Biology and free will

I’ve always tried to avoid thinking about free will, realizing that that way lies madness.  As a materialist, I can’t see any way that our thoughts and behavior, which come from our neurons and muscles, which themselves result from the interaction between our genes and our environment, could truly be influenced by our “will.”  Yes, there may be quantum uncertainties, but I don’t see how those can be influenced by our minds, or play any role in the notion that our decisions are freely taken.  But if you don’t believe in free will, you might be tempted to stop thinking so hard about what you do, or start questioning the idea of moral responsibility.  The end result is nihilism.

Nevertheless, like all humans I prefer to think that I can make my own decisions.  I decided to adopt an uneasy compromise, believing that there’s no such thing as free will but acting as if there were. And I decided to stop thinking about the issue, deliberately avoiding the huge philosophical literature on free will.

I was forced to revisit the topic, however, by an environmental incursion: a new “inaugural article” in PNAS by biologist Anthony Cashmore (reference below; online access is free).  Cashmore argues persuasively that free will is an illusion and “a belief in free will is akin to religious beliefs”:

The reality is, not only do we have no more free will than a fly or a bacterium, in actuality we have no more free will than a bowl of sugar. The laws of nature are uniform throughout, and these laws do not accommodate the concept of free will. Some will argue that once we understand better the mechanistic details that underlie consciousness, then we will understand free will. Whatever the complexities of the molecular details of consciousness are, they are unlikely to involve any new law in physics that would break the causal laws of nature in a nonstochastic way. . . The irony here is that in reality, a belief in free will is nothing less than a continuing belief in vitalism—a concept that we like to think we discarded well over 100 years ago!

It’s a nice article, touching on things like the evolutionary advantage of consciousness, and the idea of thinking we have free will, and though I don’t agree with all of it, it’s well worth worth a read. Cashmore winds up arguing that in light of the absence of free will, we should reform the judicial system.  Since we partially exculpate mentally disturbed criminals on the grounds they are not “free” to refrain from crime, so we should reconsider our ideas of punishment for “regular” criminals, whose acts are equally determined. As Cashmore argues:

First, the legal system assumes a capacity for individuals not only to distinguish between right and wrong, but to act according to those distinctions—that is, an integral component of the legal system is a belief in free will. Furthermore, the legal system assumes that it is possible to distinguish those individuals who have this capacity of free will from those who lack it (32).

Cashmore ponders the implications of this view for the legal and judicial systems: should we, and how should we, punish people whose crimes don’t reflect free will? Many others, of course, have trod this ground, but the question is still worth considering.  Two followup letters in PNAS, from Henrik Ancksäter (a forensic psychiatrist) and James McEvoy (a chemist), take issue with Cashmore’s ideas, but he gets the better of his interlocutors in his responses.  (Links to the letters are below.)

Stimulated by Cashmore’s article, I asked a philosopher friend to recommend some readings on free will. He sent me a long list of books and articles, at the top of which—as I mentioned last week—stood Thomas Pink’s Free Will: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2004). I found it a pretty dire book.  Although Pink gives a useful summary of the history of philosophical arguments about free will, he completely neglects science, eventually claiming that free will is a reality largely because we feel that we have it.  Pink’s neglect of physics, chemistry, and biology—that is, the whole area of naturalism and determinism—is inexcusable.  I’ll pursue some of the other books on my reading list, but I’m not going to pay serious attention to any philosopher who neglects the advances of science.  For the nonce, I’ll view free will through a scientific ocular, adhering to Cashmore’s definition:

I believe that free will is better defined as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature.

And if you accept this definition, there’s no way to respond to the question of “Do we have free will?” except with a vigorous “No!”  If you answer, “yes,” then you’re tacitly accepting a mind/body duality and a species of vitalism that has no part in science or naturalism.  As I see it, you can no more be consistently scientific and believe in free will than you can be consistently scientific and believe in a theistic God.

But of course all of this, including Cashmore’s arguments that are intended to persuade, are predicated on the pretense that we really do have free will.  Maybe all these articles and letters are determined, as is our openness to accepting their arguments.  This way, of course, lies madness—or Camus.


“There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”  —Albert Camus

__________

Cashmore, A. R. 2010. The Luretian swerve:  The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA 107:4499-4504.

Anckarsärter, H.  2010.  Has biology disproved free will and moral responsibility? Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA 107: USA E114.

McEvoy,  J. P. 2010. A justice system that denies free will is not based on justice. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA 107:E81

Cashmore, A. R. 2010.  Reply to Anckarsärter: A belief in free will is based on faith. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA 107: USA E115.

Cashmore, A. R.  2010.  Reply to McEvoy:  The judicial system is based on a false understanding of human behavior. 107: Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA 107: USA E82.

297 Comments

  1. Kyle
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    For books on the issue, how about Dennett’s Freedom Evolves?

    • Peter
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      Dennet’s short Elbow Room might be an even better start.

    • Tim Martin
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:12 am | Permalink

      I read Freedom Evolves and I still can’t tell you what the basic point of the book is supposed to be. Perhaps you can help me – what did you get out of it?

      • Greg Peterson
        Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:31 am | Permalink

        All I got out of “Freedom Evolves” is that there is no rational case to be made for libertarian free will. I assume Dennett made his best case, and I respect Dennett. The fact that the book failed so utterly did more to make me realize there’s no such thing as libertarian free will than even reading books on determinism had done. I do find the notion of compatabilism as expressed by Owen Flanagan in “The Problem of the Soul” both cogent and coherent (and far from nihilistic). If the meaningfulness of life must depend absolutely on our making decisions apart from any causation, then nothing–including a god–could make or lives meaningful. Because that’s not even a philosophically rational argument to make–every decision must be based on what went before, or on nothing (that is, be random). Where in that is there room for an uncaused cause?

        • Marella
          Posted July 21, 2010 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

          I listened to a talk Dennet gave trying to prove free will exists. It was totally dependant on the semantics and I failed to be convinced.

          • Patrick Julius
            Posted July 22, 2010 at 6:21 am | Permalink

            It’s dependent on the semantics in the sense that if you define “free will” as something that can’t possibly exist, then of course “free will” doesn’t exist. But if you define it based on considerations of rationality and moral responsibility—the original POINT of having free will in the first place—then you can in fact prove it exists quite easily.

        • Peter Beattie
          Posted July 21, 2010 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

          I for one think a definition of ‘libertarian free will’ would be helpful here. As Dennett describes it, it is just the notion that whatever it is that they call ‘free will’—from from I gather, it seems to be of the absolute kind—depends on indeterminism. Dennett is pretty successful, I think, in showing that that is not the case, i.e. that determinism and free will are compatible (in a defined sense).

        • Pete Carlton
          Posted July 22, 2010 at 7:16 am | Permalink

          But Dennett does not argue for libertarian free will – he explicitly argues against it, while arguing for “compatibilism” – compatibilism of determinism and free will.

  2. Posted July 21, 2010 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    I think Dennett actually covers and explains this problem very well, in several of his books, but mostly Freedom Evolves. Much like religious beliefs, the debate is often hobbled by definition. What exactly IS free will? Any action we take can be traced back to physical causes, right?
    The only definition that theoretically would satisfy Cashmore and people in this camp would be actions taken just *purely* because we decided to — no external, physical, chemical, or biological pressure or influence, causes to be found. What that amounts to is meaningless in itself. So you do something literally *for no reason*, and that’s freedom?
    So you obtain true free will; then you eat an apple– not because you’re hungry, not because it tastes good, not because your body craves sugars, not because it’s healthy, not because you were told to, not because there are too many apples in your kitchen, not because the apple will become sentient and destroy the world. For literally no reason at all. High five?
    “True free will” just seems like randomness to me; it’s an incoherent concept – that’s why we’ll never find it.

    • J. G. Cox
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      I agree. Free will, in the way most people understand it, seems not only extremely unlikely given what we know about the universe, but also impossible in any conceivable universe. Deus points out the problem of additional (material) influences. How strong a role does my body’s urging me to eat an apple have to be before my decision to do so is no longer an exercise in free will? Should free will be binary?
      More so, it seems to me that free will is actually an incoherent concept, like a square circle. Free will is not just the absence of outside or material influences on decision-making, otherwise a supernatural random number generator in my head would grant it. Instead, the concept presumes the existence of an additional entity which makes decisions…. somehow. And that “somehow” is critical, because without it, the concept seems meaningless, and with it, you always seem to lose the “free” portion of “free will.”

      • Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:24 am | Permalink

        Another core problem with the concept of free will is the designation for just WHO it is that has this ‘free will.’ I think it’s actually another slip into dualism to limit the definition of our ‘self’ into only our stream of consciousness. The assumption that just because all of our decisions don’t occur on the surface, they therefore are NOT our decisions, is false. Even our conscious minds are not as we perceive them to be, a contiguous personality, but rather a swarm of thoughts and impulses that gets puts together after the fact. Free will is only a problem when you are misled about the nature of Self to begin with.

    • Posted July 21, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      I haven’t read Dennett on the topic (and now I think that I probably should if I can find the time), but I agree that Cashmore’s definition of free will leaves much to be desired. I personally maintain that a meaningful definition of free will must be compatible with determinism whether or not the universe itself is a deterministic system (and quantum mechanics suggests that the universe is a modified deterministic system at best (or at worst if you hate determinism for some reason)). So, a definition like Cashmore’s that essentially is the definition for acausality leads to a worthless discussion, because it’s predicated on a terms that have been defined into meaninglessness.

      This is not to say that Cashmore is alone in defining free will in a manner that makes it unrelated to control, I’d say a good portion, perhaps a majority of discussion of free will assumes that it is incompatible with determinism.

      So, do we have free will? I’d say that by some of the sane definitions of free will, we do.

    • Patrick Julius
      Posted July 22, 2010 at 6:21 am | Permalink

      Well put!

  3. Dan L.
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    I think the key to understanding the sensation of free will is to realize that there’s parts of your brain all thinking and wanting different things all the time. When one of those dozens of voices wins out, it feels like a decision has been made. But in reality, given the context in which the “decision was made,” that voice would always win, that choice would always be made. You don’t need indeterminism to feel as though you’re making choices.

    • ritebrother
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      Well put.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

      Well said.

    • your mom
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

      this is very well and succinctly put, but im not sure if i accept your assertion that given the same exact circumstances, the same voice would win out every time. i have experienced moments of indecision many times where i picked one choice over another (or several others)completely arbitrarily only for the purpose of getting past the decision when i could see no clear advantage of one choice over another, nor did i feel emotionally(or otherwise)driven to the particular choice. sometimes the decision is not to decide, and chose neither of the options. also, what about choices that are made by chance (flipping a coin/rolling a die/ closing your eyes and pointing at a spinning globe)? i guess those outcomes are determined by the exact amount of force with which one flips the coin/rolls the die, the exact path the coin/die takes through space, things not entirely subject to force of will. but then you first made the decision to leave your choice up to such methods, and finally made another decision of whether or not to accept and abide by the coin/die’s outcome…ouch, my brain…

      • Dan L.
        Posted July 22, 2010 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

        Yes, you’re definitely right. The human brain is one of the most complex phenomena yet discovered and my paragraph above is a hideous oversimplification. And the kinds of confusion you talk about are no doubt the source of some of the consternation about the free will vs. determinism question.

        I didn’t mean to imply this stuff was simple. I just wanted to point out that it’s not hard to come up with formulations of free will that are compatible with determinism, and only somewhat harder to make those formulations consistent with empirical observations about human behavior.

    • Jon H
      Posted July 22, 2010 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

      If the decision were carried out instantaneously, you’d be correct, but the “voice” that wins out in this instant can be overridden in the next, before that course of action is taken.

      The actions we take are the product of decisions maintained over time.

      IMHO, that’s where free will comes in: at human time scales.

      • Dan L.
        Posted July 22, 2010 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

        Basically, like I said to “your mom,” I oversimplified. “Oversimplified” is an understatement, really. I have a tendency to make my posts too long, and I was trying to keep this one short.

        This is a great observation, but I don’t think it’s at all inconsistent with what I was saying. In fact, I think it may just be an elaboration of what I was saying. But it’s not that simple, either. If I decide to take a left at a T intersection, I can subsequently change my mind and turn around, but that doesn’t change the fact that I initially chose to turn left.

  4. FloM
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    No matter how ‘free’ our will is, no one would seriously argue we are the opposite, namely completely determined. That would be a quasi religious belief too. So, clearly, there are degrees of freedom. Our task is to use these wisely…

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 8:43 am | Permalink

      What else is there except genes, environment, and molecular stochasticity? What, besides the possible true randomness of electrons, makes us not completely “determined”?

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:03 am | Permalink

        And when people refer to “free will” they are decidely not referring to stochasticity.

        • astrosmash
          Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:59 am | Permalink

          I can’t remember the source, but I always remember this when I start spiraling into the mire of sophistry over the problem of free will.

          Q Do you believe in free will?

          A Of course I do, I have no choice.

          • talking snake
            Posted July 21, 2010 at 11:41 am | Permalink

            I don’t know who the author is, but Christopher Hitchens used this joke (but in plural … we have no choice) in about one hundred of his debates. Well, a bit less, but you get what I mean.

      • Tacroy
        Posted July 21, 2010 at 11:07 am | Permalink

        If you plot the output of a partially-random function as dots on a plane, you’ll almost always get clumps of dots.

        Are those clumps there because the underlying function is not purely random, or are they there because the dots chose to form clumps? And would the dots be able to tell the difference?

        I don’t really know if there’s a point to that metaphor, but I just thought of it and had to post it.

    • qbsmd
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      I once previously tried to argue with someone who did not accept materialism as a given that free will is still a meaningless concept:

      Everyone has a set of goals, including the immediate biological ones (don’t be hungry\ sleepy, etc) and the more abstract long term ones (make\ save money, etc) and priorities set on those goals that change from moment to moment.
      Everyone has some given amount of knowledge.
      Everyone can think of a certain set of possible decisions and, based upon their current knowledge, evaluate how well each one will accomplish their set of goals, and finally select one best decision.
      Does this process count as free will, even though it can be thought of as a deterministic algorithm? I doubt most people would agree with that.
      Is free will the ability to make a decision that one knows is bad, or just suboptimal? Is it really possible for someone to make a decision they consider bad? I would argue no, they can only regret the priorities they gave to long term and short term goals when they made a decision.

      • Patrick Julius
        Posted July 22, 2010 at 6:23 am | Permalink

        No, it’s the ability to MAKE A DECISION in the first place. Rocks and comets don’t make decisions. We make decisions based on our desires and intentions. That makes us clearly different from rocks and comets—that difference I call free will.

        I don’t know what all you zombies are arguing about.

        • Dan L.
          Posted July 22, 2010 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

          OK, rocks and comets don’t make decisions. Snails do. What makes us different from snails?

        • qbsmd
          Posted July 23, 2010 at 10:36 am | Permalink

          I’ve studies a small amount of decision theory. It’s about picking an action to maximize some function. Algorithms (deterministic by definition) can be written to process information and make decisions. I doubt anyone would argue that they have free will.
          Since humans use a similar (though more complex and involving much more abstraction) process, the question is what the difference is. Do humans have the ability to not pick what they believe is the best available choice? Or do some people just believe the process is different because they are conscious?

    • Posted July 21, 2010 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      Our task is to use these wisely…

      A whiff of the sermon there.

  5. Justin Wagner
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    I’m reading Daniel Wegner’s book ‘The Illusion of Conscious Will’ at the moment and really, really recommend it. He puts forward a pretty convincing case for the theory of ‘apparent mental causation’: that what we infer as a causal link between our conscious thoughts and acts is really just something that we assume out of ignorance of the underlying unconscious causal paths for both thoughts and actions. He also wrote a short summary of the books thesis for the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, which can be found here: http://bit.ly/a0z2iV

    Also, I agree with your brief thoughts on Pink’s VSI to free will. His review of some of the different ways in thinking about the free will problem was rather well done, but the second half of the book seemed to be dedicated to arguing for his own unconvincing version of compatablism, whilst ignoring science entirely. I much prefer Daniel Wegner’s approach to thinking about will, where it is not just assumed that what we experience as conscious will is, in fact, the causal force that it seems to be.

    “Men are mistaken in thinking themselves free; their opinion is made up of consciousness of their own actions, and ignorance of the causes by which they are conditioned. Their idea of freedom, therefore, is simply their ignorance of any cause for their actions.” – Spinoza

  6. Jordan
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    I’m going to quote Christopher Hitchens on this one,

    “Why do we have free will? Well we haven’t really got much choice.”

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:17 am | Permalink

      That could not have been said better, even by Woody Allen or Yogi Berra

    • astrosmash
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:03 am | Permalink

      ah crap! you beat me to it, but not before I posted in a replay above…So it WAS Hitchens, I couldn’t remember

      • Jordan
        Posted July 21, 2010 at 11:10 am | Permalink

        Come on, that quote is dripping with Hitch!

    • MJ
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      This is what confuses me about Cashmore. What does he mean when he wants to know whether we *should* reconsider how to treat “regular” criminals? If we’re not free, we’re not free to treat criminals any other way than we do. End of story.

      • Marella
        Posted July 21, 2010 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

        That’s just silly. Lack of free will doesn’t mean change is impossible.

        • Sam
          Posted July 22, 2010 at 11:30 am | Permalink

          Indeed, lack of free will almost necessitates change.

          I think there are far more direct arguments for changing treatment of prisoners, though, even if at their core they do go to a lack of free will. The way we treat prisoners does not work to create functioning members of society in any reliable manner.

          Imagine the howls we’d get if we really understood how to alter criminals at the basic level — some criminals would get surgical alteration (such as castration) or years in prison while others got a 2-week trip to Bermuda or a new job or food stamps, due to differences in reasons for each criminal’s behavior.

        • MJ
          Posted July 22, 2010 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

          I should have been clearer. I meant “We’re not free to treat criminals any way other than we did/ do/ will do.” The past completely determines the future.

          Cashmore is supposing that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’. If criminals ought not to do X, then it must be that they can not do X. But they can’t, because everything is determined.

          Then he says we *ought* to consider changing how we treat criminals. But this implies that we *can* do other than what we did/ do/ will do. But we can’t. So in what sense *ought* we to do this?

          The basic point is that if you go around claiming that determinism deflates normative claims, you’d best not use determinism to justify your normative claims.

      • Dan L.
        Posted July 22, 2010 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

        This has been a problem forever. Is the criminal justice system:
        a) a deterrent?
        b) a punishment?
        c) an attempt at rehabilitation?

        Depending on your philosophical position on free will and personal responsibility, one can take any of those as a possible answer. Each one dictates a different sort of criminal justice system; for instance, a system intended as a deterrent (the obvious choice for someone who doesn’t really believe in free will, as punishment doesn’t make much sense under such a view) then the punishments may as well be disproportional to the crime. Since it’s not about punishment or rehabilitation, the sentence is irrelevant to any consideration except one: will the threat of punishment prevent someone from committing the crime?

        On the other hand, if you think criminal justice is a punishment, then it has to fit the crime. And if you think it’s rehabilitation, then you’re committed to whatever course of action reduces recidivism, even if that means giving criminals ice cream three meals a day and HBO.

        In the real world, everyone has a different idea of what the criminal justice system is for, so we end up with this kluge that doesn’t satisfy any of the three possible purposes of a criminal justice system; it’s too harsh for effective rehabilitation, too soft for effective deterrence, and too much of a mixed bag of one or the other to be effective at punishment.

        Anyone who thinks that yet another free-will-is-an-illusion argument is going to make people rethink the criminal justice system obviously hasn’t spent too much time thinking about the criminal justice system.

  7. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    As a materialist, I couldn’t see any way that our thoughts and behavior, which come from our neurons and muscles, which themselves result from the interaction between our genes and our environment, could truly be influenced by our “will.” Yes, there may be quantum uncertainties, but I don’t see how those can be influenced by our minds, or play any role in the notion that our decisions are freely taken.

    Hmmm, I would have picked up that stick from the opposite end. Of course we have “will” in that we have desires and goals, and we make decisions. Whether that will could possibly be “free” from materialistic/naturalistic determinism as implemented in genetics and environment is, to me, the relevant question. And as a materialist/naturalist, my answer is no. There is no part of our mind which is not a result of the working of our material brains.

    You might be interested by what Will Provine has said & written on the issue.

    BTW, before getting into any discussions on the topic, I recommend setting a definition first. Some people, including philosophers, are so convinced they have free will that they will redefine it rather than abandon it.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

      “BTW, before getting into any discussions on the topic, I recommend setting a definition first. Some people, including philosophers, are so convinced they have free will that they will redefine it rather than abandon it.”

      Sort of like theologians and God.

      • Marella
        Posted July 21, 2010 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

        My thoughts exactly. You can redifine both into meaninglessness and then do what you like with them!

        Free will and the soul seem to be pretty much the same thing and it’s impossible to say where either of them would come from or reside.

  8. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Evolution, Religion and Free Will
    The most eminent evolutionary scientists have surprising views on how religion relates to evolution

    Gregory W. Graffin, William B. Provine

    American Scientist, July-August 2007, vol 95, #4, page 294
    DOI: 10.1511/2007.66.3747

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:15 am | Permalink

      From the article:

      Our questionnaire offered evolutionary scientists only two choices on the question about human free will: A, all organisms are locally determined by heredity and environment, but humans still possess free will; B, all organisms are locally determined by heredity and environment, and humans have no free will. To our surprise, 79 percent of the respondents chose option A for this question, indicating their belief that people have free will despite being determined by heredity and environment. Only 14 percent chose no free will, and 7 percent did not answer the question.

      I too am bit surprised by these results.

      • Doc Bill
        Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:03 am | Permalink

        I am never surprised by survey results. I once gave a talk to a skeptics club and for fun read a list, Acupuncture to Yeti, and asked people to raise their hand if they “believed” in any of these. I was ASTOUNDED how many people raised their hands for things like ghosts, crystal healing and even demons!

        I expected read list, no hands.

      • artikcat
        Posted July 21, 2010 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

        ” a bit surprised by these results..”?? why? how? when you say Im a bit surprised by reality, you dont know whats going on, mostly

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted July 21, 2010 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

          This is a pretty snide remark. What does it add to the discussion?

          • artikcat
            Posted July 21, 2010 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

            snide? how so? it adds the inescapable, albeit ignored, fact that usually our “hunches” (biases) are wrong. Hence, a statement like: “I’m a bit surprised..”, is wrong, and helps to perpetuate misconceptions.

            • Posted July 21, 2010 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

              How so? The usual way – by not saying ‘usually our “hunches” (biases) are wrong’ but saying a snide version, instead. You do that a lot. Don’t play dumb.

            • artikcat
              Posted July 21, 2010 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

              You read too deep on my comment: i try not to follow my biases when I do comment, but I am unsuccessful many times: gimme so leeway here. My apologies if it seems I play dumb, on purpose, to pick on commentators, really.

      • Posted July 21, 2010 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

        I’d choose the first option myself unless the questionnaire explicitly defined free will according to the inane definition excerpted in the blog post above. As I said in an earlier comment, any definition of free will that is not compatible with free will is meaningless.

        So, I would argue that humans, like all other organisms, are locally determined by heredity and environment, but that we also have the property of free will, which is totally unrelated to acting in a manner determined by heredity and environment.

        I would also consider many organisms with complex nervous systems (chimps, whales, pigs, mice, snakes, frogs, trout, octopuses etc.) to have free will in varying degrees, which is to say that they have control over their actions, actions which are of course determined by heredity and environment.

        So, my question is, did the questionnaire explicitly define free will or did Cashmore merely assume that the respondents used the same inane definition of free will that he did?

        • Posted July 21, 2010 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

          “any definition of free will that is not compatible with free will is meaningless.”

          While that is true, what I meant was

          “any definition of free will that is not compatible with determinism is meaningless.”

  9. Dominic
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    Bruce Hood in his book ‘Supersense’ aka ‘The Science of Superstition’, talks of how children are natural dualists. He argues that it makes evolutionary sense to see motive behind a moving brach etc as it might conceal a predator. He mentions I think the Nature Neuroscience article from 2008 by Soon et al who said “There has been a long controversy as to whether subjectively ‘free’ decisions are determined by brain activity ahead of time. We found that the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 s before it enters awareness. This delay presumably reflects the operation of a network of high-level control areas that begin to prepare an upcoming decision long before it enters awareness.” – Nature Neuroscience 11, 543 – 545 (2008)
    | doi:10.1038/nn.2112

  10. Mark K
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    I don’t see what the big problem is. We don’t have free will, so what? If you think about it, It will not and can not change anything. Nor can the realisation that we don’t have it.
    Free will is just a dusty old religious concept that does nothing for me.

    • Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      Except our legal punitive system is based on it.

      • Coel
        Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:37 am | Permalink

        Our legal punitive system is not based on notions of “free will” any more than our moral systems are based on religion.

        There are indeed superficial commentaries that claim both, but in truth you can ditch both free-will and religion and still have entirely functioning moral and legal systems.

        • artikcat
          Posted July 21, 2010 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

          que grande sos!!

      • The Swede
        Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:42 am | Permalink

        The legal punitive system in civilized countries is based around deterrence. The penalties are not there to “pay” for the crime, but to deter those who would be inclined to commit the crime.

        There are, of course, barbaric exceptions where this does not apply, and where the free will argument might hold.

        • Tim Martin
          Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:57 am | Permalink

          Do you honestly believe that when a little girl is raped and murdered, people cry out for the murderer to be sentenced to death because they want to stop some other person from doing the same? I don’t.

          Also, read some transcripts of court sentences. In them, judges talk about justice. They talk about how the sentence is commensurate with the crime – how the criminal is deserving of exactly what they’re getting. (Here’s one sentence I found after a quick search: http://www.snopes.com/politics/soapbox/shoebomb.asp)

          Justice, and giving people what they deserve, seems very much to be the ethos of at least the American justice system, and – I would assume – many others as well. Telling someone that they were being punished simply because “this punishment has been deemed necessary in order to prevent other people from committing the crime you did” would immediately prompt cries of “that’s not fair.” People watching the court proceedings would find themselves thinking “but you can’t give a person that sentence if they don’t deserve it, just because you don’t want other people doing the same thing!” Humans do not seem to be comfortable with punishing others just for practical purposes, and if someone has actual examples of that being the case, I would be very interested in seeing them.

          • Coel
            Posted July 21, 2010 at 11:08 am | Permalink

            Re: “Do you honestly believe that when a little girl is raped and murdered, people cry out for the murderer to be sentenced to death because they want to stop some other person from doing the same?”

            No, but the reason we have those feelings is because we have been programmed by evolution to feel that way, because genes for notions of “justice” have prospered in our highly social and cooperative way of life.

            And those notions of “justice” have evolved precisely because of their deterrent and crime-reduction effect.

            There is no need for any concept of “freewill” there; the notion of justice can stand quite happily without it.

            • Tim Martin
              Posted July 21, 2010 at 11:23 am | Permalink

              The notion of justice you describe is not one that’s practiced in any court I’ve ever heard of. When a court gives a sentence, if there has been ample reason to see the criminal’s actions as being a result of, for example, a traumatic upbringing, the sentencing is more lenient. This is because whenever humans see an action as being less under the control of someone’s will, we judge that person less harshly (or less positively, as the case may be). So tell me, how does the idea of free will not come into play here?

            • Coel
              Posted July 21, 2010 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

              Re: “When a court gives a sentence, if there has been ample reason to see the criminal’s actions as being a result of, for example, a traumatic upbringing, the sentencing is more lenient.”

              I’m not aware of that in the UK legal system; maybe it’s a feature of a nation with a surfeit of lawyers! I’m willing to bet it is a relatively recent innovation, not a traditional feature of human justice systems.

              “So tell me, how does the idea of free will not come into play here?”

              Because we’d still have our *feelings* about justice regardless of what we think about freewill.

            • Posted July 21, 2010 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

              You’re not aware of that in the UK legal system? Really? Did you miss the recent fuss about Cherie Booth giving a more lenient sentence to a guy who broke another guy’s jaw in a street brawl, because he was “a religious man”?

            • Coel
              Posted July 21, 2010 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

              Exactly, a “fuss”, for which Cherie Booth was “given advice” by her superiors.

            • Tim Martin
              Posted July 21, 2010 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

              Re: “I’m not aware of that in the UK legal system”

              No need to guess. If you’re from the UK, you’re probably more familiar with famous cases of heinous crimes committed there than I am. Look one up where someone did something horrible to another person – in such cases the criminal almost always had some trouble in his/her childhood. Find the transcript of the case or a description of it, and see if the criminal’s childhood was cited as a mitigating factor. Here is an example from an American court: http://www.romingerlegal.com/new_jersey/supreme/a-109-99.opn.html

              “Because we’d still have our *feelings* about justice regardless of what we think about freewill.”

              No, see… our moral instincts take into account whether someone’s will was involved in their wrongdoing. That’s why I don’t get as mad at you if you accidentally step on my foot than if you do it on purpose. Concurrently, we blame people less for things when we see that they had little choice in what they did. What we think about the involvement of someone’s will in what they’ve done wrong is a fundamental factor in shaping our judgements about the morality of that action (and you can read the book, Moral Minds, for more information on this). Our “feelings about justice” (read: moral instincts) would not be the same if we absolved people of their volition – there would be no reason to see anyone as deserving of anything, good OR bad.

            • Coel
              Posted July 21, 2010 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

              Re: “… criminal’s childhood was cited as a mitigating factor. Here is an example from an American court:”

              But it seems the jury still sentenced him to death!

              “No, see… our moral instincts take into account whether someone’s will was involved in their wrongdoing.”

              I’d prefer to call it “intent”, since “will” is a loaded word.

              “What we think about the involvement of someone’s will in what they’ve done wrong is a fundamental factor in shaping our judgements about the morality of that action”

              But we can treat people as intentional, decision-making agents regardless of whether the decisions are “free” will as opposed to non-free will.

              “Our “feelings about justice” (read: moral instincts) would not be the same if we absolved people of their volition …”

              That’s the point: we needn’t absolve them from volition, we simply regard it as non-free volition.

              ” – there would be no reason to see anyone as deserving of anything, good OR bad.”

              But all the same reasons would still apply. All our evolutionary programming about social mores, all our intellectual judgments about deterrence, would still apply.

              You are right that one thing would have to change: how we might rationalise things to ourselves. But such rationalisations are mostly a surface commentary, rather than our true motives.

              Adopt a slightly different rationalisation, and everything else stays the same, including nearly all actual decisions.

              Afterall, they still sentenced to death the guy in the case you cited. And I’m guessing that through history most people convicted of similar crimes got heavily punished.

              Just think it through: “OK, child-murdering rapists can’t help it, so we should not punish them”. So we abolish all punishments for rape and murder.

              Do you imagine that people would accept that (even if they genuinely believed will was not free)? Of course not.

              Once people accept that will is not “free” then, after some period of puzzled reflection, they’ll end up wanting a legal system pretty much exactly as it is now.

            • Tim Martin
              Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

              I’m not sure what you’re arguing for at this point. First of all, in none of my comments have I made any statement about how punishment systems should change.

              What you originally said that I disagree with is this “Our legal punitive system is not based on notions of “free will””

              I assert that ths is blatantly false. Read some court sentences. In them, you will find that judges talk about what the plaintiff deserves. You won’t find them saying that the plaintiff “doesn’t technically deserve what he’s getting, but we have to give you this sentence so that other people won’t do the same thing.”

              When the little girl in that second case I linked to was murdered, people did not say that Timmendequas should get the death sentence in order to keep him off the streets or in order to prevent other people from raping children. They said he should die because the bastard deserved it – and I would know, because Megan Kanka lived in my neighborhood.

              At both the official and unofficial levels, punishment is considered to be deserved. The concept of deserving it does not hold if people don’t have free will (imagine saying that a robot deserved to be scrapped for what it did)- therefore it is patently false that “civilized justice systems” do not presume the existence of free will. That is what I’m disagreeing with you on.

              “But it seems the jury still sentenced him to death! ”

              Irrelevant. My point was that past events that affect the person you become are taken into account by our court systems when assessing culpability. That the mitigating factors in Timmedequas’ case weighed less heavily than his crimes does not change the fact that they were weighed.

            • Coel
              Posted July 22, 2010 at 2:18 am | Permalink

              Re: “What you originally said that I disagree with is this “Our legal punitive system is not based on notions of “free will””. I assert that this is blatantly false.”

              I fully accept that it is based on notions of will, just not *free* will.

              “The concept of deserving it does not hold if people don’t have free will […] That is what I’m disagreeing with you on.”

              OK, this is where we disagree. I argue that the notion of what someone “deserves” works just as well for non-free will as it does for free will.

              This might require a bit of superficial adjustment in the commentary people give for their attitudes, but doesn’t require any practical change.

              Re: ““But it seems the jury still sentenced him to death! ” Irrelevant. My point was that past events that affect the person you become are taken into account by our court systems when assessing culpability.”

              You mean that defence lawyers try to have them taken into account (a fairly modern fashion) but that juries just shrug and do what they would have done anyway.

            • Tim Martin
              Posted July 22, 2010 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

              What you seem to be saying is that a system of justice could work without the concept of free will, if we just treated everyone the same way we do now. I am not so sure that people would agree to do things that way, but I’ll let that go for now. What I am and have been arguing is that legal systems do not currently work that way. The ideas of justice, just desserts, and retribution, are at least as much a part of the system as deterrence is, if not more. We do not do this because it works; we do it because we want blood.

              “You mean that defence lawyers try to have them taken into account (a fairly modern fashion) but that juries just shrug and do what they would have done anyway.”

              You are making far too many assertions while doing far too little research to back them up. See the following, emphasis mine:

              “In general, the jury may not be precluded from considering, and may not refuse to consider, any relevant mitigating evidence in determining whether capital punishment is the appropriate sentence for a particular defendant.” (http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Consideration+of+Mitigating+Factors)

              “In a series of decisions since 1972, the United States Supreme Court has attempted to make the sentence of death in the United States less arbitrary by emphasizing that the judge or jury must be given the opportunity to consider all mitigating evidence before determining the sentence.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitigating_factor#cite_note-jaapl-2)

              And, regarding non-capital punishment cases:
              “The weighing of aggravating and mitigating factors is most often used in connection with the penalty phase of capital murder cases, when the jury is deciding the life or death of the defendant, but the same principle applies to many different cases, such as driving under the influence cases.” (http://crime.about.com/od/death/a/mitigating.htm)

          • Bryan
            Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

            I do.

          • The Swede
            Posted July 22, 2010 at 5:46 am | Permalink

            The deterrence is in the law, not in its application. A judge who appeals to deterrence is not doing his job. The job of a judge is to apply the law to an individual case, and deterrence is no longer an aspect – it has already failed.

            Where deterrence enters the legal system is in the creation of repercussions for non-desirable acts. The legislator is the one creating, working with and appealing to deterrence, not the judge.

            Legal systems are much more than justices handing out sentences. In fact, that part is arguably the least important part of a legal system as that’s just the application of already set in place formulae.

            • Tim Martin
              Posted July 22, 2010 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

              I disagreed with your statement, “The legal punitive system in civilized countries is based around deterrence” because I don’t consider it accurate to say the punitive system is “based around deterrence” when the courts still very much take into account what people deserve. That legislators are aiming to deter, I will grant you (even though you’ve provided no evidence to back it up). But the fact that courts still hand down sentences based on what people “deserve” means that the entire system is not based on deterrence. Furthermore, I completely expect that many people in the justice system would have second thoughts about how crime is handled if they came to understand that humans don’t have free will, which is what Michelle B was originally saying.

      • truthspeaker
        Posted July 21, 2010 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

        If we don’t have free will, then we don’t have any choice in how we design our legal system.

        • Marella
          Posted July 21, 2010 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

          You misunderstand the meaning of free will. There is still choice.

    • Delusional
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      If there’s no such thing as free will, then people like murderers and rapists cannot be properly punished, since they’re victims of their genetics and their environment. Stereotypes will have more attention paid to them, since they would be viewed as being based on someone’s genetic heritage. A man could one day be arrested for being the son of a murderer, since he will be viewed as having a genetic predisposition to murder. There will be a huge rise in pre-emptive actions (arrests, strikes, etc.), and most likely, there will be no one left in this country without a criminal record based on predisposition.

      • The Swede
        Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:43 am | Permalink

        This is as much a given as that it’s a given that atheists eat babies.

        • Delusional
          Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:49 am | Permalink

          Just you wait and see.
          If there is absolutely no such thing as free will, then one can infer that each and every single thing that makes us who we are is based on genes, with the environment allowing us to bring different aspects of ourselves to light. If that’s the case, then the son of a murderer has a chance of becoming a murderer themselves. One can argue that person’s imprisonment on the grounds of genetic predisposition. Eventually, that could apply to the sons and daughters of dictators, or rapists, or any sort of negative character.

          • The Swede
            Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:54 am | Permalink

            What you describe is a religion, not a conclusion from the lack of free will. Sure, some people will argue this way, but that is as correct as arguing that all atheists eat babies.

          • Coel
            Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:58 am | Permalink

            Re: “If that’s the case, then the son of a murderer has a chance of becoming a murderer themselves.”

            So what?, so does everyone else. The chances for the son of a murderer might be higher, but likely only a bit higher. Afterall, children are not clones, and even if they were, environmental factors are also important.

            What you might sensibly argue for is good education and similar intervention for children of dysfunctional families.

      • TK
        Posted July 21, 2010 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

        Baloney. We lock up rapists and murderers for three reasons- containment of a threat to others, deterrent to others committing similar antisocial acts, and reformation (one could call it a deterrent to recidivism.)None of those are the least bit affected by whether, deep down, people has access to a set of supernatural dice.

        As for your slippery slope, that’s again just silliness. History is littered with flareups of exactly that kind of logic, and it dies away precisely because it’s wantonly non-functional. The world provides too many inputs and human beings are too malleable for a system based on some crude eugenics to be anything but an exercise in futility and injustice, and everyone knows it.

        • Tim Martin
          Posted July 21, 2010 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

          I’ll say it again: Show me a court sentence in which a judge emphasizes deterrence or containment of a threat over the idea that the punishment is commensurate with the crime and therefore deserved.

          • Marella
            Posted July 21, 2010 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

            The idea that someone deserves their punishment is not mutually exclusive with the idea of deterrance. You could say that any crime deserves a punishment sufficient to deter it’s being committed, in the first place by the perpetrator in court and then by others outside considering if such a crime would be in their best interests.

            • Tim Martin
              Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

              I’m just saying that “justice” or the want to “give people what they deserve” when they have committed a wrongdoing is A reason if not THE reason that societies punish their criminals. TK wrote his comment as if societies’ reasons for punishing people were competely utilitarian, and I do not buy that.

          • The Swede
            Posted July 22, 2010 at 5:50 am | Permalink

            I’ll say it again; that is not the judge’s job. That is the legislator’s job. The law is intended to deter, not the judgment.

      • See Nick Overlook
        Posted July 21, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

        But if there’s no such thing as free will then we have to punish them because we are also victims of our genetics and environment. We have as little choice as they have.

      • truthspeaker
        Posted July 21, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

        If there’s no such thing as free will, then we have no choice in how we set up our justice system.

    • Patrick Julius
      Posted July 22, 2010 at 6:25 am | Permalink

      Insofar as IDEAS can change our BEHAVIOR, that is in fact free will.

      So merely fearing that denying free will would change our behavior implies that you believe in free will.

  11. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    More on Evolution and Human Free Will

    Allen MacNeill of Cornell discusses his summer seminar on the topic, and offers a reading list.

    Of particular interest:
    Fisher, J., Kane, R., Pereboom, D., & Vargas, M. (2007) Four Views on Free Will, Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN: 1405134860, 240 pages.

  12. Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    Rather than posting a long-winded comment, I’ve written about it here:

    “A system qualifies as free if you can show that the specific effectiveness and the complexity of transformation by which a system shapes the outside environment, in which it is embedded, does trump the environmental influence on the defined system.”

    http://spacecollective.org/XiXiDu/5759/Free-will-as-nonlinear-transformational-effectiveness

  13. TheBlackCat
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    I will sidestep the question of free will, but about th judicial system I don’t see how free will is at all relevant. The question the judicial system asks is not whether someone had free will, the question is whether someone understood that their actions were wrong and acted anyway. And the issue with punishment is punishment for punishment’s sake, it is to act as a deterrent.

    To put it in a deterministic and highly simplified form, the potential costs and potential rewards of any given action, as understood by the one considering the action, are put into a person formula with individualized weightings for each, and then a decision on whether to carry out the action is made (perhaps at a subconscious level). The risk of punishment is one of the costs taken into account. Offending our sense of empathy is one as well for most people. So by imposing punishment we increase the perceived risks for those whose empathy weighting is not high enough to prevent them from carrying out the action.

    I know it is a highly simplified way of looking at things, my point is more that even if the decision is entirely deterministic then punishment is still valid because it acts to deter people from carrying out unwanted actions.

    The problem with, for instance, mentally retarded by or insane people in my mind is not that they lack free will, it is that their “formula” is either too simple or too broken to adequately take into account the cost of the punishment, or even the potential that punishment might occur. That is why they are generally considered exempt from this punishment. It isn’t that they don’t have free will, it is that they don’t understand the implications of their actions, either for themselves or for others.

    • piero
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      Exactly!

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:57 am | Permalink

        Yeah, but what if understanding the implications of our actions is not under our control either?

        • TheBlackCat
          Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:07 am | Permalink

          I’m not following. Either we understand them, or we don’t. Why should we be able to control what we understand?

          • Szwagier
            Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:32 am | Permalink

            The obvious problem with saying that punishment is a deterrent is that, if that were the case, there are two conclusions which immediately follow.

            1) It doesn’t matter whether someone has actually committed a crime or not. All the judicial system has to do is say Person X committed the crime and then punish them accordingly. No guilt required. The deterrent will still work.

            2) The higher the penalty, the greater the deterrent. That way leads to the death penalty for motoring offences. If you knew you were going to die, you wouldn’t park illegally, would you?

            • The Swede
              Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink

              1) Incorrect. It is not deterrence if effect does not follow cause.

              2) The goal isn’t ultimate deterrence. The goal is a livable society.

            • Patrick Julius
              Posted July 22, 2010 at 6:27 am | Permalink

              That’s incredibly stupid.

              Point 1 ignores the fact that you are supposed to be deterring SOME BEHAVIOR; if the punishment isn’t connected to the behavior, there is nothing to deter.

              Point 2 ignores the purpose of deterring crime in the first place, which is to make our lives better. It isn’t to deter some arbitrarily-selected class of actions for the sake of doing that; it’s to make people safer and happier. Execution for parking violations wouldn’t make anyone happier, hence we do not do it.

            • Posted July 22, 2010 at 7:41 am | Permalink

              Picture the government changing the laws to either situation 1 or 2 (or both). Would it increase people’s adherence to the law? Of course not – it would lead to mistrust of the judicial system and massive breakdown of society, or else a revolt against the new laws. Thus the two situations would be less effective deterrents that what we have now, so there is no problem.

        • Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:30 am | Permalink

          A legal system based on punishment is flawed, anyway.

          And the kicker — if we don’t have free will, how precisely are we culpable for punishing all these ‘un-free’ criminals, anyway? Do we have a choice?

          • Delusional
            Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:40 am | Permalink

            You’d rather us let the man who kills people, rapes their corpses, and wears their skin like a coat run free?

            • Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:56 am | Permalink

              Let me clarify. “letting them run free” is not part of the equation. Detain, execute, whatever — not my point here — my point is that punishment, the emotional need to make others suffer, is a weakness in one’s self. As much fun as it can be sometimes.

              And second, I was saying that ‘lack of free will’ doesn’t imply that we are wrong for punishing criminals (who apparently can’t help themselves) at all. Because if WE have been predetermined to be litigious, then is it OUR fault if we, the legal system, punish these people?

              Imagine a robot programmed to build something — aka “Citizen”. If “Citizen” has a error, another robot — aka “Court” — takes it apart and melts it down. If we are absolving Citizen of responsibility due to this lack of free will, we have to absolve Court, also.

              Note my above comments, though, plz — I think the free will debate is fundamentally flawed to begin with.
              -DE

          • Tim Martin
            Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:42 am | Permalink

            Careful there.

            It’s a misuse of the concept of determinism (or “lack of free will,” if you prefer) to say someone doesn’t have a choice in something before they do it. After the action has been initiated, we can say that that was what they were always determined to do, but not before – because we do not have the knowledge or computational power necessary to determine the future given the conditions of the universe at present. Of course we can choose whether to punish criminals or not.

          • Patrick Julius
            Posted July 22, 2010 at 6:28 am | Permalink

            “if we don’t have free will, how precisely are we culpable for punishing all these ‘un-free’ criminals, anyway? Do we have a choice?”

            Indeed. But we do have free will, in all the morally-meaningful ways one could have free will; so this line of argument is pointless.

    • Tim Martin
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      1. I don’t believe judicial systems are based solely on the idea of being a deterrent. The idea that people who are convicted deserve their punishment is also a large factor. However, we commonly make allowances for criminals whose upbringing, say, has had an obvious effect on their ability to make good choices. We give such people lighter sentences, because it is apparent how their behavior has been in part determined by past events. But there’s the rub – considering that we do not have free will, all of our actions are determined by past events. This brings into question the entire idea of punishing someone for something they could not help but do.

      2. I believe it’s been shown that criminal punishments don’t even work very well as deterrents, although I don’t have any sources for that at the moment.

      • Coel
        Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:51 am | Permalink

        Re: “I don’t believe judicial systems are based solely on the idea of being a deterrent. The idea that people who are convicted deserve their punishment is also a large factor.”

        But the reason we have evolved to feel that people “deserve” punishment is to police and reduce anti-social behaviour. At root, it is the same as deterence. We wouldn’t deter people unless we felt the behaviour to be wrong.

        • Tim Martin
          Posted July 21, 2010 at 11:11 am | Permalink

          We still have to feel that the punishment is deserved. Humans aren’t generally comfortable with assigning punishment for purely practical means (such as to keep other people from doing the same thing.) See my response to The Swede above.

          Again, show me a court sentence where the judge emphasizes deterrence over the fact that the criminal did something wrong and his/her punishment is deserved.

          • Coel
            Posted July 21, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink

            Re: “We still have to feel that the punishment is deserved.”

            True, but ask why genes for those feelings have prospered in our evolutionary history.

            It isn’t anything to do with notions of “freewill”; natural selection is simply practical and pragmatic.

            Those “justice” genes have prospered because social and cooperative behaviour have tended to be more successful than violent and anti-social behaviour (though of course evolution theory tells us there will always be a balance, rather than a complete dominance of one over the other).

    • truthspeaker
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      Even if our justice system were based on deterrent, this wouldn’t conflict with determinism. If a brain would act one way if it had no expectation of punishment, but would act a different way if it did have an expectation of punishment, that doesn’t violate determinism. The deterrent is just one of the factors that effect the outcome.

      A cow can learn to avoid an electric fence, and I don’t think many would argue that cows have free will.

      • truthspeaker
        Posted July 21, 2010 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

        ^affect

      • Patrick Julius
        Posted July 22, 2010 at 6:31 am | Permalink

        Actually, I would argue that cows have free will. They are sentient, intelligent organisms, just as we are.

        Indeed, I would argue that a cow’s free will is comparable to a human’s, though of course not quite as powerful.

        Perhaps that’s the part of the debate that makes all you libertarians (or anti-libertarians) so confused; you don’t seem to understand how “free will” could describe a process that is present not only in these “magical” Homo sapiens, but indeed in every sentient organism in the universe. Free will as I and other compatibilists understand it is a process used by ALL sentient organisms in the universe, and it is largely the POINT of being sentient in fact.

        • TheBlackCat
          Posted July 22, 2010 at 10:36 am | Permalink

          I would say free will is only possible for a being that is aware of its own existence. A non-self-aware organism by definition could not have free will, because free will implies understanding of how actions influence yourself and others. This is not possible for an organism that lacks a concept of “self” or “others”.

  14. Zimmy
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Even though I agree that “free will” may be an illusion I don’t agree that this implies that our judicial system should be changed. Our actions may be predetermined by the environment in which we live, but the judicial system is part of this environment. As long as most sane people respond in a predictatble way to the judicial part of our environment, whether through having more “free will” than the mentally ill or not, I would say that the basis of the system is sound.

  15. Coel
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    I don’t understand why we need to “act as if” we had free will. We can just accept that we have will, non-free will, a will that is the product of our material brain plus all sorts of influences on that brain.

    The fact that it is non-free will does not make any practical difference.

    For example, take jailing criminals. Non-free will is still amenable to deterence (a change in environment can modify non-free will); and it is capable of being reformed (a change in environment can modify non-free will); and the motive of removing criminals from society to reduce their crime still applies.

    So, we don’t have free will. And this requires no substantive changes to the legal system.

    Not only do we not have free will, we don’t need to think we do. Thinking that we do is much like being a faitheist: not only can we happily ditch belief in god/free-will, we can also ditch the idea that those beliefs are beneficial or necessary!

    We can ditch both quite happily, and without it making any practical difference.

    • Patrick Julius
      Posted July 22, 2010 at 6:31 am | Permalink

      Well, yes, if by “unfree will” you mean rational volition, which is what I mean by “free will”.

  16. Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Does anyone know Douglas Hofstadter? I read his book “I Am a Strange Loop”, in which he explains that a system with enough complexity to “see” itself (the strange loop of the title) acquires some properties that are not present in its elementary components or in the “rules” of the game.

    Hofstadter deals with the emergence of consciousness in complex systems, but this reasoning could explain the emergence of some sort of free will in a completely deterministic system.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      I read I Am a Strange Loop by Hofstadter. The book is compelling and is a thoughtful presentation, but ii is philosophical and not scientific.

      • Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:04 am | Permalink

        The scientific method is just another kind of philosophy.

        I perceive the tendency of many scientists to disregard philosophy to be deeply troubling. Karl Popper (falsifiability) was a philosopher after all.

        I recommend reading ‘Being an Absolute Skeptic’ http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/284/5420/1625

        • TheBlackCat
          Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:09 am | Permalink

          He was, which is why his ideas are considered interesting but far from the last word on what is and is not science.

          • Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:16 am | Permalink

            The only truth is my volition and my experience of its realization the absolute justification.

            That is, you can assess your data with practicability. If a drug makes you think that you can fly you can jump from the next bridge and be brought back down to earth by reality.

            But you don’t need truth. You don’t need probability. Reports from the past do NOT need to provide evidence to what will occur in the future. Science is that which provides hints. It is about states of partial information. If there is the slightest hint of something it’s reasonable to support it. As long as you cannot invoke a contradiction no conclusion to the contrary can be drawn. It’s about going as far as possible with a given interpretation before abandoning it due to the unpleasant experience of faultiness and contradiction. There is no truth in science, at least no more than in other ways of knowing. Science only has to provide the ability to assess your data. The experience of its realization is a justification that bears a hint. Any hint that empirical criticism provides gives you new information on which you can build on. Not because it bears truth value but because it gives you an idea of where you want to go. An opportunity to try something. There’s that which seemingly fails or contradicts itself and that which seems to work and is consistent. For various known and unknown reasons both could either be true or false anyway. But since that’s all information you got you might as well pick that which you like better, namely that which works and makes sense. What else could you do and why would you do it?

        • NewEnglandBob
          Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:14 am | Permalink

          You miss the point, XixiDu. Hofstadter did not use the scientific method. Calling it philosophical is an observation, not an indictment.

          The scientific method is not just another kind of philosophy.

          • Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:19 am | Permalink

            So if the scientific method is NOT just another kind of philosophy, what is the key point that distinguishes it from, say, extrasensory perceptions?

            • NewEnglandBob
              Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:22 am | Permalink

              No soap, radio. Your question is meaningless.

          • Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:23 am | Permalink

            P.S. I was rather referring to the blog post, not your comment.

            “…he completely neglects science..” etc.

          • Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:25 am | Permalink

            It’s not meaningless as you made a claim I’m trying to understand.

          • Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:30 am | Permalink

            Ok, let me rephrase my question. Sorry, I have no formal education and am just chatting away here.

            I’m not anti-science or anything. I’m just wondering what exactly makes you think the scientific method is detached from other ways of knowing to an extent that it is no more subject to philosophy.

            But don’t worry, this is getting too much off-topic I guess.

            • NewEnglandBob
              Posted July 21, 2010 at 11:06 am | Permalink

              YOU made a claim. I said it is not true. YOU need to justify your claim with some evidence, logic and a fact or two. I do not have to defend my negative response until you clearly state a positive case.

            • Posted July 21, 2010 at 11:20 am | Permalink

              You were the one to say “but ii is philosophical and not scientific.”

              Either that statement is empty, as you see no difference between science and philosophy or you made a claim.

  17. Eric MacDonald
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    True free will, if that means each individual being the absolute orignator of all his/her decisions, does not exist. Indeed, it would be odd if it did, for that would mean that each action would be, in some sense, an uncaused cause.

    However, even within deterministic systems, there is something which can be called free will, or, at least, free agency. Owen Flanagan does a good job of outlining the features necessary for free agency, and argues that these features are available to determinstic systems like human beings. He lists these characteristics, and explores them in some detail in The Problem of the Soul (Chapter 4):

    Self control
    Self expression
    Individuality
    Reason sensitivity
    Rational deliberation
    Rational Accountability
    Moral Accountability
    The capacity to do otherwise
    Unpredictability
    Political Freedom

    Obviously, I can’t repeat the arguments here. However, it seems plausible to suppose that more can be said about free agency than can be examined by biology. This doesn’t make it religious, but it does enter the realm of language, culture, and how these contribute not only to the sense of free choice, but to the actual possibility of choosing between alternatives.

    One important feature here is that pure free will would be completely unrelated to character, consistency, history (biography), present influences on one’s behaviour, etc. etc. The issue, therefore, is a complex one, and probably not something that can be resolved scientifically. This doesn’t, however, make it religious. Nor, I suspect, should it lead us to let misbehaviour off with a casual, “Well, clearly he couldn’t help himself.” Recidivism is not 100%, which suggests that, if free agency is not on the menu, at least deterence has some effect, and becomes one casual stream along with all the others.

    But all this was written before reading Cashmore’s study. I want to see if I will change my mind.

    • Ray
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:03 am | Permalink

      “First, the legal system assumes a capacity for individuals not only to distinguish between right and wrong, but to act according to those distinctions—that is, an integral component of the legal system is a belief in free will.”

      “I believe that free will is better defined as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature.”

      Cashmore is using two different definitions of free will in these quotes.

      Do people distinguish between right and wrong and act on those distinctions? of course.

      Are the processes by which they acquire and use these abilities anything other than physical? almost certainly not. So?

    • Patrick Julius
      Posted July 22, 2010 at 6:32 am | Permalink

      Well said.

  18. lylebot
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    As a materialist, I don’t believe in free will either.

    As a computer scientist, it seems to me that whatever the algorithm is that results in our actions, its inputs are so complex that we have absolutely no hope of understanding it completely. Which means there’s no reason to change society just because free will doesn’t exist: if we can’t understand the algorithm, how can we understand how best to change things?

    I personally think that a world without free will (the one we live in) is indistinguishable from a world in which free will actually exists.

    • piero
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      Interesting. I would ask you as a computer scientist: do you think it is possible for a piece of software to be fully “aware” of every single one of its inputs and processes? I believe it is not, because the “meta-software” required to do this would be more complex than the original.

      • The Swede
        Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:51 am | Permalink

        No need for belief on this. The halting problem provides a definitive answer. Look it up; it’s very interesting, as are its implications.

        • piero
          Posted July 21, 2010 at 11:57 am | Permalink

          Thank you. I will.

    • Posted July 23, 2010 at 9:49 am | Permalink

      “I personally think that a world without free will (the one we live in) is indistinguishable from a world in which free will actually exists.”

      I suppose you mean “objectively indistinguishable”… The only available distinction would then be subjective. And that is a good reason to believe that our unexplained subjective experience of free will is true.

  19. SteveC
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    It has always seemed rather obvious to me that there cannot be any such thing as free will, ever since I gave it a bit of thought as a college freshman.

  20. steve oberski
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    My free will “get out of jail free card” says that we are the result of a deterministic process but since it is not possible (and may never be possible) to precisely define the starting conditions, or in fact to precisely measure the conditions at any time, it feels like we have free will.

    Similar to weather prediction, small (or not so small) errors in setting up the initial conditions means that any weather model soon diverges from reality.

    • Szwagier
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink

      Mine, too.

    • J. G. Cox
      Posted July 22, 2010 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      My will often diverges from reality too.

  21. Mike from Ottawa
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    What nonsense is “… I prefer to think …” with “think” italicized and “prefer” not, or “I believe that free will is better defined as a belief …” in a materialist? Is there any more basis for ‘believing’ belief or preference exists than there is for ‘believing’ free will or self? Only by ceasing to ‘think’ and be ‘self-aware’ can you achieve consistency in your materialism.

    What I’ve seen from JC above is nothing more than using the a priori assumption of materialism, with a dollop of personal credulity to justify ignoring the most compelling reasons to doubt the conclusion: our own experience of ourselves.

    But, machts nicht, eh.

    • Chris
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      Yes, piffling linguistic ‘inconsistency’ during normal language usage by a materialist is in fact highly revealing that materialism is a philosophically incoherent position. A true materialist wouldn’t even use language. Therefore, God is real and his son Jesus died for our sins. QED.

  22. Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Thoughtful commentary. I’ll try to find time to read the PNAS article, but will chip in a few thoughts of my own in the meantime. I agree with those who say the crux of the problem is definitional.

    It seems to me that free will is best regarded as a top-down emergent system that can affect the environment in ways that its components cannot. Relatively simple examples of such systems might include hurricanes, whose internal structure allows them to remodel coastlines from time to time. I doubt anyone would argue that hurricanes have free will, but they might be structurally akin to something that does.

    Consciousness, being the most complex system known to exist, is a touch harder to describe. But it seems to me that, given the high cost of big brains — both the energy cost and the high mother/infant mortality rate (absent modern care) — that there must be some offsetting advantage to big brains equipped with consciousness. One possibility is sexual selection. Another is that consciousness actually allows us to do things — to imagine various futures and act upon them — that confer survival advantages. My hunch is that both are true, and that in this limited sense free will is real.

    Regards,

    Clay

  23. oldfuzz
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    The absence of free will is no excuse for being a troll, unless that’s your DNA.

  24. Doc Bill
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    My wife tells me that I had Free Will before I met her, but I don’t remember.

  25. wice
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I don’t believe we have “free will” in a sense that would really deserve to be called either “free” or “will”, because I have yet to see a model, where our decisions are not determined either by completely deterministic, or, stochastic causes. We have the _illusion_ of free will, probably because some of the processes of our brain are not conscious, so many times we make decisions, that are seemingly completely independent from any information we _thought_ we had before the decision, so it seems to us, that we can decide freely.

    On the other hand, even if we don’t have free will, it’s completely silly to suggest, that _because of it_ we have to rethink the legal system.

    The legal system depends _nominally_ on the assumption of free will, but this is just historical language. In reality, the legal system depends (and always depended) on the _fact_, that the vast majority of people are able to absorb and process information about what is and isn’t allowed, what are the consequences of breaking the law, and this information _can_ modify their brain-structure in the desired direction.

    This is a (not 100% effective) way of _programming_. If we knew enough about the brain, we could simply rewire everyone to obey the law (which, by the way, is a frightening scenario, because it would lead to stagnation). But currently we cannot, so we use the only (imperfect) way we know: the threat of punishment.

    It’s absolutely necessary for the legal system to actually punish those, who break the laws. Not to take revenge on the criminals, but to show everyone we want to “program”, that the threat of punishment is real.

    (Of course, the threat of punishment is useless without a good chance of being caught, but that’s another topic.)

  26. Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    >> I decided to adopt an uneasy compromise, believing that there’s no such thing as free will but acting as if there were. <<

    Supposing it's even possible to do otherwise.

  27. Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    “I’ve always tried to avoid thinking about free will”

    Was that a conscious decision, based on your own free will?

  28. Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    With regard to the legal system, there is no justification for eradicating punishment on the grounds that no-one has free will. The idea of not doling it out to the criminally insane is based on the idea that it wouldn’t have any effect, or perhaps a detrimental effect on them. The fact that (the threat of) punishment changes the way most people behave is reason enough not to eradicate it. In fact, this is in line with the “no free will” idea: it’s just another influence on our behaviour.

    • Posted July 21, 2010 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      There is also the principle of “not responsible because of mental defect” that affects trial outcomes and sentencing. I think it does rest on the supposition of “free will” or lack thereof.

      It always seemed a bit of a stretch to me, but then I’m neither a lawyer nor a psychologist. I figure that most people committing violent crimes, for example, are “not right in the head”, at least temporarily. That doesn’t mean they aren’t accountable for their actions.

  29. Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Daniel Dennett gave a most compelling argument against freewill at a lecture at Edinburgh University, which you can watch on YouTube here (link).

    In the lecture, he likened freewill to magic, not conjuring tricks but real magic like firebolts flying out of your hands. The freewill of the kind that Christians talk about must be supernatural like a sorcerer’s spell. I’ve always liked that analogy.

    We obviously don’t have freewill of the sort that Christians propose. Theirs is a cheap trick to get out of being God’s sockpuppets because they had imagined a god with the qualities of being all-knowing and all-seeing which would nullify the whole story of original sin and redemption since you couldn’t do anything that God wouldn’t already know about and have seen happen.

    As Dennett explained it, in any situation we are constrained by the state of our brains and the external stimuli acting on our brains, factors that we do not have total control over, and these things change wildly in the slightest amount of perceivable time making it nigh impossible to determine precisely what someone will choose to do in the situation. So, it appears that we have freewill even though the will we have is determined.

    • TK
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      The other big takeaway from Dennett, though, points in the other direction, and that balance is part of why I like him so much. In Freedom Evolves, he lays out quite nicely that all the “quantum free will” folks, with their callouts to some quantum random number generator in the murk of the brain, aren’t describing anything users of a sensible and useful language would call free will anyway. When real people, and legal systems, and poets, and everyone but navel-gazing philosophers talk about freedom and will, they’re talking about plausible access to choices and the ability to evaluate them, and a lack of violent coercion preventing the execution of those options, and so forth- none of which hinge the least bit on whether the inside of our skulls gets an exemption from casualty- indeed, most of them inherently depend on reaction to external stimuli that makes sense in the light of other information. So whatever that is, we may as well call it free will, or free-ish will-like-ness, and get on with it.

      • Posted July 21, 2010 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

        Yes, thank you for making that point. I have watched some of it again and the part that I was talking about happens around 1 hour and 5 minutes into the talk. Like you say, Dennett is not rejecting that we have control over what choice we make, he is rejecting absolute freewill of the kind that allows one to make any choice at any time despite the very real limitations we all exist under.

  30. Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    “But if you don’t believe in free will, you might be tempted to stop thinking so hard about what you do, and start questioning the idea of moral responsibility. The end result is nihilism.”

    Or, one could realise “I”, one’s consciousness, as it’s making decisions, is completely grounded in the material universe and its principles. It’s true that we can only act according to our nature, but that’s OK since that nature is capable of thinking and acting morally.

    We can’t fly (unaided) either, but that usually doesn’t bother us. We only have “free will” to do what we can actually do.

    I guess the myth of “free will” as something independent of the neurobiology is going to be a hard one to abandon.

    And I agree about quantum effects not being a plausible place for “free will” (or God) to hide.

    • Posted July 21, 2010 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      To add one thing: suppose we are just highly complex machines, capable of evaluating a vast array of information, comparing it against norms and experience, and calculating probable outcomes and their effects on ourselves and those we care about — but still “just” machines operating on natural principles.

      Would we really act any differently than we do?

      • Necandum
        Posted July 22, 2010 at 4:56 am | Permalink

        But then, would we remain just be a machine, or would such a construct become conscious?

        • The Swede
          Posted July 22, 2010 at 10:40 am | Permalink

          What is the difference? And how would you tell it?

      • Necandum
        Posted July 22, 2010 at 4:57 am | Permalink

        But then, would we remain just a machine, or would such a construct become conscious?

        /fail

        • Posted July 25, 2010 at 11:23 am | Permalink

          Dennett goes after a common misconception of consciousness, that consciousness is this extraneous thing from the biological machinery of the brain much like freewill is often treated, in one of his videos, too, but I can’t remember which one. Perhaps the one from the MBB Harvard lecture series which was unfortunately taken down from YouTube?

  31. Mike
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Just two cents from a philosopher of science. Freewill and materialism, as I see it, are two unrelated things. One is about what sorts of things there are in the world (i.e., there are ONLY material things), whereas the other is a modal concern (i.e., is there necessity in the world, or is it just in the mind?). So, for instance, I can be a thorough materialist, such that I think the only thing that exists are physical objects made up of atoms (or what have you), but still reject determinism. It boils down to whether you think the laws of nature are governing, or not. One can accept the existence of physical laws but interpret them to be just regularities with no necessity; our scientific laws thus describe what has happened so far, but that is it – they do not tell us what will or must happen. If one thinks this way (and rejects notions of necessity and causation), there is no freewill problem per se. Since necessity (and causation) can’t be observed, these are metaphysical committments that one needn’t subscribe to or perhaps shouldn’t subscribe to, and so this position is not without motivation.
    Cheers
    -mike

    • Nick
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      “It boils down to whether you think the laws of nature are governing, or not. One can accept the existence of physical laws but interpret them to be just regularities with no necessity; our scientific laws thus describe what has happened so far, but that is it – they do not tell us what will or must happen.”

      You must be joking. Good example of how most of academic philosophy is mere masturbation. “Just regularities with no necessity”. I submit that that statement is meaningless.
      And of course scientific laws tell us what will happen (with a very high degree of confidence). Create the same conditions and the same relationships will be observed.

      Why don’t you just admit that you want to believe in free will?

      • Mike
        Posted July 22, 2010 at 8:32 am | Permalink

        Nick: ‘Why don’t you just admit that you want to believe in freewill?’ – Funny, I thought the question was: what is rational to believe?, or what ought we believe?, not what we want to believe in per se.

        Nick, your entire response is a knee jerk reaction against an actual philosophical position, and is utterly unconvincing. I suggest you research the well-known ‘problem of induction’ before you venture much farther in your critical thinking. Read some Hume. But at any rate, thanks for reminding me why I do not typically discuss philosophical questions on a website forum/blog: one finds the most peculiar combination of arrogance and ignorance.
        Signing off permanently,
        -Mike

        • Nick
          Posted July 22, 2010 at 8:37 am | Permalink

          Please.

      • Posted July 23, 2010 at 9:31 am | Permalink

        “And of course scientific laws tell us what will happen (with a very high degree of confidence). Create the same conditions and the same relationships will be observed. ”

        This is untrue. Scientific laws tell us the regularities of what will happen through a probabilistic description.

        In very particular circumstances (linear physics), they tell us what will happen with a high degree of confidence, but it does not apply to living creatures and human beings.

  32. Anthony
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    This is a very good discussion. I just found an interesting book listed at Amazon on this topic of free will and science, It’s entitled “Free Will as an Open Scientific Problem” by Mark Balaguer. The product description says that the author makes a “naturalistic defense of the libertarian view of free will.”

    Here is the full description:

    “In this largely antimetaphysical treatment of free will and determinism, Mark Balaguer argues that the philosophical problem of free will boils down to an open scientific question about the causal histories of certain kinds of neural events. In the course of his argument, Balaguer provides a naturalistic defense of the libertarian view of free will.

    “Balaguer claims that the compatibilism debate (the question of whether free will is compatible with determinism) is essentially irrelevant to metaphysical questions about the nature of human freedom, most notably ‘Do humans have free will?’ Likewise, the questions ‘What is free will?’ and ‘Which kinds of freedom are required for moral responsibility?’ are argued to be irrelevant to substantive questions about the metaphysics of human free will. The metaphysical component of the problem of free will, Balaguer argues, essentially boils down to the question of whether humans possess libertarian free will. Furthermore, he argues that, contrary to the traditional wisdom, the libertarian question reduces to a question about indeterminacy—in particular, to a straightforward empirical question about whether certain neural events in our heads are causally undetermined in a certain specific way. In other words, Balaguer argues that the right kind of indeterminacy would bring with it all of the other requirements for libertarian free will. Finally, he argues that because there is no good evidence as to whether or not the relevant neural events are undetermined in the way that’s required, the question of whether human beings possess libertarian free will is a wide-open empirical question.”

    Is anyone familiar with this book? If so, what are your thoughts?

  33. Marshall
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Although there are severe problems with the idea of “free will”, it seems clear that we can’t get along as individuals or as a society without acting as if it were true. Not just that it’s built into the way we think of ourselves, there doesn’t seem to be any other way we could think of ourselves. Could it be, rationality in humans depends on counter-rational assumptions??? Hmmm, I wonder if there are other “irrational” tropes that are more or less essential to the stability of individuals and society???

    Lack of free will doesn’t necessarily oppose to determinism, if there are real random physical processes. At least I can imagine that (as some propose) there might be quantum events which are not predictable and not influenced by their environment. (If they are not so influenced, they aren’t influenced by anybody’s mental state, either.)

    People seem to have a tendency to jump from “determinism” to “genetic determinism”. That’s reductionism.

  34. Posted July 21, 2010 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Jerry, thanks for drawing attention to this. Cashmore’s article goes too far in denying moral responsibility (although I agree with his call for criminal justice reform), but not far enough in denying the causal role of consciousness, see http://www.naturalism.org/roundup.htm#cashmore

    There’s no madness entailed by giving up on contra-causal free will, only the science-based enlightenment of discovering what sort of creatures we really are. Fully caused beings such as ourselves are still capable of being rational, ethical, and making a difference in how things turn out – determinism isn’t fatalism. See http://www.naturalism.org/freewill.htm

  35. Posted July 21, 2010 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    I recommend “Freedom Evolves” by Daniel Dennett as well as Richard Carrier’s “Sense and Goodness without God”

    The latter is an excellent book that deals with TONS more than free will, and which I highly recommend to all atheists/naturalists.

  36. Nick
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Let me get this straight. The fact that we don’t have ‘free will’ should be taken into account when deciding how to behave. How is it that otherwise intelligent people can utter such an idiotic statement?
    In saying that we should change our criminal justice system to account for this truth you presuppose the truth of that which you just denied.

    Why is it so hard for people to see that the question of free will is absolutely irrelevant to our lives?IT CAN HAVE NO CONSEQUENCE FOR US. In order for it to have a consequence we would have to have free will. Consider the worst case scenario alluded to in the post: You discover you don’t have free will and you become so depressed that you decide to kill yourself. Did you get that? You DECIDED to kill yourself over the fact that you are not in control of your decisions. Does anyone else see a problem with this?

    Same goes for the stupidity we hear from religious apologists. If people don’t believe they have free will they will lose a sense of moral responsibility. Lets see how this logic works: “I just discovered I’m not in control of my decisions and actions. In light of that I’m going to behave such and such way…”
    And you hear people say ‘yes, we don’t actually have free will but we must act as though we do’. How can a person say this without embarrassment? They must not realize that we CANNOT DO OTHERWISE. To ACT at all is to presuppose ‘free will’.

    • Marshall
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      And you hear people say ‘yes, we don’t actually have free will but we must act as though we do’. How can a person say this without embarrassment? They must not realize that we CANNOT DO OTHERWISE. To ACT at all is to presuppose ‘free will’.

      How is the second statement different than the first, exactly?
      “Must” means there’s no other way to do it; it isn’t an ethical “choice”.

      • Nick
        Posted July 21, 2010 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

        Perhaps I should have used ‘should’ in the first statement. Same meaning.

        • Marshall
          Posted July 21, 2010 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

          If you mean the ‘ought vs. is’ thing, it’s still true that as a society we ‘should’ make laws and hold people responsible ‘as if’ they had free will. (Yet we support some legal notion of ‘insufficient competence’ for minors, mental defectives, &c.)

          I suppose I agree with you that it’s a philosopher’s question with little practical consequence, but I don’t see it’s worth getting all anti-accomodationist about.

          • Nick
            Posted July 21, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

            ‘Anti-accomodationist’. That’s good…point taken.
            I’m just frustrated with what I see as a lack thinking-through ideas.

            I’m afraid I don’t really understand your ‘dispute’ (for lack of a better word). I’m just trying to point out the contradiction in the thinking of people like Tom Clark and Cashmore. I’m afraid if I pursue your last comment we’ll be going off on a tangent. I have some thoughts, but I’ll withhold because I don’t think it is really relevant to what I was trying to say.

          • Necandum
            Posted July 22, 2010 at 5:08 am | Permalink

            Well, to support the line of thinking that: “we must change the justices system because we discovered we had no free-will”, one could begin by proposing that we are merely complex algorithms. Then, there arises a situation as a result of which one or several individuals come to the conclusion we have no free-will, all according to that internal algorithm of theirs.

            As a result of this they present their conclusions and convince the rest of society. Remember, in this scenario, no one has any choice. They are merely reacting to the information presented to them and acting upon that internal algorithm. So a result, we decide that the justice system should change, but we had no choice in making that decision. It was directly caused by a line of causation that stretches back unbroken to the dawn of time, and the preceding events only being intermediate points along such a time-line.

            ..I hope that makes some sense.

            Personally, I disagree with that view of things, but its definitely an interesting thought experiment.

    • Tim Martin
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      “You DECIDED to kill yourself over the fact that you are not in control of your decisions. Does anyone else see a problem with this?”

      Yes, I see a problem with your logic. Let’s define a “decision” as something you make based on the way your brain is programmed. Humans are programmed to weigh factors (to the best of their ability and understanding) when they make decisions. Factors may include what they believe their options to be at the time, what they believe themselves to be capable of, what their emotions are urging them to do, what other people would like them to do, etc. etc. Plug all of these things into a complicated equation that is set for our species or maybe set for each person, and you get an output known as a “decision.” It is a fact that we make choices or decisions, given this definition.

      The point behind this entire topic is that everything that goes into our decision making process is ultimately something over which we have no control – it all goes back to our genes and our environment. So even though we have a “will” it is not free; it is an effect that is caused by other things. When someone “decides” to kill themselves, that is following the definition that I outlined above. When someone says that they are “not in control of their decisions,” that is acknowledging that all of their wants/desires/thoughts/choices etc. are the result of their brain interacting with their environment deterministically. There is no contradiction here.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

      “Let me get this straight. The fact that we don’t have ‘free will’ should be taken into account when deciding how to behave.”

      AGreed. If we don’t have free will, then we can’t decide how to behave.

  37. Scott P.
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    “Whether that will could possibly be “free” from materialistic/naturalistic determinism as implemented in genetics and environment is, to me, the relevant question. And as a materialist/naturalist, my answer is no. There is no part of our mind which is not a result of the working of our material brains.”

    Whereas I would describe free will as a state in which the actions of a conscious being are a result of nothing other than the working of its material brains.

    All of this discussion of determinism vs. randomness is a red herring. Our actions are neither completely deterministic nor completely random. They are both determined and variable at the same time, and that’s what gives us free will.

    I’d go further and argue that free will is a necessary component of consciousness. It is impossible to have a conscious being without free will, because any system of sufficient complexity to be considered conscious will exhibit the same mix of determinism and randomness that produces free will.

  38. Dave B.
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    There is an episode of Point of Inquiry from 2009 which is a fascinating introduction to the subject of free will.

    http://www.pointofinquiry.org/tom_clark_scientific_naturalism_and_the_illusion_of_free_will/

  39. Jeremy
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Of course, you don’t need to be a determinist to jettison free will. Let’s assume that quantum (sigh) indeterminacy rules: Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle fatally undermines any case for determinism, etc.

    Fine, but the price of indeterminism is RANDOMNESS, which offers equally little room for the freedom of a will. As J.J.C. Smart put it, “I would feel that my freedom was impaired if I thought that a quantum mechanical trigger in my brain might cause me to leap into the garden and eat a slug.”

  40. truthspeaker
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always tried to avoid thinking about free will, realizing that that way lies madness. As a materialist, I can’t see any way that our thoughts and behavior, which come from our neurons and muscles, which themselves result from the interaction between our genes and our environment, could truly be influenced by our “will.”

    It seems to me you’re thinking about it the wrong way. SOme of our thoughts, that come from neurons, are our will. The part(s) of our brains that is conscious of having those thoughts can make decisions, which effects the activity of neurons. Imagine a computer that executes code in RAM that it can write to – in can change the code and then execute the code it just changed.

  41. steve oberski
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    The religious trot out free will as an argument for the existence of evil in the world, while simultaneously claiming a moral absolutism sourced from a holy book thus in effect living as if they did not have free will and are just puppets being manipulated by a supernatural source.

    Methodological naturalism would imply that there is no such thing as free will but those that subscribe to this philosophy typically live as though free will exists and that they are responsible for their own actions.

  42. puzzledponderer
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    I’m in the same dilemma as you are, but I think I have an important thought to add: if we don’t have free will, then our will is the result of what we have experienced and what we know of the world and what we feel. If we changed the way we do jurisdiction, we’d change what we know of the world and therefore the net decisions of our will. We have to keep punishment for crimes or the world would run havoc – the decisions made by our will would be influenced by the knowledge that jurisdiction is different than what it used to be.

    I think this is also the best way out of the dilemma: free will IS a very complex function of our brains. What else would you expect free will to be? Aren’t we all making our decisions for either emotional reasons, considerations of knowledge and experience or a mix between those, even if we can’t always analyze what lead us to decide a certain way? What do you expect or hope free will to be if not a function of our brains influeced by knowledge, experience and emotion? How else do you think you’re making decisions, if not based on you momentary standpoint in your life, the things you know and the things you feel? How is free will generated in the brain any different from conventional free will? I’m not sure I’m managing to bring my point across, but what we call free will, to me, seems to be absolutely congruent with what I expect my brain to do when I’m faced with choices.

  43. Coel
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Re: “Methodological naturalism would imply that there is no such thing as free will but those that subscribe to this philosophy typically live as though free will exists and that they are responsible for their own actions.”

    You don’t need “free will” to be held responsible for your actions. And as for living “as though free will exists”, what does that entail? How exactly would one live differently if there were no free will?

  44. Brian
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Lots of comments, I’ll try to read later. Jerry, your last paragraph said it. Folks who suggest that because we don’t have free will, therefore we should do X are being inconsistent.

    • Nick
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      Exactly! It is amazing how hard it is for people to see this.

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted July 21, 2010 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

        Not at all! Circumstances conspired to force those people to say that we should do X because we don’t have free will.

        • Nick
          Posted July 21, 2010 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

          Very good. I have to ask, are you Dr. Coyne?

        • Brian
          Posted July 21, 2010 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

          Exactly. It’s a pickle.

    • Tim Martin
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

      “Folks who suggest that because we don’t have free will, therefore we should do X are being inconsistent.”

      If this were true, you would have to admit that it is inconsistent to argue that anyone do anything if we do not have free will – which is ridiculous. The whole point of this issue is that humans are just like robots running a program; the output is determined based on the input (plus or minus some quantum indeterminacy or what have you). Part of our program is that we make decisions based on the information that is available to us. We learn new information via our senses and via logic. These, too, are determined. I could not make myself believe there was an elephant in this room even if you paid me a million dollars, and I cannot make myself believe that I am both sitting here in my office and not sitting here in my office in the same way at the same time. In other words, I cannot willfully override what seems perceptually or logically apparent to me.

      So if I come to realize via logic that human minds are just programs being run on a computer called a brain, I will take that information into account when making further decisions. Where is the contradiction?

      • truthspeaker
        Posted July 21, 2010 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

        So if I come to realize via logic that human minds are just programs being run on a computer called a brain, I will take that information into account when making further decisions. Where is the contradiction?

        The contradiction is that, if there is no free will, the result of your decision is predetermined. That makes it a result, not a decision.

        • Tim Martin
          Posted July 21, 2010 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

          The definition of “decision” I gave in this comment (https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/07/21/free-will-and-biology/#comment-34803) is very similar to what I think you mean by “result.”

          So?

          If you’re going to point out a contradiction, actually point one out. Show me where this reasoning leads to A and not-A being true at the same time.

        • Posted July 22, 2010 at 3:00 am | Permalink

          Or, our “decision” is a result of the brain’s functioning, sorting through a myriad of data and experiences and coming up with the best result it can.

          If we had difference inputs or different experiences (or different “wiring”), we’d make a different decision.

          To me it seems fairly straightforward, once one abandon’s the idea that our minds are somehow detached or independent from our brains.

      • Brian
        Posted July 21, 2010 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

        truthspeaker beat me too it. It’s all a charade.

      • Nick
        Posted July 21, 2010 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

        The contradiction arises the moment you make the recommendation that we abolish the criminal justice system because people don’t have free will. I don’t know how many times I have to say this: That action would presuppose the truth of that which was just denied.

        “So if I come to realize via logic that human minds are just programs being run on a computer called a brain, I will take that information into account when making further decisions. Where is the contradiction?”
        OK, take that information into account. How do you do that? How do you do that and be logically consistent?

        Now let me be clear: that ‘free will’ is an illusion seems an unavoidable conclusion. Of what consequence is it? What follows from that? My point is that nothing can follow from that. It is an absolutely sterile conclusion.
        I would love an example in theory or practice of how you could “take that information into account” in future decisions. I think the suggested criminal justice system overhaul is a good place to show the failure of this thinking. What exactly does Cashmore have in mind? If you are going to make a single change on the basis of his premise then you must abolish the whole thing if you want to avoid contradiction. But why stop there? Cashmore says we need to deal with the implications of the illusion of free will. OK. No human action can merit praise or condemnation. The context in which those terms make sense has been abolished. No one could “argue that anyone do anything”…the reductio ad absurdum you pointed out. It’s ironic. That ridiculousness is exactly what you get if you follow your own thinking to its logical end.

        • Tim Martin
          Posted July 21, 2010 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

          You keep repeating your conclusion without offering any argument to back it up. You say there is a contradiction but you do not say what it is. You assert that nothing follows from the conclusion that free will is an illusion, but you offer no reason why that should be so. And you keep asking me to do your work for you, effectively asking me to show you where the “not-contradiction” is. Ok, observe:

          1. Humans don’t have free will (read: human actions/thoughts/decisions/etc are determined by the program that is our brain).

          See? No contradiction. Now, if you can, show me where this contradiction of yours is.

          “I would love an example in theory or practice of how you could “take that information into account” in future decisions.”

          Well, the idea that humans don’t have free will isn’t a very philosophically useful one, because it just says that “humans don’t have this mystical concept that a lot of people sort of believe in but when you think about it doesn’t really make any sense at all.” So how about an example of taking into account a more descriptive version of the truth – that the human mind is completely a product of the brain, and everything we think or decide determined by the chemistry and makeup of our brain (which itself was originally determined by our genes and environment)? What follows from this? Well…

          1. The mind is a product of the brain, etc. etc.
          2. Patterns of activity in neurons can give rise to consciousness, qualia, emotion, logic, and all the other things human minds do.
          3. A pattern of activity in neurons is essentially the same thing as a computer program.
          ———————
          4. Therefore, with sufficiently advanced technology and understanding of “computer” science, it should be possible design a man-made program that also has consciousness, qualia, emotions, etc.

          This conclusion could then prompt scientists to make the decision to pursue that dream, even if it would only be realized in the distant future.

          “No human action can merit praise or condemnation.”

          If you believe that someone has to, say, work hard to accomplish something and that effort has to be not determined by that person’s brain chemistry, then yes, nothing could merit praise. I can see why you would think this, because we’re all just bio-robots running a program, and someone who worked hard to win a race couldn’t help but work hard. It was determined by her program that she would. But this fact is exactly why your next point is wrong.

          “No one could “argue that anyone do anything””

          Incorrect. Since we are bio-robots who are endowed with some rudimentary logical abilities, if you make me aware of a logical relationship that I was not previously aware of (in other words, if you make it so I understand that A leads to B leads to C), then I have no choice but to take that conclusion into consideration in all my future thoughts. As I wrote in one of my comments above, we humans cannot convince ourselves of obvious falsehoods, even if we want to. I could not convince myself that there is an elephant in this room even if you paid me a million dollars. My program does not allow it – it is too obviously false. But if you convince me of something that is true, then I cannot help but live my life taking that into account. Again, my program is written that way. Given the lack of free will, there is still every reason to make logical arguments.

        • Tim Martin
          Posted July 21, 2010 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

          Ah, one more thing – and I include this because I think the contrast is edifying.

          “My point is that nothing can follow from that. It is an absolutely sterile conclusion.”

          An actual example of a conclusion that nothing can follow from is this one:

          1. The law of non-contradiction is invalid.

          Nothing can follow from this. If you ever had reason to believe this was true, you would not be justified in making any conclusions about anything, for it is the law of non-contradiction that prevents A and ~A from both being true. If the law of N-C were false, then everything could be true or false or both, at which time the idea of true would cease to mean anything and logical entailment would be impossible.

          That is what it means for nothing to follow from something.

          • Nick
            Posted July 22, 2010 at 8:19 am | Permalink

            In response to your reply on 49:

            OK, you might be right about that. I’m not sure. At the very least you have me seriously doubting my thinking.

            Putting that to one side, I think there is another aspect which you haven’t adequately addressed. And that is the practical consequences of this philosophical conclusion. I’m afraid to say I think the scenario of human scientists building a simulation of a human mind both misses the point and has more to do with an outgrowth of our scientific understanding of ourselves than with this philosophical conclusion. People like Cashmore and Clark are clear that they think there are consequences for how we organize society. If you get down to it, they are saying that we should modify the way we treat thieves because ultimately they aren’t responsible for their crimes. But if thieves aren’t responsible for their crimes how can anyone be responsible for anything? Note that this is the second time I’ve had to ask this question. You simultaneously want to commend the person who makes charitable donations and fail to condemn a kidnapper. And don’t go to ‘acting for the best outcome’ here. That has nothing to with this. This is about *changing the way we treat each other because we’re not responsible for our actions*.

            • Tim Martin
              Posted July 22, 2010 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

              “your reply on 49”

              49? What’s 49?

              “Putting that to one side, I think there is another aspect which you haven’t adequately addressed. And that is the practical consequences of this philosophical conclusion.”

              I haven’t addressed it because 1) I was busy trying to show you that there is no contradiction in “taking into account” the fact that humans don’t have free will, and 2) I don’t really know where to go from here. I don’t know what we should do about our legal system. I have vague inclinations, and I think it’s something worth thinking about, but I have no answers at this time.

              Not having the answers might make some people uncomfortable, but the truth that our wills are not free is still the truth. The best we can do is accept it and work towards an idea of what to do with that information.

              “But if thieves aren’t responsible for their crimes how can anyone be responsible for anything? Note that this is the second time I’ve had to ask this question. You simultaneously want to commend the person who makes charitable donations and fail to condemn a kidnapper.”

              No, I don’t. And I haven’t said anything to that effect. People who do good and people who do bad are still just following their programs. I’m following mine as I write this. So am I not responsible for doing this?

              You can’t ask questions like that unless you’re going to define what it means to “be responsible” for something. The bundle of molecules that is Tim Martin is typing this; if that’s how you define responsible, then yes I am. If you define responsible as “could have done otherwise given the same state of the universe,” then no I’m not responsible. But then again, neither is anything, so the question doesn’t really have a point. See, when you define what you’re talking about, answering these questions is easy. The problem is you don’t like the options involved. What it comes down to is that agents and objects are actually the same thing – and we don’t like that because our brains are designed to think of them as two qualitatively different things.

              There’s nothing I can say to “make this better.” It kind of hurts to think about. But it’s still true.

          • Nick
            Posted July 23, 2010 at 7:46 am | Permalink

            Comment entry 49. For some reason I can’t reply to it. Just as I can’t reply to your latest comment for this comment entry, 44.

            “You can’t ask questions like that unless you’re going to define what it means to “be responsible” for something….”

            Tim, you’re vastly over-complicating this. The point of my comment is very simple: trying to do anything about our legal system would make it impossible for us to live if we wanted to be at all consistent or have any kind of coherent rationale for making those changes.

            I’ve made it perfectly clear. The burden is on you, if you think you could do any such thing. I actually challenge you come up with one change that we could make in how we treat each other. I know you’ve said you don’t know what might be done and that’s fine. What I’m saying is it is impossible to do anything. I hope you don’t mind if I quote you to make my point.

            “What we think about the involvement of someone’s will in what they’ve done wrong is a fundamental factor in shaping our judgements about the morality of that action (and you can read the book, Moral Minds, for more information on this). Our “feelings about justice” (read: moral instincts) would not be the same if we absolved people of their volition – there would be no reason to see anyone as deserving of anything, good OR bad.”

            • Tim Martin
              Posted July 23, 2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink

              The burden of proof is on anyone who makes an assertion about anything. In previous comments you asserted that “nothing follows” from the idea that humans don’t have free will, and then you placed the burden on me to show how that was not true. That is not how it works. But I did it anyway – I gave you an example of how that fact is not the end of reasoning. I did what you asked, and it’s not my fault if what you meant was something different than what you said.

              Now you are again repeating your assertion, that “trying to do anything about our legal system would make it impossible for us to live if we wanted to be at all consistent or have any kind of coherent rationale for making those changes.” Again, you have no argument to back this up. You’re saying there’s an inconsistency without showing one. Look at my reply to #69 – THAT is an inconsistency. Notice how I pointed out what it was.

              Now, to be fair, I am asserting that there is nothing inconsistent about changing our legal system to reflect this new information, so I must support that as well. So here we go.

              Humans don’t have free will. We’re just robots, there is no god, there is no objective morality, but shit- we might as well be happy, right? So let’s make a legal system that helps us maximize happiness. We’re not out to “give people what they deserve,” or “uphold moral laws” – just make a society where people can live free and not impinge too much on others’ happiness. The first question that comes to mind is, why should I care about making an entire society happy? Why not just care about myself? Well, as a human, it’s part of my program to care about others. I’m not just happy if I’m happy – I’m happiest when everyone is happy.

              Ok, so what do we do with children who commit crimes in this society? Instead of giving them more lenient sentences just because they’re young, we do with them what we do with everyone else – treat them like robots. To what extent did the child understand what he was doing? How much will punishment deter him? We weigh these and other factors and determine the best course of action for everyone.

              What about sociopaths? These people are physically incapable of feeling empathy (as far as we can tell), so they do horrible things to others. It’s not “wrong” in any objective moral sense, because there are no objective morals. If I couldn’t feel empathy, I’d do the same thing. But we can’t have sociopaths going around killing people, and it doesn’t look like we can rehabilitate them, so we must keep them under wraps at least. It’s best way to maximize happiness.

              …And so on and so forth. That is one way we could seek to change our legal systems given that we don’t have free will.

              But isn’t that hopelessly recursive? We’ve concluded that because we’re just robots following a program, we should make these changes to our legal system, but that conclusion itself is just another result of our program!

              Yes. And? That is what it means to be a robot. Everything we do is the output of our program. There is no getting out of it.

              But there’s also no contradiction here. We are programmed to pursue happiness. There is no inconsistency in knowing that fact and taking it into account in designing our society.

            • Nick
              Posted July 23, 2010 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

              I feel like I need to back off and think about these matters some more. I was listening to more of what Tom Clark has to say, and while I still think there may be a significant error in his reasoning on a particular issue, he was sounding more reasonable to me than he had before.

              But as to not backing up my assertions with argument, I believe I did offer some argument: “If you get down to it, they are saying that we should modify the way we treat thieves because ultimately they aren’t responsible for their crimes. But if thieves aren’t responsible for their crimes how can anyone be responsible for anything?” And “Our feelings about justice” (read: moral instincts) would not be the same if we absolved people of their volition – there would be no reason to see anyone as deserving of anything, good OR bad.” Insufficient argument perhaps.

              Anyway, thanks for the good back and forth.

            • Tim Martin
              Posted July 23, 2010 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

              What I’ve read of Tom Clarks comments makes good sense, imo.

              “Anyway, thanks for the good back and forth.”

              Thank you.

  45. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see the conflict here.

    Sure, there is no “free will” in the dualistic sense, since we can see no dualisms. That doesn’t mean that the system (the mind) responds in a uniform way.

    There are results that show that the brain, not having access to certifiable feedback at all times, balances its signals by being close to the edge of chaos. I.e. that research, on both neuronal tissue and neuron net models, shows that a one-one signal is maintained over many neurons without dying out or going into epileptic mass activated states, by the brain having many near and a few far connections in a mix quite like how we maintain our stable social networks or the internet.

    The upshot is that while this system is not quite chaotic it is naturally not rutting in the same tracks. And of course we have memory and long-term plasticity as well.

    So there are degrees of freedoms here, both for legalistic systems (we can learn, take responsibility, et cetera – without a mysterious “free will” coming into it) and for models of ourselves where a specific “free will” can be a practical object.

    That is, we act first and model later. But then it is less complicated to model independent “self” and “free will” and “now” than to use a looser “mind – state – history” dependence model.

    As you say, you might be tempted to stop thinking so hard about what you do, but here because it becomes too darn complicated. And indeed we evolved to use the former.

    I believe that free will is better defined as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature.

    I see that deterministic chaos, which is deterministic but must be approached with stochastic measures, isn’t among Cashmore’s set of possible physical systems. That opens up for either contemplating a dualism or for having to few degrees of freedom as compared to observation. We will do “more” than Cashmore’s physics say.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

      D’oh! “a looser “mind – state – history” dependence model” – a _larger_ “mind – state – history” dependence model.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

      Um, I see people have trouble to define “free will”. In my case of mental model it is simply the ability to make decisions (decide choices) _in the model_. The mind may have made an actual choice or not, that is no concern of the (more or less deluded) model we make later of what happened.

  46. Peter Beattie
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, as someone has already remarked, for any evolution-minded person Dennett’s Freedom Evolves is not at all a bad start. Few other books have given me so much good reason to think about them.

    Dennett’s idea is, basically, that the notion of ‘free will’ needs a workable definition, and that there is obviously no absolute free will. The question then becomes, where does what we call free will come from and what might it reasonably be said to be. The latter would be something like ‘the latitude in possible courses of action our cognitive flexibility and our experiences with different situations and their outcomes give us’.

    I couldn’t recommend the book more highly; it set my mind spinning ferociously, but in an entirely productive way. That’s philosophy at its best.

  47. Posted July 21, 2010 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    It seems pretty obvious to me – as many things can seem obvious after you’ve lived with them for years – that contra-causal or libertarian free will is an illusion. So is objective morality.

    One reason why I’m not as hard on religious folks as some is that I see plenty of atheists who buy into the illusions of free will (in the relevant sense) and objective morality. That’s much like buying into the illusion of God.

    Of course, we can have good reasons to act kindly and so on, and we have a capacity to deliberate. But arguments as to why people should act kindly eventually run out, and cruel people can be beyond rational appeal. It’s not that they’re making an intellectual mistake; they are just unpleasant to have around. So the requirement to act kindly is not objective.

    And while we can deliberate, the fact is that we can’t ultimately choose how we are, which is a product of genetic potential as expressed in the environment in which it was expressed, and hence what kind of being is doing the deliberation. Even if some indetermistic quantum events play a role, we can’t choose them, either, as you mentioned. We can’t have free will all the way down.

    Jerry, I haven’t read all the above comments – this post obviously hit a nerve – but I suggest you might be interested in tracking down Galen Strawson’s discussions of free will and related topics.

    I see that quite a few people are recommending Dennett’s book. Yes, I more or less agree with Dennett on this too. However, Dennett is basically defending Hume’s position (and the Stoics had a similar position before that).

    And finally, I hope it’s clear that none of this is an argument either for acting cruelly or for acting without deliberation. The fact that our deliberations are ultimately caused by things outside us does not take all the value from deliberation. And the fact that morality can’t be justified all the way down into objective reality doesn’t mean it can’t be justified to us. Realising that libertarian free will and objective morality are illusions doesn’t leave everything as it was, but it does leave a lot as it was.

  48. Posted July 21, 2010 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    Man’s a kind of missing link
    Fondly thinking he can think.
    – Peit Hein

  49. Posted July 21, 2010 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    Jerry: “…like all humans I prefer to think that I can make my own decisions.”

    In fact, you *do* make your own decisions since that’s what your brain is doing 24/7. Its operations are just as real and causally effective as its historical antecedents and the current conditions it operates in. Just because human agents are likely fully caused doesn’t subtract from *their* causal powers. And being uncaused in any respect wouldn’t add to those powers. As Russell rightly says, “The fact that our deliberations are ultimately caused by things outside us does not take all the value from deliberation.” So we don’t have to *pretend* we make decisions, we really do, and determinism, should it be the case, doesn’t pose a threat we need to hide from, http://www.naturalism.org/demoralization.htm

    “But of course all of this, including Cashmore’s arguments that are intended to persuade, are predicated on the pretense that we really do have free will.”

    Not sure why you think this. Rationality depends on having reliable cognitive mechanisms such that our representations track the world accurately. We don’t want any indeterministic noise distorting our sensory, perceptual and deliberative assessments of reality. Further, that things might be fully determined at the level of brain and behavior doesn’t undermine the efficacy of reasoned arguments in terms of their content. Such content *requires* a physical instantiation in the brain that operates reliably (mechanistically) to control behavior. So reasons are causes of behavior in good standing that operate via their neurally instantiated representational vehicles, all of which obey the laws of chemistry, physics, etc. as they do their more or less reliable representational work. If we were exempt from cause and effect in any significant respect in our reasoning, and in making and responding to arguments, we’d be sunk since we wouldn’t be reliable reasoners. So we needn’t operate on the pretense of having contra-causal free will, http://www.naturalism.org/determinism.htm

    • Tim Harris
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

      Have just seen this, having posted the comment below. I think you put it in a nutshell.

      • Nick
        Posted July 21, 2010 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

        You must be joking, Tim. I believe you have a reply or two to make.

    • Nick
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

      Wow. What a load of obfuscatory nonsense.

      “Not sure why you think this”

      That statement reflects disingenousness or stupidity. And you’re entire second paragraph is irrelevant to your quote of Coyne. Since you seem to be unclear, what most people mean by free will is that they are ultimately in control of their decisions and behaviors. Is this not what you mean?

      Anytime you say you should do something you are presupposing that you are in control of your actions. Am I right to believe that you deny the following to be contradictory: “Because I don’t have free will I should do X”?

      And just to be clear, I think free will is an illusion.

      Finally, on a personal note, I think you are potentially doing the cause of reason and science a significant disservice. You have devoted yourself to spreading the idea that free will is an illusion. I cannot conceive of a greater turn-off for people who might otherwise be open to scientific thinking and the scientific worldview. I would be embarrassed to be associated with your ideas. I would be embarrassed on behalf of the skeptical community if you and your ideas were thought to represent us. You have no idea how deeply you contradict yourself.

      • Posted July 21, 2010 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

        What are you suggesting? You seem to be saying that free will (in some sense – and no, it’s not at all obvious what the “correct” sense is) is an illusion,, but we shouldn’t say so.

        Perhaps that’s a coherent view, but it seems like an arrogant one.

        • Nick
          Posted July 21, 2010 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

          I apologize that I cannot specify in just what sense I mean it is an illusion right now. I need to put more thought to that. I hope that doesn’t make my view incoherent.

          I am not saying we shouldn’t say free will is an illusion (though I certainly think we shouldn’t lead with that). What I am saying is that it is an abstraction that can be of no consequence for us. It is an absolutely sterile conclusion.

          It seems clear to me that when someone says “in light of the fact that I don’t have free will I’m going to behave in such and such way” they are presupposing the truth of that which they just denied.

          I know I have been abrasive in these posts. I am frustrated because that logic seems correct to me and no one will point out my error.

          • Tim Martin
            Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

            See my reply above.

            The reason it’s hard to point out your error, Nick, is that – and I don’t wish to offend – you haven’t given any argument to refute. You just keep stating that there is a contradiction, yet you can’t say what it is. That’s just unsupported assertion.

            • Nick
              Posted July 21, 2010 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

              I can’t address your longer post tonight. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe not. Evidently what is clear to me is not clear to everyone else. Though Jerry Coyne and at least one other poster do see it like I do. That is somewhat reassuring.

              So let me just be clear. You are saying that a kind of free will is not presupposed when we make decisions and take courses of action? (At the level of our consciousness I mean)

              If you don’t deny this, then there is nothing more to explain. In my view, Tom Clark explicitly denies free will and then implicitly affirms it when he says what we ought to do because it isn’t real. At the level of his consciousness he appears to be simultaneously affirming and denying it.

              I’m saying that people cannot function without the presupposition of free will. It is built in. To ‘act’ at all is to presuppose it. To deny it and then to recommend a course of action seems to be denying it in one breath and affirming it in the next.

            • Tim Martin
              Posted July 21, 2010 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

              “You are saying that a kind of free will is not presupposed when we make decisions and take courses of action?”

              That’s right. Free will is not supposed any more than when the chess program I’m playing against on my computer makes a decision to capture my pawn. The computer and I are just running our own programs. My case is more interesting because I’m capable of knowing that I’m just running a program, but that’s just because I’m equipped with a logic system that – while fraught with errors – basically works. And humanity has learned so much about the natural world over thousands of years that my humble logic circuits, combined with the collected wisdom of our culture, are able to figure out that my mind has to be an entirely natural, determined phenomena just like everything else.

              So I don’t have free will, and I know it, and that’s just how it is.

            • Posted July 23, 2010 at 9:23 am | Permalink

              If I am no more free than a computer program, why is it that when I learn something, like driving a car or playing an instrument, things become unconscious just when they become automatic, and then I can perform them without thinking about them ?

              It seems to me that if my whole mind was as automatic as a computer program, I could perform everything “without thinking about it”, and would be fully unconscious – just as unconscious as a computer, in fact.

            • Tim Martin
              Posted July 23, 2010 at 9:55 am | Permalink

              Because complicated, novel motor movements have to be orchestrated by your cerebral cortex and learned. Then, with time and practice, the pattern of activity in your cortex is copied to your basal ganglia so the basal ganglia can “run that program” while the cortex is freed up to perform other functions, such as talk to the person sitting next to you, fiddle with the radio, etc. So you can see how an action being easy or difficult is a direct result of the state of the neurons in your brain. Same thing with memory – the stronger your memory for something, the stronger the connections between the neurons that represent that memory in your brain. What we call “rehearsal” is the physical act of causing neurons to fire in sequence, inducing long-term potentiation in them. Your conscious mind, which came up with the idea to rehearse that information in the first place, is also the result of some part or parts of your brain working in concert to do what brains do. It is all determined by physics and chemistry.

            • Posted July 23, 2010 at 10:39 am | Permalink

              You did not explained why complex novel motors movements are conscious, whereas when my basic ganglia “runs the program”, i am not conscious of it.

              I observe that what is “programmatic” is unconscious, and what is novel and complex is conscious. My guess is that it is because consciousness is precisely the unpredictible-not-programmatic part of the brain processes, which happens to be particularly prominent in high-level abstract and complex functions (when the whole brain gets involved, which results in unpredictability).
              I do agree that all of this is induced by physical and chemical reactions.

            • Tim Martin
              Posted July 23, 2010 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

              Well, first of all you need to realize that it’s possible to be conscious of automatic tasks as well as un-automatic ones. Certain songs that I play on the clarinet are automatic, but I’m still conscious of my fingers as they fly over the keys. I do not have to be, however. If you were to tell me a story while I was playing, I could choose to direct my attention to that and be conscious of my fingers less and less.

              So automatic and unconscious are not the same. Automatic and effortless, on the other hand, are more closely related. I do not have the experience of “effort” when I perform a highly practiced task, yet I do when I perform a complicated novel task. If you’re asking me why the subjective feeling of effort is tied to one and not the other, even though in both cases my brain is just doing what it does, I do not have a good answer. What is the purpose of the subjective feeling of effort? Maybe it is just something that happens when the “conscious parts” of the brain are involved in coordinating something (whereas when I play the clarinet, my basal ganglia is just running a learned program and doesn’t need conscious coordination).

            • Posted July 23, 2010 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

              This is an interesting point about effort and automaticity. But really, I still think that my consciousness is involved in non-deterministic processes of my brain.

              The consciousness I have when I play things automatically is the one of a spectator (I watch me playing), not the one of an actor. In fact my sensation of free will has been elevated to a higher level which is still an unpredictable domain, for example the nuances and “intentions” of what I play.

          • articulett
            Posted July 23, 2010 at 10:04 am | Permalink

            It seems to me that if my whole mind was as automatic as a computer program, I could perform everything “without thinking about it”, and would be fully unconscious – just as unconscious as a computer, in fact.

            The earth seems flat and still– but it’s not. Most of the things you do, you do unconsciously (digest food, regulate temperature, breathe, etc.) But you also have a program for explaining your life to yourself. We know a lot about this from split brain studies. This is what you perceive of as a separate will. But if you study neurology, the evidence shows that this is an illusion. The reasons we give for the things that we do are often no actually related to the real reasons which we may be unaware of.

            Do you think a dog has free will?

            • Posted July 23, 2010 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

              “But you also have a program for explaining your life to yourself.”

              The real problem with these assertions is to explain what is exactly the “you” in them. An illusion always have a subject. As long as we don’t know what this subject exactly is, saying that it does not have free will is questionable.

              If the evidence are – for example – the experiences of Benjamin Libet, I have to disagree. They only prove that we have certain propensities to make certain choices, but in fact even a such simple binary decision as pushing a button or not can never be predicted with a 100% rate. So what should we think about more complex ones ?

            • articulett
              Posted July 23, 2010 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

              I’m not sure of your problem. A monitor gives us a perception of what goes on inside the computer –it’s a representation, but everything going on inside the computer is still determined.
              I would say it’s similar between our brain and our perception.

              I’m not sure what you think “free will” is– do you think some undetectable influence or “soul” is involved in our choices– or just the regular material that influences the stuff of other sentient beings? Do you think an animal has “free will” (however you define it?)To me, this term is far more questionable than the notion that we are “determined”.

              Not Exactly Rocket Science has an update on the Libet study as well as other articles on the subject… http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/category/neuroscience-and-psychology/consciousness-and-free-will/

              But is there really ANY evidence that would convince you free will (whatever that is) is an illusion?

              I’ve pulled up tons of great links. Hirstein’s book on confabulation is excellent http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?tid=11086&ttype=2 as well as Gazzinaga’s study on spit brain patients and anything by V.S.Ramachandran. But I’m not going to link them if you prefer to hang on to your beliefs about free will.

              Here’s a story on a schizophrenic child… http://www.latimes.com/features/health/la-he-schizophrenia29-2009jun29,0,5289139,full.story Where do you see an example of her “free will”?

              I don’t feel like wasting my time responding to someone who doesn’t have a real definition of “free will” but desperately wants to believe he has it. What is “free” about your will? What is it influenced by if not material inputs?

              We really do have a lot more information on the subject then you seem to want to be aware of.

            • articulett
              Posted July 24, 2010 at 7:22 am | Permalink

              Michael Gazzaniga on the part of your brain that explains what is going on and how in confabulates: http://cwx.prenhall.com/bookbind/pubbooks/morris4/medialib/readings/split.html

              Part of your brain is an explainer, and it will make stuff up enabling you to perceive yourself as much more than a “mathematical formula”. We even know what parts of the brain are involved: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2009/05/07/electrical-stimulation-produces-feelings-of-free-will/#more-523

              But don

            • Posted July 24, 2010 at 8:41 am | Permalink

              The thing that is not a “mathematical formula” is not the one which is perceived, but the one who perceive…

            • Posted July 24, 2010 at 9:30 am | Permalink

              These studies are fascinating.

              In my sense they reinforce the existence of free will. When we ask someone “why did you do tht ?” he affabulates, and he finds reasons for his action.

              But reasons are the opposite of free will. Reasons are causalities that originated our actions. Knowing that reasons of our actions are mostly affabulated, invented after the action, only means that we have a tendency to see determinism and causality when there is not.

              In fact I think that free will has nothing to see with false memories and story telling. It has more to see with something spontaneous, something like “living the moment”, being conscious. Story telling comes after.

            • Posted July 24, 2010 at 9:31 am | Permalink

              Yes, I think a dog has free will.

            • Posted July 24, 2010 at 9:55 am | Permalink

              The study about fastfoods, just as many many other studies, shows that our brain has automatism. I do not deny that, it is really obvious that we have a lots of automatisms.

              But what is really interesting about them is that they are fully unconscious, and that support what I said before : something automatic is always unconscious, hence unrelated to our sensation of free will. When people were shown a fast food sign, we can reasonnably suppose that they don’t say “I really wanted to speak faster”, but rather “I did not realized I was speking faster”.

              In my conception free will (associated to perception) is really what consciousness (=being) is all about.

              Those studies are irrelevant for the problem of free will. There could be as many similar mechanisms as you want inside our brain. As long as a consciousness still exists despite these mechanisms, there may be something more.

  50. Tim Harris
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    The question of ‘free will’ seems an almost parochially Western concern, one that surely derives from a conviction, which seems to be not so much intellectually entertained as unconsciously or culturally held on to, that there is an unbridgeable gulf between active and living ‘spirit’ and inert, dead ‘matter’; and then, if ‘matter’ plays a part in, say, the making of a decision, then everything must be determined in a totally rigid, lock-step way (as opposed to being determined by being influenced in a decision as a result of having just come across some new piece of information). Of course there is no ‘free will’ considered as some kind of pure capacity for decision that is independent of all circumstance, but that surely does not necessitate that therefore everything is purely ‘material’ and wholly determined (as Bruce Hood suddenly comes out and excitedly asserts in his fascinating book). This whole debate, which seems to excite people so much, strikes me as fundamentally sterile – like the debate as to the number of angels who could dance on a needle-point. And I don’t think the debate comes even near to arising in non-Western cultures, particularly those of East Asia.

  51. articulett
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    I’ve often thought about a justice system that was based more on protecting society from harm rather than “punishment”. It seems that we pay a lot of money to keep people incarcerated that are not a threat to a society while letting others go that have compulsions that they seem unable to control (pedophilia, for example.) (I also wonder whether castration as a condition of release would cut down on those with sexual compulsions that harm others since nothing else seems to work.)

    I suspect most people don’t really know why they do most of the things they do. Would anyone choose to be attracted to kids if they could help it? How much does fear of punishment deter action when threats of hell don’t seem to stop priests from molesting children? I can see why people would attribute their impulses to demons or muses or other supernatural entities. When you read about confabulation, it’s clear that the mind can and does invent reasons all the time for why we’ve done a certain action; we are, apparently, a species who likes to make sense of ourselves and feel more in control of our world than we are.

    When I see my cat making assorted choices, I wonder if he has thoughts like, “I think I’ll jump on the counter to see what’s up there… it’s time to see what’s going on outside… this box looks just the right size for me to cram myself into… etc. I don’t think he has these thoughts. We seem to behave similarly but we are constantly explaining why we do things to ourselves and/or making up answers when we stop to think about it.

    I do think that we are “completely determined” even though it goes against what I feel and the way I perceive myself as acting. But I also feel the earth is flat and static though the facts show otherwise, so I’m well aware of the limits of my perceptions when it comes to reality.

    I can only digest a little of this thinking at a time, and I’m not sure I have a way of understanding or feeling like I’m completely determined because it’s hard to wrap my mind around exactly what this MEANS.

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

      Absolutely:

      I’ve often thought about a justice system that was based more on protecting society from harm rather than “punishment”.

      To insist on punishment qua punishment is sick and sadistic, I think. Perhaps that’s why so many Republicans love the idea.

      More seriously: where does this need for punishing others come from? One definitive source: religion and its perverted idea of sin. Another, almost rational source: the need to ensure fair play and to enforce consequences for cheaters. But the interesting realization here is that there only need to be consequences, which does not translate automatically into punishment.

      I suspect most people don’t really know why they do most of the things they do. Would anyone choose to be attracted to kids if they could help it? How much does fear of punishment deter action when threats of hell don’t seem to stop priests from molesting children?

      Again, spot on. If somebody’s issues cannot be resolved, which anybody should want to try first, then it would be fair to, progressively, keep them from situations that trigger their anti-social urges (fully mindful of FAE), using just the necessary coercion to protect the wider society from actual imminent harm, or point these people to societies where their predilections are not frowned upon and give them a chance to adjust somewhere else.

      • Tim Harris
        Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

        An acquaintance of mine, here in Japan, had an ex-student come to him in huge distress and threatening suicide because he was attracted to children. All he could do was to advise him to see a cousellor and keep away from kids as much as possible… No, I don’t imagine people do want to be paedophiles.
        Incidentally, Alan Turing, because of his homosexuality, of which he was entirely accepting though English lawa then was not, was required to take hormones to reduce his sexual drive, and eventually killed himself.
        But this really to join Peter Beattie and say you’ve hit the nail on the head.

        • Tim Harris
          Posted July 21, 2010 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

          Sorry about all the typos in the above.

  52. articulett
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never really understood what “free will” meant anyhow, since we clearly have different preferences, compulsions, temptations, opportunities, experiences, bodies, brains, talents, interests, than each other. Is someone really behaving “morally” if she refrains from doing things that she wouldn’t do anyhow? And do we really have much control over who we love, what we believe in, and whether we covet? Free will was always one of those weird religious concepts I couldn’t make complete sense of. We certainly have different “will” than each other. And I guess it can be free from outward coercion. Do religious people think animals have free will? Do they think my dog refrains from killing the cats and other animals because she CHOOSES not to? And how do they imagine they are different in the “free will” department? I suppose we can foresee the consequences of our actions in the way animals cannot.

    Though determinism is hard to wrap my mind around, free will is harder.

  53. Posted July 21, 2010 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    To Russell Blackford: “And while we can deliberate, the fact is that we can’t ultimately choose how we are…”

    How do you know this? Isn’t it rather obvious that we have some limited capacity for self-alteration? I could become a gym rat if I chose to, with predictable consequences for who I am in some relevant sense (i.e., I could become a slightly less happy but more fit me).

    In general, count me in the camp of atheists who believe in objective morality. Far from apologizing for being soft, I just figure that the opposed position results from a failure to properly reflect on the nature of moral judgments as such. Moral judgments and moral categories are (obviously) different in kind from judgments of mere taste; for one thing, we routinely treat moral judgments as being either right and wrong. These sorts of properties belong to objectivity, not subjectivity. There is no right and wrong about my favorite flavor of ice cream; but I and you and most others think that there is often a right and wrong about those views and concepts expressed with the concept ‘ought.’

    The questions of what “grounds” moral objectivity, the question of whether some people are beyond moral discourse (surely some are) are different questions from the question of the nature of own judgments, the structure of our own thought, vis-a-vis moral / normative categories. For example, I don’t believe in any Mysterious Realm of the Moral Absolute, and there is nothing in my view that requires belief in such a realm (at least not obviously).

    To Jerry Coyne, if you are still reading these comments:

    I don’t understand your objection to philosophers empirical disengagement. Philosophy is supposed to be purely conceptual; it’s supposed to reveal something about the nature of our own thought, and perhaps something about the nature of what is and isn’t possible in some very broad sense. So, for example, the philosophical problem of free will is largely a conceptual project, concerned with explicating the meaning of the concept and revealing the nature of our own thought in connection to it and (apparently) related ideas (like morality, normativity, moral praise and blame, and the link). Consequently, it’s really not much of an indictment that philosophers deal so little with empirical stuff. They aren’t doing empirical work; they are doing conceptual work. (And it’s actually really hard and rigorous work, if done well, although this point is very difficult to appreciate from the outside.) Or maybe the point is just that you don’t see the value or interest of this particular bit of purely conceptual work?

    • Posted July 21, 2010 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

      Wow, there’s a lot of things that you “just know” (how?), a lot of misconceptions that you have about philosophy, and a lot of false dichotomies that you buy into.

      • Posted July 21, 2010 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

        I’m not sure what you’re referring to. I don’t think the claim that we have some limited capacities for self-alteration was all that radical, and, to the extent that you (uncharitably!) insist on casting it as a species of dogmatism, I don’t think it was any more obviously dogmatic than your apparent denial of the same. The question was whether we can change who we are. You denied that we can. I offered an example of one respect in which we can self-alter by way of counter-example. And the word “obviously” was meant, I think, in a far milder and less combative way than you took it. It’s not the point on which I hang a real argument; but it does seem about right for some off-handed comments in a blog. If you want, I can put the point to you like this: given cases where we apparently can change, why should we go for the strong skeptical thesis that such change is impossible?

        On philosophy, fine, I’ll aver that any statement of what philosophy is risks over-simplification, if you like (and also commission of the offense of terminal boredom), and that there is lots and lots of room for discussion here. Still, there is “I disagree with your view” and then there’s “wow, you’re completely off any semblance of the reservation.” But, for all that your credentials outstrip mine, I don’t think I’m out of the mainstream to insist that philosophy is not really or properly an empirical discipline. Okay, maybe applied ethics gets a little empirical. Still, most philosophers don’t understand theirs to be an empirical discipline. That’s not to say that philosophers don’t or can’t have interesting things to say about empirical stuff, or that they can’t critique empirical science, obviously. (Obviously!) But surely you’ll agree that a sensible distinction is possible between conceptual and empirical work, even if there are plenty of muddy cases in the middle, and plenty of people who hop the fence?

        But I’d still sincerely like to know which “false dichotomies” I buy into. It doesn’t help me much to know that you think I’m confused, although, on that score, message received. 🙂

        • Posted July 21, 2010 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

          “If you want” comes across sarcastic. It wasn’t. Sorry.

  54. Avery Andrews
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that the existence of free will is a scientifically investigable issue, but with an unusual twist.

    First, a definition: free will esxists iff we cannot construct a predictive theory of how humans solve hard problems and make difficult decisions (note Noam Chomsky’s point that if we needed to posit some new properties of the universe to construct such a theory, they would just become part of physics).

    Now the twist: the only way to show that free will exists is to work hard and long at producing theories that explain it away, and fail, persistently, and ‘authentically’ (not in a theatrically staged manner; the people trying to construct full theories of the causation of human behavior really have to think they will succeed, and try very hard, in order for their failure to mean anything).

    I don’t think neuroscience is quite in a position to really do this yet, but it may not be that far off.

  55. Furcas
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Free_will

    • Jim Menegay
      Posted July 22, 2010 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      Thx for the link. A truly outstanding philosophy web site.

  56. benjdm
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Biology has nothing to do with free will. Free will contradicts itself long before you have to bring in any biological knowledge. No amount of biology being wrong could rescue libertarian free will, either.

    ‘You’, at any point there is a you, ARE your initial nature + the effects of your experiences on your nature. The free will requirement of having a decision that is determined by ‘you’ but not determined by your nature and nurture is self-contradictory. There is no ‘you’ independent of your initial nature + the effects of your experiences on your nature – even if materialism were false and dualism were true. Free will is a four sided triangle. The requirements for free (not determined by a person’s nature and nurture) contradict the requirements for will (determined by a person, who is their nature and nurture.)

    As Galen Strawson said in an interview:

    …many people think that determinism—the view that the history of the universe is fixed, the view that everything that happens is strictly necessitated by what has already gone before, in such a way that nothing can ever happen otherwise than it does—is the real threat to free will, to ultimate moral responsibility. But the basic argument against ultimate moral responsibility works whether determinism is true or false. It’s a completely a priori argument, as philosophers like to say. That means that you can see that it is true just lying on your couch. You don’t have to get up off your couch and go outside and examine the way things are in the physical world. You don’t have to do any science.

    • Avery Andrews
      Posted July 21, 2010 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

      This is why I framed my formulation above in terms of the existence or not of a predictive theory, because talking about what is ‘determined’ without any way of calculating it from whatever it’s supposed to be determined by is meaningless.

    • Richard Wein
      Posted July 22, 2010 at 3:06 am | Permalink

      “Biology has nothing to do with free will. Free will contradicts itself long before you have to bring in any biological knowledge.”

      That’s exactly the thought that was in my mind all through reading Cashmore’s piece. Why castigate biologists for not addressing this question? It has already been much discussed by philosophers, and I don’t think Cashmore has added anything new. Even his errors are old ones. 😉

      On the other hand, the more we learn about the brain the better we understand the specific biological causes of human behaviour and perception, making contra-causal free will seem ever more implausible even to those who turn a blind eye to the underlying contradiction.

    • Posted July 23, 2010 at 9:15 am | Permalink

      “There is no ‘you’ independent of your initial nature + the effects of your experiences on your nature”

      In fact this is assumption derives from determinism (strict causality), which is false.

      If I make the hypothesis that each moment in life is bringing something new to the world, that argument is false, because then, person = nature + experience + that something new.

      • benjdm
        Posted July 24, 2010 at 6:19 am | Permalink

        How would ‘that moment in life’ not be part of your experiences?

        • Posted July 24, 2010 at 8:46 am | Permalink

          It is now, it is the definition of present, the moment when i am conscious. It is not my experience, which is past.

          I think (but I admit this is a metaphysical point) that if nothing new were brought to the world at any moment, if the world was a kind of deterministic algorithmic process, there would be no stream of time and no present, because no moment could be priviledged.

  57. Patrick Julius
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    One word: COMPATIBILISM.

    Yes, the most extreme form of libertarian free will is false; in fact, it’s self-contradictory, as some of the other posters have pointed out.

    But COMPATIBILIST free will—the freedom to make rational decisions—is not only essential to everything we do (including science and philosophy), but a demonstrably real phenomenon, and one that we clearly have in greater degree than a computer program, a fly, or even a dog.

    The really important kind of free will is the capacity for rational volition—for *intelligence*, basically—and that is a capacity we very much do have.

    The problem with our legal system is not that it has too much respect for free will, but on the contrary that it doesn’t have ENOUGH; it rewards and punishes us like we are rats in a Skinner box, instead of exploring and adjusting the social and psychological causes of actual human behavior. The vast majority of crime is RATIONAL—it may even be MORAL—given the socioeconomic circumstances in which it occurs. Correct those circumstances and you will correct the crime.

    But this whole argument is stupid. “What should we do, given that free will is an illusion?” NOTHING, because 1) free will ISN’T an illusion, and 2) even if it were, it would render the very concept of “should” completely incoherent.

  58. bad Jim
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

    The thing is, we still sometimes have to choose, and quite frequently we are faced with hard choices. If you can’t sleep because you’re facing a dilemma, the thought that your inevitable decision has already been determined is no help at all.

    You can even choose to flip a coin to make a decision. Whether that choice was free or determined, the outcome of the toss is presumably random.

    I’m agnostic as to whether the processes of our brains are determinate, given that they’re large, complex and full of self-reprogramming feedback loops. The problem of quality control is intractable for even the comparatively trivial programs we have written so far. The buggy software we run on the weird wetware in our heads is orders of magnitude beyond what we already can’t manage.

    But that’s beside the point. We still, at least some of us, at least sometimes, have choices to make, and then freedom is an undeniable reality.

  59. Jack Bentley
    Posted July 21, 2010 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating topic, and one with which I have been wrestling for many a year. The book ‘How free are you?’ by Ted Honderich, Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at Oxford is a good introduction. Out of print, but widely available secondhand. (Honderich is a determinist)

  60. Posted July 22, 2010 at 2:48 am | Permalink

    Funny, I wrote something at my blog on free will just the other day:

    http://rixaeton.blogspot.com/2010/07/furthermore-there-is-no-free-will.html

    There is a bit of detail there, but in summary, the professor of neuroscience, Rodolfo Llinás, conducted an experiment on himself with a transcranial magnetic stimulator where, upon stimulation, his right foot would move to the right. In order to make sure to his assistant that he was not cheating (moving right by volition) he told his assistant that when the stimulator was activated, he would deliberately move his foot left. The next time the stimulator was actvated, his foot move to the right (as before) and when the assistant asked him why his foot moved right, the prof replied “I decided to change my mind.” This indicated to him that his mind was rearranging his memory of his decision to move left so it conformed with what actually happened.

    I like Prof. Llinás’ definition of free will, given what he experienced, “? But I can tell you I define free will as those activities that happen that the brain know are about to happen.”

    • wice
      Posted July 22, 2010 at 4:51 am | Permalink

      That sounds like a pretty cool experiment, I wish I could do it on myself. Btw, as far as I know, similar accidental “experiments” happen every time a brain surgery is performed on someone. When the surgeon touches parts of the brain, sometimes the patient e.g. raises his hand, and when asked why he did it, the answer is “I wanted to”.

      • Posted July 22, 2010 at 5:10 am | Permalink

        ” I wish I could do it on myself.”

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transcranial_magnetic_stimulation

        Maybe if you ask a psychiatric hospital nicely? Since it is a non-invasive device it could be done easily, but where to find one, and a willing assistant to push the button? 🙂

      • Patrick Julius
        Posted July 22, 2010 at 6:36 am | Permalink

        Now THAT is a more compelling argument against our naive understanding of agency.

        But it doesn’t disprove the existence of volition—it rather forces us to more carefully reflect upon what volition really is and how it works. If we can be made to desire or deceived about our own desires, that makes it much more complicated to understand what it is to “desire”.

    • Jon H
      Posted July 22, 2010 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      Um, that’s not exactly a proper scientific experiment.

      Sample size of one? With the only subject the scientist himself? With subjective self-reporting?

      You wouldn’t accept this if Gary Null were describing the benefits of his latest woo pill.

  61. wice
    Posted July 22, 2010 at 4:43 am | Permalink

    It’s really interesting to see, how much we lack a proper vocabulary to talk about these questions. E.g. I see commenters, who are most definitely not dualists, talking like “_my_ brain”, “_your_ brain”, etc.

    “My (non-dualist) brain” “tells” “me”, that it _is_ me. With sufficiently advanced technology, you could remove or replace any part of “my body” (except “my brain”), and it would still be “me”. But remove or replace any part of “my brain”, and it wouldn’t be “me” anymore.

    OFFTOPIC: Of course, it implies, that every moment when “my brain” changes in any way (either by it’s inner working, or because of an outside cause) I am no longer the same “I” I was before the change, but a different entity, that is capable to recall the memories of the previous “I’s”. That’s another problem with our vocabulary: having only one word for an ever changing object forces us to think about ourselves as the same entity over time. I think that’s the reason for our race’s general incapability to cope with the concept of death without the invention of an afterlife.

    • Richard Wein
      Posted July 22, 2010 at 5:14 am | Permalink

      Good point. The phrase “my brain” implies that there’s a me outside of that brain for the brain to belong to.

      You could interpret “my brain” to mean “the brain of the physical entity that calls itself Richard”. But I would say that’s a redefinition. It’s not what we nornally mean by the word “my”. In normal speech the word “my” has dualistic connotations.

      • Posted July 22, 2010 at 5:52 am | Permalink

        I think it would make more sense to say “there’s a me inside of my brain that my brain belongs to.”

    • Patrick Julius
      Posted July 22, 2010 at 6:20 am | Permalink

      And why would we invent an unchanging word for a thing that has no constancy? Indeed, who is this “we” if we change so much that we cannot be defined as a unitary thing!?

      We are not *completely* constant, that is true—but we are in fact *mostly* constant; our Achean ship replaces only a few planks at a time, and hence is easily defined as the same seaworthy vessel.

      Indeed, if you did not on some level realize I cannot imagine why you’d bother doing anything at all, since it would only affect some imagined future beings that bear no relation to you.

      • wice
        Posted July 22, 2010 at 7:08 am | Permalink

        “And why would we invent an unchanging word for a thing that has no constancy?”

        I think we do it because of how memory works. When we recall the experiences of our past selves, we more-or-less “relive” them, instead of looking at them “from the outside”. In the latter case it would be much easier to think of our past selves as separate entities.

        “Indeed, if you did not on some level realize I cannot imagine why you’d bother doing anything at all, since it would only affect some imagined future beings that bear no relation to you.”

        It’s like saying, that if I did not on some level realize that colorful spots of paint on a piece of paper, organized in a certain way are *mostly* the same as a real naked woman, then I should stop enjoying porn. I can be fully aware, that it’s just a piece of paper with paint on it, and still feel sexually stimulated by it, because that’s how we work. Similarly, I can _think_ that my future selves won’t be the same as my present self, but it certainly won’t make me _feel_ that it’s not worth living.

        On the other hand, if there’s every be a “teleportation” technology, that collects every information of a human body, transmits it to somewhere else, creates the exact copy of the person there, then (in a non-painful way) destroys the original body, then I will probably have no problem with using it. Emphasis on _probably_, of course.

        • Richard Wein
          Posted July 23, 2010 at 2:13 am | Permalink

          I agree with your analysis. But teleporter scenarios can put great strain on our evolved sense of personal continuity.

          Suppose that the original Wice is not going to be eliminated. Before the teleportation, which of the two Wices’ futures would you care about? It seems odd not to care about the original Wice at least as much as the copy. Yet you’re saying that you probably wouldn’t care if the original is eliminated.

          You might respond that your care is only that at least one Wice continues to exist. But then, after the teleportation, would each Wice not care whether he lives or dies, safe in the knowledge that should he die there will still be another Wice in existence? (Let’s assume that insufficient time has passed for the two Wices to differ significantly as a result of their different experiences.) And what if a thousand copies were made instead of one?

          A similar question arose recently in a discussion about cryonic preservation and recreation of preserved brains in the future (perhaps in electronic form). I said that I didn’t feel sufficient connection with such a future being to consider it as a continuation of me, and so wasn’t interested in creating one. Some others in the discussion thought this irrational. (I was at a forum frequented by people who have already taken out life assurance to pay for their cryonic preservation.)

          My point (and I think you’d agree) is that there is no rational reason for our most basic cares. It’s simply a fact that we have evolved to care about the fate of our future selves. But when we introduce scenarios affecting our bodies in ways that differ radically from the conditions we evolved under, we may be unsure which self to care about. If we believe that people should care about their future selves, then teleporter scenarios can lead to paradoxes.

          • wice
            Posted July 23, 2010 at 3:26 am | Permalink

            I see your point. Actually I took this whole teleportation scenario from the short story “Think Like A Dinosaur” by James Patrick Kelly, which explicitly considers the problem of destroying the original body, and implicitly asks the question “what about the soul of the original”. At the time of reading, it made a huge impression on me, although I felt even then that there is something wrong with it, probably because I don’t believe in the soul (in a dualistic sense).

            I see your point and I generally agree with you, but I don’t think there is a real paradox, only in our perception.

            I don’t actually “care about the future Wices”, I just try to stay alive, because that’s how my instincts are wired. So, _before_ the creation of the copy, I don’t _care_ about either the original or the copy, I just want to be teleported. But, of course, _after_ the creation of the copy, but _before_ the destruction of the original, both the original and the copy Wice will pretty much care about _staying alive_, so I think I would prefer to be put to sleep before the whole process, so my original future self won’t worry about its destruction.

            Thankfully this whole dilemma is probably completely fictional, since as far as we know it, it’s impossible to create an exact copy of a human being, because it would need _exact_ measurement of the momentary “state” of the body, which is prevented by the uncertainty principle.

            So, lets get back to this issue if and when someone discovers, that the uncertainty principle can be circumvented.

  62. Svlad Cjelli
    Posted July 22, 2010 at 5:27 am | Permalink

    Your way is overcomplicated. What I want is what I want, whether I can control what I want (which would be silly) or not.

  63. wanstronian
    Posted July 22, 2010 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Unfortunately free access is only available for Cashmore’s original article, you can’t read the follow-ups.

  64. Posted July 22, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    I am a fan of Hofstadter’s Who shoves whom around inside the careenium?, also mentioned in I am a Strange Loop.

    There is nothing dualistic about the proposition that the emergent symbols of the mind act as if they have causal power. Furthermore I don’t see an immediate contradiction in those symbols actually having causal power. Regarding the latter, in I am a Strange Loop (p205), Hofstadter mentions the work of Roger Sperry.

    To my knowledge there is no hard evidence for it, but nonetheless I find it fascinating.

  65. PTM19
    Posted July 22, 2010 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    Free will is an illusion but in a perverse way – the word with free will would be exactly the same as the world without free will, there is no way to tell them apart.

    As for judicial system it’s role is to preserve social order and the free will aspect is irrelevant in the end. Those who upset social order need to be removed whether they are responsible for their actions or not.

  66. Mutating Replicator
    Posted July 22, 2010 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne, I can sympathize with your preference to avoid thinking too much about free will. I wonder if this might give you a pang of sympathy for the religious believer who similarly avoids thinking about issues problematic to his or her religious faith? If not, what is the distinction?

    • PhiloKGB
      Posted July 23, 2010 at 12:47 am | Permalink

      That I am aware, free will is not problematic for atheism, whether we actually have it or not.

      • Mutating Replicator
        Posted July 23, 2010 at 11:04 am | Permalink

        Yes, but my point and question are somewhat different. The lack of free will is an uncomfortable topic for Dr. Coyne (and many of us) because it strikes at the heart of one of our most cherished beliefs, that of personal autonomy. It seems that the situation is analogous to the dilemma faced by a religious believer who is, in the words of Paul Tillich, “forced to supress elements of truth of which they are dimly aware” (Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, p. 3)

        My question to Dr. Coyne (and others who care to comment) is whether their propensity to “suppress elements of truth” concerning the lack of free will gives them any sympathy for otherwise thoughtful religious believers who find themself suppressing “elements of true” concerning their religions.

        • articulett
          Posted July 23, 2010 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

          I have sympathy, and I suspect most people here have been believers and can remember when they avoided thinking too hard about some topic that “bothered” them to think about.

          However, I’m glad for whatever did prod my thinking forward.

          I guess your question would be relevant if Jerry was going to churches and forcing others to “think”. But he writes a blog, a book, and teaches others– anyone can “switch the channel” so-to-speak. Nobody who wants to hang on to their magical beliefs needs to read Jerry’s words nor comment. Plus, just because they don’t want to hear something, doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t hear it.

          If people kept their beliefs private, then the rationalists wouldn’t have to go around walking on eggshells wondering whose fragile beliefs we might be interfering with. I hate this idea that we might accidentally cause anguish because we did the equivalent of letting a child know that there is no Santa– that their parents lied to them.

          So, though I have sympathy– I want no part of a delusion, I think has gone on way too long. I’m too honest to give the “courtier’s reply” as people exclaim over the emperor’s magical robes. I think it’s immoral to enable the nutty notion that faith is ennobling or a respect-worthy or a way of knowing “higher truths”.

          Obviously Jerry has sympathy since he shows great restraint in answering the nutters who post on his blog– more than I could show. And I DO have sympathy. I just expect that fragile sensitive people will avoid my words here and won’t expect me to give undeserved deference to the lies they’ve been indoctrinated to believe are a salvation-worthy truth.

          I don’t want religious folks to expect respect from me that they would not give to a Wiccan, Scientologist, or Muslim. I want them as private in their beliefs as THEY want those folks to be. I want them not to ask for privileges for their faith that they would not extend to those other faiths. I want them to understand that Science does not support their supernatural beliefs anymore than it supports those other supernatural beliefs. I suspect most incompatibilists are the same.

        • PhiloKGB
          Posted July 23, 2010 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

          I haven’t seen where Dr. Coyne has said anything about suppressing any uncomfortable truths about free will. Reluctance to engage the topic is hardly the same thing.

  67. Scott
    Posted July 23, 2010 at 12:02 am | Permalink

    THANK YOU! I’ve felt for a long time that free will is a ridiculous idea (although I’d honestly love to hear good evidence that I’ve been wrong this whole time) given what we’ve known for many years, and that the judicial system is entirely off-base. Of course there’s absolutely no way it’s getting reformed to anywhere near the degree that it should if it reflects the reality of a lack of free will.

    BTW, I read Freedom Evolves and was rather disappointed. He basically redefined free will to something that no one would really consider as such and said that we had it, and made a few, IMO, bad philosophical arguments to back it up.

    • wice
      Posted July 23, 2010 at 5:09 am | Permalink

      1. About the reformation of the judicial system, please read what I wrote in my first comment. I think I made a pretty good case for _not_ reforming it.

      2. Unfortunately I haven’t read Freedom Evolves, but based on what I’ve read from Dennett, I would guess that he didn’t “redefine” free will, but simply _defined_ it in a way that makes sense, so it is worth to think about. Because the “original” (religious) definition doesn’t make sense at all, since it leads to contradictions.

  68. GeorgeG
    Posted July 23, 2010 at 4:08 am | Permalink

    “I’ve always tried to avoid thinking about free will, realizing that that way lies madness.”

    Perhaps that “always” should be a “usually”. That would help explain why you addressed the issue of free will in this post:

    https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2009/12/13/theodicy-iii-primo-levi-and-francis-collins/

    • Notagod
      Posted July 24, 2010 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

      All these many years I’ve thought I had free will (not the poof gody did it kind because that would be nonsensical but an ability, given the exact same conditions, to choose different actions or decide different conclusions.) However, I have to admit reluctantly, those thoughts could be brain-christians all the way down. Very disappointing. s If you see a stray “s” that means I’ve beaten determinism because it wanted an “a”.

      How would one falsify determinism?

      • articulett
        Posted July 24, 2010 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

        That’s a good question.

        Any evidence for dualism would be a good start. If we could observe a choice being made without a preceding cascade of brain events maybe?

        We can look at the various studies linked and consider what the difference would be if determinism wasn’t true. But it’s a weird question, because there doesn’t seem to be a good definition of “free will” absent the idea of a soul, does there? Free will involves some non-physical thing “directing” the physical brain, right? Some “self” or “being” that exists beyond the body that has some capacity to think, feel, and choose.

        That makes for a good question about the idea of heaven. Is there free will in heaven? If so, could you choose to be bad?
        Could god choose to do evil? Could he have chosen to make a universe with no suffering?

        Determinism is really hard to wrap one’s mind around, but “free will” is really a much more confusing idea and (to me) clearly can’t be true. It doesn’t make sense at its core.
        Unless, you mean something different than that by free will (such as free from external coercion.)

        We FEEL like some external part of us is making choices, but this seems to be as much an illusion as the notion of the sun moving across the sky.

        • Notagod
          Posted July 25, 2010 at 11:15 am | Permalink

          Oh yay! The prospect of doing naughty things in heaven, as the crow would say, what fun! We could probably make jesus cry if we hide its nails. “What’s wrong jesus?” “I can’t find my bloody nails!” I’m with you articulett, on the prospects for some external floaty thing, the christians don’t even state that the thing takes a shower before jumping inside of them, it might have been out slopping the holy hogs when the god just zapped it in.

          Can the brain though, exploit a naturally existing randomness or is everything including every spec of dust exactly in a position that could have been predicted some 14 billion year ago? It seems possible maybe even likely given our observation of the predictability of universal events and matter. But, why brains, if there isn’t anything to change? Why have eyes evolved if animal’s ability to be aware doesn’t make any difference?

          Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, my brain hurts – why does my brain hurt if it makes no difference? Jerry this is all your fault! Oops sorry, I forgot, you had no choice.

          Maybe thinking about human brains isn’t the best place to gain an understanding. When the first organism developed a sensitivity to light and eluded something that would have otherwise eaten it, did that not change something? That type of thing would surely be a new development within a deterministic universe. I don’t know if that is indicative of a precursor to choice though but, it does seem to add a question mark.

  69. Posted July 23, 2010 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    You really got it wrong.

    Books of philosophy do not always talk about physics because concsciousness is first, physics comes after. You can’t blame them for that.

    The deterministic description of nature through science is not reality – it is a representation of reality built by… our consciousness.

    The scientific description is unable to account for our mind. My direct experience of reality is not equivalent to a mathematical formula. That does not mean – of course – that our mind does not exist.

    The prerequiste for building a scientific representation is to exclude the subject from it. That is not a surprise that we cannot find any place for the subject inside this representation. But in reality, there is nothing more than a subjective reality. That is really all that exists !

    You will object : yes but how is it that my representation of reality is so accurate, so deterministic, if subject really exist ?

    Accurate did you say ? And deterministic ? It’s not in fact. According to the law of chaos, if an electron disappear billons of kilometers away from earth, the gravity effect will completly change the weather within a week.

    We just live in a world where quantum fluctuations are everywhere, not billions of kilometers away. Don’t tell me the world obey to “deterministic laws”. This is nothing more than a bad approximation.

    The “stochastic laws of nature” is just the pretty name we give to something in order to make believe that we know exactly what it is. But what it really means, in fact, is that we are unable to predict nature because are representation of nature is not complete and will never be because nature is not reducible to a mathematical formula, as my subjectivity is not.

    So basing a belief that free will does not exist on one’s faith in the accuracy of a representation of reality that in fact is not complete and will never be is just getting things totally wrong.

    And basing a legal system on such an absurd assumption is more than a mistake, its a total nonsense.

    • Tim Martin
      Posted July 23, 2010 at 10:16 am | Permalink

      You realize that this entire post is unsupported assertions, and you give no reasons for us to accept what you say as true?

      There’s a lot of nonsense here, but one comment pretty much sums it up.

      “But in reality, there is nothing more than a subjective reality.”

      You realize you just stated objectively that there is no objective reality.

    • Posted July 23, 2010 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      Ok I will reformulate : all we know about a supposed objective reality has its fundations from a subjective reality.

      There is no certainty of an objective reality.

      In fact my statement was not made objectively, but, as you read it, inter-subjectively (or at least can I reasonnabily suppose so).

      The scientific description itself is an inter-subjective representation of the world, it is not _reality_.

      Please tell me what else is unsupported in what i said according to you (which I understand as a disagreement), I will be glad to support it.

      • Posted July 23, 2010 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

        I think I have been misunderstood.

        When I say that our scientific knowledge has a price, which is the exclusion of the subject from it, you may think this is nonsense, but I am not the first person to say that. Schrödinger said it before me (in “Mind and matter”) and I am sure a lot of other philosophers did too.

        Let me summarize and reformulate a bit what Schrödinger says. A scientific description allows us to make some predictions about the empirical world. These predictions are in terms of position, speed, etc. But all these concepts are in fact derived from our visual perception, which the scientific description never account for.

        For example science do not tell us what “red” is. It may tell us that some photons with a specific frequency hitting my retina are perceived as red, that an electric signal is sent to my brain and some neuron activated. Even if we could tell which kind of neuron pattern is activated when we perceive red, that would not tell us what “red” is.

        Schrödinger explains that it is because the scientific method is possible only because we exclude subjectivity from the description, and that is why it does not render the subjective experience.

        It is very important to remember that the scientific description of reality has a prerequisite which is the possibility for us to build and understand such a representation. All we can learn from science is what is made possible for us, human, to understand – basically, the mathematical regularities of the behaviour of matter, but not its essence.

        Believeing that this representation is “all there is” is a big lack of humility.

        In fact, to corrobore what Schrödinger says, consciousness itself is a kind of “supernatural” thing that is incompatible with our scientific knowledge : how can exist such a macroscopic single entity when everything is always separable into smaller pieces ? Why is the conscious experience always single ?

        That does not mean that consciousness does not exist of course.

        That is the reason why assumptions on our mind that are fully deduced from our scientific knowledge are always very -very- questionnable.

        That is why the assumption that free will does not exist, based only on what we know of matter, is also very questionnable, and that is why philosophy books do not always refer to physics when it comes to discussing about the existence of free will, because things are too much metaphysical at this point of the discussion.

      • Tim Martin
        Posted July 23, 2010 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

        “all we know about a supposed objective reality has its fundations from a subjective reality.”

        Agreed.

        “There is no certainty of an objective reality. ”

        An objective reality exists. We just can’t ever be sure that we’re right about the details of it.

        “The scientific description itself is an inter-subjective representation of the world, it is not _reality_.”

        I don’t know what “inter subjective” means. I’m taking this to mean that our scientific view of the world is subjective (please correct me if I’m wrong). To which I say – yes, we cannot ever know for certain that reality is as we think it to be. But it could be. Our view of reality could be correct. It isn’t a valid conclusion to say that it is definitely incorrect.

        “Please tell me what else is unsupported in what i said ”

        On re-reading, I think a part of my problem is I don’t understand what some of what you wrote is supposed to mean. Frankly, I’m not interested in going over every detail. But if you would, could you explain/support this quote:

        “The scientific description is unable to account for our mind.”

      • Posted July 23, 2010 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

        “The scientific description is unable to account for our mind.”

        It would be more true to say that it cannot account for our subjective experience (because the latter is the base of the former).

        see my previous comment : https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/07/21/free-will-and-biology/#comment-35153

        “It isn’t a valid conclusion to say that it is definitely incorrect.”

        All I say is that it is definitely incomplete because, loosely speaking, i am not a mathematical formula.

        • articulett
          Posted July 24, 2010 at 9:38 am | Permalink

          I guess I don’t really understand what you think “free will” is. Certainly there are constraints on whatever “will” we have and certainly there are brain structures that make us feel like we chose things for reasons that are not necessarily correct and often made up after the fact. But there are reasons we chose things whether we are aware of them or not.

          • Posted July 24, 2010 at 10:21 am | Permalink

            I agree there are constraints. But they are unconscious : they have nothing to see with free will, which is an aspect of our conscious life.

            I agree there are brain structure that are making up reasons for our choices afterwards. But they are not made up at the moment of our choice, so again, it has nothing to see with free will.

            Free will only exists at the present, when I live it. It is rather unspeakable. It is not finding some reasons for having made a decision before, nor an unconscious automatic process we would find reasons for, it is simply acting, inflecting the future, making a decision, at the exact moment I make it : now.

  70. articulett
    Posted July 24, 2010 at 4:50 am | Permalink

    There’s a good recent opinion piece on the subject if your brain isn’t worn out by thinking about this stuff: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/22/your-move-the-maze-of-free-will/

  71. Posted July 27, 2010 at 2:06 am | Permalink

    I find it hard to do away with the concept of free will entirely, I find this hard problem of free will an instance of greedy reductionism, akin to casting off intelligence because the brain is merely unintelligent forces interacting.

    Anyway, I wrote my thoughts on this paper: here for those who are interested.

    • Posted July 27, 2010 at 8:05 am | Permalink

      There is an argument that prove that asserting the inexistence of free will on the base of the physical laws is inconsistent.
      I find it related to what you say about “casting off the intelligence” in your paper. The key is that the laws are the product of our intelligence.

      The argument is the following : if I am able to understand the laws of nature and if they deny my free will, then in theory, I could predict my own behavior from these laws. And if this is true, I could choose to do the contrary of my predictions, which is contradictory.

      There are two solutions to this paradox :
      – either the real laws of nature are not accessible to us. Then it is impossible to conclude on whether we have free will or not
      – either they are accessible, but compatible with our free will, and then the assertion that we can deduce the inexistance of free will from them is false.

      A third solution can be proposed :
      – I can know the laws of nature, they are incompatible with free will, but because of some limitations, I cannot predict my own behavior from them.

      This third solution is problematic, because it says that the unpredictability of my own behavior is a necessary condition for my sensation of free will to exist, which is a rather strange assertion : if it is related to a sensation of free will, why couldn’t it be related to a genuine free will ?

  72. PG
    Posted July 28, 2010 at 4:30 am | Permalink

    What do you think of this?
    “While a naturalist/materialist metaphysic in its current incarnation seems to require a denial of free will (and I think no one who has thought about it for just a second will refute that it’s a deeply tricky problem), it would be premature to reject free will, given people’s ubiquitous recoiling from the idea that they are not autonomous agents. What possible purpose can be served by such a pervasive illusion if free will is indeed a fantasy? What do we gain from it?

    Such a rejection is furthermore premature since there is, as yet, no satisfactory naturalist/materialist account of consciousness and mind, things on which free will depends. Lacking such accounts, we don’t reject mind and consciousness because doing so would be self-contradictory. Moreover, those who hold with strict determinism have not been paying attention to the lessons of QM, Mensuration, Computation and Chaos Theory. These areas of study provide compelling reasons to suppose that strict determinism (as Laplace had conceived it) is a chimera. This is not to deny that many processes are deterministic within certain limits of accuracy. However, there are many other processes that evolve over time to vastly different states from initial conditions that are only marginally different. All that is needed is some subtle natural effect to predispose such very sensitive initial conditions this way rather than that, and determinism flies out the window. The argument that “given sufficiently accurate knowledge, etc., it’s still deterministic” is soundly refuted by a bunch of insurmountable physical limitations on what can be known, what can be measured and what can be computed.

    Personally, I am certain that there are as-yet undiscovered features of physical reality (space, time, matter, energy) that will permit an in-principle materialist/naturalist account of how mind and consciousness arise from mindless and unconscious space-time-matter-energy without having to resort to many of the strange arguments, either slippery, self-serving or non sequitur, that this problem has produced. Further, I am sure that these aspects are tied in with QM indeterminacy and non-locality. Once we understand mind and consciousness more clearly as manifestations of underlying material properties, we will no doubt also have a clearer picture of what it means to have a will, how a will can procure physical effects (e.g. making a cup of coffee, or not), and whether such a will can indeed be free.

    Needless to say, the history of science is replete with examples where a material account of this or that phenomenon was held to be “impossible” only to be turned on its head later on. More pessimistically, it may also be that the as-yet-undiscovered features of physical reality that I speak of will lie forever beyond our ability to apprehend if they form the basis on which our mind, consciousness and will are founded. Presently, we simply don’t know.

    In short, those who argue that materialism/naturalism undeniably requires a rejection of mind/consciousness/free will are getting way ahead of themselves and what inferences are actually warranted from what we presently know. Nonetheless, until the question is properly settled, I will remain convinced that my will really is free for the very simple reason, as it seems to me, that were it not so, consciousness itself, and self-awareness in particular, would be pretty pointless attributes to have.”

  73. Peg
    Posted August 19, 2010 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    I’m getting to this a bit late, but in your post you wrote that you don’t agree with all of what Cashmore wrote. Can you elaborate on that? I would be interested to know which parts you do not agree with.

  74. Jason
    Posted November 15, 2010 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    What Anthony Cashmore is arguing is silly he trying to convince people that we are nothing more than bags of chemicals with no free will being soley controlled by external forces. And because of this we ought to disbelieve in free will and reform our criminal justice. People could easily respond by saying we have to believe in free will and in a retributive justic criminal we have no choice remember! Evolution programed us to believe in these things you said it yourself. It’s funny because according to him his disbelief in free will and his arguments against it are just a result of his genetics and evironmental history and some randomness. The only reason why his says that there is no free will is because some defective chromosome kick in and made him say it. he says we have no more free will then a bowl of sugar yet we “ought” to believe this but “ought” implies choosing which implies free will. very self-refuting. Personally I’m not sure if we have free will or not. To me though it doesn’t mattter it feels and seems like I have free will and thats all that matters to me. If we do have free will we probably don’t have as much as we think we do.

  75. Jason
    Posted November 15, 2010 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

    On top of that I think that Anthoney Cashmore’s premises are wrong. For example I don’t think complex biological systems are mechanically controlled by the laws of chemistry and physics rather there consistent with the laws of chemistry and physics however operate accordingly to emergent properties of biological structures. It’s ashame that he would describe the incredible and dazzling complexity of life as nothing more than “bags of chemicals” he guility of what Denett calls greedy reductionism.

  76. Posted May 26, 2011 at 12:59 am | Permalink

    Here is an interesting take on this topic :

    http://cogprints.org/341/1/FREEDOM.htm

  77. Serg
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    Very good article. I just want to add an argument about punishment of criminals. Can we say that we don’t have free will in order NOT to punish criminals? After all, this is just the evolutionary process that causes all of us to behave as we do.


5 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Biology and free will I’ve always tried to avoid thinking about free will, realizing that that way lies madness.  As a materialist, I […] […]

  2. […] 21 July 2010 (pm) Free will? It doesn’t seem to jibe with science. Jerry Coyne and friends discuss here. […]

  3. […] Will and Brains Over at WEIT, WEIT, Jerry Coyne is confuddled with reconciling the functions of our brains with the functions of […]

  4. […] like to think we’re in control of our decisions. But, even aside from the fact that we have no free will (thought I’d just slip that in there), other factors–things we wouldn’t want to […]

  5. […] by nwrickert A few days ago, of his own free will Jerry Coyne blogged about why he thinks that we don’t have free will.  Apparently William Eggington, in yesterday’s New York Times, said “Yes we […]

%d bloggers like this: