John Horgan: a free-will dualist?

People can and have taken strong issue with the view, favored by Sam Harris and me, that free will as traditionally conceived is a complete illusion.  Many people have responded with diverse versions of “compatibilism”—the view that determinism is still compatible with some notion of free will. (I happily note, though, that almost nobody questions determinism itself, though some have urged us to keep it quiet lest it rile up the hoi polloi).

And the discussion, which I think has been fantastic  and instructive, has been almost completely free of invective or ad hominem arguments.  That is, until last Monday, when science journalist John Horgan published a nasty and mean-spirited attack on Harris at Cross Check, his Scientific American blog.  The post, “Will this post make Sam Harris change his mind about free will?“, is ugly and almost incoherent.  Horgan starts off with a few punches to the solar plexus:

But Harris keeps intruding on my thoughts, in part because he keeps emailing me about his writings, and especially his new book Free Will (Free Press, 2012). Also, I admit to a certain voyeuristic fascination with Harris. I wonder, what crazy idea is he going to peddle next? Some of his righteous rants give me a perverse pleasure. I’m simultaneously irritated and titillated. I get the same feeling listening to Rush Limbaugh or Rick Santorum.

First of all, Sam did not “keep emailing” Horgan about his writings, a statement that implies that he’s beleaguering Horgan with unsolicited emails.  In fact, as Sam has verified, Horgan signed up to receive Harris’s email announcements, which are almost always about Sam’s new posts.  Horgan is in fact one of 45,000 people who get these announcements—voluntarily.

Although I try not to derive psychological motivations for rants like Horgan’s, he makes it easy because he gives them at the outset:

Harris’s new book rates orders of magnitude higher on Amazon’s Best Sellers lists than my new book, The End of War (McSweeney’s, 2012), which concludes with a chapter called “In Defense of Free Will.” That rankles.

Indeed, Horgan tried to get me to publicize his book (now #27,446 on Amazon), which seems to have a message of increasing peace on earth similar to that of Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature (#1,426), but for some reason I wasn’t motivated. Now I’m glad I wasn’t.

Insofar as Horgan tries to argue for free will, he fails. He says that he “loathes” the philosophy of determinism, and argues that “free will” (which he never defines) involves making real choices that are not determined but “constrained”:

Harris asks us to consider the case of a serial killer. “Imagine this murderer is discovered to have a brain tumor in the appropriate spot in his brain that could explain his violent impulses. That is obviously exculpatory. We view him as a victim of his biology, and our moral intuitions shift automatically. But I would argue that a brain tumor is just a special case of physical events giving rise to thoughts and actions, and if we fully understood the neurophysiology of any murderer’s brain, that would be as exculpatory as finding a tumor in it.”

Harris seems to be advancing a reductio ad absurdum, except that he wants us to accept the absurdum: there is no fundamental difference between me and a man compelled to kill by a brain tumor. Or between me and someone who can’t help washing his hands every 20 minutes, or someone who’s schizophrenic, or a babbling baby, or a newt, or a worm. I mean, if I’m not different from a guy who kills because a tumor provokes him into murderous rages, how am I different from anyone or anything with a brain, no matter how damaged or tiny?

Horgan’s mistake here is to assume that “normal” behavior is less physically determined than behavior mandated by obsessive-compulsive disorder or brain tumors that cause aggression.  But even Whitman had a choice: he could presumably have controlled his murderous rages, and obsessive-compulsive disorder can sometimes be cured if the sufferer seeks help. In that sense there are still apparent (but not real) “choices”.  But the real point is that all pf our behavior stems from our neurological conditions, be it Horgan having fries instead of chips or Whitman picking off students with a rifle in Austin.  In that way there is no fundamental difference in the degree of determinism of our behavior.   So how is Horgan different from Whitman?

Here’s the difference. The man with a tumor has no choice but to do what he does. I do have choices, which I make all the time. Yes, my choices are constrained, by the laws of physics, my genetic inheritance, upbringing and education, the social, cultural, political, and intellectual context of my existence. And as Harris keeps pointing out, I didn’t choose to be born into this universe, to my parents, in this nation, at this time. I don’t choose to grow old and die.

But just because my choices are limited doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Just because I don’t have absolute freedom doesn’t mean I have no freedom at all. Saying that free will doesn’t exist because it isn’t absolutely free is like saying truth doesn’t exist because we can’t achieve absolute, perfect knowledge.

To me this is incoherent.  “I do have choices, which I make all the time” says nothing different from what Whitman did, especially because Horgan avers that his choices are indeed “constrained” by things like the laws of physics.  But what does he mean by “constrained”?  Is there some real freedom beyond physics, genetics, and environment? Does “constrained” equal “determined”? If so, then Horgan is well and truly a determinist.  If not, then he’s a dualist.

Indeed, I think Horgan is a dualist, perhaps conditioned by his “loathing” for determinism.  Here’s a sign of the ghost in Horgan’s machine:

But the strange and wonderful thing about all organisms, and especially our species, is that mechanistic physical processes somehow give rise to phenomena that are not reducible to or determined by those physical processes. Human brains, in particular, generate human minds, which while subject to physical laws are influenced by non-physical factors, including ideas produced by other minds. These ideas may cause us to change our minds and make decisions that alter the trajectory of our world.

I find it amazing that a science writer can say this.  Yes, there are emergent phenomena (like the “wetness” of water) not predictable from a more reductionist analysis, but those phenomena are indeed determined by lower-level phenomena, with the laws of physics at the bottom. Higher-level processes might also not be predictable by human endeavor (chaos theory is an example), but they are still a) deterministic (absent quantum phenomena) and b) must be consistent with lower-level phenomena.  There is nothing we know about minds that implies that they’re not reducible to and determined by the physical processes in our brains.  And, of course, nobody—including incompatibilists like Sam and me—denies that minds can be changed by environmental influences (like the words I’m writing now), or that those changed minds can change the world. Indeed, later on in his piece Horgan claims that if Harris had changed his mind and actions, that would be real evidence for free will.  That’s balderdash.  Both compatibilists and incompatibilists agree that minds can be changed.

In the end, I conclude that Horgan really is a dualist: he thinks there’s something to our minds beyond the physical structure of our brains.  What finally convinced me is his penultimate paragraph:

We are physical creatures, but we are not just physical. We have free will because we are creatures of mind, meaning, ideas, not just matter. Harris perversely–willfully!–refuses to acknowledge this crushingly obvious and fundamental fact about us. He insists that because science cannot figure out the complex causality underpinning free will, it must be illusory. He is a throwback to the old behaviorists, who pretended that subjective, mental phenomena—because they are more difficult to observe and measure than planets and protons—don’t exist.

First, we consider free will illusory not because we can’t figure out how brains work to the tiniest neuron, but from both first principles (our brains are material and must obey physical laws) and the increasing evidence that our view of “agency” can be radically changed by neurological or psychological experiments.

And yes, we are just physical, for our mental phenomena—and that includes our so-called “choices,” and our “mind, meaning, and ideas”—are, and must be, the result of physical processes.  Those mental phenomena can differ only if the underlying physical substrates differ.  Yes, we can speak of “minds” and of “choices” as entities that are meaningful in human discourse, but in the end they all come down to neurons and molecules.  And “free will”—at least the contracausal form conceived of by many, including millions of religious people—is indeed an illusion.

Oh, and in his last paragraph (remember, this is on Scientific American) Horgan can’t resist a completely gratuitous slap at Sam’s intellect:

Dwelling on Harris depresses me. All that brainpower and training dedicated to promulgating such bad ideas!  He reminds me of one of the brightest students I’ve ever had, who was possessed by an adamant, unshakable belief in young-earth creationism. I did my best to change his mind, but I never succeeded. I probably won’t change the minds of Sam Harris and other hard-core determinists either, but it’s worth a shot.

Stay classy, John.  Ten to one Sam will respond to you (if he does) without anything like the invective you’ve heaped on him.

180 Comments

  1. Posted April 13, 2012 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    I agree that Horgan’s presentation is pretty unconvincing.

    As for dualism, I’m not sure one actually needs to attack dualism to attack libertarian (contracausal) free will, since such a thing would be almost as puzzling if dualism were true. Even if our minds are nonphysical, either our decisions are sufficiently caused or they aren’t; if they are, they’re deterministic, and if they aren’t, they’re not really our “will.” The usual argument for the incoherence of libertarianism goes through almost as well.

    One note in favor of at least denying type-physicalism about the mind (based on arguments by Descartes and David Chalmers): It seems that we can imagine a disembodied mind and we can imagine a mindless but active, alive brain.

    If so, and if conceivability implies possibility (and we almost always take it to imply as much), then disembodied minds and mindless brains are possible.

    In turn, minds are not necessarily physical things, and brains are not necessarily minds, even if we think our minds actually are our brains.

    • Posted April 13, 2012 at 8:05 am | Permalink

      One note in favor of at least denying type-physicalism about the mind (based on arguments by Descartes and David Chalmers): It seems that we can imagine a disembodied mind and we can imagine a mindless but active, alive brain.

      What on Earth would a “disembodied mind” be? How is it going to perform any sort of computation without communication within itself, and how is it going to do such communication without energy exchange?

      And is this “disembodied mind” supposed to know anything about the universe outside of itself? If so, how is it supposed to communicate with the rest of the universe without energy exchange?

      If so, and if conceivability implies possibility (and we almost always take it to imply as much), then disembodied minds and mindless brains are possible.

      I can conceive of Jesus wandering around Jerusalem with his guts hanging out, commanding every passerby to fondle them. I can also conceive of Luke Skywalker using the Force to levitate his faster-than-light personal fighter. And, I can conceive of Harry Potter waving around a dead twig and turning his best friend into a toad.

      If the fact that I can conceive of those things means you think that they’re possible, then you’ve lost all touch with reality.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Thanny
        Posted April 13, 2012 at 8:50 am | Permalink

        That’s a pretty good summary of what was running through my (entirely physical) mind when I read Tom’s comment.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted April 13, 2012 at 8:56 am | Permalink

        A disembodied mind is obviously the same as the sound of one hand clapping.

      • Posted April 13, 2012 at 10:13 am | Permalink

        Ben Goren,

        I don’t know what a disembodied mind would be, but many people throughout history have claimed to imagine them. (Consider ghosts, souls in the afterlife, gods, etc.) I understand that such a thing would provoke many other questions, such as how it might interact with a physical world. That doesn’t mean we can’t imagine it of course, at least in very basic terms.

        By ‘possible’ I mean a broad sense of possibility: not just physically possible, but possible in the most basic sense of whether something “could” happen. Philosophers sometimes call this metaphysical possibility or broad logical possibility.

        While Harry Potter-style magic and faster than light travel are physically impossible, I don’t know of any argument that they’re metaphysically impossible. For example, it seems that if an omnipotent God existed, He could bring about the world in which those things occur.

        • Tyle Stelzig
          Posted April 13, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

          Hi Tom,

          You say that if our decisions don’t have material causes then they aren’t really ‘will’. Well, why not? Perhaps we have a non-material will, with no material causes, which determines our behavior. Indeed, that’s what I take to be the conventional form of libertarianism.

          Thus, dualists have a way out of the first horn of your dilemma; it is ‘will’, itself uncaused, which causes behavior. Of course, there are problems with this idea – namely, the problems of dualism! So this is why one needs to attack dualism in order to really defeat libertarianism.

          I’ve also got a comment regarding conceivability (who doesn’t, right?). Chalmers thinks it’s obvious that he can imagine zombies. But how do we know he’s right? Perhaps he merely *thinks* he is imagining a zombie, while in fact the idea is incoherent (or requires an equivocation of ‘conceive’ according to which round squares, etc., are also conceivable; I think ‘metaphysical conceivability’ is such an equivocation).

          To illustrate, here’s something else that might seem obviously conceivable: a lemon-like object with the same physical composition as a lemon, but which is purple instead of yellow. Now, in what sense is this purple lemon conceivable? Certainly it is not *physically* possible, since we know that color supervenes on reflectance. It seems like we can imagine it, but as we imagine in more and more detail, we run into problems. For example, quantum mechanics says it has to be yellow. And what can it mean to assert that our zombie-lemon is physically identical to the original lemon once we’re forced to abandon quantum mechanics?

          It thus seems to me that our zombie-lemon is actually incoherent, despite (possibly) seeming obviously conceivable. I think that the same might be true of mental zombies. At the very least, to assume the contrary without argument is to beg the question against type-physicalism.

          • Posted April 14, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

            Hi Tyle,

            On free will: I said, “either our decisions are sufficiently caused or they aren’t; if they are, they’re deterministic, and if they aren’t, they’re not really our ‘will.’.” So I don’t think my paraphrase of the anti-libertarian argument has anything to do with materiality. An immaterial will that makes decisions without sufficient causes seems random, instead of a person’s decisions.

            On conceivability: I agree that there aren’t any decisive arguments that Chalmers et al. really are imagining zombies. But surely we take apparent conceivability to be good evidence of actual conceivability. Strictly speaking, zombies seem to be “negative, prima facie conceivable”; nothing is conceptually ruled out about imagining them, and they at least seem to be conceivable. Unless we want to abandon the epistemological advantages of the principle that conceivability implies possibility, I think we’ll need to agree that negative, prima facie conceivability is at least evidence of possibility.

            (In case you don’t like conceivability, zombies are also narrowly logically possible, which also seems evidence of metaphysical possibility.)

            • Tyle Stelzig
              Posted April 14, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

              Tom,

              Oops, I did misread you here; I read ‘sufficient’ as ‘material’ somehow. Apologies for that.

              I think my point still holds up in light of that change, though. To wit: If you are a dualist, you may still insist that ‘will’ is the cause of our behavior, but is itself uncaused (materially or otherwise). The libertarian views such a will not as random, but as *undetermined* or *free*. As before, I hasten to point out the untenability of dualism. But I do think that the dualist has a way out of the ‘uncaused will isn’t will’ horn of your dilemma – namely, just to assert that it *is too*! I’m not convinced there’s a conceptual problem with this that isn’t just begging the question (i.e. which doesn’t also discredit dualism).

              Conceivability: I made my case regarding conceivability on the other thread, and now see with some chagrin that you gave a fuller presentation of your case here than there. So, apologies for that as well.

              However, I think that what I said there holds up to what you say here. To connect it: Conceivability just isn’t a good guide to possibility. Judgments about possibility should be made on the basis of what we know about possibility. To the extent that our notions of conceivability capture such knowledge, they can be a proxy guide (but will then tend to exclude consciousness as conceivable). To the extent that our notion of conceivability does not capture our state of knowledge regarding possibility, consciousness might be allowed as conceivable, but we can conclude nothing about it’s possibility.

              I’ve presented a few examples of things that are conceivable (according to any definition that would include consciousness) but not possible – FTL travel, purple lemons, flying unicorns. I could also have talked of massless apples, silent violins, or cold steam (in each case enforcing physically-identicalness).

              I take my ability to indefinitely generate examples of conceivable (if consciousness is) but metaphysically impossible entities as a demonstration that conceivability itself tells us nothing about possibility. Only if we build in some knowledge about what kinds of things are possible – as in the example of the horned horse – can conceivability act as our guide. But if we do so, consciousness must be excluded upon pain of begging the question.

              • Posted April 15, 2012 at 9:01 am | Permalink

                Tyle,

                I’m just going to combine that other thread into this one to save posts. I’ll also elide a few points (dualism and free will, and your inductive knowledge of probability point) to save space, since this is probably in danger of getting far beyond what Jerry intended for this post.

                I guess I’m not yet convinced, e.g., that FTL travel is metaphysically impossible, instead of merely physically. Wouldn’t you say it’s the laws of physics that prevent an object from accelerating to faster than C? And the laws of physics that connect microscopic surface properties to the fact of which wavelengths of light are reflected by that surface?

                If so, then isn’t it possible that the laws of physics could have been different? And in turn, couldn’t the laws of physics could have been changed to allow for (at least what an ordinary person would call) a purple lemon, and to allow for FTL travel? (And even flying unicorns.)

                And (finally) in the end, wouldn’t it be surprising if something like a mindless brain or a brainless mind were metaphysically impossible? Metaphysical impossibilities tend to be (1) narrow logical impossibilities, (2) denials of a posteriori necessities (e.g. non-H2O water), or (3) crazy category mistakes, like Plantinga’s prime minister that’s a prime number. But mindless brains and brainless minds don’t (at least to me!) seem anything like (1)-(3).

              • Tyle Stelzig
                Posted April 15, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

                Hi Tom,

                I’ve enjoyed this exchange, and appreciate the pragmatism of confining our discussion to our most interesting point of disagreement.

                Purple lemons are physically (hence metaphysically) possible in the sense that there could be purple objects similar enough to lemons that they would ordinarily qualify as lemons. But they wouldn’t be physically identical to lemons, of course. I think we can agree about this much.

                I also think we can agree that a physically-identical-to-a-lemon-but-purple object is *physically* impossible. I take our disagreement to be that you think that such a zombie-lemon is nonetheless *metaphysically* possible, while I deny this. (Correct me if I am wrong in this characterization.)

                I think that zombie-lemons are metaphysically impossible in the same way as non-H2O water. Lemons are simply *equivalent* to their physical constitution. Color is not a further fact about a lemon once you’ve specified everything else about it. This means that the only way a lemon could be purple is if there were something physically different about it; that is, if two objects are physically identical, they cannot be different colors. You could change the laws of nature, but then the two objects are no longer physically identical.

                I say the same thing about FTL travel – there are worlds with different laws of nature in which objects can travel faster than light. But those objects aren’t physically identical to any object in the actual world. So while FTL travel is metaphysically possible, FTL travel *of a lemon* is not.

                And I say the same thing about brains without minds; metaphysically impossible, just like non-H2O water. The brain is simply equivalent to its physical makeup. Just as it couldn’t be physically the same if it were yellow, it couldn’t be physically the same if it lacked consciousness. There might be other worlds in which similar objects are yellow or lack consciousness, but these objects aren’t physically identical to brains.

                So that’s my position on metaphysical possibility. Ultimately, however, I think it’s a bit of a red herring. Of course, I concede that there are possible worlds in which objects *similar* to lemons can travel faster than light, or be purple. And similarly, there may well be worlds in which objects similar to brains lack consciousness. But if this is all we mean by metaphysical possibility, what can it tell us about lemons? It cannot tell us that the color of a lemon is a further fact about the lemon. And similarly, it cannot tell us that consciousness is a further fact about the brain.

      • Aratina Cage
        Posted April 13, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

        If the fact that I can conceive of those things means you think that they’re possible, then you’ve lost all touch with reality.

        That can’t be said enough. It underlies all supernatural beliefs.

      • johnnyrodgersmorris
        Posted April 13, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

        +1

    • Dan L.
      Posted April 13, 2012 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      One note in favor of at least denying type-physicalism about the mind (based on arguments by Descartes and David Chalmers): It seems that we can imagine a disembodied mind and we can imagine a mindless but active, alive brain.

      If so, and if conceivability implies possibility (and we almost always take it to imply as much), then disembodied minds and mindless brains are possible.

      I’m imagining a square circle. Possible?

      OK, maybe that one’s not fair. This one is: I can imagine traveling faster than light. Possible?

      • Posted April 13, 2012 at 10:17 am | Permalink

        Dan L.,

        I actually would be surprised if you really were imagining a square circle. (I can’t imagine imagining one.)

        As for faster-than-light travel, that’s not physically possible, but (as I should have specified earlier) I’m talking about what philosophers call metaphysical or broad logical possibility: in the most basic sense of ‘could,’ whether something “could” happen.

        One way to think about it is this: if an omnipotent God existed, it seems that He could have created a universe in which faster-than-light travel was possible.

        So I don’t think that anything we can imagine is physically possible. Instead, I would argue that most people think that if you can imagine something, it’s at least metaphysically possible.

        And finally, even if there are exceptions, the principle that conceivability implies possibility is not supposed to be exceptionless. Conceivability is supposed to provide at least prima facie evidence.

        • Dan L.
          Posted April 13, 2012 at 10:57 am | Permalink

          I actually would be surprised if you really were imagining a square circle. (I can’t imagine imagining one.)
          Just because you can’t imagine imagining one doesn’t mean it’s impossible to imagine one. You can’t possibly prove that I’m not imagining one. But that’s why I said this one “isn’t fair.”

          As for faster-than-light travel, that’s not physically possible, but (as I should have specified earlier) I’m talking about what philosophers call metaphysical or broad logical possibility: in the most basic sense of ‘could,’ whether something “could” happen.

          I don’t believe in the distinction between “metaphysical possibility” and “physical possibility”. Either something is (physically) possible or it is not.

          One way to think about it is this: if an omnipotent God existed, it seems that He could have created a universe in which faster-than-light travel was possible.

          1. An omnipotent God might be, itself, impossible.
          2. It’s possible that faster-than-light travel is actually logically impossible in the same sense that you want to say that a square circle is logically impossible. Then even an omnipotent God couldn’t create a universe in which it’s impossible (under many interpretations of what we mean by “universe” “omnipotent” etc.).

          Conceivability is supposed to provide at least prima facie evidence.

          Conceivability, from my POV, provides no evidence whatsoever except evidence for what is conceivable.

          • Posted April 14, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

            Dan L.,

            You don’t believe in a distinction between physical and metaphysical possibility. I do. At least you believe there’s such a thing as narrow logical possibility that’s distinct from physical possibility, right? It’s possible in some sense of “possible” for an object in a vacuum on earth to accelerate due to gravity at more than 9.8m/s/s, right?

            As for omnipotence, I agree that there are good arguments that some analyses of omnipotence describe impossible properties. But some don’t, and there’s a pre-theoretic grasp of omnipotence that helps to illuminate the concept of metaphysical possibility. There’s a bunch of us philosophers who do have conceptions of metaphysical possibility, so if you lack that conception, that’s not really relevant to whether we possess it, right?

            ‘An object travels 350,000 km per second’ is not the denial of a theorem of any sound logic, so traveling faster than light is narrowly logically possible.

            Finally, if conceivability isn’t evidence of possibility: Do you believe that unicorns could have existed? If so, why?

            • Posted April 14, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

              <sigh />

              Look, omnipotence is childish bullshit, okay? It’s Superman for those who like to pretend they’re grown up.

              An allegedly omnipotent entity can’t commit suicide, can’t feel any sense of powerlessness, and can’t draw a triangle with two right angles on a flat piece of paper. And, if you want us to take seriously the concept of omnipotence, then you’re also asking us to take seriously perpetual motion machines, time travel, and zombies, for any “omnipotent” entity who couldn’t pull off those things would hardly be very omnipotent, now, would it?

              So please. Grow up already. Slapping a sophisticated-sounding theological term to describe an imaginary superfriend’s superpowers doesn’t somehow make any of it in the slightest more plausible. It just makes you look like a fool who still worries about the monsters under his bed.

              Oh — and all this nonsense about alternate values for universal constants? Those constants are no different, really, from π or other well-known “purely” mathematical constants. The ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle is only three-and-change in Euclidean geometries. The speed of light and the gravitational constant and so on are merely the values you get with a spacetime whose geometry matches the one we find ourselves in. If you want to argue that the universe could have had a different geometry, then you’ll have to start with some very high-powered cosmology…and, still, at most, you’ll wind up with nothing any more cosmically remarkable than suggesting that a planet with different compositional or orbital characteristics than the Earth would be more or less spherical.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Posted April 15, 2012 at 9:03 am | Permalink

                Ben Goren,

                Since I look like a childish fool to you, I trust that you won’t be too disappointed if I save time by concentrating my replies elsewhere.

        • Tyle Stelzig
          Posted April 13, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

          Similarly, Dan and I would be surprised if you really were imagining zombies (brains without minds).

          Here’s an example of something most people think they can conceive of: a set which contains all sets. Well, it turns out that they are wrong. The idea is logically incoherent.

          But, you admit that there may be exceptions. Above I gave another exception – a zombie-lemon, which is physically indistinguishable from a lemon, but is purple. This also seems conceivable, but in fact it’s incoherent.

          Dan suggests, and I agree, that the same could well be true of faster-than-light-travel. In fact, if you imagine a familiar, ordinary physical object traveling faster than light, it is certainly incoherent. This is because a coherent description of an ordinary physical object depends on relativity. So to imagine faster than light travel coherently, you also have to imagine unfamiliar objects moving in a universe with different physical laws. If you manage to do this without any logical contradictions, then you’ve succeeded in showing that superluminal travel really is ‘metaphysically possible’. But this is much harder than you’d expect, and unless you are much smarter than me you are unlikely to be able to do it in a reasonable period of time. In any case, it certainly isn’t what most of us are doing when we take ourselves to be imagining faster than light travel.

          This shows (I think) that when something is not physically possible, it often will not be metaphysically possible either, even if we think that we can imagine it.

          • Tyle Stelzig
            Posted April 13, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

            BTW, as you probably noticed, I’m taking ‘metaphysically possible’ to mean ‘physically possible in some possible world’, where a possible world can have whatever (consistent) laws of nature that you want.

            Let me know if you have something better in mind. 🙂

          • Posted April 14, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

            Tyle,

            Some of our “zombie” stuff is in the other thread, so I’ll leave it there.

            As for sets, I thought a set of all sets that do not contain themselves was logically impossible, pace initial intuitions. We do sometimes go astray, but the reason these examples are so famous, I submit, is that they’re so extremely rare.

            And as for FTL travel, again, I think we only need negative, prima facie conceivability to generate evidence of metaphysical possibility. After all, our evidence that unicorns could have existed is that they’re negatively, prima facie conceivable. When I imagine a unicorn, am I really imagining every last detail of its cellular respiration, immune system, the quarks that compose its protons and neutrons, and so on? Of course not. But it would be a huge bullet to bite to say (e.g.) that we don’t know that unicorns are possible, or even worse, to say that we don’t know (e.g.) that it’s possible that this room contain another person.

            (You might say the evidence unicorns are metaphysically possible is actually that they’re narrowly logically possible. That would be fine, too, since zombies are narrowly logically possible.)

            • Tyle Stelzig
              Posted April 14, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

              Sets: You correctly identify the key player in Russell’s paradox, but trouble actually sneaks in the back door a bit earlier. The resolution of Russell’s paradox is to recognize that the idea of a ‘universal set’ is incoherent; it’s essentially a category mistake. There’s nothing wrong with the ‘containment’ step, it’s just one way (of several) to make vivid the problem with universal sets. (I make this correction, of course, simply because it is interesting – it is irrelevant to our discussion.) I concede that this case might be objected to as exceptional. (Godel’s first incompleteness theorem is another example of an interesting but, I agree, needlessly clever example. Still, couldn’t resist. :))

              FTL travel: FTL travel is not metaphysically possible. Whether it is conceivable depends on our definitions; I insist that any definition of ‘conceivable’ which allows FTL travel gives us no right to expect metaphysical possibility.

              An example which I like better, making the same point: purple lemons. This might seem conceivable (depending on our definition), but it’s not metaphysically possible. I don’t think that this example (or the FTL travel example) can be dismissed as an exceptional case. In fact, I think that it closely resembles the case of consciousness.

              Unicorns: If the unicorn can fly, then it’s just the same story: we can imagine it (as long as we avoid the details), but it’s not possible. On the other hand, if a unicorn is just a horse with a horn, then it seems like unicorns *are* physically (and hence metaphysically) possible.

              So, how do we know? I claim that it is not the fact that we can imagine it; after all, we can imagine the flying unicorn just as well. Rather, I claim that evidence such a unicorn is possible requires some (presumably implicit) knowledge of biology – for example, the observation that horses exist (and hence are possible) and that rhinos have horns (and hence that horned animals are possible). Thus, while our biological knowledge does not give us deductive *proof* that unicorns are possible, it does give us a good basis for thinking that they are possible. And this seems to be the only basis that we have.

              To make this more vivid, imagine a flying unicorn, but which has no wings. Not so hard, as you long as you avoid the details. But the catch, of course, is once again that such a creature is not possible.

              I understand the temptation to dismiss these counterexamples (which could of course be endlessly proliferated) as ‘exceptional’ and maintain that most things we can imagine are metaphysically possible. But of course, I can come back and say that most of the things *I* can imagine *aren’t* metaphysically possible. Let’s not resort to counting… We might agree that this is not a productive road.

              Things that are conceivable are often not metaphysically possible. FTL travel is an example, purple lemons are an example, flying unicorns are an example… who is to say that consciousness is not an example?

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted April 14, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

          Many questions and responses here:

          Q: What is libertarian free will?

          Q: What is the argument for incoherence of libertarianism?

          AFAIK libertarianism is a purely philosophic idea (that then gets exaptated for politics et cetera, in the same manner as theology is used for pushing dictatorships), so it shouldn’t be internally incoherent.

          R: I take a very dim view of “broad logical possibility”. The description “metaphysical” let the game show, it is a dualist idea of “something more” than physics whether it is supposed to build on or build to it.

          Akin to non-physical untestable “contrafactuals”, and in fact they seem intimatedly joined:

          “While Harry Potter-style magic and faster than light travel are physically impossible, I don’t know of any argument that they’re metaphysically impossible.”

          I don’t see how metaphysics is physically possible. And no, I don’t mean that as a wise-crack, if it can’t have a physical existence it simply can’t exist. Untestable in principle means unobservable means there will be no existence.*

          a universe in which faster-than-light travel was possible.

          Relativity is the way spacetime is constructed. If you remove that you have some other construction of time and space dimensions, but we would probably not call it “a universe”.

          ————–
          * Give or take “fully”, in case we get hampered with problems of partial testability. String theory is popular to mention about here.

    • chemicalscum
      Posted April 13, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      The brain is hardware (wetware, meatware). Mind is software.

      The mind is not a physical thing but information processing dependant on a physical substrate. Disembodied minds are therefore forbidden by the laws of physics.

      • Posted April 13, 2012 at 11:55 am | Permalink

        The laws of physics as you know them now. If consciousness is truly uncreated, it is normal that we can’t find from our finite and created perspective and that it escapes our inquiry when it becomes exclusively immaterial.

        Looking for consciousness with consciousness is like trying to burn fire with fire. It doesn’t work.

        • Dan L.
          Posted April 13, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

          The “soul of the gaps” argument?

          Looking for consciousness with consciousness is like trying to burn fire with fire. It doesn’t work.

          I can find magnets using other magnets. Isn’t it possible that consciousness is more like magnets than like fire?

          • Posted April 13, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

            Magnets have no problem finding themselves when they are opposite. Consciousness can’t “conscious” consciousness because consciousness at is core is beyond the opposites by which we can grasp the world. That is why it is uncreated. What doesn’t begin cannot end.

            • Dan L.
              Posted April 13, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

              I’m just pointing out your “argument” isn’t the least bit convincing. This one isn’t either (actually it looks like word salad to me).

              It’s pretty difficult to sound deep and argue clearly at the same time. I suggest you focus on the latter.

              • Posted April 13, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

                That fire can’t burn fire, or water wet water is nothing deep. It just illustrates why consciousness can’t “conscious” consciousness.It is like trying to find a red dot on a red wall…
                And your magnet example illustrates well how we experience reality on a dual mode, which implies the grasping of the world through opposites.

                It has huge implications on free will and dualism but unless you agree to reconsider physicalism, you won’t be able to verify it by yourself.

              • Dan L.
                Posted April 13, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

                Believe what you wanna believe man. Just trust me that this kind of “deeptity” based argument isn’t convincing to anyone who isn’t already a mysterian.

                Note that “fire” is a noun, “burn” is a verb. “Water is a noun, “wet” is a verb. “Consciousness” is a noun but “consciousness” is not a verb. I think you’re making a fallacious argument from analogy.

                You could switch to “consciousness can’t conceive of consciousness” but the analogy to water or fire doesn’t actually carry the weight you want it to here. A universal turing machine can emulate a universal turing machine. A computer screen can display a computer screen.

                This sort of argument is also going to depend on what exactly we mean by “consciousness” and “conceive”, etc. I don’t think you and I will be able to sort all that out given the breadth of the gap between us at this point.

              • Posted April 13, 2012 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

                The problem here is that no efficient analogy can be given because an analogy can only work if it relates to something we already know.
                This is why I know my argument isn’t convincing to anyone who isn’t already a mysterian…

                But the thing is that before I become a mysterian, I used to be a hardcore atheist…

                The word “uncreated” as explained in buddhist works made a crack in my certitudes… And the more I read about the dual mode I was experiencing everyday without realizing it, the more I learned about the non-dual mode I could experience.

              • Piero
                Posted April 14, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

                I once defined intelligence as the ability to recognize intelligence, and got a lot of flak for it. Yet, in my opinion, it is an appropriate definition, and the same applies to consciousness: an entity is conscious if and only if it is able to distinguish conscious from unconscious entities.

                Though they might seem circular definitions, I think they are not (though I’d welcome comments proving me wrong). For example, a red entity is not one which can recognize a red entity; a heavy entity is not one that can recognize heaviness. As far as I know, only consciousness and intelligence have that property, and hence they are the only inherently recursive properties of human beings.

                Now, can consciousness analyse itself? Can intelligence analyse itself? It doesn’t really matter, because neuroscientists are not busy investigating their own consciousness or intelligence, but somebody else’s. Obviously, a moron (in the technical sense) cannot understand his or her own intelligence; but a team of very intelligent neuroscientists could well be able to understand why the workings of the moron’s brain make him or her a moron. In my opinion, there is an inflexion point in the scale of intelligence: if your intelligence is greater, then you are able to understand intelligence (and consciousness).

                Could a genius understand his or her own genius? Most probably yes, after enough information has been collected on a diversity of brains. As in all sciences, it’s almost certain that laws an regularities will be found in neuroscience, and a genius (or a team of geniuses) would surely be able to propose the right extrapolations from the lesser intelligences they’ve analised.

              • Posted April 14, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

                I mostly agree with what you are saying. But that teaches us nothing about the nature of consciousness itself, no matter how intelligent you are. And no matter how you’ll use your own consciousness to seek for Consciousness, the weight of your intelligence won’t be able to tell you anything about its nature. You can only see what is not consciousness for the same reasons that you can see a blue dot on a red wall (but not a red dot on a red wall). You could only see a red dot on a red wall if the dot would be circled by a dark trait, which is what is happening when your intelligence is recognizing another intelligence…

              • Piero
                Posted April 15, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

                @JF Fortier:

                I undertand the logic of your argument, but it is still flawed. Unlike the question of who created God, which leads to a conceptual (and hence actual) infinite regress, the study of consciousness cannot possibly lead to an infinite regress because neuronal circuits or even individual neurons pose a lower limit to such conundrums.

                Clearly, quantum mechanics is useless when you are trying to fix a car’s fuel injection. Repairing a car requires a level of abstraction far removed from the vagaries of quantum mechanics. Similarly, a study of the brain an the mechanism of consciousness should be conducted at the level of the lowest component of a functioning brain, i.e. a neuron. Going below thst level is a waste of time.

                Given that neurons are physical objects, it is to be expected that their inner workngs will soon be fully understood. In order to analyze their connections, youll’ need tools such as the dynamics of complex systems. A daunting task, surely, but not an impossible one. I think where you go astray is that a scienfic study of consciousness requires the use of the very same consciusness you are tryng to explain. As I said before, that’s not the case: scientists don’t study THEIR OWN consciousness, but domedy else’s. Besides, the fundamental factor in understanding consciousness is intelligence, not consciusness.

  2. Posted April 13, 2012 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    As I sincerely believe I have good justification for believing that free will doesn’t exist, it seems obvious to me that Horgan can’t but get so weird; that’s just the way he’s wired! 🙂

  3. Sigmund
    Posted April 13, 2012 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    I wouldn’t really describe his views as dualism. To me it reads more like he is discussing something akin to memes – ideas that may be transferred from one brain to another and affect the way the recipient brain thinks about something or other.
    Obviously ideas, once they enter your head as sensory stimulation (hearing or sight), become part of your physical brain network.
    He is clearly wrong to separate that process from other purely physical processes but it doesn’t sound he means there is something like a non physical or supernatural mind involved in making decisions – which is how I would define dualism in this sense.

    • Posted April 13, 2012 at 7:58 am | Permalink

      He is clearly wrong to separate that process from other purely physical processes but it doesn’t sound he means there is something like a non physical or supernatural mind involved in making decisions – which is how I would define dualism in this sense.

      If you separate cognition (or anything else) from its physical substrate, how can the result be anything but non-physical, aka supernatural?

      Cheers,

      b&

    • Apashiol
      Posted April 13, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

      That bit about ideas confounded me.

      In my experience, ideas convince to the extent they appeal to my values.

      If I value freedom and someone shows me that in some way my behaviour gives the lie to my stated values for freedom, for what ever reasons like cognitive bias or the mere failure to think things through.

      Even in the case of my changing a value, even that occurs within a framework of other values.

      Ultimately, my values come from my character which is determined by my genetic heritage shaped by my upbringing and cultural environment.

      Even if it turns out that memes are more than a just a convenient way to think about ideas by analogy to genes I don’t see it changing the way my values shape my beliefs and attitudes.

      • Apashiol
        Posted April 13, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

        I omitted the end of my sentence: “mere failure to think things through I then have to change my ideas so they reflect my better understanding.”

      • Piero
        Posted April 14, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

        Apashiol:

        “In my experience, ideas convince to the extent they appeal to my values.”

        I think that should not be the case. It is a sure recipe for unintelligible weirdness. I’m not particularly fond of the idea that I have no free will, and that my loved ones don’t have free will either. I want to love and be love “spontaneously”, just because I’m me and they are them. But the evidence is unassailable: we are meat robots. Do I stop loving my loved ones because of that knowledge? Of course not. The fact that I know my feelings for them are causally tied to reverberating circuits of whatnot does not in the least modify those feelings.

        When you go to see a film, you might me moved to tears, even though you are fully aware that what you are seeing on the screen is an illusion derived from the physiology of the retina, and the actors are, well, acting.

        We cannot help being what we are. But that means we cannot help being what we are: our desires, our feelings, our emotions, our love, our hatred, and so on. The fact that my identity has been shaped by factors beyond my control does not mean I’m not me.

        So, I’m open to find any weel-argued idea convincing, even if it clashes with my values. For example, I’d like to think the could be “a brotherhood of man” (As John Lennon sang), but as science advances, it seems more and more unlikely. Some people are just born psychopaths. Do I like the idea? No. Is that a sufficient reason to reject the idea? No.

        • Apashiol
          Posted April 15, 2012 at 4:57 am | Permalink

          @Piero, as it happens, one of my strongest values is truth, to try to understand the world as it is, outside of how I might like it to be.

          So I have to constantly check with others and continually test my ideas and my values. That is why I come here and to similar sites. I share the opinion of the people who comment here that the scientific method is the best road to knowledge.

          I might have a different conceptual map of reality, and due to the ambiguity of language I may need clarify in what sense I mean it when I use a word.

          As for everything you’ve said, I am basically in agreement.

          • Piero
            Posted April 15, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

            I’m glad to hear that. I share your views. However, I have a small but important-I think-qualm about them: is truth really a value? Truth is truth, whether you value it or not. A fundamentalist Christian might nor care much abour truth, and keep on believing that Adam and Eve really existed. It makes not the slightest bit of difference to what is actually the case, namely that Adam and Eve could not possibly have existed, as shown by genomic analysis. Anyway, I don’t intend to start a discussion on that issue just for the sake of being contrarian.

            • Apashiol
              Posted April 16, 2012 at 12:25 am | Permalink

              Truth certainly is a value to me. What drove me from religion was seeing the refusal to accept facts about the world that had tons of evidence in their favour.
              To my mind, anyone who refused to accept facts about the world couldn’t be trusted when it came to making claims about the purpose of life and how one should live it.

              I am really uncomfortable with the idea that I might be entertaining beliefs that are false just for the sake of mental tranquility. I am actually more comfortable with admitting to myself that on certain subjects I just don’t know.

  4. Posted April 13, 2012 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    But the strange and wonderful thing about all organisms, and especially our species, is that mechanistic physical processes somehow give rise to phenomena that are not reducible to or determined by those physical processes.

    Yes, I do not see any way to interpret this sentence that does not either tag him as a dualist, or as a sloppy thinker.

    I do think it’s true that in advanced organisms such as ourselves, “mechanistic physical processes somehow give rise to phenomena that are” more usefully described at a higher level than as being determined “by those physical processes.” To borrow Hofstadter’s phrase, it becomes less clear as to “who is pushing who around”.

    If Horgan had even excised the words “or determined by”, I might be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. The “reducible to” could be interpreted to mean that it is impossible both in practice and in theory to try to describe the higher level phenomena entirely in terms of their lowest-level causes. I might buy that.

    But unless you are a dualist, then you have to accept that they are, in the end, “determined by” the lowest-level physical causes. There’s just no getting around that.

    Unless you’re a fucking dualist.

    • Posted April 13, 2012 at 7:56 am | Permalink

      Even then, dualism just pushes the question back a layer.

      “God created everything.” Well, then, who created God? “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

      “Our souls determine our actions.” Well, then, do our souls follow a set of rules to determine our actions, or do they just do whatever willy-nilly? “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

      Dualism is nothing more than yet another religious exercise in, “Because I told you to shut up, that’s why!”

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted April 13, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

        The reason why it makes no sense that consciousness is uncreated is because you are experiencing reality on a dual mode where everything seems to work in discontinuity, with a beginning and an end, in other words, in opposition. That is what the oriental traditions describe as our average dual mode.

        If you would do the job and reach a permanent non-dual state you would be able to understand by your self what the word uncreated means and that reality as we perceive it now is not absolute.
        You guys have exchanged monotheism for monrealism…

        • Apashiol
          Posted April 13, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

          As someone who has plenty of experience of the non-dual state from years of meditation I can say that your last statement is unfounded.

          As compelling as that state is and as much as it has helped me understand the illusory nature of the self it does not offer any evidence for the true nature of all that exists. All you can say is that it gives insight into the working of the mind.
          Once the body, brain and nervous system no longer exist there is no way for me to claim to know that consciousness will persist.

          I am not claiming to know certainly that it won’t, but another benefit of meditation is that I’m quite comfortable with not knowing and taking life for what it is and remaining open in the meantime.

          • Posted April 13, 2012 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

            I am like a millionaire who won at the lottery and then lost it. But I still can pretend what it is to have one million in my bank account even if I didn’t work for it…

            That being said, non-duality on this plane can only happen while you are alive. On the other end, non-dualiy implies the ceasing of opposites as we experience them on a dual mode. The ego is constantly fed by opposites, that is how it gets its identity. So the ego is not interested in learning how to starve the source (dualism, oriental type)that feeds it. That is why it can only believe that discontinuity is the absolute mode, which implies that all pairs of opposites, precisely life/death, are absolute truth.

            • Apashiol
              Posted April 13, 2012 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

              Your comment about imagining being a millionaire is a false analogy.

              We all have experience of money and the freedom it allows. Imagining being a milionaire is taking our common experience and wondering how it would be to have more of it.

              We are talking about a non-ordinary, very uncommon experience.

              The experience of non-duality in meditation is achieving a state where the mind ceases to represent the world and our bodies as agents in the world. The representation of our selves is the sense of I or ego.
              It is the process of modelling the world that generates the ego.

              I imagine it will be possible with the advances in brain imaging to observe better what happens during this mode, and I think it will involve the parts of the brain that generate our body image and sense of separateness being inhibited or such.
              I could see it giving insight into the workings of the brain in the same way as phantom limb, or prosopagnosia, or blind-sight, or any of the other non-ordinary modes of the brain. However, the fact is that the body is at all times alive, breathing, heart pumping, metabolising, with all functions operating as they would.

              You cannot punt from a mode of consciousness in a living brain to making any metaphysical claims about that consciousness surviving the death of the brain and expect that claim to be beyond the usual demands for evidence.

              You are engaging in imaginative speculation.

              I know that this experience is possible from achieving it myself. I also know that how it is interpreted is another thing altogether.

              • Posted April 13, 2012 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

                The lottery/millionaire analogy was about my “instant” non-dual experiences I had comparing to those you get from a constant effort.

                I agree that no analogy can be made because non-duality like you say is uncommon, it has nothing to do with the dual average mode of perception.

                But I don’t think that science is helpful when it comes to non-dualism. Of course it can record the physiological traces that such a state leaves in the body but science itself can’t tell anything about the qualia that is going on in a non-dual state.

              • Apashiol
                Posted April 13, 2012 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

                Hopefully this will nest properly….

                Well look at that, you and I both have had similar experiences and yet we have come to completely different conclusions about those experiences.

                The salience or force of the experience says nothing about the experience except that is makes a great impression.

                Schizophenics are equally impressed by their experiences of voices talking to them. That doesn’t mean we should understand their voices to be other than hallucinatory.

                I think the difference between us is that I try to apply the same scepticism to my internal world as I would to the external world.
                This is so I don’t disappear down the rabbit-hole as I have seen so many others do.

              • Posted April 14, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

                I have a family and I’m a private music teacher so I don’t have the fantasy to disappear down in a rabbit-hole.
                On the contrary, I would say that usefulness is what is driving me.

                Do I think my non-dual experiences provided me meaningful informations? The answer is yes.
                Although I can’t be 100% sure about the veracity of those experiences I choose to believe that they were accurate. It is a win-win situation no matter how right or wrong I was…
                Of course, I also believe that subjectivity is an objective reality…

              • Apashiol
                Posted April 15, 2012 at 5:38 am | Permalink

                I too find I get valuable insight into the workings of my mind from meditation.

                I also find the the scientific investigation and understanding of the world to be complementary and it helps me to understand and ground my own subjective perceptions.

                It isn’t an either/or choice.

                I gave up on the framework of spirituality because when it came to their understanding of the external world their knowledge was patently false.

                What I could have accepted as poetic, mythological metaphors they insisted were literal truths and pig-headedly stuck to that view by ignoring all contradictory evidence.

                When you talk about subjectivity being an objective reality I can’t parse that. Unless you mean it is a fact of the world that it contains human subjects, which I don’t think is what you were trying to get at.

                The problem with meditation is that our subjective experience is not accessible to others.
                I could speculate and say that perhaps one day understanding of the brain will lead to technology akin to those transcranial helmets, and that the hard work of meditation might be surmounted by directly stimulating the areas that would generate non-dual states.
                Then everyone could explore their subjective consciousness and map it onto an objective scan of everything that was happening in the brain at the same time. We could approach an understanding of consciousness that would be a synthesis of the subjective and objective.

                The truth is just don’t know.

                In the meantime, I will continue my practice and try to keep up as best I can with what science discovers about the world.

                Actually, one of the pluses of meditation for me is that it helps me to integrates new knowledge by keeping my mind labile and less resistant to change.

                Like I said, it is complementary.

              • Piero
                Posted April 15, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

                Guys, I really have taken a liking to both of you, and it is with the utmost regret that I must declare you are talking bullshit.

                Where to star? Let’s start with evolution All matter on Earth comes from one star. Initially, the earth was composed of inorganic matter. Suddenly, and in processes as yet unexplained, a molecule acquired the ability to msks copies of itself. Maybe the initial copies were only vaguely similar to the original, but over millions of years the copying process gor better and better.

                Fast forward some million years, o maybe a couple of billions. The initial replicator has now developed into armoured, scurrillous, poisonous or crafty creatures which can survive because they possess some special skill. Of course, no skill can guarantee survival, but on the whole most species manage to live another day.

                Now, all this creatures are fully aware of being themselves, even in the most elementary sense. If I hit a dog witha stick, it will either attack me or escape: I have yet to meet a dog which would in such circumstances start to philozophize on the meaning of pain (which is in fact an illusion created by our brains) or the spurious distinction between its ego and the rest of reality.

                The same applies to our closest cousins: chimps, bonobos, orang-utans, gorillas. Strike s gorills with a stick and see what happens (though I’m afraid you won’t be able to tell the tale).

                This whole business of pretending to relinquish the notion of the ego is utter nonsense. We are born a separate entities: if I’m hungry and you are eating, it does not help me in the least. Of course, I know that by exercising the appropriate techniques, I can FEEL as if my ego has dissolved into the whole, or the void, or whatever you chose to call the absence of perception of an outside reality. But by the same token, I can claim that the right amount of Johnny Walker Black Label (a modest homage to Hitch) or the right amount of LSD can modify the processes regulating my brain. Is that significant or worthwhile? I would argue it is not. For a start, it is a temporary state. When you have to earn your living, you cannot aford to waste your time meditatig, and even less consuming sllucinogenic drugs.

                The obvious truth is that I am me and you are you. If you die in a car crash, I’ll be sad and mournful, but I would still be alive. There is no such thing as “becoming one with the universe”. Learn from the gorillas: they are a far wiser bunch than most buddhists or eastern philosophers (with the due exceptions, of course).

              • Apashiol
                Posted April 16, 2012 at 1:42 am | Permalink

                @Piero, I disagree with you that meditative states are worthless or that it is impossible to achieve other brains states.

                Experiencing a radically altered mode of consciousness can give lots of insight into the ego state precisely because it is other to it. Even the egoic state is not one but actually a spectrum of experience.

                You know intellectually that the world you perceive is a representation generated within your brain. Photons hit your retina, sound vibrations hit your eardrum, etc.
                Within the brain a virtual reality is generated, part of which is the representation of the body which is built up from all the sense data from the body itself. Without the sense data there is nothing to ground the ego representation.
                In meditation, your sense of the external world disappears to leave just your sense of your own internal states like breath, heart beat, and your perceptual and conceptual thought. By perceptual thought I mean that thought which consists of images, sensations, and emotional content. It is a fact, and I know because I have experienced it, that with continued practice even that slows and eventually ceases.
                No internal discourse, no bodily awareness which leaves nothing to ground the ego sense in. Then everything just stops. Once there is no experience of doing anything there is no experience of a doer, no ego.
                I can not describe what the experience is like. That shouldn’t be surprising. Even our everyday emotions and sensations are impossible to describe. You rely on the fact of your fellow humans having shared them because of a shared neurology. If I meet someone who has never tasted chocolate I might try to describe the experience. If I give them chocolate to eat, then they ‘know’ what chocolate is in a direct way that can’t be mediated through language.

                None of this is incompatible with evolution. For you to insist that it is impossible because you’ve never experienced is an argument from ignorance. For me I find the fact that matter can generate forms that become so complex they become self-aware to be awesome. All I am saying is that meditation is a way to explore that awareness directly, and that we are capable of many other states of consciousness besides the default egoic state necessary to survive in the world.
                I make absolutely no claims for souls, gods, or any sort of supernatural woo-woo.

              • Piero
                Posted April 19, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

                Apashiol:

                I fully agree with you in the sense that altered mental states have nothing to do with woo-woo, the supernatural, the unfathomable presence of a stochastic yet purposeful disembodied intelligence as the root of all being or any such crap.

                Nevertheless, you can achieve altered mental states through a variety of methods. You can either devote a lot of time and effort to achieve them through meditation, or you can simply swallow a pill. Why the “natural” method should permit access to deeper truths than the pharmacological one, I just fail to understand. I can meditate for hours, and in the end get the sensation of my ego dissolving into the void; or I can take some LSD and get exactly the same sensation with no need for any effort on my part. If I really wanted to experience such feelings (which I don’t), I would take the logical path: get yoursel some LSD and have a trip.

                Do these experiences reveal anything besides the fact that our brain is subject to chemical infuences, be they self.generated or artificial? I think not. An elephant can get drunk by eating fermented fruit. Is it then in a state that allows it to grasp a deeper comprehension of his role in this universe? I think not; it has only become an easier target for poachers.

  5. Posted April 13, 2012 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    We have free will because we are creatures of mind, meaning, ideas, not just matter.

    Horgan seems to be laboring under the misconception that information / data / computation / communication is somehow non-physical. Quite to the contrary: Claude Shannon most emphatically demonstrated that all such “stuff” is inextricable from the physical world and came up with all sorts of nifty laws and what-not that demonstrate the exact relationships between them.

    In short, “data” is not something static, not even on your hard drive. Communication is real, and is the process of exchanging patterned mass / energy — and there are distinct limits on how complex a pattern can be exchanged based on the available mass / energy used as the communications medium. And computation, from this perspective, is little more than a minor add-on to communication.

    Or, if he’s arguing against Church-Turing, then he’s a perpetual motion / zero point energy crank.

    Cheers,

    b&

  6. Posted April 13, 2012 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    JAC:

    In that sense there are still apparent (but not real) “choices”.

    Your quick editing of that bit shows that inside of you there’s a compatibilist struggling to get out! 😉

    If these “choices” are in no sense “real” but only “apparent”, why do you point to them as though it affects your argument?

    (But I do agree with you that John Horgan’s piece is confused and ill-thought-out and likely dualist.)

    • Dan L.
      Posted April 13, 2012 at 8:36 am | Permalink

      If these “choices” are in no sense “real” but only “apparent”, why do you point to them as though it affects your argument?

      Can’t speak for Jerry, but I would guess because the word “choice” is ambiguous. We can interpret it as meaning “one of several possible actions” or it can mean “an action that was inevitable given initial conditions.” I think Jerry’s saying we don’t really have the first kind of choice. If you come to a T intersection you have a “choice” of whether to go left or right, but this doesn’t mean that both are possible. Obviously only one is possible and which one it is depends entirely on a deterministic course of events that is entirely out of your “control.”

      This ambiguity about the word “choice” is why I’m not terribly enthusiastic about compatibilism. That and the fact that compatibilists just can’t seem to let incompatibilists use the clearer language that they want to use.

      • Posted April 13, 2012 at 9:15 am | Permalink

        If you come to a T intersection you have a “choice” of whether to go left or right, but this doesn’t mean that both are possible. Obviously only one is possible and which one it is depends entirely on a deterministic course of events…

        Thank you for this explanation. It helps. I’ve been struggling to grasp how we actually make decisions and calling this part of the process ‘will’ by how we go about assigning weight to various factors under consideration. But once that weight is granted from various parts of our brain vying for various considerations to be weighted, then a wholly deterministic process ensues. I don’t have a problem with this.

        The only sticking point I have is whether or not the weighting of considered factors is determined into action or if we come equipped with the ability to intervene in the process of our decision making by some supervisory brain mechanism that can suspend, alter, or even overturn this physical process of transferring decision into action. In this sense, determinism of the “I could not act differently” seems insufficient to me.

        I’m still not convinced that the test, “Could I have done differently?” is honest in the sense that no matter what the action eventually occurs, a trail backwards will always appear to be wholly deterministic. But I still don’t know if that’s true in fact.

        • Dan L.
          Posted April 13, 2012 at 9:25 am | Permalink

          The only sticking point I have is whether or not the weighting of considered factors is determined into action or if we come equipped with the ability to intervene in the process of our decision making by some supervisory brain mechanism that can suspend, alter, or even overturn this physical process of transferring decision into action.

          This is a great question. My purely conjectural answer is “yes”: I would guess that there are actually several or even many “supervisory brain mechanisms” with their own domains of specialty and that these different faculties essentially “compete” for control of the body/mind. And my interpretation of consciousness is essentially a post-facto rationalization of the desires driving behavior and the actions in which those desires result. So in my view the “I” is unable to control anything, the conscious mind does is makes sense of a tiny bit of the stuff that the brain is doing in the interest of providing feedback on the effectiveness of the actions taken with regard to satisfying desires.

          I can see why people see such a view as depressing or dehumanizing, but I think you can only get to that point of view by making unwarranted assumptions about what it means to be “human.” And the “illusion” of control is actually a functional part of the system which is, I think, what Dennett calls “the only free will worth having.”

      • Posted April 13, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

        That and the fact that compatibilists just can’t seem to let incompatibilists use the clearer language that they want to use.

        Hold on, it’s the incompatibilists who usually object to particular usages of language! Though they do it inconsistently, frequently slipping into compatibilistic language.

        For example, take this sentence of Jerry’s: “But even Whitman had a choice: he could presumably have controlled his murderous rages”.

        By it Jerry means (and I’m open to correction): “But even Whitman had an appearance of choice: he could presumably have given the appearance of controlling his murderous rages”.

        Or, going further, it means: “But even Whitman had an appearance of choice, even though he had no choice because it had been determined, and doing anything else would violate physics: he could presumably have given the appearance of controlling his murderous rages, even though of course he couldn’t have done anything other than proceeding with the uncontrollable rage“.

        Now, how about this?: “The bullet on its way to kill the man had a “choice”, it could have evaporated into thin air, even though of course it couldn’t have, because this would have violated physics; still the bullet could presumably have controlled its lethal trajectory, even though of course it couldn’t have done anything other than continue with its physically determined lethal trajectory”.

        Now, I hope everyone agrees that the latter sentence about the bullet is just silly. Is the first sentence, as written by Jerry, equally silly? If it is, why was it written? Why does it add anything more to the incompatibilist account in the Whitman case than in the bullet case?

        Alternatively, would Jerry or others want to make a distinction between the bullet sentence and the Whitman sentence? If so, then you are a compatibilist, since that distinction entails compatibilism.

        • Dan L.
          Posted April 13, 2012 at 9:48 am | Permalink

          Now, I hope everyone agrees that the latter sentence about the bullet is just silly. Is the first sentence, as written by Jerry, equally silly? If it is, why was it written? Why does it add anything more to the incompatibilist account in the Whitman case than in the bullet case?

          It’s only silly because you’ve contrived it to be so. There’s nothing silly about the notion of “choice” only applying to complex and difficult-to-predict systems like human brains and computer algorithms rather than simple deterministic phenomena like the bullet.

          I can as easily parody your position by saying something silly like “Compatibilists claim that there is simultaneously no such thing as free will and that there is such a thing as free will.” A blatant contradiction like that seems silly when stated this way. But I don’t mock compatiblism this way because that’s not really fair to the sorts of arguments compatibilists make, which typically make pretty good sense of the contradiction.

          So the distinction between bullets and Whitman is (obviously) that one system is simple with easily-predicted behavior and the other is complex with incredibly difficult-to-predict behavior. Only the latter sort of system can be described as making choices. And yes, there is a big fuzzy gray region between the two extremes.

          • Posted April 13, 2012 at 10:20 am | Permalink

            There’s nothing silly about the notion of “choice” only applying to complex and difficult-to-predict systems like human brains and computer algorithms rather than simple deterministic phenomena like the bullet.

            Why yes, I entirely agree, and that is the entire point my example was getting at. It’s also the entire point of compatibilism (as summed up by Dennett in the two words “Freedom evolves”).

            And my criticism of incompatibilists is that they don’t seem to be making that distinction. At least, if they are, then I’m not getting in what way they are differing from compatibilists.

            Can someone really explain the incompatibilist position to me, at least how it differs from compatibilism? At the moment it seems their stance amounts to nothing more than suscpicion and misunderstanding of compatibilism, namely: “that compatibilism smells suspiciously like dualist woo, so I’m not touching it with a barge-pole”.

            • Dan L.
              Posted April 13, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

              At least, if they are, then I’m not getting in what way they are differing from compatibilists.

              As far as I can tell, it’s purely semantical. I think the phrase “free will” is essentially meaningless. Even if it’s not meaningless it’s so ambiguous that it can only cause problems in the context of discussions of how mind/brain systems work.

              At the moment it seems their stance amounts to nothing more than suscpicion and misunderstanding of compatibilism, namely: “that compatibilism smells suspiciously like dualist woo, so I’m not touching it with a barge-pole”.

              Is that really the impression you get from our back-and-forth? I’m an incompatibilist or at least leaning that way but I don’t think you’ve fairly characterized my attitude towards compatibilism.

              • Posted April 13, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

                I agree with you, it’s purely semantics. But then there *is* no difference between an incompatibilist and a compatibilist! At least, a merely semantic one is hardly sufficient reason to divide into two camps.

                All compatibilism is saying is that there is a difference between a bullet (at one end of a continuum) and a human (at the other), and we sensibly use words such as “choice”, “will”, “freedom” for the human end of the continuum but not for the bullet end.

                It seems you would agree with that. In which case you would seem to me to be inside the compatibilist camp. And it seems to me that it’s the self-labelled incompatibilists (such as Sam and Jerry) who want to make some distinction here. And I’m still baffled about what, in essence, that distinction is.

                I don’t see that mere semantics is sufficient to stop us admitting that we’re all in the same camp, and that the only real divide here is with the dualists.

              • Dan L.
                Posted April 13, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

                Yes, I agree. That’s why I find it strange when compatibilists object so strenuously to statements like “there is no such thing as free will” or “choice is an illusion.” You know what we mean, right? We’re using different language to express the same thesis.

                I’m on the fence. I lean incompatibilist because every time you want to discuss “free will” with people you have to do this introductory throat-clearing thing where you make sure everyone understands “free will” the same way. I think it’s preferable to skip all that and try to avoid using phrases like “free will” and “choice” when trying to describe how one thinks the mind/brain system might actually work. Otherwise I really have no disagreement with compatibilists.

              • Posted April 13, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

                I think it’s preferable to skip all that and try to avoid using phrases like “free will” and “choice” when trying to describe how one thinks the mind/brain system might actually work.

                I agree that the specific phrase “free will” is dispensable and that it might be clearer to ditch it (partly it has connotations of dualism, and partly it is ambiguous between freedom *to* will and freedom *of* will).

                However, I disagree that we can dispense with “choice”, not without just inventing a close replacement. That’s where I disagree with Jerry I guess, “choice” (determined goal-seeking selection) seems to me to be a real phenomenon.

              • DV
                Posted April 13, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

                >>I think it’s preferable to skip all that and try to avoid using phrases like “free will” and “choice”<<

                What's your suggestions for the following:

                – Did you sign the contract of your own free will?
                – This election will be a choice between Obama and Romney.

              • Dan L.
                Posted April 13, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

                @DV:

                I said:
                “I think it’s preferable to skip all that and try to avoid using phrases like “free will” and “choice” when trying to describe how one thinks the mind/brain system might actually work.

                Outside of that context I have no problem using the word “choice.” I don’t use “free will” very much either way (“intentionally” is a better word for this than “of my own free will”).

              • DV
                Posted April 13, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

                Did you sign the contract intentionally? As if you could sign it accidentally! No it doesn’t fly.

          • Vaal
            Posted April 13, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

            “So the distinction between bullets and Whitman is (obviously) that one system is simple with easily-predicted behavior and the other is complex with incredibly difficult-to-predict behavior. Only the latter sort of system can be described as making choices. And yes, there is a big fuzzy gray region between the two extremes”

            I don’t see how that answers coelsblog’s challenge at all. Simply saying as you have that one is complex and hard to predict vs the other is no answer.

            Weather systems, economies, ecological systems…the list of systems that are hard to predict and involve complex interactions goes on and on. Yet we don’t attribute “choices” to them, any more than we attribute choices to bullets. You have to get more detailed about what makes the the human choice system different, and it would be interesting to see you do so, without ending up ceding ground to compatibilism.

            Further, your reply just doesn’t answer the basis logic of coelsblog’s question. In determinism the outcome of any complex system is just as deterministic as that of any simple system. As the indeterminists continually point out, for any result strictly speaking, “it could not have been otherwise” which is WHY they are discounting complex human minds as being exempt from this rule. So it is the logic of the RULE itself that is in question, not the complexity or simplicity of the entity.

            If Whitman murdered, then by the lights of incompatibilism it could never have been otherwise – any more than a bullet was determined to hit it’s target. Yet suddenly Jerry is saying “Whitman could presumably have controlled his murderous rages”

            If Jerry means “could” in the normal sense, then he’s talking compatibilism. But if Jerry means “could” in some fully determined sense, then it comes with just the subtext coelsblog wrote, which makes it as strange as talking about what a determined bullet “could have” done.

            BTW, as I’ve mentioned before, indeterminists so often accuse compaatibilism of “re-defining” commonly understood terms like free will, choice etc.
            Yet they then seem perfectly happy to re-define our “choice” as “only the appearance of choice” or “unfree-choice.”
            Suddenly this utter deviation from the common understanding of terms is ok.

            Vaal.

            • Dan L.
              Posted April 13, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

              Yet we don’t attribute “choices” to them, any more than we attribute choices to bullets. You have to get more detailed about what makes the the human choice system different, and it would be interesting to see you do so, without ending up ceding ground to compatibilism.

              Agreed 100%. It wasn’t a fully detailed analysis, it was just an attempt to point out coelsblog was strawmanning incompatibilism.

              As the indeterminists continually point out, for any result strictly speaking, “it could not have been otherwise” which is WHY they are discounting complex human minds as being exempt from this rule. So it is the logic of the RULE itself that is in question, not the complexity or simplicity of the entity.

              I’m having trouble parsing this. Just because a choice is determined doesn’t mean it’s not a choice.

              BTW, as I’ve mentioned before, indeterminists so often accuse compaatibilism of “re-defining” commonly understood terms like free will, choice etc.
              Yet they then seem perfectly happy to re-define our “choice” as “only the appearance of choice” or “unfree-choice.”

              We’re only “redefining” the word “choice” if you actually believe that “choices” aren’t determined in the first place. Otherwise there is no redefinition. Like I said, the post above wasn’t a full analysis of what “choice” means.

              • Vaal
                Posted April 13, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

                Dan L.

                “It wasn’t a fully detailed analysis, it was just an attempt to point out coelsblog was strawmanning incompatibilism.”

                But nothing you wrote showed coelsblog was strawmaning. Jerry has explicitly claimed that by “choice” he means only “the appearance of choice.” And that we never really “could have done otherwise.” Coelsblog simply showed, by adding the italics, that what someone like Jerry
                really means when using “choice” seems absurd. The bullet analogy was barely needed, but it relied on the same logic.

                Detailed or not, your reply was only in the form of a denial, not an actual argument showing Coelsblog’s argument was wrong.

                “I’m having trouble parsing this.”

                Per determinism, Whitman’s murdering was as determined as a bullet hitting it’s target, insofar as both were inevitable and never “could have been otherwise.” This is the logic Jerry etc. keep
                applying to human choice. But then Jerry says Whitman “he could presumably have controlled his murderous rages” (rather than succumbing to them). That is to say Whitman presumably “could have done otherwise.” (If it doesn’t mean that, then Jerry’s use of the word is incomprehensibly outside the boundaries of normal language).

                Well, what does Jerry mean by “could have done otherwise” when it came to Whitman’s choices? It just seems he’s helping himself to compatiilist and normal word usage when he wants. Either that, or you have to explain how his use of the concept of Whitman “could have done otherwise” makes sense. I don’t see how you can do this without appealing to compatibilist grounds, where compatibilism acknowledges the subtext of determinism and yet accepts uses of such phrases. But you guys use them, deny them, use them again, deny them etc.

                “We’re only “redefining” the word “choice” if you actually believe that “choices” aren’t determined in the first place.”

                But people don’t normally think their choices are determined in the first place! Not in the sense as defined by incompatibilists, like Jerry. In fact, that’s the crux of Jerry’s argument! People’s normal perception of their having “choices” and assuming they “could have done otherwise” is false and we are supposed to enlighten them that this ubiquitous concept is false.

                When normal folk use the word “choice” and say they had a “choice” they do not do so expecting others to understand it as: “Actually, I never really could have done otherwise” and “It was only the appearance of choice.” Do they? No, they don’t.

                So when you re-define “choice” to mean “un-free choice” or “only the appearance of choice” you are re-defining the normal-sense word “choice.” And if incompatibilists simultaneously accuse compatibilists of re-defining “choice,” or of redefining the normal-sense of “free will,” while allowing themselves to re-define “choice,” then don’t see how they can escape the charge of hypocrisy.

                Vaal

              • Posted April 13, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

                it was just an attempt to point out coelsblog was strawmanning incompatibilism.

                I was only presenting a “strawman” version of incompatibilism if “true” incompatibilism is essentially identical to compatibilism.

                I’m having trouble parsing this. Just because a choice is determined doesn’t mean it’s not a choice.

                Well I’m having trouble parsing what incompatibilism is all about. You seem here to be asserting that “choice” is a real part of incompatibilism. Yet Jerry is careful to say that there are no “real” choices, only “appearances of” choice.

                I’m baffled as to what incompatibilists actually mean by “choice”. Can you give a concise statement of what you mean by “choices” that distinguishes them from the absence-of-choice that is characteristic of bullets and bricks?

              • Dan L.
                Posted April 13, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

                Per determinism, Whitman’s murdering was as determined as a bullet hitting it’s target, insofar as both were inevitable and never “could have been otherwise.” This is the logic Jerry etc. keep
                applying to human choice.

                Not quite. Suppose Whitman had shot at someone and missed. Would that mean that Whitman chose not to shoot that person?

                Of course not. That’s (one reason) why what coelsblog wrote was a strawman.

                Well, what does Jerry mean by “could have done otherwise” when it came to Whitman’s choices?

                Ask Jerry, I didn’t write the OP.

                I’m not engaging further. It’s not even worth trying to figure out what you’re misunderstanding about what I’m saying. Just trust me that I’m not redefining anything.

              • Dan L.
                Posted April 13, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

                I was only presenting a “strawman” version of incompatibilism if “true” incompatibilism is essentially identical to compatibilism.

                As I’ve already explained, from my POV this is the case.

                I’m baffled as to what incompatibilists actually mean by “choice”. Can you give a concise statement of what you mean by “choices” that distinguishes them from the absence-of-choice that is characteristic of bullets and bricks?

                Not a concise one, no. Here’s a really rough attempt but I’m not going to defend it very strenuously because it’s off-the-cuff in response to your request.

                Imagine a computer program that compares one image to a collection of images and then outputs the image from the collection that most closely “matches” the input image. The output depends on the input, the contents of the collection, and the algorithm used to “match” them.

                Note that a particular inputs will NOT necessarily always yield the same output. If the matching algorithm or the corpus of comparison images changes then the output may change as well. Nonetheless, the output IS determined by the combination of input and system state.

                That is pretty much the simplest system I might describe as being capable of choosing.

              • Posted April 13, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

                Dan L:

                So your definition of “choice” could be summed up as a goal-seeking selection among options. I agree, and that goal-seeking is important, and distinguishes humans from bullets.

                Again, this is what compatibilism is all about; and since you seem to be agreed that compatibilism and incompatibilism are essentially the same then we seem to be agreed. Now, if only I could work out how to convince Jerry of that point.

      • Piero
        Posted April 14, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

        “We can interpret it (choice) as meaning ‘one of several possible actions’ or it can mean ‘an action that was inevitable given initial conditions.'”

        Actually, I’ve never seen anyone using the word “choice” in either of these senses. Perhaps the fact that English is not my first language has something to do with it, but I’ve always seen the word used as “a consciouly decided course of action”. “One of several possibilities” more closely correspond to “option”, and “an action that was inevitable given initial conditions” would be closer to “constrained action” or merely “consequence”.

  7. Posted April 13, 2012 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    We are physical creatures, but we are not just physical. We have free will because we are creatures of mind, meaning, ideas, not just matter.

    Here we see the circular reasoning that is always employed to demonstrate that minds are not physical. Our minds are not physical because our minds are “not just matter.” Well, you can’t show that thoughts are not just matter by assuming that thoughts are not just matter.

    • newenglandbob
      Posted April 13, 2012 at 9:00 am | Permalink

      Maybe it was a typo and he meant thoughts don’t matter 🙂

    • thp
      Posted April 13, 2012 at 9:00 am | Permalink

      I would just like to add the following thought of probably deterministic origins:
      It may be true to say that a dualistic universe does not exist, but what is also true is that the entirety of our experiences, including of those what we call and classify as ‘the physical’, are ultimately being conceived within the mental realm.
      What we call physical is actually a property or manifestation of the mental.

  8. Egbert
    Posted April 13, 2012 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    “And yes, we are just physical, for our mental phenomena—and that includes our so-called “choices,” and our “mind, meaning, and ideas”—are, and must be, the result of physical processes. Those mental phenomena can differ only if the underlying physical substrates differ.”

    And yet this is not the opinion of Benjamin Libet:

    “If there is an interaction, then the ‘‘mind’’ and ‘‘brain’’ are independent variables; the mind represents subjective experience and is therefore a non-physical phenomenon.”

    http://www.telefonica.net/web2/lupelandia/piramidescerebro/Libet.pdf

    • Dan L.
      Posted April 13, 2012 at 8:39 am | Permalink

      And yet this is not the opinion of Benjamin Libet:

      Actually, it is. From the abstract:

      “By definition, the CMF is a system property produced by the appropriate
      activities of billions of neurons.”

      This statement from Libet’s abstract very much implies the following:

      “Those mental phenomena can differ only if the underlying physical substrates differ.”

      • Egbert
        Posted April 13, 2012 at 10:01 am | Permalink

        No it doesn’t.

        He states very clearly that the mind is subjective and non-physical, that’s his words not mine.

        • Dan L.
          Posted April 13, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

          …which does not in the least contradict the fact that the subjective, non-physical mind only differs when the physical substrate differs.

          I think you misunderstand what Libet means by “independent variable” here. He means it in the sense that, in Mendel’s experiments, the color (e.g.) of the peas is an independent variable while the heredity of the plant is the control variable. This does not imply that the color of the peas is “independent” of the plant’s heredity in the sense you seem to mean. In fact, Mendel’s experiments showed the exact opposite.

          • Egbert
            Posted April 13, 2012 at 11:08 am | Permalink

            No Dan, you continue to misunderstand the point I’m making.

            It’s plain to see for anyone else, that Coyne’s materialism and determinism is contradicted by Libet.

            • Dan L.
              Posted April 13, 2012 at 11:11 am | Permalink

              I may not understand what you’re saying but I’m almost certain I understand what Libet is saying. And it doesn’t contradict what Jerry is saying.

              To clarify just a little bit, you can describe what’s happening in a computer program in terms of pure abstractions — and in fact, that’s how computer scientists and software engineers tend to think of it. But just because we can talk about these abstractions without reference to specific implementations doesn’t mean that we can get the program working without implementing it on a physical substrate.

              So we can talk about the mind being nonphysical in exactly the same way we can talk about computer programs being made up of nonphysical “classes”, “variables,” “functions,” etc. But to actually get a working program (and, in my guess, a working mind) these concepts need to be bound to some physical implementation.

              Libet seems to believe the same thing. The non-physical thing you’re talking about is what he’s calling a “CMF”, and he says a CMF by definition depends on the activities of billions of physical neurons. My interpretation is that he means this in the same sense that a virtual machine on a computer depends on the activities of billions (or at least a few thousand) transistors of flip flops in a physical machine.

              • Egbert
                Posted April 13, 2012 at 11:58 am | Permalink

                Did you read Libet’s paper? I did, and he isn’t saying what you’re saying.

                And so please go ahead and read what Libet is actually saying, then compare that to Coyne’s reductionism and determinism. Libet understands the problematic nature of the mind-brain problem, and Coyne doesn’t get it at all.

              • Dan L.
                Posted April 13, 2012 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

                I did. I believe he’s saying what I’m saying. In fact, he says so right in the abstract which I’ve pointed to several times now. There is nowhere in this paper that Libet says — or even implies — that differences in (nonphysical) mental states are not caused by physical differences in the brain.

                If you disagree I’d ask you to please quote something relevant from the paper in context. Not just “the mind isn’t physical” because I agree with that 100%. The mind is not physical. But that doesn’t mean that the mind doesn’t depend on physical things — and Libet is very much arguing here that it does. (Actually, not so much arguing as stating point blank. I don’t know how else to interpret this: “By definition, the CMF is a system property produced by the appropriate
                activities of billions of neurons.”)

              • Dan L.
                Posted April 13, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

                Another juicy quote from the Libet paper (p. 324 first full para):

                “The field would not be a ‘‘mysterious ghost’’ independent of the
                brain (viz. Ryle, 1949). Rather, it would be a system property of
                the neuronal activity elements that give rise to it.”

              • Egbert
                Posted April 13, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

                Dan,

                For some reason, you’ve change the assertion you were defending

                1) “Those mental phenomena can differ only if the underlying physical substrates differ.”

                to

                2) “that differences in (nonphysical) mental states are not caused by physical differences in the brain.”

                Neither of which are coherent statements.

                But anyway, my point still stands. That Coyne’s materialism and determinism is not shared by Libet.

              • Dan L.
                Posted April 13, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

                Egbert,
                The thing you list as (2) is NOT what I’m saying. I’m saying that Libet is NOT saying (2) and that you seem to me to be saying he IS saying (2). I’ve been saying (1), which is coherent and contradicts (2), all along.

                I cannot make this simpler than by quoting Libet’s own words in my last post to you. If you’re saying Libet’s view contradicts materialism you’re simply wrong. Many materialists such as myself admit that abstractions like numbers and algorithms are real (even if we don’t necessarily concede that they “exist”). In the same sense the mind is real and nonphysical but it wouldn’t be real if not for the existence of real, physical brains. Based on the Libet paper you linked, this is also what Libet believes.

              • Dan L.
                Posted April 13, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

                Oh…and please point out where anything in Libet’s paper contradicts determinism.

              • Dan L.
                Posted April 13, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

                Another quote from the Libet paper that makes it very clear that nothing here contradicts materialism:

                “The CMF is not a Cartesian dualistic phenomenon; it is not
                separable from the brain. Rather, it is proposed to be a
                localizable system property produced by appropriate neuronal
                activities, and it cannot exist without them. Again, it is not a
                ‘‘ghost’’ in the machine.” (p. 324, bottom)

                His own words, man. You’re arguing with Libet, not me.

  9. Curt Cameron
    Posted April 13, 2012 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    “Here’s the difference. The man with a tumor has no choice but to do what he does. I do have choices, which I make all the time.”

    With the paragraphs that start with these sentences, Horgan spells out that he doesn’t even understand Harris’s point. He seems to think that Harris is saying that we have constraints imposed on us which limit the range of our choices, therefore free will can’t exist. Horgan seems unaware of Harris’s actual argument about those choices coming from material, physical systems and therefore determined.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 13, 2012 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      Horgan expresses himself very badly so it’s hard to be sure what he’s trying to say. But giving him the maximum benefit of the doubt, I take his point to be something like this:

      If we suppose the tumor has destroyed the impulse control centers of the murderer’s brain, then he literally cannot control his bad behavior because he lacks the neurological equipment to do so. He is therefore immune to deterrence; nothing we can do, short of physical restraint, will alter his behavior. He is incorrigible, and therefore in some sense blameless.

      People with normally functioning brains, in contrast, can control their murderous impulses. It therefore profits society to hold such people accountable for their actions in order to correct bad behavior on their part and deter bad behavior on the part of others.

      So even though both sorts of behavior — corrigible and incorrigible — are physically determined, it still makes sense to treat them differently and to speak of one sort as being more praiseworthy or blameworthy than the other.

      Again, it’s not completely clear that this is what Horgan meant. But if there’s a coherent point in his ramblings, I take it to be something along these lines.

      • Posted April 13, 2012 at 11:51 am | Permalink

        Agreed. Harris’s claim of the equivalence of the tumor vs. normal brain goes through concerning determinism but not for standard requirements re responsibility. We don’t (or shouldn’t) hold the person with a tumor responsible, but we do the person with a normal brain. But seeing that the normal brain *is* determined helps to undercut libertarian, causa sui justifications for non-consequentialist, retributive responsibility practices. And Harris argues (and Jerry, I and others agree) that there are no good compatibilist justifications either, http://www.naturalism.org/Wallerreview.htm

        Btw, I’ve tried to argue Horgan into a more coherent position on free will, to no avail, http://www.naturalism.org/horgan.htm

  10. johnjfitzgerald
    Posted April 13, 2012 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Why do you keep referring to laws, as if they were like civil laws that people must obey? Laws do not compel obedience from physical substances, like gases, liquids and solids.
    A law is a generalization that we make after repeated observations and confirmations of a particular natural event.

    I believe Ernst Nagel and Carl Hempel explained all of this back in the 1960’s.

    It is because of determinism that we can hold people responsible for their actions. If it was not the case, how could we hold a person responsible. This is why we cut babies and elderly people some serious slack when it comes to their behavior.

    I enjoy you blog.

    Regards,

    John J. Fitzgerald

    • Posted April 13, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      I disagree.

      It’s because society believes one can be held responsible within determinism that people are held responsible.

      The reason we shouldn’t hold children and the elderly as ‘responsible’ is because their mental capacities aren’t as capable of forming better (ie, more reasonable) beliefs – due to underdevelopment and deterioration. This is the same case for dogs, bears, and flies – they can’t help being how they are because their brains are not as (if at all) able to adapt to changing environments (ie, social environments).

      It makes just as much sense to cage or kill a bear who has a knack of killing people in a town as it does imprisoning a psychopath who intends to kill anyone close to them – they are dangerous to the well-being of people.

  11. Sigmund
    Posted April 13, 2012 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    Perhaps relevant to the free will debate, there is a fascinating paper published in Science this week that shows how altering neuronal programing affects the likelihood of particular choices being made – in this case whether a drug addict will relapse.
    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/336/6078/241

  12. Barbara
    Posted April 13, 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    A while ago, you asked if your readers liked your postings on biology topics. Yes! I like them a lot!

    As to the very numerous free will postings . . . .

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted April 13, 2012 at 9:11 am | Permalink

      I wasn’t asking for opinions on the free will postings. I suggest that you frequent other websites.

      Frankly, these types of comments are making me weary. If you don’t like the mix, go elsewhere.

      • Chris
        Posted April 13, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

        Telling someone to, basically, fuck off, seems awfully harsh for what is basically a ‘cheeky’ remark (following some praise, no less). In the past, you yourself have been somewhat apologetic when you’ve ran a succession of free will posts.

        I guess I will await my ‘love it or leave it’ too.

        • Marta
          Posted April 13, 2012 at 9:47 am | Permalink

          Agreed.

        • Dan L.
          Posted April 13, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

          Dude, if anyone tried to tell me what I should or shouldn’t write about on my blog I’d just delete the comment and possibly ban them. If someone has a problem with another person’s blog the person with the problem should stop reading it and, if they really feel they have to, start their own blog.

          • Marta
            Posted April 13, 2012 at 10:16 am | Permalink

            Oh, thank you!

            May I recommend that you eat more fiber?

            • Dan L.
              Posted April 13, 2012 at 10:50 am | Permalink

              I eat plenty of fiber, thanks.

          • Chris
            Posted April 13, 2012 at 10:30 am | Permalink

            Oh, come on, Barbara merely said she didn’t care for the free will posts, she wasn’t ‘dictating’ anything – go back and look at the tone of her comment. Again, Jerry himself has seemingly recognized that there is a segment of his audience that doesn’t care for the free will posts – I happen to be one myself, yet somehow this is still one of my favorite blogs.

            • Dan L.
              Posted April 13, 2012 at 10:48 am | Permalink

              Why’s “dictating” in quotes? I didn’t use that word.

              I didn’t say anything about Barbara’s tone either. I see this same behavior every day on many, many blogs in all sorts of different tones and I always think it’s a annoying, entitled thing to say even when it’s done “politely” or with “humor.”

              If you don’t like what someone writes about on a blog don’t read that blog. If you don’t like all of what someone writes on their blog read the stuff you like and ignore the other stuff. There’s nothing the least bit complicated or controversial about this.

              • xuuths
                Posted April 13, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

                The fact Dr. Coyne allows for comments is evidence he is soliciting opinions.

              • Chris
                Posted April 13, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

                I put ‘dictating’ in single rather than full quotes because it was my (reasonable, I think) gloss on your “if anyone tried to tell me what I should or shouldn’t write about on my blog”, which seemed a distorted view to me. In the same light, I asked you to “go back and look at the tone of her comment” not because I thought you commented on her tone, which you clearly did not, but so that you might see its lighthearted nature, in order to contrast it with Jerry’s heavy-handed slam. Apparently you think his slam is okay. I guess we can agree to disagree.

    • Piero
      Posted April 14, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

      Biology is no doubt an interesting subject. By reading this blog, Pharyngula and others, I’ve learnt a lot about biology (well, a lot for my standards). Similarly, I’ve learnt a lot from history, philosophy and art blogs. I’m grateful for the kind disposition of both the blog authors and the posters to share their knowledge.

      Nevertheless, acquiring knowledge is very different from participating in an exchange of opinions. Some of Jerry’s posts on evolution or genetics have elicited a host of responses that are all but unintelligible to me. I would like to know what they are talking about, but unfortunately I have to work, and therefore don’t have the time to properly educate myself in biology. All I can do is read the posts and try to understand what they are going on about.

      On the other hand, topics such as free will are much more interesting to me. I’m sorry, Jerry, but I’m not THAT interested in knowing whether some obscure dinosaur had separate or joined fecal-urinal canal. I am, however, interested in the free will debate because it has momentous implications.

      I do think it is bad manners to tell ablogger what he/she should blog about. Not a mortal sin, mind you, but just bad manners. I have multiple interests, ranging from mathematics to typography. If I set up a blog, I woul probably annoy many mathematiciasn and a lot of typographers. So what? It would me my blog, my website, the place where I talk about what I am interested in.

      Sometimes I skip Jerry’s posts, because I have neither the ability nor the desire to understand them. And everyone i free to do the same. What’s the problem?

  13. Karen
    Posted April 13, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Horgan’s article chapped my hide when I read it a few days ago. I was going to reply to him but I couldn’t be arsed to bother, so I am glad you posted about it here. I think it better to leave the comments/discussion to those who can articulate my displeasure better than I can. The regulars here do not disappoint. I’m looking at you Ben G.

  14. Gregg Baker
    Posted April 13, 2012 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    Free will thoughts

    Freedom from or freedom to?

    Perhaps part of the emotional struggle people have with accepting an absence of free will is a failure to distinguish between freedom from influence/control and freedom to do as one wants. Some may see that we are not free of influences in our environment (including genetic, familial, cultural, and other influences) leading to making of a decision, but may still want to cling to the idea that at this and future moments we are free to do as we wish.

    The path through this for me is recognizing that we are not free of influence in the decision making process, and we are not free from influence in coming to the desires we have either. Our desires are as material-bound as our decisions. We may be “free” in some sense (but perhaps only in the sense that our decisions are not (yet?) predictable) to do what we want, but that want is as material-bound as the decision making process that leads us to take action. Of course, the emotional response one has to this knowledge is also material-bound.

    Free will and identity
    Exactly WHO is alleged to be free when one claims free will to act? This raises the question of identity of the “I” we sense as our identity. If that “I” is some non-corporeal entity (such as a “soul”), it could have free will as it would not be fully constrained by physical reality. If however that sense of identity is constructed by and fully constrained by the physical reality of a nervous system in a physical body, then it cannot be free of the physical realities of that body and the physical reality in which that body exists. Given the lack of credible evidence for anything non-corporeal, I see no reason to believe I (or you) have a soul which has will free of physical constraints.

  15. Posted April 13, 2012 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    After watching Harris’ latest talk on free-will, I really let myself delve into all inquiry concerning it.

    I found myself enlightened by the fact that I came to the same conclusion of incompatibilism. Never had I felt so free than when I found out that I am not ‘free.’ lol

    • Posted April 13, 2012 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

      I think you are ready for buddhism…

    • Piero
      Posted April 14, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      You put in precise words what I could only fuzzily describe. Indeed, knowing that you are not free is the most liberating experience of all.

      Now brace yourself for the comments dwelling om the unwillingness to accept one’s responsibilities. gutlesness, cowardice, etc.

  16. Naked Bunny with a Whip
    Posted April 13, 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    He insists that because science cannot figure out the complex causality underpinning free will, it must be illusory.

    Huh? From what I’ve seen, it’s the compatibilists who argue that, because science can’t predict the complex causality underpinning our behavior, it means free will is real.

  17. Posted April 13, 2012 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Jerry wrote “I happily note, though, that almost nobody questions determinism itself…” But nearly every scientist agrees that determinism (at least in the sense that some events are unpredictable in principle) is false, even at the macroscopic level. Jerry has often recognized this. Most of these free will discussions end up with the admission somewhere that determinism is actually false but that it doesn’t matter to the argument. Wouldn’t it be better to formulate these discussions in such a way that it took indeterminacy into account from the beginning?

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 13, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

      “Jerry has often recognized this.”

      And yet it doesn’t seem to prevent him from making statements to the effect that “your decisions were predetermined long before you were born,” as if strict determinism were an established fact.

      I have no problem with the idea that our decisions are physically determined in the sense of being fully accountable in terms of physical causes. But this “predeterminist” notion of a script already written is another matter, and is unsupported by the facts of physics.

      • DV
        Posted April 13, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

        I’ve commented on this before, that there seems to be confusion with traceability of the chain of past causes and predetermination of future effects. The wave function has already collapsed for past events that’s why it is possible in principle to trace all causes of any current event, but the future is predictable even in principle. Saying that your action has been predetermined from the Big Bang is sloppy use of meaning. Starting from the present, you can trace the particle interactions all the way back. But starting from the Big Bang, there is no way you can “pre”-determine what will happen 13 billions years later. Quantum indeterminacy makes sure of that.

        • DV
          Posted April 13, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

          i meant.. “the future is *not* predictable”

          not predictable absolutely or perfectly

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted April 13, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

          “The wave function has already collapsed for past events…”

          I prefer to look at it from a Many Worlds perspective in which the universal wave function evolves without collapse in a fully deterministic manner. However that still doesn’t allow you to look back on your own subjective history (out of the myriad superposed histories) and say “This sequence of events was inevitable. It could not have happened otherwise.” Because of course the whole premise of Many World is that alternative histories can and do happen, and are just as real and “inevitable” as the one you’re pointing at.

          Note that I’m not saying that this somehow rescues free will. But I am saying that it makes nonsense of “predeterminist” language of the sort Jerry unaccountably seems to favor.

          • DV
            Posted April 13, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

            >>But I am saying that it makes nonsense of “predeterminist” language of the sort Jerry unaccountably seems to favor.

            He had no choice. 🙂

          • Posted April 13, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

            Yes, i think both of us are only asking that the extra baggage be jettisoned; Jerry is needlessly messing up his case by saying false things like this about determinism.

            • Piero
              Posted April 14, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

              I beg to disagree. This thread is abour free will. If anything, it has to do with the behaviour of neurons, which are macrostructures from the point of view of quantum mechanics (from the point of view of a photon, a neuron is about as large as a galaxy). Have you ever seen a building collapse because of some unpredictable quantum phenomenon? Have you ever seen a person levitating because of some phenomenon linked to quantum indeterminacy?

              It has been said thousands of times already, but you seem unable to get the point, so I’ll spell it out once again, and I hope you finally get it:

              Quantum phenomena which show characteristics of indeterminacy CANNOT POSSIBLY make the macro-world an indeterminate one. Have you ever heard of statistics? Even if a superior intelligence were controlling those “indeterminate” events (which would be contradictory, by the way), they cancel each other out: a particle is created, another particle is destroyed. In quantum indeterminacy there is no net gain nor loss, because that would contradict the conservation of energy. And there is no evidence that quantum events are organized in such a way that, even if no energy is lost or created, they can cause some event to occur at the neuron level.

              If such evidence were forthcoming, it would not mean that we were endowed with free will; on the contrary, it would mean that random, unpredictable events hild sway over our behaviour.

              So I beg you, I beseech you: stop the quantum mechanics nonsense. It has nothing to do with free will. Appealing to quantum mechanics as a possible justificaction for free will makes as much sense as claiming that some random quantum phenomenon could have prevented the Japan tsunami.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted April 14, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

                Piero, you’re way off base here.

                First of all, you apparently missed this part of my previous post: “I’m not saying that this somehow rescues free will.” So you’re attacking a position that nobody is defending.

                Second, you’re simply wrong in claiming that quantum events can have no macroscopic impact. The audible clicks of a Geiger counter and the random flickers of a dying fluorescent tube are quantum events magnified to human-perceptible scale, and therefore do affect the state of neurons.

                More significantly, single-particle interactions with cosmic rays and the like can cause mutations in DNA. In germ-line cells these can lead to new adaptations and even new species. In somatic cells they can cause cancer, which in turn can alter the entire course of a person’s life (or of human history, if the person in question turns out to be historically important).

                The point we’re making is that regardless of the existence or nonexistence of free will, it is factually incorrect to say that events are fully determined on the scale of human lifetimes. So Jerry should stop saying that if he wants to be taken seriously.

              • Piero
                Posted April 14, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

                Gregory:
                In the Geiger counter example, you are referring to thousands of billions of events. Of course, the emission of particles at such scales can affect neurons and DNA. Are you trying to say thet every time we make a decision we are ecposed to dangerous levels of radiation? If so, then you are talkig nonsense. If not, why is your point relevant?

                Schlafly:
                I’ve see plenty of morons predicting earthquakes on the basis of solar flares. So, what is your point exactly? Have you an argument? If so, post it. If not, STFU.

              • Posted April 15, 2012 at 5:57 am | Permalink

                Gregory is exactly right. And for your information, a click of a Geiger counter is triggered by a single detection event. Even the human eye can detect single photons, though not reliably. And quantum interference has recently been observed in largish molecules of 40-50 atoms. But Gregory’s example of radiation-induced mutation is the most relevant—important events in the history of evolution depended on single unpredictable quantum interactions. This means everything that happened since one of those events would have been unpredictable in principle, given the exact state of the universe just prior to that event. The world is not deterministic in this sense.

            • schlafly
              Posted April 14, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

              No, I have notseen a building collapse because of some unpredictable quantum phenomenon, but I have seen people make free choices and I have seen distinguished scientists contradict Jerry about determinism.

              • Piero
                Posted April 15, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

                You are begging ther question: “I hae seen people make free choices” is an unwarranted assertion, especially in the context of a duscussion about free will.

                If you can justify why those choices were indeed free, you are welcome to provide arguments. Otherwise, your statement is equivalent to “I know people who have genuinely been abducted by aliens”.

  18. Posted April 13, 2012 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    I have a philosophical question that I have been chewing on for a while, and it would be great if someone would like to comment on it! 🙂

    If a man kills someone, and we find that he has a brain tumour that was ‘responsible’ for his actions, we don’t judge him according to the same criteria as everyone else.

    I don’t believe in free will, even in ‘healthy’ people, and I’m very intrigued by the implications on the justice system by the non-existence of free will.

    However, if it was formally recognised that will isn’t free, and that no-one can be held responsible for their actions (even if we should punish, as discouragement), what does this mean for ‘normal’ people?

    If a man with a brain tumour isn’t held responsible to the same degree as a person with free will, what happens if we recognise there being no such thing as ‘free’ will, and ‘normal’ people are as non-responsible as the man with the tumour?

    Should everyone be exacerbated? Or should no-one be? I’m leaning towards the latter, but, as I said, I’m really interested in what others have to say!

    • Posted April 13, 2012 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      Have a look at Gregory Kusnick’s reply in #9 above.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 13, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

      See the discussion of corrigible v. incorrigible behavior at post #9.

    • isnogud
      Posted April 13, 2012 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      Did you mean “exonerate”?

      It doesn’t matter either way. If you conclude under strict incompatibilism that the killer can’t be held responsible than neither can society, the judge, the jury, the prison guards or the executioner.

      Btw. You as well as Sam Harris and others who somehow think that determinism has implications for our treatment of criminals flip back and forth between dualism and monoism.

      You seperate the man’s identity and the brain tumor. The brain tumor is part of his brain and it is therefore an essential part that shapes his personality. A removal of the brain tumor would significantly change the killers identity.

      • Posted April 13, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

        That’s a very good point. I wasn’t even aware of making the assumption; thanks for pointing it out!

        • Piero
          Posted April 14, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

          I think you accepted isnogud a bit too hastily. Nobody is arguing that the killer identity and his/her brain tumor are independent variables. There is no dualism involved at all: a person’s identity is defined in terms of how his/her brain ACTUALLY work and how others perceive him/her.

          Let’s consider the following case: somebody is a psychopath, and also has a brain tumor that prevents him/her from controlling his/her impulses. Were it not fot the tumor, that person could function normally in our society (in fact, psychopathy is practicaly a requisite for politicians and CEOs). Let’s say he(she murders somenone, and the cause is determiden to be the brain tumor. The tumor is successfully extirpated through surgery.

          Now the person involved would be able to function normally in society again. But he/she would still be a psyhcopath (what in everyday language we call “a mean, manipulative, selfish son a bitch”.) Would you think it more adecuate to let him/her off the hook or to keep him/her behind bars? If you opt to set him/her free, then you must put up with the fact that most businessmen, lawyers, politicians and used-car salesmen are, to a lesser or greater degree, psychopaths.

  19. isnogud
    Posted April 13, 2012 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    This is rather typical of Horgan’s thinking.

    I didn’t read his book on war. But I have listened to his numerous and repetitive rants on the subject on bloggingheads.tv.

    Pinker’s thesis is that war is a result of innate tendencies and incentives. He points to the decline of casualties and frequency of war from pre-historic times to today. He therefore believes that institutions, civilization, expanding compassion through information and so on are the right path to peace.

    John Horgan on the other hand constantly militates against the evidence for pre-historic and pre-civilizational warfare. He argues in convoluted ways that the acceptance of this thinking would somehow doom us to eternal warfare and imputes a war fetish and clandestine warmongering to historians, archeologists and anthropologists who shatter his belief in peace-loving noble savages.

  20. gluonspring
    Posted April 13, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    There once was a man who said “Damn!
    It is borne in upon me I am
    An engine that moves
    In predestinate grooves;
    I’m not even a bus, I’m a tram.”
    —Maurice E. Hare (1886-1967)

  21. couchloc
    Posted April 13, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure why people continually insist that “dualism” is somehow only to be understood as a “religious view.” There are different kinds of dualists, and some of them were religious and believed in immaterial souls of the traditional sort (Descartes) and some of them are naturalistic and nonreligious (Searle, Chalmers, Freud) and conceive the mind differently. It would help things enormously if people in these discussions didn’t continually try to rewrite the history of western debate about these sorts of issues by defining various views they don’t like out of existence. It is misleading, first, because it is historically inaccurate. And, second, it is not that satisfying intellectually for people (scientists of all things!) to be trying to disparage their opponents by playing fast and loose with semantics. The fact that Descartes originally defended dualism and was religious does not imply logically that dualism of other sorts is in fact religious, any more than it implies that analytical geometry–which Descartes also invented–is really a religious notion because it was created by a religious person (“nobody should take analytic geometry seriously because it’s really religion in disguise!”). These issues are independent from one another and should be treated as such.

  22. mk
    Posted April 13, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    I completely disagree with Horgan, but this post is stupid, pathetic whine, and I’m sure Sam took Horgan’s article with the good humor it was intended. Here’s a clue: that Horgan voluntarily (whatever that means) joined Sam’s mailing list along with 45,000 others has no bearing on whether Sam keeps emailing him about his books … he does; that’s the point of the mailing list.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted April 13, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

      I’m sorry, but you’re arguing not just from rancor, but from ignorance. Sam himself dissed precisely that comment on his Facebook page.

      See: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Sam-Harris/22457171014

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted April 13, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

      I’m sorry, but you’re arguing not just from rancor, but from ignorance. Sam himself dissed precisely that comment on his Facebook page.

      See: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Sam-Harris/22457171014

    • DV
      Posted April 13, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      >> Horgan voluntarily (whatever that means) joined<<

      Lol. Good one.

    • Andy Dufresne
      Posted April 13, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

      What a strange comment. Obviously, Horgan should have made it clear that what he candidly admits is his own fascination with SH is what led him to join the Harris e-mail list. His “keeps e-mailing me” will be understood by most readers as to mean Sam is personally sitting at his computer and pressing “Send,” basically spamming Horgan with e-mails that were not asked for. When the truth is, Horgan is what’s called a subscriber, who simply could un-subscribe by clicking his damn mouse exactly once. He wants people to think not only that Sam’s wrong about free will (which is great, let’s argue it) but also that Sam’s a pathetic jerk who is pestering someone so sophisticated as John Horgan.

      • Marta
        Posted April 14, 2012 at 5:26 am | Permalink

        +1

  23. cesiumfrog
    Posted April 13, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    Harris’s new book rates orders of magnitude higher on Amazon’s Best Sellers lists than my new book[..] That rankles. If I criticize Free Will, will I actually counter Harris’s influence or enhance it?

    Obviously any linkage effort inevitably enhances the obscure work far more dramatically than the popular work. Therefore, my conclusion is that blogpost was a well-played effort at being so outrageous as to prompt Harris (and other new atheists if lucky) to provide some publicity. (Note that blogpost only attracted about half as many comments as Coyne reviewing it already has.)

    For example, half way through criticising Harris’s extremely short book, he says that he never read it himself because it was too long. What a troll!

    It also seems doubtful that he completely understands the opposing side of the argument: when he talks about the comparisons that would be made between his own mind and that of any creature with a lesser brain, Why limit all the examples to brains rather than include pop-up toaster ovens?

    Coyne, I think, is too quick to cry “dualist”, and thus strawmanning an opponent who took pains to clarify the acceptance of determinism by himself and his like. Recall Haught’s explanation that, on one hand the water boils because of the kinetics of the atoms in his kitchen, and on the other hand it boils because he told his wife he would like his tea now? (It is likely on this emergent second explanatory level that Horgan is claiming free will as a useful concept.) Another thing too rarely acknowledged in the new atheist discussion of determinism is that the Christians have for much longer been having the same discussion under the title of predestination (i.e., believing that every event had always been divinely determined, while debating the salvage of a compatible concept of free-will). Belief in a nonmaterial dual world is really orthogonal to the free will question, so decry Horgan for something else like his sloppy thinking.

  24. Gnubie-wan Kegnubie
    Posted April 14, 2012 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Dr. Coyne. You’ve given me a lot to think about and explore.

  25. schlafly
    Posted April 14, 2012 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Jerry says, “almost nobody questions determinism itself”. This is false. Most physicists reject determinism, and most other people do also.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 14, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      Coyne is mostly trying to describe philosophic determinism of a clockwork universe, with quantum fluctuations thrown in as ‘not important’.

      Physical determinism is more complicated, since deterministic chaos detracts from clockwork philosophy – no physical resolution in the universe can satisfy the clockwork requirement – and there is little sense anymore in the philosophic idea.

      As an important note, papers have proposed and tested the idea that the brain “lives on the edge of chaos”. This is why signals can transmit over neurons through the volume of the brain without dying out or taking over.

      The other day were was a press release on how astrocytes are participating in signal regulation, dampening out stuff that presumably can set up epileptic scale oscillations. That may or may not detract from “the edge of chaos” observations, that were on the nature of signal transmission alone.

      In any case, if the cortex lives in a phase space of a dynamical system where signal and noise becomes victims of resolution problems, we get back to the deterministic-but-unpredictable case. It may well be that brain function is easy to describe on the macroscale (brain subvolumes) and microscale (neurons and astrocytes) but is unpredictable in between.

      Maybe one should quip about “a gap to push compatibilism in”, but emergence of complexity is compatibilism anyway. Whether it is always unpredictable or practically unpredictable for important cases of “practical” doesn’t really matter.

      • Posted April 15, 2012 at 6:45 am | Permalink

        You say “Coyne is mostly trying to describe philosophic determinism of a clockwork universe, with quantum fluctuations thrown in as ‘not important’.”

        We argue that this philosophical position is clearly false, if it is applied to our particular world (as opposed to the set of all possible worlds); it is like a physicist today using Paley’s watchmaker argument to argue against evolution.

        Based on the sophistication of your posts on this website in the past, I am sure you know that this kind of determinism is false. Quantum indeterminism does influence history in big ways. Gregory’s example of mutations is especially clear, but there are many others. The chaotic nature of many dynamical systems ensures that small QM uncertainties will often have big effects after a long enough time.

        Why formulate critical parts of an argument using long-discarded ideas? Determinism is false, so we need to argue about free will without appealing to it.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted April 15, 2012 at 9:55 am | Permalink

        To be clear, I don’t think anybody here is arguing that quantum phenomena play an important role in brain function.

        However it’s undeniable that quantum events can indirectly affect brain states, as when (to pull out yet another example) the detection of a Higgs boson in the LHC causes physicists to hold press conferences.

      • Piero
        Posted April 15, 2012 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

        This is wholly irrelevsnt. A brain controlled by unpredictable events is no more free than one subject to determnistic laws. Unless you can show the existence of an as-yet unknown force that DETEMINES the UNDETERMINISTIC quantum events in your brain, you have made no progress at all.

        Good luck with proving that contractory proposition.

        • Posted April 15, 2012 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

          Gregory and I have repeatedly said we are not trying to argue for a ghost in the machine. We are just saying that many of your (and Jerry’s) assertions about determinism are false.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 14, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      Oh, and since I didn’t note that it was a creationist (IIRC) I responded to – no, that the universe is largely deterministic by way of causality is not changed. No dualist gods of the gaps here.

    • schlafly
      Posted April 14, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      Whether Jerry is trying to describe philosophic determinism of a clockwork universe, or any other form of determinism, he is describing a philosophy that most physicists reject.

      Jerry has nasty things to say about Horgan, but at least Horgan has bothered to pay attention to what physicists and other scientists say.

      • Piero
        Posted April 14, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

        It is quite irrelevant whether the universe is in fact deterministic or not, If it is, our brains (which I’m sure you would rank as physical objects) are determined, so free will cannot exist. If the universe is stochastic, then so are our brains, hence free will cannot exist.

        In order to demonstrate the existence of free will, you would have to provide evidence for the existence of an as-yet-unknown agent that is both free from physical constraints AND able to influence physical outcomes.

        I’ll be waiting in my grave.

    • Piero
      Posted April 14, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

      If so, can you give us a hint of how these scientist and “most other people” lead their lives? For example, if I had serious and justifiable doubts that the sun would rise tomorrow, would it be right for me yo kill my children in their sleep and then commit suicide, in order to save them and me fork a far more painful and slow death?

      In fact, nobody (save a few nutters) doubts that the sun will rise tomorrow. Everything that matters to human existence is, at least in principle, predictable, albeit imperfectly; the weather can be predicted with a fair amount of accuracy; the trajectory of a meteorite likely to hit the Earth can be plotted years in advance; the likely spread of a virus can be fairly accurately predicted, and so on. In fact, if I was asked what “progress” means I would respond “the increased ability of the human race to predict future events”.

      Obviously, we can never make perfectly accurate predictions, simply because the number of variables involved is unmanageable, an we are forced to resort to approximations. For example, have you estimated the chances that a car will not stop at a red light because of brake failure? Have you estimated the chances that you will be right in the uncontrolled vehicle’s trajectory? Have you estimated the chances that the other vehicle’s velocity will be enough to kill you?

      Let’s not confuse “unpredictability” with “indeterminacy”. The first is a limitation of our intelligence: the second, a conception of the fundamental nature of the universe (which I doubt our puny intelligence can ever establish).

      • schlafly
        Posted April 14, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

        Piero, no matter how strongly you believe in determinism, and no matter how many times you tell me to “STFU”, it does not follow that others believe in determinism. Most of them do not.

        • Piero
          Posted April 15, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

          Yet you live your life as if determinism were true. For example, you do not believe that if you stand in the middle of the highway, the next lorry to run you over will pass through you or disappear just before the collision.

          You believe the Earth will still exist tomorrow,and the sun will be at the predicted place at 6 am.

          You believe that if your kids don’t study enough, they won’t get good academic results.

          You believe you will die.

          You believe that you have no chance against a crocodile attack in a river.

          You believe it is possible to plot accurate trajectories for spaceships (didn’t Apollo 11, 12, 13 reach the moon?)

          You believe that if you ingest 50 grams of cyanide you will die instantly.

          You believe that smoking is bad for your health.

          You believe thay if you were to run for the Presidency of the USA your chances would be in the range of one in trillion.

          You believe that if you fired a loaded gun inside your mouth pointing upwards, your chances of survival woild be practically nil.

          Can you mention any event where you can demonstrably assert that quantum indeterminacy played any role a all?

          • Posted April 16, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

            I have directly experienced thousands of identifiable QM-indeterminate events, because I used to play with a QM random number generator I built (from a piece of radioactive rock, a Geiger counter, and a fast cycling 4-state electronic counter that stopped when the Geiger counter fired ).

            • Piero
              Posted April 19, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

              And did you base your decision on whether to buy a red swater or a blue one on the readings of your QM random number generator?
              I0, sure it’s a fascinating artifact, but has it any relevance to the way you conduct your daily life?

              • Posted April 22, 2012 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

                Yes, back when I was working with it, some of the strings of numbers influenced my behavior and that of many of my friends. These slight changes of behavior could have had ripple effects touching other events, and since history is often determined by contingent accidents of fate, the distant future would be impossible to predict even in principle, based on initial conditions describing the universe at any time before I saw those numbers.

        • schlafly
          Posted April 15, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

          I am not here to debate quantum mechanics. I am just pointing out that it is the consensus that quantum indeterminacy has indeed been demonstrated, and that the world is not deterministic. When Jerry said, “almost nobody questions determinism”, he is wrong. Almost all physicists do.

      • Posted April 15, 2012 at 6:11 am | Permalink

        Piero, almost all physicists today think the world is indeterminate. For you to argue otherwise is like a physicist telling a biologist that evolution is impossible because of the improbability of favorable mutations.

        Furthermore, tiny quantum uncertainties can lead to big effects, because of the chaotic dynamics of many systems.

        No one denies that most things are locally, conditionally determinate (given the initial conditions, it is possible in principle to predict the immediate future with high accuracy). However, if tiny unpredictable events in the distant past (such as certain mutations) had an influence on history, then the whole of history after that event would be unpredictable in principle. History is not determined by physical laws and initial conditions.

        • Piero
          Posted April 15, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

          I’m afraid I disagree. I’m not arguing in favour of a completely deterministic universe, mainly because I don’t know emough physics to make such a claim.

          Nevertheless, I’m 99.9999999999% percent confident that the sun will rise tomorrow, and 90% confident (well, make that 85%)that I wll wake up at 6:30 a.m. and go to work.

          If quantum phenomena are truly unpredictable, them they must conform to some probability distribution: homogeneous, normal, Poisson or whatever. If in fact they did not conform to any known probability distribution, because the universe would indeed be chsotic thwn unpreedictable even locslly. In that case, we should abandon any pretense of knowledge. But that choice would be absurd, given the current state of technlogical development. DO you actually expect your computer to give right or wrong answers randomly when you’re working on a huge Excel spreadsheet? DO you experct the Earth’s orbit to become a pentagon tomorrow? DO you expect the e-mail you sent your workmate to be sent to your boss’s inbox instead? Unless there is human error involved, mschines behsve quite accutarely. Indeed, I’ve never seen Word display an “S” on the screeen when I press the “F” key. I estimnate the number of letters I’ve typed into Word in the range of quite a few million, an I’ve never witnessed any such phenomenon.

          If I jump out of the 50th storey of a building, I know what will hsppen; I’ll die, snd probsbly kill some passers-by as well.

          In short, nature behaves deterministically at the macro level relevant to us humans. True, we cannot predict in advance where a photon, an electron or a buckybsll will lamd after going through a double slit. Has that ever had en effect on your taxes or on how you feel about you father?

          By the same token, has the eplosion of a supernova ever had an effect on your daily life? Of course not. For s start, the explosion took place perhaps a few million years before you were even born.

          Should we worry abour quantum-level indeterminacy? Philosophically, yes indeed. Practically, not at all.

          • Posted April 15, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

            Quantum-indeterminate events led to your existence, Piero. You might have been a giant lizard but for blind, undetermined QM events causing a few mutations here and there in the distant past.

            • Piero
              Posted April 15, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

              Mutations are not caused by random QM events. They are caused by radiation, cosmic rays, or mere errors in copying (remeber that the process of copying a DNA molecule is extremely complex). So yes, I happened to be born human after a long series of events, but youn have not shown they were random or indeterminate: you hsve merely shown that the chain of causation comprises so many variables as to be mathematically intractable.

              It’s easy to build a device the behaviour of which cannot be accurately predicted (for example, a series of coupled pendula). Does that mean that the behaviour of such a device is undetermined in principle? No, it just means we cannot solve the associated differential equations, because they contain just too many variables (elasticity o the strings, air curents, impossibility of determning the exact weight of the pendula, etc.)

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted April 15, 2012 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

                Piero, whether or not a cosmic ray collides with a nucleus, and the precise shower of particles that results, is in fact a random QM event that’s not predictable even in principle.

                Even your example of computers functioning reliably is wrong. Computers do in fact break down, and one of the ways they break down is due to the random thermal diffusion of atoms into places they’re not supposed to be. On the scale of microelectronic circuits, this kind of thing matters, and it’s inherently unpredictable.

                But if you’re now “not arguing in favour of a completely deterministic universe”, then that’s a shift from your earlier position in which you insisted that quantum effects “CANNOT POSSIBLY” lead to macro-scale indeterminacy. That previous position was wrong, and I’m glad you’ve realized that, but in that case what’s your point? That large-scale regularities exist? Nobody’s disputing that. But that doesn’t mean that there can’t also be large-scale indeterminacies.

                In fact there are indeterminacies at all scales. The cosmic microwave background is a map of quantum fluctuations blown up to intergalactic scale. Indeed, the universe itself is likely the result of quantum indeterminacy in the primordial vacuum.

                So again, your claim that quantum effects play no significant role in the large-scale history of the universe (if this is indeed your position) is factually wrong. There really isn’t much room for argument on that point.

              • Posted April 16, 2012 at 6:08 am | Permalink

                Piero, you should please learn a bit of physics before discussing this further.

              • Piero
                Posted April 17, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

                I did not claim that the universe was fully deterministic. In fact, you can find one of my earlier posts where I explicitly state that I don’t know enough physics to make such a claim. What I do claim, however, is that random quantum events must be be constrained within a probability distribution; otherwise, the universe would be truly chaotic and we could never say anything about anything.

                Would you accept that the Earth’s orbit is, within some range of precision, elliptical? Would you accept that the Earth’s and the Moon’s orbit are predictable enough to have made Apollo 11 possible? Would you accept that if you stop bretahing for a month you are certainly dead? Where does quantum mechanics enter the picture?

                Though I admit my utter ignorance of quantum mechanics, I am pretty sure that never in recorded history has a horse been spontaneously created. Why not? To me, the answer is obvious: you can’t beat statistics. Play with photons and quarks all you like, but in the end what matter to our lives is deterministic.

              • Posted April 17, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

                Piero, you are not even reading our posts. Gregory and I have repeatedly pointed out that important things like mutations, or fluctuations in the early universe, are quantum-mechanically indeterminate events. The history of life on earth could not have been predicted (even in principle) from physical laws and perfect knowledge of the state of the universe. Your existence depends on these past quantum events.

              • Piero
                Posted April 19, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

                Oh, no, it does not.
                I admit I’m not a physicist, and my knowledge of quantum mechanics is inadequate, to say the least. But to claim that life can only develop when the right indeterminate quantum events happen is just extrapolating without justification.
                Molecules are small, but not that small. DNA is a particularly large molecule. Have you ever seen a molecule of, say, water become a molecule of sulphuric acid because of some random quantum event?
                Or even easier: why is the proportion of “heavy” water constant in the oceans? It sure vary haphazardly, according to your conceptions.
                However much you know about physics, you seem to be wholly ignorant of statistics.

              • Posted April 22, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

                Mutations caused by radiation are single quantum events. Look up anything by Herman Muller, the biophysicist who first discovered that radiation produces mutations. He spent a lifetime studying this. His experiments prove what Gregory and I have been saying.

        • schlafly
          Posted April 15, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

          Piero says: “Unless there is human error involved, mschines behsve quite accutarely. Indeed, I’ve never seen Word display an “S” on the screeen …, I know what will hsppen; I’ll die, snd probsbly kill some passers-by as well.”

          You’re funny. I guess your computer is not deterministic after all. Mine’s not either.

          • Piero
            Posted April 15, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

            Sorry, I don’t understand your comment. My computer is indeed fully deterministic. Even when it doesn’t work as intended, the cause can always be traced back to some precise malfunction of one or several components.

            If I jump from the 50th floor of a building, I’ll surely die and kill anyone unlucky enough to be in my (fully determided) trajectory at the wrong moment.

            Where’s the funny bit?

  26. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 14, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Yes, it happens that someone writes an article that seems utterly devastating to you opinion of him/her (as I can imagine happens to most everyone), and Horgan manages to write these pieces quite often. He did something similar on “The End of Science” a few years back when I just had started to know about him, making it very hard to read the good articles he puts out on “arsenic life” and similar woo.

    [If you don’t know it, “The End of Science” has been a recurring meme from right before quantum mechanics started AFAIK up to our days. Even when we now know that we only know ~ 5 % of the matterenergy content.

    Its erroneous and quite frankly tiresome.]

    Human brains, in particular, generate human minds, which while subject to physical laws are influenced by non-physical factors, including ideas produced by other minds.

    Hmm. Well. That is either

    – the platonic dualism of math writ large, that ideas such as Dawkins memes are inhabiting some idealist world

    or

    – the emergence of symbolic encodings. (Which we know, or at least strongly suspect from cortical models, that the cortex participates in.)

    If the former, I have little sympathy for Horgan. It is an odious idealism.

    If the latter, Horgan’s dualism is confined to a willful error or a language error of trying to express encodings as ‘something else’.

    I still have no sympathy, but at least some empathy for the unwilling mistake.

  27. Mia
    Posted April 15, 2012 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    In Horgan’s defense, I recommend the previous post on his blog, with renowned neurophysiologist Christof Koch, who also believes in a circumscribed free will: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2012/04/02/christof-koch-on-free-will-the-singularity-and-the-quest-to-crack-consciousness/

    And I highly recommend listening to Horgan on his new book with the indispensible Scott Horton of Antiwar Radio:
    http://antiwar.com/radio/2012/03/27/john-horgan/


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