is a conscious servent of many many inputs, largely but not exclusively unconsciuos, that deterministically focus and direct the will toward the object of willingness. So in a restricted space of meaning that excludes lower level deterministic explanations, by working completely within the system of human language meaning, of course you can construct statements that imply freedom. That’s because these concepts and words were evolved in a context of believing in internal freedom, without knowledge of determnism, computing, and how deterministic systems are able to react to their environment in such complex ways. These linguistic compatibilist explanations piggy back on traditions of mistaken dualistic understanding that is embedded in our language and our subjective view of ourselves. This is exactly what is meant by saying that the freedom is apparent freedom, or relative freedom at best.

          Of course I agree it’s worth having, and of course I agree its the only variety of “freedom” that could exist, but I don’t believe a rational disinterested third party, say a martian scientist or philosopher, would analyze all the facts and cnoclude that the best possible title, the one with the most accurate explanatory power, is to call this human ability to exert control and agency “free will”. It just is not explanatory at all; it is a linguistic relic.

          You could say “but it’s meaningful to humans”, I would say indeed it is, but those meanings are not precise, and they include (not exclusively) a great deal of dualistic meaning.

        • Posted May 13, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

          You said earlier that any compatibilist freedom that applies to humans should also apply to deterministic systems such as computer chess programs (or something like that if I understood correctly). That is spot on IMOP; it is not necessarily true, of course, because we don’t understand consciousness and there may be some dividing line (strange loops, recursion or whatever) that gives humans additional powers, relevant to decision making, who knows? But all that is just speculation, and that’s why language pitched at the psychology level of reduction (intelligence etc.) doesn’t help: it’s no more tractable than (and may involve) consciousness, so we can contest it’s meaning until the cows come home.

          In any case it’s a lot simpler to stick with the analysis of cellular automata and chess programs, which more clearly illustrate what the implications of determinism are, given current limited knowledge of cognition. And IMOP there are insights in this simple approach that already challenge common assumptions.

          Compatibilists are not denying that our internal brain processes are deterministic. But, I can, assuming both physicalism and determinism, draw a black box around my mental processes and say “that’s me that’s doing it” or “it was down to me” when I make some decision. And without the incoherency of dualism, what is “me” is just the sum of the physical, deterministic processes in my brain.

          The reason we can establish the boundaries that constitute the black box of our minds is that, although our brains were created by deterministic processes, they do in fact operate independently of the causal chains that defined them, since they could operate in any possible world with the same laws of physics as this one; that is why counterfactual statements make sense. This ability to evaluate counterfactuals, independently of the actual world we are in, is what defines us as independent autonomous agents in this world and makes agency compatible with determinism. This is all that is necessary for a basic compatibilist position.

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted May 14, 2013 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

            If you view a human as a black box, you can indeed assume that the internal workings are deterministic, but you can just as easily hypothesize that there is a libertarian free willing thing inside your black box.

            In these two cases, the black boxes appear to be identical. Every empirical measurement you can make is the same for the two cases, and you can use exactly the same language to describe events.

            In this view, compatibilism amounts to little more than erasing the word “dualism” and filling the blank with the word “determinism”.

            Of course you can do some more work than this, and to some extent compatibilists have, in working out what word meanings require dualism and what word meanings are acceptable with determinism.

            With the word “choice”, for example, from outside the black box we can only see the end result of the choice, i.e. which option was selected. What happens before that is a mystery unless we peer inside of the black box. The same goes with counterfactuals. We can interpret what is meant when using that language, but what reason is there to think that this language usage and meaning are anything other than the product of dualist assumptions about the internal contents of the black box? To me it seems like that is exactly what it is, the assumption, since we can’t predict what the choice will be, that prior to making the choice there is a freedom to use the power of the will to determine the outcome. But the outcome, including our will, is simply determined by physical state.

            If we seriously think about the implications of determinism, there seems to be only one possibility, that we will choose the one option that best suits our needs and wants, as best as we can determine them. This truly is based on an evaluation and comparison of the options, and we can say it is the choice that we want, but we can also say that we really could not have chosen otherwise.

            In his latest book, “Intuition Pumps”, Daniel Dennet seems to interpret this simple claim about determinism, that we could not have chosen otherwise, as a libertarian wish for indeterminism, and challenges anyone making it to explain how that would be better than determinism. It could well be that libertarians think that its a bad thing that we couldn’t choose otherwise. I don’t think this is a bad thing. It’s fully consistent with how we evolved, and how humans have always functioned. I wonder how often compatibilists make this mistake about the meaning of the incompatibilist claim that we could not have chosen otherwise. Dennet certainly does in his book. I agree with Dennet that this is not a bad thing, its simply the way determinism works.

            Dennet also tells the story of a Nefarious Neurologist who deceives a patient by telling him, falsely, that he has implanted a device that disables his ability to make decisions. In the story this patient becomes Phineas Gage, except for the fact that he didn’t even have to have an iron rod run through his frontal lobe. According to Dennet’s thought experiment, it would be enough to tell the guy he doesn’t have free will (except the neurosurgeon of course has to explain what he means by free will). Dennet goes on to say that incompatibilists making public statements to the effect that free will is an illusion run the risk of causing the same harm.

            This is Dennet in his own words totally confirming what has been said in threads on this web site probably hundreds of times: that compatibilism has as at least one of its motives the fear that knowing the truth about determinism could cause some kind of harm to people, and that it is therefore necessary to argue that we have “free will” at all costs, even if it is a weak argument, in order to protect people from this harmful truth.

            But if Dennet is seriously worried that a mere suggestion from a neurologist could turn a human with the kind of “freedom” worth having into Phineas Gage, he has to seriously downgrade the value of the kind of agency and control that deterministic human beings have.

            Dennet can’t have his cake and eat it too. I think, if Dennet really means it when he says we have the kind of freedom worth having, he has to come down on the side of the patient resisting the suggestion of his doctor, because before he even reaches the door to the doctor’s office he’ll realize he’s moving his arms and legs as he wants to. The patient will conclude that the doctor is wrong, that whatever he did to disable his ability to make choices simply doesn’t work. And we don’t have to tell the patient he has free will to make this happen.

            If this is so, then we don’t have to worry about people learning that they don’t have the kind of free will it appears they have from outside the black box. In fact they have deterministic intellignce that enables them to choose what they want, not in the sense of being free to choose otherwise, but in the sense that was good enough for evolution, and good enough for every human that has ever lived.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted May 13, 2013 at 6:31 am | Permalink

        Your example in paragraph two, referring to “deterministic systems of sufficient complexity”, is in fact directly confirming my point about our autonomy and ability to resist external coercion or act in our own interest is based on complexit, which in the brain leads to what we call intelligence. It is the complexity that gives us such a diverse and satisfying range of behaviors.

        To dismiss this as “woo” means you really haven’t understood my points at all. That may be my fault in inadequately explaining, or it may be that your loyalty to the compatibilist story is so great that you can’t actually consider the reasoning behind my points.

        If you correctly understand what I’m talking about, and you think it is woo, then you would say also that it is woo to say that doubling the surface area of a prisoner’s cell increases his relative freedom of movement, or that it is woo to say that doubling the length of a dog’s chain increases its relative degrees of freedom of movement. In a deterministic intelligent system, it is the increased number of states, the increased variety of kinds of states, and the ability to learn and plasticly adapt physical structure to extend the space of states that enables the abilithy to “spontaneously construct autonomous agents” mentioned in your example. So my point about complexity and adaptable intelligence (I admitted the word flexible may be confusion) being the source of our relative freedom (not the will) is exactly the point being made in your second paragraph.

        There are some mistakes in this example of cellular automota though, even though it confirms my point that the greater complexity of a cellular automota, the more interesting behavior it can exhibit.

        One mistake is in the remark that these spontaneous agents are “not dependent on causal antecedents”. Such agents are only constructed “spontaneously” when the right causal antecedents in the cellular grid arise and cause such a configuration to form. Thus the creation of these automota are not independent of causal antecedents.

        Secondly, the point that they can be transfered is flawed because it is only considering causality external to the agents when stating that the agent can function with different starting conditions. In a system of sufficient complexity, the causality is internal to the agent, and thus transfered with the agents physical configuration into the new starting conditions. The point is not that the agent is independent of causal antecedents, but that its complexit enables it to resist a wide variety of external environmental factors that could be detrimental to its survival.

        Another possible mistake regarding causality in this scenario, which it seems Dennet makes in his chapter on cellular automata in his new book “Intuition Pumps”, is that somehow the possibility of “inert historical facts” having some deep significance for “freedom”. I may have misunderstood his point because I’ve only scanned this quickly and not thought deeply about what Dennet is trying to say, but I noticed many remarks that seem to indicate he doesn’t have a practical grasp on how computer systems work, and he is possibly entertaining ideas dangerously close to woo.

        But his point applies to cellular automata, and would be the case in your example of one being transfered from one environment to another. The traces of the creation of the agent become erased, so the causal chain is no longer discernable or measurable. This is obvious when you consider the “all or nothing” rules about cells, they discretely transform from state 0 to 1 and back again, obliterating all information about their past.

        What is this supposed to show? That there is a real independence from causality because of this phenomenon? If this is really what he thinks (and I’m not sure yet this is his point), then he is making a mistake. Just because the traces of causal antecedents don’t exist at time T2 doesn’t mean they did not exist and have an effect at time T1. The idea that this is a real phenomena, rather than a case of limited perception creating an appearance, is absurd.

        My points are completly in line with your mention of Sam Harris.

        In the chapter “Nefarious Neurosurgeon” in his new book, Dennet gives the game away. He really is like a priest worrying the flock will go astray if they understand the truth. He goes as far as to say that neuroscientists intent on publicizing the idea that “free will is an illusion are risking the mass production of the same harm”. It’s as if Dennet doesn’t actually have confidence that humans have the kind of agency and control worth having. Otherwise, how could he have this fear?

        At the end of his “Rock, Paper, Scissors” chapter, he mentions that the argument that when we choose, we could not choose otherwise is a “reason to hope for indeterminism”, and that somehow this ability to be able to choose otherwise should be important to us.

        It may be that some people make this point, but this is not the point that I make, nor is it, as far as I can tell, what Jerry or Sam Harris are saying. The point that when we choose, we can not choose otherwise is a simple matter of fact statement about determinism, not a statement that we have a problem, or that we should wish for more. Obviously when we choose, we choose in our own interests using intelligence. This doesn’t change the fact that we chose deterministically, and could not have chosen otherwise, and it means that it is not a bad thing that we couldn’t choose otherwise, because as compatibilists sometimes correctly point out, why would we want to choose in a way we don’t want to choose?

        But rather than being an argument that is pessimistic about determinism, this is an argument that says “it is a simple fact that we don’t have free will, and that is not a problem”. Compatibilists, and Dennet chief among them, seem to have such a hopeful and emotional attachment to the idea of free will, that they are willing to engage in tortuous logical contortions to avoid facing the reality of determinism square on with the admission that “yes, this isn’t really free will, even though it is worth having”.

  25. romanticrationalist
    Posted May 11, 2013 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    Sorry I’m late to the party (I have a day job and I do not know how some people manage to do their day jobs and post multiple times a day)…

    1. What is your definition of free will?

    Ans: Kittens and Puppies (in whatever order you prefer)
    But seriously folks…

    The sort of questions that interest me are ones like: what is going on in our brains when we are trying to break a bad habit or trying to acquire a positive/beneficial one? I have ADD/ADHD and after being (re)diagnosed at the age of 42 (I was diagnosed as “hyperactive” as a kid in the early 1970′s), I had to learn habits of good time/task management‒both at work and in my home and personal life. Another question of interest what is going on when we are going through some sort of algorithm, whether it is long division or what to check first when our car does not start, and we overlook something initially, but upon deliberately retracing our steps, we catch the mistake? What is the role of what appears to be our conscious attention or focus when we are learning a new skill or trying to increase our competency in a skill we already possess? Is the conscious attention we seem to have to pay to a task in order to master it illusory? Just how does that (whatever you want to call it) work?

    Why is it that when I am running, if I let my mind drift too much, I sometimes experience a sudden urge to come to a halt‒and sometimes, if I am lucky, I will almost stop, but the “I” that cajoled the rest of my being out of bed that morning insists we “finish what we started” and is able to “override” and catch myself before my forward momentum (in the mechanical sense) fades? Is the recursive self-monitoring we do as we dot our i’s and cross our t’s, question our assumptions, check our math, etc., a useless figment of our imagination?

    As an aside, with all that Sam Harris has written and said about meditation and the uses of our attention and the benefits to be had thereby, I found it curious (and disappointing) that in his book Free Will(/i>, a text search for the phrase “self-aware” came up empty.

    2. What is “free” about it? Is someone who kills because of a brain tumor less free than someone who kills because, having been brought up in a terrible environment, he values drugs more than other people’s lives?

    This question is obviously (yet another) reference to Charles Whitman, the “Texas Tower Sniper.” Gary Lavergne, author of A Sniper In The Tower, ignores Whitman’s visits to medical personnel and his request for an autopsy upon his death (obviously, some part of his psyche knew it would end that way) and concluded Whitman was simply “evil.” Mr. Lavergne is obviously a “free-willist.” I really don’t give a rodent’s posterior about any “free will” questions, but I would like to pose a thought experiment. If the doctor Whitman happened to visit were a time traveler from 2013 who knew that brain tumors in the right place (or the wrong place, depending on your perspective) could cause the sort of mood, impulse, and behavioral changes Whitman experienced, would that brief period of mental/cognitive clarity Whitman experienced have made any difference in how Whitman’s story unfolded? I find it difficult to imagine how it could not have made a tremendous difference.

    3. If humans have free will, do other species as well? What about computers?

    As I have said before, the phrase “free will” is not one I use when describing just what it is we humans do with our brains. Having said that, other commenters here have made much the same point that, in what are very important ways, our brains are computational devices, as are the brains of every other critter on the planet. Obviously, some species’ brains, and the behavioral repertoire they enable their possessor to bring to bear on a problem, is vastly more complex and powerful than others. V.S. Ramachandran has done a lot of work (as have others) in looking at the ways in which brains capable of making and understanding metaphors vastly enhance the power, subtlety, and complexity of its output. If computers were to develop the sort of recursive, metacognitive capabilities that allow humans to create and modify what are essentially cognitive algorithms, on the fly as it were, then perhaps they would be considered sentient in the same sense humans are.

    4. Why is it important that you have a definition of free will rather than discarding the concept completely in favor of something like “agency”? That is, what “new knowledge”, as Jeff noted, does your concept add beyond reassuring people that we have “free will” after all?

    There is real science to be done (and communicated) here, and arguing about what to call things when we have barely scratched the surface of how our brain‒and the phenomena of “mind” it creates‒works is literally out of order; figure out what is happening first, then we can have a discussion about what, if any, umbrella term could be legitimately descriptive of whatever it is we find. As noted earlier, the only reason I am sharing my perspective is because all the Gollum/Smeagol-esque back-and-forth amongst the non-freewillists and freewillists is a tiresome and unenlightening distraction from actually discussing the amazing things we are uncovering about the human brain. As far as “new knowledge” about our brains/minds…well, as an (almost) random example, the alien(or anarchic)-hand syndrome seen in patients with damage to the anterior cingulate or corpus callosum. As comedic as alien-hand syndrome might seem, equally tragic is akinetic mutism. Such patients may not respond to anything in the visual scene around them, but paradoxically, when the phone rings, they immediately come to life and seem as animated and “present” as you are when enjoying good conversation with friends.

    What has me befuddled (not a particularly uncommon occurrence with me) in the ongoing debate here is at WEIT is that there has been almost no discussion of neurology, cognitive neuroscience, cognitive psychology, or social psychology. In an attempt to make sure I not missed something, I did a Google search of the domain “whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com” for the following keywords appearing together with “free will”:

    1. Dunning 27 hits
    2. Kruger 27 hits (co-incidence? I think not!)
    3. Simons 5 hits (talk about being invisible!)
    4. Chabris 1 hits(see above)
    5. Ramachandran 16 hits (mostly referring to phantom limbs)
    6. Pinker 146 hits

    These results were disappointing. It was the writing and research of the above scientists that, more than anything, dispelled any lingering notions of a unitary “I” that had a “free will,” even though I never thought about it in those terms. I was just fascinated by what we can know about how our brains make us who we are, even when they are broken. Studying things like the Dunning-Kruger effect and the Invisible Gorilla does not in any sense “free” us, but it can teach us to question our assumptions and own up to the fact that much of what we are certain of is wrong. When the failure to ask ourselves “what assumptions am I making?” or “what if I’m wrong?” lead to others suffering or coming to harm, the responsibility we have to dot our i’s and cross our t’s is distinct from the motivations we might have to double or triple check our work on a math test or term paper before submitting it for grading. Because the sort of knee-jerk, unreflective actions that can get other people hurt or killed (a good example is here) is nearly always part of an established habit and not just a one-off occurrence, we all have a moral responsibility to consider how our action or inaction might harm others.

    I could go into more detail but I am saving it for a larger piece on my own blog.

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