Sam Harris vs. Dan Dennett on free will

A while back Dan Dennett published a long critique of Sam Harris’s book Free Will, a book that I liked a lot. Like me, Sam is a determinist and an incompatibilist; that is, we see our determinism as incompatible with the kind of free will that many people espouse: a “ghost in the machine” libertarian free will.

In contrast, Dan is a determinist and a compatibilist; that is, he sees determinism as compatible with free will: the special kind of free will that he limned in two books, Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves. I’ve discussed the latter book on this website, and saw Dan’s solution as largely a semantic one: the redefinition of “free will” as the evolved ability of the human brain to give outputs (“decisions”) involving integrating inputs far more complex than those processed by any other animal.  I also saw his compatibilism, as I see many philosophical brands of compatibilism, as a stopgap measure designed protect our feeling of agency. Dan, at least, has explicitly said that if people don’t think they have free will, society would be endangered. Here are two quotes from Dan’s essay, “Sometimes a spin doctor is right,” delivered when he got the Erasmus Prize (my emphases):

Picture 2If that doesn’t give some idea of why philosophers are so preoccupied with compatibilism, I don’t know what does.

In other words, I still see compatibilism as a wasted effort by philosophers to save our felt notion that we have agency; that we could have chosen otherwise. As I’ve said repeatedly, I think it’s far, far more important for philosophers to ponder, discuss, and teach the public about the consequences of determinism than to waste their time confecting various (and incompatible) versions of compatibilist free will. Yet they downplay the determinism, maybe because it would frighten the public.

Dan’s critique of Sam’s book, “Reflections on free will” was published on the Naturalism.Org site as a pdf , and also republished as text on Sam’s site.  I read it and disagreed with it, covering it with red notes. I thought that Dan was rather harsh and, in fact, a bit nasty toward Sam (they are supposed to be friends), and I found the essay discursive, wordy, full of philosophical panache that didn’t deal with Sam’s arguments (Dan, for instance, said that incompatibilists don’t believe in punishment, which is blatantly wrong), and too long.

Sam has now responded on his site with a shorter essay, “The marionette’s lament.” It’s clear that Sam was both blindsided and hurt by Dan’s tone, and it shows in the essay. But Harris gives back as good as he gets, and I think his response is on the mark. The fact is that, despite what Nahmias et al. says (and I’ll be writing about their paper soon), my own experience tells me that many, many people are explicit dualists: believers in libertarian free will. In fact, I had a discussion with someone yesterday: a smart person who hadn’t ever considered the consequences of determinism for agency, but was immediately resistant to the idea that she could not have chosen otherwise. Even Nobel Laureate Steve Weinberg, a determinist if there ever was one, was resistant to the idea that he could not have chosen otherwise at a given moment (he told me this at the “Moving Naturalism Forward” conference sixteen months ago). And of course dualists are ubiquitous among religious people, for many faiths stipulate that you can choose freely to accept or reject a god or a savior.

Therefore I see it much more important for philosophers to explore the consequences of determinism—which are pervasive when we consider our system of rewards and punishment—than to sit at their desks and make up new ways to harmonize determinism and free will.  A bottom-up reform of the legal system is one important consequence of incompatibilism, as well as a jettisoning of the idea of “moral responsibility” instead of “responsibility” (what Bruce Waller would call “take-charge responsibility”). And yes, of course we incompatibilists believe in punishment—but for rehabilitation, sequestering malefactors from the public, and as a deterrent, but not for retribution.

At any rate, I won’t give my criticisms of Dan’s paper here, and haven’t, because I knew that Sam was on the case and, in fact, his response is what I would have said, but of course far more incisive and eloquent.  Here’s just a snippet of Harris’s response. The first part shows Sam’s facility for using analogies to make points:

Average Joe feels that he has free will (first-person) and doesn’t like to be told that it is an illusion. I say it is: Consider all the roots of your behavior that you cannot see or feel (first-person), cannot control (first-person), and did not summon into existence (first-person). You say: Nonsense! Average Joe contains all these causes. He is his genes and neurons too (third-person). This is where you put the rabbit in the hat.

Imagine that we live in a world where more or less everyone believes in the lost kingdom of Atlantis. You and your fellow compatibilists come along and offer comfort: Atlantis is real, you say. It is, in fact, the island of Sicily. You then go on to argue that Sicily answers to most of the claims people through the ages have made about Atlantis. Of course, not every popular notion survives this translation, because some beliefs about Atlantis are quite crazy, but those that really matter—or should matter, on your account—are easily mapped onto what is, in fact, the largest island in the Mediterranean. Your work is done, and now you insist that we spend the rest of our time and energy investigating the wonders of Sicily.

The truth, however, is that much of what causes people to be so enamored of Atlantis—in particular, the idea that an advanced civilization disappeared underwater—can’t be squared with our understanding of Sicily or any other spot on earth. So people are confused, and I believe that their confusion has very real consequences. But you rarely acknowledge the ways in which Sicily isn’t like Atlantis, and you don’t appear interested when those differences become morally salient. This is what strikes me as wrongheaded about your approach to free will.

He then outlines his points of agreement and disagreement with Dennett:

. . . Let’s begin by noticing a few things we actually agree about: We agree that human thought and behavior are determined by prior states of the universe and its laws—and that any contributions of indeterminism are completely irrelevant to the question of free will. We also agree that our thoughts and actions in the present influence how we think and act in the future. We both acknowledge that people can change, acquire skills, and become better equipped to get what they want out of life. We know that there is a difference between a morally healthy person and a psychopath, as well as between one who is motivated and disciplined, and thus able to accomplish his aims, and one who suffers a terminal case of apathy or weakness of will. We both understand that planning and reasoning guide human behavior in innumerable ways and that an ability to follow plans and to be responsive to reasons is part of what makes us human. We agree about so many things, in fact, that at one point you brand me “a compatibilist in everything but name.” Of course, you can’t really mean this, because you go on to write as though I were oblivious to most of what human beings manage to accomplish. At some points you say that I’ve thrown the baby out with the bath; at others you merely complain that I won’t call this baby by the right name (“free will”). Which is it?

However, it seems to me that we do diverge at two points:

1. You think that compatibilists like yourself have purified the concept of free will by “deliberately using cleaned-up, demystified substitutes for the folk concepts.” I believe that you have changed the subject and are now ignoring the very phenomenon we should be talking about—the common, felt sense that I/he/she/you could have done otherwise (generally known as “libertarian” or “contra-causal” free will), with all its moral implications. The legitimacy of your attempting to make free will “presentable” by performing conceptual surgery on it is our main point of contention. Whether or not I can convince you of the speciousness of the compatibilist project, I hope we can agree in the abstract that there is a difference between thinking more clearly about a phenomenon and (wittingly or unwittingly) thinking about something else. I intend to show that you are doing the latter.

2. You believe that determinism at the microscopic level (as in the case of Austin’s missing his putt) is irrelevant to the question of human freedom and responsibility. I agree that it is irrelevant for many things we care about (it doesn’t obviate the distinction between voluntary and involuntary behavior, for instance), but it isn’t irrelevant in the way you suggest. And accepting incompatibilism has important intellectual and moral consequences that you ignore—the most important being, in my view, that it renders hatred patently irrational (while leaving love unscathed). If one is concerned about the consequences of maintaining a philosophical position, as I know you are, helping to close the door on human hatred seems far more beneficial than merely tinkering with a popular illusion.

If you want to comment below on the Harris/Dennet exchange, I’ll expect you to have read both papers. Don’t just wade in and start fulminating one way or the other!

I am saddened by the many rifts in the atheist community, but this one saddens me the most.  Dan’s tone in his original paper was peremptory and snide, and that was unnecessary. This section from Dennett’s review, for instance, is gratuitously nasty (not to me, but to Dawkins):

[Harris] is not alone among scientists in coming to the conclusion that the ancient idea of free will is not just confused but also a major obstacle to social reform. His brief essay is, however, the most sustained attempt to develop this theme, which can also be found in remarks and essays by such heavyweight scientists as the neuroscientists Wolf Singer and Chris Frith, the psychologists Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom, the physicists Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein, and the evolutionary biologists Jerry Coyne and (when he’s not thinking carefully) Richard Dawkins.

“When he’s not thinking carefully”? Really, Dan? Richard is a longtime friend of yours, and why would you insult him in a way that’s completely unnecessary?

As Sam noted, the whole thing could have been hashed out in a give-and-take using repeated back and forth mini-essays—and without the rancor. And it would have been far more enlightening than this pair of dueling essays. Of course we won’t all agree on things, even the three remaining “Horsemen,” but there was no need for snideness and authority-pulling.

417 Comments

  1. cherrybombsim
    Posted February 13, 2014 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    I will fulminate (but just a little).

    Human behavior is deterministic, but free will is often a more useful *model* of behavior. Just as a pair of dice rolled has a determined outcome, but probability theory is a more useful model than determinism if you want to win.

    • reasonshark
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 4:41 am | Permalink

      I would disagree. I think “free will” is completely useless as a model of behaviour because it doesn’t really predict anything specific, and it’s too open-ended to make any practical use. A more useful model would be one that acknowledges that humans are complex, organic, independently operating genetic robots with very complex neurotechnology, their individually-unique designs mostly based on evolutionary purposes of survival and reproduction, but with a premium on exploration, information-gathering, and negotiating in complex ways with each other socially as though their lives depended on it. A particular deterministic model, in other words.

    • Michael
      Posted July 4, 2014 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      If dice are rolling in the human head …and tats all..nothing that comes out of our mouths would even approach a rational thought.

      Certainly, there is a mechanism that flows thoughts, memories, etc. Certainly, there are physiological responses passing to the brain, causing thoughts to emerge (pain, fatigue)..but WE must arrange those thoughts into ideas and choose how build concepts and durther choose if we want to share them. When we share them we chose intent, pacing, melody, percussion, tone, and when to shut up. FREEWILL is not about what color socks…its about everything required for rational thought. Harris is a militant atheist..a pathologically biased and irrational blowhard.
      Just the notion that he CHANGE out minds or society to fit his weirdo worldview demonstrates how self refuting his UNfree opinion is.

  2. romanticrationalist
    Posted February 13, 2014 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    I really should be doing the assigned homework for my Coursera class, but I caved to the temptation to comment. For personal reasons that I will go into in depth here, and because I work with military veterans, many having barriers to employment, I have a profound interest in how the mind works (borrowing the title of Steven Pinker wonderful book). The human mind is the most complex, intricate, and subtle (nod to Carl Sagan) system that we know of thus far in the entirety of the cosmos. What we have learned about things like the Dunning-Kruger effect, inattentional blindness (a.k.a. The Invisible Gorilla), phantom limbs, and the various ways we can, unconsciously, deceive ourselves, or be deceived by others, shows conclusively that we are not, in fact, the masters (or mistresses), of our “domain” in the way we (by which I mean the mass of humanity) have supposed we were.

    I love science, and when I share the fascinating things we have learned about our minds and brains with others, I almost never think of it, let alone talk about it, in terms of “free will,” either pro or con. The phrase that does come to mind, and the one I actually use, is “self-awareness,” because unlike “free will,” ‘self-awareness” is in some ways a skill, something that one can improve upon. I am approaching my 50th birthday, and in my early 40′s, as I was close to finishing an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, I was diagnosed as having ADD/ADHD (and a paradoxically high IQ–something I’m still trying to wrap my head around). In elementary school in the early 1970′s, I was diagnosed as being “hyperactive.” In the 1990′s it was learned that what used to be called “hyperactivity,” and was then rechristened ADD/ADHD, was not something that one outgrows.

    I now take medications for my ADD/ADHD, and while they help considerably, the self-awareness that I have this “issue” and that there are specific pitfalls and traps that it is within my power to recognize, and with the application of self discipline, to avoid, is the take-home for me. So when I am describing for others what modern science has revealed about the human mind/brain, I never talk about “free will,” but focus on how the insights of modern science can aid us, within the limits of the universe we inhabit, to understand ourselves and use that knowledge to minimize the harm, and maximize the well being, of ourselves and those around us.

    I am not particularly interested in the back and forth between the Harris and Dennett camps. I will say though, that Harris has often written and spoken about the value of what some may call “meditation” and others might call disciplined introspection. Long before the current “free will” dust-up, I had read the books of Steven Pinker, V.S. Ramachandran, and the papers of David Dunning and Justin Kruger (they need to write a book), and what other practicing researchers in the relevant fields have had to say, not about what research had shown isn’t so about ourselves, but what is so. Primed by my prior reading, when I purchased “Free Will” in ebook form, I was looking forward to hearing what Sam had to say about how, despite the damage done to the idea of “free will” by modern cognitive science, the real gift we get is how this knowledge, however unsettling it may appear to some at first, can, if faced courageously, greatly enhance our self-awareness and improve our lives and that of others.

    Sadly, when I finished the book, I did not once encounter any variation on the phrase “self ware.” To make sure I had not missed it (owing to a learned self-awareness of my own fallibility, I knew this was a real possibility) I did a text search for the relevant words and again came up empty.

    Following the confirmation of the existence of the most generic variety of the Higgs field/mechanism (in fundamental physics, the field is the essential thing‒“particles” are merely the locus of a highly exited field) by the ATLAS and CMS teams at the HLC, there were some really dopey notions floating around about how there really is an æther after all. Seriously? The really cool questions are ones like “If mass is a property acquired by the matter particles of the Standard Model as they move through the Higgs field, and if “gravity” depends on the mass of collections of stuff, a constant (G), and the square of the distance between those collections, how does Dark Matter do what it does gravitationally?”

    As much as I respect both Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett for their contributions to the inevitable demise of supernatural beliefs and the ascendency of reason, especially in the United States, they are both arguing about the æther and I wish they would just drop it and move on to more interesting and useful, topics.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:28 am | Permalink

      I think what you may be hitting on is it’s more important to understand determinism than it is free will and I agree. Accepting determinism informs us of our limits. I will never do work that requires intensive math because I have a math learning disability. I’m still smart but I know what I can’t do. At that same time, however, there are people that are not capable of self awareness because of issues with their psychology – narcissists come to mind.

      Now, what would you think, if I told you the “self” is an illusion too. :)

      • romanticrationalist
        Posted February 15, 2014 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

        I might agree with you, depending on what you mean by “self” and “illusion.” And I’m not trying to duck your question.

        While the records of exactly how having his head pierced by an iron rod affected Phineas Gage’s personality and cognitive functioning are not very reliable, for subsequent generations of neurologists his case was arguably the “eureka” moment for the opportunities presented by studying people with localized, specific damage to learn how the brain works. What has been learned is, without a doubt, that the notion of there being a little homunculus in our heads, an indivisible “I” is incorrect. What we feel to be a unitary “self” is actually a composite construct that our brains assemble on the fly. Reading V.S. Ramachandran’s accounts of his clinical work with patients suffering from seemingly bizarre neurological syndromes starkly illustrates just how fragile our “selves,” our feelings of being an “I” with a moment-to-moment continuity of existence, really are.

        That the “self” is a fragile, composite construct does not not warrant calling it an illusion. At the end of the 1800′s, the idea that matter is composed of atoms, while gaining increasing acceptance, was still considered by some eminent scientists, like Wilhelm Ostwald and Ernst Mach (of “Mach speed” fame), to be, at best, metaphysical nonsense–Mach never did accept the reality of atoms or Einsteinian relativity. While “positivist” scientists like Ostwald and Mach spent the last decades of the 19th century denying the reality of atoms, other scientists were laying the groundwork that lead to the realization that that atoms themselves were compound objects. In 1897 or 1899, depending on who you ask, the electron was discovered by J.J. Thompson, and in 1908, Ernest Rutherford established the existence of what we now know to be a helium atom stripped of its electrons.

        Our word “atom,” comes from the Greek “atomos,” which means “unbreakable” or “uncuttable.” The fact that atoms turned out to be arrangements of smaller constituents does not, in any coherent way, render the concept of an “atom” illusory. The ancient Greeks had an unsophisticated concept of an atom in that they were not “unbreakable,” but the positivists, like Ostwald and Mach, were even more wrong to dismiss them as metaphysical nonsense, for which “illusory” is a darn good synonym. If I were to damage or strip enough parts of what started as a fully functional automobile, aircraft, or computer that would seriously degrade its ability to “work as advertised,” but that in no way, shape, or form does that make the idea of a well-maintained, smoothly functioning automobile, aircraft, or computer an illusion. Likewise, the fact that specific damage to the brain can disrupt the normal, integrated functionality of the brain, disrupting a person’s personality or sense of “self” (or “self-awareness”) does not invalidate, or render illusory, what an undamaged (either by accident, disease, or genetic/developmental abnormalities) does in integrating everything that gives rise to the perceptive richness of human experience.

        The human brain, and everything it does, has been shaped by millions of years of evolution, and at the scale at which I, and all human beings live our lives, whether the uni/multiverse is fully determined or not (as a physics geek, it is), there are still problems to be solved and obstacles to be overcome. Just as having a solid grasp of of how cars, airplanes, or computers work helps us to get the best performance out of them, so to with our brains, or if you prefer, our “selves.”

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted February 16, 2014 at 8:51 am | Permalink

          It appears you’re saying that if we change our minds about how something works that thing is not seen as an illusion because it still exists, it just functions in a different way than we thought. So if we see matter as indivisible at a certain point but then we discover that that certain point isn’t where we thought it was, that doesn’t make matter an illusion. Or we might see our conclusions as simply incorrect not illusory.

          I think this might be a bit of a false analogy and it comes down to the understanding of what an illusion is. It’s the confusion of our senses; we get a sensory input that our brain interprets in a certain way which distorts reality.

          So looking at the self, we once thought of ourselves as a little homunculus living inside a meat sack. The brain was part of that meat sack but the homunculus was in control. This is dualism.

          Later we learned that we aren’t homunculi but that we are united in this meat sack as one animal and that the brain is generating these experiences of the homunculus. This is the death of dualism and the start of the understanding of the brain’s way of interpreting stimuli that distort reality and make us believe we are all piloted by homunculi.

          Still, we have a strong sense of that homunculus (for me it would be a homuncula :)). We know there is a brain but we thought that there was, if not an actual homunculus, something like it. To try to reconcile our strong feeling of a homunculus with the science that tells us there is no homunculus, some called this feeling “mind”. After all, here I am in here. You can’t hear me in here but I have this rich, secret inner life where I think about things and imagine things and feel that I am unique. I have my own personality. I am a distinct, individual person.

          Then we learn that this distinct, individual person can vanish if there is a mental illness or a brain injury. We know the homunculus isn’t there but it feels like it is and when these injuries occur, it feels like the homunculus vanishes.

          This is the illusion. This is why we can call the self an illusion. We don’t “feel” the atom is indivisible even though it is. Our brain doesn’t even interpret atoms at all.

  3. Diane G.
    Posted February 13, 2014 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

    sub

  4. pacopicopiedra
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 12:15 am | Permalink

    Sitting this one out Vaal? I don’t blame you. Dan’s essay was the same old nonsense, only angrier, and Sam hit a grand slam in reply. Jerry, I think Dan is so nasty because deep down he knows he’s being intellectually dishonest.

  5. Thanny
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 1:14 am | Permalink

    I was pretty disappointed with the errors in Dennett’s review. I’ve read both his books on “free will”, and pretty much agreed with every point he’s made. I just don’t agree that what he’s talking about should be called “free will”, because no one in the general public who thinks we have “free will” would recognize their putative possession in what he writes.

    I also don’t find sound any claims about the negative effects of not believing in free will, or the suggestion that the last sentence of my previous paragraph constitutes an assertion that needs to be supported. I consider the latter, in particular, to be almost as bad as demanding a survey to verify whether or not most people think the sky is blue and grass is green.

    • reasonshark
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 1:55 am | Permalink

      I think it’s a parallel to what theologians do to the word god: redefine it to a sense that any actual believers wouldn’t recognize, and then argue against atheists et al. with the new definition. It obscures more than it elucidates, and in the long run is going to cause more problems. You can’t complain about being mistaken for French if you insist on waving a French flag.

      • Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:02 am | Permalink

        It’s quite a different thing. “Free will” is used colloquially to refer to a practical set of conditions affecting moral accountability and law. “God” is used colloquially to refer to a magical being who willfully controls natural events and may grant favors in response to prayers or sacrifices. Compatibilists refine the definition of “free will” in order to preserve its function as a phrase in common use. Theologians radically change the meaning of “God” in order to keep using the word, but depart entirely from the sense in which it is commonly used.

        • reasonshark
          Posted February 14, 2014 at 4:10 am | Permalink

          “It’s quite a different thing. “Free will” is used colloquially to refer to a practical set of conditions affecting moral accountability and law. “God” is used colloquially to refer to a magical being who willfully controls natural events and may grant favors in response to prayers or sacrifices.”

          Incorrect. This cross-cultural study (see http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-0017.2010.01393.x/abstract) points out that “the majority of participants said that (a) our universe is indeterministic and (b) moral responsibility is not compatible with determinism.” That is, the colloquial use of the word “free will” is libertarianist. Compatibilists are simply redefining the word “free will” in defiance of the popular perception, just as theologians do. As Dennett’s own admission points out, part of the motive for doing so (for at least some compatibilists) is to avoid the overturning of this popular view, just as theologians redefine “god” to avoid the overturning of the popular view of god. In light of this, I think your energies would be better spent rebutting the libertarian position, rather than arguing with incompatibilist determinists or pessimistic incompatibilists. In any case, the word is so loaded down with various definitions that just abandoning it in favour of a new term would probably be more productive, especially when you want to avoid confusing people.

          • Posted February 14, 2014 at 4:47 am | Permalink

            Thanks for posting the link to this study. It is really refreshing to finally find some empirical data on this issue instead of mere hunches about what the majority of people supposedly think. Will take a look at it once I am back at work and can access the article.

            Maybe the majority of English speakers really use the word free will to mean something contra-causal. Still I’d like to make four points.

            First, it is still all about semantics and changes nothing of substance. Compatibilists and all sane so-called incompatibilists are still agreed on determinism and on the view that despite determinism it makes a difference e.g. whether somebody is insane or in full self-control.

            Second, and closely related to the first, the question would still remain how we can call the significant difference between somebody who steals deliberately and voluntarily on the one side and those who are kleptomaniacs or are forced to steal something at gunpoint or took something accidentally if things like free will, choice and agency are supposed to be illusions and concepts to be banished from conversation.

            Third, as I have pointed out repeatedly before, in my native language the word for voluntary is “freiwillig”. In other words, in German there is no non-awkward way to say that I am doing something without coercion by another human being that does not involve the term free will, but at least in that case it carries no supernatural connotation whatsoever. As such it is possible that the results of the study depend a bit on the particular language in question.

            Fourth, a lot of people here amuse themselves by pointing at Dennett’s use of the argument from adverse consequences. Surely being against the use of a well-established term for something because of the fear it might help religious people who want to imply something else is just as basely tactical a consideration?

          • Posted February 14, 2014 at 4:48 am | Permalink

            Ah, found the PDF:

            http://people.duke.edu/~fd13/Sarkissian_et_al_2010_MindLang.pdf

    • Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:22 am | Permalink

      Dennett says very early in his Erasmus essay that the incompatibilist argument is a non sequitur. If I’m trying to understand whether someone is obligated to fulfill a contract, it is completely paralyzing to say “free will is an illusion.” Most incompatibilists would agree that this argument is a non sequitur in this context. There would be negative consequences if someone involved in a contract dispute — an attorney, a judge, a defendant — insisted that we argue in circles about whether free will is an illusion. It would be a maddening distraction from the issue at hand.

      The other, more sinister consequences that Dennett alludes to would arise from misapprehension of the consequences of determinism. There are some who believe that, if we’re all just deterministic machines, then why shouldn’t we reprogram people to improve their social functions? I’m reminded of forced experiments aimed at “fixing” homosexuals; these experiments were not solely motivated by religious prejudice, they were also based on the premise that homosexuality was a mental malfunction that could be corrected. Here a compatibilist can say, “the person is entitled to free will anyway,” but the incompatibilist interferes by offering the irrelevant claim that “free will is an illusion.” (This example is part of a larger debate over forced treatment for mental illness).

      • reasonshark
        Posted February 14, 2014 at 4:22 am | Permalink

        ” Dennett says very early in his Erasmus essay that the incompatibilist argument is a non sequitur. If I’m trying to understand whether someone is obligated to fulfill a contract, it is completely paralyzing to say “free will is an illusion.” ”

        This argument is an example of why a compatibilist’s redefinitions of free will sow confusion; because it creates an argument based on puns. Social contracts are society’s solutions to the problem of mutual trust between parties who might profit from exploiting the other. We don’t need to invoke a word like free will to discuss it, much less risk mixing it with the libertarianist version in the process.

        “The other, more sinister consequences that Dennett alludes to would arise from misapprehension of the consequences of determinism. There are some who believe that, if we’re all just deterministic machines, then why shouldn’t we reprogram people to improve their social functions?”

        And again, this has nothing to do with free will. There are plenty of practical and ethical reasons why reprogramming is a bad idea: risks involved in the surgery; the reprogrammers simply being mistaken about what an improvement would be; societal costs outweighing the benefits; high likelihood of public resistance; public distrust of the people doing the reprogramming; conflict with other social solutions, like allowing people their individual independence as a solution against dictatorships, etc. It’s like arguing that incompatibilists don’t believe in punishment because they reject the basis of retribution, whilst ignoring the fact that punishment has other bases, such as deterrence, incarceration, and rehabilitation.

        • Posted February 14, 2014 at 6:36 am | Permalink

          This argument is an example of why a compatibilist’s redefinitions of free will sow confusion

          The entire history of scientific thinking was driven by cautious, precise redefinition of foundational terms. It’s just how you do it.

          There are plenty of practical and ethical reasons why reprogramming is a bad idea: risks involved in the surgery; the reprogrammers simply being mistaken about what an improvement would be; societal costs outweighing the benefits; high likelihood of public resistance; public distrust of the people doing the reprogramming; conflict with other social solutions, like allowing people their individual independence as a solution against dictatorships, etc.

          In that list you tried to avoid any reference to respect for persons or their individual agency. But the whole setup presumes that someone is going to make a decision — a choice — and in doing so they need to evaluate basic questions about what they ought to do and why. These are the basic questions most philosophers are interested in: “how should I live?” or “what choices should I make?” Incompatibilists believe these questions are meaningless unless volition is imbued with supernatural features. Compatibilists believe these questions can be explored with no reference whatsoever to whether the universe is deterministic or not, or to whether the will is supernatural or not. We simply don’t need to be stuck in this pre-19th century argument.

          On a similar vein, we can develop very useful theories of probability and statistics, even though we don’t know if the universe is “truly” indeterministic; we don’t need to know if probability “truly” means degree-of-belief or if “truly” means relative frequency of observed events. It is valuable to have an understanding of the parts of things that are real, while finding ways to safely set aside the parts that are unreal or unanswerable.

          • reasonshark
            Posted February 14, 2014 at 7:48 am | Permalink

            “The entire history of scientific thinking was driven by cautious, precise redefinition of foundational terms. It’s just how you do it.”

            This is a very sweeping claim. In any case, science is just as much about using technical jargon in order to reduce ambiguity.

            “In that list you tried to avoid any reference to respect for persons or their individual agency.”

            Actually, I made several references, such as pointing out that most people prefer not to be reprogrammed when they don’t know the motives of the person doing it. We respect people’s autonomy as a means to an end, the end being consideration of their personal welfare.

            “But the whole setup presumes that someone is going to make a decision — a choice — and in doing so they need to evaluate basic questions about what they ought to do and why.”

            Why is this a rebuttal? “People make decisions” is not at issue. “People make decisions because they have free will” is at issue, at least so long as your definition of free will is libertarianistic. Questions of what one ought to do and for what reasons don’t need recourse to this kind of free will.

            “Incompatibilists believe these questions are meaningless unless volition is imbued with supernatural features.”

            This is not even wrong. Incompatibilists that aren’t libertarianists simply say that ethical issues don’t need recourse to a conception of free will, or simply don’t involve them because libertarian free will is incoherent. Coel even says that both compatibilists and incompatibilists agree on the concepts, just not on how to describe them, and that incompatibilist ideas that this will sow confusion are ill-founded. Yet, in your comment earlier, you fall right into that confusion by suggesting incompatibilists don’t believe in the legal version of free will (calling it an “illusion”, suggesting you’ve walked right into the confusion and completely ignoring what incompatibilism actually entails. Calling the issue a “pre-19th century argument” doesn’t even explain anything.

            • Posted February 14, 2014 at 8:00 am | Permalink

              “This is a very sweeping claim. In any case, science is just as much about using technical jargon in order to reduce ambiguity.”

              It is a sweeping claim, and I think it’s a correct one. We do introduce new jargon, but that doesn’t change the fact that foundational terms (like heat, information, complexity, force, energy, work, probability, …), have undergone repeated redefinitions with the goal of speaking more precisely and correctly while retaining the essential features of those words.

              “This is not even wrong.”

              Okay, we’re moving a bit too fast now. I couldn’t make out part of your post either. Let’s back up a few steps. I’m going to propose the following as uncontroversial statements:

              1. Libertarian indeterminists commonly believe that supernatural free-will is a necessary foundation for ethics and/or moral responsibility.

              2. Compatibilists commonly believe that a capacity for rational choice is a sufficient foundation for ethics and moral responsibility, and that this capacity for choice is unrelated to the supposed concept of supernatural free-will.

              3. Determinists reject the notion of supernatural free-will.

              4. Non-libertarians believe that indeterminism is also incompatible with any notion of supernatural free-will.

              If we both agree to all those points, then we’re just arguing about choice of language. (And I think most compatibilists feel that we are just arguing about choice of language).

              • reasonshark
                Posted February 14, 2014 at 8:46 am | Permalink

                “It is a sweeping claim, and I think it’s a correct one. We do introduce new jargon, but that doesn’t change the fact that foundational terms (like heat, information, complexity, force, energy, work, probability, …), have undergone repeated redefinitions with the goal of speaking more precisely and correctly while retaining the essential features of those words.”

                That’s fair enough. I do still stand by the notion that free will, unlike these other concepts, comes with some hefty emotional baggage which makes it more problematic. If a scientific redefinition were to become more prevalent, though, I would raise no objection.

                “Okay, we’re moving a bit too fast now. I couldn’t make out part of your post either. Let’s back up a few steps. I’m going to propose the following as uncontroversial statements:”

                OK, let’s see what you’re saying.

                “1. Libertarian indeterminists commonly believe that supernatural free-will is a necessary foundation for ethics and/or moral responsibility.”

                Agreed, though I’d add that someone who believed in a softer mix between supernatural free-will and physical causes might technically be a “supernatural compatibilist”. A bit like someone saying “isn’t it both a mix of nature and nurture”, to use an analogy.

                “2. Compatibilists commonly believe that a capacity for rational choice is a sufficient foundation for ethics and moral responsibility, and that this capacity for choice is unrelated to the supposed concept of supernatural free-will.”

                Yes, and determinists and pessimistic incompatibilists (hard incompatibilism on that 4×4 grid I linked to earlier) often also believe that rational choice is a sufficient foundation. All they add is that rational choice is not supernatural free-will, but something entirely mundane. In fact, the only way a compatibilist could accept this view is by changing the definition of free will, so depending on the concept of free will in question, they’re either incompatibilists or compatibilists.

                “3. Determinists reject the notion of supernatural free-will.”

                Yes, and so do “other definition of free will” compatibilists. And so do hard/pessimistic incompatibilists.

                “4. Non-libertarians believe that indeterminism is also incompatible with any notion of supernatural free-will.”

                Well, non-libertarians includes the three other positions on that 4×4 grid I linked to (here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:DeterminismXFreeWill.svg). Practically anyone in those positions can argue that indeterminism is incompatible with supernatural free will, though the ones that usually do so are the hard/pessimistic incompatibilists.

                Was that helpful?

              • Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:23 am | Permalink

                “Was that helpful?”

                Yes; this is all completely acceptable. I think compatibilists are usually coming from perspectives in professional philosophical discourse, where the concerns are a bit different from what we find in the popular space. For example, suppose I admire some features of Kant’s ethical system (which I do), but Kant believed his system rested on a form of dualism. I adopt a compatibilist stance in order to retain the most admirable features of Kant’s system while rejecting the supernatural aspects. That’s the kind of place where it makes sense to be a compatibilist, a place where we can fix the logic of things that may be only partly broken (I don’t want to get into other features of Kantian ethics that may or may not be broken, this is just an example).

                I’ve studied a boatload of philosophy, and almost 15 years ago I completed the majority of a philosophy degree, which included a few of courses specifically focused on the mind/body problem, free will, the nature of consciousness and the philosophy of language. At that time, I got the impression that compatibilism had emerged as a default position in contemporary analytical philosophy. From my continued study of philosophy, I still get that impression as the subject almost never comes up in the stuff I read on ethics, epistemology and theory of mind.

                In religious circles, it seems to still be popular to imagine there is a soul imbued with supernatural powers of will, and this is supposed to be the basis of moral choice and consequence. This is a completely different realm of discourse and maybe it makes sense to be hard determinist in that realm while still being a compatibilist with respect to the more rigorous context of analytical philosophy.

  6. Posted February 14, 2014 at 4:33 am | Permalink

    Phew, catching up on replies this morning:

    reasonshark:

    What I don’t get is why you insist on calling this free will.

    I’d happily drop the term as applied to compatibilism if it would help to make progress. It is mere semantics, but that semantic does seem to be a huge stumbling block for the incompatibilists.

    Reasons for retaining the term include: (1) use in the compatibilist sense has a long history stretching back hundreds of years; (2) every other use of “free” does *not* imply a violation of the laws of physics; see my list up-thread; (3) many popular uses are already in the compatibilist sense.

    E.g. “Did you sign this contract of you own free will” is not asking whether you violated physical laws, it is asking about coercion by others. Ditto “free speech”, “freed from slavery”, “give free rein” etc.

    Not only does the concept you describe have nothing in common with what most people would call free will,

    Not fully true. The “common” usages are actually a confused and inconsistent mess of compatibilist and dualist meanings.

    but it seems to do little more than invite such confusion

    Only if you are still flogging the dead horse of dualism, rather than moving on from that. When we abandoned vitalism we didn’t insist on renaming “life”, even though retaining the word could cause confusion with vitalism.

    Jesper Both Pedersen:

    For all reasons and purposes we might as well discard the term free will and replace it with choice, which is what you do when you clarify.

    Absolutely, the idea of “free will” (in all conceptions) is all about making choices. We could indeed drop the term “free will” and just talk about choices. Fine with me.

    But the incompatibilists such as Professor Ceiling Cat also object to words such as “choice” and want to remove that (and words such as “morality”). That is just too much work and pointless.

    No-one offers an ice-cream to a kid saying “please report your appearance of choice of flavour”, everyone says “choose a flavour”.

    In other words all incompatibilists are actually compatibilists when it comes to everyday life, only they won’t admit it! So if we’re accepting compatibilist “choice” then why not accept compatibilist “free will”?

    Diana MacPherson:

    Yes, I found that too. I would welcome a clear, concise refutation of Free Will from Dan …

    Harris’s “Free Will” is *not* wrong because it is all an argument against *dualism* and contra-causal free will. In that it is entirely right!

    It doesn’t really engage with compatibilism except in a dismissive way (“you’re just closet dualists aren’t you?”) that refuses to try to understand compatibilism.

    Even Sam’s reply to Dan’s reply makes a big issue of saying that compatibilism does not give you classical *dualistic* free will. Yes! We do know that!

    Jeff:

    I just can figure out what “free will” would be once we drop out the part where there is a self that is the primary cause.

    There *is* a “self” that is the cause, it is just that that self is a determined engine.

    You presumably have no difficulty understanding that “free speech” is speech that a person desires to make, owing to their internal deterministic brain machinery, and lack of “freedom” to speak is about constraints external to the person.

    So what is the problem in understanding “free will” in exactly the same way? (“Did you sign this confession of your own free will or were you coerced?”). Why is that such a hard concept?

    If your only reply is a puzzled: “But that’s not what classical dualist free will is about” then yes, we do know that!

    Alex SL:

    To me, the person with the brain tumor would not be responsible for their actions full stop.

    They would be responsible in the same way that a faulty spark plug could be “responsible for” a car failing to go and heavy rain is “responsible for” the flooding in England. Not *morally* responsible though. *Morally* responsible means “susceptible to social opprobrium or approval” responsibility.

    • reasonshark
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:03 am | Permalink

      “I’d happily drop the term as applied to compatibilism if it would help to make progress. It is mere semantics, but that semantic does seem to be a huge stumbling block for the incompatibilists.”

      Actually, I think it’s an even bigger stumbling block for the compatibilists, if only because polysemy invites confusion. By all means, drop the term.

      “Reasons for retaining the term include: (1) use in the compatibilist sense has a long history stretching back hundreds of years;”

      So does the libertarianist view, which is also the most commonly intended, judging from the study I linked to earlier:

      “Incorrect. This cross-cultural study (see http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-0017.2010.01393.x/abstract) points out that “the majority of participants said that (a) our universe is indeterministic and (b) moral responsibility is not compatible with determinism.” That is, the colloquial use of the word “free will” is libertarianist.”

      I’m not arguing that the word can’t have more than one meaning, but that there’s a real risk of the meanings getting confused, which is most likely to impede efforts to properly understand the ways decision-making works.

      “(2) every other use of “free” does *not* imply a violation of the laws of physics; see my list up-thread;”

      I’ve seen it, and it’s basically another pun. Free means unconstrained, which can include being unconstrained by the laws of physics. In any case, the phrase “free will” has that definition. This is another instance of semantics getting in the way again.

      “(3) many popular uses are already in the compatibilist sense.”

      Again, see the study. This still strikes me as being out of touch with what most people understand when they hear the term.

      “E.g. “Did you sign this contract of you own free will” is not asking whether you violated physical laws, it is asking about coercion by others. Ditto “free speech”, “freed from slavery”, “give free rein” etc.”

      Again, I’m not arguing that “free will” can’t have more than one definition, only that it sows confusion. You could just as well ask “Did anyone coerce you into signing this contract?” and we’d have a better understanding of what the issue at stake is.

      “Only if you are still flogging the dead horse of dualism, rather than moving on from that.”

      Dualism is not dead, at least not in the sense of being a view no longer widely held. For one thing, do you really think the Christian majority in the USA are going to be monists? If I find a study conducted cross-culturally on the subject, I’d wager the majority would sign up to a dualistic conception of mind. I frankly think you’re making presumptions about dualism’s status today.

      “When we abandoned vitalism we didn’t insist on renaming “life”, even though retaining the word could cause confusion with vitalism.”

      Vitalism based its concept on “life force”, not “life”. In any case, “life” can be a pretty nebulous concept at times (for instance, is a virus a living thing?), and I wouldn’t object to more context-specific alternatives. But most importantly, there’s not such a big risk of life as we understand it getting confused with vitalism when talking about the public conception of it.

      • Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:28 am | Permalink

        Free means unconstrained, which can include being unconstrained by the laws of physics. In any case, the phrase “free will” has that definition.

        It actually has both definitions (e.g. Oxford online dictionaries: “the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion”. The first half is dualist, the latter half compatibilist).

        The problem is that incompatibilists insist that their usage is the only valid one, and that a compatibilist use is a “confusion”, when actually both uses have a long tradition.

        As for popular usages, I entirely agree that most people will espouse dualism when asked. However, people do not have a coherent and consistent account of this. When people are asked about metaphysics they can give very different answers from their behaviour in everyday life. It is too simple to say that most people mean the dualist meaning, it’s more accurate to say that most people have an incoherent mix of dualist and compatibilist meanings. Which is exactly why both meanings of “free will” are used and have a long history.

        Dualism is not dead, at least not in the sense of being a view no longer widely held.

        Agreed, dualism is dead intellectually but is still widespread. And if you’re arguing against dualists then by all means argue for determinism.

        However, (1) don’t bother arguing against dualism when talking to compatibilists (which is exactly what most anti-compatibilist screeds amount to), and (2) if you want to maintain that incompatibilist language is a better way of persuading dualists into the determinist camp than compatibilist language then first present your evidence.

        • reasonshark
          Posted February 14, 2014 at 6:25 am | Permalink

          “It actually has both definitions (e.g. Oxford online dictionaries: “the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion”. The first half is dualist, the latter half compatibilist).

          The problem is that incompatibilists insist that their usage is the only valid one…”

          I think I’ve already pointed out that I’m not denying it has more than one meaning. In fact, it’s precisely because it has more than one meaning that I think is the cause of the risk of confusion. The fact that it has a history indicates that the confusion has been around for a long time.

          And compatibilist use is a confusion, as you show yourself in your very next paragraph:

          “As for popular usages, I entirely agree that most people will espouse dualism when asked. However, people do not have a coherent and consistent account of this. When people are asked about metaphysics they can give very different answers from their behaviour in everyday life. It is too simple to say that most people mean the dualist meaning, it’s more accurate to say that most people have an incoherent mix of dualist and compatibilist meanings. Which is exactly why both meanings of “free will” are used and have a long history.”

          And why it’s about time they were dropped in favour of something that’s more scientifically informed and less likely to be mixed up with dualistic notions.

          “Agreed, dualism is dead intellectually but is still widespread. And if you’re arguing against dualists then by all means argue for determinism.

          “However, (1) don’t bother arguing against dualism when talking to compatibilists (which is exactly what most anti-compatibilist screeds amount to)”

          Quite frankly, if I thought simply accepting the redefinition would be no problem, I’d have no qualms. A word is less important than the concept it represents. But compatibilists have to talk to dualists too, and in the meantime, we need an incisive way to slice through the confusion over the topic and convince people that dualism’s inadequacies require reforms in current conventions. As it stands, I think moving on to an explicitly deterministic outlook – or at least the scientific equivalent, given quantum and chaos and so forth – is going to provide more results in the long run, in which case efforts to salvage free will using the second definition are more likely to impede rather than help this change.

          “and (2) if you want to maintain that incompatibilist language is a better way of persuading dualists into the determinist camp than compatibilist language then first present your evidence.”

          I don’t have direct evidence that either method works. Nobody can have high confidence in either as a result. If anything, I would be interested in seeing some research on the topic, but sadly I haven’t found anything yet.

          A comparison with the acceptance of atheism and science in the wake of, say, the writings of Harris, Dennett, et al. suggests that their consciousness raising has had an effect on the increase in non-religion and the decrease in religious affiliation, so a firm and blunt position like explicit incompatibilism will probably have a similar effect. Speaking from personal experience, I also find I tend to get my point across in such discussions if I eschew terms like “free will” and explicitly indicate why I think it should be dropped, same as in discussions on “god”.

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:03 am | Permalink

      A regular tour de force Coel, I sympathise so I’ll try to make it short. :-)

      Absolutely, the idea of “free will” (in all conceptions) is all about making choices. We could indeed drop the term “free will” and just talk about choices. Fine with me.

      But the incompatibilists such as Professor Ceiling Cat also object to words such as “choice” and want to remove that (and words such as “morality”). That is just too much work and pointless.

      No-one offers an ice-cream to a kid saying “please report your appearance of choice of flavour”, everyone says “choose a flavour”.

      In other words all incompatibilists are actually compatibilists when it comes to everyday life, only they won’t admit it! So if we’re accepting compatibilist “choice” then why not accept compatibilist “free will”?

      I can’t speak for prof. CC, but to me there’s a huge difference between the concept of free will and the word choice and this is where semantics once again enters the picture.

      Choice is not by default a loaded term with a distinct indeterministic meaning in the same way as the concept of free will is. It’s two different terms with different implications.

      I have no quarrels with morality as long as it is followed by a clarification and recognized as a relative concept. In other words, there’s no absolute morality, and we’d be better of accepting that fact rather than lying to ourselves and continue to be fearful about the possible consequences.

      Dennett paints a dire picture as the consequence of incompatibilism and I simply don’t share his pessimistic outlook.

      How that makes me a pseudo-compatibilist is beyond me, but hey….it’s only semantics, right? :-)

      • Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:32 am | Permalink

        Dennett paints a dire picture as the consequence of incompatibilism and I simply don’t share his pessimistic outlook.

        I agree there entirely, and think that Dennett is wrong to worry about the consequences of a populace accepting determinism.

        Personally I think that to first order it would have zero effect. That’s because all this stuff is a commentary about ourselves, but is not our actual motivation and reasons for what we do.

        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted February 14, 2014 at 7:24 am | Permalink

          I think it could have a very decisive impact on how we approach our legal systems, but as with most change it’s a gradual process.

          Trial and error, so to speak.

          • Posted February 14, 2014 at 8:27 am | Permalink

            On this “decisive impact”, can you give specific examples of punishments that would be very different in your system, people who would not be in jail for example?

            Personally I see the legal system as largely pragmatic, and the commentary about “free will” as relatively superficial, and don’t think that changing the superficial commentary would change much in practice.

            • Jesper Both Pedersen
              Posted February 14, 2014 at 8:45 am | Permalink

              Well, as a starting point there’d be much less focus on incarceration and more emphasis on rehabilitation/education.

              Instead of having prisoners doing tedious repetitive tasks, they could be offered some sort of education, even as a mandatory requirement while in jail.

              Examples of people who wouldn’t be put in jail would be people with people with psychiatric disorders. A prison is not an appropiate psychiatric ward and sadly many people are left behind in smal prison cells without proper help. Under the current system they are largely ignored.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted February 14, 2014 at 8:48 am | Permalink

                -1 people.

              • Posted February 14, 2014 at 8:52 am | Permalink

                But all of those things could be argued for from a dualistic perspective (indeed plenty of penal reform advocates will have been dualists).

                The main reason we don’t have more education, rehabilitation, care for people with psychiatric disorders, etc, is that it all costs money, at least in the sort term.

                One could argue that it would overall save money in the long term, but that would then be a lack of joined-up thinking and too much short-termism, rather than anything to do with metaphysics about dualism v determinism.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:04 am | Permalink

                “But all of those things could be argued for from a dualistic perspective (indeed plenty of penal reform advocates will have been dualists).”

                I fail to see the relevance. From a non-dualist incompatibilist standpoint it also makes rational sense. I don’t think you’re suggesting dualists are incapable of rational thought, so I don’t get the point.

                One of the major implications of widespread acceptance of incompatibilism would be the abolishment of the death penalty. Globally. It simply doesn’t make sense other than as a retributive exercise which is in no way productive.

              • Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

                From a non-dualist incompatibilist standpoint it also makes rational sense.

                Yes, the reforms you suggested can make sense from a dualist perspective, or from an incompatiblist perspective, or from a compatiblist perspective. Thus the metaphysics is not the driving issue there. It’s more about money, short-termism, and joined-up thinking.

                [Capital punishment] simply doesn’t make sense other than as a retributive exercise which is in no way productive.

                One could argue for it as a deterrent or as a cost-saving measure, compared to lifetime imprisonment. Of course neither of those arguments might hold up, but then again that would not be a matter of metaphysics.

                Interestingly, there’s a lifetime prisoner in England who wants to die and has attempted suicide (to be resusitated by the authorities). The attitude of the public is mostly “don’t let him take the easy way out, make him suffer by keeping him alive”. Now *that* is a retributive argument against the death penalty!

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:46 am | Permalink

                Yes, the reforms you suggested can make sense from a dualist perspective, or from an incompatiblist perspective, or from a compatiblist perspective. Thus the metaphysics is not the driving issue there. It’s more about money, short-termism, and joined-up thinking.

                They are factors too off course and again I emphasise that change is gradual. It rarely happens from one day to another and as it is we’re having plenty of trouble dispelling with the notion of free will in the first place….as the discussion clearly shows.;-)

                Interestingly, there’s a lifetime prisoner in England who wants to die and has attempted suicide (to be resusitated by the authorities). The attitude of the public is mostly “don’t let him take the easy way out, make him suffer by keeping him alive”. Now *that* is a retributive argument against the death penalty!

                I agree, it’s an absurd and vindictive approach to matters of justice. But it is interesting and it almost overlaps into one of my pet peeves, euthanasia.

                It may be controversial, but I honestly think it should be possible for lifetime prisoners with no chance of parol to apply for humane extermination, if they so wish. It should be a rigorous process off course, but it should not be excluded by principle.

                And bear in mind that life imprisonment should only be applicable to the very few where any means of rehabilitation is beyond reach.

              • paxton
                Posted February 14, 2014 at 10:23 am | Permalink

                Yes, all mentally competent adults should have the right to end their lives when they want to, and the assistance to do it quickly and painlessly. Eric McDonald championed that position eloquently in his much missed Choice in Dying blog.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted February 14, 2014 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

                I never read his bl*g, but I take it you’re one of many who misses it.

                Did he ever explain why he pulled the plug?

            • gbjames
              Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

              He (Eric McDonald) pulled the plug and then plugged it back in a couple of times. He recently commented that he may bring it back again. I hope he does.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted February 15, 2014 at 3:41 am | Permalink

                Hope so too. I’d make it a priority to follow it this time around.

    • Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:10 am | Permalink

      Ah, I understand what you mean.

      Also, agree with all you wrote; good example with the elan vital!

  7. Posted February 14, 2014 at 4:52 am | Permalink

    In such discussions the incompatibilists are often motivated by issues such as reforming the justice system. And they’re right that the difference between dualistic and deterministic conceptions does matter.

    However, the incompatibilists then take it as a given that the best way to persuade dualists towards the deterministic camp is to use incompatibilist language. They suppose that using compatibilist language would just provide cover for people remaining as dualists.

    However, I find that assumption highly dubious. I’d suggest that using compatibilist language would actually be the more successful way of persuading dualists into deterministic camp. At the very least the incompatibilists have not provided evidence that their tactic is superior.

    As a comparison, if you’re faced with a vitalist, do you try to persuade them that a cat is not a living thing? Or do you instead persuade them that yes of course a cat is a living thing, but that “life” does not require elan vital?

    • reasonshark
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:31 am | Permalink

      “However, the incompatibilists then take it as a given that the best way to persuade dualists towards the deterministic camp is to use incompatibilist language. They suppose that using compatibilist language would just provide cover for people remaining as dualists.”

      To provide two case examples, observe the success rate of BioLogos, an organisation that seeks to argue that a biblical account need not conflict with scientific findings. As Jerry Coyne points out, this is not only a way for religious people to nominally sign up to scientific claims without incurring any actual costs (like critically examining their faith), but it’s success rate is either low or negligible. I suspect that a similar risk exists if you try to reconcile free will with determinism; it will prove to be a waste of resources and will only sow more confusion.

      The second example is the hysterical reaction to Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, as recounted in The Extended Phenotype. While Dawkins’ claims were actually quite modest, this indicates that some people really don’t want determinism to be true, and that sets up a motivation to soften the findings that challenge libertarian views. Without assurance that the definition of free will is unambiguous, use of the term can delay acceptance not only of such scientific findings, but of policies that make use of them.

      “As a comparison, if you’re faced with a vitalist, do you try to persuade them that a cat is not a living thing? Or do you instead persuade them that yes of course a cat is a living thing, but that “life” does not require elan vital?”

      Again, I contend that this is a weak analogy, not least of all because vitalism is based on the concept of “life force”, not “life”.

      • Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:41 am | Permalink

        I’ll give you a better analogy.

        Professor Ceiling Cat proposes reform of the legal system to be much less retributive and much more humane.

        Professor Ceiling Cat also regularly points to Scandinavia as a model for a society much less religious than the US.

        Well Scandinavia already has a legal system far down the road that Jerry wants the US to take, a far less retributive and far more humane legal system, which recognises people as products of their environment and is much more about rehabilitation.

        Was this achieved by abandoning notions of “moral responsibility”, by removing words such as “choice” from the language and by persuading the populace against free will?

        No, it wasn’t. It was achieved by the society becoming much less religious and as a consequence stripping all those concepts of their religious baggage.

        In other words, Scandinavia already largely has the legal reforms that Jerry wants, and it did it by becoming compatibilist rather than by becoming incompatibilist.

        • reasonshark
          Posted February 14, 2014 at 7:23 am | Permalink

          “In other words, Scandinavia already largely has the legal reforms that Jerry wants, and it did it by becoming compatibilist rather than by becoming incompatibilist.”

          You couldn’t possibly know that from the information given, not least of all because no one’s sure why religiosity in Scandinavia declined as it did. You make several assumptions in your piece, for instance that religious declines coincide with rejection of ideas with religious baggage, as if they left no cultural legacy.

          What we both need is some kind of test that indicates which concept most people think of when they hear the words “free will” – the libertarianist version, or the compatibilist version. If the majority think the former, then there’s a high risk of confusion in a discussion about free will, which is my point. If the majority think the latter, then your position is stronger and I concede the point. Following on from that, research needs to be made about the acceptance of determinism and/or pessimistic incompatibilism, and what methods prove most successful towards persuading others that these concepts are true – the “accommodationist” approach of putting different concepts to words or the “strict” approach of giving concepts their own words to keep them distinct.

          I know of no such tests having been done yet, but given my experience on public talks about the issue, I think Coyne has a point when he says we should just face the deterministic consequences directly rather than just switch to another meaning of the word free will.

          • Posted February 14, 2014 at 8:24 am | Permalink

            You make several assumptions in your piece, for instance that religious declines coincide with rejection of ideas with religious baggage …

            It’s more that decline in religion coincides with rejection of the religious baggage that accompanies ideas (not rejection of the ideas themselves).

            For example (and I don’t have a poll but) I’d expect that the number of people interpreting morality in terms of what god wants would be very high in the US, much lower in the UK and lower still in Scandinavia.

            What we both need is some kind of test that indicates which concept most people think of when they hear the words “free will” …

            First, I don’t agree that what people say in response to being asked that is necessarily paramount; as important is how people think in day-to-day situations. As above, people’s metaphysics can be a superficial commentary that doesn’t actually carry through to their behaviour.

            For example, note how little sexual morality as prescribed by fundamentalist Christianity correlates with behaviour in practice. Abortion rates are much lower in secular Holland than in religiose US (to give one example).

            Second, suppose we have a population that interprets “morality” in terms of “what god wants”. Would it then just cause confusion to retain the term “morality” and wouldn’t it be better to reject the term and find a new one for describing human behaviour without religious connotations?

            Well, again, the example of Europe and Scandinavia shows that a population can readily go from morality being what god wants, to morality being nothing to do with gods, without ditching the word “morality”.

            Personally I’d say that “atheists say that there is no such thing as morality, they’re calling themselves immoral” is a far worse tactic than “of course morality is important, but it’s about humans not gods”.

            I think Coyne has a point when he says we should just face the deterministic consequences directly rather than just switch to another meaning of the word free will.

            I see compatibilism as facing
            determinism head on, and embracing it with gusto and great glee. I do not see compatibilism as even the slightest smidgeon of a shying away from determinism.

            On that point I do disagree with Dennett in his motivations.

      • Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:44 am | Permalink

        Again, I contend that this is a weak analogy, not least of all because vitalism is based on the concept of “life force”, not “life”.

        I think it’s an ok analogy.

        Vitalism is the idea that there must be something (elan vital) in addition to the physical machinery to produce a “living” thing.

        Dualism is the idea that there must be something (a soul) in addition to the physical machinery to produce a freely choosing person.

      • Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:51 am | Permalink

        The thing is that the term free will is already a part of the English language and generally it’s used in constructions that make sense: “John Stewart Mill of his own free will on half a pint of shandy was particularly ill”. Most people, I think, would understand that as: John voluntarily drunk shandy and was ill, no one made him do it. So it makes absolutely zero sense to try to eradicate the term from the language. And how would one do that anyway? What we perhaps need to do is that you can’t terms out of context and elevate them to a cosmic perspective.

        • reasonshark
          Posted February 14, 2014 at 8:07 am | Permalink

          Yet, we have more evidence to suggest that people take note of the libertarian form of free will. It’s not just a case of confusion of words. To borrow what I wrote elsewhere on this thread:

          “Nobody postulates that solid matter contains something more than what science has found, and nobody sets such great store on the concept that they react furiously to suggestions that solid walls are actually mostly empty. The same cannot be said for those who believe libertarian free will is true, who reject determinism on sight, and who mistake indeterminism as evidence for free will, as if there were no such thing as pessimistic incompatibilism.”

          Go to talks about “free will vs. determinism”, and you’ll have a decent explanation for what people think when they discuss the term. It is unlikely to be “people don’t sign contracts of their own free will because their actions were predetermined”, but more likely to be “people sign contracts of their own free will because they have a faculty called free will that isn’t genetically or environmentally determined, but makes choices”.

          • Richard Olson
            Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

            ‘Go to talks about “free will vs. determinism”, and you’ll have a decent explanation for what people think when they discuss the term. It is unlikely to be “people don’t sign contracts of their own free will because their actions were predetermined”, but more likely to be “people sign contracts of their own free will because they have a faculty called free will that isn’t genetically or environmentally determined, but makes choices”.’

            In a lifetime of conversations with people who have a wide variety of life experience, no instance where an individual denies that environment or genetics contributed to a decision that led to a demonstrable outcome comes readily to mind. I will be caught absolutely by surprise should this ever occur.

            On the contrary, in the course of ordinary life many people are only too eager to recount a long litany of detail about the “why” of things they did, as well as their own surmise of the “why” of the actions of many others (some few others exercise restraint in this area). My observation, personal anecdote only, is that this human behavior pattern is quite noticeable as speech develops in children and persists from that moment forth until the visit from the grim reaper.

            When people are in a philosophy class, free thinker meetings, church or some other specified religious gathering of any sort, where conversations about free will, choice, agency, etc., are the the norm and minds are calibrated (temporarily) toward this purpose, these terms have meanings that often do not harmonize with the meanings the terms have when they are employed in typical ordinary, everyday conversational sense.

            The legal system presently recognizes and strives — not to perfection, to be sure — to account for determinism in determining accountability and for sentencing guidelines.

            An entirely secular concept of “free will” has lengthy history in the legal sense, though, and definition change proposals that would impact this body of work face formidable challenges.

            These specific challenges are mere child’s play, however, compared to adapting the legal system to concepts of human individuals as merely “meat” functioning under an illusion called “self”. Try describing how to change this paradigm without using any personal pronouns.

            It seems to me that consciousness is as yet too ill-understood, owing to significant uncertainty regarding brain operations, for certainty about mind to be accepted as reliable fact (is it even known what the percentage of unknown is to known re our brain? If so, how do we know this?).

            • reasonshark
              Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:45 am | Permalink

              “In a lifetime of conversations with people who have a wide variety of life experience, no instance where an individual denies that environment or genetics contributed to a decision that led to a demonstrable outcome comes readily to mind. I will be caught absolutely by surprise should this ever occur.”

              This is getting things the wrong way round. It’s not that dualistic free will states that environments or genetics don’t matter; it’s that they are material and aren’t considered enough to account for decisions, and so an extra ingredient is needed. If scientific findings from neuroanatomy and psychology have no need of this hypothesis, then you can get people fudging the science, belittling it, or ignoring it. They’re the problem.

              “concepts of human individuals as merely “meat” functioning under an illusion called “self”.”

              I have no idea what you’re talking about, as this has nothing to do with incompatibilism or determinism. Given that I didn’t make any such claim about “meat” and “illusions of self”, I conclude you’re straw-manning my position.

              “It seems to me that consciousness is as yet too ill-understood, owing to significant uncertainty regarding brain operations, for certainty about mind to be accepted as reliable fact (is it even known what the percentage of unknown is to known re our brain? If so, how do we know this?).”

              We already have enough knowledge to indicate that brains are the focal point, and the main issue is the technical one of how the neurons fit together to build up the whole.

              • Richard Olson
                Posted February 14, 2014 at 10:39 am | Permalink

                I apologize for posting my remarks as a direct rebuttal to a post by you. I wrote it using the reply option so that your remarks were close at hand for reference only. I should have copied when finished and posted a new comment.

                Your comments about what you hear from people at certain gatherings regarding their concept of free will resulted in my entire train of thought, so when I introduced “self” it appears as if I try to straw man you. This was not my intent, although it is clearly the result of an action I (ill-advisedly took). Post hoc ergo procter hoc it appears unavoidable, but I assure you when I began composing this post I made a mental note to copy and post as new. Something went awry. I would call it carelessness, forgetfulness due to haste perhaps. That is my compatibilist perspective, at any rate.

                I don’t have anything to say about your perspective on aspects of dualistic free will. I don’t believe a supernatural definition of free will has any merit whatsoever, and I think that human consciousness of each individual is a finite capacity of each individual finite brain that produces it. Whether behavioral attributes are down to discerning technical aspects of neuronal arrangements is beyond my remit.

    • Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:39 am | Permalink

      I don’t see how the concept of a “soul” is meant to give one libertarian free will anyway, you still wouldn’t be responsible for your own creation and so you still wouldn’t have ultimate responsibility for your actions. The fact is that LFW is incoherent, whether the universe is deterministic or not, so if free will is to have a usage that makes any sense, the compatibilist way of looking at things is the only game in town. LFW is not only not compatible with determinism, it’s not compatible with indeterminism either.

      • reasonshark
        Posted February 14, 2014 at 6:30 am | Permalink

        It doesn’t make a difference if it falls apart with analysis. It’s sufficient to note that people take the stance and can react badly to the notion of determinism as a result. The concept of a god falls apart with analysis, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have an issue when talking to theists.

    • gbjames
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 6:27 am | Permalink

      I am always made uneasy by arguments that run “the best way to convince x-thinkers is to tell them y”

      This is what we hear all the time from accomodationists insisting that atheists be respectful when speaking of religion because otherwise the believers will be scared off from learning about evolution.

      I think that is wrongheaded. Either the compatiblist position is correct or the incompatiblist position is. It doesn’t matter whether whether dualists are more persuadable by one or the other argument. Should one excuse a false case being made because it is is more useful? That’s a bad way to decide which is the best argument.

      • Posted February 14, 2014 at 6:46 am | Permalink

        Either the compatiblist position is correct or the incompatiblist position is.

        But the two differ only in semantics! Really, they do, it’s *only* a matter of what language you use to describe things. Both compatiblism and incompatibilism embrace determinism and both are “correct”.

        Thus compatiblists and incompatiblists are not disagreeing on the facts, they disagree on how they describe them.

        It doesn’t matter whether whether dualists are more persuadable by one or the other argument.

        Yes it does! Since compatibilists and incompatiblists are not disagreeing on the facts, only on how they describe them, it is a valid consideration which language is better at promoting understanding.

        • Posted February 14, 2014 at 6:57 am | Permalink

          For the record, I don’t wholeheartedly embrace determinism; I might like to consider indeterminism (the notion that physical laws are inherently probabilistic). One of the frustrating features of this debate is that it creates a false dichotomy between determinism and free-will, whereas the legitimate dichotomy is between determinism and indeterminism. I don’t know whether the universe is fundamentally indeterministic. I don’t think it’s possible to know this, but it is interesting (sometimes) to ponder. It has nothing to do with the nature of will, rational choice or moral agency. Somewhere out there, you can find people who believe that “free will” entails a third option that is neither deterministic nor indeterministic. It’s like talking about a hypothetical number that is neither an integer nor a non-integer — it is a gibberish view, so why do we need to invest so much energy on it? Can we still do the math without obsessing over nonsense?

          • reasonshark
            Posted February 14, 2014 at 7:25 am | Permalink

            You might like to see this. Determinism and indeterminism are part of the discussion, indeed, as well as free will and non-free will.

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:DeterminismXFreeWill.svg

            • Posted February 14, 2014 at 7:38 am | Permalink

              I recognize that indeterminism and determinism are both “part of the discussion” (Harris gives the occasional nod to indeterminism, as though it were some distantly relevant concept) but the substantive dichotomy is between determinism and indeterminism. Free will is a non sequitur (now I’m having déjà vu).

              The (in)determinism distinction bugs me because the incompatibilists repeatedly raise the question as to whether you “could have done differently” if all variables and states were exactly the same. This just makes me go cross-eyed because this doesn’t describe free-will, it describes indeterminism. Libertarian free-will is “the other thing” that isn’t that. Urgh.

            • reasonshark
              Posted February 14, 2014 at 7:55 am | Permalink

              cjwinstead,

              Actually, determinism and indeterminism are pretty mundane scientific issues. Indeterminism has more evidence. However, it works by mechanical processes like quantum ones and chaos that are probabilistic and unpredictable, not by some choice-making faculty. That was the point of Hume’s Fork: heads, determinism is true and free will is not; tails, the world is random to a degree and free will is still not true.

              Again, it does not matter that libertarianism is incoherent. It’s enough to note that some people still think it’s true, enough that they reject scientific alternatives and confuse chaos theory and quantum mechanics with a vindication of libertarian free will. And if that kind of free will is bunk, then you naturally move to the incompatibilist position – unless, of course, you want to define free will as the antonym of coercion.

              • Posted February 14, 2014 at 8:03 am | Permalink

                “And if that kind of free will is bunk, then you naturally move to the incompatibilist position – unless, of course, you want to define free will as the antonym of coercion.”

                I noticed that Dennett was careful to include the concept of proper function in his discussion of free will. It isn’t just a lack of coercion, it is the unimpaired capacity to make rational choices. It is a faculty that we can exercise, that we can practice and strengthen. It is very valuable to think of will as a natural faculty, and this trend in the free-will discourse seems to mirror similar trends toward notions of “proper function” in epistemology and other areas.

              • reasonshark
                Posted February 14, 2014 at 8:09 am | Permalink

                My comment which you responded to will remain the same; just swap “unless, of course, you want to define free will as the antonym of coercion” with “unless, of course, you want to define free will as the ability of an organism to make rational choices”. It doesn’t really change what I was getting at.

        • gbjames
          Posted February 14, 2014 at 7:28 am | Permalink

          Coel, I don’t think that makes sense. There is clearly a disagreement here and, it would seem, a profound one given the energy expended by the proponents. To ask one side to “give up” in the interest of encouraging your appeal to dualists is disrespectful of the position of the side you are asking to “shut up”.

          You are sounding like an accomodationist asking a Gnu Atheist to quiet down because we have a joint interesting promoting evolution in science classes. It is creepy.

          • Posted February 14, 2014 at 8:36 am | Permalink

            There is clearly a disagreement here …

            But only about language and semantics!

            … a profound one given the energy expended by the proponents.

            The problem is that the incompatibilists always suspect the compatibilists of closet dualism, so continually roll out their anti-dualist arguments, and that (determinism v dualism) is indeed a real disagreement.

            Just about everything Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne write on this is actually an argument against dualist free will.

            In return, the compatibilists spend ages trying to correct this misconception. For example if you really think that one or other of incompatiblism and compatibilism must be wrong, then you haven’t understood compatiblism!

            To ask one side to “give up” in the interest of encouraging your appeal to dualists is disrespectful of the position of the side you are asking to “shut up”.

            I’m not asking incompatiblists to change anything at all about what they regard to be true or factual about the world.

            What I’m asking you to do is please, please, please, realise that the difference between incompatiblism and compatibilism is ONLY ONE OF SEMANTICS.

            • reasonshark
              Posted February 14, 2014 at 8:55 am | Permalink

              “The problem is that the incompatibilists always suspect the compatibilists of closet dualism,”

              Actually, the problem is that using a term with dualist connotations, especially when it’s such a hot topic, is just asking for mix-ups. I retract my saying “Don’t use the word free will” – Just don’t use the word free will as if no such confusion existed, and don’t blame other people if they think you mean it in the more readily known dualistic sense. Distinguish the term by “non-supernatural” and “supernatural” free will, at least.

              • Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:08 am | Permalink

                Just don’t use the word free will as if no such confusion existed …

                I agree. When compatibilists talk to dualists they should make clear their rejection of dualistic free will, and the best way of doing that might be to avoid the term “free will” when talking about deterministic compatibilism.

            • gbjames
              Posted February 14, 2014 at 8:56 am | Permalink

              Again, I don’t see how your assertion that it is only about semantics, a claim that is denied by one side of the debate, is a legitimate argument to ask the other side to “shut up” (so to speak). If it is only about semantics, then why do the compatabilists bother to make a case? Why not just agree with the incompatiblist position and move on?

              It is like you are saying “We agree on everything, so you are wrong!”

              (note: I am personally undecided, but incline to the incompatiblist position if only because the amount of condescension I detect from the compatibilist side, as in Dan Dennett’s response to Harris, smells fishy.)

              • Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:14 am | Permalink

                I don’t see how your assertion that it is only about semantics, a claim that is denied by one side of the debate …

                If it is not mere semantics then what is the actual substance of the disagreement?

                (I’m willing to bet that any incompatibilists answering that will get compatibilism wrong!)

                If it is only about semantics, then why do the compatabilists bother to make a case?

                Because we see the sort of goal-oriented choice-selecting behaviour exhibited by cats and aircraft autopilots, but not by house bricks, to be an interesting property of the universe, and we want to discuss how we should understand that and what language we should use for it.

                Why not just agree with the incompatiblist position and move on?

                That’s exactly what we’re trying to do! We agree entirely on determinism and on a rejection of dualism.

                Now can we have a discussion about the ways that the behaviour of cats differs from that of house bricks in a deterministic universe?

              • reasonshark
                Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

                “Now can we have a discussion about the ways that the behaviour of cats differs from that of house bricks in a deterministic universe?”

                Yes, please. A good place to start is with the neuroscience and psychology of cats.

                Here, have a picture of a cat brain.

                http://biology.clc.uc.edu/fankhauser/labs/anatomy_&_physiology/A&P202/Brain_dissection/Brain_Dis_jpgs/brain_ventral_close_P1220046lbd.jpg

                Parts of the Nervous System in Cats:

                http://www.merckmanuals.com/pethealth/cat_disorders_and_diseases/brain_spinal_cord_and_nerve_disorders_of_cats/parts_of_the_nervous_system_in_cats.html

                And cat intelligence:

                http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-superhuman-mind/201302/how-smart-is-your-cat-1

              • gbjames
                Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

                As I said, I’m not committed one way or the other. But I can’t just agree with you that “there’s no difference” because both sides have advocates who disagree with you. Dennett clearly thinks Harris has it all wrong. And if you really don’t think there is a difference then I don’t see why you are wearing one of the team jerseys. The parties seem to think there is something significantly different here, not just a semantic quibble.

                I’m not opposed to discussions about cats and bricks. I am opposed to suggestions that incompatibilists are supposed to start using compatibilist language for “political” reasons.

              • Posted February 14, 2014 at 10:14 am | Permalink

                Here’s the difference. Consider a chess-playing computer.

                The compatibilist has decided what language he wants to use to describe the deterministic process by which a move-selection is arrived at. He wants to use the word “choice”. The computer “chooses” a move.

                Similarly, about a child picking a flavour of ice-cream, the compatibilist wants to use the word “choice”.

                The incompatibilist doesn’t want to use the word “choice” because to him only dualist contra-causal entities can genuinely “choose”. So he might use the phrase “appearance of choice”. But beyond that he hasn’t told us what language he wants to use because he’s too busy fighting dualists.

                That’s the only difference! Some day the incompatibilist will get round to deciding his terminology. Though, actually, if you sneak up on him with a microphone you’ll find him using the word “choice” just like everyone else. So really he is a compatibilist.

                Only he doesn’t want to admit it because he’s so busy fighting dualists that he doesn’t want to use any language that might give a dualist succour. So, when he remembers to, he will avoid the word “choice”.

                That — honestly! — is the only difference between compatibilists and incompatibists!

              • Posted February 14, 2014 at 10:21 am | Permalink

                Dennett clearly thinks Harris has it all wrong.

                Harris thinks that Dennett’s view is akin to dualism, so is repeatedly saying that that (dualism) is wrong.

                Dennett is repeatedly saying that Harris is wrong to say that Dennett’s view (which is actually compatibilism, not dualism) is wrong.

                So their ongoing argument does not refute the idea that there is only a semantic difference between compatibilism and incompatibilism.

              • reasonshark
                Posted February 14, 2014 at 11:47 am | Permalink

                Coel, just quit while you’re ahead. If you think it’s merely a semantic difference, you do both sides a disservice by suggesting that compatibilists are right, while incompatibilists are hypocrites who shouldn’t shy away from words like “choice” (it isn’t “choice”, anyway – it’s specifically “free will” because of its public contra-causal connotations and place in history of philosophy). By the same token, compatibilists are hypocrites who shouldn’t bandy around words with more than one meaning as if there were no chance of sloppy confusion.

                I don’t mind conceding the point about semantics, as I have done peacefully with cjwinstead when we finally explained where we were coming from, but your attitude is basically becoming “my side is right, and the other side is motivated not to admit it”, which is frankly both a dismissive insult of the positions of the other side and in defiance of your own point that the matter is simply one of inconsequential semantics, which by definition has no right or wrong answer.

                So please stop with the “this incompatibilist, he is motivated by fear of dualism to admit we’re right” line. I don’t appreciate the partisanship on display.

              • Posted February 14, 2014 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

                Reasonshark:

                Coel, just quit while you’re ahead. If you think it’s merely a semantic difference, you do both sides a disservice by suggesting that compatibilists are right, while incompatibilists are hypocrites …

                Can I clarify that the *only* point on which I think incompatibilists are wrong is in their claim that compatibilists are wrong!

                Incompatibilism is an entirely correct and true and coherent and sensible stance.

                Compatibilism is also an entirely correct and true and coherent and sensible stance.

                The differences are only semantic (thus the above must be true), and the issue is only of the *utility* of language, does it help people to understand? — and of course people are entitled to their preference on that.

                Thus the *only* thing that I see as wrong about incompatibilists is their denial that compatibilism is a true, correct and sensible stance.

                I side with compatibilism because I see compatibilist language as helpful in promoting understanding (others may legitimately disagree, no probs). But I also defend compatibilism against incompatibilists who claim that it is flawed.

              • gbjames
                Posted February 14, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

                Methinks, Coel, that you must in fact perceive some more significant difference that simply the incompat claim that compats are wrong. Otherwise you wouldn’t advocate for using the language of one over the language of the other (assuming that the language specific to the delta you admit isn’t central to the case made to 3rd parties).

              • Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

                Yes, I do indeed see compatibilist language as more useful and leading to better understanding than incompatibilist language.

                For example I don’t see how one can sensibly address the very real differences in behaviour between cats and house bricks without concepts such as “choice”.

                Here’s another analogy: Incompatibilist language is like low-level computer code (assembler or machine code). Compatibilist language is like a high-level computer language.

                The incompatibilist version is entirely correct, it’s just not very practical for humans to work with. A concept like “choosing” (as done by cats) is a high-level description of the function of a lot of low-level deterministic cat-brain machinery.

              • gbjames
                Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

                Well, I’m only a simple fellow and a sample of one, but I find the directness and clarity of Harris much more compelling and understandable than the obscurity of Dennett. (Note: I LIKE Dan Dennett and have read many of his books including Freedom Evolves. So at least in one case your “political” argument fails.

                Please, no more analogies. They aren’t helping!

              • Diane G.
                Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

                RE analogies–they help me a lot, actually.

              • gbjames
                Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

                Well, OK. But they have to be good and useful analogies. The software one fell flat for me (I work for a software company, all we do is write code) because it implied that a incompats are just talking at a “more primitive” level and therefore can’t be understood as well. It isn’t really like that. If it was true then for me, at least, I would obviously see the value of the compat argument. I don’t.

              • Diane G.
                Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

                *reverting to lurk mode*

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

                :-)

              • Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

                Re the computer code analogy:

                Incompatibilist: “All there is is electrons whizzing around obeying the laws of physics.”

                Compatibilist: “I agree, however the effect of all that low-level stuff can be usefully described by a high-level concept such as “choosing”.”

                cf. cats and chess-playing computers.

              • gbjames
                Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

                What that has to do with computer code escapes me. I think you may have a bug there.

                In any case, this thread is going nowhere anymore. I’m out. Catch you on another thread somewhere.

              • reasonshark
                Posted February 15, 2014 at 3:26 am | Permalink

                “The differences are only semantic (thus the above must be true), and the issue is only of the *utility* of language, does it help people to understand? — and of course people are entitled to their preference on that.”

                In which case, we’re both at fault for framing this as a dispute between incompatibilists and compatibilists, since our positions on the issue of free will are the exact same. If free will means dualism, supernaturalism, etc. then we’re both incompatibilists. If free will simply means the phenomenon of humans and other thinking creatures making choices, then we’re both compatibilists. It’s therefore wrong-headed to act like they’re two completely antithetical camps, because that’s not what the issue is about.

                If we’re going to frame this dispute properly, then it should simply be between those who think free will is a perfectly adequate term for describing human behaviour, and those who think free will has too many philosophical connotations of dualism to work and would prefer more neutral terms like choice or decision-making.

                And I am going to change my position to: I no longer think it’s worth arguing so much over. So long as we’re just clear on concepts meant when we use the words in a given situation, I think we can save ourselves more comments, considering this isn’t really a substantial dispute when you get down to it.

            • gbjames
              Posted February 14, 2014 at 10:20 am | Permalink

              Coel, You misunderstand me. I am completely aware that you think that this is a semantic difference and nothing more. Additional analogies aren’t needed.

              I am having trouble reconciling your assertion with some actual real-world observations, that you wear a team jersey while claiming there are no teams, and that other members of your team (to say nothing of the opposition) clearly think there is much worth disputing. If Dan Dennett agreed with your assertion I can see no reason for him to have published his response to Harris in the first place.

              • Posted February 14, 2014 at 10:23 am | Permalink

                See my reply just above for why Dennett v Harris is a talking past each other, not an actual difference between compatibilism and incompatibilism.

              • gbjames
                Posted February 14, 2014 at 10:28 am | Permalink

                Perhaps. But “We agree, so you are wrong.” still strikes me as a peculiar point of view.

          • strongforce
            Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

            +1

    • josh
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      “Or do you instead persuade them that yes of course a cat is a living thing, but that “life” does not require elan vital?”

      Bad analogy I think. ‘Life’ is analogous to ‘will’. ‘Life force’, ‘ensouled life’ is closer to ‘free will’. If they are really advanced you try to get them to understand that ‘life’ is only an approximation with fuzzy edges, and so is will.

      If you ask someone ‘Does free will exist?’, that question almost has to imply a determinist/indeterminist context. What would be the meaning for a compatibilist? If you want to discuss ethics or legality, what is gained by the term ‘free will’? ‘A choice unconstrained by external forces’ perhaps? But there is no such choice. If you understand the fuzzy concept then you understand there is only a question of degrees. The actual approach to any ethical or legal question will involve trying to parse out an acceptable balance between those degrees. ‘Free will’ won’t settle any questions there, it will be effectively defined by your answers to those questions. So why not drop the superfluous term?

      It’s like arguing that we should start doing physics in terms of ‘aether’ when 1) the term is misleading in many contexts and 2) it doesn’t have a particularly useful technical role in specialized contexts.

  8. paxton
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    I don’t get the issue about the golf put. This seems not to be a question of free will, (i.e. the ability to choose an objective) than the ability to accomplish that objective. Aren’t these entirely different questions?

    • Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:15 am | Permalink

      Free will is not just about choosing an objective, it’s about your freedom to act on that choice. That’s where the holing the putt is relevant.

      • paxton
        Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:40 am | Permalink

        Thanks, but what I choose to do is hit the ball toward the hole. Whether it goes in or not is a different question that may be related to my ability, but not to my will.

  9. John K.
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    Nobody seems to think that the term “solid” needs to be redefined in order to keep people from worrying that because atoms are mostly space they may fall through the floor. Given the honest and straightforward approach and the approach intended to protect the ignorant masses, I much prefer straightforward honesty. I think Dennet drastically underestimates people if he thinks they truly require the type of defense he is supporting.

    The Atlantis/Sicily analogy was simply fantastic, and spot on.

    • Posted February 14, 2014 at 7:48 am | Permalink

      Nobody seems to think that the term “solid” needs to be redefined in order to keep people from worrying that because atoms are mostly space they may fall through the floor. Given the honest and straightforward approach and the approach intended to protect the ignorant masses, I much prefer straightforward honesty.

      I thought of this exact analogy from the other side. People colloquially believe a “solid” object is one which “has no space inside; not hollow.” The incompatibilists seem to be arguing that we should expunge all use of the word “solid,” since it doesn’t “truly” mean what people think it means. The compatibilist approach is to recognize that there is a more precise, rigorous definition of the term, which preserves the correct aspects of the popular definition.

      • reasonshark
        Posted February 14, 2014 at 8:01 am | Permalink

        I’m beginning to think you’re straw-manning the incompatibilistic position, or at least failing to understand it. Nobody postulates that solid matter contains something more than what science has found, and nobody sets such great store on the concept that they react furiously to suggestions that solid walls are actually mostly empty. The same cannot be said for those who believe libertarian free will is true, who reject determinism on sight, and who mistake indeterminism as evidence for free will, as if there were no such thing as pessimistic incompatibilism.

        • Posted February 14, 2014 at 8:08 am | Permalink

          “Nobody postulates that solid matter contains something more than what science has found, and nobody sets such great store on the concept that they react furiously to suggestions that solid walls are actually mostly empty. The same cannot be said for those who believe libertarian free will is true, who reject determinism on sight, and who mistake indeterminism as evidence for free will, as if there were no such thing as pessimistic incompatibilism.”

          You seem to be saying that the debate turns on the degree of emotion that people feel with respect to these concepts. I agree that libertarians can be quite passionate. That doesn’t invalidate non-libertarian uses of the term “free-will”, uses that have been in place for centuries. The hard determinist position, repeated many times in this thread, is that we need to eliminate the term “free will” because it is too bound up with libertarian usage. Compatibilists disagree. That seems to be the whole conflict: can we be permitted to keep using this word, under a strictly naturalistic definition?

          • reasonshark
            Posted February 14, 2014 at 8:12 am | Permalink

            Use it to your heart’s content. I’m no censor. I won’t be surprised, though, if you repeatedly have to keep telling people what definition you’re using anywhere else on the Internet, or anywhere else at all, for that matter.

      • John K.
        Posted February 14, 2014 at 10:27 am | Permalink

        Given what we have learned about atoms, solidness is in fact an illusion. Free will is an illusion the same way solidness is.

        Incompatabilists like myself never argue that there is no such thing as will at all. It still makes a lot of sense to treat other people as independent entities that make there own decisions in everyday practice. What we have learned about biology and neuroscience do not square with that type of model, though. Go ahead and use the term “free will” when talking about signing documents or agreeing to legal contracts or what have you, but just realize it is a convenient shorthand that you are going to have to discard in more rigorous considerations of minds and brains the same way you must discard notions of solidness in discussions of sub atomic particles.

        • Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

          “Given what we have learned about atoms, solidness is in fact an illusion. Free will is an illusion the same way solidness is.”

          Ummm, sorry. Solidness is a very well-defined and highly important state of matter. I usually think in terms of crystal lattice structures, but the dictionary definition “firm and stable in shape; not liquid or fluid” seems to do the job adequately well. That isn’t an illusion in any way. Furthermore the colloquial definition “not hollow” is still perfectly acceptable in the vast majority of contexts when we are not discussing subatomic mishmash.

          “Go ahead and use the term ‘free will’ when talking about signing documents or agreeing to legal contracts or what have you, but just realize it is a convenient shorthand that you are going to have to discard in more rigorous considerations of minds and brains the same way you must discard notions of solidness in discussions of sub atomic particles.”

          I’m quite versed in the notion of rigor, both in philosophy and in hard science. Proper selection of definitions is extremely context-dependent in any rigorous work. Dennett and Pigliucci have directly accused Harris of a lack of rigor with regard to the philosophical context and applications of compatibilism. There are very good analytical reasons for compatibilism, and hard determinists seem completely unaware of or uninterested in how compatibilism has resolved technical problems raised by libertarian philosophers. That’s a lack of rigor.

        • Posted February 14, 2014 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

          Like “free will”, “solid” seems to have at least two folk meanings:

          (1) Unyielding (to whatever degree)
          (2) Full (to whatever degree)

          Oddly, (2) is still not completely ruled out by scientific findings: although there is no *body* in large parts of things, there are still fields.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      You’ve misunderstood Dennett’s position if you think he’s advocating dishonesty. He’s not arguing that folk need to be shielded from the facts of determinism; on the contrary, he’s saying we should be forthright about the fact that determinism does not imply fatalism. Even if our decisions are determined by physical causes, we still have the ability and the duty to exercise our decision-making ability if we want to improve the world and our situation in it.

      His objection is to the claim that “free will doesn’t exist” or “free will is an illusion”, which in his view risks driving people toward fatalism, i.e. the idea that “It’s all been predetermined anyway so why bother?” “Free will” means different things to different people, and to the same people in different situations, so we ought to be very clear about what sort of free will we’re talking about, and how it might differ from folk concepts of free will, before we write popular books (with puppet strings on the cover!) saying it doesn’t exist.

      It’s all about clarity, not about keeping people in ignorance.

      • Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

        Yes – when the topic of free will comes up with friends/family, they immediately jump to the conclusion that determinism implies fatalism. In fact the conflation appears to be so compelling that it’s hard to disabuse people of this notion. In fact, it would be easy to interpret some of the views in these free will threads on WEIT as being fatalistic, and certainly the language used by many often fits with that.

  10. Jerry Bell
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    I wonder if free will or lack of free will makes any difference to the creation of AI.

    If everything we do is deterministic, then AI should be just a matter of programming and processing power. ¿Yes?

    On the other hand, the ability to make a decision based on known information is the same thing. Of course many people don’t do this, they don’t spend time thinking about the pro’s and con’s, they just do it, based on subconscious information and or emotion. Even for important decisions. I would suggest for those who “pray” and base their decisions on fuzzy warm feelings, this is exactly what they do. Thus they get the decision that was programmed into them by family or pastor.

    This could be programmed into software as well, and add a random generator for simple decisions that don’t carry any weight. Such as should all nuclear weapons be launched or not.

    • Posted February 14, 2014 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      Technically, no, since we could be deterministic (in the sense relevant) and yet be uncomputable. (This is likely ridiculous for other reasons, but there’s not a direct connection.)

  11. Jimmy Bentt
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    I wonder if free will or lack of free will makes any difference to the creation of AI.

    If everything we do is deterministic, then AI should be just a matter of programming and processing power. ¿Yes?

    On the other hand, the ability to make a decision based on known information is the same thing. Of course many people don’t do this, they don’t spend time thinking about the pro’s and con’s, they just do it, based on subconscious information and or emotion. Even for important decisions. I would suggest for those who “pray” and base their decisions on fuzzy warm feelings, this is exactly what they do. Thus they get the decision that was programmed into them by family or pastor.

    This could be programmed into software as well, and add a random generator for simple decisions that don’t carry any weight. Such as should all nuclear weapons be launched or not.

  12. Vaal
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    In too late to truly join the conversation (probably for the better). I’d seen Dennett’s review on Sam’s web page. Before Sam posted his new response Sam linked to another person’s “take down” of Dennett’s review, and it struck me as embarrassingly bad. My hope is Sam does better.

    Off to read it…

    Vaal

  13. carl mosconi
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Spot on!

  14. Posted February 14, 2014 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    It’s clearly too late, but I would like a word about the view that the Free-Will: Determinism discussion is all about two socially constructed fictions. Pretty well all of the letters above have a fundamental assumption in the homogeneity of humankind (all people are the same) But there is ample evidence that that is not so.

    Could it be that those who live and work within hierarchies live deterministic lives, such that scientists and philosophers tend to live in accordance to possibly predictable outcomes? While creative people live far more spontaneously, exhibiting capricious and atypical behaviour and choices? One has to go off-campus to meet such people.

    We tend to see decision-making as not being irrevocable, and see ways of backing-out, and of changing our decision’s outcome. But then there are groups who have real difficulty in expressing any kind of decision; those in the depressive mode of bi-polar; many actors; many women when confronted with the arbitrariness of structural house-design, and many more. Those in these groups see serious long-term implications in even minor decisions, and freeze.

    It may be that there is a hidden factor concerning free choices. Free-Will has a hidden temporal content. In the human time-line, the exact time of making any kind of decision, no matter how trivial, amounts to inevitable points along the way, and are the result of external influences, and are therefore quite deterministic. But the content of the decision, the particular choice, or the yes/no content, is not so deterministic, and alighted upon by temporal pressure. In other words the answer to the question, “Do you want coffee?” was hovering on the ‘No Thanks’ just as the time-line forced a hand. A millisecond before, the answer might have been ‘Yes, please’.

    The human mind vacillates to such a degree that it has been necessary to invent ways of provoking arbitrary decisions. I think that most of use makes use of such cerebral devices.

    Like many of you, I am dismayed by Dan Dennett’s brusqueness.

  15. Four-Winged Dinosaur
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Would a compatibilist please explain to me how re-defining free will to mean the ability to deterministically make choices that are entirely constrained by prior conditions, excepting the contributions of chance, is any different from re-defining God to mean the entirety of the Universe in all of its vastness and mystery?

    • Vaal
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

      1. It’s begging the question to assume compatibilism is “re-defining” free will, since that is one of the debated points.

      2. If you want to retain the word/concept of “choice” how will do this without re-defining it in just the way you accuse compatibilism of re-defining “free” will?
      (Since the common concept of “having a choice” entails the assumption of actually having more than one action be possible).

      Or, if you want to do away with the word “choice,” what will you replace it with?

      Vaal

      • Four-winged Dinosaur
        Posted February 14, 2014 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

        1) I doubt it’s really begging the question. Speaking from personal experience, I initially believed in contra-causal free will as a child, and only began to question that belief after reading a debate similar to this one on the Darwin Awards forums one day. Do you really think that most people throughout history, or even today, conceive of free will as being the mere ability to do what you want without a gun to your head?

        2) We’re not arguing about the term “choice”, but the term free will. When I speak of choices, I of course really mean “apparent choices”. But the use of the word “choice” is not keeping barbarous ideas like sin and retributive justice alive, and I think the use of the word “choice”, with appropriate caveats, is less confusing than using the term “free will” to mean what it patently does not mean.

        3)You did not actually answer my question. How is the compatibilist project any different from the pantheist project? Why is it okay to rescue the notion of free will with a bit of wordplay when it is not okay to do the same to the notion of God?

        • Vaal
          Posted February 14, 2014 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

          1. I believe you are conflating the explanation for your thinking you had a choice “contra-causal powers” with the fact you thought you had a choice.

          Sam Harris seems to equivocate on this matter: first he says that he is talking about the raw subjective experience of choice making and THEN he insists this is synonymous with libertarian or contra-causality, hence it’s all an illusion.
          He’s equivocating between the phenomenon to be explained – what we are thinking of when we are making choices – with the explanation: “Gee, I must have contra-causal powers.” They are not the same thing.

          Explore what you are really thinking, what actually motivates you to say “I could have done X instead of y.” Assume for a moment just the way we normally talk about our ability to choose. Let’s say you walked to work today and I ask “could you have done otherwise?” You say “yes, for instance I could have driven my car to work.” If I ask you “why do you think you could have driven your car to work?” What do you think the answer is? Is the answer “because I thought I was a contra-causal, magic being?” No.
          Obviously the answer is that you have a car that you’ve driven to work before, so you know you have this ability to do so if you want to. It’s a simple assessment of the abilities you think you have in certain similar situations. That’s why, for instance, you wouldn’t have thought you could have flown to work by flapping your arms as one of your options.
          If your motivation for saying “I could have done otherwise” actually came only from the concept “I have the magic contra-causal ability to choose…” then you’d never have made any such assessment in the first place, because “being contra-causal” does not answer the question of what options you think you have and why.

          It *feels* like you really could have chosen to drive to work *because you were actually thinking true thoughts about that situation*
          “If I want to, I could walk (I have that ability – true) or if I want to I can drive (I have that ability – true). Now, which do I want to do?”

          Contra-causality just wasn’t the motivation in contemplating this choice. That is only a retrospective analysis, a wrong one, to try to explain why you were able to choose…or even why you thought you could choose. But it’s a wrong retro-analysis.
          (I argue).

          2. “Choice” is indeed central to all the issues you are worrying about there. It’s central to thinking “I could have done otherwise” and all the other things associated with free will, and other prosaic/practical matters of human interaction. To “re-define” choice as “not really having a choice” is as huge a re-definition as you accuse compatibilism in re-defining free will. (And, again, I’m arguing that compatibilism does not necessarily re-define free will: it explains it).

          3. See 1 and 2 :-)

          Cheers,

          Vaal.

          • pacopicopiedra
            Posted February 14, 2014 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

            Glad to see you made it to the party. I always find your comments the most interesting in this debate (no offense Coel, but there does seem to be more than just a pure semantic disagreement here as there are moral implications, unless we just define morality differently as well). But when you ask, “could you have driven instead of walking to work?” The correct answer is, “in a sense, yes, but in another, more precise sense, no, I could not have that particular time.” As usual, those of us who have dug in are going round in circles, but I think the discussion is useful for those who have not become entrenched in their thinking. And of course, no one anywhere is saying we should abandon the word “choice.” We can keep using that word, with its current definition, and abandoned the phrase free will, which has connotations that “choice” does not.

            • Vaal
              Posted February 14, 2014 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

              Hi pacopicopiedra!

              But when you ask, “could you have driven instead of walking to work?” The correct answer is, “in a sense, yes, but in another, more precise sense, no, I could not have that particular time.”

              My position is the latter sense is no more “precise” than that former. Or, at least, that one can talk with more precision in either of those two contexts (whether I had the ability to drive to work or walk; whether I could have done either in exactly the same conditions).

              The question remains, as you know, which one captures more of what we really mean, and what we are really thinking when we think “I have a choice…”

              Also, it strikes me as harder than you imply to separate “choice” from “free will.”
              Because the normal concept of “choice” assumes “I could choose otherwise” – exactly the concept at the center of the free will dispute.

              Vaal

          • Posted February 15, 2014 at 3:55 am | Permalink

            Good analysis. I think the confusion about deterministic decision making largely arises, because after you have made a decision, it is only then that the decision couldn’t have been otherwise. The act of making a decision pins down the particular deterministic universe that you happen to be in. So looking back it’s clear that given your mental equipment at the time and the data you had at your disposal you couldn’t have done otherwise. But, *before* you made the decision, you *could* have walked or taken the car:

            Defining a procedure, by writing a computer program, is wholly different than actually running the program. It’s only when you run the program that it gives you a result. Decisions don’t “come out of the darkness of prior causes” (as Sam Harris puts it) they are the result of calculations we do in our brains in the here and now. I think that incompatibilists sort of know this, but they tend to forget and confuse the definition of a process with it’s instantiation, “If determinism is true, the future is set” (Sam Harris again) which leads to a strange type of fatalism.

    • paxton
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

      “re-defining free will to mean the ability to deterministically make choices that are entirely constrained by prior conditions,…”

      Because YOU, the actor, has played a major role in shaping both present conditions and prior conditions. We shape our environments, and they in turn shape our behaviors.

      I believe Dennett suggests this.

      • Four-winged Dinosaur
        Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

        How can I shape my prior conditions? Of course an even more prior me shaped the conditions which are now prior to the “now me”. But so what? All you’re saying is that each of us is embedded in a network of cause-and-effect. Where’s the freedom in that?

        • Vaal
          Posted February 14, 2014 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

          “John” happens upon a women who has been kept in chains for 10 years, arbitrarily by a captor who is no longer there. John sees the key and can unlock the chains. The woman begs to be let “free.”

          John’s reply: “There is no freedom. Each of us is embedded in a network of cause-and-effect. Where’s the freedom in that?”

          Is that a sufficient reply? I presume you agree: no. There is something quite clear to recognize between John’s situation of being able to do many of the things he desires, vs the woman being chained, and restrained from doing many of the things she desires. THERE is the “freedom in that.”

          “Freedom” in normal use – in the way it’s ever useful at all – is always relative to some *specific* set of conditions.

          Neither the woman in chains, nor John, are “free from all conditions (contra-causal) but John is free from *some relevant conditions* such as being chained, whereas the woman is not. To say John is in the room “of his own free will” is to recognize this particular, real-world difference in their situation.

          Vaal

          • pacopicopiedra
            Posted February 14, 2014 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

            Once again, Vaal, I don’t think your basement prisoner analogy helps. The word free can mean different things in different contexts. There’s a very good reason why MLK did not say, “free will at last, thank god almighty we have free will at last.” Being unchained may set you free without giving you free will. The terms are not synonyms. I really think you need to find a new analogy.

            • Posted February 15, 2014 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

              It may set you free or it may not, sure. But, if you don’t make an *argument* either way, how are we to understand whether it does or not or what point you are trying to make (if any)?

          • Four-winged Dinosaur
            Posted February 15, 2014 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

            Well said, pacipicopiedra. Being chained up in someone’s basement is obviously a problem worth rectifying (because of the suffering it causes for the prisoner and their loved ones) regardless of whether free will exists. This analogy doesn’t apply.

        • paxton
          Posted February 14, 2014 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

          I think that “agency” is a batter term than “free will”, to express the autonomy of action possessed by advanced beings with powerful information processing capabilities.

          From infancy you (the organism created by your genes gestated in your mother’s womb) have been influencing those who interacted with you, and other aspects of your evolving environment. When the question arises as to our agency (free will?) in taking any particular action, yes, our decision is determined by our genes and our past and present environments, but we have helped create those environments, we bear some responsibility for them, and we can be said to have agency, if not free will in the choices we make in life.

          A network of cause and effect, yes, and a network that has feedback, so that the output is continually affecting the input.

          What is consciousness? Perhaps free will is just the next level of complexity of response to environment. We distinguish between the freedom of a rock and a worm don’t we? Isn’t the difference between a worm and a human, in terms of being able to react to its environment in determining action, just as significant? Not only have we vastly expanded capabilities to respond to stimili, but we manage the stimuli we are exposed to. Through life, we create our own environments and thus shape ourselves.

  16. Posted February 14, 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Amazing that even such unwieldy topics, with book length conversations are handled with internet time where everything is old after mere hours. And I did read the positions nearly in real time.

    I believe, both gentlemen hold mutually incompatible views as they look at the same matter from very different vantage points. One is claiming: “look, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.” “this is patently nonsense” the other replies “we know the earth turns around itself, its just an illusion. We should not talk about rising and setting sun, because that’s not what’s really happening”.

    Who is right? Dennett looks at it from within the deterministic system. Harris and our esteemed host look from it from outside. But the problem already starts as nobody can truly leave the deterministic system.

    Meeting a friend in a corridor, Wittgenstein said: “Tell me, why do people always say that it was natural for men to assume that the sun went around the earth rather than that the earth was rotating?” His friend said, “Well, obviously, because it just looks as if the sun is going around the earth.” To which the philosopher replied, “Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth was rotating?”< – attributed to Wittgenstein

    When it comes to consequences of the view, I have the temerity to believe that everybody got it wrong. There are good reasons to not hate people and not punish them out of retribution, but determinism (or free will or lack thereof) are none of them. And its not misunderstood fatalism, either.

    I believe the idea to be forgiving with people who are driven by some brain tumour (and as Harris says with everybody, because we are all driven by chain reactions) is a vestige of a view that sees some people as “freer” than others. And that isn’t the case in a truly deterministic system.

    “I couldn’t help myself, I had to do it” says the criminal. “and I can’t help myself to hate you for what you did to us” the widow replies. And the judge locks the criminal into prison for a long time, because she couldn’t help herself either but had to do what she had to do. None of the actors are aware that their actions are determined, and no information whatsoever can truly wake them up to this reality and somehow empower them. This is impossible. In that sense, determinism is like the brain-in-the-vat. It might be the case but it’s strangely consequenceless. That is not to say that blog site posts, or books have no effect. They do. But not in the sense of empowering us or doing the “right” thing, because all of that lies within the deterministic system which we can never leave.

    P.S.: There is a broken link to Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, the correct one goes here

  17. Vaal
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    A comment on Dan’s “sunset” analogy that riles Same in the beginning of his piece:

    I think Sam does catch Dan out on a bit of a sloppy explanation of his sunset analogy. However, Sam goes on to re-characterise the sunset analogy as making his own point: that there was an illusion, Geocentrism, that we had to completely dispel, associated with free will. The point of division is that, on Sam’s view, free will is exactly equal to – or ONLY equal to – the Gecentrism in the sunset analogy. ANd if that’s the case, the concept of free will is completely dispelled as would be the concept of Geocentrism.

    I think (with Dan) that Sam has still got it wrong. That Sam’s version of the sunset analogy misses is this: Even with the error of Geocentrism dispelled, sunsets and sunrises – the phenomenon that people were using Geocentraim to explain, STILL EXIST. They still happen, and we still need to describe them. And “sunset/sunrise” does this, and we now do so understanding the real explanation for “why the sun rises from below the horizon” and “why the sun sets below the horizon.”

    Free Will, then, is not analogous to “geocentrism.” Geoecentrism was only the explanation for why the sun rose and set (“obviously the sun must be revolving around the earth, that is WHY it appears and disappears behind the horizon).

    It is more analogous to the whole concept of “sunsets and sunrises” themselves. That comprises: 1. The thing observed: that the sun does in fact rise with respect to the horizon and really does set “behind” the mountain with respect to it’s position, the mountain’s position and our position. And 2. The explanation. Geocentrism is the wrong explanation: the earth revolving around the sun while spinning is the right explanation.

    To say therefore something like “If sunsets are not Geocentric in nature, then you aren’t *really* talking about sunsets, you are re-defining sunsets” would be an error.

    It’s a similar error to mix up one set of explanations for why we might have choice-making ability and real responsibility for our actions with the magic or dualistic *explanations,* as in “if you AREN’T speaking of free will as essentially magic or dualistic, then you aren’t really talking about free will.”

    Same error, I believe.

    And the debate goes on…

    Vaal

    • Vaal
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

      And right here Sam makes exactly that equivocation:

      “I believe that you have changed the subject and are now ignoring the very phenomenon we should be talking about—the common, felt sense that I/he/she/you could have done otherwise (generally known as “libertarian” or “contra-causal” free will), with all its moral implications.”

      No Sam. That is begging the very question under dispute.

      Dan would argue (and so would a nobody like me): the sense we have that “I could have done otherwise” is justified. It’s true.
      But the *explanation* for why it’s true isn’t libertarian” or “contra-causality.”

      How this continues to be misconstrued…and Sam himself rails at Dan’s purported straw-man building…after all this time is
      very odd.

      Vaal

      • Richard Olson
        Posted February 14, 2014 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

        After following conversations like this for a couple of years on this site and elsewhere, I see something of a similarity with debates about free will and debates about conservatism vs progressiveism. The (sorta) somilarity is that there a point in attempts to talk things through is reached where those in opposite groups stand on either side of a communication chasm that appears unbridgeable.

        Neither side is able to find words that mean the same thing in each other’s brain, meaningfull discourse ends, progress toward mutual understanding is stymied. The only way to remedy this, of course, is to continue exploring until an adequate vocabulary is located or developed. The one we got just ain’t doing her, as Mack might have said to Doc and the boys.

        • Vaal
          Posted February 14, 2014 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

          Yes, that’s a nice analysis Richard.
          I’ve wondered about this chasm as well. The
          fall-back to psychoanalysis doesn’t work very well – e.g. they other side isn’t being reasonable in their analysis, therefore I’ll attribute some emotional cause to their arguments.

          I’m wondering if subjects like Free Will hit a sort of basement level where it’s just dueling intuitions – with contrasting intuitions in the opponents.

          I hope not.

          Vaal

          • Dale
            Posted February 14, 2014 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

            I think that Sam has a blind spot that Dennett has used philosophy to identify. Sam is in cognitive dissonance because he is actually having a very hard time letting go of libertarian free will and dualism. He keeps referring to himself as someone else. Some distinction he must make between his “conscious mind” and his unconscious self. I think that Dan is right on placing Sam squarely in his (Sam’s) own cartesian theater. I think Sam is having a hard time understanding that his “conscious mind” is a transient fairly unimportant biological event.

            • Jesper Both Pedersen
              Posted February 15, 2014 at 3:19 am | Permalink

              Libertarian free willer?

              A rather odd suggestion considering the fact he’s just written a book where he tries to dispel that very notion.

              • Dale
                Posted February 15, 2014 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

                Yes, ironic that is the same charge that Dan made. His argument with Sam is similar to his argument with David Chalmers. Both Sam and Chalmers identify completely with their “conscious mind” as an actual entity.

                I think that Harris is just astonished that his much vaunted consciousness turn out to be his own cognitive apparatus at work. He feels like puppet because he can’t accept that what he thinks of as his conscious mind in control, doesn’t even exist in that sense.

                I wouldn’t be surprised to hear him use this as a wedge against materialism…i.e. there must be something else that allows the conscious mind to exist in the material, deterministic universe.

                It’s well known that Harris is a buddist of sorts, engages in meditation and even goes so far as to attend retreats with other “consciousness enthusiasts” in which the attendees spend a week not speaking with each other. I don’t know about you but I find that very creepy. I might go backpacking into the wilderness for a week by myself and it would refresh my mental health, but that’s not the same at all.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted February 15, 2014 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

                That’s an awful lot of speculation about Harris’ motives and views, Dale.

                I’ll leave you to it.

              • Four-winged Dinosaur
                Posted February 15, 2014 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

                What an ignorant statement. You’re put off because Sam Harris has gone on some meditation retreats? Since you said that the purpose of your hiking trips is to refresh your mental health, I would imagine that hiking helps you let go of all the incessant little worries and neurotic thoughts which characterize most people’s ordinary experience. Meditation is a tool for doing exactly that, but in a more deliberate and principled way. And I don’t see what’s creepy about meditating with a group. From my experience, being able to discuss your experience with others after meditating is very helpful for despising what you may be doing right/wrong.

                And if you think that Harris “is a Buddhist [sic] of sorts”. I suggest you google “Killing the Buddha Sam Harris”

                And if you think that Harris is a “Buddhist [sic

              • Dale
                Posted February 15, 2014 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

                He seems to just be lamenting he notion.

                Note how he says,
                “…..most people feel that they author their own thoughts and actions. ….. there can be little doubt that most people feel that they are the conscious source of their own thoughts and actions”

                I think that Dan would say that if their will is not being compromised or subverted then of course they are the source of their own thoughts and actions. Who else would be the source or “author” of their own thoughts and actions.

                Who is Sam talking about when he says, “they author” or “they are the conscious source”?
                And what does “consciousness” have to do with it?

                Sam refers to himself and to others as consisting of more than one entity, a dualist. He insists that all of us are dualists and should be surprised to learn that our “conscious mind” is not in control.
                Sam says,
                “And if what a person is unconscious of are the antecedent causes of everything he thinks and does, this fact makes a mockery of the subjective freedom he feels he has”.

                I think that most of us aware that we lack complete understanding of the antecedent causes behind our behavior, why does Sam think that it should be any different? How does this lack of awareness affect whether other agents influence of limit our freedom to be ourselves?

    • pacopicopiedra
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

      Sorry Vaal, you’re totally wrong here, but (as Dan might say), I think it’s a very useful mistake to explore. You say, “the sun REALLY DOES RISE AND SET.” No, no, a thousand times, no! The sun does not move, it only appears to be moving because the earth is turning. I think at this point it is clear that we are getting nowhere. You and Dan can read a paragraph, and Sam and I can read THE EXACT SAME PARAGRAPH, and interpret it completely differently. I don’t know how to get past this. I can only reiterate that your interpretation of the sunset analogy and the whole free Will discussion makes absolutely no sense to me. It’s as if you’re pointing at a pig and saying “look at this duck.” I know what all those words mean; I know what a pig is; I know what a duck is; and I think you are extremely confused.

      • Vaal
        Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

        But you are leaving out the relevant context I spoke of: that “the sun has risen” expresses a certain relationship of the position of the sun relative to us and the horizon.

        Take the claim “the sun is now behind the mountain.” Someone objects saying: “but the sun ISN’T behind the mountain, that’s impossible because the sun is vastly larger than the mountain, and the sun is actually 149,600,000 km from earth. It’s just false to say it’s behind the mountain!”

        That person really wouldn’t be understanding what is being described by “the sun is now behind the mountain.” That phrase is describing a certain relationship: that the sun really is on the other side of the mountain relative to our position, and the mountain blocks the view of the sun. It isn’t a claim that is violating “true science” and if you think it is, you are thinking in a very odd manner.

        Similarly, saying “the sun has risen into the sky” or “the sun has risen above the mountain top” or “has set behind the horizon”
        does identify a true relationship: the sun really IS “rising” *in terms of it’s angular relationship to the horizon/mountain” etc.
        It’s “lower” than the mountain in the sky at one point and “higher” in the sky than the mountain top at another point. If I’m photographing my wife at sunrise at one point the sun is “lower” in relationship to the horizon and my wife and later it is “higher.” Rising and lowering are words that express this relationship. They don’t have to be claims about WHY that relationship is happening. That is why we still use terms like “sunset” and “sunrise” even though all of us know geocentrism is false. If you and I talk about the sunset last night, and some wiseacre pipes up and says “Hey guys, you know the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth!” he’s going to get an eye-roll from both of us isn’t he? Because we aren’t SAYING the sun revolves around the earth, but we are still expressing the angular relationship of the sun to the horizon.

        Vaal

        • pacopicopiedra
          Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

          To extend your analogy then: you say, “we still use terms like sunset and sunrise even though we know that geocentrism is false…” I say, We still use terms like choice and decide even though we know that free will is false.

          • Dale
            Posted February 15, 2014 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

            No, I would say that we use terms like choice and decide and free when our natural behavior is not being influenced by other agents without our knowing.

            There is no “conscious mind” in my brain that directs my behavior but there are outside agents that are real who may seek to direct my behavior. To the extent that they don’t or cannot, I am free to continue being who I am, which is all the freedom I could want or have in the real deterministic world, the one in which my “conscious mind in control” is absent– an illusion – the one we live in.

            • Four-winged Dinosaur
              Posted February 15, 2014 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

              And here we have the fascinating phenomenon of a conscious mind denying its own existence. I simply can’t wrap my head around how a person can convince themselves that consciousness is an illusion but free will is hunky-dory.

              The reality of consciousness is empirical bedrock. Free will is incompatible with any world, whether dualistic, nondualist, deterministic or indeterministic. Most compatibilist comments I’ve read seem to get it exactly backwards.

              • pacopicopiedra
                Posted February 16, 2014 at 10:48 am | Permalink

                I’m starting to like you, Four Winged Dinosaur. Excellent use of the phrase “hunky dory.” And also, I agree with everything you just said there.

              • Dale
                Posted February 16, 2014 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

                Take it easy 4 wing. Let me reply.

                What I wrote was,

                “There is no ‘conscious mind’ in my brain that directs my behavior”

                Isn’t that a deterministic statement?

                Isn’t my behavior determined by prior events and causes?

                Isn’t my behavior determined by past events and causes interacting with my physical brain, nervous system and the environment?

                I also wrote,

                “…the real deterministic world, the one in which my “conscious mind in control” is absent– an illusion – [is] the one we live in.”

                Is this not exactly what Sam Harris is saying? That my “conscious mind” is not in control, that instead my behavior is deterministic?

                Is it not dualistic to think otherwise?

                You said,

                “phenomenon of a conscious mind denying its own existence”

                No, what I am denying is the existence of a “conscious mind that controls” or determines my behavior, including my choices. Again it is dualism to think otherwise.

                You said,
                “The reality of consciousness is empirical bedrock”

                I think that this is a critical but unexamined assumption. We are assuming the “reality” of something that we can’t and haven’t even defined.

                And if it’s “bedrock” then it’s meta-physical bedrock. The brain is apparent, the “mind” and “consciousness”, not so much. Recognizing the brain and nervous system as the substance from which the mind – such as it is – is made manifest is strict materialism.

                We’ve just shown above that there is no conscious “mind that controls” our behavior. I think that we agree on this.

                If the conscious mind is NOT that which controls behavior, what is it? If it is not manifest in this sense, determining behavior, in what sense is the conscious mind manifest? We don’t really know the mind, we just know of it and that is a distinction that makes the difference. I think Dennett calls this “hetero-phenomenology.

                I think that what we call consciousness is the phenomena that result from the ongoing perceptive and cognitive functions of the organism, mostly in the physical brain.

                There is no empirical reality or evidence of a contra-causal or non-deterministic, persistent consciousness. To think otherwise is dualism.

                “When Sam says,
                Consider all the roots of your behavior that you cannot see or feel (first-person), cannot control (first-person), and did not summon into existence (first-person.”

                Who is he talking about? Who is this “first person” that is distinct from Sam Harris’s brain? The one that’s supposed to be able to make choices? Sam seems to think that “he” is or should be an external puppeteer and is just astonished to discover through this deterministic reasoning that he is not.
                I think that this reasoning serves as essentially proof of the necessary non-existence of “consciousness” as we think that we know it.

              • Four-Winged Dinosaur
                Posted February 17, 2014 at 11:13 am | Permalink

                Dale,

                You have put a lot on the table, so forgive me if I don’t offer a point-for-point rebuttal of your entire response. Instead, I’ve identified a couple of areas in which you have seemed to misunderstand what I am saying:

                ‘You said,
                “The reality of consciousness is empirical bedrock”
                I think that this is a critical but unexamined assumption. We are assuming the “reality” of something that we can’t and haven’t even defined.’

                Let me define consciousness for you: it is the condition in which all of our thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and intentions arise. I do not know what consciousness is exactly at the level of the brain, but I am reasonably confident that it is in some way produced by processes happening in our brains. I should admit, though, that I don’t know what the second half of that last sentence I wrote means. In fact, I have a hard time seeing how consciousness could arise out of any unconscious system, whether that system is dualist or strictly material, deterministic or indeterministic. But please don’t mistake my intellectual caution on this point as a secret pining for dualism. As I just wrote, I don’t think dualism explains consciousness any better than materialism – nor would dualism rescue the notion of free will if it were true (which it isn’t).

                ‘And if it’s “bedrock” then it’s meta-physical bedrock. The brain is apparent, the “mind” and “consciousness”, not so much. Recognizing the brain and nervous system as the substance from which the mind – such as it is – is made manifest is strict materialism.’

                You appear to be epistemologically confused. We only know about brains through consciousness. If anatomists and neuroscientists weren’t conscious they wouldn’t be able to examine any brains in the first place. All empirical observations take place in the context of consciousness, so without consciousness we wouldn’t know a thing about brains (or anything else!)
                I think that consciousness is involved in decision-making – after all, why would we evolve the capacity for consciousness if it could have no effect on our behaviour? But I agree that there is no persistent self or ego. Rather, our sense of being a single, unified self is an illusion that comes from not paying close enough attention to our experience – much like our sense of free will.
                I hope I clarified things a bit.

              • Richard Olson
                Posted February 17, 2014 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

                ‘Let me define consciousness for you: it is the condition in which all of our thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and intentions arise.’

                When I read this, I mentally substituted “are present” for “arise”.

                That is to say that I, my self, experienced a thought process.

                ‘… I agree there is no persistent self or ego. … our sense of being a … self is an illusion…’

                The above is, of course, quoted from 4wings. As my remarks above about self indicate, I clearly do not agree with this claim you make.

                If no self exists, is it not incorrect to refer to whatever one is utilizing personal pronouns? Are personal pronouns not, in fact, useless language appendages that must be henceforth shunned because they misinform and mislead?

                Is it not necessary to describe humans using an absolutely new vocabulary? For example, it can hardly be an “I” that does ‘agree there is no … self or ego’, no?

                And if so, is it not therefore advisable, necessary even, to designate all existing fiction with human characters that refer in any way to “self” as outdated material from a previous ignorant era that is misleading, erroneous, and if read at all must now be filtered in light of the new/improved/accurate description of what constitutes a human being(s)?

                The paradigm shift proposed by this definition change has enormous ramifications. I for one am far too thick to even comprehend not being “I”, and can’t begin to conceive of how to think about what I am without using personal pronouns and the word “self.’

                The only thing that readily comes to mind to replace “I am myself and make decisions” might be: “This human being is named Richard, and it thinks it thinks.”

              • Dale
                Posted February 16, 2014 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

                To pacopicopiedra

                Do you see how this quote implies dualism.

                “The reality of consciousness is empirical bedrock.”

                The reality of determinism serves as a proof that consciousness as you and Sam construe it, author of your thoughts and actions, distinct from you as your body, does not exist. All that’s empirical about consciousness is your claim of it. Determinism proves that consciousness does not exist with respect to thoughts or actions. If consciousness is empirical, but not associated with thoughts and actions, where might we find it?

                Is is not a contradiction to claim empirical existence of consciousness as a determinant using determinism as an argument?

              • Dale
                Posted February 18, 2014 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

                “All empirical observations take place in the context of consciousness..”

                Are you sure? What about the phenomenon of ‘blindsight’ in which the afflicted can be functionally blind in a conscious sense yet still navigate around objects in a room?

                The subject clearly sees the objects and behaves correctly without being ‘conscious’ of the objects or how their behavior is being affected. All of the necessary cognition, processing and motor control can be obtained outside of “consciousness”.

                More broadly, isn’t this really how all of our behavior, including ‘empirical observations’ takes place?….outside of ‘consciousness’. At the most we are conscious of decisions already made and actions already taken.

                The idea that a ‘consciousness in control’ is an illusion…I think. Sam should not be so surprised.

              • Four-Winged Dinosaur
                Posted February 19, 2014 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

                That’s a fascinating caveat, and I’ll take it. But you seem to be suggesting (please correct me if I’m wrong) that consciousness can have no effect on our behavior. If that’s the case, then why did we evolve the capacity for consciousness? And can you unconsciously learn calculus? It seems clear to me that certain higher-order mental feats would be impossible without consciousness.

                I agree that the idea that ‘consciousness is in control’ is an illusion. Consciousness is part of the complex web of cause and effect of which our behavior is also a part. It is no more “in control” than an eddy is in control of the river. But the idea that consciousness is some superfluous mental movie which stands apart from all cause and effect seems nonsensical to me.

              • Posted February 19, 2014 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

                I’m not sure you unconsciously learn calculus, but I do know that you can unconsciously unlearn it.

  18. pacopicopiedra
    Posted February 14, 2014 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    Also, a question for Vaal and Coel, our most perseverent compatibilists: do either of you agree with Dan that it is important to maintain that free will is real because not doing so would have unfortunate social consequences? And if so, how does this differ from the “little people” argument for god (ie. god may not be REALLY REAL, but we should pretend he is because so many people need to believe it and society would fall apart if these people lost their crutch)?

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted February 14, 2014 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

      Vaal and Cole can speak for themselves, but I’ve already addressed this point at #9.

      It’s not a question of protecting the Little People from the truth. It’s a question of finding out what they actually mean when they talk about free will, and being careful to refute only those portions of the folk conception that are actually wrong, while preserving those portions that are true and useful.

      • pacopicopiedra
        Posted February 14, 2014 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

        I think Dan says pretty explicitly that, for him at least, it is to some degree dangerous for people to believe there is no free will.

  19. Peter Ozzie Jones
    Posted February 15, 2014 at 2:03 am | Permalink

    drat, I am late to the party at over 300 comments!

    Sam Harris,”The Marionette’s Lament,” as a response to Dan Dennett says:

    . . . yet witnessing someone relinquish a cherished opinion in real time is about as common as seeing a supernova explode overhead.

    jarred with me as I was recently reading about the search for suitable standard candles for use in astronomical measurements of the acceleration of the expansion of the universe.

    Eg, from:

    http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/science/know_l1/why_hyper.html

    Dr. Richard Mushotzky of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, derived a figure of 1 billion supernovae per year. That comes to about 30 supernovae per second in the observable Universe!

    I guess it depends on what is meant by “seeing” or even “is”?

    But 30 per second, WOW!

  20. religionenslaves
    Posted February 15, 2014 at 2:30 am | Permalink

    Of course there is no free will: will is expensive.
    Having read both Harris’ and Dennett’s books on free will, I am left with a horrible doubt. Neither mentions what prima facie would be the most obvious way of reconciling determinism with free will. Is this because it is a well known non-starter or am I in the uncomfortable position of having to point to the lack of royal apparel?
    So here it goes. It is a platitude to observe that mental states affect physical states (just thinking of an appetizing dish increases salivation). So why would the act of volition not change my future mental state in a way that makes it (more) possible that my will is enacted? The fact that my initial volition was the result of a random element (your mention of an enticing cup of coffee) does not make my brain’s change of its physical state towards my intended outcome (ordering a cup of coffee rather than tea) a random outcome. It would appear that the brain has evolved to confine the costly activity of changing its mental states so as to facilitate the enactment of volition to “important” issues. Most of our daily actions are “routine”, i.e., not the outcome of intentional volition (when I scratch my head I do not waste time deciding whether or not to scratch my head). The same applies at the interpersonal level: customs and conventions could be seen as the result of social evolution to economize on intentional volition. Passing by a colleague on a corridor I do not decide to say “Good morning”.

    Just a thought …

  21. pacopicopiedra
    Posted February 15, 2014 at 2:32 am | Permalink

    Ok, one more because there aren’t enough comments yet. Just out of curiosity, does anyone know how Hitchens felt about this? Off topic, but I just started reading Shame because Hitch once said it was his favorite Salman Rushdie novel, and though it will be hard to beat Midnight’s Children, it is certainly giving it a run for its money. Ok, sorry to go OT, but I really had no choice in the matter.

  22. Posted February 15, 2014 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    The History of Ideas tells us that the intellectuals of any age and of nay country have traditionally been tortured by puzzles such as that of Free Will. The two and a half thousand year history of the Free Will argument suggests a failing in going to seek evidence, one way and another. And so this post has fallen to atypical examples of deterministic behaviours, such as those to be found in criminology, and not from the population at large. I have suggested that the terms in use are social inventions. In that case, both the terms ‘Free-Will’ and ‘Determinism’ are not legitimate alternatives, and neither are they free of complication.

    I have suggested that there is always a temporal dimension in the reasons for choice, and an ambiguity in the expression of that choice. And so this post has run dry, as this argument always does, for lack of ‘experiential information’, and for the academic determination to argue upon the slippery terms of reference, rather that take a broader view. At present the argument seems to be drawn from the tragic history of ‘scholasticism’ and not from science.

    It seems to me that the hidden ghost in the Free Will discussion is not so much a failure to impress one’s vision upon another, but rather a failure to recognise that reason, and the best minds in the world will always be misled by category mistakes. Free-Will and Determinism are of different categories.

    The great Newton similarly became entrapped in theological metaphysics, and after a lifetime of introspection put the date of the second coming as 2060, I believe. Few of us go along with his finalisation. That sad fact of ‘Opportunity-Cost’ remains to remind us of what we lose by taking metaphysics too seriously. I really wish that Dennett and Harris would turn back to the real matter to hand which is to identify and to vanquish all forms of logical possibility based upon inner conviction.

  23. BillyJoe
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 1:00 am | Permalink

    The confusion above could be clarified by distinguishing small ‘f’ freewill (I signed the contract of my own freewill) and big ‘F’ Freewill (I have Freewill)

    But the differences between Dan and Sam do not come down only to this. Dan does not accept Freewill, but he thinks the public needs freewill to sound like Freewill in order for society to function.

    Sam has the unenviable task of telling the truth to those who don’t want to hear it and those who don’t want it told. Dan is angry that Sam is spoiling his “good trick” on the public.

    • Posted February 16, 2014 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      One might point out that the incombatibilist objection to “free will” is mostly based on the fact that they imagine it confuses the public with libertarian free will (which both sides agree is incoherent). Maybe it would be better if both sides didn’t preach, but Dennett’s position is more than just a reframing of Humian compatibilism:

      “free actions are those that are caused by the agent’s willings and desires. We hold an agent responsible because it was his desires or willings that were the determining causes of the action in question. Action caused in this way is voluntary and involuntary when caused in some other way. There is, therefore, no incompatibility between an action being causally necessitated and it being a free action for which the agent is responsible. On the contrary, morally free and responsible action requires that an agent caused his actions through his willings.” (Stanford EOP).

      That position can be applied to any autonomous agent, including my chess computer and is the fundamental compatabilist position. But, Dennett wants to go a lot further, starting from that base he distinguishes between levels of complexity. For instance, in his first freewill book (“elbow room”) he compares the flexibility of the human brain in responding to threats and following it’s goals with the instinctive behaviour of the Sphex wasp. So free will for Dennett is largely a quantitative thing that has been built up by evolution (“freedom evolves”!) to respond to situations much more flexibly than if we just followed a set of rote instructions. And that is reasonable, after all the artificial intelligence program, which started out with great optimism has still made little headway and we now realise what a daunting task it is to program something with the flexible complexity of the human brain and the ability to respond to new situations, in the real world, that aren’t explicitly coded for.

      Finally, I don’t think accusations about Dennett’s motives are very helpful in this discussion.

    • Posted February 16, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      Sam has the unenviable task of telling the truth to those who don’t want to hear it and those who don’t want it told. Dan is angry that Sam is spoiling his “good trick” on the public.

      This is a very distorted account. Dan Dennett’s approach to compatibilism was not formulated to appease a needy public. It was formulated to help philosophers speak intelligibly about philosophical problems, given the knowledge that we are machines in a mechanistic universe. This is considered one of the major contributions of Dennett’s academic career.

      What’s missing from the “Sam vs Dan” narrative is the fact that Dennett is a globally recognized scholar on this exact subject, and he’s been writing academically on free will for about 40 years. Sam, by contrast, is a recently minted PhD who’s being schooled by an old master.

      In the recent hoopla about free will, a number of scientists have chimed in with their amateur philosophical positions. When Dennett or other trained philosophers enter the discussion and try to educate us about the state of the art on this subject, we would do well to listen. But some scientists have preferred to dismiss Dennett’s expertise, comparing him to a theologian, with the presumption that scientific expertise is legitimate and philosophical expertise is not. They might as well look at Dennett and say, “Quiet, Dan! The big boys are talking!”

      • Posted February 16, 2014 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

        Have to agree with you here. Whilst I respect Sam Harris’s earlier work, which is clear and well argued, his attempts to philosophize fall flat on their face both on the subject of free will and morality (is still isn’t ought). None of his contributions add anything new to the field and much of the language he uses when discussing the issue of free will suggests misconceptions which (being charitable), even if he doesn’t hold them himself, certainly don’t add any clarity to the discussion.

      • Dale
        Posted February 16, 2014 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

        Yes to all of this. Sam seems to want to make a virtue out of not doing his homework before he opens his mouth.

  24. Posted February 16, 2014 at 1:32 am | Permalink

    I find it somewhat disappointing that many reader comments posted here that are dismissive of Dennett’s review, are more focussed on the TONE of his criticism of Harris’ book rather than on the substance of Dennett’s arguments in the review. It is to me an extremely strange criterion to judge the worthiness of any position. Is the winner of an argument between a very polite creationist and a very sarcastic Darwinian automatically the creationist? And I cannot follow an argument that we all owe fellow atheists a higher level of courtesy than others. I myself have made some rather scathing comments about Harris’ level of rationality in his strong defence of the right of Americans to own lethal assault weapons. Do I owe Harris more leeway than Wayne LaPierre?
    In any case such criticism of tone does little to win an argument with someone holding an opposite position to oneself.
    A bit of passion in debate is no bad thing, it helps us raise ourselves above a dry academic discourse and show a depth of commitment to a concept or an argument.

    • couchloc
      Posted February 16, 2014 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      I agree. It is also worth noting that in his book Harris says that the view of free will defended by Dennett “resembles theology” more than in other areas of philosophy. Given the new atheists’ views about how completely idiotic and stupid theology is, Dennett surely hasn’t launched the first salvo here. Dennett has a perfectly legitimate reason to adopt the tone he adopts with Harris.

  25. Posted February 16, 2014 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Sam: “In each instant, Austin will make his putt or miss it; and he will try his best or not. Yes, he is “free” to do whatever it is he does based on past states of the universe.”

    This seems to contradict everything else Sam says? Austin is *compelled* to do, based on the past!

  26. Ally
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Dennett wins. Flawless victory.

  27. Tim Beardsley
    Posted February 17, 2014 at 5:00 am | Permalink

    Sam has a conception of free will that’s an impossibility: on his definition, I agree we don’t have it. The dispute is over English usage, which is a slender reed for the very large claims that Sam is making about how we should feel about other people. It’s pointless to legislate correct usage without reference to the existing usage, so it seems unfair to accuse Dan of improperly pandering to popular sentiment in providing his defense of “free will,” given that he has a definition that is persuasive, satisfying, and consistent with other terminology for many people who’ve understood it. And I think Dan’s version of “free will” meets all the requirements most people would expect of a notion of that name. Sam’s objection to it is based on a logical error.
    Sam had written “If determinism is true, the future is set—and this includes all our future states of mind and our subsequent behavior.” OK, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that we know that determinism in the sense Sam uses the word here is pervasively not true. Electron transitions, which mediate chemical reactions, are inherently random processes; so is radioactive decay, and hundreds if not thousands of atoms decay in your brain every second, most of them carbon 14 and potassium 40, emitting a significant amount of ionizing beta radiation; this can’t be ignored in a system full of nonlinearly interacting parts comprising molecular complexes that are parts of regulated systems. Observations with matter or energy probes will cause changes that could alter the course of events, so the future is not completely predictable by material beings. Since I assume we’re not considering hypothetical beardless nonmaterial omniscient omnipotent entities, that means it’s not predictable, period: it is not “set” in any sense. Every brain is unique, every situation is unique, and the only way to know what will happen is to wait and see.
    Sam goes on: “ And to the extent that the law of cause and effect is subject to indeterminism—quantum or otherwise—we can take no credit for what happens.” About that “law of cause and effect”: scientific “laws” are statements that capture the results of certain experiments, typically in deliberately simplified systems or using large numbers of identical entities, in an economical way. But in a more complex setting, laws have to be used with caution or not at all. There isn’t even a general analytic solution for three gravitationally attracting bodies. Chemists hypothesize the existence of new compounds and often succeed in making them, but the exact properties of the compounds are not predictable. Gibbs free energy is useful for working out what will happen with large numbers of molecules of specific types reacting, but not for the interactions of a few complex molecules in the ever-changing flux of molecules in a living cell. We can’t generally work out how even a single protein molecule will fold up (although modeling is improving).
    Sam’s sentence is not suggesting we take credit for the indeterminate molecular events themselves, or course: “credit” is a concept invented by humans, usually applied for something that we think a whole person (an exceedingly complicated, largely indeterminate, evolved system with lots of feedbacks and some knowledge of its actions) has done knowingly and that we approve of. That’s all we need to give the very human notion of credit, and that is Sam’s error: it’s a category error in that it seeks to apply a materialist scientific concept in the ethical domain, where it doesn’t make sense. The degree of determinacy of some “events” occurring within the system is irrelevant (and remember that what counts as an “event” is a human construct too; a thought may be an event). Sam will probably want to reply: but you couldn’t have done otherwise! That’s strictly meaningless: Nobody can know what the I of that precise instant would do in any different situation, and there can never again be the same situation. I am of course the result of lots of events of lots of different degrees of individual predictability, and for sure I didn’t bring myself into the world. But I am not asking for credit for that.
    You can’t explain the behavior of a system that is not completely known. Sam thinks that I can’t claim credit for my achievements because there’s a lawfulness governing everything that happens. But he doesn’t know that there is, and if there were, humans could make no use of it, and human possibility is the issue. Sandra D. Mitchell has a realistic view of science (E:CO Special Double Issue Vol. 6 Nos. 1-2 2004 pp. 81-91): “The suggestion that our current best theories of the nature of nature exactly capture the world in all its details is hubris. The idealized and partial character of our representations suggests that there will never be a single account that can do all the work of describing and explaining complex phenomena.”
    I do claim credit for praiseworthy things I’ve chosen to do, and most people are willing to grant it. The freedom to reflect on their situations and make such choices is what most “folks” mean by saying they have free will. And they have that ability, in ideal conditions; a person is more than a decision made at one instant, and peoples’ sense of self refers to competencies they can correctly know they retain and can use. Most “folks”, I’d wager (sounds like President Obama), don’t have a clear idea of what a scientific “law” is and so are unlikely to be worried about whether their choices can or cannot by explained by one. Scientists who do have a notion of what a scientific law is are not likely to be worried by the thought that they are composed of entities that are individually acting lawfully, within limits. (There seem to me intriguing parallels with arguments about group selection in biology here).
    Most people don’t make notably good use of their capacity for what I am calling free will, and of course what they might consider desirable is strongly constrained by biological factors, but that’s a different argument.
    Sam thinks that accepting the lack of free will make hatred “patently irrational” and leaves love unscathed. I can’t resist: What’s love got to do with it? Mycobacterium tuberculosis does not have free will but we’d all like to destroy it. We love pets that don’t have free will. And I love some and don’t love some people who (I, Dan Dennett and many others would say) do have free will. Theists, allegedly often willing to accept even libertarian, contracausal free will, are wont to say “ hate the sin, love the sinner.” Granted, reflection on how we’re all constrained and influenced by the accidents of our birth and upbringing does seem to bring on a generous and forgiving mood, and I’m in favor of love for all too, but disbelieving in compatibilist free will is not necessary for that sentiment.

    • Posted February 17, 2014 at 5:03 am | Permalink

      Could you try to keep the comments shorter, please? Thanks

      • Tim Beardsley
        Posted February 17, 2014 at 8:33 am | Permalink

        Sure.

    • Posted February 17, 2014 at 6:12 am | Permalink

      Enjoyed the above post. If Free Will is a social construct we should be able to identify some of its components. I have mentioned that all human expressions of choice seem to have an internally or externally dictated time-line. And that the decisions made seems to have a vacillating quality. And that the vacillation in choice is intersected by the intrusion of the demands of that time-line.
      But there is more. Looking outside of ourselves, the ability to have even small expressions of free will is denied to hundreds of millions, particularly for most women in Islam. Even the colour of their clothes is dictated; black. And their behaviour is to the extreme of being directed by others. And then there are slaves who will not exercise free will and leave, even when the door is open. And the religious who live according to scripture. And Jews whose every decision has been anticipated by great books of example.
      I fear that the whole argument is a red herring, and the problem might be that there are those who propose to reform legislation for the worst. It wasn’t long ago that a Southern judge opined that there is no need for law-books because the bible should be the guide to right and wrong. Will it be long before some authority proposes that since criminal behaviour has a strong deterministic component, then we should abandon any sense of right and wrong? Ooops! It has already happened. With the big banks.

      • Tim Beardsley
        Posted February 17, 2014 at 9:03 am | Permalink

        Yes, I think that is a danger. Didn’t know determinism had been cited to defend big banks, though.

    • Dale
      Posted February 17, 2014 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      All,

      I have been curious as to whether strict determinism really means “predeterminism”, which I would take as a different thing.

      That is, does the fact that events have antecedent causes also require that given no random interference, the future is laid out in advance?

      Certainly Sam Harris might as well use predeterminism as that seems to be what he is saying.

      I found this article by Victor Stenger very helpful. He seems to address this.

      http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger/FreeWillSkeptic.pdf

      • Posted February 17, 2014 at 11:23 am | Permalink

        This fellow certainly makes the case of non-free willism.

      • Posted February 17, 2014 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

        Stenger makes some good points. I don’t think though that quantum mechanics has any relevance to free will, since (as Stenger agrees), the brain appears to function deterministically even if the universe doesn’t and our reactions are hardly going to be different when we avoid a rock thrown at us with a truely indeterminate cause (assuming that’s actually meaningful), than when we avoid one that is essentially deterministic but subject to classical chaos.

        Re Stenger’s: “That’s what it all boils down to: that I’m in my right mind and in control of my behavior. Calling it “free will” (as compatibilists do) confuses people. since it suggests some form of dualism, supernatural or not; so lets call it “autonomy”. Even if free will is an illusion, autonomous will is not.”

        I agree, we can refer to “autonomous agents”, as I in fact do in previous posts, in this topic. The problem though is that “free will” is a part of the English language and is generally used coherently and correctly in the right context. Sure it may confuse some people, when/if they try to equate it with their dualistic instincts (and most people probably don’t do that anyway), but so also so does saying that we don’t have it, which most people I’ve talked to, take to be a statement of fatalism or inevitability. I reckon (if we are going to be didactic about what people should think), that people are better off believing in some incoherent libertarian free will than that no action can have any influence on the future; that is swallowing one bitter pill too many.

        • Posted February 17, 2014 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

          ” the brain appears to function deterministically even if the universe doesn’t”

          It is strange to say that the brain functions deterministically, since we know that low-level neural functions are facilitated by various kinds of indeterministic “noise” processes. Perhaps these functions can be modeled as being very nearly equal to a deterministic function (e.g. with bounded variance), but that’s still different from being truly deterministic. I think it is preferable to say “mechanistic” in recognition of the fact that biochemical noise is probably not what anyone means by “free will” or “soul.”

          • Posted February 17, 2014 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

            I don’t think we do know that low level brain functions are “facilitated by *indeterministic* “noise” processes”. As Stenger explains in that article, it appears unlikely that quantum events play any part in brain function. Classical physics is, of course, entirely deterministic, chaotic processes notwithstanding. And if quantum events do occasionally influence whether a neuron fires or not, it’s just going to add a random effect, that might as well have arisen from classical causes, such as fluctuations in temperature and fluid turbulence. In any case, if classical/quantum randomness does sometimes interfere with brain function, that’s not going to have a beneficial effect on accurate decision making, just as it doesn’t if your computer randomly flips a bit.

            • Posted February 18, 2014 at 12:32 am | Permalink

              “I don’t think we do know that low level brain functions are ‘facilitated by *indeterministic* ‘noise’ processes.’

              This is known. What we call “noise” is a composition of apparently random behavior induced thermally, together with the random making and breaking of chemical bonds, the fluctuations of ion channels, and other activity. Most of these events are in some sense quantum, and they add together to produce signals that are believed to be truly random. Perhaps, metaphysically, they are ultimately driven by deterministic mechanisms. But the best we can say is that “noise” is indeterministic. The brain leverages noise to aid in processing information, and this is very widely studied. It may correspond to the type of algorithms known in computer science and engineering, in which noise is used to “perturb” a state in order to help locate the maximum or minimum of a deterministic function. Or maybe not. There are various theories, but all of them have to deal with a very significant and meaningful contribution from noise at the bottom.

              • Posted February 18, 2014 at 1:00 am | Permalink

                It may be that the brain has some way of generating random numbers and uses them in calculations, in a similar way to how we use monte carlo methods in computer simulations. But, the point is, does it make a difference whether this randomness is true randomness due to quantum events or just pseudo randomness? i.e. is the brain using unique features of QM such as entanglement that would make the brain more than a Newtonian machine. The answer to that is probably no. In which case we can ignore QM in discussions of free will, which was my point:

                Stenger Again: “We can safely conclude that a quantum brain is not indicated by either theory or experiment. Now that doesn’t mean that quantum mechanics plays no role *at all* in the brain. Ultimately, everything is quantum mechanical”…. “the point is there’s nothing special … that enables quantum randomness to play a decisive, substantial role at the level of human choice and action”.

              • Posted February 18, 2014 at 1:29 am | Permalink

                “is the brain using unique features of QM such as entanglement that would make the brain more than a Newtonian machine. The answer to that is probably no. In which case we can ignore QM in discussions of free will,”

                Agreed. I would only suggest that a stronger argument can be made with respect to the quantum case. If the brain does have quantum computational features, then they are still mechanistic and that is no help to the notion of contra causal free will. If we want to get seriously quantum, we can argue that quantum states are the “real” reality (classical states being illusory), and the whole universe is one big quantum state that evolves in a truly deterministic fashion (all supposedly indeterministic outcomes are sort of contained in that big quantum state). See, I don’t think quantum mechanics helps anyone escape from the mechanistic nature of the universe or of the brain.

              • Posted February 18, 2014 at 2:27 am | Permalink

                +1, fully agree. Libertarian free is logically incoherent, whatever type of universe we are in, which is why it somewhat baffles me that people such as Sam Harris spend so much time flogging a dead horse. When we discard religious concepts, we shouldn’t then be trying to define everything in terms of their absence. Also agree that we don’t (yet?) know whether QM has deterministic underpinnings, in the kind of way that you mention, and that’s a fascinating question!

              • Posted February 18, 2014 at 10:43 am | Permalink

                “When we discard religious concepts, we shouldn’t then be trying to define everything in terms of their absence.”

                This is the best sentence in the entire thread. I want this on a plaque.

              • Posted February 21, 2014 at 6:52 am | Permalink

                “Libertarian free is logically incoherent, whatever type of universe we are in…”

                This is exactly what is being asserted by non-free willists.

                “When we discard religious concepts, we shouldn’t then be trying to define everything in terms of their absence.”

                Says who? How is there to be any meaningful communication if, as you have us do, discard religious concepts? (It’s not like there is anyway for us to, by fiat, just declare any concept as discarded anyway.) If one wants to point out to people that something they believe to exist, doesn’t exist, one is going to have to refer to that concept, address that concept, one just can’t declare that concept discarded and try to move forward without making reference to that concept one is refuting.

                For example.. atheism has to identify itself via the concept of theism… there just isn’t any non-confusing, non-vague way to do it.

                Non-free willism has to identify itself in context of those who assert the existence of a libertarian/contra-causal free will.

                Which is what S.H. is doing.

              • Posted February 21, 2014 at 7:41 am | Permalink

                “How is there to be any meaningful communication if, as you have us do, discard religious concepts? (It’s not like there is anyway for us to, by fiat, just declare any concept as discarded anyway.) If one wants to point out to people that something they believe to exist, doesn’t exist, one is going to have to refer to that concept, address that concept, one just can’t declare that concept discarded and try to move forward without making reference to that concept one is refuting.”

                If your singular goal in life is to argue with people who have strange ideas, then you can build your worldview around things you think are wrong. Go nuts.

                If, in the course of your finite lifetime, you want to actually think clearly about a few things, and maybe come close to understand the world and your place in it, then you will want to build constructive systems of thought that have zero reference to those things you think are false. “There is no god” is not a necessary proposition or axiom of any scientific system. “There is no contra-causal free will” is similarly an awkward and useless proposition if you’re trying to build constructive understanding.

                Since libertarian free will is a logical incoherent and poorly defined concept, it makes sense to stop referencing it altogether, and instead to work with concepts that are better defined. Fortunately we can speak precisely about free will as “non-coerced exercise of rational choice,” and from there we can talk about the logic of actual things.

            • Posted February 18, 2014 at 12:51 am | Permalink

              This seems to be a reasonable introduction to neural noise mechanisms, comprised of a mix of indeterministic contributions as well as a likely contribution from deterministic “chaos” (or pseudorandom signal, if you prefer): http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Neuronal_noise

              • Posted February 18, 2014 at 1:24 am | Permalink

                Thanks, that’s interesting, if a little dense :). I was aware of the theoretical possibility that randomization might be used in brain processes, as in the last para of that article: “Whatever the sources of noise, it is natural to think that some of them may have been put to good use in the evolutionary process. This intriguing possibility is vigorously being explored.” But, even if that is so, the brain would still not be doing anything that couldn’t theoretically be replicated on any Turing machine, such as a computer. Still it would be very interesting if we could identify processes in the brain that do use randomisation in non trivial ways.

        • Dale
          Posted February 17, 2014 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

          Victor Stenger

          “That’s what it all boils down to: that I’m in my right mind and in control of my behavior.”

          Yes that is my simple takeaway as well. It’s all much ado over nothing that we didn’t already know and understand.

          I think that Sam Harris is just indulging in sensationalism. He refuses to take on and deal with Dennett’s arguments because he wants to promote some idea that there is a paradox between FEELING that “he” is the “conscious author” of “his” behavior and the FACT that “his brain and nervous system”, and antecedent causes, are really responsible for “his” behavior.

          Well Duh! Talk about over-thinking I really don’t think that any of us think this way even if we want to!

          • Posted February 18, 2014 at 2:49 am | Permalink

            I’m more than a little suspicious, from his use of language, that Sam Harris hasn’t really taken on board the implications of the fact that autonomous agents can exist in deterministic systems, as mentioned by Stenger in the article you embedded and as argued by Dennett in chapter 2 of “Freedom Evolves” (and me in #34 of this topic :): http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/sam-harris-vs-dan-dennett-on-free-will/comment-page-1/#comment-723666).

            • Dale
              Posted February 18, 2014 at 9:55 am | Permalink

              roqoco,

              Thanks for sending me back to your post 34. Yes, I think I understand. By “autonomous agent” I think you mean a unique configuration on a unique or singular trajectory through time. Like a unique fruit of the tree of life. That is the image that keeps coming into my brain. The word, “trajectory” seems relevant.

              Sam seems stalled in determinism where others like Dennett see determinism as only part of a larger picture. I recall that Sam has been criticized for deliberately ignoring the work of philosophers rather than studying it. He tossed Dennett’s work overboard in a single sentence, calling it “theology”.

              Stenger

              “The notion that all physical events, including every human action, were already decided when out universe came into being 13.7 billion years ago is simply falsified by quantum mechanics in its commonly accepted indeterministic interpretation.”

              I don’t know how more clear this could be. To me what this says is that the idea of determinism is true but the idea of pre-determinism is false. I note that Harris doesn’t use the prefix “pre” but that is what he is saying.

              I’d like to hear others’ thoughts on this.

              • Posted February 18, 2014 at 10:41 am | Permalink

                “To me what this says is that the idea of determinism is true but the idea of pre-determinism is false.”

                Some people prefer the term “mechanism” to describe a universe governed entirely by physical laws. This allows for the possibility that some or all laws may be probabilistic or statistical rather than strictly deterministic. I think Harris means “mechanistic” when he says “deterministic,” as do many other authors.

              • Four-Winged Dinosaur
                Posted February 18, 2014 at 10:53 am | Permalink

                If general relativity is true, then time is a dimension, and the future, past, and present all exist. Change is merely an illusion arising from the curious fact that each person’s point of view seems to slide, moment by moment, toward the future. In objective reality, the Universe is a four(or more)-dimensional object which does not change or move. Substituting time for a dimension of space, we can visualize the Earth as a helix winding around the Sun, which is itself a helix winding around the center of the Milky Way. I find this potentially true view of the Universe to be both terrifying and beautiful at the same time. Does that seem right to you?

              • Dale
                Posted February 18, 2014 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

                Thanks CJ,
                Yes I guess mechanistic also works but evokes images of the Newtonian machine which QM has superseded as Stenger said.

                4wing,

                Yes, that’s is a mind bending image, especially for those of us who seems to have lost our minds. (meaning me). :-)

                I think you are saying that the future is not pre determined but already determined and that would answer my question.

                How does entropy and the arrow of time relate to this?

              • Posted February 18, 2014 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

                @Dale: I think the point that many people find confusing is the incorrect idea that a “free” choice consists of an ability to “choose otherwise”, it doesn’t; when we make a decision, what we are doing is trying to find the optimum solution to a problem, so that we end up with the *single* best result from a number of alternatives (just like a function in a computer programming language, such as c).

                If you look at a chess engine calculating it’s moves, there is always (at any stage in the calculation) a single best move (in the program’s opinion); that is the one that it assigns with the highest numerical value, in order to optimise certain factors (material and square control are very important in chess) according to how far it is able to look down the forward move tree in the time you allocate it for a move. And given the goal of winning the game by it’s programmer, that’s the move that the program will play unless you the user compel it to do otherwise.

                So, the ability to calculate a *single* best result is totally compatible with a deterministic universe, whereby there is only a single physically possible future. So we don’t need to resort to indeterminism in order to make autonomous agents viable – in fact, as Dennett points out, determinism is the best environment for decision making, since all indeterminism can do is to introduce random factors that make calculations less reliable – I certainly don’t want *my* programs to be affected by quantum randomness – they have enough bugs in them already :), similarly randomness can only make brain processes less reliable.

              • Tim Beardsley
                Posted February 18, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

                Determinism is a word that seems to be used in at least two major, different, ways.

                Quantum mechanics can be seen as deterministic (in one sense of the word); the wave function changes deterministically. But I think that QM ensures that there are physical happenings whose precise time of occurrence can’t be predicted. In one place that Dan quoted, Sam Harris was clearly using “determinism” to refer to a universe with only predictable physical events, with QM possibly adding indeterminism; that’s a different sense than the one in which QM is deterministic. Neither sense is wrong, so far as I can tell, so take your pick, but I’d suggest try to be clear which you mean.
                I don’t know about pre-determinism.

              • Posted February 18, 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

                @Tim – Determinism is the thesis that “there is at any instant exactly one physically possible future (Van Inwagen quoted by Dennett). Quantum mechanics is really irrelevant to this discussion, because compatibilism only holds that free will is *compatible* with determinism and so is not affected by whether the universe is actually deterministic or not. And anyway, we really don’t have a final take on a metatheory for quantum mechanics, so we can’t say whether it is fundamentally deterministic or not, In brief: Many Worlds is deterministic and a bit weird, Copenhagen is indeterministic and very weird.

            • Dale
              Posted February 18, 2014 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

              Roqoco,

              “when we make a decision, what we are doing is trying to find the optimum solution to a problem, so that we end up with the *single* best result from a number of alternatives”

              Yes I get that. I play chess, do some database programming, and practice functional design and engineering for a living. One of my fascinations is the relation of design by evolution to what think of as design by people and our individual egos, (especially architects, ;-) ) I am convinced that all design is the same, i.e. by evolution. In functional design we all stand on the shoulders of others, build complex devices from simple parts – we choose and select and go through generations of designs with incremental improvements in function. We put prototypes in the field so that we can learn what we couldn’t “foresee” originally and to learn what could not be learned any other way. Economics are of enormous importance.

              Darwin’s Dangerous Idea was one of the best books I ever read. I am sensitive to criticism of Dr. Dennett.

              So I’m used to making choices in order intentionally provoke the evolution of an idea. As a designers we seek the practical limits of our will, i.e. the optimum solution, the elegant solution, the cheapest solution, the most effective solution, the most durable solution and so on.

              The real deterministic word does tie our hands though, that is provide constraints that limit our choices, what Dennett calls “forced moves”. I think we look for and exploit the wiggle room between the forced moves, and that’s how the design in nature came about.

    • Posted February 17, 2014 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      “Sam has a conception of free will that’s an impossibility: on his definition, I agree we don’t have it. ”

      Tom, this isn’t a conception of Sam’s as you assert. Sam is merely using the very common and historic notion of free will (a.k.a. libertarian free will, a.k.a. contra-causal free will).

      • Tim Beardsley
        Posted February 17, 2014 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

        OK, point taken, thanks, I should have phrased that differently. But I don’t think that affects my attempted criticism of his objection to Dennett’s compatibilism, much of which, obviously, is inspired by Dennett’s writings, although I also borrowed some other writers’ ideas. I also don’t think I got it right in putting “could not have done otherwise” is “strictly meaningless;” better would have been to say it is a conjecture of no possible consequence. Again, I stand by the thrust of my criticism.

        • Posted February 18, 2014 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

          Roqoco, I think that your ideal of the human decision-making process as a search for the optimum solution is not what happens. Perhaps we should call that ‘the Spock way’. By far the greater bulk of human decisions are taken fleetingly and with little thought since there are few serious consequences to getting it wrong. And the exercise of choice is so different among different groups. If you live with an actress or a painter then the decisions taken seem strangely arbitrary and provocative, and horribly counter-intuitive, compared to the exercise of choice by a scientist which tends to be measured and circumspect. Whether or not it is really free will is another matter.

          As to your thoughts on a chess computer, to which I am a sad addict, the usual way of defeating it is illuminating. You play the same game for twenty or so moves, watching for computer variation. After about 200 hours doing the same game over and again you stall the computer into taking random moves. And you stall the computer, as you know, by building a clever pawn blockade so that any attacking move by the computer will lead to ‘his’ heavy loss. Clearly the greater the computer ability the less likely to force a time when the computer will treat ‘his’ next move as random.

        • Posted February 18, 2014 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

          @George: Remember that evolution has acted to select the particular characteristics of our brains and their optimum strategies on the basis that we survive long enough to reproduce, not on the basis that we all need to be Einstein clones. So it’s only important from the POV of evolution that we behave sensibly when faced with decisions that have had an impact on the survival of our ancestors. That puts a different light on what constitutes an optimum strategy for our mental processes. Further, if we are deciding on say whether to fight or run away we only have a limited time to make that calculation.

          Probably the reason that our brains are so flexible and responsive to environmental factors is that there are a whole load more neurones in our brains than we have genes to guide them, so the genes can only affect brain development in a very broad brush sort of way that works on average most of the time. And when combined with environmental factors, the genes are only able to have a very loose grip on our capabilities. That leaves a lot of room for people to develop eccentricities that are not particularly sensible from an evolutionary perspective such as crashing into tall buildings or even just being a wacky artist :).

          As to chess computers, they’ve developed a long way in past few decades (now even beyond the Deep Blue program that defeated Gary Kasparov in a match) and I think the only way to genuinely beat a strong program, such as Deep Fritz or Rybka is to get a large hammer and smash your computer with it, whilst the program is running.

  28. markus koebler
    Posted February 17, 2014 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Dennett’s daft idea. I am deeply sadden that one of my intellectual heroes (the author of the engrossing “Drawin’s dangerous idea”) used such a patronizing and condescending tone to review Harris’ book (even if we was right which seems unlikely to me). Let’s hope he has enough intellectual rectitude to call it a Mulligan and do better (this time with more effort and less words ;-).

  29. Posted February 20, 2014 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Coyne’s post is not as embarrassing as Harris’ reply to Dennett, but it’s still pretty bad. Sorry to post and run, but here’s my argument. I hope Coyne and those sympathetic to his post here will try reading it with an open mind:

    Annoyed with Coyne (on free will)

    • Four-Winged Dinosaur
      Posted February 20, 2014 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      From Jason’s post:

      “But abandoning determinism does not make room for free will.”

      This is exactly the point; free will doesn’t make sense in either a determinist or indeterminist Universe (or any mixture of the two). So stop confusing people by trying to rescue the term “free will”. While compatibilist philosophers argue that belief in libertarian free will is not so widespread, our explicitly libertarian justice system continues to murder human beings on the belief that they could have chosen to do otherwise, and our prisons continue to function as graduate schools for criminals because reforming the prison system to actually rehabilitate criminals is seen as coddling those who deserve retribution.

      • Posted February 20, 2014 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

        No, that is not the point. The point is that there is a common notion of free will that already fits in a deterministic world. And it really has nothing to do with how popular or unpopular the libertarian notion is. Compatibilists are not trying to win a popularity contest. And your argument about the justice system is just changing the subject. You can justify capital punishment and retribution without appealing to ultimate responsibility. There is clearly a lot of confusion here, but it’s not coming from Dennett.

        • Four-Winged Dinosaur
          Posted February 20, 2014 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

          “And your argument about the justice system is just changing the subject. You can justify capital punishment and retribution without appealing to ultimate responsibility.”

          I’m curious to hear your explanation of how you can justify capital punishment and retribution without appealing to ultimate responsibility. If criminals aren’t ultimately responsible for their actions, how can it possibly rational to hate them and want to punish them? Note that we might want to punish criminals for purely pragmatic reasons, such as deterring other potential criminals, but retributive punishment makes no sense without ultimate responsibility.

          • Posted February 20, 2014 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

            Imagine that someone in their right mind planned and triggered a nuclear explosion in New York, killing millions and that there was no deterrence value in punishing him and we knew he wouldn’t offend again (how we might know those things doesn’t matter for this thought experiment). Would you then immediately release him without any punishment for his crime or even admonishing him for doing what he did?

            • Four-Winged Dinosaur
              Posted February 20, 2014 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

              “Would you then immediately release him without any punishment for his crime or even admonishing him for doing what he did?”

              You’re asking what I would do, not what is rational to do. In such a situation, I am sure I would feel a powerful desire for revenge, as would most people. This does not in any way suggest that a desire for revenge, even against someone who nuked a city, is rational.

              As for letting him go – if we somehow knew with 100% certainty that this madman would never harm another fly, then there would in fact be no reason to hold him. But this is not a realistic scenario. Anyone who was really willing to kill millions is surely dangerous, and must be captured if possible, or killed if capture is not possible or poses a significant risk to other innocent lives.

              • Posted February 20, 2014 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

                It may be that a mother’s grief for the loss of her child isn’t entirely based on rational considerations, but is that any reason for not making it a part of the equation of justice?

                And if my scenario is not a reasonable one, then just how is it that you intend split out the purely retributive part of his punishment from the other rationally justified parts?

                In reality the justice system (at least here in the UK) has already worked out a reasonably balanced approach to punishment and I don’t think that inculcating the law profession with incompatibilist beliefs would make a fig of difference to it.

  30. Posted February 20, 2014 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Here’s my attempt to put Harris and Dennett in their respective places: Respecting the profession: Harris’ reply to Dennett.

    It’s long, but towards the end I do address the question of retribution. I’ll post the relevant portion here, since Four-Winged Dinosaur asked:

    “However, if I hate a person who commits a heinous crime without remorse, I don’t think they are ultimately responsible. I am aware that they are the product of other causes. Yet, I hate their act and their attitude towards it. This is because they are in a position to know and are able to act accordingly. This kind of hatred helps shape our expectations about society. I have an emotional problem with treating some people as equal members of society. They have betrayed a certain level of trust and I cannot comfortably allow them to circulate in society unless some steps have been taken to punish them. The desire for retribution–even death–plays a vital role in the construction of social responsibility. If we do not respect that desire, society may suffer. So, yes, personal responsibility opens the door to a particular kind of hatred, but I don’t see anything wrong with leaving that door open. I would say the same thing about personal responsibility opening up the door to a special kind of love, too.”

    • Four-Winged Dinosaur
      Posted February 20, 2014 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

      Jason, why did you put that section in quotes and attribute it to me when I didn’t say it and don’t agree with it?

      • Four-Winged Dinosaur
        Posted February 20, 2014 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

        Oh, I see. That’s your response. It’s just the way you worded “…since Four-winged dinosaur asked: ‘your quote’” that made me think you were quoting me. My mistake.

        • Posted February 20, 2014 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

          I assume you don’t agree with it because you don’t think deterrence is a legitimate justification for punishment, and because you don’t think it is justifiable to punish one person in order to alleviate the suffering of others. (For example, executing Eichmann to give some emotional relief to victims of the Holocaust.) There’s room to debate these issues, but the arguments are well-known and they appear to be valid.

          • Four-Winged Dinosaur
            Posted February 20, 2014 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

            “I assume you don’t agree with it because you don’t think deterrence is a legitimate justification for punishment, and because you don’t think it is justifiable to punish one person in order to alleviate the suffering of others. (For example, executing Eichmann to give some emotional relief to victims of the Holocaust.) There’s room to debate these issues, but the arguments are well-known and they appear to be valid.”

            Wrong on the first count, right (somewhat) on the second. I think deterrence is a legitimate justification for punishment, provided the deterrence actually works. Regarding your example, and the more general argument that we should indulge our sense of revenge in order to bring relief to the victim’s loved ones, I disagree completely. The whole reason we leave justice up to the state is to prevent the kind of eye-for-an-eye vendetta justice that we see in honor cultures. We should consider what we would desire in our most dispassionate, objective, and calm moods when we design the laws of the land. This answer applies to roqoco’s question about taking “a mother’s grief” into consideration.

            And roqoco, I live in the U.S., and I would wager a lot that my country’s justice system is intoxicated by the myth of libertarian free will to a much greater extent than is yours. Does the U.K. still execute criminals? Some states over here still execute convicts who are legally mentally retarded.

            • Posted February 20, 2014 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

              I agree about being as dispassionate, calm and objective as possible when designing and implementing laws, but that does not mean we should ignore the emotions of the people when implementing them.

              • Four-Winged Dinosaur
                Posted February 21, 2014 at 9:37 am | Permalink

                “I agree about being as dispassionate, calm and objective as possible when designing and implementing laws, but that does not mean we should ignore the emotions of the people when implementing them.”

                Being dispassionate isn’t about ignoring emotions. It’s about recognizing that emotions like anger and hatred reliably lead to suffering when acted upon. We should design our justice system to prevent us from acting on our worst instincts, not to indulge them.

              • Posted February 21, 2014 at 9:40 am | Permalink

                Four-Winged Dinosaur says, “Being dispassionate isn’t about ignoring emotions. It’s about recognizing that emotions like anger and hatred reliably lead to suffering when acted upon. We should design our justice system to prevent us from acting on our worst instincts, not to indulge them.”

                I don’t believe that anger and hatred always and only lead to an overall increase in suffering. I think these emotions actually play a crucial role in society. That’s my point. Of course you can disagree. It’s highly debatable, but I don’t see anything irrational about my point of view.

    • Four-Winged Dinosaur
      Posted February 20, 2014 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

      “So, yes, personal responsibility opens the door to a particular kind of hatred, but I don’t see anything wrong with leaving that door open. I would say the same thing about personal responsibility opening up the door to a special kind of love, too.”

      I disagree; I think that letting go of the notion that people are ultimately responsible for their actions closes the door on any rational justification for hatred, while leaving the door wide open for a rational justification of compassion and love. Sam Harris explained it well in this blog post of his: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/free-will-and-the-reality-of-love

      The relevant section:

      “What many people seem to be missing is the positive side of these truths. Seeing through the illusion of free will does not undercut the reality of love, for example—because loving other people is not a matter of fixating on the underlying causes of their behavior. Rather, it is a matter of caring about them as people and enjoying their company. We want those we love to be happy, and we want to feel the way we feel in their presence. The difference between happiness and suffering does not depend on free will—indeed, it has no logical relationship to it (but then, nothing does, because the very idea of free will makes no sense). In loving others, and in seeking happiness ourselves, we are primarily concerned with the character of conscious experience.

      Hatred, however, is powerfully governed by the illusion that those we hate could (and should) behave differently. We don’t hate storms, avalanches, mosquitoes, or flu. We might use the term “hatred” to describe our aversion to the suffering these things cause us—but we are prone to hate other human beings in a very different sense. True hatred requires that we view our enemy as the ultimate author of his thoughts and actions. Love demands only that we care about our friends and find happiness in their company. It may be hard to see this truth at first, but I encourage everyone to keep looking. It is one of the more beautiful asymmetries to be found anywhere.”

      • Posted February 20, 2014 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

        He’s just having fun with words. “True hatred?” It’s not hatred if I hate mosquitos? Is it true love if I love ice-cream? What makes something true love? The fact that it is love of a person capable of suffering? I don’t think compassion equates to true love. I can feel compassion for lots of people, but I don’t love them the way I love my wife, which has everything to do with the fact that I regard her as a person with rational agency. So, no, I think the situation is the same with love and hate. We have both emotions for all sorts of things, but when we’re dealing with people–with rational agency–the emotions take on a new dimension.

        And it’s not an illusion that a person could or should have acted differently. If Harris believed that, he would not advocate a science of morality–or anything else besides. The only error is thinking that “I could have and should have acted differently” implies supernatural abilities. Harris even acknowledges this: That there is such a thing as being in a position to know. That’s why his entire position on free will is self-defeating.

        • Four-Winged Dinosaur
          Posted February 20, 2014 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

          I didn’t understand most of your last post, but this jumped out at me:

          “And it’s not an illusion that a person could or should have acted differently. If Harris believed that, he would not advocate a science of morality–or anything else besides.”

          This is a depressingly common criticism of Harris’s position on free will. If no one is really responsible for their actions, then why bother writing a book to convince people to change their minds? To ask this is to confuse determinism with fatalism. The judges, lawmakers, lawyers, and scientists of tomorrow reading The Moral Landscape today could well end up being the cause of our society finally beginning to overcome its befuddlement – which was born of religion and postmodernism – about the existence and status of moral truths. Or, it might not. Whatever the outcome, if Harris had decided not to write his book, then something else will have happened as a result. But this is just to say that if we lived in an alternate universe then we would live in an alternate universe. Everything affects and is affected by everything else; but ultimately the chain of causality which culminates in a person’s behavior extends back to before they were born. How can we honestly call this truth “free will” and not be guilty of obscurantism?

          • Posted February 20, 2014 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

            You misunderstood me. My point is this. If Harris this it is worth advocating anything–especially something he calls “morality”–then he must think people should act a certain way. It follows that he thinks people should not act in other ways. It follows that, if a person acted in one of those distasteful ways yesterday and was in a position to know better, then Harris thinks they should not have done that. Furthermore, Harris will certainly also think that they could have acted differently, had they been more aware of the facts. This is all consistent with determinism.

            • Posted February 20, 2014 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

              Correction: If Harris THINKS it is worth advocating . . .

            • Four-Winged Dinosaur
              Posted February 21, 2014 at 10:14 am | Permalink

              “It follows that, if a person acted in one of those distasteful ways yesterday and was in a position to know better, then Harris thinks they should not have done that. Furthermore, Harris will certainly also think that they could have acted differently, had they been more aware of the facts.”

              Again, this is only to say that “they could have acted differently had circumstances been different” which is to say that “had this been a different Universe, we would be in a different Universe”. Harris explains this in the very beginning of his book “Free Will”. What’s your point?

              • Posted February 21, 2014 at 10:43 am | Permalink

                My point is Dennett’s point, which is that this is what people seem to actually mean when they say “I could have acted differently.” They don’t seem to mean, “I could have acted differently even if I had the exact same emotional state, with the exact same beliefs and desires, and in the exact same physical conditions.”

                This is the point that Harris, Coyne and others seem to be missing. When a person says, “I could have acted otherwise,” we should not assume they mean “in the exact same conditions, with the exact same mental states.” They probably don’t mean that. This is why Dennett insists that he is not redefining “free will.” He’s just trying to help us understand these intuitions better.

  31. Posted February 21, 2014 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Here’s the situation, as it appears to me:

    1. People have a common experience of making decisions according to their beliefs and desires.

    2. People says things like “I could have acted differently” to mean that their actions were the result of their own beliefs and desires, and that, had they wanted to, they would have chosen differently.

    3. When confronted with the idea that they may not have had a choice at all, and that their beliefs and desires could not alter the course of history, they (WRONGLY) suppose that there is a conflict between their experience and the idea of determinism. In reality, the only conflict is between their experience and the idea of fatalism. They should be rejecting fatalism, but instead they are rejecting determinism.

    4. In one sense, we can use the term “free will” to refer to the underlying intuition–that one has control over their behaviour to the extent that they can act rationally on their beliefs and desires. This is the underlying intuition at the bottom of everything. In that case, you can (like Jerry Coyne) claim that there is no such thing as rational agency at all. (But this is absurd.)

    5. Or you can, like Sam Harris, insist that this underlying intuition is not really free will. He insists that “free will” actually refers to the confused state of affairs that leads people to confuse fatalism with determinism.

    6. Dennett says no to both Sam and Jerry. He says that there underlying intuitions here make sense. The only problem comes when we confuse fatalism and determinism. We do have rational agency (pace Coyne) and there’s no reason to say that we’re changing the subject (pace Harris.).

    7. Harris can complain about this all he likes, but it’s not a substantive complaint. It’s just political maneuvering.

  32. Posted April 5, 2014 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    Hi,

    Interesting views there. I don’t think one can be a 100% determinist in face of quantum events.

    One will have to define quantum randomness then and accumulate it then. There is one theory of eternal return in which determinism seems a given. It means that whole universe is cyclic, and all events have occurred before, and will occur again. But as soon as you start making a system for it, you will see a flaw. In an eternal return system, the events actually necessitate themselves, an event occurs in a certain way because it has always occurred in that way. e.g. suppose universe is a long list of events. A produces B which produces C which produces D, E, F…and all the way to Z. Now lets assume, on proceeding from E, there are many quantum mechanical chances, F, F1, F2, and so on to infinity. Why does there have to be an F outcome? Why are F1, F2, all others to be discarded? The chief reason which will be given is that E necessitates itself, that is F is an outcome that will lead back the event E back to itself. But you only have to look at the flaw. What if F is the not the only way that leads E back to itself? What if F1 through a different series leads eventually to E? After all we are assuming F1 just to be a possible event here. It remains a possibility. And indeed we can think of infinite such events Fn which may lead back to E itself. This has serious implications for such a system. One moment or event doesn’t necessitate the whole series. This again leaves the system open, in terms of choices it may make. Actually the whole series has to be necessary or fixed, for determinism to have a claim. But in that case you will have to give reason for that to be so. That is an “ontological statement” which actually proves nothing.

  33. Kevin
    Posted July 9, 2014 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    I caught up on this exchange recently (I originally read everything Harris wrote about it but I procrastinated reading Dennett’s response due to what I heard about it). I came away with a question that I seem to be having trouble finding a definitive answer to: Does Dennett believe that people can actually ‘deserve’ punishment or praise on any deep level or does he merely think punishment and praise are justified by their consequences? In the conclusion of his response to Harris, he seems to assert the former then substantiate it by pointing out the latter.

    I asked him on Twitter too but I don’t expect a response since he has so many followers.

    • Posted July 9, 2014 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      Deterministically, “Deserves” in the sense of just deserts (not desserts!) wouldn’t be appropriate unless you were responsible for your own creation and the events that subsequently unwind in your progression through life. But, deserves can be used deterministically in that a fire deserves to be put out, evil deserves to be banished – there is no necessary contra causal implication in using the term.

      • Kevin
        Posted July 9, 2014 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

        “But, deserves can be used deterministically in that a fire deserves to be put out, evil deserves to be banished – there is no necessary contra causal implication in using the term.”

        Yeah, but this is just appealing to consequences (assuming you’d agree that fire wouldn’t ‘deserve’ to be put out if you were using it for heat or some other helpful consequence) so I think it can be misleading and confusing to use the term here. If Dennett doesn’t mean ‘deserve’ in the former way you listed, then it seems he doesn’t really disagree with Harris at all on the moral implications Harris draws from his view on free will because Harris agrees that punishment and praise can be necessary based on their consequences. It’s also a point worth mentioning that if evil existed in a vacuum where it couldn’t cause negative consequences, it would be a waste of resources to banish it. Also, the claim ‘evil deserves to be banished’ seems like it would be hard to substantiate without appealing to consequences.

        In any case, I’m just trying to figure out what Dennett believes as it seemed kind of vague in his response to Harris. If his only difference with Harris is how free will should be defined then we have a lot in common because I also disagree with Harris on how free will should be defined.


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  1. […] Coyne, who blogs extensively on free will, has also weighed in on this on Harris’s side.  Both of them, and many of the people in their camp, take […]

  2. […] Coyne is another clear writer who is not afraid to speak his mind.  Here is his utterly expected view of the debate.  (He could not have written […]

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