Eric MacDonald defines and defends free will

I lied.

I promised not to post about free will for at least a month, but here it is only a few days later and I’m about to take it up again.  So sue me.  My only excuse is that, at his site Choice in Dying, Eric MacDonald has posted his response to my earlier discussion of his views on free will, and, like Maru and his boxes, I cannot help but enter.

Eric’s piece is called “Free Will: A first, very tentative defense”.   I want to respond briefly (although I’m not yet sure how briefly), but it’s not without trepidation that I debate philosophy with someone as learned as Eric.

As I understand it, Eric’s concept of “free will,” which he indeed thinks we have, rests on both our own feeling that we have choice and, more important, on his idea that if we mull things over, we may come to different (and presumably better) “choices.”  Ergo we are making choices.

First, though, Eric’s take on why the problem of free will seems intractable:

The main reason for this intractability lies, it seems to me, in its unverifiability, a problem that Jerry Coyne himself, even with the aid of Ceiling Cat, has failed to shake. You might say that, as a scientist, determinism is a “properly basic” principle (in Alvin Plantinga’s sense), and neither needs defence, nor can find any. This, it seems to me, should worry Jerry a lot more than it apparently does. As an article of scientific faith, you might almost say that Jerry is here fudging off by degrees into the realm of theology — Ceiling Cat help us! – a space normally occupied by religious believers.

I don’t think that the principle of determinism “can find no defense.” Nor is it “an article of scientific faith.”  Its defense is twofold: it works and, except for actions on the quantum scale, we know of nothing that isn’t predictable in principle.  All the progress science has made on the macro scale rests on the idea that given absolutely identical physical conditions acting on an object, its response will always be the same.  If this principle didn’t work, we couldn’t get rockets to the Moon.  I accept the fact that quantum events, like the location and momentum of electrons or the moment when an atom of a radioactive element decays, can be absolutely unpredictable. But I doubt that this unpredictability has observable results on the scale of human behavior.  Physical determinism at the macro level is simply something that works and makes accurate predictions about the universe, and therefore is not an article of faith.  My “faith” in determinism of human behavior rests on the same “faith” I have that the origin of life occurred by naturalistic means and not via God.  (I put “faith” in quotations marks lest creationists think I mean “unsupported beliefs” that are identical in kind to religious beliefs.  I don’t mean that: my “scientific faith” really means “confidence based on experience”.)

Eric uses the examples of me writing my book—and posts on this website—as things that pose severe problems for behavioral determinism:

Indeed, Jerry Coyne cannot himself help thinking that some people make the wrong choices, seriously wrong. That’s why he writes a blog entitled, eponymously, ”Why Evolution is True,” after the book of the same name, written to convince people that they are wrong. And he didn’t make the book into a series of stimulus patterns, but actually included in it sentences with meanings which, he believed, and I think believed rightly, should convince those who read it that the theory of evolution is not just a working hypothesis, but actually reflects the truth about the way that the world of life works.

Yes, that’s true, but this says absolutely nothing about whether, given the same conditions of my life and environment, I would always write the book and think that creationists are wrong.  And yes, I’m a human with a brain that enables me to write sentences that convey my ideas to others, but that says nothing to me about whether or not I had a choice. (This issue of “meaning” always confuses me, because it seems to me simply an epiphenomenon of a sufficiently complex brain operating in a social species.  “Meaning” seems irrelevant to the issue of whether behavior is completely determined by genes, environment, and their interaction.)  And my book can convince (and has convinced, thank Ceiling Cat) some people, for it’s part of the environment that impinges on peoples’ brains.

I believe Eric’s error in his essay comes from a failure to recognize that one person’s thoughts can not only influence her own behaviors, but also the thoughts and behavior of other people. That is not a problem for a deterministic view of human nature, for thoughts are simply the chemical actions of neurons, which can be influenced by the neuronal input to our brains coming from our senses. Books and words are neuronal inputs that affect brain chemistry and hence actions.

Eric draws a distinction between human behavior and the “stimulus-response” pattern of some other animals:

But what happens when animals become, not simple input-response mechanisms like Deep Blue or Ichnumonidae, but intentional systems with a narrative history? Whereas we may quite properly see Ichnumonidae as quite simple input-response systems which are hardwired to lay their eggs, as they do, in the living, paralysed bodies of caterpillars, it is much harder to see human beings in these terms.

Perhaps it is harder for Eric to see that, but it’s not so hard for me—perhaps because I’m a geneticist and an evolutionary biologist.  Our input-response systems are immensely more complicated than those of other animals, a truth that Dennett points out in Freedom Evolves.  And indeed, I think that natural selection has favored this complexity, for we are social beings who evolved in small groups.  For such a species, selection has favored us taking on board a lot of different inputs, and “weighing them” (by this I simply mean that our neurology is wired to give some inputs more influence than others on our subsequent action) before we do anything.  When a gazelle hears a rustle in the bushes, it instantly flees.  When we hear a rustle in the bushes, we have a more sophisticated response, thinking “Could that be my friend Zog, whom I know is nearby?  Or is it the wind? I don’t think it’s a lion because I haven’t seen any lions in a while.”  We “weigh” the possibilities before acting simply because our onboard computer is more complicated, and it’s adaptive for us to take in a lot of inputs before we give an output.  Gazelles don’t have the cerebral equipment to weigh all these factors: if they don’t flee at the slightest noise, they might be dead.

The crux of Eric’s notion of free will seems to reside in this paragraph:

The question of determinism, as I see it, does not have so much to do with contra-causal possibilities, since once something has been done, it scarcely makes a lot of sense to ask whether the agent could have done something quite different. Presumably, all the causes and influences that came to bear on the person at that time are such as to have produced exactly that result and none other. The question is whether the agent might have acted differently had he or she considered more thoroughly the possible alternatives that were open to choice at that time, and all their many ramifications and consequences. Redoing the same situation with the very same parameters, including the person’s limited survey of the alternatives, and inadequate consideration of the consequences of his action, will almost certainly produce the same action, not because that action was determined — though it certainly was determined by the influences then in play upon the person’s decisions — but because that action was only one of a range of possible actions he or she might have done, depending upon the thoroughness with which he or she had considered the alternatives to what he or she in the end decided to do.

I think the mistake here is that he sees the action of “considering something more thoroughly” as a choice—a real contracausal choice. (He seems to realize this issue at one point, but still implies that the degree to which we ponder something is under some kind of dualistic control.  I may be wrong about this, though.)  I would argue that yes, reflection does affect what we do, but how long and how thoroughly we reflect on something are things that are also determined.

Eric goes on to recount the circumstances that led him to create his website (and I’m really glad he did); he seems to see them as a series of “choices” that he made after pondering his alternatives.  In contrast, I would call them “actions Eric took after pondering”.   And I would also claim that Eric never had any contracausal choice about how long he pondered the alternatives.

As for our thoughts affecting our actions, I fully agree, as I think any determinist would.  Humans are animals that have multiple inputs and a complex processing system. Of course thought influences action.  If you get evidence that your son is stealing money from your wallet, you will treat him differently from how you would without that knowledge.  And of course if you reflect about an issue longer, you may change your behavior concerning that issue.  If someone yells at me during a faculty meeting, I might yell back, but if I had time to ponder the situation before responding, I might refrain on the grounds of civility and comity.  But so what? Whether or not I ponder the situation is itself something that depends on my brain, genes, and environment.

But thought itself is action: the actions of polarized neurons and chemicals moving between them.  And that thought-action is influenced by physical conditions.  How deeply we consider a problem before acting is also thought-action, and (with the exception of quantum events, which can’t be considered a component of free will) is also determined.   Ergo,the fact that one’s intensity of rumination affections one’s actions says nothing about whether you’re making a real “choice.”  And are those “choices” really “free” if they’re ultimately determined?  Just because they look like choices doesn’t mean they’re not determined.

At the end, Eric seems to conclude (and I may be mistaken here) that he has made “real” choices in his life simply because he thinks he has.

The truth to me seems to be that, even if it could be explained by taking all the factors into account, including the reasons I just gave, I did choose to do this [create his website] — that is, it was my choice — and that what I did was inexplicable apart from the reasons given, and what it means to give them. And that seems to me a freedom worth having. But, as I say, this is only a very tentative first step.

If you want to call the appearance of choice “free will,” then you are free to do so.  But I don’t think that’s what most people mean when they think they have free will.  And in what sense are those choices really “free” if, given perfect knowledge, you could predict them—or even the amount of thought devoted to them before they’re made?


  1. Posted July 10, 2011 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    If you could invent a time machine and go back in time would you observe your exact past or some other variation of it?

    With free will when you went back you would observe events occurring differently as some of the protagonists made alternative decisions, without free will you would watch an accurate replay of history

    …unless you accidentally get run over by your mom’s car in place of your dad, in which case she’d fall in love you with you instead of him and then he’d have to punch Biff or you would never be born, and something to do with the clock tower getting struck by lightening.

    • inoeverything
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 6:55 am | Permalink

      your post does not make sense to me. first off, a time machine is impossible, but that’s not my problem with your post. if you went back in time, you have a new frame of reference, and of course will make different decisions. that does not prove free will exists.

      let me ask this, did you choose to be born? to add the irrefutable uncertainty principle (if it even changes behavior, which does not matter based on my argument), did you choose where that first uncertain electron was? this means that different outcomes are possible, but if you did not control the first electron and made decisions thereafter, those decisions are also a product of indecision.

      most learned people have a problem with the lack of free will because it makes everyone equal and discredits their achievements. all that matters is we as humans work towards a common goal, improving this world and seeing that humans live on, which seems less and less likely achievable.

      evolution has no goal, and if it did, it would not be intelligence. there is a finite end for everything (at least, on earth IMO), but human being’s tunnel is narrowing.

  2. Myron
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    Note that determinism doesn’t entail omnipredictability:

    “19th and 20th century mathematical studies have shown convincingly that neither a finite, nor an infinite but embedded-in-the-world intelligence can have the computing power necessary to predict the actual future, in any world remotely like ours. ‘Predictability’ is therefore a façon de parler that at best makes vivid what is at stake in determinism; in rigorous discussions it should be eschewed. The world could be highly predictable, in some senses, and yet not deterministic; and it could be deterministic yet highly unpredictable, as many studies of chaos (sensitive dependence on initial conditions) show.”


    • Posted July 10, 2011 at 7:58 am | Permalink

      What I personally get a real kick out of is how, the more random, the more predictable — and the more deterministic, the less predictable.

      No, really!

      Few things in this universe are as random as radioactive decay, and yet it’s the basis for the “uranium” standard clocks that tell us the ages of things with amazing precision and accuracy.

      And nothing’s more deterministic than orbital motions — yet just try to predict the precise location of the planets a few million years from now.



      • Tyro
        Posted July 10, 2011 at 8:37 am | Permalink

        It is a little interesting, but may be overstated.

        The genuinely random behaviour of QM leads to the most precise predictions of any theory humans have ever found and that includes gravity, but these predictions are only statistical. Gravity on the other hand is less precise however the observations of observed events can be predicted absolutely with much greater confidence.

        You’re right that we can’t predict orbits deep into the future in part due to chaos and in part due to the complexity of the equations. But the same applies in the quantum world – we have the equations to describe chemical features of the atom but they’re so complex that we’ve only done it for the Hydrogen atom (maybe one or two others by now, I’m not sure).

    • Posted July 10, 2011 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      Shorter: predictability is an epistemic category, determinism is an ontological one.

  3. Matt
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    “All the progress science has made on the macro scale rests on the idea that given absolutely identical physical conditions acting on an object, its response will always be the same.”

    This is the most important point. When someone says that they could have made a different choice in identical circumstances, this only says that their brain’s organization allows it to hold a model of the world; it says nothing about “real honest-to-ceilCat free will,” because they aren’t fully committed to “identical circumstances.”

    The problem, it seems to me, is that discussions like this often take unjustified jumps to meta observational levels (“God’s eye view”), where “real choices” somehow contradicts “deterministic universe,” where quantum particles really DO have exact velocities and locations, etc. You can make “real choices” to the extent that your brain has an imperfect model of the world. A slug can make some really dim, but nonetheless “real” choices in this sense, but a physical being that knows everything might also have no real choice because it can see the determinism at work. In a deterministic world, the future is determined as “what will have happened,” but the fact that we can imagine different scenarios and react gives us “real choice” on the level of our existence (but maybe not on the hypothetical meta level where we have a perfect model). Consciousness of choice adds yet another layer of complexity.

  4. Myron
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    “[I]t follows from determinism that every aspect of your character, and everything you will ever do, was already inevitable before you were born.”

    (“Free Will,” by Galen Strawson. In /The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy/, edited by Edward Craig, 286-294. London: Routledge, 2005. p. 287)

    So, if determinism is true, then it seems that we cannot help but say goodbye not only to the idea of free will but also to the ideas of personal autonomy and moral responsibility. And then it seems we’re nothing but remote-controlled puppets. But we do want to be self-owners, and that’s why we feel so reluctant to accept determinism.

    • Chris Granger
      Posted July 10, 2011 at 7:58 am | Permalink

      Agreed. While I believe that biological determinism does accurate depict what’s going on in our bodies and specifically our brains, I don’t particularly like the concept. Its general ‘unsavoriness’ to a lot of people doesn’t preclude it from being true.

      Then again, if it is true, people who are opposed to the idea can’t help it unless or until they have it explained to them in a manner that their own personal biology can get a handle on.

    • Matt
      Posted July 10, 2011 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      But this is only if you temporarily grant yourself powers you don’t have (something like omniscience) for the sake of argument. There’s little pragmatic difference between “truth” and “unavoidable illusion,” so there’s no reason to state that a belief in determinism entails a belief that you shouldn’t strive to do important research, say, or that you don’t have moral responsibility, or that you should or shouldn’t argue about what you believe in comment threads. This is an unjustified leap to a higher epistemological level, and a misuse of words like “you” and “I” and “self” as though they occupied that level.

      Oh, let me be meta just this once.

    • Tyro
      Posted July 10, 2011 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      So, if determinism is true, then it seems that we cannot help but say goodbye not only to the idea of free will but also to the ideas of personal autonomy and moral responsibility.


      It might depend on what you mean by those terms but we know that people can be influenced, they can change a pattern of behaviour and it seems obvious that we’re always responsible for our own actions, no matter what we think of determinism.

      • Badger3k
        Posted July 10, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

        Agreed – whether there is some “ghost in the machine” of dualism, or whether our behaviors are determined, we are still responsible. It doesn’t matter if our actions are determined – if I do something, then I have the responsibility for it.

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted July 11, 2011 at 4:16 am | Permalink

          Not in the same way, though. If a criminal is found to be mentally ill, he’s held LESS responsible than a “normal” person would be. And THAT is about determinism.

          • Tim Harris
            Posted July 11, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

            But if the actions of both the mentally ill person and the ‘normal one are equally determined, why should we distinguish their cases?

    • Posted July 10, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink

      So, if determinism is true, then it seems that we cannot help but say goodbye not only to the idea of free will but also to the ideas of personal autonomy and moral responsibility.

      That depends entirely on what you mean by those terms.

      If you’re suggesting that we should do away with the criminal justice system (and other similar social structures), I’d say you’re out of your gourd. Societies with such are much happier and more prosperous than those without; if nothing else, from an evolutionary perspective, we should not be surprised at how successful the concept of moral responsibility is.



      • simbol
        Posted July 10, 2011 at 11:16 am | Permalink

        The only way to accept determinism and as a result to recognize that no one is guilty of committing crimes because there in no free will, is to admit that the established justice which punishes crime is also deterministic. That no matter how forgiving are us about our enemies, determinism necessarily acts towards the punishment of criminals. So a criminal acts deterministically and the Jury does the same.

        • Badger3k
          Posted July 10, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

          As others have said, even if everything is deterministic, the punishment and the experiences become part of the environment and therefore affect future “choices”. Determinism does (to me) push more for a rehabilitative model of punishment, but straight punishment is within the scope of determinism as well (and sometimes can have the desired effect – which can be simply to punish the criminal and make the victims feel vindicated/whatever).

        • Posted July 11, 2011 at 5:32 am | Permalink

          Not quite. A jury can change its decisions based on its understanding of what caused the criminal to do what he/she did.

  5. Myron
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    As for moral responsibility, given determinism:

    “In the end, luck swallows everything. … [N]o punishment or reward is ever ultimately just or fair, however natural or useful or otherwise humanly appropriate it may be or seem.”

    (“Free Will,” by Galen Strawson. In /The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy/, edited by Edward Craig, 286-294. London: Routledge, 2005. p. 293-4)

    • Bernard J. Ortcutt
      Posted July 10, 2011 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      It’s baffling to me how the Routledge Encyclopedia editors allowed Galen Strawson to write an entry with sentences like that that simply ignore the Compatibilist alternative. The Routledge isn’t bad, but the editorial work at the Stanford Encyclopedia is far and away better.

      • Lyndon
        Posted July 10, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

        Galen Strawson rejects the Compatibilist alternative, as does Derk Pereboom, another fairly well-established philosopher. Both men engage with Compatibilist arguments (fairly convincingly in my opinion) and then reject them. To complain that they then create “sentences” that do not pay homage to the Compatibilist perspective is pretty ridiculous, unless your claiming that the Compatibilist viewpoint is the only correct viewpoint.

        • Bernard J. Ortcutt
          Posted July 10, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

          He’s writing an Encyclopedia article not one of his own articles. An Encyclopedia should reflect on the state of the debate with all of the sides reflected, not just Galen Strawson’s own views. That’s something that Tim O’Connor’s article at the Stanford Encyclopedia does and Strawson’s doesn’t.

          • Lyndon
            Posted July 10, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

            Right, I see your point.

            Though, philosophical encyclopedias can be very one-sided on issues, certainly including the Stanford Encyclopedia. There is usually an attempt to cover all the bases, but then the specific author will many times argue for their position from their standpoint and beliefs. And any specific statement may then be opinionated and not reflect all other opinions of the issue.

            Furthermore, many encyplodeia writers in the course of sharing different viewpoints will present them as the given viewpoint, and thus a single statement will deny the opposing viewpoints standing. Not that that is what Strawson was doing there (I have not read that, I think), that is certainly Strawson just arguing his position.

            • AT
              Posted July 10, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

              conclusion: philosophy is NOT science

  6. Posted July 10, 2011 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    After studying the concept for more than a decade, I’m unable to discern any difference between the philosophical concept of “free will” and the theological concept of the “soul”. I’ve come to the conclusion that the philosophical concept of free will is just theology in another guise. It’s an exercise in futility to create some metaphysical, unfalsifiable definition of “free will” and then wonder if we really have it. You might as well speculate on whether We need to go in the opposite direction: we need to create an operational definition.

    “Free will” is that (unspecified) quality that causes things with brains to behave observably differently than things without brains, and things with more brains to behave observably differently than things with less brains. “Free will” is just another term for braininess.

    Note that braininess is different from intelligence. By “brains”, I mean the big hunks of neuron meat we find in most animals, a product of evolution. We might create an intelligent computer, but unless it were to behave in an observably similar manner to meat-brained beings, we wouldn’t (by this definition) say that it might have free will.

    Is this the “correct” definition? Who cares?

    • Posted July 10, 2011 at 8:25 am | Permalink

      I’m inclined to agree (and made this point in a post I linked to, but I guess no one follows those ;-))

      “Free will” is a senseless holdover from the supposed ability to sin or not, and why divine judgment even exists – which itself is a crass attempt to influence people by threat rather than by convincing argument.

      What we generally consider free will is simply the difference between doing something we want to do, or automatically, as if forced by internal demands – “against our will.” However, we’re generally cool with our internal demands, save for a few isolated incidents.

      I can see nothing actually thwarting determinism, but we need to recognize that such things depend on the constant input of our senses, where so many factors can take affect that fathoming them is impossible. I may decide for or against something based on indigestion, of all things, but that doesn’t mean the indigestion itself wasn’t inevitable.

      I likened it to watching a movie. The entire plot and development is predetermined, and we’re well aware of this – we’re not bothered by it, are we? We don’t really care about it being there, we just want to experience it for ourselves. That’s how we build our knowledge, and if it’s new to us, that’s just dandy. The road will go nowhere else, ever, but it remains a mystery to us until we’ve driven it. The confluence of events (weather, animals, etc.) that greet us may be unique and not experienced by anyone else. That’s what we find more important, and those very things shape our future reactions.

      If we truly had random inputs, the opposite side of determinism, we’d hate that. Imagine blurting out something random, or swerving suddenly in the road. It illustrates the relation between “deterministic” and “willed,” and why we’re actually cool with it being that way. Also imagine how little drive we would have to learn about things if they were random in nature – e.g., genes may or may not have anything to do with development. What would be the point of obtaining experience at all?

      • Posted July 10, 2011 at 8:38 am | Permalink

        Imagine what it would do to our characters, too! Hofstadter makes this point when he has Tortoise ask Achilles if he would be capable of killing him right that instant. Achilles, of course, is horrified and shocked about the notion he could just suddenly kill his friend.

        On the other hand, though I don’t think it works, there is an attempt to split apart the responsibility question from something else “worth wanting”, namely self-origination. This is part of the focus of Kane’s book on free will, and where he invokes a very dubious use of quantum mechanics to get there.

        I guess also for all those quoting G. Strawson, above, the views are debatable. Some people do think that punishment is deserved even in the absence of libertarian free will, for a deterrent, or whatever. IMO, punishment is not deserved in the limit regardless of the truth of the matter for it seems to me that in the limit we can do better. For example, we already know that in some cases (capital crimes) it is an anti-deterrent, at least to some degree. Surely that should make it indefensible, to that degree.

    • Bernard J. Ortcutt
      Posted July 10, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink

      So, you’ve “studied the concept for more than a decade” but failed to come across any perfectly naturalistic, “soul-less” Compatibilist accounts of Free Will already on offer? This must have been the most cursory decade of study of all time.

  7. Tim
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    I lied.

    It’s OK, we understand that you really had no choice in the matter.

  8. Posted July 10, 2011 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    Note that I have little patience for philosophy. Not only am I unable to discern a substantive methodological difference between the philosophical discourse on “free will” and the theological discourse on the “soul”, but in general I’m unable to find a substantive methodological difference between philosophy and theology in general.

    But hey, maybe that’s just me.

    • freedtochoose
      Posted July 10, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      I had a problem with philosophy, too, and its relationship with science, until I read The Way to Wisdom by Karl Jaspers (1951). I still have problems, but have a better understanding why.

      My postings here are probably a 1 or 2 on a scale of 100 as to comprehension of the issue, but the continuing examination of free will has helped me realize what seems to be a difference. Now I’m off to explore the neuroscience of feelings, emotions and thought, especially as they are represented by neurological events.

      Thanks for prompting my cognitive discomfort even though it was probably predetermined.

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted July 10, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      In the same vein, I cannot help seeing the multifarious and contradictory contortions found in philosophy of science to render the exercise very bit as absurd as theology.

  9. Myron
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    “‘Free will’ is the conventional name of a topic that is best discussed without reference to the will. Its central questions are ‘What is it to act (or choose) freely?’, and ‘What is it to be morally responsible for one’s actions (or choices)?’ These two questions are closely connected, for freedom of action is necessary for moral responsibility, even if it is not sufficient.”

    (“Free Will,” by Galen Strawson. In /The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy/, edited by Edward Craig, 286-294. London: Routledge, 2005. p. 286)

  10. MadScientist
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    “Physical determinism at the macro level is simply something that works and makes accurate predictions about the universe, and therefore is not an article of faith.”

    Why isn’t it an article of faith? We may postulate, for example, that a decision made by a human is determined by chemical balances within neurons and synapses and that the balance of chemicals before the decision is made determine the outcome – but what is the evidence for this? Who has shown this to be the case? That is what I see as the basic problem of the “no free will” camp – something is asserted with no proof. Perhaps in the future humans may understand the thought process well enough to banish the ghost of free will, but at the moment I do not believe we know enough to claim that such complex machinery as a human is nothing but a drone to chemicals and cannot genuinely make a willful decision. If we were to make such simplistic predictions based on the misunderstanding of fundamental models, we may as well join the creationists in claiming that life could not have evolved. As I understand physical and chemical models, they do not preclude ‘free thought’ just as they do not preclude the abiogenetic origin of life on earth. The claim that humans are indeed predictable and do not have free will is something which remains to be proven – it is not a given fact based on correct understanding of our models of the physical world. (Unlike, for example, perpetual motion machines – those devices are indeed precluded from existence based the confidence in and the correct interpretation of our models.)

    • Posted July 10, 2011 at 8:43 am | Permalink

      Funny you should mention perpetual motion machines, since the equivalent is postulated by those who adopt a libertarian free will and the more-or-less equivalent, psychoneural dualism. This was pointed out to Descartes, who escaped through imperfect knowledge of conservation laws. We have no such luxury, so it is rather unfortunate that people still talk as if it were an open question.

      However, what is interesting is that the brain (and rest of us) has a large amount of what could be called “internal inertia” – that really *is* us acting upon ourselves, and so there is really a legitimate sense in which we do self-originate some of what we are and do. But that does not deny that we are also brought into existence and the start of that process kicked off without us, and it will end without us as senility or whatever claims our selves and such. None of this opposes anything about conservation laws, since nothing about inertia does such a thing after all.

    • Posted July 11, 2011 at 5:37 am | Permalink

      The evidence is that all effects (at least on the macro scale) have causes.

      And of course, every time we mess with the brain, it affects the mind. Surgery, injury, chemicals, magnets, and electricity all affect the workings of the mind. There’s absolutely no reason to think the brain isn’t deterministic. And if it weren’t, the only other choice would be for it to be random, and how would you like that?

  11. Greg Esres
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    “Eric’s error in his essay comes from a failure to recognize that one person’s thoughts can not only influence her own behaviors, but also the thoughts and behavior of other people.”

    Eric’s error is that he doesn’t understand that the aspect of our personality that *chooses* is itself caused. No other refutation of his position is needed.

    • MadScientist
      Posted July 10, 2011 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

      That is overly simplistic. Although chemistry is ultimately involved in everything, the fact is that there is no evidence to prove that humans cannot make genuinely free decisions. The claim of ‘predictability’ is nothing but begging the question and is akin to certain modelers claiming they can predict the future climate if only they had more information and that their models are de facto correct because the models incorporate very successful physical models.

  12. Tyro
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    When Eric says:

    The question is whether the agent might have acted differently had he or she considered more thoroughly the possible alternatives that were open to choice at that time, and all their many ramifications and consequences.

    I have to join JAC in asking what would make the agent consider the issue more thoroughly? Why did we stop considering and make a decision in the first place?

    I have a hard time imagining anything that would have made me think different thoughts. What made me react the way I did and think the way I did was the makeup of my brain and the input I received via my senses (possibly of words and speech). If you ask me “can you think of something different” then I would be right away thinking different thoughts but that’s because I received different stimuli.

    As Schopenhauer said (and someone so thankfully quoted earlier) “A man can do what he wants, but not want what he wants.”

    I think that’s ultimately the difference between the free will advocates. JAC seems to be agreeing and saying that our thoughts and desires are determined by our brains and the state of our brain is influenced by external inputs. Free Willies (like MacDonald? I’m not sure) seem to think that our thoughts and desires are not so constrained.

    • MadScientist
      Posted July 10, 2011 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

      And why is Schopenhauer correct? Because he’s Schopenhauer and he said so?

    • MadScientist
      Posted July 10, 2011 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

      By the way, Schopenhauer’s quote is nonsense. It is the equivalent of something like “you can sort books, but you can’t sort sorting”.

  13. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    I’m coming around to the idea that ‘free will’ only exists as an explanation for the rational part of our brains to explain away the motivations hidden from our conscious awareness.

    Supporting evidence includes cases of specific brain damage where rationality is unharmed but uncoupled from the emotions. Such people suffer from the inability to make choices because the alternatives cannot be ‘weighed’ unconsciously.

    Consider: You have a choice of chocolate or strawberry ice cream. Unless you have a ‘favourite flavour’ or can weigh up the risks to your clothes from drips etc., how can you make a choice? Even when you have a favourite flavour, do you know why?. You have already shot straight past the consideration to have no ice cream at all… a problem that dieters know all too well.

  14. U.B.
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure I’m convinced that the human brain works as simplistically or predictably as the pro-determinism side asserts — i.e., that given identical inputs, the brain would necessarily produce identical outputs. Although if some research has shown this to be the case, I would very much be interested in seeing it.

    • Posted July 10, 2011 at 8:45 am | Permalink

      “The same inputs” is the sticking point for all practical purposes. After all, we have *memory*, so if even somehow we got *exactly* the same in, the “out” can be different anyway. If you want to roll up memory into inputs, ok, but then you content with inertia of sorts, etc. as well as the changing environment. Chaos may not be literally correct, but there are many very sensitive portions.

    • Matt
      Posted July 10, 2011 at 8:48 am | Permalink

      How committed are you to the meaning of “identical?” Usually when someone says “the brain might act differently to identical inputs,” they mean “identical up to the level that we could possibly control,” which at this point necessarily excludes the molecular state of the nervous system itself, or the rest of the body, or the pattern of vibration of background noise, etc. Creating “identical inputs” is an impossibly difficult task, so we have to be content with empirically sussing out statistically significant correlations between input that we can control and output that we can observe — but that isn’t an argument against determinism.

      • U.B.
        Posted July 10, 2011 at 9:32 am | Permalink

        If it’s possible to design an experiment that would demonstrate determinism to be true, I would absolutely love to see the results. Otherwise, this seems to be essentially saying, “Determinism is true, but it is impossibly difficult to prove.” Which, to me, seems like a faith-based position similar to any number of baseless religious assertions.

        • Matt
          Posted July 10, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

          Two things:

          1) We have a lot of similar faith-based positions, like “there aren’t any electrons named Fred or Emily” (less snarky version — there’s no reason to wonder whether this electron and that electron would function differently if they were swapped — in some ways we define electrons by how they function rather than “what they really are”). But this is a huge assumption because we aren’t prepared at all to “prove” it (that is, swap out every electron with every other electron). The point is, every observation will be theory-laden, and theory will be shaped by values like occam’s-razor simplicity. This is why I think some philosophy of science is actually needed, because we need ways of determining what good evidence is, and what kinds of reasoning from evidence is justified.

          2) It seems to me that by “designing an experiment” you’re already committed to at least a weak, possibly statistical determinism. Even so, I don’t know if it’s possible to look back at an event and declare that “it could have been otherwise.” Imagine we wanted to test a theory by running the following experiment. Say we have a piece of technology that is sufficiently complex that it can detect the state of every particle in the universe that could be interacting at that moment with a subject’s brain (this would include the particles in the machine itself), etc. We take two “snapshots” of the relevant world state before and after some event we’re trying to use to test the theory. The theory has as its input the contents of the first snapshot and will succeed or fail to predict what happened on the basis of its conformity to the contents of the second snapshot. What on earth would it mean to say that the theory failed to predict what happened unless you were already committed to some kind of determinism? You couldn’t justifiably say that the theory failed (!) because maybe something else COULD have happened based on those inputs (but just because you can imagine it doesn’t make it true). Maybe I’m glibly assuming a Newtonian, god’s-eye physics here, but I think the point survives.

          • MadScientist
            Posted July 10, 2011 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

            You’re offering (1) a straw man and (2) a physically impossible situation as support for an idea. Any discussion of free will should stick to reality or else it will be nothing but an exercise in intellectual futility.

    • Greg Esres
      Posted July 10, 2011 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      “Although if some research has shown this to be the case, I would very much be interested in seeing it.”

      To even make it a legitimate question, you need to provide some justification why the human brain would deviate from everything else in the universe (other than quantum events).

      • U.B.
        Posted July 10, 2011 at 9:34 am | Permalink

        I didn’t even think I put any question marks in there. But to clarify: as many others have said here and elsewhere, the human brain *appears* to behave differently than “everything else in the universe,” as you put it, even if in reality that may not be the case. All I’m saying is that if I’m going to buy the determinism cow, I want it to be based on neurological research and evidence, not these kinds of quasi-scientific philosophical assertions.

        • Greg Esres
          Posted July 10, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

          “the human brain *appears* to behave differently than “everything else in the universe,”

          I’ve seen nothing to suggest this is the case. I doubt there is any scientist expecting to see different laws of physics, just ones that interact in interesting ways.

          Regardless, there is already a great deal of data showing that our conscious decisions are controlled via unconscious processes in the brain, so it’s not just philosophical speculation.

          I don’t see what the big deal is; we must act as if we have free will, so the knowledge that we don’t really have it doesn’t have any negative implications on how we conduct our lives.

  15. NewEnglandBob
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    To my (simplistic) view, we don’t know why we have specific thoughts or why we have them when we do and the vast majority of our brain activity happens before conscious awareness and decisions are made without consciousness is evidence of not having free choice. Most of our actions such as riding a bike, driving a car, moving an arm or a leg, changing the focus of our eyesight, etc. is all done without conscious agency.

  16. scaryreasoner
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    “I accept the fact that quantum events, like the location and momentum of electrons or the moment when an atom of a radioactive element decays, can be absolutely unpredictable. But I doubt that this unpredictability has observable results on the scale of human behavior. ”

    Even if it did, this wouldn’t get you an atom closer to free will.

    Mere unpredictability isn’t free will.

    If a person did one thing rather than another due to the influence of some random quantum fluctuation inside his brain, how the hell is that free will?

    To claim such a thing provides room for free will would make as much sense as claiming that the spinning cylinder of ping pong balls they use to produce lottery numbers has free will

    • Badger3k
      Posted July 10, 2011 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

      That’s a key problem for the woo-sellers (like Chopra – although I am not sure of his views on this particular matter, nor do I care). They want to use quantum events to allow free will, but unless there is some soul moving these events, all you have is behavior that is based on completely random events, but produces statistically predictable results. Not sure how it works – must be Quantum!

      (insert koala joke – I hate Quantum – here)

    • MadScientist
      Posted July 10, 2011 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

      The discussion of fundamental uncertainty (and quantum mechanics) came up in previous posts to counter the ridiculous claim that everything could be predicted if we only knew everything about every single particle at one point in time, which was the original argument against ‘free will’. It was pointed out that ‘determinism’ in physics doesn’t mean that we can tell exactly what will happen in a given situation.

  17. Physicalist
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Jerry says: “I think the mistake here is that he sees the action of “considering something more thoroughly” as a choice—a real contracausal choice.”

    Does he? It seemed to me that he was taking the standard compatibilist line and rejecting the contracausal notion of choice.

    It seems to me that it’s you (Jerry) who continue to insist that the only thing we can mean by “real choice” is something that violates determinism.

    It might help if you just force yourself to just scrap the notion of “real choice” and force yourself to speak either of “contracausal choice” (which we all agree we don’t have or “compatibilist choice” (which we all agree we do have).

    Then the relevant question is whether compatibilist choice is enough.

    I take it I’m agreeing with Eric MacDonald when I say that it is. Compatibilist choice means that we sometimes act for reasons. This is not undermined by pointing to biological determinism, it just means that we are determined to act for certain reasons.

    Only a dualist would think that our motivations and choices aren’t “real” if they are reducible to neurological/physical causal chains.

    • physicalist
      Posted July 10, 2011 at 9:20 am | Permalink

      And on our evidence for determinism: It’s considerably more than just an assumption that works: We have good evidence from physics that tells us neurological processes are deterministic.

      The relevant point is that we know when quantum effects will be relevant and when they won’t be. (And we know where our current physical theories apply and where they break down.) And it’s pretty clear that quantum indeterminacy does not bleed up into brain functioning.

      (Penrose argues that quantum effects in microtubules are relevant to consciousness, but he’s wrong.)

      • Bernard J. Ortcutt
        Posted July 10, 2011 at 11:00 am | Permalink

        I don’t understand what you mean by “neurological processes are deterministic”. Determinism is a property of the Universe and its Natural Laws, not one system . Determinism and Indeterminism are red herrings in this debate. Indeterminism may be true because there are Naked Singularities somewhere in the Universe. Who cares, except for Cosmologists and Theoretical Physicists? It seems that Jerry is using the term “Determinism” as a stand-in for “Naturalism” and it would better if he just said “Naturalism” instead. Human beings are natural objects made from the same stuff as the rest of the Universe and subject to the same physical laws, regardless of those laws are deterministic or indeterministic. The problem with the Contra-Causal Free Will account is that it wants to see human action as outside that causal order.

        • physicalist
          Posted July 10, 2011 at 11:51 am | Permalink

          I agree that determinism/indeterminism are red herrings. Compatibilism is the way to go.

          I don’t agree that determinism can only hold for the universe as a whole. If we have a system that follows some dynamical laws (even if these laws are high-level, i.e., not fundamental physics) then those laws can be deterministic.

          An obvious example: The laws of planetary motion are deterministic (and Newtonian), despite the fact that planets are composed of quantum matter and despite the fact that there’s more to the universe than our solar system.

          (There are interesting questions about how the thesis of determinism should be formulated for open systems — i.e., systems that interact with their environment — but I think we can set those questions aside here.)

          • Bernard J. Ortcutt
            Posted July 10, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

            But as you point out, we aren’t closed system. I fail to understand how you even define determinism for an open system, which is why I think it has to be done for the entire Universe, not some part of it.

            I think you are using the term “laws of planetary motion” ambiguously. There are theories of planetary motion, i.e. sets of equations that are deterministic under certain conditions (although John Earman has shown that the Classical Mechanics isn’t deterministic). But the laws of planetary motion are the laws that actually govern the motion of planets, and we already know that Newtonian theory doesn’t describe those laws accurately.

          • Posted July 11, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

            1. As a first approximation, an open system is deterministic if the dynamical laws allow only one final state of the system for a given set of initial and boundary conditions. The specification of the boundary conditions will generally suffice to specify anything that enters or exits the open system.

            2. Newton’s laws are good enough to predict and explain, e.g., an eclipse (or a spacecraft reaching a planet). It’s been a long time since I’ve read John’s book on determinism, but I don’t think his “space-invaders” scenarios, etc., are relevant here. I’m not claiming that absolutely all Newtonian systems are deterministic, only that some are.

    • Posted July 10, 2011 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      Physicalist. Yes, this exactly reflects what I think, and I think having compatibilist choice is worth having, and, in fact, is a quite rich sense of freedom. At no time do I think about this in a dualist sense, or provide a god’s eye view of things. All that takes part in the process of reflecting, considering, thinking, choosing, acting, is me. And, as Tom Clarks says, don’t forget about me!

      Why we should deny agency just because we exist in a deterministic universe doesn’t really make sense to me. As I have said before, Owen Flanagan offers a list of characteristics that human choice and agency possess, without it being contracausal, and together they capture, I think, what we mean by free-will or agency. If free-will were thought of as an ulitmate creative source of causes, we would not understand what we were doing, since to understand what we’re doing is to see it in a causal and narrative context.

      And I certainly did not mean to say, or even to suggest, that I think we are agents because we think we are. But, as we are agents, it makes sense to think so.

      Of course, as I said, my post was only a first tentative step (not defence), and I have a lot further to go, but I thought, as I have been reading Dennett and Pink and a few others, including Tom Clark, I thought I should put a few thoughts out there. However, it’s not over ’til the fat lady sings.

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted July 10, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

        But Eric, you’re not fat!

      • physicalist
        Posted July 10, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

        I think you put your finger on it with “Don’t forget about me!”

        People have a natural tendency to think “Well, if that other stuff (neurons, atoms, physical laws) is doing the work, then there’s no need for ME to be doing anything.”

        We tend to think that there can only be one “real” cause of an action.

        But once we recognize that those physical/neurological processes just ARE our making choices, etc., then there’s no problem reconciling freedom and choice with determinism.

        • Matt
          Posted July 10, 2011 at 10:11 am | Permalink

          Beautiful, thank you!

          It always strikes me oddly when someone says, “I don’t think mere matter can love its wife.” It seems like the word “mere” is doing an awful lot of work in that assertion.

          • SAWells
            Posted July 10, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

            I’m matter; I love my wife; case disproven.

            • Matt
              Posted July 10, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

              I have heard dualists say, “It’s impossible that mere matter could get up, walk around, and love other mere matter — have you ever seen a brick love something? So there must be something ELSE there doing the loving.”

              Aside from the fallacy of composition/division (depending on which level you’re starting with), I still say that “mere” is doing more work than is justified. Pretty much all of my family is “born-again,” and these arguments get tiresome really quickly.

              • Badger3k
                Posted July 10, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

                It comes from the assumption that we are special and different from everything else – thus matter is “mere”. I much prefer Sagan’s lines – the “We are star-stuff” and his quote from the new book released by Ann Druyen (I forget the title – there is a good line there). I think a paraphrase is – does it pull us down to dirt, or does it raise dirt up to us?

                Sorry, I have to rely on memory – a friend has my book an I lost my quotes when I had to replace my hard drive.

        • Leigh Jackson
          Posted July 10, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

          Like Jerry I make acknowledgement of my lack of philosophical expertise compared with Eric. I am happy to be instructed, if I can be.

          Some time ago I came to the conclusion that I have no free will by thinking about what is happening when I mull things over and arrive at a decision.

          It seemed to me that what was happening was an awareness of several stages of a process which I had no control over.

          I become aware of wanting to eat. What am I going to eat? If it’s breakfast the choices which open up to me for consideration are different from the ones which I would consider for dinner or supper.

          For breakfast, I usually eat cereal and occasionally I have toast as well. Whether or not I have toast is a random affair. Now and again I just feel like having toast.

          Very occasionally I have biscuits and nothing else and sometimes I don’t eat breakfast at all.

          Now after the event I can say that I chose to have or not to have breakfast and if I did have breakfast I can say I chose what to eat, of my own free will – nobody else chose for me. I was entirely responsible for what I ate or didn’t eat for breakfast.

          However, on reflection I see that all that happens is a series of conscious feelings and thoughts parading through my brain in an entirely unpredictable fashion – I cannot precisely predict what I will “decide” to have for breakfast tomorrow. (Although I could, if I should decide for some reason to do so, to make the decision what to have for breakfast, the night before. But such a “decision” would presumably be caused by some compelling reason or motivation. Since that would remove my ability to have what I might prefer to have for breakfast the next morning.)

          I cannot predict it milliseconds before the thought occurs to me that I must decide what to have for breakfast. But the mulling over process, in this case, consists of simply asking myself, what do I feel like eating, my usual cereal or toast or biscuits? I pause and in a moment I’ve made my decision, or rather, I know what I want to eat – I fancy my usual cereal today. Why I want cereal today, I have no idea and I certainly have no choice in the matter. I don’t set about trying to make myself feel a desire to eat toast or biscuits just to prove that I have complete free will over my choice of what to have for breakfast.

          Nonetheless it is me who has the fancy for cereal and nobody is telling me I have to eat it. In that sense, for what it’s worth, I am choosing of my own free will to eat cereal.

          And this is how it is for every decision which I make. No matter how difficult a decision and how long I take in mulling it over I am only conscious of a process of stages between becoming conscious of the need to make a decision and finally acting in some way. I am effectively an observor waiting for a decision to arrive. And before that waiting for a reason or motivation to act in one way rather than another to arrive.

          I am currently in a situation where I have to make a very difficult personal decision where all the choices available to me are ones which if I really had a choice I would not choose. I have to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea. I have to make a decision which will cause pain to myself and others. I am waiting for the moment to arrive when I can no longer put it off and then I will find out what my decision is. The sense in which I will be making that decision of own free will is identical to the breakfast decision. The knot of tension will unravel into a decision which I cannot predict until the moment it happens. I shall, perhaps, have conscious reasons for whatever my choice turns out to be, sufficient to force my eventual decision to be what it is; in the same way that my conscious desire for cereal or toast determines that choice. At the moment I am balancing the reasons for choosing to act one way rather than another. However, the balance is so fine that something beyond my conscious mind may be required to produce a decision.

          What is “free will” to do with all this? “I” am a flurry of thoughts and feelings differentiated within consciousness from what my brain designates as events outside myself, all of which “I” am aware of but have no control over. “I” don’t choose my conscious thoughts, feelings, reasons; processes in my brain give rise to them. Those thoughts, feelings and reasons constitute the experience of “making a decision” together with a sense of it being “I” who has made it. The brain does it all. The “I” is a component of consciousness – with its illusory sense of autonomous will.

          I have a pet theory that the human “I” together with language evolved as a tool for one human brain plus sensory and intellectual apparatus to combine with another for their mutual benefit. The two brains need a system for clearly differentiating one from another whilst pooling information. As well as being open for communication with another mutually cooperative brain, it is necessary for a brain to be able to protect itself against brains which may not want to cooperate but to cause harm. The “I” can mediate important information with other brains quickly and forcefully. The “I” can be very useful for the brain to ascertain and communicate to other brains what it needs and intends to do in social situations. “I”s are brains’ go-betweens. They are waking but very useful fictions to enable cooperation or competion with potential benefactors or malefactors.

          The downside of the “I” is the risk of solipsism. The fiction comes to think that itself alone is real. The notion of “soul” is a fiction of a fiction.

          Eric or Physicalist; can you tell me if I have it right now: was I wrong in thinking that I have no free will. Is my position as I have put it here the compatibilist version of free will?

          If so, of what good is it?

          • physicalist
            Posted July 10, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

            It seems to me that most of what your saying is compatible with a compatibilist account of freedom, but it seems that you’re making a few wrong assumptions (in my opinion) about what freedom involves.

            1. Does freedom require that we be aware of all the reasons (causal/psychological) for our making a particular decision? It seems you’re assuming this is required, but I don’t see why it should be. I’m comfortable saying that I’m unaware of many aspects of myself and my activities. (It’s still my decision even if I’m not aware of why I reached it.)

            2. Is an act free only if I can predict it? You again assume so, but why? Why shouldn’t I be unable to predict some of my free actions/decisions?

            3. You seem to equate your self (“I”) with your awareness, and then when something you’re not aware of causes some action or decision you conclude that it wasn’t “you” that acted or decided. But why not recognize that there are many faculties that go into being a “self” and conclude that awareness is only one part of you? The deciding acting part of your brain (so to speak) is also you, even if you’re not completely aware of that aspect of you, and even if you don’t completely understand that aspect of you.

            • physicalist
              Posted July 10, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

              Ugh. Most typos I let stand, but I can’t abide having “your” (= “you’re”) sitting there uncorrected in the first sentence.

            • Leigh Jackson
              Posted July 10, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

              No, I don’t assume that we need to be aware of all the reasons for making decisions for freedom. I wish to know how we can be free given that reasons compel us to act as we do.

              No, I do not intend to suggest that freedom demands that we be able to predict future decisions. Rather I am saying that it is difficult to predict future decisions because of the way the process works. It’s inherently unpredictable up to the moment the decision is made and at that moment it isn’t the “I” that makes the decision, rather the “I” is the awareness of the decision.

              On the third point I am with you. Yes indeed there is more to a self than the conscious “I”. And indeed it is not the “I” making the decisions. The “I” is here discussing these things with you, but is not creating the thoughts expressed here. That part of my self is no more free than my “I”, I would maintain. Or, perhaps I would say it is no more meaningful to talk of that part of myself as beeing free, than to talk of the “I” as as being free.

              If I may return to my decision to have cereal. My decision followed immediately on a brief moment required for the desire for cereal to appear consciously within my brain. Did I decide to have that desire? Of course not. I should have needed to desire that desire or have some other conscious motivation to bring it about. No, the desire appeared from somewhere, somehow, within my brain. And in the absence of any other conscious or unconscious or extraneous reason, I could do no other than eat my cereal.

              Is it true to say after the event that had I wanted to I could have chosen to eat toast or biscuits – which proves I have free will? No, it would be correct to say that had I wanted to I should have had no choice but to eat toast or biscuits (as before, in the absence of any countervailing motive). It is not necessary to mention “free will”.

              “Free will” begins to look like a red herring, as some commenters have remarked.

            • Posted July 11, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

              “I wish to know how we can be free given that reasons compel us to act as we do.”

              Reasons don’t “compel.” Only something outside us can compel. When we act for a reason that we accept, we act freely. The reason is part of us. Acting for a reason just *is* your acting freely.

              Yes, it is (sometimes) difficult to predict future decisions, but it seems that this tells us nothing about whether those actions are *free.*

              And likewise, it is true that I often have desires that were not themselves freely chosen. This is true, but largely irrelevant to the question of free will.

              Frankfurt does helpfully distinguish between free actions (which we do b/c we want to) and free will (where we have desires because we want those desires), and he argues that it is our ability to shape our desires — to become the sort of person that we *want* to be that’s particularly morally relevant. Perhaps you’d find his account helpful. I imagine it’s discussed in the Stanford Enc. of Philosophy entry.

      • Anthony Paul
        Posted July 10, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

        I have not reread it for a while, but as I recall, Owen Flanagan’s “The Problem of the Soul” is worth reading on this issue, if you haven’t already checked it out.

    • MadScientist
      Posted July 10, 2011 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

      For me the argument is whether humans can genuinely make choices (influence their own chemistry) or whether they are really nothing but drones of chemistry. For example, I move my fingers to type all this stuff – some people would say I’m typing it all because I decided to, while others will say I’m typing because I had no control and some other chemical reaction started things off. The fundamental problem is that the people who claim it was a chemical reaction entirely beyond my control and that my behavior could somehow be predicted do not have a shred of evidence for their claim. The original posts I think started out with the “everything could be predicted if we only knew everything” argument against free will and although that argument had been shot to pieces as a faulty understanding of physics, there seems to be a persistent notion that humans are ultimately predictable and cannot make genuine choices.

      • Matt
        Posted July 11, 2011 at 6:57 am | Permalink

        There are some strange linguistic puzzles that emerge when you start using the words “I,” “because,” “control,” “chemical reaction,” etc. on these very different levels. This is a problem even with small machines – does my coffeemaker beep *because* it’s done brewing, or is it *because* a sensor detected no more water which caused an electrical signal to be sent to an oscillator? Does a toddler clap her hands because she is experiencing the joy of having read the word “dog,” there being phonetic correlates of the letters “d-o-g” in English and a semantic correlate of the phonemes that she associates with her chihuahua, or is she not “really” happy because her brain “merely” sent signals to her motor neurons after having arrived at a specific set of brain states, or are there no “real” brain states and motor neurons because the event described is “merely” a bunch of molecules and ions reacting chemically and electrically? Or are all those explanations wrong because they neglected to mention natural selection, and no “real” explanation of a human action is complete without discussing how it was selected for? See how much work “merely” and “because” and “real” have to do in these descriptions?

        I think it’s a mistake to assign “the ultimate because” to just one level of description, unless you’re also happy to concede that placing it at another level might be a distinction without a difference.

  18. Nicolas Perrault
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    A chess computer program is designed to make a choice under a limited amount of time. The longer the computation the better the choice. Yet the choice remains as deterministic as can be. The human is regularly defeated by it.

  19. Posted July 10, 2011 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    “I lied.”


    You atheists are totally immoral! When will you realize that if you want to be a good person YOU MUST COME TO JEESUS!!!

    It also helps if you try to be white and male.

  20. Rebecca Sparks
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    I’m not a fan of determinism, (in particular biological determinism). I agree that people (and animals) are the sum of meat + experience, however there is no definitive proof or disproof of agency at this time. Free will vs determinism is just a ideological scuffle, with empirical consequences.
    In psych tests determinism leads to acting less helpful and more hateful. In mental health, curing depression has gone from being Freud cured of daddy issues to suffering a near permanent a serotonin imbalance–but now that theory is falling apart. Locating ethnicity in blood instead of community ties plays a part in the escalation in violence in the Dinka/Neur conflict–(the “other” were killed isntead of captured).
    I just have not come across empirical evidence that proves once and for all that agency is illusionary. And it seems to me that the harm from believing in determinism outweighs the harm in believing in free will.

    • Bernard J. Ortcutt
      Posted July 10, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      Being a fan of something does nothing to influence whether it is true or not. You are also confusing the subject’s belief in determinism with determinism itself. It may be true that subjects believing in determinism has negative effects, but that doesn’t mean that determinism isn’t true.

      Whether determinism is true or not, there are theories of agency which are consistent with humans being part of the (deterministic or indeterministic) natural world. It’s called Compatibilism and it’s the majority opinion among philosophers today. So, there is no reason to despair for agency.

  21. araujo
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Jerry: I think you have to read this:

  22. Bernard J. Ortcutt
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    I don’t understand Eric’s claim that Determinism is “properly basic”. Whether the world is deterministic or not is an empirical question, not a basic principle.

    Determinism and Indeterminism are red herrings in the Free Will debate. It would be a strange circumstance indeed if facts about the agential structure of our brains depended on questions about Cosmology and Theoretical Physics. Free Will is a Cognitive Sciences problem, not a Theoretical Physics one. The real debate is between theories which place human action within the causal order whether deterministic or not, and theories which try to take human action out of the causal order.

    • MadScientist
      Posted July 10, 2011 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

      Physics has everything to do with it since everything must conform to what we know of physics. Even the Great Cognitive Scientists don’t break the laws of physics. The original claim seemed something like “it’s all physics and chemistry and we know it all, so humans must be absolutely predictable if we only knew enough”. I contend that (a) the claimed predictability is unproven and (b) the laws of physics do not preclude genuine choice.

      • Bernard J. Ortcutt
        Posted July 11, 2011 at 6:59 am | Permalink

        Sure, But if we determine the cognitive structure necessary for choice, we are done. Finding out whether the Universe is deterministic or indeterministic isn’t the job of the Cognitive Scientist. Everyone in every scientific field acknowledges that physical laws hold everywhere, but that doesn’t mean that all questions are one of physics.

        I’m not sure what you are claiming when you say “genuine choice”. Do you believe that indeterminism is necessary for “genuine choice”? If so, why?

  23. Posted July 10, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    “Of course thought influences action.” !? Huh?! What evidence is there to support this intuition?

    Behavior is triggered in milliseconds — consciousness-internal verbal processing/self-talk – thought occurs in seconds.

    • Bernard J. Ortcutt
      Posted July 10, 2011 at 9:57 am | Permalink

      Huh? Are you simply confusing the claim “thought influences action” with “all action is influenced by thought”? I don’t see anywhere where anyone claimed the latter, and that is the only claim your remarks would be relevant for.

    • Matt
      Posted July 10, 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      Of course, none of us is REALLY thinking anyway — it’s merely a bunch of chemical reactions taking place in a sack of blood and meat.

      • physicalist
        Posted July 10, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink

        Exactly! And none of us are REALLY breathing either; it’s just a bunch of muscles drawing nitrogen and oxygen atoms into a large structure of carbon molecules.

        And none of us are REALLY living for that matter; we’re just sustaining some rather intricate chemical reactions for a while.

        • Kharamatha
          Posted July 11, 2011 at 1:57 am | Permalink

          And none of us REALLY have hair. It’s just keratin structures.

          • Physicalist
            Posted July 11, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

            I’m stealing that one.

  24. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    and, more important, on his idea that if we mull things over, we may come to different (and presumably better) “choices.” Ergo we are making choices.

    Sure, we make choices. Is there anyone who disputes that? What does that have to do with the question of whether we have free will?

  25. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    You might say that, as a scientist, determinism is a “properly basic” principle…

    Dude, why would a scientist go around uttering philosophy jargon?

  26. Posted July 10, 2011 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Jerry, you wrote about quantum mechanics :
    “But I doubt that this unpredictability has observable results on the scale of human behavior.”
    The comments on your previous post on free will disproved this. Macroscopic objects (such as billiard balls) can magnify tiny quantum uncertainties into large-scale indeterministic behaviors. All you have to do is connect a gun to a Geiger counter, for example, and you have a nasty quantum-indeterminate device that could have huge macroscopic consequences. Furthermore, the brain is “wired” in a way that can magnify tiny uncertainties in neurotransmitter arrival times across synapses, potentially leading to macroscopic quantum indeterminism in human behavior.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted July 10, 2011 at 10:31 am | Permalink

      Even so, even if that quantum unpredictability has detectable effects on human behavior, it’s not (as I’ve pointed out) anything to do with anybody’s notion of free will.

      • Posted July 10, 2011 at 10:50 am | Permalink

        I was only addressing the specific statement about quantum effects. Physical determinism is disproven, even at macroscopic levels.

        For anyone interested, here is a reference and its abstract:

        American Journal of Physics — February 1967 — Volume 35, Issue 2, pp. 102
        How Determinate is the “Billiard Ball Universe”?
        D. J. Raymond

        Department of Physics, Stanford University, Stanford, California

        It is generally supposed that distinctly quantum-mechanical effects do not show up on the macroscopic level. However, it is shown here that the uncertainty principle imposes a drastic limit on the predictability of the detailed motion of a collection of colliding hard spheres, or “billiard balls.”

        © 1967 American Association of Physics Teachers

      • Posted July 10, 2011 at 11:02 am | Permalink

        Jerry, doesn’t your notion of free will (or lack thereof) depend on determinism, as indicated in your last sentence?
        “And in what sense are those choices really “free” if, given perfect knowledge, you could predict them..?”

        My point is that this kind of prediction is in principle impossible, even (or rather, especially) for human-sized things with complex brains?

      • Bernard J. Ortcutt
        Posted July 10, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

        Then, why not say “naturalism” rather than “determinism” if determinism isn’t the issue?

  27. Bob Carlson
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    But what happens when animals become, not simple input-response mechanisms like Deep Blue or Ichnumonidae[sic], but intentional systems with a narrative history?

    Well, I guess I would have to concede that members of that huge and noble family Ichneumonidae don’t start off a day pondering whether it would be better to wait for the next day to search for hosts, but they apparently aren’t automatons either. Someone reported to me a case of a dozen witnesses observing a giant ichneumon winding its ovipositor around the body of one that was ovipositing, pulling the ovipositor of the latter out of the pin-hole it had drilled and then inserting its ovipositor therein. Supposing that the human observers were not mistaken about what had occurred, could the behavior of the second giant ichneumon be ascribed to free will? Why not?

  28. SAWells
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Sure, yes, everything we do is either deterministic or stochastic and there are no magic pixies in your brain. Yes. We get it.

    So what?

    I don’t get why “you can’t break the laws of physics” is such big news or why it’s supposed to have major implications.

    Knowing what your brain does when you feel happy does not stop you feeling happy and doesn’t mean that you do not feel happy. Knowing what your brain does when you make decisions does not mean you aren’t making a decision. “Making a decision” is the set of words we use to describe that thing when your brain decides things. Now choose a pizza topping.

    For the love of mercy, move on, and stop fretting about theology and free will.

  29. Posted July 10, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    I have to agree with Physicalist in #17:

    “It seems to me that it’s you (Jerry) who continue to insist that the only thing we can mean by “real choice” is something that violates determinism.”

    Right. Jerry’s mistake as I see it is to say that our capacities for deliberation and deciding and reasoning don’t amount to *real* choosing because they are deterministic and mechanistic. But this is to use a contra-causal and effectively supernatural standard by which to judge our actual natural capacities: to be real choosers, according to Jerry, we’d have to be exempt from causation, an impossibility. Moreover, being uncaused causers or reasoners would only tie us in knots when making choices, so it’s a mistake to hanker after contra-causal free will, Flaw of Fatalism

    To suppose that we don’t really make choices is to forget that our capacities for reasoning and evaluating evidence are just as real and causally effective as the genetic and environmental factors that created us, see “Don’t forget about me” at So there’s no cause for alarm or gloom when we discover we’re not contra-causal agents. We’re full participants in the natural order, no problem!

    • Posted July 10, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      Tom, you summarized Jerry’s position in this line: “our capacities for deliberation and deciding and reasoning don’t amount to *real* choosing because they are deterministic and mechanistic.” This position doesn’t fly, since human behavior is not deterministic and mechanistic.

      • Greg Esres
        Posted July 10, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

        “This position doesn’t fly, since human behavior is not deterministic and mechanistic.”

        Assertion without evidence.

        • Posted July 10, 2011 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

          See the citation under my Comment #26 for an explanation of how even the macroscopic world is quantum-mechanically indeterminate. The life history of each person is tied to this indeterminate world. So even if humans were automatons responding deterministically to external stimuli, their behavior would still be indeterminate, since the stimuli themselves are often indeterminate.

          When I was an undergraduate I made a quantum-mechanical random number generator, run by a Geiger counter. The output sequences of this generator were completely random, quantum-mechanically indeterminate. I looked at these sequences. This act changed my brain state in ways that could not have been predicted, even in theory, based on my brain state before looking. Later I interacted with others, and since that was several decades ago, just that little bit of macroscopic quantum indeterminism in my life may have had ripple effects that reached even you.

          As a graduate physics student at the University of Texas in Austin I made calculations of the effect of quantum uncertainties on neural networks. Neurons sum inputs from many other neurons, firing when the sum momentarily exceeds a given threshold. It turned out that this system is quite sensitive to small quantum uncertainties in arrival times of neurotransmitters across synapses, so that the firing times of each successive layer of neurons in the brain become more and more uncertain. After a sufficient number of neural layers, this could cause a lot of uncertainty about whether a given neuron fires or not. Of course, this assumes a very simplistic neural model, and surely real neural networks have evolved with feedback loops, etc, to minimize these effects. It is not advantageous to have a brain that behaves randomly! But remember, even a set of billiard balls is quantum-mechanically indeterminate after enough bounces, so it is not far-fetched that a complex brain depending on neurotransmitters travelling across synapses would also quickly become quantum-mechanically indeterminate.

          • Kharamatha
            Posted July 11, 2011 at 2:03 am | Permalink

            I’m still not convinced of quantum indeterminacy. Maybe I’m just inflexible. I’m more benign toward inpredictability, though, as it doesn’t require indeterminacy.

            • Posted July 11, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

              All I can say is that almost all physicists who have studied the question (especially in the years since Bell’s inequality) regard quantum indeterminacy as an inescapable feature of the universe. Of course, like any other theory, this could be wrong. Nevertheless, philosophical arguments should not be based on 100 year old discarded physics, even if there is a remote chance that some day some aspects of those discarded theories might return.

              • Kharamatha
                Posted July 12, 2011 at 3:09 am | Permalink

                Just to be clear, I would expect any randomness there is to influence big things as well as small things.
                I only doubt how much randomness there is.

    • Lyndon
      Posted July 10, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Permalink


      I certainly agree with you as far as fatalism is concerned. The problem of “choice” is more complicated. What people believe is happening when they “choose,” and therefore how they define “choice” is going to be inferred from historical use and from how the phenomonology presents the act of “choosing” to them.

      On one hand, we are consciously aware of “reasons” going into our choices, and we have to come to grips with how much these reasons caused our choices. The extent of how and which reasons are determining us to choose in the manner that we do is many times (perhaps most of the time) falsely presented to our consciousness.

      What the self is consciously aware of when it chooses, the narrative that it tells its self about such choosing, is bracketed off from what is actually happening during that choice. It is certainly unaware of the “determined” nature of that choice, the problem of lack of information, a place where some people claim that free will can slide in. It is a phenomonology of ignorance and yet power, the “I” has to make some choice. This is what it feels, that combination of power of the self to choose and ignorance of a multitude of factors surrounding that choice.

      Jerry may be wanting something too much when (and if) he says he wants “real choice,” but I believe that the natural, phenomonological story of choice rests in belief in the power of that I to choose, at it does and as it must, out of ignorance, an ignorance that is more than often (always to some degree, since any brain state has yet to be wholly mapped out) maintained both prior to the choice and after the choice.

      Wrangling over what is the correct definition of “choice” should take into consideration the experience of “choice” that most people experience and model, and what is surely a major part of what they believe about “choice.”

    • Greg Esres
      Posted July 10, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Permalink


      Of course. But you can’t use that fact to redefine free will to be something that is possible. The definition that Jerry is attacking is what most of think of as free will…the ability to act in uncaused ways.

      And the “capacities for reasoning and evaluating evidence” you mention also contribute to determinism. What makes a particular person open to reasoning? Genetics and environment. If I am a reasonable person, it’s not because *I* (whatever that means) had anything to do with it.

  30. Pablo M. H.
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Permalink


    Dan Dennett makes a very compelling argument in ‘Freedom Evolves’ precisely about a point you make in your last paragraph. In principle we could predict any action in the physical world “given perfect knowledge”, but this is quite obviously impossible in practice. “Perfect knowledge” is unattainable, therefore our human minds can safely claim that they operate in a realm of indeterminacy, thus giving some leeway to the idea of free will. It may not be “free” in principle, but there might be something to it in practice.

    However, let’s accept the notion that we don’t really have free will. It would be interesting to know whether you, Jerry Coyne, are actively against the idea because of its fictional character. Considering that the very concept of free will is a human invention and it’s part of the human narrative, would you be willing to do away with it because of its “nonscientific” origins? More pointedly, should we throw away all the fictional ideas we’ve come up with to manage our societal interactions? Are you willing to concede that even in the absence of free will (in principle), it is a worthwhile fiction to entertain? What about other fictional ideas, like human rights?

    • Posted July 10, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      You wrote “in principle we could predict any action in the physical world “given perfect knowledge”, but this is quite obviously impossible in practice. ”
      No, as I have tried to point out many times above, it is NOT possible even in principle to predict any action in the physical world. Quantum uncertainties are involved, and these cannot be ignored by fiat. We can only predict probabilities.

      • SAWells
        Posted July 10, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

        I think there’s a triple lock against total predictability. From QM we get what looks like genuinely unpredictable outcomes; from chaos theory and nonlinear dynamics we get extreme sensitivity to initial conditions; and from relativity, we know that events in our future light cone will be influenced by events currently in our elsewhere, of which we cannot have any knowledge now.

        • Posted July 10, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

          I’m not sure how important those latter two are to the concept of determinism in this context. Those cause practical difficulties in calculating the future, but not fundamental impossibilities (at least for an idealized observer outside of space and time).

          The quantum argument is different. Even in principle, some aspects of the future are unpredictable, even events in the very near future some microseconds from now.

          There used to be some hope that deterministic equations underlay quantum mechanics, in the same way that they underlie thermodynamics. The “hidden variable” theories of David Bohm and others in the 60’s and ’70’s seemed to show that this was theoretically possible, if cumbersome. Then Bell, using shockingly general and elegant arguments, derived “Bell’s inequality”. This showed that such hidden variables would have to have crazy properties violating causality, if they were to accurately reproduce all the empirical predictions of quantum mechanics. The crucial empirical predictions of QM were later confirmed, so hidden variables, and the last hope for determinism, had to be discarded.

  31. Lyndon
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    [Eric] “We seem to have a subjective conviction that we do things for reasons, and not just because we were determined by antecedent causes to do them, and yet the universe seems also to be governed by iron laws of necessity, which leave no room for the reasons that we give.”

    I think this was Jerry’s criticism, and his most poignant one, but I will restate it.

    When talking about an individual making a choice in the “exact same situation,” reasons are the same as “causes.” That is, what we call reasons, as embodied in “thoughts,” are physical entities, they are causes, they are manifestations of brain structure.

    This is going to get into ontological questions, but “reasons,” like “logic,” do exist in some fashion from the dawn of time to post-time, but they have import to human beings when they are instantiated in brain structure. Our capacity for conscious reason and “thought” (probably requiring a complex language) is what makes us special. Human brains have developed the capacity to use reason and logic to help control and predict future events, so as to build bridges or to decide which college to go to, e.g., but we gain such abilities through the specific genetic and environmental structuring of our behavior and of our brain states at any exact time. The structure of our brain “at any exact moment” is the (same as the) structure of our “reasons/thoughts,” I assume as a good materialist of the brain/mind.

    • Posted July 10, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      Again, this frames the argument using the long-refuted determinism of classical physics. Neither our environment nor our brain states are deterministic, and so our brain state at some moment t+x is not determined by our brain state at time t.

      • Pablo M. H.
        Posted July 10, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

        “and so our brain state at some moment t+x is not determined by our brain state at time t”

        Can you offer some proof of that? (of course you’d have to start with a good definition of “brain state”, which is not trivial).

        Take the EEG as a proxy for “brain state”. If such states were not deterministic in time, it’d be impossible to design and implement EEG-based brain-computer interface devices, which already exist.

        • Posted July 10, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

          See the citation under my Comment #26 and my further explanation under Comment 29 (July 11 6:31). “Brain state” means a complete, exact physical description of the brain. As I said above, the brain interacts with the rest of the world, which has many quantum-mechanically indeterminate aspects. So anything that interacts with the brain is also quantum-mechanically indeterminate.
          To decide whether a later brain state cannot be predicted based on a previous state, we have to specify the level of detail we are talking about, and the time interval between states. EEGs reflect mass behavior, averaging millions of events per second. These averages may be predictable over short intervals as long as the brain is not interacting with some macroscopic object that is quantum-indeterminate (see my Geiger counter examples and billiard ball citation, above, for examples of such systems). Nevertheless, even if the mean behavior of millions of firing neurons is predictable for short time intervals, the exact detailed brain state is not predictable, even in theory, after a short period.
          By the way, the photosensors of the eye can fire or not, depending on the presence of a single photon. The timing of the detection of a single photon from a weak light source is quantum-mechanically indeterminate. So an eye, under some circumstances, is exactly like a Geiger counter—a generator of quantum-mechanical indeterminacy connected directly to your brain.

          For a source on this, see this old classic article (abstract follows)

          Volume 10, Issue 7, July 1943, Pages 553-564

          The quantum character of light and its bearing upon threshold of vision, the differential sensitivity and visual acuity of the eye

          H.L. de Vries

          Natuurkundig Laboratorium der Rijks-Universiteit te Groningen, The Netherlands
          Received 1 June 1943.
          Available online 18 October 2004.


          A short introduction is given in § 1. In § 2 it is shown that one quantum of light absorbed by the photo-sensitive material in the eye suffices to give rise to the perception of light. In § 3 some relations are derived that are used in the discussions in § 4 and § 5. In § 4 and § 5 the attention is drawn to the statistical fluctuations in the numbers of quanta perceived and their relation to the limits of differential sensitivity and visual acuity of the eye. It is shown that the limits calculated in this way coincide surprisingly well with the limits actually observed. In § 6 some evidence is presented for the conception that the sensory cells (rods and cones) act in the same way as counters of light-quanta, the more complicated electrical response of single nerve fibers in the optic nerve being caused by the interaction of nerve-cells.

          • Pablo M. H.
            Posted July 11, 2011 at 6:01 am | Permalink

            I think you’re overstating (to say the least) the effects of quantum mechanics on our daily experience of the world. The fact is that we are not quantum entities. We don’t function at a scale in which quantum effects are relevant in practice, billiards conjectures and Geiger oddities notwithstanding. Besides, we simply can’t make such strong claims about the “quantum nature of the world” because quantum theory is not yet fully understood at a fundamental level by anybody, therefore it cannot be considered “the ultimate theory of how everything works”. Quantum theory is still open to interpretation and our current “understanding” of it is essentially provisional. A hidden variables interpretation hasn’t been completely ruled out as you incorrectly stated above. Bell’s theorem, on the other hand, has been contested by loopholes in Bell’s test experiments. In truth, quantum theory has been and will remain in a ‘work in progress’ state for a long time.

            The example of the eye is also a bit misleading. Photoreceptor cells in the human eye may be able to respond to single photons at the molecular level but that’s not enough for our brains to perceive light. Again, in the aggregate we don’t function as quantum entities.

            • Posted July 11, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

              As I said, at various times my brain state has been caused by external events that are quantum-mechanically indeterminate. Some of my actions in 1979 were tied to these events. So if the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics is right, neither my life history nor my brain state today were determined by the state of the universe in 1978.
              Even if quantum effects on human behavior are extremely uncommon, the chaotic nature of our world will magnify those effects over the years, so that given a complete state description at time t, the state of the world at time t +100 years will be utterly indeterminate.

            • Posted July 11, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

              You wrote “A hidden variables interpretation hasn’t been completely ruled out as you incorrectly stated above.” A causal, local hidden variable theory was ruled out. There may be some new twists on this in the last few years; if so, please give references. Thanks, Lou

      • ratobranco
        Posted July 10, 2011 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

        Who cares whether our brain state at t is determined by our brain state at t – dt? Determinism/Indeterminism is irrelevant to free will. For free-will to be possible, you would have to be able to *choose* what your brain state at t was going to be, given what it is at t – dt. How do you choose this? A magical soul is required. Moreover, if you were able to choose the state at t, that would obviously violate quantum theory, which holds that *nothing* can determine how the system will evolve from from t – dt to t, the evolution is completely probabilistic.

        • Bernard J. Ortcutt
          Posted July 10, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

          If you read the comments above, or what Eric wrote, you can find out that there are accounts of free will that do not depend on “magical souls” or contra-causal action. If you start with a conception of free will that requires the impossible, then the conclusion will be negative, but why do that?

          • ratobranco
            Posted July 11, 2011 at 9:07 am | Permalink

            I’m familiar with compatibilist accounts of free-will. They are attempts at evasion.

            There is no reason to care whether or not we have compatibilist free-will. It is insufficient to ground claims of moral responsibility.

            (And btw, I see no reason why a dog can’t have compatibilist free will).

            The real issue here is not free-will, but moral responsibility. Why deny moral responsibility, you ask? Because it doesn’t exist, nor could it possibly exist. The philosopher Galen Strawson demonstrated this long ago.

  32. Doug
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    “I accept the fact that quantum events, like the location and momentum of electrons or the moment when an atom of a radioactive element decays, can be absolutely unpredictable. But I doubt that this unpredictability has observable results on the scale of human behavior.”

    If this is true, why is weather so hard to predict? I challenge the concept that, at any level, EXACTLY the same conditions can be achieved more than once. If the outcomes of any action are always predictable, why do we do experiments more than one time and derive means, SDs, and variance? I say that we do see unpredictable behavior all the time at a macroscopic level. It’s not possible to know or recreate all of the starting conditions for anything we do.

    So, is pre-determination a chaotic function? Do I have free will but only within a bounded functional scope? How broad is that scope? Is it so small that ‘free’ is not a functional reality or is it wide enough that we can call it ‘free’?

    • ratobranco
      Posted July 10, 2011 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

      The difficulty with predicting the whether is epistemological rather than ontological. If you knew all the variables to perfect accuracy, you would be able to know what the weather was going to do with perfect accuracy. Yes, there are chaotic processes in meterology, but remember that chaos theory is, in fact, deterministic.

      • SAWells
        Posted July 10, 2011 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

        No you wouldn’t. Because (a) molecules don’t HAVE an exact position and momentum that can both be known with perfect accuracy; (b) “perfect accuracy” involves knowing a real number, and those have infinitely many decimal places, so you’d need infinite storage and processing power; (c) you’d need to know all variables throughout the entire universe, not just on earth, or you get causal problems.

  33. Posted July 10, 2011 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the comments that quantum mechanics ultimately have little to say about whether or not we have free will. Even if it did, it would be a kind of randomness or chaos in behavior, but nothing to do with choices. I don’t think we have free will, because I have yet to come across a clear account of what it would actually entail, how does the homonculus operate to make free choices for example, to step back one level. The fact that we make and deliberate with choices is perfectly compatable with determinism. I don’t see how the notion of free will is any different that belief in souls (or selves that are things rather than brain processes), or has any evidence to support it. From Plato on, philosophers and scientists as far as I can tell have yet to come up with a coherent account of free will or how it may operate. Pending that, I firmly concur with Jerry’s (and others Dan Wegner for example) reasoning and simple inference that we don’t have free will. To me it is one of many cognitive illusions probably necessary for our survival that persists even when it is well understood to be an illusion. The issue of personal responsibility in some sense may be modified in some way, but it doesn’t mean that suddenly we will stop sending people to jail when they commit crimes because there is no free will, those arguments seem silly. Knowledge is knowledge and facts are facts. We have to deal with it no matter how unpleasant they may be to us personally. I find it amazing that this issue is still even controversial. I admit we have a long way to go before we fully understand how we make choices, neuroeconomics seems to be one promising avenue among many. Just because we have consciousness doesn’t mean we no longer obey natural laws like planets revolving around suns. So what is the issue?

  34. Richard Wein
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 1:36 am | Permalink

    I think it’s important to see that this is primarily a semantic issue. The two camps are using “free will” to mean different things. So when one camp says that “free will” (meaning A) is compatible with determinism and the other says “free will” (meaning B) is incompatible with determinism, they are not disagreeing over a matter of substantive fact.

    Where they disagree is that Jerry’s camp says that Dennett’s camp is misusing the term “free will”, assigning it a meaning that it cannot reasonably bear. Up until recently I would have strongly agreed with Jerry on that. I still lean towards that view, but I’m now less insistent, and am more inclined to just say that the term “free will” is too meaningless for the discussion to be worthwhile. Sure, “free will” in Jerry’s sense (what Russell Blackford calls “spooky” free will) doesn’t exist. But so what? Sure, “free will” in Dennett’s sense (something like the ability to cogitate and act on the result of those cogitations) exists. But no one denies that, so why make a big issue out of it? Why give it the controversial name “free will”?

    It seems to me the reason people care about this issue is that they feel there cannot be moral responsibility without free will. But I think that’s a mistake. As a moral error theorist I think that moral judgements cannot be true, and therefore there cannot be moral responsibility anyway, for reasons that have nothing to do with free will.

    If you can separate the question of free will from the question of moral responsibility, then I think it’s easier to see that the former question is a pointless one.

    • Kharamatha
      Posted July 11, 2011 at 2:10 am | Permalink

      Well, you forget the semantic issue that MacDonald seems to examplify here, that something can be the determined by influences without being “determined”. :\

  35. Kharamatha
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 1:51 am | Permalink

    “… not because that action was determined — though it certainly was determined by the influences then in play upon the person’s decisions …”

    Wait, what?

  36. Posted July 11, 2011 at 3:18 am | Permalink

    In no way a choice can be “free”, whatever the meaning of that word is. Every choice is shaped by previous experience and all choices come with opportunity costs. A person can decide to play soccer (European football) or basketball, but that decision is not decided by the will, but rather her preferences. If the person comes from UK, there is a higher change that he will pick soccer over basketball, simply because he comes from the UK. On the other hand, if this person resides in the US for a long period, the chance of him picking soccer over basketball will be lower. It’s all about choice sets that are limited by a person’s constraints or preferences or recognition. Everyone got through Econ 101 should know this.

  37. Posted July 12, 2011 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    I am really surprised that some comments above claim that quantum indeterminism is unimportant in the macroscopic world. Evolution itself is a quantum-indeterminate process: mutations can be caused by UV light or cosmic rays, and it is a nice quantum scattering problem to try to figure out the probabilities of affecting a given base. This indeterminate base mutation has obvious large implications for the direction and timing of evolutionary change. The assemblage of present-day creatures on earth could not be predicted from the state of the universe a couple million years ago. We even owe our own existence to “dodging the bullet” of a lethal mutation. It was a quantum bullet.

    Maybe determinism doesn’t have anything to do with free will at all. I tend to agree with that. However, determinism was heavily used in this discussion. I just want to get that off the table. We would not accept creationists using discarded ideas like Lamarckian change to criticise evolution.

    • Matt
      Posted July 12, 2011 at 6:27 am | Permalink

      It seems most compatibilists would agree that quantum uncertainty is important, and I think you’ve done a pretty good job showing why it can be important macroscopically. But there are three things:

      1) This is mostly my ignorance, since I’m a composer and not a scientist, but is quantum uncertainty more concerned with predictability or determinism (or do you think there’s a functional difference between the two)?

      2) As many commenters above have said, indeterminacy by itself might be a necessary, but is definitely not a sufficient condition for contra-causal free will. You mentioned hooking up a geiger counter to a gun — this may be indeterminate/unpredictable, but its firing still has a cause in the physical world. You can look back at past events and say “yep, that’s what happened.” So you’d need something “much more else” for classical free will.

      3) Most of the compatibilist posts above have been concerned with characterizing free will in terms of determinism — what could we label “free will” in even a hard-deterministic world? That’s the case that needs to be made even if the world is not deterministic, because if some acceptable form of free will exists even under hard-determinism, then it would exist in less deterministic physical regimes. At that point we worry more about materialism and naturalism than determinism, but I think the compatibilist arguments still mostly carry.

      • Posted July 12, 2011 at 7:18 am | Permalink

        Hi Matt,
        #1: Unpredictability due to ignorance or lack of computing power or other practical issues is not central to debates about causality. Quantum indeterminacy is about genuine lack of causality for the particular outcome which actually occurs (though the probabilities of occurrence of each possible outcome ARE causally determined).
        #2: Suppose Schrodinger keeps lots of his cats in a small room, and brings a gun+geiger counter into the room. He comes back later (or sits and watches—this is not an observer effect) after hearing a bang, and finds one cat dead, and lots of live cats. We can indeed give good causal explanations at some level for why one of the cats died, but we cannot give a causal explanation for why that particular cat died and not one of the others.
        #3: Yes, I see your point. If you can define free will in a completely deterministic world, then you have ended the argument, because such an argument would also apply to an indeterminate world. But this doesn’t work if someone is arguing AGAINST the existence of free will on the basis that the world is determinate.

        • Matt
          Posted July 12, 2011 at 7:50 am | Permalink

          I’m with you pretty much, but I would be very cautious discussing shooting cats on this site. =o)

  38. John
    Posted July 15, 2011 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    It seems to me something rather a big element is missing from this discussion. In our haste to rush away from ‘magic’ or ‘religious’ explanations for the mind, we have gone too far in the other direction and ended up with reductionist materialism. All of these explanations seem to assume we have an full and uncontroversial account for how a purely physical object such as the brain can account for the entirely subjective experience.

    In truth what we have is the unwarranted assertions of a group of evolutionary biologists straying way of their home terrain to claim theyve discovered the answer for everything, backed up with some hilariously exaggerated claims for the discoveries of neuroscience.

    Honestly, the amount of times people have brought up the supposed evidence that everything we decide to do is decided in our brain before we know about it – go and have a look at the actual experiments. The way they manages to combine incredibly narrow evidence with huge conclusions is incredible.

    People just dont seem to understand, even without the many metaphysical problems of connecting consciousness with pure brain activity, we dont even nearly understand how the brain works. Our equipment we use for studying it are wildly imprecise, and the vast majority of the experiments upon which people seem to base their assumption that we do are really dubious. I think it says a lot that people who are so keen to stress the scientific explanation do not seem to apply rigorous scientific standards to neuroscience and its claims.

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] handful of musings about free will have been popping up in my blog reader of late. Jerry Coyne has been discussing the issue with Eric MacDonald in a series of posts (further links therein). […]

  2. […] handful of musings about free will have been popping up in my blog reader of late. Jerry Coyne has been discussing the issue with Eric MacDonald in a series of posts (further links therein). […]

  3. […] Evolves), and seems to be what MacDonald (see MacDonalds original post here and more discussion here) is arguing for. Is there a distinction without a difference? If we perceive free will to be real, […]

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