Vic Stenger’s new book on science and faith (and his take on free will and determinism)

Most of you surely know of Victor Stenger, a physicist who has written several books on science and atheism, including God: The Failed Hypothesis and The New Atheism, both of which I liked.  His main thrust is, like Dawkins, to regard the notion of God as a scientific hypothesis, and then apply the tools of science to show that the hypothesis is falsified. (Dawkins may be backing off on that view: lately he’s floated the idea that the notion of God is intrinsically incoherent). Stenger has also written eloquently, and at length, about the failure of the “fine tuning” argument for God from the nature of physical constants.

At any rate, I’ve just finished Victor’s new book, which you’ll see from the title has a particular interest for me: God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion (only $13.43 on Amazon).  I can recommend this as well, particularly if you haven’t read many of Stenger’s books.

Despite its title, the book doesn’t deal at great length with the nature of the incompatibility of science and faith, although he mentions it tangentially.  What he sees as the “incompatibility” is both the difference in methodology that the disciplines use to find out stuff, and the difference in outcomes: i.e., religion has made predictions that science has falsified.  Most of the book is taken up with religious assertions that science has disproven, like the existence of ESP, intercessory prayer, divine fine-tuning, the existence of human morality as a proof of God, and so on.  If you’ve read Stenger’s previous books, there’s some overlap between what he writes about here and what he covered in those earlier books (fine tuning, for instance), so the book is most appropriate for those who haven’t read a lot of Stenger.

But there is also much that is new, including his discussion of free will, whether determinism reigns on a macro scale in the universe, and especially about the history of science.  Did Christianity, for example, have a hand in producing science?  What contribution did non-European countries, or ancient Greece, make to our understanding of science, commonly thought to have really begun in 16th-century Europe? There’s also new stuff on the evolution of consciousness and morality that repays reading.  And the references are extensive and up to date.  Do buy it, especially for the discussion of fine-tuning if you’re not acquainted with Stenger’s rebuttals. Fine-tuning is probably the most superficially convincing of recent science-based arguments for God.

I want to briefly reprise two of Stenger’s ideas here.

1. Free will.  Stenger is a compatibilist, and says this, which, I think, is similar to what Dennett said in Freedom Evolves:

While “conscious will may be an illusion, it can be argued that our material selves do still possess a kind of free will. Every decision we make is the result of a complex calculation made by our individual conscious and unconscious brains working together.  That calculation relies on input from our immediate circumstances and our past experiences. So the decision is uniquely ours, based on our specific knowledge, experience, and abilities.  That seems pretty free to me.  While others can influence us, no one has access to all the data that went into the calculation except our unique selves. Another brain operating according to the same decision algorithms as ours would not necessarily come up with the same final decision, since the lifetime experiences leading up to that point would be different.(p. 269)

This is a common compatibilist argument, which of course applies not just to humans, but to nearly every evolved creature that can modify its behavior according to past experience.  It also applies to computers that have different software.  If you take a computer program that “learns” from experience, like one that plays chess, and then give it different “experiences,” it will produce a different output.  Is that free will?  What Stenger is saying here is that each individual’s behavior is determined by its genetic and developmental (hence molecular) constitution as well as by how its past experience has modified its wiring.  Here Vic and I agree.  But because each individual’s wiring is different—because our “algorithms” are “unique”—then different inputs will regard in different outputs among different individuals. Yes, of course that’s true.  But where is the “freedom” in all this? What Stenger is doing is equating the complexity of input and processing to “free will”, even though the output is completely determined by the input.  I submit that there is no “freedom” in that, even though I’m sure that others can wring a tortured notion of “freedom” out of that.

2. Determinism. Lou Jost and other readers on this site have argued that behavior (and evolution) might not be deterministic because they’re affected by quantum-mechanical considerations. When I used the word “determinism” in the past, I suppose I was a bit inaccurate: what I meant was that behavior is determined by physical processes, both deterministic and quantum-mechanical, i.e., that there is nothing to our behavior beyond physics.  I should have used “materialism” rather than “determinism”!

Now I’m not quite convinced that quantum mechanics plays a real role in both our decision-making or in the course of evolution. Can our “choices” really be affected by nondeterministic motions of molecules?  And is mutation, a crucial factor in setting the course of evolution, really affected by quantum mechanics?  I remain agnostic on these issues and am doing some reading to get up to speed.

Stenger does some interesting calculations to show that neurotransmission in the brain cannot be affected by quantum-mechanical events, and so in that respect the operation of our brain is truly deterministic (he also takes up and rejects the “microtubule hypothesis for quantum effects in the brain).  But he admits the possibility of another way the actions of the brain might not be physically determined:

However, quantum effects can still involve brain processes by another route. The brain is bathed in electrically charged particles from cosmic rays (muons) that reach Earth and beta-rays (electrons fro the radioactive potassium isotope K40 in our blood.  These are energetic enough to break atomic and molecular bonds, unlike the radio waves from power lines and cell phones that people worry about so much.  And they are ultimately quantum mechanical. . . . We can imagine someone’s brain carrying out a classical algorithm, like a computer, bit a high-energy muon or electron breaks up a bit or two in either the code or the data and changes the outcome. This would result in the person making a random decision. But it would give the appearance of free will. (p. 272).

Now if this is the case, then we would have free will under my own definition, which is “given that all the initial molecular conditions obtaining at the moment of a decision remain the same when rerunning the ‘tape of that decision,’ you could have decided otherwise.”  If there are unpredictable and non-deterministic quantum effects of the sort Stenger decides, then, yes, one could get two different “decisions” in exactly the same situation, and I would have to call that free will.  Of course, there is no dualism here, for the quantum indeterminacy has nothing to do with consciousness, but under my definition that doesn’t matter. In fact, if one could replay the tape of a decision and find a different outcome, I don’t see any way to distinguish quantum effects from real spooky free will, except that we know there’s nothing other than material effects in the brain.

The big question, of course, is this: do the kind of effects Stenger describes here really happen in our brains, and can they really affect our behavior?  Note that he says “we can imagine” that scenario, but what we can imagine doesn’t necessarily happen.

I doubt, however, whether any compatibilist will agree with Stenger that quantum effects of this sort play a role in free will, for they assert that our will is free even if there were no such effects.  What I still don’t get is what part of the “free will” is “free”?

Anyway, read Vic’s book.


  1. gbjames
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 7:03 am | Permalink


  2. emmageraln
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on emmageraln.

  3. WML
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    Seems to me that in replaying the tape of the decision, you would have to include any muon actions in the first instance back into the replay. And then you ought to get the same result as you did originally. I don’t see how the will is freed by muon actions which appear to be just another potential environmental determinant.

    • Posted April 23, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

      The point is that the muon’s interaction with a particle in the brain (or in the DNA) is probabilistic–it may or may not occur, depending on chance alone (with probabilities determined by the laws of QM of course). So if you play the tape over, even if it includes the muon in flight, the interaction might or might not happen.
      Much depends on how far we rewind the tape. If we rewind it to a point before the muon is emitted, then the muon itself may or may not have been emitted in our direction, and this is also an intrinsically indeterminate event. If we rewind it even farther, the individual being hit (or not) probably would not exist as such, since the course of evolution and human history is certainly indeterminate at least in small ways. (Experiments on radiation-induced mutations show that they are single quantum events.)

    • eric
      Posted April 23, 2012 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      Nope, you wouldn’t necessarily get the same result, that’s the killer.

      If you shoot subatomic particles with the exact same energy, spin, etc… at a detector, they will not all interact in the exact same way. Some will go 1 mm into the detector, and deposit all their energy there. Some will go 10mm in, and scatter inelastically. Some will go through it and not interact at all.

      If you want another example, you can think of radioactive decay in the same way. There, the ‘particle’ and ‘detector’ are both parts of the nucleus, and non-interaction = escape.

      I think Stenger’s point is, your brain is such a detector (whether it wants to be or not).

      Now, you CAN predict how much total energy will be deposited, how many scattering events you’ll get, geometrically what sort of scatter pattern you’ll get, etc.. given a statistically large flux of particles. But no, you can’t predict what an individual particle will do. Again, think radioactive decay.

      I’m a bit skeptical that a flux of such particles actually does anything to our brains. There simply may not be enough energy deposited to make a difference. But I haven’t read the book to see what Stenger calculates, and in principle, I think Stenger’s right.

    • Posted April 24, 2012 at 2:57 am | Permalink

      I agree with WML here. Lou and eric are simply not including enough in the playback. It’s like playing back a casino scene from a movie, but allowing the dice roll to be a new instance rather than the recorded one.

      It’s no good claiming that some events are ‘truly’ probabilistic. So some muon comes along and screws with a neuron. What caused that muon to come along? What ’causes’ probabilistic events? That our current science insists that some events we observe are probabilistic does not explain them, it just tells us we don’t know enough about them.

      We don’t really understand the concept of ‘randomness’. We can’t distinguish between what we feel we know is truly random and what is merely indeterminate to us.

      If we can’t say what ’causes’ random events, are we saying they are not caused? Are they uncaused events that have causal influences once they occur? This sounds like dualism: the free-floating mind having physical causal consequences.

      If we can’t say what ’causes’ random events, but we are NOT we saying they are not caused, then we are saying we simply don’t know what the causes are.

      I don’t see how we get round this without challenging causality itself. Which is possible of course.

      • Posted April 24, 2012 at 5:04 am | Permalink

        I’m sorry, but causality as you conceive it was thrown out in the 1920s, though not without a fight from Einstein and others. The probabilities of QM are fundamental, not just a matter of our ignorance. People tried to insert hidden variables underlying the probabilities, but now we have very general proofs that if there are hidden variables, they must have such bizarre properties that admitting them would be worse than giving up causality.

        • Posted April 24, 2012 at 7:44 am | Permalink

          “if there are hidden variables, they must have such bizarre properties…”

          And if there are, then it won’t be the first time we’ve been certain and been wrong, or the first time that the bizarre has turned out to be the new idea. It’s the story so far. The probabilities of QM are fundamental to the theories of QM. Are we really in a position to say that they are fundamental full stop? What do we mean by fundamental? So again, are they uncaused causes?

          • Posted April 24, 2012 at 8:38 am | Permalink

            Certainly our theories are incomplete and subject to modification. But if hidden variables are to reproduce the predictions of QM, they would have to be really weird. Far weirder than the violation of causality. It doesn’t make sense to defend what is after all only a vague metaphysical prejudice, if the consequences of that prejudice are wildly implausible.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted April 24, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

            “It’s the story so far.”

            In fact, it’s the story of quantum mechanics. We were certain about the determinism of classical physics, and we were wrong. Quantum randomness is the bizarre new idea that’s displaced it.

            As Lou says, the notion of a hidden determinism waiting to be discovered is inconsistent with the mathematics of quantum theory. Bell’s Theorem proves that any locally deterministic theory must yield predictions that differ from those of quantum theory. Experiments have shown that quantum theory is correct in these cases; there is no hidden determinism, and nature really is fundamentally random.

            This is a positive prediction of quantum theory that has been experimentally verified. It is not merely a statement of our own ignorance, as you would have it.

            • Glacian
              Posted April 24, 2012 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

              Suppose it turns out that the Copenhagen interpretation is not correct, but that Bohm’s or many worlds is. Would either of these allow for determinism? Or are there sorts of probabilistic phenomena that would arise even if we accepted either of these interpretations?

  4. TJR
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    Ah, so when you said “determinism” in previous threads you meant (methodological?) “materialism”. That makes sense of a lot of what you’ve said before which I found puzzling.

    In fact I probably now agree with you when using your definitions, although I’m less convinced that they are the right definitions. Where I differ is that, as others have pointed out in earlier threads, you need to allow for the fact that the atoms/structures that make up your brain *are* you, and feed back on themselves.

    IIRC Lou Jost’s point was that it is the combination of quantum mechanical effects and chaos which means that quantum randomness can potentially produce huge changes on larger scales.

  5. Brian
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    Jerry, I’d like to suggest two fairly simple thoughts on whether quantum mechanics is involved in something like the workings of the brain.

    Firstly, everything (at least anything involving matter) at a certain level is quantum mechanical. Quantum mechanics is the physics of subatomic particles that make up the atoms that make up the material objects like brains. In principle you could compute all wave equations for all the particles in the brain. The question is not whether the workings of the brain are quantum mechanical, of course they are, but rather whether classical mechanics provides a sufficient approximation and understanding of how the brain works up to negligible error.

    The other issue you might want to worry about is short time within small error quantum mechanics probably has no effect on how the brain works. But long term small quantum effects might amount to more major effects. I think you are mostly worried about short time behavior.

    I think your real question is whether in short time there are an noticeable quantum effects within standard error tolerances, something that might give a real understanding of the brain. I agree that’s a good question and I don’t know.

    My apologies if this is just stating the obvious. I wasn’t sure how obvious this is or how relevant it is to understanding Stenger’s book.

  6. Larry Lamnb
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    “If there are unpredictable and non-deterministic quantum effects of the sort Stenger decides, then, yes, one could get two different “decisions” in exactly the same situation, and I would have to call that free will.”

    But I thought you defined free will as (from USA today)

    “But before I explain this, let me define what I mean by “free will.” I mean it simply as the way most people think of it: When faced with two or more alternatives, it’s your ability to freely and consciously choose one, either on the spot or after some deliberation.”?

    Just wondered if you could clarify? There doesn’t seem to be much free willing in the quantum effects example – just random interference. The decription in USA today is in line with most peoples understanding of free will.

    I think both cases free will is an illusion – the USA today example because it doesn’t exist and the quantum effects example because even if it exists it’s not really “free will” as is commonly understood by the term and how I thought you defined it.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted April 23, 2012 at 8:19 am | Permalink

      Indeed, and my point is that quantum indeterminacy is absolutely indistiguishable from “two different decisions”. How would you tell whether a different decision resulted from a quantum effect or some difference in deliberation. I agree that there doesn’t seem to be much “freedom” in decisions mediated by quantum effects, but that depends on your you define “free will”.

      • Larry Lamb
        Posted April 23, 2012 at 9:17 am | Permalink

        I agree you couldn’t tell the difference but the difference could be significant in terms of how we see those decisions. Free will consciously decided could be interpreted as a type of free will where we are ultimately and individually responsible for those choices. Not sure how though.

      • Tulse
        Posted April 23, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

        Jerry, I think you’re giving too much away here. I really don’t see how quantum effects give us either “freedom” or “will”. Surely the only kind of “free will” that is worth discussing is where individuals are capable of making conscious decisions free of other constraints, including physical ones (as your quote provided by Larry indicates). In other words, “free will” as usually conceived, and perhaps in its only meaningful conception, involves consciousness. But it isn’t clear to me that quantum impacts on behaviour require consciousness, and thus can’t really be involved in what is perceived as “free will”.

        As you well know, “quantum” gets invoked all the time as a kind of silly analogy, a notion that “well, we don’t understand X, and we don’t understand quantum stuff, so perhaps X and quantum stuff are related.” Penrose made effectively this kind of argument about quantum effects and consciousness in general, and I think the same issue is happening here.

        • Posted April 23, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

          No, we are arguing about effects that are specific enough that they can be analyzed quantitatively.

      • bad Jim
        Posted April 23, 2012 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

        People make choices by flipping coins. They make life-altering decisions when they’re drunk. Randomness isn’t limited to quantum phenomena.

        Moreover, an appetite for randomness is pretty common, as evidenced by our propensity for gambling, the popularity of fireplaces, and our fascination with weather and its various manifestations.

        The problem is that one typically flips a coin in order to avoid making a choice.

        • Posted April 24, 2012 at 7:25 am | Permalink

          Indeed. As Bacopa notes below, and as Sam Harris explained, gosh, maybe a year ago (on his blog), random =/= free. Whether we are influenced by perfectly determined pressures, or pressures arising from quantum indeterminacy makes no difference to the argument that both scenarios dispatch the dualist notion of being able to exert contra-causal control over our decisions/actions.

  7. bacopa
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    Dennett has an interesting discussion on quantum randomness as a source of free will in his book, Elbow Room. He argues that quantum randomness simply cannot give us anything like conventional notions of free will. Suppose that our actions were mostly deterministic, but that some quantum noise amplifying structure in our brains occasionally flipped a quantum “coin” and affected our behavior. Is that really free will? No, while some of our actions would be undetermined, it is clear in this case that “we” are not in control. Adding quantum randomness would make our actions undetermined, but would would not give us free will.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted April 23, 2012 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      Ah, but I would maintain that conventional notions of free will are DUALIST. People on this website often disagree, but I think I’m right–certainly so for religious people! What does Dan think, then, are “conventional notions of free will”? And how does he know? (I’m often faulted for not conducting or knowing about surveys that deal with “conventional” notions of free will, though I don’t think those surveys really tell us much.)

      • TJR
        Posted April 23, 2012 at 8:55 am | Permalink

        Indeed, not only do we tend to be inexact about what we mean by “free will”, we also tend to be inexact about what we think other people mean by it.

        However, IMHO we can be fairly confident that:

        1) Almost everyone here agrees that dualist free will is false, and when they use the term free will they mean something else.

        2) When Xians talk about free will they usually mean dualist free will.

      • bacopa
        Posted April 23, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

        By “conventional notions of free will” I really just mean a will that can do the kind of things that a dualist free will can do. So it looks like I completely agree with you that the popular conception of free will is usually a dualist one.

        Can’t get to either of the two relevant Dennett books right now, but I seem to remember that both of them begin with a dismissal of dualist free will while at the same time taking the position that dualist-type free will is the a big part of everyday “folk psychology” accounts of willing and deliberation.

      • Tulse
        Posted April 23, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

        I agree that conventional/religious notions of free will are dualist, but I also think that’s the only notion of free will that is non-trivial. Attempts to rescue the concept using purely materialistic mechanisms seem to miss the point.

      • Peter
        Posted April 23, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

        Well, I feel like a broken record here, but if you really mean to be arguing against dualism, you should argue against dualism, instead of arguing against free-will and hoping to take out dualism as some sort of collateral damage.

        • pulseteresa
          Posted April 23, 2012 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

          Peter – You won’t sound like a broken record to me as I don’t recall reading other comments by you (I don’t always read all the comments to Jerry’s articles). So I’d like to ask:

          How would you define free will without using dualistic concepts?


      • Posted April 24, 2012 at 9:48 am | Permalink

        (I’m often faulted for not conducting or knowing about surveys that deal with “conventional” notions of free will, though I don’t think those surveys really tell us much.)

        Ergo your anecdotal evidence is correct?

        Russell Blackford posted once saying that his experience has taught him that most people *aren’t* dualists, but rather they confuse determinism with fatalism. So clearly your experiences differ. You can’t admit that you have no objective data on the subject, and then act like the matter has been settled objectively.

  8. newenglandbob
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    Your link in the second paragraph above leads to the wrong Stenger book. the $11.23 is also wrong.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted April 23, 2012 at 9:00 am | Permalink

      Fixed both, thanks!

  9. MoarSciencePlz
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    Jerry, I wonder how you would classify the case where a person successfully stops smoking. Isn’t that a case of dualistic free will being exercised?

    • Thanny
      Posted April 23, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      I’m not Jerry, but no. There’s nothing remotely dualistic about a person quitting smoking. All it takes is motivation strong enough to overcome the physical and psychological addiction. That can be concern about health (one’s own or another’s), financial pressure (I had a grandfather who quit smoking when he refused to pay 50 cents a pack), social pressure, or any number of other reasons why a person would feel compelled to fight the habit.

      The brain is largely about dueling potentials. That’s why pain hurts so much – if it didn’t, other motivations would overrule the imperative to avoid injury.

      • MoarSciencePlz
        Posted April 23, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

        “There’s nothing remotely dualistic about a person quitting smoking.”

        Maybe you and I have different definitions of dualistic. I know some people think it means our “soul” is watching over our “mind” or some such woo, but what I mean is that in a case like overcoming addiction a part of the brain is consciously choosing to override another part of the brain.

        • Jeff Walker
          Posted April 23, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

          It sounds to me like you are envisioning conscious processing as non-naturalistic (or non-materialist or non-determinist), as if there is a little man in there making decisions independent from being caused. But our conscious processing is just as naturalistically based (or materialistically or deterministically) as our unconscious processing. It feels like we (the little man) is “consciously choosing” but the decision is completely determined by the complete set of inputs (barring the quantum effects that some on here are arguing for) – some of the inputs we are consciously aware of, most we are not. And this conscious processing matters – it also acts as inputs to the decision. But it’s determined like every thing else. Note I am using “decision” not in the since of contra-causal free will but in the sense of say a computer programmer who will write code to evaluate inputs, which will decide among a set (choices) of outputs. So we don’t need to drop our established vocabulary but only subtly change our definitions (similar to “design” in adaptive evolution which I think is a perfectly acceptable word to describe adaptations. Darwin showed that there can be design without a designer).

        • Thanny
          Posted April 25, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

          I’m using the definition of dualism that everyone else is, which bears no resemblance to what you just described.

          Fundamentally, you seem to not understand the fact that all conscious thought – every last bit of it – is ultimately the result of unconscious brain activity. The idea of one part of the brain overriding another is hardly groundbreaking. And it’s definitely not “dualism”.

  10. Scientismist
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    I am so glad that Jerry is finally looking into the case for non-determinism in genetics. I have been assuming that he had seen the kind of explanation of this that was in the genetics book I used to teach undergrads 40 years ago (M. W. Strickberger, 1968, pages 51 and 552).

    One of the most common mutations is a transition (an A-T pair is changed to a G-C pair, or vice-versa), and these involve the shifting of shared electrons within the purine and pyrimidine structures. The normal amino form of adenine pairs with the normal keto form of thymine, but the rare imino tautomeric form of adenine pairs with cytosine. Similarly, while guanine normally pairs with cytosine, thymine, in its rare enol tautomer, will also pair with guanine. Shared electrons must shift from a nitrogen to a hydrogen several atoms distant in order to participate in the hydrogen bonds that (temporarily) stabilize the unusual base pair. Any complete description of the localization of electrons to this degree would have to be a quantum description.

    This is why it has been puzzling to see an author of such a very good book about evolution insisting that it could be deterministic. Ok, if you want to take Bohm’s approach and say that there is no such thing as quantum randomness, and that all local quantum details are “determined” by the entangled states of every particle in the observable and non-observable universe, then you can have your determinism, though it is just as hidden as, and formally equivalent to the randomness of Bohr’s Copenhagen interpretation. But it does not appear possible to just say that quanta are irrelevant to mutation and evolution.

    • Posted April 23, 2012 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      Hermann Muller, who discovered that radiation induces mutations, and who spent much of his life experimentally inducing them, said this:
      “Thus the quanta of physics become the quanta of evolution (Muller 1935b), and the ultramicroscopic events, with all the possibilities born of their statistical randomness and even of their ultimate physical indeterminacy, become translated into macroscopic ones with a magnification vastly surpassing that of such an instrument as a Geiger counter…”

    • eric
      Posted April 23, 2012 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      I am not sure what genetic mutation has to do with free will, since thinking occurs well after your body starts building a brain based on genetic instructions.

      I expect that when JAC is talking about free will, he’s talking about the functioning of already-built brains, not what blastocysts do.

      • Posted April 23, 2012 at 10:11 am | Permalink

        The QM process Stenger brought up for affecting the brain is the same kind of process that induces mutations. If one is QM-indeterminate, so is the other.

        • Posted April 23, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

          Schrödinger’s free will!


      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted April 23, 2012 at 11:08 am | Permalink

        It’s not about free will as such. But throughout these discussions there’s been a marked tendency on the part of Jerry and others to conflate the notion that choices are physically determined (i.e. caused by physical processes in the brain) with the idea of “predeterminism” (i.e. that all of your choices, and indeed all of human history, were determined long before you were born).

        The first sort of determinism is one we can all (or almost all) agree on. The second sort is contrary to what we know of physics and doesn’t belong in a reasoned discussion of free will. I’m glad to see Jerry finally acknowledging the distinction.

        • Scientismist
          Posted April 23, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

          Yes! I hope you are right, that Jerry is returning to the real world of physics and chemistry as we have known it. Real DNA base pairing. Real neurotransmitter binding.

  11. Notagod
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    If there are unpredictable and non-deterministic quantum effects of the sort Stenger decides, then, yes, one could get two different “decisions” in exactly the same situation, and I would have to call that free will.

    Damn the christian gods all to hell-heaven! Religion poisons everything even our ability to see that any change at the quantum level would be a change of input, NOT unlike any other input change. Now, if christians wouldn’t make such a fuss about non existent sky poopies, then these subtle differences could be classed as possibly interesting but not sufficient to allow a will that is able to freely express and be done with it.

    Tangentially, diversity in biology is often brought about by reworks of basic processes, the same basic platform applied in a different way at times yielding what appear to be completely different results. Arms, hands, legs and paws contrasted with wings, might be an (naively poor) example. So what about considering the brain to be a reapplication of the functioning of the evolution processes but applied to thoughts and actions?

    Maybe think of it in this context: Computers and brains don’t have equivalent functionality but in some ways a computer is a brain that performs the same task only much faster. So what if a brain is performing the same processes as evolution, with respect to thoughts and actions relating to environment and mutation, but at a much faster rate?

  12. Posted April 23, 2012 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    1. Most of the brain actively filters noise — circuits are robust. As far as I can tell, no “calculation” that concludes quantum noise could affect the activity of neurons takes into account that there are many, many, many sources of noise in the brain (most orders of magnitude larger than the proposed q effects), and for our brains to function at all noise has to be channeled, filtered, and suppressed. There are cases in which noise is actively harnessed (as in song learning in finches) to randomly generate variability, but connecting this to human “will” would just be dumb, because “will” is pretty much the opposite of random.

    2. You are still stuck using a dualist conception of “free.” I don’t know why, you are not a dualist. To repeat myself, we did not decide that nothing is alive when we rejected vitalism, we went looking for a better definition. I do not think it is controversial to say, given materialism, that we are sometimes “free-er” than other times in our decision making. Compatibilists want to discuss what that means, instead of repetitively and unnecessarily refuting dualism forever.

  13. CJ
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne, even if the quantum effects Stenger describes do happen, you’re conscious mind isn’t controlling those quantum effects, so you’re still not free to will what you will. Therefore i would question your definition of free will.

    • Greg G
      Posted April 23, 2012 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      Jerry is a compatibalist.

      If we rewind the tape to a point where a quantum fluctuation can change whether I have Rice Krispies or Corn Flakes, the decision is made randomly by the fluctuation. The only way it could be free will is if I could affect the quantum fluctuation. But would my decision to affect the quantum fluctuation be free will? There would have to be a chain of affected quantum fluctuations that go back before my will existed. If we rewind to that point, the whole chain of events become possible because of one random outcome or it ends right there due to a different outcome.

  14. Muffit
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Maybe the debate should become more on the incoherence of “freedom” as a platonic solid absolute concept.

    • Robert
      Posted April 23, 2012 at 10:50 am | Permalink

      I can’t help but think that every time I read these posts on free will we’re stopping short of the real issues. It seems to me compatibilists and those in Dr. Coyne’s camp agree on the important things – we have (if anything) an illusion of free will and the world is deterministic.

      Now what? Free will in the classical and dualist senses are nonsense. Moving on to discuss the real-world implications (as Sam Harris does at times) is where the subject truly becomes interesting – what does this mean for our ideas of reward and punishment? Clearly if we don’t have a classical kind of free-will we never have, so the world doesn’t fall apart by throwing that notion out, but what does change?

  15. Posted April 23, 2012 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    “I doubt, however, whether any compatibilist will agree with Stenger that quantum effects of this sort play a role in free will, for they assert that our will is free even if there were no such effects. What I still don’t get is what part of the “free will” is “free”?”

    Compatibilists point out correctly that we are (often) free in the ordinary senses of being uncoerced in our choices, acting voluntarily, in our right mind, in accordance with our own wishes and plans, without being deceived, etc. Our (fully determined) will is free to the extent that its expression isn’t impeded by external constraints or internal abnormalities.

    Where you part company with compatibilists substantively (as opposed to semantically, in claiming what “free will” really means) is in thinking, correctly in my view, that there are progressive implications of seeing that we don’t have contra-causal freedom, for instance in criminal justice policy. About which see my review of Bruce Waller’s new book, Against Moral Responsibility, at

  16. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Can our “choices” really be affected by nondeterministic motions of molecules?

    Particle collisions within an accelerator are nondeterministic quantum events. When physicists write papers about the results of those collisions, their choices of which events to write about and which collision images to include are necessarily affected by the nondeterminism of the events themselves. Indeed, particle physics as an experimental science depends on observing individual quantum events and letting those observations influence our thinking.

    • Scientismist
      Posted April 23, 2012 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      Thank you. When I hear rhetorical questions like “Can our “choices” really be affected by nondeterministic motions of molecules?” I want to ask “just how do you think it can possibly be otherwise?” Our “choices”, if there be any such thing at all in a material universe, are nondeterministic motions of molecules. It’s like asking how the random motions of the dice can affect whether we win at craps in Las Vegas. Other things (our bankroll, our need to pay the rent, the glare from the wife..) can also affect our winnings, but the dice are definitely a factor!

      To me, one of the striking lessons of biology is how hard evolution has had to work to protect certain crucial life processes from the randomness inherent in the chemistry on which it is built. And that protection is always imperfect, and the imperfections (e.g. mutations) become part of the evolutionary process. And I am quite certain that this tension between the randomness inherent in the physical and chemical substrate, and the teleological goals of the “selfish genes”, a tension that is clearly true of a replicating genome, is just as true of the (imperfect) transmission, transduction, and preservation of biologically significant information in a nervous system.

  17. Blas
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    ““given that all the initial molecular conditions obtaining at the moment of a decision remain the same when rerunning the ‘tape of that decision,’ you could have decided otherwise.””

    Sorry, but you are fooling yourself here. You do not “could decided otherwise”. Your brain would respond otherwise. If that is the case, is not free will is ramdom decision. You decision will depend on the brain condition.
    Free will is about choosing for a reason.

  18. DV
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    I think minimum requirement for free will is conscious intention. So to the extent that an agent is capable of conscious intention that agent is potentially capable of free will.

    We all agree that there is no such thing as freedom from causation, so our concept of freedom must necessarily be limited.

    I like the way Stenger frames free will in the context of ownership of the decision. It is the “you vs somebody else” kind of freedom. Did you own the intent, or did someone else own the intent and coerced the action on you.

    Free will then is the ability for conscious intentional ownership of an action or outcome. This idea only makes sense at the level of abstraction where the self exists. It doesn’t make sense at lower reduction of course — “you” have to be big enough to own something as large as an intention. As Dennett said: “If you make yourself really small, you can externalize virtually everything”.

  19. Nicolas Perrault
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    The “microtubules argument” might very well be wrong. But some of the reasons proposed by Roger Penrose’s are based on Georg Cantor’s diagonal argument (diagonal slash), the halting problem, Turing’s machine, and the cardinality of algorithms accessible to digital computer. I find them much harder to dismiss and quite fascinating. See Shadows of The Mind, and the Emperor’s New Mind by Roger Penrose. The author’s think that what the human mind does is not reproducible by normal digital computers.

    • Posted April 23, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

      What about normal analog computers?


  20. benjdm
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    I submit that there is no “freedom” in that, even though I’m sure that others can wring a tortured notion of “freedom” out of that.

    It’s the only kind of freedom that can possibly exist in the real world. If that kind of freedom doesn’t count as real freedom, then I guess you consider freedom a false concept as well?

  21. DV
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    What is freedom?

    Ask Ai Wei Wei.
    Ask a young girl trying to get an education in Afghanistan.
    Ask a black man in America in 1700.
    Ask a Christian fundamentalist in a Biology class.

  22. Alex SL
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Now if this is the case, then we would have free will under my own definition, which is “given that all the initial molecular conditions obtaining at the moment of a decision remain the same when rerunning the ‘tape of that decision,’ you could have decided otherwise.”

    So you say that if I behaved completely randomly (i.e. irrationally), e.g. randomly assaulting people, screaming nonsense and walking around aimlessly all day, then I would have free will under your definition; but if I decide, after careful deliberation and without coercion from another human, to take chocolate ice cream instead of strawberry, then that is not free will because I like chocolate so much better that I would never have chosen differently.

    And you think that this your definition of free will, although it leads to these absurd conclusions, is the commonsensical one, the one we should be discussing, and compatibilists are just prevaricating? Are you sure about that?

    • J
      Posted April 23, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

      How on Earth did you get to that conclusion from what was written?

    • That Guy Montag
      Posted April 25, 2012 at 2:01 am | Permalink


      Nope, Alex is pretty spot on. That’s the implication of trying to tie the notion of free will to randomness. The idea is that one argument you could deploy to defend “could have done different” conception of libertarian free will is by showing that determinism isn’t complete, that you can’t actually predict what someone will do. Alex’s point is that that is clearly incoherent as an argument because what that kind of world would look like is nothing like the one we’d expect if free will existed.

  23. schlafly
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Jerry now doubts the role of quantum mechanics? He has gotten off the science bus, and is pushing beliefs that have no basis in science.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted April 23, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

      I’m pretty sure Jerry accepts the existence of quantum mechanics and that the standard model accurately describes it. Whether the human brain is subject to the affects of quantum activity is a separate question — one best answered by a scientist holding joint advanced degrees in neuroscience and particle physics (after appropriate experimentation, subject to peer review and independent replication).

  24. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Quantum randomness may or may not affect human decision making at the macro level. (I do not understand the quantum world well enough to venture a meaningful guess.) Yet even if it doesn’t, the world and human events are “deterministic” only is a special sense. The universe, or at least many of the systems operating within it, are chaotic — in that, while deterministic, they are dynamical systems in which the outcome is highly sensitive to initial conditions and, thus, unpredictable

    (I once got into a debate with a free-will proponent who asked if I didn’t find it difficult to believe that, when he came to a crosswalk with a blinking “”walk” signal, his decision whether to scoot across the street immediately or to wait for the next signal had been determined by events set in motion by the big bang. I told him that I did find it difficult, but no more difficult than believing that next week’s weather had been determined at the big bang, though I saw that as no reason for attributing “free will” to the weather. Note that the similarities between a chaotic system and the appearance of free will sometimes render them subject to confusion — this is why primitive man (and primitive-thinking modern men) believed that the weather was controlled by the will of the gods (or that a hurricane is divine punishment for the gays).

    Moreover, our lives are affected, many times hugely, by completely contingent events — sometimes overtly so: guy goes to a ballgame; it ends in a sudden death tie; his team wins the coin flip, scores first and wins. He meets his future wife at the victory party — all thanks to that coin flip. In addition, the chaotic sometimes interacts with the contingent: guy plans to go sailing; en route the weather to turns bad, so he decides to stop for lunch at whatever restaurant he sees next. There he meets his future business partner — all do to the chaotic weather and his contingent choice of eatery.

    It is the overlay of the chaotic with the stochastic that makes human events completely unpredictable. (Historians can, by employing an extreme form of hindsight bias, impose a narrative upon past event — sometimes a narrative that resembles historical inevitability. But these same historians are notoriously poor at imposing such a narrative on future events. As the wags say, predictions are hard — especially about the future.)
    Perhaps the way to view human decision-making is that each decision adds a new level of contingency — the result of the interplay between a prior series of contingencies and the actor’s subconsciousness and acculturated conscious mind. Afterward, some might look back and see that decision as free will; others will see pure determinism — when in fact, it is neither, but rather a complex interplay of the chaotic and the contingent.

    • eric
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

      As Greg pointed out in @16, quantum randomness absolutely affects human behavior because humans write articles about the results of quantum mechanical experiments.

      I create some novel, short-lived particle. I measure its lifetime. I report that lifetime. Other scientists read it and change their behavior based on what I reported. Quantum randomness has influenced human behavior, because the lifetimes of unstable particles is probabilistic, not deterministic.

  25. Vaal
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Dr. Coyne, for bringing Vic Stenger’s new book to my attention (and for the brief preview of it’s contents). I’ll have to pick it up.

    As to Free Will…must…re..sist….


  26. Carl Hancock
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Just started reading the book, I am giving a live radio interview on atheist talk radio on May 27th with Victor on this book. Since you have read the book Jerry your welcome to ask a few questions just let me know I would be glad to ask them for you.

  27. Peter
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    I’ve pointed out before that Jerry’s rule that quantum mechanical indeterminancy doesn’t get you free will under his rewind-the-tape definition is ad hoc. That should count as evidence that his proposed definition is actually not adequate, and is missing some important things about the notion of free will.

  28. marcusa1971
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    Excellant news. I greatly enjoyed The New Atheism and God: The Failed Hypothesis. Looking forward to it.

  29. Vaal
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Permalink


    Whatever Stenger’s virtues as a writer (I’ve heard him interviewed many times, read his shorter pieces, but not his books), it was clear in his debate with W.L. Craig his writing ability isn’t matched by his oral debating ability. I’ve seen the debate a couple times before, and I’m just re-visiting it now, and I find myself frustrated and disappointed by many of his replies to Craig. Too often his replies were without any real forceful content and just not nailing the issues as Craig is bringing them up. (E.g. replies like “I just don’t see how you’ve got your conclusion” are left hanging as if they are rebuttals, rather than actually showing the errors in Craig’s arguments). Not to mention some of his questions to Craig betray a lack of research on Craig’s debates; anyone familiar with Craig would have known he had ready answers to some of Stenger’s questions that Stenger should have cut off with more careful questions.

  30. J
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    Whether or not quantum effects do need to be taken into account, it is all still ultimately material processes occurring, making us as extraordinarily sophisticated computers with no ghost in the machine calling the shots. I think that this (the latter) is the notion of free will that we need to kick out, and whether compatiblist or determinist it does indeed get kicked out. Anything beyond that seems to be semantics & people arguing past each other.

    • J
      Posted April 23, 2012 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

      But anyway, thanks for pointing out this book, I’ll try & check it out

  31. chemicalscum
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    I am glad that at least as a result of Stenger’s arguments people are beginning to accept the position that I have proposed here that quantum effects can be the root of stochastic behaviour by organisms with complex (or even simple) neural systems

    Strangely enough what first convinced my that this was likely was a field experiment by Louis Leakey that he carried out back in the fifties. He was concerned if early pre-toolmaking hominins could hunt with their bare hands on the African Savannah. Having grown up with and being an honorary Kikuyu he was skilled at bushcraft. He decided to hunt rabbits by stalking them until he had them cornered and then grab them as the made a dash to escape.

    He found that they randomly ran to the left or right of him. If he then always tried to grab the rabbit on the same side just as he perceived the rabbit starting to move, he stood a 50% chance of being able to catch the rabbit. On the other hand if he tried to catch the rabbit by waiting to determine which way the rabbit had jumped before he tried to catch it, his response was too slow and he rarely caught one. If the rabbit always jumped to the same side he would have had twice the probability of catching one as he would know which side to be prepared to catch it

    The point he is the rabbit is exhibiting stochastic behaviour that apparently has an evolutionary survival value. To do this the rabbit is either exploiting a quantum effect or it uses a pseudo random number type neural computation. The quantum effect should be a lot faster than the neural computation and there would be evolutionary pressure on organisms with neural systems to develop specific neural quantum stochastic choice mechanisms.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      Sorry, I’m not buying it. You don’t need quantum randomness to explain unpredictable behavior by organisms. Ordinary deterministic chaos will do.

      And the time scales you’re talking about are measured in milliseconds. That’s plenty of time for neurons to decide whether to fire or not based on internal chemical states, without resorting to quantum phenomena.

      • chemicalscum
        Posted April 25, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

        Deterministic chaos is how quantum uncertainty is amplified into the macro world (quasi-classical domain). As a chemist I tend to look at quantum uncertainty not only from energetic particles (ionizing radiation) that can break covalent chemical bonds (though this is important for mutagenesis).

        For example if you use something like Brownian motion as an example of a micro classical chaos that can be amplified by deterministic chaos, there is the point that the small classical particle is moved by collisions with atoms and molecules which are quantum stuff which themselves will have a small quantum uncertainty. So deterministic chaos is amplifying their quantum uncertainty. Further more with molecules the is a further layer of quantum complexity, after an molecule has had a collision the position of its nuclei will be perturbed the molecule will then relax to an energetically stable configuration.

        This is rather like when I do a computational chemistry calculation and start with an approximate structure an wish to determine an energy minimized configuration. I can do it two ways, I can use molecular mechanics to achieve a classical approximate solution or I can carry out a quantum mechanical energy minimization. The final configurations will be very similar but the paths taken to these configurations will be different. In the real quantum world the path taken will be determined by the state vector and thus by definition be probabilistic.

        In my view all macro indeterminacy arising from deterministic chaos ultimately derives from quantum uncertainty at the molecular level, not from from classical statistical mechanics. We are quantum stuff and we live in a stochastic world.

        One interesting experimental effect is that UV irradiation of certain membrane bound proteins can cause after, the molecule is in an electronically exited state, a conformational change which switches the proteins biological activity. The two conformers will be in a superposition in the density matrix decoherence will destroy the off diagonal elements giving rise to quantum probabilities for each conformers each having a different effect on biological activity. Here is a quantum effect that is of biological significance. At the moment the example I have come across is in the area of apoptosis, but it may be significant in other areas too.

  32. bad Jim
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 12:52 am | Permalink

    Integrated circuits have for decades been so delicate as to be sensitive to the typical products of atomic decay, alpha particles (helium nuclei), beta particles (stray electrons) and gamma particles (incredibly vicious photons). Neurons are pretty crude in comparison, signals proceeding in leisurely fashion as masses of sodium and potassium ions dance back and forth through cell membranes.

    The scale’s all wrong. A single quantum event would be a bubble in a torrent.

    Mutations come from somewhere, whether an unstable isotope within a germ cell or an emission from an adjacent cell or something that came from outer space. Something that couldn’t influence the firing of a single neuron might be enough to tweak a chromosome.

    There’s good reason to think we aren’t simply Turing machines; in fact, Gödel’s theorem suggests otherwise. I’m by no means suggesting that we’re somehow magical, just pointing out that, so far, we hardly have a clue about how our minds work, and that medieval distinctions are perhaps not the most likely to prove productive.

  33. That Guy Montag
    Posted April 25, 2012 at 2:05 am | Permalink

    Part of the problem might be that there seems a general mistake in what exactly a compatibilist is trying to argue for. The emphasis for a compatibilist is to say there is some sense in which normal free will talk is compatible with fully deterministic causal talk. An interesting parallel here would be to talk of evolution by natural selection, but another might be something like a centre of gravity. The point is that a fully causal description of a selection event is going to be a very complicated thing. When we say “the gazelle was selected for speed” what we’re really doing is using selection as a short hand for the entire process of survival and reproduction. Similarly a centre of gravity is an entity that doesn’t actually exist, but should fall out of the sum of the forces operation on a body. A compatibilist if they were arguing in the natural selection context would therefore argue something like there is one or another reason why should continue to talk about selection, even though what we really mean is this vast chain of survival and reproduction. Similarly a compatibilist about centres of gravity would say there is one or another reason why we should continue to talk about centres of gravity, even though we know that they are really just implications in the mathematics of the measurement of forces. Finally, the compatibilist about free will is really saying that we have one or another reason to continue talking as if we can make choices even though we know that we are fully determined creatures.

    Now compatibilism here can come in different flavours. One reason Davidson for instance thinks that we need to keep those notions of choices is because being able to conceive of someone else as using reasons is essential to his theory of how we are able to get meaning, to literally understand what people say. Dennett with his talk about Intentional Stances is using a similar tactic saying that conceiving someone as having reasons for what they’re doing is essential to being able to understand and predict their actions. Other people, Peter Strawson is the one that jumps to mind, want to keep the idea of other people as making choices because it explains our common practice of holding people accountable for their actions. The most important thing linking all of these tactics is the claim that free will talk is inescapable for these purposes.

    PS. The point about natural selection and its relationship to compatibilism as an explanatory tactic is very prototype at the moment and a good chance for a possible dissertation topic so if anyone can help me clean up that point I promise there will be chocolate.

  34. layperson
    Posted May 8, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    If the universe is deterministic then there is no such thing as chance. The universe and evolution have only one possible history based on initial conditions and only one possible outcome. Contrary to Darwin, chance would play no part in evolution and the appearance of humans (and the other living forms that ever existed) would be an inevitable consequence of initial conditions. This would be compatible with deism.

    Laws of physics and other scientic principles are models of reality, not reality itself. Could the determinism inherent in our physics just be a limitation of our models?

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