Another sweating professor: Egginton on free will (again)

This time I’m truly puzzled. Humanities professor William Egginton, whose New York Times column on free will I “deconstructed,” is back again with another column, responding to my comments and trying to explain what he meant by “free will” in the first place.

When you have to write a second column explaining what you meant in the first, you know you’re not writing well.  And indeed, Egginton, though a professor of German and Romances languages and literatures, is a pretty dire writer, wedded to academese.  (Maybe he writes better in German.)  But there are alternative explanations for his opacity: perhaps he doesn’t really understand what he’s saying in the first place, or maybe I’m just too dense to understand him (remember, I iz naive and philosophically unsophisticated).  At any rate, since Egginton claims that he has an airtight and simple explanation for why we truly do have free will, I’ve puzzled through his latest piece.  Perhaps readers can help me see what his explanation is. Let’s wade through his argument (I’ve omitted a lot of excess verbiage).

First, Egginton repeats his earlier claim that physical/biological determinism has nothing to do with whether we have free will.

To make a choice that in any sense could be considered “free,” we would have to claim that it was at some point unconstrained. But, the hard determinist would argue, there can never be any point at which a choice is unconstrained, because even if we exclude any and all obvious constraints, such as hunger or coercion, the chooser is constrained by (and this is Strawson’s “basic argument”) how he or she is at the time of the choosing, a sum total of effects over which he or she could never exercise causality.

What he means here—I think—is that if behavior is determined by the prior arrangement of atoms (the environment plus “how he or she is”), it seems that one can’t really make a choice that is free, that is, one that could by will overturn what has already been determined.  Seems fair enough to me.  But of course Egginton doesn’t see it that way.

This constraint of “how he or she is,” however, is pure fiction, a treatment of tangible reality as if it were decodable knowledge, requiring a kind of God’s eye perspective capable of knowing every instance and every possible interpretation of every aspect of a person’s history, culture, genes and general chemistry, to mention only a few variables. It refers to a reality that self-proclaimed rationalists and science advocates pay lip service to in their insistence on basing all claims on hard, tangible facts, but is in fact as elusive, as metaphysical and ultimately as incompatible with anything we could call human knowledge as would be a monotheistic religion’s understanding of God.

This is where Egginton seems to go off the rails.  He’s apparently claiming that because we don’t know all the variables, they aren’t playing a role in determining decisions.  (This is the same mistake Jerry Fodor makes when claiming that because scientists can’t figure out which traits are experiencing natural selection, that selection doesn’t exist.) Yes, reality may be “elusive,” but does that make it “metaphysical,” equivalent to belief in God?  He then pulls back a bit to answer  an obvious criticism:

When some readers sardonically (I assume) reduced by argument to “ignorance=freedom,” then, they were right in a way; but the rub lies in how we understand ignorance. The commonplace understanding would miss the point entirely: it is not ignorance against the backdrop of ultimate knowledge that equates to freedom; rather, it is constitutive, essential ignorance. This, again, needs expansion.

Indeed it does. What on earth is “constitutive, essential” ignorance, and how does it provide a nucleus for free will?

Knowledge can never be complete. This is the case not merely because there will always be something more to know; rather, it is so because completed knowledge is oxymoronic, self-defeating. AI theorists have long dreamed of what Daniel Dennett once called heterophenomenology, the idea that, with an accurate-enough understanding of the human brain my description of another person’s experience could become indiscernible from that experience itself. My point it not merely that heterophenomenology is impossible from a technological perspective or undesirable from an ethical perspective; rather, it is impossible from a logical perspective, since the very phenomenon we are seeking to describe, in this case the conscious experience of another person, would cease to exist without the minimal opacity separating his or her consciousness from mine. Analogously, all knowledge requires this kind of minimal opacity, because knowing something involves, at a minimum, a synthesis of discrete perceptions across space or time.

This has the air of a postmodern word game, not a profound observation.  True, we will never know everything about any issue (for example, where all the molecules reside in an object), but we can know some things with near certainty (i.e., how many eggs are in this carton, and what is the diameter of the Earth to the nearest ten miles). What on earth does he mean by saying that “completed knowledge is oxymoronic, self-defeating”?  And finally, why does this prove that we have free will?  This needs more expansion, and Egginton tries to come up with a QED moment:

Because of what we can thus call our constitutive ignorance, then, we are free — only and precisely because as beings who cannot possibly occupy all times and spatial perspectives without thereby ceasing to be what we are, we are constantly faced with choices. All these choices — to the extent that they are choices and not simply responses to stimuli or reactions to forces exerted on us — have at least some element that cannot be traced to a direct determination, but could only be blamed, for the sake of defending a deterministic thesis, on the ideal and completely fanciful determinism of “how we are” at the time of the decision to be made.

Far from a mere philosophical wish fulfillment or fuzzy, humanistic thinking, then, this kind of freedom is real, hard-nosed and practical.

Clearly, Egginton’s hat is missing its rabbit.  We’re ignorant of all the forces that may determine our behavior, but in the end we’re free simply because we’re constantly faced with “choices”?  So we are, and so are earthworms and rabbits.  Egginton simply evades the question by asserting that because we apparently have choices (our behaviors must bifurcate), these choices must be determined freely, not by a semi-deterministic confederacy of molecules.  But how does he know?  What is the element that cannot be traced to “how we are”—or “what is our environment”—at the time of choosing?  The weasel words, of course, are “to the extent that they are choices and not simply responses to stimuli or reactions to forces exerted on us.” But that, to my mind at least, is the crucial question.  Are there such choices that are not just responses? And if there aren’t, does that comport with how most people envision “free will”?

Well, maybe I’m missing something.  I’m not a professional philosopher or—thank God—a literary critic. But if Egginton’s argument eludes me, so it surely must elude other readers of the Times.  Perhaps my readers can explain how, in just a few paragraphs, Egginton has constructed a convincing, hard-nosed, and practical argument for free will. I welcome explanations.

Egginton asserts that the notion of determinism is irrelevant to notions of morality and law:

Indeed, courts of law and ethics panels may take specific determinations into account when casting judgment on responsibility, but most of us would agree that it would be absurd for them to waste time considering philosophical, scientific or religious theories of general determinism.

I don’t think most of us would think it’s absurd. In fact, I think most of us already agree that some views of determinism must play a role in law and ethics. Indeed, they already do.  Criminals who are deemed mentally ill receive either less or different “punishment” on the grounds that their actions were not “free” but at least partially determined by illness.  “Crimes of passion” are treated differently from crimes involving premeditation.  And at least two professional philosophers have told me that understanding the extent to which our actions are determined is of crucial philosophical importance in understanding “moral responsibility.” The reason Egginton thinks that determinism is irrelevant is, it seems, the reason why most people think it’s irrelevant: because we have no choice than to act as if we have the capacity to make free moral choices.  (And if you ask me what I mean by “we have no choice,” I’d answer that society would collapse in the face of such nihilism, but that ultimately our constitutions, which are the result of our genes and our physical and social environments, make us feel this way.)

Egginton tails off by dealing with me and my accusations of accommodationism  He is “content to let Professor Coyne’s dismissal of every cultural, literary, philosophical, or artistic achievement in history speak for itself.”  Of course I never said anything even approximating that.  Do I have to repeat I not only have great respect for culture, art, and history, but spend a lot of time immersed in them?  Egginton claims that the term “accommodationist” is an deliberate attempt to conflate compatibilists with Nazi appeasers.  But that’s not how I use it. I use the word accommodationist” like I use the word “Republican”: both terms refer to ideas I don’t like, but I don’t see either as inherently insulting.  Finally, Egginton declares that atheists and religious literalists are both fundamentalists in their unreasonable asssertion that “the ultimate nature of reality is a code that can be read and understood.” He doesn’t seem to grasp that there are two entirely different (and incompatible) ways of understanding this code.

I continue my reading on free will.  It seems to me that in view of physical determinism (plus fine-scale physical stochasticity involving quantum events), there is no way that we can make decisions that are truly free.  Some, like Egginton, simply finesse the question by redefining “free,” but I don’t think that these redefinitions of “free will” comport with how most of us understand the term, or with how it’s been historically (not philosophically) understood.


  1. NewEnglandBob
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    There are some people who can not argue their way out of a paper bag. Egginton is the sort who argues himself INTO the paper bag. What planet does he live on?

  2. physicalist
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    Egginton’s wrong, but I take it his idea is that determinism is false because there’s no true physical story that would describe all the details leading up to us and our actions.

    Most scientists (quite reasonably) think that there’s some definite set of facts out there in the world, that we just happen to be (more or less) ignorant of. But were there a god, it would know all the true facts of the world.

    Egginton thinks that even god couldn’t know the complete scientific/physical story about the world, because there *is* no such complete story to be had.

    It seems that he thinks that such a picture would require a “view from nowhere” or a “third-person point of view” that is completely in conflict with facts about the subjectivity of consciousness. He’s wrong about this of course.

    In your readings about free will, I suggest you look into the compatibilist position. Not only is it correct, but it should help wean you off of the notion that freedom requires some sort of escape from the laws of physics.

    The key idea is simply to the recognition that we are physical beings and our acts of choice are just physical processes. There’s no reason to think that physical processes can’t be morally good or bad, and that the bit of the physical world that makes the choice shouldn’t be responsible for the action.

    Compare: presumably you think that some physical processes can be rational or irrational. If your child’s brain gets the right answer to a math problem, you’ll praise her (and with good reason). If she fails, you and she will (quite properly) be disappointed.

    The mystery goes away when you stop buying into our built-in dualist assumption that if the physics is doing something then *I* can’t be doing it. The physics doing it *is* your doing it.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted August 8, 2010 at 7:54 am | Permalink

      So far, I still see compatibilism as sort of an intellectual cop-out. After all, we know intuitively what we mean by free will, and that means making choices that have not been determined in advance. Why can’t we follow this inquiry to its brutal and depressing end?

      And squaring moral responsibility with physical determinism seems more like a theological than a philosophical exercise: it’s something you have to do because you want to save the premise of moral responsibility at all costs. If determinism plays no role, why do we consider mental illness as a serious mitigating factor in crime?

      Finally, if there’s no reason why physical processes can’t be morally good or bad, why do we reserve morality for only the human species. Can wolves be immoral, then?

      • physicalist
        Posted August 8, 2010 at 8:20 am | Permalink

        The problem with our intuitions is that they jumble together several notions that have to be teased apart. These notions get conflated because of our natural tendency to think of ourselves as something apart from any merely physical process. So we’ve got to do some unnatural thinking to get things right.

        The first distinction to make is between having an outcome determined and having a choice about the outcome. If you conflate the two, then it’s natural to think that our deliberation and our choices are impotent — they can’t do anything — if determinism is true.

        But that’s obviously false. Even if the world is determined, our choices are part of the physical process — they have real physical effects. If you made a different choice, you really would have done something different, so your choices matter.

        We should all admit that there are two senses of freedom here. Freedom-L requires that determinism be false (this is the freedom that libertarians insist on). Freedom-C only requires that you act because you wanted to act; you weren’t forced to do something against your will (this is the compatibilist account). This latter is obviously compatible with determinism (even if you don’t think it’s *real* choice and *real* freedom).

        Given the truth of determinism (allowing for some quantum wiggles) and basic psychological facts (e.g., we sometimes act on our desires), then we should all agree that we have Freedom-C but not Freedom-L.

        Now, if we don’t care about moral responsibility, then (it seems to me) that’s the end of the story. But philosophers get worked up over this because some of us insist that once we reject dualism, we’ll see that Freedom-C is all we could reasonably want for moral responsibility. Other philosophers (the libertarians and hard determinists) argue that without Freedom-L there can’t be moral responsibility. (They’re wrong.)

        Why do we not hold rocks, plants, and mentally ill people responsible for their crimes? Because they don’t have the right sort of psychological make-up to act morally. (I suggest reading Susan Wolf’s “Sanity and the Metaphysics of Responsibility” on this.)

        • Insightful Ape
          Posted August 8, 2010 at 8:47 am | Permalink

          Then why use the word “freedom”? Why not just say “partially unpredictable”?
          It is kind of like using words such as “god” and “spirit” by Einstein when talking simply about the beauty of nature. It remains something for theists to hang their hat on, to this day.
          “Why do we not hold rocks, plants, and mentally ill people responsible for their crimes?”
          Because there is no value in chaning their behavior by using the same system of rewards and punishments in place for others.

          • physicalist
            Posted August 8, 2010 at 8:57 am | Permalink

            I’m not sure which use of “freedom” you’re objecting to. Of course, mere indeterminism isn’t going to get us the sort of freedom that we want for moral responsibility — having a quantum die govern our actions wouldn’t somehow mean that we are now *really* in charge. This is a persistent (and to my mind, fatal) problem with the libertarian notion of freedom.

            I think your reason for not holding rocks responsible is basically right (though incomplete).

            • Insightful Ape
              Posted August 8, 2010 at 9:19 am | Permalink

              I object to free will being used for human behavior and not for storm systems.

            • physicalist
              Posted August 8, 2010 at 9:26 am | Permalink

              The behavior of storm systems can’t be affected by rewards and punishments (or reasons or desires, etc.).

            • Insightful Ape
              Posted August 8, 2010 at 9:40 am | Permalink

              Yeah, and human behavior is not altered by air pressure. So?

            • physicalist
              Posted August 8, 2010 at 9:51 am | Permalink

              So we need some term to distinguish between acts that stem from a sane person’s desires and those that don’t.

              Consider two people conversing during visiting hours at a prison. The laws of physics determine that both will be sitting there for the next half hour.

              But one is there because he wants to be. He could stand up and walk out at any time, *if* he wanted to.

              The other, however, cannot leave, regardless of her desires. She’s an inmate.

              Now, this is an important distinction, and we need some word to mark it. The standard way we’d characterize this situation would be to say that the inmate isn’t freely remaining in the prison, but the visitor is.

              If you preferred, we could say that the visitor is there *voluntarily* (and the inmate not), but it seems to me to perfectly unproblematic to use the word “freedom” for circumstances like this.

              (And I think it is this general notion of freedom that’s at play when we say that the insane people don’t act “of their own free will.”)

            • Insightful Ape
              Posted August 8, 2010 at 9:59 am | Permalink

              Your logic just valides using the illusion. Like the word “sunrise”.
              The inmate cannot leave, the visitor can. They are both under the control of external factors they can do nothing about.
              “The behavior of storm systems can’t be affected by rewards and punishments (or reasons or desires, etc.).”
              You are making my case for me. Again, what you are saying is human behavior is shaped by outside factors. Even in the case of desires, such as hunger and sexual drive, which are prodcuts of physiology.

            • physicalist
              Posted August 8, 2010 at 10:04 am | Permalink

              What word would you use to distinguish between the prisoner and the inmate?

              (Or equivalently, between someone who hands you five dollars because she wants to, and someone who does so because you threatened him with a gun?)

            • Insightful Ape
              Posted August 8, 2010 at 10:08 am | Permalink

              I won’t use any term to distinguish between prisoner and inmate. They are synonymous.
              Which is again beside the point. I still use the word “sunrise”. Without believing in geocentrism.

            • physicalist
              Posted August 8, 2010 at 10:21 am | Permalink

              You’re missing some very important differences. The visitor could be convinced to go to New York or Paris. The inmate couldn’t. If you really conflated the two situations, you wouldn’t be able to operate effectively in the world.

              That is, the visitor is free to fly to Paris, if you offered him a million dollars for example. You really can’t make do without the concept of freedom (or some substitute) even granting the truth of determinism.

              (I’m going to have to leave it at that. Obligations call.)

            • Insightful Ape
              Posted August 8, 2010 at 10:31 am | Permalink

              Right. If I offered him a million dollars. But that wouldn’t be his behavior being affected by factors outside his control, right?
              In no way possibly contradicting the notion of free will.
              “You really can’t make do without the concept of freedom (or some substitute) even granting the truth of determinism.”
              I have been calling it unpredictablity, but that doesn’t seem to be good enough for you.

            • physicalist
              Posted August 8, 2010 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

              “Unpredictability” is the notion we’re trying to avoid (in my below analogy, this is the sun’s moving).

              What we want is a label for the notion that some actions engage our reason, desires, and moral considerations (roughly speaking).

              This is why not all causal factors “outside one’s control” are equal. The million dollars may fix your action (given your background), but only by going through your brain in a certain way. You think about it; you weigh the pros and cons; and this makes it your decision, your action. (Even though it is completely deterministic.)

              By contrast, the inmate’s remaining in prison does not depend on her brain processes; the external causes are directly constraining her. It doesn’t matter what she wants. She doesn’t own the decision/action. (And this fact is quite distinct from the fact that physics determines her action too.)

              Look at it this way: Someone promises to drive you to the airport and never shows up — you miss your flight.

              Scenario A: She couldn’t make it because she had a flat tire.

              Scenario B: She just felt like staying home an watching TV, so she blew you off.

              Now, would a belief in determinism really make you think that both scenarios are equivalent? Wouldn’t you quite justifiably get angry at the person who just ignored her obligation?

              What does it matter that the physics determined the situation? The point is that some bit of the physical world failed to use its reason and moral sense to do what was proper: namely keep her promise to drive you.

              It makes all the sense in the world to say that in Scenario B your friend chose to blow you off (it was her desires that did the causing). There’s a choice there that isn’t present in Scenario A. And that’s a very important difference.

            • whyevolutionistrue
              Posted August 8, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

              There’s an apparent choice but not a real one. Either the tire was determined to blow, or your friend was determined to watch t.v. And you were determined to act pissed off if it were the latter.

            • physicalist
              Posted August 8, 2010 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

              Well, we’re going to have to tease apart different notions of “choice.”

              If you say “there’s no choice,” then that seems to imply that your deliberating and choosing didn’t do anything, but that’s clearly false.

              Let’s call one notion “Choice-sub-D.” This means that one Deliberates and selects an action, and this outcome is determined.

              Let’s call the other notion “Choice-sub-I” which that no deterministic process led to the outcome.

              Let’s make it two friends for simplicity: A got the flat, B blew you off.

              Now, given the truth of determinism, neither friend had a Choice-sub-I. However, B, but not A, had a choice-sub-D.

              We were all determined to do what we did, but only some of us deliberated and acted on our desires. I take it we all agree to this.

              Now the question is what is required for a “real choice” as you put it.

              Well, we’ve laid out the facts — what else could we want? It seems to me that unless we bring in some other considerations, we’re done.

              Now the usual issue that’s raised at this point is what sort of choice is required for us to properly blame or praise someone for her actions. (I.e., the question of moral responsibility.)

              And, for the reasons I’ve gestured at, I’m convinced that Choice-sub-D is what really matters. It does make sense to praise and blame some physical processes.

              (And, although we haven’t gone into this, Choice-sub-I seems completely worthless — even nonsensical. Santa can keep his round square, as I said below.)

              But if by “real choice” you insist on meaning Choice-sub-I; then yes; I and every other compatibilist will agree that no one has “real choice” in that sense (ignoring quantum mechanics, of course). But we don’t care (and neither should you — unless you do want to tackle interpretations of quantum mechanics).

          • Insightful Ape
            Posted August 8, 2010 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

            I would say the person had two conflicting motives, and gratification from watching TV won over the sense of obligation. I would add that she is flawed person not to be taken at her word.
            But where does that leave Eggins? “This constraint of “how he or she is,” however, is pure fiction”. No sir, it is not, that IS how she is, and precisely for that reason she is untrustworthy. Eggins is wrong, and such examples only make the case clearer.

            • physicalist
              Posted August 8, 2010 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

              I agree. But as I mentioned to Jerry, we’re really talking past Egginton, because we’re assuming that there’s some sort of complete objective causal story about the real world, and he rejects that. He’s wrong, but we don’t have common ground with him to debate free will. We disagree on the nature of the real world.

      • Peter
        Posted August 8, 2010 at 5:16 pm | Permalink


        Different people use free will to mean different things in different contexts. “We” don’t intuitively “know” what we mean by free will without reference to the context and why the issue is being brought up.

        Calvinists are interested in free will vs. predestination on the question of whether one can get into heaven, and I think they come down on the side of predestination.

        Some consider the question in the context of personal destiny: if I had made some different choices earlier in life, would I have ended up in a drastically different place than I am now?

        And so on. Not everyone is especially concerned about the question of free will in regards to just what is causing each moment-to-moment thought and desire and inspiration and whim that floats through my brain or consciousness. And to some of us, it really doesn’t matter very much whether there’s an unphysical, uncaused cause that’s pulling us around, or a completely deterministic, material, albeit highly chaotic set of causes for what goes on in our brains. I personally don’t see what’s brutal or depressing about thinking that second possibility is true.

        Dennett, in Elbow Room, argues that we actually probably don’t really want free will in the sense of an uncaused cause to our whims anyway. We *probably* hope we’ll behave in somewhat consistent ways regardless of some small amount of random noise in our environment. That consistent set of choices and perspectives is our self image, if we believe we’re as free as you claim you’d like to be, then you’re implicitly claiming that you don’t value who you are. Are you claiming we should be happier if our personality in any moment is completely free of the influence of all our experiences, opportunities, current environment, etc.?

        Actually, I think what you mean is we don’t have an immaterial, let alone immortal, soul. I can see why some might describe *that* as a brutal and depressing truth. And surely, it must be incompatible with the materialism.

        But I don’t think “soul” is what everyone intuitively means by “free will.” Some people mean things that are independent of the idea of a soul.

  3. Uncle Bob
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    call me impatient, I can only yawn at the free will arguments. It requires a belief in dualism and all the fancy mental dancing is trying to reconcile the physical with the metaphysical. Remove the dualism, and it all seems simple and obvious.

  4. erlend
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    I freely (!) admit this is way out of my league. A couple of thoughts anyway…

    Apparently, Egginton is a Kantian. That’s how I interpret his “completed knowledge is oxymoronic”. The conditions for knowledge condition knowledge and will never in and of itself be known, in analogy with the eye that cannot see itself seeing.

    I interpret Egginton as saying that knowledge = having information. And, in a way, information NOT had cannot cause our bodies to do anything.

    So, put together, the uknowable conditions for knowledge and all the things in the world we have no information about, SECURE that our will is not determined and partly free. There will always be aspects to our will and actions that are uncaused, partly caused by itself.

    Of course, this is all bollocks anyway. Egginton, if I’m even close to a useful interpretation of him, is an idealst and an non-naturalist. He shouldn’t concern us much in the first place.

  5. JoeBuddha
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    Agree with Uncle Bob: The Free Will vs. Determinism debate appears to me to be a false dichotomy. I COULD walk into a church today and start praying, but I WON’T. There’s nothing “free” about our will, and our lives were NOT determined by physics at the Big Bang, we just deal with greater or lesser influences on our lives as we try to muddle through.

    • Insightful Ape
      Posted August 8, 2010 at 8:37 am | Permalink

      The dichotomy is false, but highly prevalent. Anyone I tell I don’t believe in free will thinks I am a John Calvin-type determinist. I either have to assign an unquantifiable and unscientific attribute to human brain, or I have to believe every single action you take was “foreseen” before even you are born. It is frustrating.

  6. Buzz
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    My (entirely unsophisticated) reading of Egginton is that he is arguing for free will based on the limitation of what a human can know. While a person’s actions may be determined by their precise makeup at a molecular level, he argues that a person is fundamentally incapable of knowing everything about that makeup. This seems to be true, that a mind cannot know everything about itself; cataloging the precise state of mind A requires more information storage space than mind A possesses.

    However, the argument fails as a demonstration of free will for two important reasons. First, it seems to admit, implicitly, that free will is an illusion. We may not be able to predict a person’s decisions in practice, but this says nothing about whether they are predictable in principle.

    Second, Egginton makes the obvious error of thinking that if something is not understandable by a single human mind, it is completely beyond knowledge (not a very modern philosophical standpoint, as I understand it). While a single human may not be able to predict the actions of another with certainty, there is no reason why we cannot build intelligent machines capable of doing so. (Superintelligent aliens might also fit be sufficient.) If this machine is capable of predicting the decisions of an individual with essentially perfect accuracy, does it matter than no one person understands exactly how it has come to its answer?

  7. PuzzledPonderer
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    Sorry, but what a load of drivel from Eggiton! He’s wrapping it in way too many words, but he’s (still) saying because we don’t know all the things that influence our thinking (that eventually leads to decisions when faced with choices), we have free will. I’ll keep saying it until it catches somewhere: The problem is the very unclear definition of free will. If for Eggiton that is making seemingly arbitrary or careful or informed choices, fair enough. That, however does not exclude determinism. It excludes that we have a good grasp of the determining principles, so it looks as though our choices are arbitrary, informed, careful, etc. – or “free”. But if you had to make a choice, what aspects would you base it on? Your knowledge, your experience and your emotions, as generated in your (partially genetically pre-constructed brain)! And, as a function of all of these, your interpretations may play a role. How are any of these not part of the material world, specifically the brain? What else would play a role that does not go through your brain? An external force or god-given soul, if you’re spiritual or religious, but that’s also not *your* free will, then.

    • physicalist
      Posted August 8, 2010 at 8:41 am | Permalink

      I don’t think he cares about whether *we* know about influences; he’s claiming that there are is no complete set of facts to be known. It’s a claim about what exists (metaphysics) not what we do or can know (epistemology), as far as I can tell.

      • Insightful Ape
        Posted August 8, 2010 at 8:55 am | Permalink

        Same thing people used to say about earthquakes and hurricanes.

      • puzzledponderer
        Posted August 10, 2010 at 1:37 am | Permalink

        That’s about as helpful as “goddidit” and it also has the same appeal to validity.

        Claiming there’s something metaphysical out there creates more questions than it answers – and superfluous questions, on top of that.

        I can’t decide what interpretation of Eggiton’s words makes him look more ridiculous.

  8. Insightful Ape
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    Is there a reason philosophy and humanities professors always feel free(!) to contradict evolutionary biologists on evolutionary biology, and neurosientists on neuroscience? I guess it is the same reason Rush Limbaugh thinks he understands the climate better than climate scientists.
    I guess I would need a god’s eye perspective to call Egginton an asshole.

    • physicalist
      Posted August 8, 2010 at 8:38 am | Permalink

      Where does he contradict any claims of evolutionary biology or neuroscience?

      • Insightful Ape
        Posted August 8, 2010 at 8:52 am | Permalink

        He does contradict neuroscience when he makes the claim of free will. There is plenty of evidence that it is an illusion.
        As for evolution, that is trashed by other philosophers-specifically Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini.

        • physicalist
          Posted August 8, 2010 at 9:04 am | Permalink

          Well, I obviously think that Egginton’s wrong, but it’s not clear to me that he’s contradicting any neuroscientific results. He’s saying that there is no complete story of the (sufficient) causes of our actions. Surely we can’t rebut this claim with (current) neuroscientific data.

          As for Fodor, yes, he really just should have understood the science (and the philosophy of science) better before he tried to write a book on the topic. (I mean, if he had taken a single philosophy of biology class, it would/should have shown him the flaws in his arguments.)

          • Insightful Ape
            Posted August 8, 2010 at 9:39 am | Permalink

            Multiple lines of evidence:
            Bereitschaftpotential-electrical activity shows the machinery that controls your actions is ready started before you know it, so “you” deciding to do something is a secondary phenomenon.
            Experiments on subconscious action-the subject is told to respond to a stimulus. But if the stimulus is given along with a stronger, unrelated stimulus, it is often missed. Yet the subject responds the same way, not knowing why. Again, the machinery is working without your knowledge. The latter is not central, rather just an epiphenomenon.
            Experiments on “agency”: subjects are supposed to click on a target on the screen. Yet in fact it is the examiner that does that. Yet the subject reports that s/he did it. Bolstering the notion that “you” deciding to do something is an impression that can be manipulated and may
            be false.
            Observations on common behavior: when we walk, we are not “planning” every single movement. Yet as it turns out, it is a very complicated activity. Just ask any adult who had to go through physical therapy. Evey single motion has to be meticulously thought out and executed. Again, your knowledge that you are doing it is secondary or nonexistent, when we are talking about ordinary walking. It is pure neuronal activity. “Free will” is a superfluous term.

            • physicalist
              Posted August 8, 2010 at 9:56 am | Permalink

              These speak against dualism and against certain notions of the self. But I don’t see that any of them rebut the claim I attributed to Egginton: “that there is no complete story of the (sufficient) causes of our actions.”

            • Insightful Ape
              Posted August 8, 2010 at 10:04 am | Permalink

              They do rebut the claim that your active decision making is the central factor in your behavior. Without that I don’t know what is left of the “free will” hypothesis.
              Not having a complete understanding of human motives does not justify that we call it free will either. It is like the creationists bring up “god” any time they find something not fully explained by science.

            • physicalist
              Posted August 8, 2010 at 10:09 am | Permalink

              Well, I disagree about the implications of these experiments, but I think we can leave that disagreement aside. The only point I was making is that I don’t see Egginton’s argument (such as it is) being affected by them.

              He’s doing bad philosophy, but learning neuroscience isn’t going to help him.

            • Insightful Ape
              Posted August 8, 2010 at 10:19 am | Permalink

              Right. You 4 or more lines of study converging on one point: human behavior is the product of neuronal activities. Conscious decision make is a secondary event, which may or may not happen, and if it does it can be subjected to tricks and misattributions.
              And you think this has no bearing or whether free will exists or not? Amusing, I should say.

            • physicalist
              Posted August 8, 2010 at 10:27 am | Permalink

              I think your notion of “conscious decision making” appears to be too simplistic (and might even have problematic dualist overtones to my ears).

              I expect that the line between conscious and unconscious/neuronal is going to be far more fuzzy than what I hear when people cite these studies. (Think of Dennett’s rejection of the Cartesian Theater, to get some rough idea of what I have in mind.)

            • Insightful Ape
              Posted August 8, 2010 at 11:09 am | Permalink

              So, correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m getting the impression that while you reject dualism (and that is laudable), you are still claiming that human brain has “free will”, something not obsereved anywhere else in material world, not to mention contradicted by neuroscience-
              So don’t you think it is easier just to suppose human brain at some level functions according to choas theory (hence unpredictable outcomes in the face of similiar situations) rather than by invoking a concept that has never been obsereved and tested otherwise like free will?
              Again, you have to excuse me for seeing parallels between “free will” and “intelligent desgin”.

            • physicalist
              Posted August 8, 2010 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

              [Jerry: Let me know if we’re choking up the thread and you’d prefer we move the conversation to my blog. I don’t want to be like some prolific unpleasant commentators I could name]

              Insightful Ape: Free will (as I use the term) is exclusive to humans only in same sense that mathematics and music are exclusive to humans.

              I reject any dualistic antideterministic supernatural notion of freedom.

              And I’d be happy to give up the phrase “free will” for the sake of this discussion if it would help. (But the debate really is in the philosopher’s domain, and all philosophers understand the compatibilist notion of freedom that I’m describing, and a great majority of us subscribe to it. So this concession would be something like our allowing a creationist to use the word “theory” to mean a mere hypotheses, just so we could get to substantive issues.)

              Let’s pick up your earlier example of the term “sunrise” for comparison. You and I agree that the the Earth orbits the sun, so in that sense the sun doesn’t rise. But now I hear a whole bunch of scientists (and others) saying now that we know that there’s no sunset and no sunrise, roosters will never crow (or at least not for good reason), and people will never go to sleep (or at least they wouldn’t if they were consistent), and so on.

              And I want to say, Wait a minute! The relevant bits of sunrise and sunset are still there. It’ll still get light in the morning, the relative position of the sun will change, etc. etc. That’s what *matters* for all the stuff you’re talking about.

              Here’s the parallel dialogue:

              IA: “Surely you don’t believe in sunrises do you? The sun doesn’t move.”

              P: “Sure the sun doesn’t move, but it’s still going to get light at any given location at some particular time.”

              IA: “But that’s not a sunrise.”

              P: “Well, call it what you like. The important point is that roosters and bedtimes depend on the relative position of the sun. What do you want to call it when someone can first see the sun, and when they can last see the sun.”

              IA: “Well, I wouldn’t make any distinction between any of the times; we’re just on a spinning Earth, and the sun isn’t moving.”

              P: “But we *need* some sort of distinction to be able to talk about breakfast and bedtime, and to calm down the people who think that no roosters will every crow again! (Perhaps we could call it an ‘un-sunclipse’ if Blake will let us get away with it.)”

              IA: “It’s strange. You admit that the Earth is spinning, and yet for some reason you still want to think that there’s a Sunrise. So you think that the sun is moving even though we all agree that the Earth is turning? Why don’t you just admit that there’s no sunrise? Look, here’s a ton of evidence that shows that the sun is basically stationary. No other star orbits around its planets, why do you insist on thinking that the Sun orbits the Earth?”

              P: “Fine, the sun doesn’t rise!”

              Peanut Gallery: “OMG! It’s going to be dark forever!!! We’re DOOMED!!!”

              P: “No, there’ll be a sunrise tomorrow morning . . . “

            • whyevolutionistrue
              Posted August 8, 2010 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

              No, by all means continue the discussion. I have no objection to multiple postings as long as they’re on-topic and not part of a flame war. I appreciate the edification.

            • Insightful Ape
              Posted August 8, 2010 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

              Well see. I do not object to using the word “sunrise” because the heliocentric model is generally, if not universally, accepted by everyone.
              Unfortunately that is not the case with mind-body dualism. And the closely related claim of afterlife.
              “Free will”, the way it is understood by public, is considered evidence of some supranatural aspect of human existence. That actually happens to be the official position of the Roman catholic church: they accept evolution, but they claim that humans are different, because god had given us souls and free will.
              That is why I am loath to using this phrase to describe human behavior. I prefer unpredictablity and chaos theory, which explain the finding but are not open to abuse in this manner. It is precisely why I would have told Einstein, if I ever got the chance, to stop calling the beauty of nature “spirit” or “god”. Even some trolls on this very blog have used this game of words to “prove” Einstein was a theist, which he wasn’t.

            • physicalist
              Posted August 8, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

              Well, the general public (along with a few scientists) doesn’t understand what a scientific “theory” is either, but I’m not sure that’s a good reason to suppress the term “Theory of Evolution.” But as I said, I’m willing to yield the term, but I do want people to recognize that there’s still a whole lot left even after we throw out determinism. Label it however, you like, it’s extremely important (indeed, it’s the important stuff).

              And the important stuff is precisely not “unpredictability and chaos.” The important stuff is that some actions are caused by my own deliberative processes, in accordance with my desires, personality, and so on.

              This is the roosters and bedtimes.

              Unpredictability is the motion of the sun; the bit that we need to do away with to understand what’s really going on. (More on this above.

              Yes, I understand the dualist position of the Catholic Church, but I’m not willing to give up a perfectly coherent notion of freedom just because they’re laying claim to it. Likewise, I’m not willing to say that we have no mind, just because most people (including Catholics) think that the mind is a nonphysical soul.

              Note too that many Christians argue (foolishly) that mere physical brains cannot be rational, or recognize truth (or follow objective rules of morality — but I’ll leave this aside since too many atheists mistakenly agree with them on this).

              The correct strategy is to explain the correct way to understand all the features in the real physical world. Not give them up and claim that they don’t exist. Even Copernicans should insist that roosters crow at sunrise.

              (As an aside, I have it on good authority that Einstein would not have heeded your recommendation about using the term “God.” But that’s neither here nor there.)

            • physicalist
              Posted August 8, 2010 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

              Jerry: Thanks.

              By the way, one thing that occurred to me that might be mildly helpful:

              It’s worth recognizing that some of the discussion of free will might get obscured by the fact that there are far more fundamental differences between you and someone like Egginton, which might mean that there’s not even enough common ground to really discuss freedom.

              For example, I see the primary difference between you and him to be one one of realism, especially scientific realism.

              It might be hard to have a productive discussion on freedom if you can’t agree that there’s a single consistent objective world out there that’s discovered by science.

              I take it you adopt something like a physicalist ontology (because you’re a smart guy), but Egginton won’t accept this. So you may be talking past each other.

              Likewise, most defenders of free will (i.e., libertarians and compatibilists) are going to assume that there are objective moral truths. And that moral responsibility is what’s really important when it comes to freedom.

              If you don’t accept that premise, many of the debates about freedom are just going to be beside the point.

              So you might find that you need to engage on a more fundamental level to really get traction.

              Anyhow, take it for whatever it may be worth.

            • Morgan
              Posted August 9, 2010 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

              I’ve seen these points presented before and while I agree they have implications I think it’s overstating the case to say they ‘disprove’ free will.
              They muddy the waters, but no more.

              All but the ‘agency’ point can be taken together, because they rest on what I think is something of a false dichotomy between conscious and subconscious behaviour, which the final example exemplifies.
              Walking is a complex action. So, for that matter, are breathing, reading, and driving a car. All of them but breathing take learning, and all of them once they’re internalized can be done with much less conscious thought – reading a sentence, changing gear, or walking down the stairs do become things you can do without thinking about them too much.

              I don’t see how the fact that I don’t have to think before pushing the clutch down when I want to change gears in my car, or contemplate every muscle I’m moving to walk down the stairs means I didn’t choose to change gear, or to go downstairs.
              Furthermore, I can choose to stop in mid-stride if the cat runs in front of me, or hold my breath, or to take my foot off the clutch without moving the gearstick (I have more trouble looking at words without reading them).

              Your knowledge of each constituent part of an action may be secondary, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t choosing to do it, just that you aren’t paying much conscious attention to routine choices. A small enough part of your consciousness is devoted to making those decisions that they seem less significant than the overall picture of why you’re doing them.

              The same applies to the other arguments concerning subconscious thought. (n.b. it’s subconscious, not unconscious – that’s the key difference. You don’t choose to dream, or to have your heart beat, and you can’t choose to stop: you can choose to stop doing something subconscious once you notice you’re doing it.)

              You know this, though. It’s just the direction of looking at it that decides whether you cast conscious thought as epiphenomenon and subconscious as the driving force, or subconscious and conscious combined as the ‘you’ that is exerting its free will.

  9. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    When some readers sardonically (I assume) reduced by argument to “ignorance=freedom,” then, they were right in a way;…

    Ooh, he’s muffed it.

    War is peace.
    Freedom is slavery.
    Ignorance is strength.

    1984 by George Orwell

  10. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    To make a choice that in any sense could be considered “free,” we would have to claim that it was at some point unconstrained. But, the hard determinist would argue, there can never be any point at which a choice is unconstrained…

    I don’t get it. It seems to me a proponent of free will needs to argue against naturalism, not determinism.

    • physicalist
      Posted August 8, 2010 at 8:51 am | Permalink

      It very much depends on what you mean by “free will.” Only if this requires a supernatural cause will it challenge naturalism.

      On the other hand, if you think that freedom requires an absence of pre-existing sufficient causes, then you’ve got to argue against determinism (even if some of the pre-existing causes are supernatural).

      (If you think that freedom means doing what you want to do, on the other hand, then you needn’t argue against either.)

      • Insightful Ape
        Posted August 8, 2010 at 11:28 am | Permalink

        But that is precisely why you shouldn’t call it free will. It is not something obsereved anywhere else in the natural world, and that is why theists consider it evidence of supranationalism.
        What has been obsereved in the natural wold is complexity to the extent that no matter how well you know the variables, you can never determine the outcome with certainty-aka, choas theory. And I am yet to hear why that is not a better explanation for unpredictablity of human behavior than “free will”, even though it should take precedence, per the principle of parsimony.

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted August 8, 2010 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

        It very much depends on what you mean by “free will.”

        Which is why any discussion of the topic ought to begin with a definition, which was Egginton’s first failure.

  11. steve oberski
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    we are free — only and precisely because as beings who cannot possibly occupy all times and spatial perspectives without thereby ceasing to be what we are

    occupy all times and spatial perspectives sounds like a description of a omniscient deity so it appears that we have free will because we are not god, ergo god has no free will.

    • articulett
      Posted August 8, 2010 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

      And if this god is omniscient, then we have no free will either– since we can’t do anything god didn’t know we’d do in advance.

  12. Kyle
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    I am confused when ‘free will’ issues are tied so tightly to determinism. How would a person gain any more responsibility for their actions if indeterminism came into play? Would some undetermined, spooky force somehow guide your actions? I think this would make me feel less responsible because these fantastical forces are not even playing by deterministic rules, yet I would apparently be held responsible for their influences on me. I suppose this is where something like a soul comes in for some people, but that nebulous concept does very little to help the concept of responsibility; God forbid I be endowed with an evil soul. It seems to me that the concept of indeterminism and free will is simply incoherent, and any attempt to define the kinds of free will we have should be constrained by determinism and naturalism. This is what I think Dennett does in Freedom Evolves.While I thought the book was interesting and thought-provoking, it seems that this is just a redefining of free will in a compatibilist’s terms, which does little to appease people who desire their version of free will to be completely unchained from the natural world.

    • physicalist
      Posted August 8, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      This is one of the classic (and devastating) arguments against libertarianism (the claim that we’re free and not determined). If you accept it, then you can either think we have no free will (the hard determinist — or hard incompatibilist), or you can think that on the correct notion of freedom, determinism is irrelevant (compatibilism — or soft determinism).

  13. Jonn Mero
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    In the Western world there is one thing that puts a definite end to free will:

    • physicalist
      Posted August 8, 2010 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      Too true. Fortunately teh Gayz out in California are destroying everyone’s marriage. So soon we’ll all be free!

      • Jonn Mero
        Posted August 8, 2010 at 10:40 am | Permalink

        Don’t know about that, – the partners in gay marriages seem even more possessive than those in hetero ones. But I have no statistics nor practical experience, so . . .

        • physicalist
          Posted August 8, 2010 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

          Even worse! We’ll all be forced to gay marry!!!

  14. Jerry
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    I don’t believe there is free will, as most people seem to think of it. However, the moral aspect of it I consider to be merely the ability to learn and adhere to social norms. This is consistent with entirely deterministic processes. We don’t hold the mentally ill to the same level of accountability because at some level we understand they have a deficit in their ability to learn and adhere. IMO, we hold others accountable (punish them) because we’ve evolved in a social context where a punitive response by individuals serves to regulate the behavior of other individuals in the group, forming a stabilizing feedback loop. Perhaps some day we will find and use more effective and humane ways to do this.
    P.S. I simply had to write this. I had no choice. 🙂

    • Insightful Ape
      Posted August 8, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      The implication of this realization is broader than just settling a disagreement over semantics.
      Take the death penalty, for instance. Some death penalty supporters openly admit it doesn’t prevent crime. Yet they still want it because they think it is an appropriate “punishment”. Yet that argument loses its edge once you realize, the whole point of having a system of rewards and punishments is to change human behavior.

  15. Posted August 8, 2010 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    In response to physicalist, Jerry (Coyne) says “So far, I still see compatibilism as sort of an intellectual cop-out. After all, we know intuitively what we mean by free will, and that means making choices that have not been determined in advance. Why can’t we follow this inquiry to its brutal and depressing end?”

    The end of this inquiry might seem brutal and depressing only because of an inflated, rather egoistic idea, bequeathed to us by religious and philosophical dualism, of what we need to live meaningful and moral lives. But there’s nothing nihilistic to be concluded from determinism, or more broadly naturalism, should it be the case about ourselves,

    The libertarian idea of being a self-caused, uncaused first cause is logically incoherent, the self’s absurd attempt to place itself above nature, and it would add nothing to our causal powers or self-control. As physicalist points out, our choices have still effects on the world, so why should we hanker after being uncaused, and why should the idea that we’re not strike us as depressing? Only because we harbor, perhaps, ambitions to be more than natural creatures. Give that up and there’s nothing disheartening in the discovery that we arise in all our complexity out of a situation we didn’t choose. Rather it’s quite an extraordinary realization, of coming to understand our complete connection to the rest of the cosmos both historically and in the present moment. Jerry, there’s nothing to be disappointed about in any of this!

    • physicalist
      Posted August 8, 2010 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. You can’t even make consistent sense of the libertarian notion of freedom, so there’s certainly no reason to be depressed that we “don’t have it.” Might as well be depressed that Santa didn’t bring you a round square.

      • Posted August 8, 2010 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

        Jerry C. said in response to you near the end of the second set of posts: “There’s an apparent choice but not a real one. Either the tire was determined to blow, or your friend was determined to watch t.v. And you were determined to act pissed off if it were the latter.”

        So Jerry, like lots of folks, seems committed to a concept of choice that’s incompatible with determinism. *Real* choices require that we somehow intervene in the causal stream from an uncaused vantage point. But why should we continue to use and pay homage to a concept of choice that, given everything we know, describes an impossibility? We should instead naturalize our concept of choice as suggested by you and others in this thread. Gary Dresher puts it this way in his book Good and Real:

        “Thus choice…is a mechanical process compatible with determinism: choice is a process of examining assertions about what would be the case if this or that action were taken, and then selecting an action according to a preference about what would be the case. The objection *The agent didn’t really make a choice, because the outcome was already predetermined* is as much a non sequitur as the objection *The motor didn’t really exert force, because the outcome was already predetermined.*…Both choice making and motor spinning are particular kinds of mechanical processes. In neither case does the predetermination of the outcome imply that the process didn’t really take place.” (p. 192, original emphasis)

        Also, we can see that being an uncaused originator of a choice wouldn’t help in making it, since such an originator, being unmoved, would have no reason to choose one way or another. To make real choices you simply have to have preferences and a situation in which to express them.

        • physicalist
          Posted August 8, 2010 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

          That sounds exactly right. Now we just have to figure out how to convince a biologist.

          Maybe the first step would be do substitute a cell or something for the motor:

          E.g., would we want to say that ribosomes don’t *really* do anything, because all of their behavior is accounted for by the physics of the particles that make them up?

          • TreeRooster
            Posted August 8, 2010 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

            The compatibilist point of view seems quite clear now, and thanks for that! The difference between our experience of making choices and the way we imagine the decisions of an insect or computer then, is down to the concept of consciousness. We get to observe the process going on in our head, and that leads to the mental image of an interior controller who gets to make the call.

            Of course plenty of people have pointed out how the ability to have a model of our own thought process in our mind might underlie our apparently instinctive dualism. However that may be, the fact is that we have indeed a much higher level of decision making than many animals, who don’t have this ability of second guessing. That is not to say that the compatibilist position is at all challenged by this fact; it is just an observation.

            The question is though, how this level of consciousness should factor into our system of rewards and punishment. We often say things like: he knew what he was doing, or the crime was premeditated. It seems that unpremeditated criminal behaviors are probably very hard to change by simple punishment, but perhaps by a program of reeducation of the instincts the job could be accomplished. That is the approach we take to training animals.

            On the other hand, criminal decisions made with full conscious knowledge are either those of a psycopath (by definition untreatable) or those more commonplace calculations my children make all the time: that the rewards of this crime will outweigh the chance of punishmen–so why not go for it! This implies a need for a larger penalty in order to tip those mental scales.

    • Kyle
      Posted August 8, 2010 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

      Ah, I just connected you (Tom Clark)to I have spent hours enjoying the site/your writing. Thanks.

  16. poke
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    I honestly think compatibilism is rather straightforward. This is because whether we do or do not label something a choice simply has nothing to do with the kind of physical process underlying it. If somebody has two options and they take one rather than the other, they made a choice, regardless of the underlying brain process. If I saw them do it I would say “x chose to do y” and if I did it myself I would say “I chose to do y.” That’s all there is to it.

    This should be completely obvious since the concepts of “choice” and “decision” have been with us since long before we knew about human anatomy, the role of the brain or how the physical universe works. How could the ascription of a choice be based on these criteria when they weren’t available to us? To say that we “all intuitively know” what “free will” is supposed to be is nonsense. There is no feeling that goes along with making a choice and no general feeling of having freedom of will. This is not something that is open to introspection. Nor is there anything in our psychological concepts that would be rendered wrong or incomplete if the brain, or the Universe, turned out to be one way or another, for those things are not criteria for ascribing psychological concepts to people.

    Psychological concepts are not posits or theories. I don’t infer that another person made a choice. A choice isn’t something inside him that I hypothesise to explain his behaviour. The ascription of a choice to a person therefore cannot turn out to be incorrect because of anything I discover about his normally functioning brain. (If his brain is damaged then it is a different matter, because then our normal psychological concepts cease to apply. As, for example, in “blindsight” where dissociation between the different neural processes renders our normal concept of sight inapplicable.)

    Saying that somebody made a choice is like saying that somebody is dancing or walking. These are not theories. I can be wrong about all three, of course. But the way in which I can be wrong is that I ask the person and he contradicts me or in some other way discover his intentions. So I could think a person is dancing but he says, “No, that is just the way I walk.” Or I could think a person made a choice and he could say, “No, I had no choice, they were holding my wife captive.” Those are the sorts of things that could show me to be wrong about my ascriptions. But there is nothing in a person’s brain or in the physical make-up of the Universe that will ever convince me that nobody dances because to say somebody is dancing is not to form a hypothesis about the world, it is merely to employ a concept in the description of somebody’s behaviour. The same is true about choices.

  17. Tim Harris
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    Alas, I’ve just come across your comment 14, Jerry, and realised that I’ve been pre-empted: I was going to ask whether you might have been able to restrain yourself and NOT respond to Egginton, Eggington, Egglinton, whatever his name is, and NOT start this whole argument up again. But I suppose you were egged on in some way, as have been your commentators (sorry about that). And to ask, too, whether Insightful Ape and Physicalist might not, at some point, have been able to refrain from making a response to a point made by the other, and been able, instead, to settle down with a drink and some light reading – say, Ferdydurke or Book 2 of Paradise Lost.
    I intend no criticism! I have been enjoying this! And of course I have been constrained to comment, too…

  18. Tim Harris
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    And basically I agree with Tom Clark, physicalist and Poke, for what it’s worth…

  19. GeorgeG
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, I’m starting not to believe you when you wrote in your July 21, 2010 – 8:14 am post:
    “I’ve always tried to avoid thinking about free will, realizing that that way lies madness.”

  20. articulett
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    I had the same thoughts as Jerry when reading through the column. I think the problem is that “free will” is an incoherent concept that most people think they understand like they think they understand what a god is or does.
    Egginton just redefined “free” to mean that we can’t predict the outcome in advance.

    And I appreciate Tom Clark’s explanation of choice being “preferences and a situation in which to express them”… it reminds me of natural selection. I don’t find the lack of free will depressing. It’s not a concept I could ever make sense of anyhow. Of course, it’s hard to wrap my mind around determinism, but it really seems the only possibility.

  21. Michael Kingsford Gray
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    The few “good” philosophers should establish a hit squad to educate the over-supply of atrocious ones, forthwith.
    Scientists have managed this to a large extent, philosophers need to give it a whirl.

  22. kevin
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    If I can decipher the esteemed philosopher…

    He seems to be saying: How can the choices “I” make be blamed on the sum total of all the physical properties of our my body, since “I” don’t know all those details. Since I don’t know them, they can’t be the source of my choices.

    And then he spends the rest of his essay arguing that I don’t know all the details, I can’t know all the details, I wouldn’t be me if I did know all the details, there is no such thing as knowing all the details, and on and on. All of which seems to be based on this weird and incorrect notion that physical details I don’t know can’t possibly be the cause of my choices.

  23. Andy
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

    We need a movement of Humanities professors—those in English, Philosophy, etc.—who are actually sane about such matters as these. They do exist. (I swear.)

    • Andrew
      Posted August 9, 2010 at 10:35 am | Permalink

      “They do exist”: Yes, we do! Not everyone in literature departments is an anti-scientific, gobbledy-gook-spouting postmodernist. I am an English PhD, I teach English lit, and I am a dyed-in-the-wool scientific naturalist. Indeed, Egginton is recognizably from the retrograde “right wing” of literary studies, which is where most (though, alas, not all) of the kooks who think literature and theology belong in bed together are.

      Just needed to say something on behalf of my profession. There is some sanity in it, despite its reputation.

      Terrific blog (and very smart & enlightened comments).

  24. Chet
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    I just don’t see how it could possibly matter either way. If criminals have no free will in the choice to commit their crimes, then the rest of us have no free will in our choice to punish them as though they had free will.

    It’s a bit glib, I know, but you can’t simultaneously posit that criminals are robots, but judges and juries are rationally and freely arriving at philosophical positions on the punishment of crime.

  25. Posted August 9, 2010 at 12:29 am | Permalink

    Excellent job, Dr. Coyne. You hit all of the major objections.

    The basic problem with free will is that it is related to almost everything controversial in philosophy… The basics of metaphysics and metaethics, theories of justice, dualism/monism, theism, and on and on and on…

    Even the notion of free will he argued for is not what is usually defended by compatibilists/libertarians. Usually, free will is argued as a property of some step, not back for all eternity, in the walk backward through the steps of determinism. His definition of free will would discount the possibility of desires, values, and feelings informing a `freely-willed’ decision. But in this case, say goodbye to a meaningful sense of the term `conscious choice.’ And from there, expect the loss of the type of moral responsibility he seems to desire.

    tl;dr for my post, he managed to actualize almost every fallacy commonly associated with popular thinking about free will.

  26. Posted August 9, 2010 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    a treatment of tangible reality as if it were decodable knowledge, requiring a kind of God’s eye perspective capable of knowing every instance and every possible interpretation of every aspect of a person’s history, culture, genes and general chemistry, to mention only a few variables

    Egginton should just stop here and realize that he’s already said about all that needs to be said about “free will”: Unconstrained choice is a metaphysical impossibility — but in practice we can almost always operate under the assumption that human choices are unconstrained, and get along just fine. (In fact, we all do operate under that assumption nearly 24/7, even those of us who know it’s an illusion)

  27. Posted August 9, 2010 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    “I continue my reading on free will. It seems to me that in view of physical determinism (plus fine-scale physical stochasticity involving quantum events), there is no way that we can make decisions that are truly free. ”

    I think the author should begin his philosophy reading by some epistemology. In my opinion, this statement is inconsistent (as I posted before ), and the fallacy comes from the status he gives to scientific knowledge. And I think it has much to see with what Pigliucci calls being “philosophically naive”…

    Let’s do it again : science is a picture of nature. This picture has a subject (the human mind) and an object (the nature). The subject is not part of the picture (but of course, without a subject, the picture does not exist at all).

    It would have been great if the subject could naturally be found inside the picture, but today, it is not.

    Now free-will is not a component of the picture, it is a component of the subject – us.

    What I mean is, either the author solved the mind-body problem, and I am happy (but surprised) that he can deduce the inexistance of free will from physical determinism (except some “fine-scale physical stochasticity”, which is an euphemism for saying that the fundamental nature of the physical world is not understood at all, but we can still use a kind of approximative determinism at larger scales, at least for linear dynamics).
    Either he overestimate seriously the possibility to deduce anything about the subjects from our knowledge of nature.

    Again, proving that free will does not exist on the basis of “physical determinism” is inconsistent with the fact that we, human, are able to have a knowledge of this determinism and inflect our decision from that knowledge. In other world, with the fact that we are not part of the scientific picture.

  28. ennui
    Posted August 9, 2010 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    “Religion and science are compatible.”
    “I freely chose to eat the baby. I could not have decided differently.”
    “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

    These are all logically consistent statements if you are willing to change a few definitions away from their folk meanings. Compatibilists, it seems to me, have adopted all the language of the libertarians but changed all the meanings, kind of like a Spinoza’s god.

    Sure, you can have freewill and determinism, if by ‘free’ you mean the simple absence of human coersion, bribery, and duress, and by ‘will’ you mean the expression of preferences through a deterministic process of making choices. Hell, you can have your cake, and eat it too, if you define eating as having. But it creates confusion in the wider public.

    Most people, libertarians included, see freewill as the opposite of determinism–just as most people define god to be incompatible with philosophical naturalism. Why start changing definitions? Isn’t it high time that we drained this semantic swamp?

    Compatibilists, come to the dark side. Deny freewill and let the chips fall where they may. Let us communicate effectively the hard truths won by scepticism and reason: no dualism; no souls; no objective morality; no absolute responsibility; no gods; no “deserve”; no freewill. And accept the possibility that some will find these conclusions ugly and hard to swallow.

    Sure, societies will still make intersubjective rules, and mete out sanctions for cheaters and free riders, as well as incentives for constructive behaviours. People will still be responsible to the group, in order to secure their rights under social contract. Responsibility is a political, not metaphysical, construct that will persist under hard determinism.

    But hopefully, if we can convince the public that behaviour is reducible to forces and particles acting without freewill, we can turn our attention to creating social environments that produce more of what society wants, and less revenge for the products of suboptimal conditions, poor probability calculations, and weak impulse control.

    • physicalist
      Posted August 9, 2010 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      Late addition to Grammar Cop thread: “Free will” is two words, not one.

      On substance: Physicalism in no way rules out objective morality. Nearly all theories of ethics (utilitarianism, virtue ethics, social contract theory, Kantian ethics) are 100% compatible with physicalism. The few ethical theories that require supernaturalism (e.g., divine command theory) are incoherent anyhow.

      So, no. We can and should stay away from the dark side.

      • ennui
        Posted August 10, 2010 at 8:16 am | Permalink

        Thank you for your kind correction. I will try to do better.

        Of course you are right when you say, “Physicalism in no way rules out objective morality.” We do. This is the broader lesson of the Euthyphro; any possible objective morality, whether from gods or free-floating Platonic forms in the ether, is arbitrary if not connected to human interests.

        So go ahead and have your objective morals. I’ll stick with the intersubjective kind, which is based on the variation and expression of the evolved moral sense in humans.

  29. PuzzledPonderer
    Posted August 9, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Such an assertion is about as helpful as “goddidit”. It also has the same appeal when it comes to being real or likely. Our actions don’t need a metaphysical explanation – explanations work better without invoking hokus pokus. If that’s what Eggiton proposes, it would throw up more questions than it would answer. And those questions would be superfluous, too. I’m not sure which interpretation of Eggitons words makes him look more stupid.

  30. Launcher
    Posted August 9, 2010 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, I liked that you included the term “stochastic” in your last paragraph. I think somewhere buried in all these semantics about the term “free will” lies a homunculus waiting for the dice to be cast before it makes its next move.

    Anyway, if you’re feeling adventurous add to your reading some articles in an area of neuroscience that has been growing of late: the neural basis of decision making. You can start with these two articles by Mike Shadlen’s group:

    There’s even some new work in my own field (vestibular physiology) on how humans and trained animals essentially “weigh” noisy sensory input using what is close to a Bayesian strategy, biasing a yes/no decision toward the most reliable input:

    • Launcher
      Posted August 9, 2010 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

      Of course, the sort of behavioral tasks that these studies employ (yes/no or categorical) is a far cry from demonstrating cognition. Think of these articles as more of a detour on your quest for the truth about free will.

  31. Rigasche Rundschau
    Posted August 9, 2010 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    (..)we have no choice than to act as if we have the capacity to make free moral choices.(..)

    Doesn’t this position mean that we have no choice than to act assuming there is something influencing our decisions outside the science-researchable world?

    This looks like a significant argument in favour of accepting for practical purposes some philosophical dualism – not necessarily deism, but clearly not materialism.

  32. Posted August 9, 2010 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne,

    Your posts about free will have my brain ticking overtime. For what it’s worth, I doodled a little sketch while reading this post and the recent Spiegal interview with Craig Venter.

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