A FreeWilly cartoon

Zach Weinersmith must be reading about free will, because there’s a cartoon about it in his latest SMBC (Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal). 

Sadly, it gets some stuff confused, including the pyramid’s contention that whatever one does (the determined “decision”) makes no difference. It does. The strip ignores the determinism inherent in the issue (I’m no cartoonist, but the decision about the laptop has already been made by the finders innards), and the last panel, which is supposed to be the kicker, doesn’t seem very funny. In fact, although several readers have sent me different cartoons about free will (and I appreciate them), I’ve never found one very funny.

20140119Or maybe I’m just too wrapped up in this issue to see the humor!

h/t: Mark

50 Comments

  1. John Vokey
    Posted January 20, 2014 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    You forgot to read the pop-up of the comic (click the big red button, bottom right): http://www.smbc-comics.com/comics/20140119after.gif
    in which Zack says, “No. Wait. Just Insanity.”

  2. Diana MacPherson
    Posted January 20, 2014 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t see this as a commentary on free will. I thought the pure reason pyramid was just in essence saying in the greater scheme of things it doesn’t matter and you’re not important. It’s nihilism. Somehow I find this funny because it’s so dark.

    • pacopicopiedra
      Posted January 20, 2014 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

      I agree. I don’t really see the free will issue here. It’s more about right and wrong, good and evil, and the meaning of life. And it’s not very funny.

    • Posted January 20, 2014 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

      I also think this is just commentary on nihilism.

      The (modest) humor is, I think, supposed to stem from the ridiculousness and crippling effect of considering time and matter on the scale of the entire universe in trying to make mundane decisions

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted January 20, 2014 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

        I thought of the scene from Terminator when Sarah Connor’s friend says (when she is having a bad day at work) – in a 100 (or however many years it was) years, no one will care. :)

    • Dave Ricks
      Posted January 20, 2014 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

      Nihilism has good reviews actually.

  3. Posted January 20, 2014 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    Daniel Dennett reads a free will cartoon in Dilbert.

  4. JohnnieCanuck
    Posted January 20, 2014 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    I was afraid he was going to take it to the police and then get arrested for possession of child porn or terrorism or something.

    • pacopicopiedra
      Posted January 20, 2014 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

      You were afraid of that? That’s weird. ;)

      • Posted January 20, 2014 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

        Sadly, these days, that’s not at all an unreasonable real-world fear.

        American society is putting some very strong incentives to antisocial behavior in place as collateral damage in the tough-on-evildoers perpetual war. It’s a dark path we’re rushing down headlong.

        b&

        • gluonspring
          Posted January 21, 2014 at 12:41 am | Permalink

          +1

        • Kevin
          Posted January 21, 2014 at 6:39 am | Permalink

          Part of that may be that there are more older Americans. Fear comes more naturally to anyone as they get older (>75 years). Paranoia, thankfully, to first order is self-enclosed. You have to first convince your nearest neighbor that thing you fear is real and so forth, then it might spread from there.

  5. Carl M
    Posted January 20, 2014 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the commenters who don’t see this as being about free will at all. It seems to be a simple statement that we are mere specks that last the merest fraction of an instant in the history of the universe and thus our choices don’t matter (on the space and time scales of the universe).

  6. abrotherhoodofman
    Posted January 20, 2014 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    “Pure reason” seems like a selfish bastard. What about the effects of his action on others? On future generations? I’m glad Rosa Parks didn’t employ this brand of pure reason.

    Angels, devils, Freud, and nihilism… not a very nourishing breakfast for any morning.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted January 21, 2014 at 2:25 am | Permalink

      I thought that ‘Reason’ and the Angel and Demon (Id and Superego) were all somewhat shallow personalisations (sheesh, it is a comic strip). What was missing, or so implicit that it go no mention, was the ‘self’.

      I’d suggest that the ‘self’ would hover by or grab the laptop first, and then the prosocial arguments would cut in trying to second guess the consequences of the action.

      Would have ruined the strip I suppose, but then in 500 years we are all dust.

      • Kevin
        Posted January 21, 2014 at 6:47 am | Permalink

        Well pointed out. The self is absent here as it usually is in.

        Also, nihilism is not all bad. You could teach a computer to decide actions for us based on the best logic, reasons, science, etc. It will give you an answer and, I suspect, it will be as fair an outcome as any. And no one would disagree that the computer does not care one way or the other who gets the laptop, who bombs who, who sleeps with whom and in what position, etc.

  7. Posted January 21, 2014 at 12:15 am | Permalink

    “I’ve never found one very funny.”

    And you never will …

    /@

  8. Dave Ricks
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 12:25 am | Permalink

    I might expect a cartoon character Pure Reason to be incorrect or incoherent. And the Freudian characters Id and Superego are fictional, as far as I know. So I see the cartoon about the foibles of how people use these ideas.

    The character Pure Reason considers the universe is meaningless, then takes the meaninglessness to be meaningful (as a basis to judge us insignificant). Some observations:
    • Pure Reason crossed the boundary of is/ought or fact/value; not that I have a proof the boundary cannot be crossed, but it flags where an argument is likely to have problems.
    • Maybe a theistic or deistic universe could be a basis to judge someone insignificant, but I can’t see a meaningless universe as a basis to judge someone insignificant. It’s like saying a fork or a spoon is a basis to judge someone insignificant; it’s a non sequitur.
    • Pure Reason said, “You might as well…” and the reader knows the trope goes negative, but we can take nihilism to mean, “You might as well…” be constructive and be kind.

  9. Posted January 21, 2014 at 1:56 am | Permalink

    “the decision about the laptop has already been made by the finders innards”!? This is surely fatalism, how can the decision already have been made, when the calculation in his brain as to whether to steal the laptop has not yet been completed? And if someone else *could* have made the calculation and predicted on that basis what he might have done, that just supports the integrity of his decision. Where would we be if you couldn’t trust someone on the basis of their known character?

  10. Anders
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 2:30 am | Permalink

    Clearly the strip is not meant to be a free will argument, but a mockery of the “inner dialog” that we all have (or think we have) when (not really) making decisions like this. I hate trying to interpret/explain jokes, but clearly he is introducing a third party to the “angel/devil” routine that isn’t good or evil, just reason, and turns out to be as unhelpful as the two others. My interpretation.

  11. Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:44 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on What People Say and commented:
    This is the reason why Evolution is true :)

  12. Neil Taylor
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    I’d like to know how many of the determinists posting here, and especially Prof Coyne, believe all events were fixed at the Big Bang (or whenever) and are simply unfolding.

    I get hints of this when Prof Coyne talks of decisions being fixed well in advance of them occurring – the question I suppose is how far in advance are decisions fixed.

    The nature of time is a huge question in cosmology, but determinism produces the idea that time is irrelevant and the multi/universe is a fixed entity with all events locked in place.

    This isn’t the only conception of time in physics – some cosmologists view time having an active role and reality unfolding with genuine uncertainty in the future.

    I see this as being a bit like Thompson’s Paradox – a certain time ahead of us is simply unknown due to the nature of the universe – just as asking what state Thompson’s lamp will be after 2 or 3 minutes is also nonsensical.

    I feel this does have relevance to the determinism debate – Physicists are in disagreement with it being possible that the future isn’t fixed and inevitable set in place from the beginning.

    Does this have any bearing on free will?

    I feel that it does.

    What do people think?

    • Kevin
      Posted January 21, 2014 at 6:53 am | Permalink

      If something is indeterminant that does not mean it is disqualified from being deterministic. The laws of physics suggest that there are phenomena which are indeterministic, but the outcome of these events is not only constrained but determined by the laws of physics which goven those phenomena. Likewise, something can be deterministic but wholly unpredictable.

    • Posted January 21, 2014 at 7:55 am | Permalink

      Yes. If determinism is correct and future events are fixed, then time is irrelevant and while future events may be unknown to us, they are no more subject to change than the past. This would mean that regardless of what efforts we might make to alter future events, we can never do so and there are no degrees of freedom for ‘free will’ to exist within.

      • Posted January 21, 2014 at 10:47 am | Permalink

        A deterministic universe with you in it is potentially different at every stage of it’s progression than one that you are not in, since your actions are a part of it’s causal chains. So your actions and the decisions you take can and do affect the future state of the universe. It’s certainly the case that you were not responsible for defining the causal chains that are the parts of the universe which constitute you, but that has nothing to do with determinism, since it would be the case whether the universe was deterministic or not.

        • Posted January 21, 2014 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

          It seems to me that if you acknowledge that ” the decisions you take can and do affect the future state of the universe” then you are accepting that free will exists. That is, you are a conscious agent capable of making conscious decisions that impact what future events occur.

          • Posted January 21, 2014 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

            You are dead wrong here. If a billiard ball strikes another one, that changes its path. In the same way, the molecules in someone else’s brain can affect what I do in the future. That in no way says anything about whether we could have “decided otherwise.” Your problem is with the claim “capable of making conscious decisions”. If you think those decisions could go either way, you’re a libertarian. If you think there’s only one “alternative,” as I do, you’re a determinist. But even a hard determinist has to admit that what people do affects what happens in the future.

            • Posted January 21, 2014 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

              In the same way, the molecules in someone else’s brain can affect what I do in the future. That in no way says anything about whether we could have “decided otherwise.”

              I’m not following you here. No one imputes agency to the billiard ball regarding it’s path, but we generally do impute agency to the player. Do you think a billiard player makes a choice regarding his actual stroke to hit the cueball and the resultant path of it and all balls hit as a result of the play? Or do you believe that the billiard player’s stroke was predetermined by all the factors that led up to that moment, thus making the stroke and resulting path of the billiard balls the only possible outcome?

              Your problem is with the claim “capable of making conscious decisions”. If you think those decisions could go either way, you’re a libertarian. If you think there’s only one “alternative,” as I do, you’re a determinist. But even a hard determinist has to admit that what people do affects what happens in the future.

              I don’t follow how one can be a hard determinist and allow that what people do affects what happens in the future. How do you reconcile those disparate concepts?

              It seems to me that if you believe that what people do affects the future, then you are not a hard determinist because that implies that different futures are possible depending on what people decide to do.

              • abrotherhoodofman
                Posted January 21, 2014 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

                I don’t follow how one can be a hard determinist and allow that what people do affects what happens in the future. How do you reconcile those disparate concepts?

                You are confused here. What a person can do is quite different from what a person can choose to do. That is the distinction being made here.

                Robots can do things, and the things they do most certainly will have an impact on the future state of the system they exist in — in fact, their actions wholly determine what that future system state will be. Hence, determinism.

                It seems to me that if you believe that what people do affects the future, then you are not a hard determinist because that implies that different futures are possible depending on what people decide to do.

                No. Once again, what people do — the pseudo-random, robot-like choices they can make — certainly affects the future. But there are no “choices” of the “free will” variety being made here.

                Different futures are not possible in a deterministic world, but the actions people take in the present (notice that I did not say the free-will-type choices people make) definitely affects what happens in the future.

        • Kevin
          Posted January 21, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

          Well said, roqoco.

          Feynman once proposed (anecdotally) there is only one electron in the universe, and it just happens to go back in forth in time (electron-positron-electron, so-forth) and map out the existence of all electrons in all space for all time. Deterministic, but crazy.

          • Posted January 21, 2014 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

            Yeah :). I’ve heard that too, but I thought it was more associated with Feynman’s mentor JA Wheeler. Either way, thinking about it, makes one question one’s intuitive preconceptions about flow of time in deterministic systems.

          • Dave Ricks
            Posted January 27, 2014 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

            In the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, going forward in time as an electron it makes a mess, and going backward in time as a positron it cleans up. Thus life evolves from the heat death of the universe toward the Big Bang, and Jerry Coyne’s book Speciation describes how the branches of evolution converge on the primordial soup. So says the determinist.

            • Posted January 27, 2014 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

              Somehow it figures that it’d all be bass-ackwards and umop-apisdn.

              b&

    • Posted January 21, 2014 at 8:20 am | Permalink

      What difference would it make if, rather than being fixed at the big bang (or whenever), the universe’s causal chains were interspersed with genuinely random events, rather than the pseudo random ones that arise from classical chaos? Would we then somehow have more “freedom” or agency? I think not…

      • Posted January 21, 2014 at 8:42 am | Permalink

        Pseudo random events are still fixed, just not predictable by us. If true, it renders the concept of free will moot because there are no degrees of freedom available for a person to affect what future events will occur.

        Truly random events interspersed into causal chains implies that events in the future are NOT predetermined. This would allow some degree of freedom for individuals to make choices that have an impact on future events.

        Such an condition means that free will can exist. It doesn’t prove that free will does exist, but it invalidates the argument that because all events are predetermined therefore free will cannot exist.

        • abrotherhoodofman
          Posted January 21, 2014 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

          Truly random events interspersed into causal chains implies that events in the future are NOT predetermined. This would allow some degree of freedom for individuals to make choices that have an impact on future events.

          This sounds a bit off. People, like robots, can make pseudo-random choices, not “free” choices (whatever that means), because unless you’re espousing dualism, where do these “free” choices stem from? God?

          And yes, these pseudo-random “choices” impact the future. Of course they do. That isn’t remarkable at all. Just like billiard ball trajectories alter the configuration of a pool table.

          If truly random events were interspersed into a system of robots, the pseudo-random programming of the robots would merely cause them to respond to the new conditions at hand — in an entirely deterministic way (just like billiard balls responding to the table being tilted at random). It is thus the truly random events (if they even exist) that would be responsible for the “different” future outcome of the robot (or meat robot) system (meaning different than the outcome that would have resulted if the the truly random events had not occurred). Not the robots themselves. The robots just keep plugging along, making their pre-programmed, pseudo-random choices, responding to new conditions as appropriate.

          • Posted January 22, 2014 at 7:50 am | Permalink

            This sounds a bit off. People, like robots, can make pseudo-random choices, not “free” choices (whatever that means), because unless you’re espousing dualism, where do these “free” choices stem from? God?

            I’m not espousing dualism, but compatibilism. Choices stem from the ability of a conscious agent to control their thoughts and actions and select one out of multiple possible actions they might take. Fight or flight is a classic example.

            It is thus the truly random events (if they even exist) that would be responsible for the “different” future outcome of the robot (or meat robot) system (meaning different than the outcome that would have resulted if the the truly random events had not occurred). Not the robots themselves.

            Pseudo random events are not predictable, but they are still determined. Truly random events mean that the future is not predetermined and that different futures are possible.

            I think humans are able to consider possible future outcomes based on the actions we choose. For example, a human may decide to play a billiard ball in such a way that he/she achieves the goal of putting a different billiard ball into a pocket.

            Do you think that every human action is determined solely by the past alone? Is a human able to think about the layout of the billiard table and make a conscious choice about which ball to sink? Or do you think that the behavior of humans is as devoid of agency as that of a billiard ball rolling across the table?

            You are confused here. What a person can do is quite different from what a person can choose to do. That is the distinction being made here.

            I’m not seeing the difference you are trying to illuminate here. Could you please explain what you mean by this distinction?

            How is what a person *can* do different from what they *can choose* to do? A person can’t *choose* an action they can’t actually take, so the set of all options a person “can choose* must be contained within the set of all options a person *can* take. On the other hand, by what reasoning would you exclude an action a person *can* take from the set of options a person *can choose* to take?

            • abrotherhoodofman
              Posted January 22, 2014 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

              Choices stem from the ability of a conscious agent to control their thoughts and actions and select one out of multiple possible actions they might take.”

              So what is controlling the “conscious agent”? If this agent exists in the brain, then it too is made of deterministic neurons.

              You can’t jump out of the material brain and posit some kind of higher order “controller”. The controller is just another computer program of sorts, and thus is deterministic.

              Perhaps we’re talking past each other, but in my view consciousness must arise in the physical organization of the brain. Consciousness isn’t fully understood yet, and it seems you are using the phrase “conscious agent” in a rather loose fashion — by asserting that it can make choices of the free will variety. You have to back up this claim.

              Where does consciousness arise in your view?

              • Posted January 23, 2014 at 7:20 am | Permalink

                So what is controlling the “conscious agent”? …You can’t jump out of the material brain and posit some kind of higher order “controller”.

                I’m not positing something outside the material body. I’m saying that a human IS a conscious agent.

                Where does consciousness arise in your view?

                In living animals. At least the higher order animals. I’m not so certain about insects and amoeba.

            • abrotherhoodofman
              Posted January 22, 2014 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

              How is what a person *can* do different from what they *can choose* to do?

              I believe humans are just like robots. We can only choose to the extent that our programming allows us to choose. Thus, I am a determinist.

              It is you who seems to think we are somehow different than robots. Merely employing the phrase “conscious choices” does not get you anywhere, because as I explained above consciousness is just another level of programming in a deterministic structure of neurons called the human brain.

              We cannot currently “program” a robot to be “conscious,” at least not in the sense that Alan Turing made famous, but I believe that is because current AI programs lack the speed, complexity, parallel processing, and massive recursion of our neural programming — not some “magic” ingredient out of which “free will” emerges (whatever “free will” means).

              • Posted January 23, 2014 at 7:25 am | Permalink

                Our choices are always limited to the physically possible, but humans can make conscious choices to alter their own ‘programming’. At least to some extent, but *free will* is the ability to select one option out of many choices; I don’t mean to imply that humans can make choices that are unconstrained by any limitations.

                I don’t see why Robots could not eventually be programmed to be conscious agents, able to alter their own ‘programming’ in response to current situations.

    • Posted January 21, 2014 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      Thompson’s Paradox assumes a switch that can change states infinitely fast. On a great many levels, we know this is impossible.

      For one, there’s the speed of light, which, in this type of example, is also closely related to Planck Length and thus Planck Time. Even if you magic up some particles outside of the Standard Model, you’re stuck with a device that requires at least one unit of Planck Time to switch states.

      A switch, of course, is all that a transistor is. If you could build a computational device in which the switches could change states infinitely fast, your computer would be capable not only of “hypercomputation” but of instantly performing any computation. This could be put to use in any number of ways by building a perpetual motion machine. Of course, it would also require such a device as its power source.

      And so on.

      Back to the subject at hand, determinism can be seen as a narrowing of a range of possible outcomes. The farther away in time, the greater the number of possibilities; the closer in time, the fewer. Something related to this is commonly represented in Relativistic Mechanics by “light cones.” Incidentally, virtually everything you’re aware of is outside your own personal light cone. Even ignoring questions of Relativity, it’s easy to imagine. Even if you randomly win the lottery tonight, the chances that you’ll have breakfast in Hong Kong tomorrow morning are essentially the same as if you don’t win the lottery tonight. However, the chances that you’ll have breakfast in Hong Kong sometime in the next decade are much more dependent on whether or not you win the lottery tonight…but, even after winning the lottery, where you’ll have breakfast the morning after any given night will already have been significantly narrowed down, and those possibilities will continue to narrow right to the point that you’re actually sitting down and eating.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Kevin
        Posted January 21, 2014 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

        An agnostic state changer. So fast, we have, conceivably, nothing that can measure it and therefore we are left with a free choice that is forever undetectable.

  13. Posted January 21, 2014 at 5:31 am | Permalink

    Good morning fellow WEIT readers and Professor Jerry (if you’re reading this). I’m having a difficult time comprehending the “no such thing as Free Will” position. I’ve read Sam’s book on Free Will and Jerry’s posts on the subject as well but I just can’t get my brain to click and keep falling back to “it’s all about choices.” I honestly get lost in this concept and feel even a little embarrassed to post this failure on my part.

    It took me a while to be completely Godless, due to a lifetime of Roman Catholic indoctrination. It even took a lot of determination to finally grasp true, scientific evolution by natural selection. I often made linear comparisons and had to re-learn what I was originally taught so I could better understand and explain it to others. The Greatest Show on Earth and WEIT was instrumental for that and when my brain made the click, it was a profound AH HA moment!

    Are there reasonable and reliable Internet sources or books to help me better grasp the illusion of free will? I appreciate your help and will make an effort to examine whatever you recommend. Thanks!

    • Posted January 21, 2014 at 5:39 am | Permalink

      I thought Sam’s book was pretty clear, but here’s one I thought was good. It’s a bit outdated now, and doesn’t cite the new neuroscience stuff, but try this:

      Wegner, D. M. 2003. The Illusion of Conscious Will. Bradford Books (MIT Press)

      and a newer one:

      Gazzaniga, M. S. 2011. Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain. Ecco, New York.

      Try this article, too:

      http://chronicle.com/article/Michael-S-Gazzaniga/131167

  14. Posted January 21, 2014 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    oh waaah. So what if I only exist for a short time compared with existence of reality? That is such a pathetic appeal to human vanity to get them to believe in spiritual boogeymen.

  15. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    Bizarrely, I found a pair of crutches leaning against a wall in town a couple of nights ago. I mean a single crutch is pretty unusual ; but a pair? And no crowd of worshippers gathered around the newly-walking cripple? Very odd.
    I took them into the cop shop, of course. And they thought it was well weird too.

    • Posted January 21, 2014 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, but where were all the wooden legs?

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted January 21, 2014 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

        We’d been throwing them on the bonfire.
        Actually, that’s next weekend, I think. But it looks like a damned good excuse for a party!

        • abrotherhoodofman
          Posted January 21, 2014 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

          Hilarious, as usual!
          :)


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