“Zeuglodon” on free will at the RDF site

Over at the Richard Dawkins Foundation, you can find a new essay by “Zeuglodon” on free will and determinism, “The raw deal of determinism and reductionism.” It’s a bit wordy and hard to follow, but seems to conclude that free will is a convincing illusion.  Along the way, though, Zeuglodon makes an unnecessary diversion:

Speaking of crimes, the notion that responsibility evaporates because we can point to prior causes and therefore shift the blame is made dubious by the reductio ad absurdum that, following the chains all the way back, you come to the conclusion that the Big Bang should be blamed for all the crimes ever committed. Indeed, the Big Bang caused every earthquake, every intention to kill, every stroke of luck and so on. It’s possible to blame the universe, of course, but this is mostly achieved by anthropomorphising the universe as something that can be blamed, and here lies the key to the strangeness of this argument. In any case, this argument only really works if culpability was solely about causality. . .

I’m not aware of any incompatibilist—those who claim that determinism and free will are incompatible (I’d add that the indeterminism of quantum mechanics may not do much to give us free will)—who claims that determinism absolves us of responsibility. Though it absolves us, I think, of moral responsibility, we still must hold people responsible for their actions for the good of society. For holding people responsible can deter others from actions we think are bad for society, or stimulate others to do good. No incompatibilist thinks that minds can’t be changed by what they observe.

At any rate, Zeuglodon reaches a conclusion that some may find harsh:

Determinism and reductionism thus pull through, not because they have finally grasped the truth, but because – like our excellent brain simulations and the world they simulate – they fit much better than the alternative options and are quite up to the job of helping us decipher it. Free will – at least the metaphysical kind – has by comparison done little more than stoked human egos and misled people down unpromising avenues. Indeed, it has done what intelligent design proponents have done; offered a pseudoexplanation and worked hard to justify its intellectual laziness, a paradox if ever there was one. It is tempting to blame religion for this, but religion works with what’s there, and free will would never have been so alluring if it didn’t appeal to people’s desires for power and to people’s fear for weaknesses that could be exploited. Even now, brainwashing, and something like it if you don’t like the Hollywood connotations of the word, are terrifying prospects made easier if you think the mind is something that can be predicted or shaped.

Yes, free will is pushed largely by the faithful, but also by many atheist philosophers like Dan Dennett. I do agree with Zeuglodon, though, if what he means by “people’s desires for power” is that “people want to think that they really can make choices undetermined by physical law.”

Again, if there is no ghost in the machine—and none of us think there is—then what, exactly, is “free” about “free will”?  Nothing. That “freedom” merely means that we don’t understand the antecedent and deterministic (and perhaps quantum-mechanically random) causes of our actions and decisions.

Zeuglodon floats the old canard that “freedom” of will means “uncoerced” will, i.e., we don’t have freedom about whether to hand over our money when there’s a gun to our heads. But even in those cases we do seem to have a choice (some people don’t hand over the dough!), and the results are just as determined as what we “choose” to eat for lunch. At any rate, “lack of coercion” is hardly a substantive base for “free will,” and if that’s what it means, than virtually all animals have it, too.

Curiously, at least one of Zeuglodon’s commenters ( “ccw95005” in comment #4) sticks up strongly for free will:

Of course if you go down to quantum level we are all just robots made up of colonies of cells. All our decisions are the result of the structure and connections and chemicals in the brain and could be predicted by a superdupercomputer or God if he existed, within the limits of quantum uncertainty.

What does that have to do with our everyday lives? Nada. It’s an intellectual exercise, nothing more.

For all we can tell, in our actual existence we have total free will, unless we get into theoretical mode. You can decide one second from now to raise your right hand, or your left, or neither, or both. Go ahead, try it.

At a higher level, we can ask whether we have been programmed by our life experiences so thoroughly that out free will is limited. No. Your personality characteristics and tendencies have been shaped by nature and nurture, but you still have free will. You can decide to pull the trigger or not. Upbringing and environment have made your decision more predictable, but you can still do either . . .

Although the commenter fails to define “free will,”  he/she seems to be pushing the ghost in the machine, Can we really decide, in any meaningful sense, which hand to raise, or has that decision already been made for us? We think we can make that decision, but if its has antecedent causes that precede our “trying it,” then our choice isn’t really free.  And if our personality characteristics have been shaped by nature and nurture, and are based on a material body and brain, what does the commenter mean by “we still have free will”?  That’s an assertion without evidence.

To those who argue on this site that nobody believes in the ghost in the machine, or that our “choices” aren’t determined by physical forces, I offer this commenter (and several of my friends with whom I’ve discussed the issue) as a counterexample.  Just trying getting into a discussion about free will with a friend who hasn’t pondered the issue before.

h/t: Dale

118 Comments

  1. Kevin Alexander
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 4:26 am | Permalink

    I used to believe in free will but Jerry and others have convinced me that it’s an illusion. It’s a depressing thought but what can I do about it?

    I predict that I will go on behaving AS IF I had free will and everything should work out ok.

    Assuming that working out ok is the direction that it’s going. Not that I have any say in the matter.

    • Daniel Engblom
      Posted July 12, 2012 at 9:16 am | Permalink

      “Not that I have any say in the matter.”
      Ah, so you’re just a ghost not in control of the machine . a spectator floating near by?
      Even incompatibilists suffer from Dualism.

      • pulseteresa
        Posted July 12, 2012 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

        Sorry, but your comment makes no sense. In fact you seem to be saying “Well you’re dualists, too!” which is the Tu quoque argumetation fallacy. It’s no different that religionists saying “Well atheists have faith, too!” and it’s equally untrue and illogical.

        • Daniel Engblom
          Posted July 13, 2012 at 1:04 am | Permalink

          One on the most common arguments made against Free Will is its metaphysical groundings into dualism – Jerry writes all the time of the dualistic connotations of free will.

          This is used as an argument in and of itself. And Dualism is a dead concept as far as I can see, and the evidence does not support it, but still people go on with implicit assumptions of dualism in their remarks, and EVERYONE should be aware of it, even Sam Harris who notes (like in his lecture on free will that you can see on youtube) how the brain does things and you merely think you do. That is arguing that you are not in control because another demon is doing the controlling and giving you the impression of otherwise.

          Not untrue, but let’s be consistent here and either completely rework the language of all dualistic connotations or accept that our language has dualism built into it.
          (Ironically, looking at Sam Harris’ work, “spiritual” has even stronger groundings into dualism than “free will”, seeing it comes from the ‘breath of vitalism that gives life to a body’).

          • BillyJoe
            Posted July 14, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

            I’ve heard freewill advocates offer up our dualistic langauge as proof of freewill, and that my use of that dualistic language is proof that, deep dowm, I beleive in freewill despite my arguments against it (the whole idea of freewill is incoherent).

            • Posted July 14, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

              Determined volition.

            • Daniel Engblom
              Posted July 15, 2012 at 12:25 am | Permalink

              Well I’m not those people. I’m the person who points out hypocrisy, contradiction and incoherence in all sides of discussions for my own amusement.

  2. a
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 5:08 am | Permalink

    but what if we will find a self replicate watch that made od dna?

    • Posted July 12, 2012 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      All self-replicating biological organisms that we know of are DNA-based & contain “watches” of various types to manage the processes. What is your point & how does it relate to a discussion of free will?

  3. Bruce S. Springsteen
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 5:10 am | Permalink

    I’ll make my standard bid and gracefully step back to read, because this is all I’ve got:

    I still say that a neurologically healthy human being has something that a falling rock does not, and that it is reasonable — indeed necessary — to call that quality something like “free will.” Relatively speaking.

    Or call it “agency” or “sentience” or “personality.” Aren’t these all really near-synonyms for the same emergent quality of mental evolution? The salient observation is that we are extremely complex systems for taking in, processing and reacting/responding to stimuli. With increase in that reactive complexity comes increase in what I am perfectly happy to call “free will.” We have more degrees of freedom, a greater repertoire of possible reactions under similar circumstances than a falling rock, and having more such degrees of freedom in detecting and influencing our environment is a definition of free will that is useful. This is why we hold a man responsible for murder, and not the rock he threw. It is why we hold a neurotypical man more responsible than a mentally damaged one. The definition of free will is a functional, practical, local one, not an esoteric, abstract, universal one.

    Any sufficiently complex system of detecting, internally modelling and differentially responding to external phenomena is indistinguishable from a “free willer,” in any practical sense. I think we are sufficiently complex to employ the term usefully to ourselves, and to a lesser degree to lesser beings, and without succumbing to delusions of perfect, transcendent, and logically self-contradictory freedom.

    Metaphysical and contra-causal free will are incoherent, self-negating ideas, and so not discussable or useful.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted July 12, 2012 at 5:12 am | Permalink

      With all due respect, your concept of free will also applies to reptiles, amphibians, other mammals, and even to worms, perhaps. Given that neurological “complexity” is a continuum in animals, at what point does “free will” enter? Which animals have it and which don’t, and why?

      • suwise3
        Posted July 12, 2012 at 5:36 am | Permalink

        I don’t have a research grant to study them or to color code them so I’ll really never know for sure, so all my observation of the ants outside my front door are… just that. Observations.

        Most of the ants just work like little efficient robots. But in any group, there’s always one who work harder (lifting the heavier loads, walking briskly) and some who are just lazy (picking up really really small pieces and walking slowly). I’m beginning to suspect that ALL mammals have the same free will that we do. Whatever that is/isn’t.

        • BillyJoe
          Posted July 14, 2012 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

          That is to say that they don’t have freewill just as much as we don’t have freewill.

      • chemicalscum
        Posted July 12, 2012 at 6:27 am | Permalink

        I actually answered this question on an earlier thread on free will here:

        “Free will occurs in any neural system that in order to predict behavioural outcomes requires a complete emulation of the organism on a Turing machine.

        On this basis worms probably have free will. I can live with that.”

        https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/04/06/free-will-sam-harris-vs-dan-dennett/#comment-204082

        • gr8hands
          Posted July 12, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

          Agreed.

        • BillyJoe
          Posted July 14, 2012 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

          You’re simply re-defining freewill to breathe new life into that dead word.

      • gillt
        Posted July 12, 2012 at 10:01 am | Permalink

        Which animals have it and which don’t, and why?

        This logic can be applied to issues of animal experimentation and killing animals for food.

        The philosopher Tom Regan makes the case in his “subject-of-a-life” criterion that when satisfied in an organism it gains intrinsic value, autonomy.

      • Another Matt
        Posted July 12, 2012 at 10:15 am | Permalink

        I think this is misplaced essentialism, as though there were some “essence of free will” that one either has or doesn’t. The compatibilist concept of free will maybe goes all the way down to thermostats, which have a vanishingly small degree of it. Worms have many orders of magnitude of “degrees of freedom” in the engineering sense than do thermostats, and humans have many, many orders of magnitude more than worms.

        So what? Where you draw the line depends on what you need the line to do. But you’re not going to be able to find the charmed circle of “free willers” by hunting for essences.

        • BillyJoe
          Posted July 14, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

          “The compatibilist concept of free will maybe goes all the way down to thermostats”

          Which shows how bereft their arguments are. 😉

          • Another Matt
            Posted July 14, 2012 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

            “No one has ever announced that, because determinism is true thermostats do not control temperature.” — Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations

            😉 😉

    • Bruce S. Springsteen
      Posted July 12, 2012 at 5:14 am | Permalink

      “apply” the term, not “employ.”

    • darrelle
      Posted July 12, 2012 at 7:01 am | Permalink

      These discussions always get to the same place, but nobody is ever satisfied with the way they end. Pretty much everybody in the skeptical/rational groups agree that the classical concept of free will held by most religious people, and some others, is ridiculous. It is uniformly rejected. The differences arise mainly when some work at redefining the term while others simply want to negate it. But nobody ever concedes that that is what they are arguing about.

      It seems pretty evident that humans have some cognitive quality, or combination of qualities, that give us an advantage over other organisms (at least in the short term). Whatever these qualities are (and we will eventually figure out what they are), they are not anything like “free will”. So why confuse things by trying to co-opt that term already so freighted with controversy? Coin a new term.

      • derekw
        Posted July 12, 2012 at 9:57 am | Permalink

        Whatever these qualities are (and we will eventually figure out what they are), they are not anything like “free will”.Hmm…isn’t the whole issue that they DO seem exactly like the classical definition of free will? The debate really isn’t on the effect (apparent ‘free will’ of a person) but on the causal and transport properties that beget it.

        • darrelle
          Posted July 12, 2012 at 10:20 am | Permalink

          I was thinking more of things like self awareness and the ability to model the future.

          I was trying to get at the idea that classically it was argued that free will was the necessary attribute that made us more successful than all the other animals. And that free will, even if it where possible, is not necessary to explain that, that self awareness & the ability to model the future would be enough to account for it. Basically, free will, in the classical sense, is not necessary to explain anything and would not be useful to have even if it were possible.

      • pulseteresa
        Posted July 12, 2012 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

        Well said, darrelle. I’m all for coining a new term (as long as the definition makes no mention of free will : ).

  4. Bruce S. Springsteen
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    Jerry — exactly so. My definition applies, in a binary way, to a motion-detecting light switch. Free will becomes a long continuum without a hard star anywhere, or even a neurological basis. I’m happy to say that mechanical systems of all kinds, not just meat-based ones, have degrees of free will.

    • John K.
      Posted July 12, 2012 at 6:04 am | Permalink

      Even the falling rock mentioned in your first post?

      Complexity is also “in the eye of the beholder”, so is free will relative to the understanding of an observer?

      Pretty strange, sir.

      • Bruce S. Springsteen
        Posted July 14, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

        Belatedly..
        No, not the falling rock. The falling rock is not taking in information, filtering it through an algorithm of any kind, and producing an output or action. It is just an object being acted upon by forces. I do think there is a rudimentary sense in which we can call the motion-detecting light switch a subject, not just an object, and put it at the bottom of the long continuum of free will/sentience/consciousness where we represent the summit (so far as we know).

    • BillyJoe
      Posted July 14, 2012 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

      “My definition applies, in a binary way, to a motion-detecting light switch”

      You mean your re-defintion of freewill. That your re-defintion of freewill applies to a light switch should be cause you to pause and rethink this. Because, if you think about it, what you actually mean is that actual freewill does not exist – but if we just tweak the definition a bit it is everywhere. In other words, your re-defintion is meaningless, and freewill still does not exist.

  5. Bruce S. Springsteen
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    “hard start” dammit.

  6. Posted July 12, 2012 at 5:30 am | Permalink

    I wouldn’t say Dan Dennett pushes free will. He redefines it. He completely agrees that classical free will is an illusion and, in that sense, we don’t have free will. What Dan does is redefine “free will” AS the illusion. He means this in the same way that there are two definitions of “magic”. Classically it meant performing acts that violate laws of physics. We now more often use it to refer to very craftily designed illusion tricks in which it looks like one thing when really it is a misleading illusion.

    The problem I have with Dennett’s version is that it causes homonymous problems. It’s redefining a word and when people hear him saying that we do have free will, then incorrectly think that disagrees with others like Sam Harris when it doesn’t. They are saying the same thing, minus the redefinition.

    If you pay careful attention to what Dan is referring to, his redefined “free will” means you have an algorithmic model of cause and effect in your brain that can estimate outcomes given past and present inputs, and selects a preferred discrete option based on some output estimator. More importantly, small changes in input and processing conditions can lead to different output decisions, including the amount of time the algorithm simulates outcomes.

    In this sense, chess-playing algorithms have Dan’s version of “free will”. (Even he uses this example.) They may calculate after 1000 simulations the best move is to move a knight, but after 1001 simulations might move a pawn.

    That is Dan’s version of free will. While I agree with everything Dan says, I think he’s wrong to use the words “free will”. People are confused by the two meanings and continue to think his position disagrees with those who say it just an illusion. He doesn’t.

    Think of the problems caused by the two meanings of “theory”. Dan’s redefinition is just creating another one of these types of fiascoes.

    • Posted July 12, 2012 at 5:52 am | Permalink

      On the topic of personal responsibility, I agree that determinism gets misinterpreted, but there’s more to it than that. Of course we still need to hold people responsible for the actions. It’s the context that changes. We do the same with a malfunctioning machine. If a lamp is sparking, perhaps electrocutes a person, and causes danger to other people, we don’t just say, “Oh well, it’s deterministically caused so we’ll just leave the lamp alone.”

      What we do is quarantine the lamp from society. We either “kill” it by throwing it out, or we attempt to fix it by making adjustments so that it will stop “acting” that way until such point as we no longer believe it is a danger to others.

      This is why various punishments have worked as a first or second approximation. Our originally evolved anger and violence towards people who do wrong (by some standard) provides (a) a deterrent penalty that gets included in the algorithms of others in making output decision on what to do, (b) a recidivism deterrent for the individual themselves, and (c) may quarantine the person themselves either by incapacitating them or killing them.

      Replacing our emotional response with collective imprisonment powers improved upon this but still lacks addressing the root cause of the malfunction.

      What we can do better is directly address that cause. Most crimes of violence are those of conditions and emotions so deterrence has little effect. Locking people up for longer doesn`t solve this and make condition them even worse when they are released. It is also very expensive to everyone. Rehabilitation, where possible, acts to directly fix the malfunction and get that lamp back in circulation and working properly.

      Rehabilitation depends on the problem source and how to fix it. It might be malfunction of the brain due to genetic or conditioning. Drugs or other treatments might fix it. If it is cultural conditions, training criminals to fit into societal norms (like job skills, self-help skills, new social groups, new goals in life, etc.) might be the solution. This is no different than finding the cause of the malfunctioning lamp. There is no single fix. And, if broken enough so that it can`t be fixed, permanent quarantine might be the best solution.

      This is a more efficient and effective solution than the emotionally-driven `tough on crime` and `permanent scarlet letter` crowd which tends to increase crime andéor cost to everybody else.

      • Bruce S. Springsteen
        Posted July 12, 2012 at 6:21 am | Permalink

        If we accept the idea that our moral influence – teaching, preaching, reasoning — can alter the cognitive processes in another person’s head, and that the actions spurred by those processes of moral reasoning have consequences for society, then we can do better than simply sequester malfunctioning people. We can make moral lessons of them, and argue that their receiving moral instruction prior to their misbehavior makes them more blameworthy than someone who did the same act without access to moral education, other considerations being equal.

        We judge guilt not in absolute terms but against the behavior of similarly, if not identically situated actors, allowing for factors that compromise the ability of some particular actor to respond adaptively to conditions. Our moral judgments are pragmatic, situational, evolving, but not arbitrary. This formulation alone can supplant religious models of morality, without totally annihilating our conceptions of freedom and will. So yes, I favor the Dennett strategy of abandoning an untenable definition of free will for a pragmatic and useful one. In fact, explicitly retooling an existing term is itself a useful lesson for people to see. Just like teaching them the meaning of “theory” in the non-colloquial sense enhances their understanding of the misuse of the term. It drives home the idea that words have significantly different senses that we need to be alert to, if we want to be incisive thinkers.

      • Posted July 12, 2012 at 7:48 am | Permalink

        Chad:

        “What we can do better is directly address that cause. Most crimes of violence are those of conditions and emotions so deterrence has little effect.”

        Indeed, thanks. What the compatibilist attribution of moral responsibility does is single out the agent as specially deserving of intervention (usually blame and punishment) while ignoring the historical and situational causes of the agent and her behavior, see http://www.naturalism.org/Wallerreview.htm By ignoring her history and situation, compatibilists are replicating the libertarian ploy of setting up the agent as a first or primary cause, which in turn incites our retributive instincts. But when we understand the full causal story (as told usually by incompatibilists like Bruce Waller), this helps to keep retribution in check, and prompts us to attend to all those formative factors outside the agent, as you suggest.

    • Bruce S. Springsteen
      Posted July 12, 2012 at 5:57 am | Permalink

      So what other term should we apply to this useful, necessary illusion? It seems to me that most of our experience can be proven to be illusory, to violate our naive, parochial impressions, but isn’t this just a sort of scholar’s mate, like the triumphalism of dogmatic agnosticism that we deplore in anti-atheistic arguments? Yes, a pure, absolute “free will” is incoherent and self-evidently false, but who cares? We deal in illusions and approxmations all through our routine experience of reality. The very notion of separateness of the individual from his environment is arguably an illusion as well, yet we contine to post here under different handles as if we were all really distinct entities, not continuous with the rest of physical reality. I just think the whole free will debate has gotten a bit obvious and aimless, except insofar as it undermines the religious hoo-ha, of course. heh, heh.

      • pulseteresa
        Posted July 13, 2012 at 12:07 am | Permalink

        Don’t know what to replace it with, but “Free Will” is far too weighted with religious connotations to be useful terminology. Similarly, I disagree with Sam Harris’ attempt to redefine “spirituality” in non-religious terms. It’s a waste of time not only because it will fail, but will also give succor to the religionists who believe they’re talking about something coherent when they talk of spirituality and free will. They’re nonsensical religious concepts that atheists need not validate by attempting to redefine them.

    • John K.
      Posted July 12, 2012 at 6:01 am | Permalink

      You put this very well. There is so much baggage with the term “free will”; it is strange that compatibilists want to use it. The traditional dualist type seems justified in using the word “free”, but the compatibilist version ends up being a hopelessly gutted version of its dualist ancestor. As Jerry says: What is so “free” about compatibilist free will?

      I suspect determinism threatens some peoples sense of identity, so they want to hold on to free will to preserve how they think of themselves. Did “I” quit smoking or did the electro-chemical reactions in my brain quit smoking? Do “I” really have control over what happens to me, or is everything an inevitable result of physical laws, including the decisions “I” make and thoughts “I” have? There is no possible way to answer these questions, so they are not all that meaningful. There is still a strong emotional connection, however, so most go with what is comforting to them.

    • Dale
      Posted July 12, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for that succinct explanation of Dennetts thoughts. It seems that he brings a another dimension to the discussion.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted July 14, 2012 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

      That is actually a very good summary of Daniel Dennett’s ideas on freewill. And I agree, he should not re-define “freewill”, he should find another word or coin a neologism.

      • Posted July 15, 2012 at 1:44 am | Permalink

        Sure, determined volition.Choice determinism.Dennet determinism.
        How does the subconscious make us do what we do, since it doesn’t know that consciously? How do determinants play against each other? What then is the interplay betwixt the subconscious and the conscious?
        Per John Stuart Mill, society has no right to infringe on the individual unless for her betterment such as barring smoking areas.How can then society build better social determinants to aid us all?
        Again, my determinants caused me to seek therapy,producing better determinants!People need to get away from toxic social conditions. How do their determinants make them want to do so?
        That is, how does our determinism work. The nameof that blog lsted previously is Determinism wher I reblog articles in favor of determinism,besides posting my own and posts to the reblogs.
        In short, how do we use determinism for that more abundant life? I use that phrase from the Buy-bull in relation to any naturalist manner as a snide against that Galilean cult leader.
        http://buy-bull.posterous.com
        http://ignosticmorgansblog.wordpress. God is that circle that theologians cannot square or is a married bachelor- no there there!

  7. Posted July 12, 2012 at 5:35 am | Permalink

    Jerry:

    “We think we can make that decision, but if its has antecedent causes that precede our ‘trying it,’ then our choice isn’t really free.”

    This forgets that the agent’s decision-making capacities are just as much part of the causal picture as her antecedents, see http://www.naturalism.org/demoralization.htm Unless we’re coerced to act against our will, or acting under the influence of mental disease or defect, our decisions are ordinarily up to us such that it makes sense to hold each other responsible (but not *morally* responsible, as you point out). The compatibilist definition of free will captures the conditions under which it makes consequentialist sense to apply rewards and sanctions to shape behavior.

    But compatibilists generally want to go further and say that meeting these conditions makes us morally responsible, that is, deserving of rewards and sanctions *whether or not* any good outcomes are produced. Dennett, sad to say, is among those busy defending retributive punishment, as if our retaliatory dispositions were in any danger of being trumped by the better angels of our nature.

  8. Chris
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 5:56 am | Permalink

    Anything with a mind has free will. If you can think about the past, present and future, remember stuff and make plans in your head, then you have free will. And maybe one or two other things that separate motion detectors from higher animals. But basically it’s that simple.

    It’s possible to argue that we’re just clusters of particles behaving deterministically, but that’s trivially true of everything.

    So there.

    • Bruce S. Springsteen
      Posted July 12, 2012 at 6:27 am | Permalink

      Says the cluster of particles…

    • DV
      Posted July 12, 2012 at 9:00 am | Permalink

      We are clusters of particles – that is trivially true.

      But we are most definitely not “just” clusters of particles. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

      • Another Matt
        Posted July 12, 2012 at 9:27 am | Permalink

        Maybe a better way to say this is just that “is made of matter” is an almost trivial predicate in the physical world. But the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts if you include its organizations, relations, dispositional and manifest properties, etc. as among its “parts.”

        Calling something a “cluster of particles” does nothing to describe how the particles are arranged.

  9. darrelle
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    “Yes, free will is pushed largely by the faithful, but also by many atheist philosophers like Dan Dennett.”

    That is a low blow. Dennett’s concept of free will is very different from that of the faithful. So different that he is in about 95% agreement with you. The major difference seems to be that he has decided to use the tactic of redefining free will in an attempt to counter the classical concept held by most faithful, whereas you prefer the more direct approach of simply refuting it and throwing the term free will out. Dennett is trying to slip the knife between their ribs while they aren’t looking, and you are aiming a shotgun right at their face.

    I prefer the direct approach too, but implying that Dennett agrees with the faithful on free will is disingenuous.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted July 12, 2012 at 6:45 am | Permalink

      I was agreeing with you completely, saying that free will was largely pushed by the faithful, but the concept has also been explicated by philosophers like Dennett. In no sense was I equating what Dan does, which I respect (though we disagree about free will) with what the faithful do.

      Do I didn’t imply what you said, and was not being disingenuous. I’d appreciate you acknowledging and apologizing for that. We don’t call the host (or other commenters) names on this website.

      • darrelle
        Posted July 12, 2012 at 7:28 am | Permalink

        Professor Coyne,

        I apologize for misunderstanding you. It was not my intent to offend you. I do not understand how you interpret anything I wrote as name calling, but it was certainly not my intent to call you names, or be offensive in any way.

        The sentence of yours that I quoted, for which there is no other context in your post, seemed to me to unfairly group Dennett’s idea with the faithful’s. I simply wanted to point that out, and I was not consciously trying to be rude. I even attempted (I know I usually fail at this) to inject a little humor.

        I acknowledge that I interpreted you incorrectly and accept that it was not your intent to imply what I suggested. I also acknowledge that my use of the term disingenuous was overly cavalier and unwarranted, and now realize that that word is very likely what offended you. If so I understand and agree. Again, I apologize.

      • pulseteresa
        Posted July 13, 2012 at 12:19 am | Permalink

        Jerry,

        I agree with most of your response to darrelle, but feel the need to point out that he *never* called you any names. He certainly criticized you with colorful terminology, but he never once called you names.

      • pjlandis
        Posted July 13, 2012 at 9:03 am | Permalink

        I think you should apologize to darrell, that comment was in no way name calling or otherwise inappropriate.

        Then again, I don’t want to upset the Great and Powerful Coyne.

  10. Kevin
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    Though it absolves us, I think, of moral responsibility, we still must hold people responsible for their actions for the good of society. For holding people responsible can deter others from actions we think are bad for society, or stimulate others to do good.

    Illogical. Deterministically, you cannot deter others from actions we think are bad for society. Those actions will happen regardless of punishments given to others for bad behaviors.

    You painted yourself into a little corner there, IMO.

    • darrelle
      Posted July 12, 2012 at 8:32 am | Permalink

      I don’t understand. Regardless of whether people’s decisions are conscious or unconscious the process is still responsive to stimuli on a continuing real time basis. People’s minds are continuously changing and are affected by the actions of other people in particular, due to our evolutionary history as social animals.

    • pulseteresa
      Posted July 13, 2012 at 12:29 am | Permalink

      Actually, it’s quite simple via determinism to to deter others’ actions when you take into account that the punishments given to others for their behavior are themselves determinants of the actions of those who would perpetrate actions harmful to society. Determinism is not predestination. Inputs (such as punishments for bad behaviors) right up until and including the moment of action are all determinants of the person’s actions.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted July 14, 2012 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

      “You painted yourself into a little corner there”

      I love it when people say something of others that actually applies with full force to themselves 🙂

      “Illogical. Deterministically, you cannot deter others from actions we think are bad for society. Those actions will happen regardless of punishments given to others for bad behaviors.”

      What you completely overlooked is the fact that, other people’s actions are part of the input into your brain that deterministically produces the output from your brain. 😉

  11. Christian
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    JAC: With all due respect, your concept of free will also applies to reptiles, amphibians, other mammals, and even to worms, perhaps. Given that neurological “complexity” is a continuum in animals, at what point does “free will” enter? Which animals have it and which don’t, and why?

    Of course, if “free will” is a matter of degree then a simpler system possesses less thereof from the point of view of a more complex system because it can incorporate more information about the simpler system to simulate it and make reliable predictions about its behavior.
    A system that is aprox. equally as complex or even more complex than our original system will thus always appear to have “free will” from its perspective.

    In other words, from the point of view of a highly intelligent alien we might exhibit as much “free will” as a macaque or even a hamster from our point of view.
    This is even worse when you postulate an omniscient and omnipotent deity since it always has complete information about any existing system plus its environment and thus can predict their behavior with absolute accuracy.
    That’s why the claim of the religious that their god gave us free will is complete nonsense, at least wrt this type of “free will.”
    It’s like asking if this god could create a system not even he can predict.

    Now, I don’t think this whole “free will” kaboodle is a well defined concept, so…

  12. Another Matt
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    Can we really decide, in any meaningful sense, which hand to raise, or has that decision already been made for us? We think we can make that decision, but if its has antecedent causes that precede our “trying it,” then our choice isn’t really free.

    This is as good an example as any of what one might call “incompatibilist dualism.” Here is what is affirmed in the first sentence:

    1) There is an “us” or a “we.”

    2) Decisions are made in our world.

    3) Although decisions are made, it is not “we” who make them – they have already been made for “us.”

    All of this seems to imply that there is a ghost in the machine after all — the “we” that is just along for the ride in whatever our bodies are causally fated to do.

    There are a few ways out.

    Maybe it’s better to just say that there simply are no decisions – “when a mouse goes one way but not another in a maze, whatever that event is it is not a decision.” Maybe we can live with that, but I think it makes a hash of operant conditioning at least. I think it also makes it impossible to describe what our algorithmic brains are actually doing when some logically possible paths are pruned from a brain’s model of the future for whatever reason. Without some form of “decision” I don’t think natural selection makes any sense either.

    Another way out is to get to the bottom of what “I” and “we” mean, if we are to affirm that “decision” is an indispensable concept. There are two broad strategies: 1) The incompatibilist version: “I” is an illusion, since no deterministic process could give rise to a real “I” — whatever goes on in this body, it is not an “I.” So we should just quit using words like “I” and “we” so that we don’t confuse people. 2) The compatibilist version: “I” is a real emergent phenomenon in the world. It is not a ghost in the machine, but under suitable interpretation (i.e. “redefinition”), it makes sense to continue to use “I” keeping our new concept of it in mind. “I” is real – it gets inputs from the environment, can think, and can operate on its world — some of those operations are what we have been calling “decisions.”

    In any case, Dennett’s writing on free will only makes sense in light of his writing on consciousness and how best to interpret “I” — and I’d go a step further, which is that any writing on free will really does need to have a working definition of “I” and “we” that is compatible with whatever definition of “free will” is used in the arguments. Using compatibilist I with incompatibilist free will leads to the type of subtle dualism I’m pointing out in Coyne’s arguments.

    • pulseteresa
      Posted July 13, 2012 at 12:53 am | Permalink

      I think you’re reading far too much into Jerry’s use of words here. Perhaps he could have put it in different terms, but I think I know what it is he’s saying here. There is no dualism in Jerry’s description aside, perhaps, from his use of language. The “we” and the “us” are one in the same. That our decisions have been made for “us” is (and I’m basing this on reading his previous writings on free will) a reference to the fact that our unconscious brain functions “make” the decisions before our conscious minds are aware of them. Thus there is no dualism. Unless, that is, you believe that referring to the unconscious and conscious functions of the brain as separate constitutes dualism. This would still be quite different from religious dualism, though.

      • greg byshenk
        Posted July 13, 2012 at 2:02 am | Permalink

        The issue is not whether one “refer[s] to the unconscious and conscious functions of the brain as separate”; one certainly can do so. The question is what is the ‘we’, ‘us’, or ‘I’. Even to ask “has that decision already been made for us?” necessarily presupposes that there is an ‘us’, and a positive answer to the question concludes that there is some “not-us” that is actually making the decision.

        The difficulty arises because, if one is a materialist, then the “I” is also materialist. “I” just am my physical self and its functions. “My” subconscious as well as “my” conscious thoughts and decisions are both part of me; they are not something separate from “me”.

        Asking “has that decision already been made for us?” seems to imply dualism because it presupposes that there is some “us” that is a separate thing from our physical brains and their (conscious and unconscious) processes. But when one thinks about consciousness (along Dennett’s lines, for example), this presupposition of the incompatibilist argument doesn’t make a lot of sense.

        • Posted July 13, 2012 at 3:24 am | Permalink

          Greg, thanks for implicitly using my query about how our subconscios works. I want to know more about that part of “us.” I am a determinist as my blog Determinism notes-that last one I mentioned.I also have one on materialism.
          I combine and permute arguments;I make explicit arguments for implicit ones and name other arguments. The teleonomic argument is part of the empirical argument that no evidence for theism ever comes forth; what theists instead do is to proffer misinterpretations for arguments!
          Feser has met his come-uppance from WEIT and the Uncreible Hallq! I am now flaying his drivel!
          By the way had they the power,the misanthropists Augustine,Aquinas, Calvin and Luther would have scorched all Europe!Oh how the first three loved the pyre! And Luther hated peasants and especially, Jewry! And their master, Yeshua, was no better! There is a case there for their abortions!
          Lord Griggs loves to stick it to woo-meisters!

      • Another Matt
        Posted July 13, 2012 at 6:03 am | Permalink

        There is no dualism in Jerry’s description aside, perhaps, from his use of language.

        Well, where else would it be except his use of language? We seem to be playing a game where the net is up for choice and will and down for consciousness and selfhood.

        Maybe you could argue that it would be impossible to go through life without using first-person pronouns — maybe you’d go further and say “But of course when I say ‘I’ I’m not referring to a real self because everyone knows a real self would be those souls the religious are always telling us about.” Does that not stretch the notion of “real” a little too far? Why not let “real” refer to whatever we can point to that is real, and say “a real human self is the emergent property of whatever goes on in a human brain.”

        The same can be said for choice: see if you can go through life as the induction machines we seem to be without using language of choice, modal “could,” or counterfactuals. Induction depends on counterfactuals.

        Say you’re running a simple Skinner experiment on a mouse where it runs through a maze and when it reaches a fork, if it turns left it gets nothing and if it turns right it gets food. If it can learn to turn right 100% of the time after 10 trials, is that a regularity in the world that needs an explanation? Do we ever need to explain “why did X happen and not A, B, Y, or Z?” When the experimenter says “hmm… it could have gone left, but it has learned to go right… why?” what sense could be made of the “could” there in light of the incompatibilist determinism Jerry espouses (where “could have” always implies “if every particle in the universe were in the same place at the time”)? If it never could have done anything other than what it did (given the “every particle” constraint), has the mouse learned anything? If the mouse learned something, then “could” must hypothesize a counterfactual, turning its meaning more into something like “would if.”

        My point is, if it makes sense to ask “why didn’t the mouse go left?” then the rest of life is at least enough like that to include “choice” and “decision” in our language, defined relative to normal, inductive, empirical counterfactuals (“why X but not Y or Z?”). Under determinism this is the only kind of choice that is real, so why not take it?

  13. Dominic
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    The comment from “ccw95005” is ridiculous – raising this hand or that hand is not an experiment that we can do unless we can run back in time to the same point. Otherwise how do we know that it was not predetermined which hand would or would not be raised?

  14. Christian
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    A propos “ghost in the machine”: I never understood why this entity (assuming arguendo that it exists) was supposed to have free will. Doesn’t it need to collect information and process it in some way in order to generate some output?
    And if it does, how is it not just a machine (in a strict sense) as well?

    • Another Matt
      Posted July 12, 2012 at 7:32 am | Permalink

      Exactly right – if a disembodied soul is responding to information, then there’s some sense in which that information is causing the soul’s behavior — especially if that soul is behaving perfectly rationally. If it does “exactly the right thing” in response to information, then that information has a causal, and predictively causal relationship to the soul’s actions.

      • Another Matt
        Posted July 12, 2012 at 7:32 am | Permalink

        Dennett’s “worth wanting” point is basically this — “wouldn’t it be great to be able to respond ‘just right’ to incoming information?”

      • Dominic
        Posted July 12, 2012 at 7:51 am | Permalink

        The ghost in the machine presumably does not act when we run on ‘instinct’ does it, in their thinking? When you flinch or put out a hand when falling, is that their ‘ghost’ or does it only come into play for slow decisions or ‘moral’ decisions? It is a silly idea.

    • DV
      Posted July 12, 2012 at 7:54 am | Permalink

      the magic in the ghost in the machine is that you can’t trace any physical determinism to it because it’s immaterial. it can respond to information, but it’s still free from causation. it’s just magic!

  15. DV
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    Summary of why we have free will:

    1) Free will is not about freedom from determinism or causation. It has always been about freedom from unwanted influence from other minds. This is the everyday meaning of the term and the way we all understand it until philosophers wrongly try to understand it in reductionist terms.
    2) Free will is only an interesting concept and makes sense only in an environment of sometimes competing and sometimes cooperating intention-holders. We evolved as social animals and this is the reason why free will is an important idea to us.
    3) If you imagine being the sole conscious intentional agent in the whole universe, then the idea of Free Will is completely uninteresting. There is no other mind that might influence or coerce your against your intention.
    4) Before we knew about scientific determinism, our idea of free will as uncoerced will was safe and compatible with the concept of ghost in the machine. These are two different ideas: free will and the idea of an immaterial soul. Scientific materialism made us discard the idea of an immaterial soul. But we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
    5) Daniel Dennet and other compatibilists are simply trying to illuminate how the idea of uncoerced will can be compatible with scientific determinism. They are saying we don’t have to tie it with the “real magic” of the immaterial soul.
    6) Animals and other things have free will only to the extent that they can have intention. We can anthropomorphize anything of course and attribute intention to even falling rocks. But we have to know exactly what we are doing so we don’t get confused, and dismiss our free will with the absurd argument that if beetles don’t have it then we must not have it also.
    7) Free will is situational. In some situations we act of our own free will. In other situations we don’t – we act contrary to our will and according to someone else’s will.
    8) Physical barriers are not impingements on our free will unless those barriers were set up by other conscious intentional agents. Prison walls would violate your free will because somebody put you there. But you would not think you lost free will to walk if you became paraplegic because of an accident, which is by definition not intentional (unless you think God intentionally caused the accident).

    • Dominic
      Posted July 12, 2012 at 8:08 am | Permalink

      “Animals and other things have free will only to the extent that they can have intention.” But what is intention? The result of selection processes in the Darwinian battlefield of the brain I would say. Selection processes working on very basic urges, survival & procreation. We dress ourselves up as sophisticated angels rather than ordinary animals but all we really are is adding Baroque ornamentation (culture, language etc) to a simple Romanesque building.

      • DV
        Posted July 12, 2012 at 8:34 am | Permalink

        Sure, consciousness is explainable as emergent from the non-conscious workings of interacting modules in our brains. That doesn’t mean consciousness doesn’t exist, or that it is invalid to say we have consciousness without always noting the caveat of it’s non-magical underpinnings.

        • DV
          Posted July 12, 2012 at 8:35 am | Permalink

          “its” not “it’s”.. argghhh!!

        • Bruce S. Springsteen
          Posted July 13, 2012 at 6:24 am | Permalink

          So we have entered the arena of defining consciousness and intention. I have wondered if the idea of conscious intention is needed to usefully define “free will.” My “degrees of freedom in detection and reaction” definition has excluded those two terms, mainly because of our vain tendency to dismiss non-human consciousness, out of hand and by definition. Why not say a computer has rudimentary consiousness? What is consciousness but an information gathering system’s capacity to read and respond to its own internal processes, self-relexively, and what is intention but the capacity to internally model various future scenarios and actions with the purpose of anticipating and choosing among them? That’s an attempt at objective definition. Describing consciousness subjectively seems impossibly hard, and a bit anthropocentric, given that we are only experienced with our own form of consciousness. Indeed, when we want to exclude, say, iPads and iguanas and thermostats from the continuum of conscious free will, it appears to me that we are not preferring observation and logical analysis as criteria, but our emotional life. I think we may be unwittingly attaching our ideas of sentience and agency to our limbic system, without noticing that is what we are doing.

          This whole pragmatic line of thought moves me in the direction of agreeing with Raymond Smullyan, who suggested in his whimsical dialogue “Is God a Taoist?” that free will and sentience are one and the same, functionally identical, and that it is quite impossible to imagine one without the other.

          http://www.mit.edu/people/dpolicar/writing/prose/text/godTaoist.html

          • DV
            Posted July 13, 2012 at 8:00 am | Permalink

            I’m not dismissing non-human consciousness at all. I’m responding to the suggestion that Dominic seems to be making that human consciousness is nothing remarkable. I’m not saying there is a sharp boundary between consciousness and no-consciousness. Consciousness is clearly correlated with brain size/complexity. So our capacity for consciousness would be higher than squirrels for example. I would say that the continuum of real consciousness is inversely proportional with the continuum of metaphorical/anthropomorphic consciousness. An iguana’s consciousness might be some part real and some part metaphorical. But I think a thermostat’s consciousness is 100% metaphorical.

            • Bruce S. Springsteen
              Posted July 14, 2012 at 9:21 am | Permalink

              Right, DV, you aren’t dismissing non-human consciousness. Would you, however, dismiss the possibility of non-biological consciousness? What kind of threshhold criteria are you incline to set for applying the term consiouc to an information gathering and processing system? Is there a place you consider it most sensible to draw a line?

              • Another Matt
                Posted July 14, 2012 at 9:30 am | Permalink

                The line, wherever it is, is going to have to be a rather fuzzy line. Not only is there the usual “fallacy of the beard” issue (I think we’d mostly accept that consciousness is not an essence that something either has or doesn’t, yes?). It might be kind of like “drawing the line” for membership in the Mandelbrot set — some points are clearly in, some are out, and the edge may even be precisely definable, but impossibly fuzzy to easily decide for a point near the edge.

  16. Jerome Haltom
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    Anything wrong with defining “free will” the same as we define “free speech?” The ability to execute your will without restriction from another agent?

    Works for me.

    • DV
      Posted July 12, 2012 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      That is the correct definition of free will. The idea that free will is about physically being able to defy causation is mistaking the central idea of the concept (What is it?) with the theorized mechanism (How does it work?). Freedom from coercion by other conscious intentional agents is not achieved by being free from physical determinism.

  17. Journalmalist
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    …we still must hold people responsible for their actions for the good of society.

    Must? As if we have a choice !

    I think you can count Clarence Darrow as an incompatibilist, as you define one, and he famously argued that responsibility evaporates (not exactly the same as “absolves” but never mind) in defending Leopold and Loeb.

  18. Posted July 12, 2012 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    That so-called “quantum uncertainty” is also BS. Uncertainty of all sorts, including the micro kind, can be interpreted in two different ways: objective and subjective. Quantum theorists consider uncertainty to be objective and causality to be subjective—in tune with their assumption of finity and the pervasive indeterminism of society. Univironmental determinists consider uncertainty to be subjective (It is impossible to know everything about anything, but it is possible to know more about anything) and causality to be objective (All effects have an infinite number of material causes). “Randomness,” then, is simply a measure of what we don’t know. In a universe that is microcosmically and macrocosmically infinite, there will always be plenty of ignorance to go around. None of that, however, produces an iota of freewill.

  19. Kevin
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    “Just trying getting into a discussion about free will with a friend who hasn’t pondered the issue before”

    Try it with a judge too.

  20. Posted July 12, 2012 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    “I’m not aware of any incompatibilist—those who claim that determinism and free will are incompatible (I’d add that the indeterminism of quantum mechanics may not do much to give us free will)—who claims that determinism absolves us of responsibility. Though it absolves us, I think, of moral responsibility, we still must hold people responsible for their actions for the good of society. For holding people responsible can deter others from actions we think are bad for society, or stimulate others to do good. No incompatibilist thinks that minds can’t be changed by what they observe.”

    Indeed. Most civilized societies don’t have “wrath”, “vengeance”, “revenge” etc as part of their legal system. Punishing people for crimes still makes sense (except perhaps in cases where people quite literally didn’t know what they were doing, but then a closed psychiatric ward is the best bet) since it protects society from known criminals, can act as a deterrent and (if done right) give the criminal a chance to reform. (In general, the more luxurious the prison, the lower the rate of repeat offenders.)

    • Gary W
      Posted July 12, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

      Most civilized societies don’t have “wrath”, “vengeance”, “revenge” etc as part of their legal system.

      I doubt that’s true. But in any case, all civilized societies have the idea of responsibility as part of their legal system. The idea that people have the capacity to choose between right and wrong actions, and can therefore be blamed when they choose to do wrong. In the Anglo-American legal tradition, crime rests on the concept of mens rea (“guilty mind”). But if there’s no freedom of choice, if people cannot choose between right and wrong, how can they be guilty? How can they deserve blame? How can they be held responsible for their actions, any more than a computer program can be guilty, or deserving of blame, or held responsible for its output?

      • Posted July 12, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

        My point is that even if they cannot choose there are still reasons (I listed 3) to punish them. Also, strict determinism does not imply “so and so will always commit a crime” but rather “so and so will always commit a crime, given these circumstances”. One thing society can do is change the circumstances.

        • Gary W
          Posted July 12, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

          And my point is that even if the legal systems of civilized societies do not include “vengeance” etc. (which seems doubtful) they certainly include the concept of moral responsibility. They treat criminals as moral agents with the capacity to choose between right and wrong, not as blameless puppets of strict determinism.

  21. Posted July 12, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    “some people don’t hand over the dough”

    There’s the old Jack Benny joke:

    “Your money or your life! Make it snappy!”

    “Give me just a minute—I’m thinking!”

    • Andy Dufresne
      Posted July 12, 2012 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      And that pregnant pause Benny gives it…so funny!

    • DV
      Posted July 12, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      >>Zeuglodon floats the old canard that “freedom” of will means “uncoerced” will, i.e., we don’t have freedom about whether to hand over our money when there’s a gun to our heads. But even in those cases we do seem to have a choice (some people don’t hand over the dough!)…

      Exactamundo!
      You exercise your free will when you refuse to be coerced even when a gun is pointed at your head.
      When you do as you as told, then you’re not acting of your own free will.

      It is strange that the refusal to be coerced by some people is taken as argument against existence of free will, when that is exactly a demonstration of free will.

  22. MNb
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Now the higgs-boson has been found, do you call the pain an illusion if I punch you on your nose? No? Then it’s inconsistent to call free will an illusion. It’s a notion useful for our human daily scale, just like Newton’s mechanics are useful describing said punch.

    • Andy Dufresne
      Posted July 12, 2012 at 10:46 am | Permalink

      I’m not following your point: how does the Higgs modify this discussion? The physical sensation of pain and (what I would argue) is the illusion of free will are not exactly the same thing. The free will “illusion” is that we perceive ourselves to be making choices when, technically, we’re not—not in the sense most people think, anyway. It’s the very idea of a choice that, given the laws of physics, gets called into question.

  23. Gary W
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Though it absolves us, I think, of moral responsibility, we still must hold people responsible for their actions for the good of society.

    But what does it mean to say that people are “responsible” for their actions, but not “morally responsible?” What’s the difference? How can you be responsible for your actions if you are not free to act differently (because you don’t have “free will”)?

  24. Pirate
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Jerry, I have a question about your views on punishment. Do you think it’s OK to punish an innocent person for a crime she didn’t commit, as long as the punishment has a strong deterrent effect? I mean, as long as other people think she committed the crime, and they would be discouraged from doing the same by seeing her punished, is there a problem with punishing her instead of the person who did in fact commit the crime? I think it’s obvious that this is very wrong, but I don’t see how your view would deliver that verdict. After all, according to you the innocent is just as morally responsible as the person who did it (i.e. not at all), and the deterrent value would be the same. Assuming you can’t catch the actual perpetrator, what’s wrong with punishing the innocent?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted July 12, 2012 at 11:56 am | Permalink

      No, I don’t think this should be done because that policy would itself have deleterious effects on society, with individuals who are innocent going around worried that they could be incarcerated, and people committing more crimes simply because the cops wouldn’t try so hard to find the REAL perpetrator.

      • Pirate
        Posted July 12, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

        The deleterious effects you talk about would only come about if this were a regular policy that the people knew about. I was thinking more of a special case. You’re an investigator. You’ve tried hard to catch the perpetrator of a particularly heinous crime but failed. There is a person who everyone suspects but you know (based on confidential information) to be innocent. You think, “If I punish this person harshly, people will think we’ve captured the real criminal, so criminals in the future will be less likely to believe they can get away with their crime.” In this case, wouldn’t it be better to imprison the innocent rather than admit you can’t find the criminal? The deleterious effects you posit wouldn’t arise because citizens wouldn’t know the person was innocent and neither would cops in general.

        • Andy Dufresne
          Posted July 12, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

          I’m eager to read JAC’s response, but just a quick thought: I notice the hypothetical characterizes this as a “particularly heinous” crime, so I envision a grizzly serial-killer-style murder, something like that. Very generally speaking, people who commit particularly heinous crimes do not strike once and call it a career, rather, there’s often a pattern of sociopathic and violent behavior: i.e., this tends to be the kind of perpetrator who will be routinely harming people until she or he is stopped. So there’d be a significant chance this person will strike again. If jailing the wrong person deters other psychopaths from committing other heinous acts—we’ll just accept that that’s true for sake of the hypothetical—then one must also recognize how that very same action could itself neutralize the societal benefit of the aforementioned deterrent effects. Innocent person in jail or not, since we’ve ended the investigation, we’ve necessarily increased the chances of our culprit committing another heinous crime—this time on an unsuspecting community that’s under the impression that their local Ted Bundy is behind bars. And so whatever harm comes as a consequence must be weighed against whatever the deterrent’s societal benefits might be, right?

  25. Neil
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    The interesting thing about free will threads is that they invoke the same responses from compatibilists and incompatibilists every time. It is almost as if there is no free will.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 12, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      And it is almost like there is free will.

      You can’t test “free” will in that manner. The test is if there is an effective illusion of “free will” – there is.

    • DV
      Posted July 12, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      I agree there is a lot of repetition but the way I see it is that all the arguments of the incompatibilists have been countered, but they don’t counter back or answer questions, they just repeat the same original arguments over and over.

      I’m on the compatibilist side, so I’m biased. 🙂

  26. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Though it absolves us, I think, of moral responsibility, we still must hold people responsible for their actions for the good of society. For holding people responsible can deter others from actions we think are bad for society, or stimulate others to do good. No incompatibilist thinks that minds can’t be changed by what they observe.

    So incompatibilism leads to ideologies like hedonism or utilitarianism or libertarianism?

    Thank you, even if morals are as effective theories of society as “free” will is of mind, I think I’ll keep them.

    If that makes me a moralist, so be it.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 12, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

      Actually I think morality is wider, I take it to mean sets of intrinsic (evolutionary traits) and extrinsic (social traits) behavior that we display.

  27. Posted July 12, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    JAC: Though [determinism] absolves us, I think, of moral responsibility, we still must hold people responsible for their actions for the good of society. For holding people responsible can deter others from actions we think are bad for society, or stimulate others to do good.

    Jerry, what do you mean by “moral responsibility”? I would mean by it, the societal holding of people responsible because it is good for society, because it can deter others, and stimulate people for the good. In which case determinism does not absolve us of moral responsibility.

    So, if you mean something else by it, what? Or are you arguing that there is no such thing as “moral responsibility”, just as you argue that there are no (genuine) choices?

    I guess we all agree that we need the sort of responsibility that you outline in the bit I quoted. So why not call it “moral” responsibility? (The word is not the property of the theists!)

    • Peter
      Posted July 12, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      I take his point to mean that he feels he’s losing the argument with compatibilits, so he’s splitting finer and finer hairs to convince people that he’s actually still got important points to make.

      • pulseteresa
        Posted July 13, 2012 at 2:17 am | Permalink

        Huh? Compatibilists have an argument? Aside from redefining free will, that is?

    • Posted July 12, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

      “I guess we all agree that we need the sort of responsibility that you outline in the bit I quoted. So why not call it ‘moral’ responsibility?”

      According to standard definitions current among philosophers, moral responsibility entails that people should be punished *whether or not* it produces any good consequences. But we can hold each other responsible on strictly consequentialist grounds, for instance to deter, correct, or keep society safe – what Jerry has in mind. See the beginning of this review for more on defining moral responsibility: http://www.naturalism.org/Wallerreview.htm

      • Gary W
        Posted July 13, 2012 at 11:21 am | Permalink

        But we can hold each other responsible on strictly consequentialist grounds, for instance to deter, correct, or keep society safe – what Jerry has in mind.

        But that’s like saying we can hold a computer program responsible for its output. You’re using the word “responsible” in a way that is likely to confuse and mislead. I think that saying “X should be held responsible for Y,” where Y is some kind of bad outcome (like murder), implies that X deserves blame for Y, that X is culpable for Y. But, if I understand you correctly, you’re denying that blame and culpability are useful concepts at all.

  28. Ray Owen
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Free will, in my view, is the name of a random variable. Each are born with differing degrees of choice and benefit and as such have predetermined sets of whatever their will has the potential to aspire to. There is a permutation of events that leads to ones staring position in the range of what is available to ones fellow humans. Once life is in flux another set of permutations that influence ones rolling program of life experiential, constantly informing and either enhancing or reducing whatever will one has. The complexity arises due everyones will being in flux. Law is a perfect example of collective , or group will, designed to reinforce the wills of predecessors to ones own arrival. Crime is that which pushes these boundaries in chaotic ways as a sort of overreaction to its position/time will creating a perfect “neuron storm” within the individual to induce violence upon a situation in which the entropy in some way aggravates it, rather than satiates said “will”. Obviously if your permutations delivered you a rare high level share in “free will” it is far less likely you will be aggravated and far more likely you will be satiated. In this sense Hitchens made sense when he said it takes religion to get the “good intender” (good person) to do bad things due it aggravating their reason with en mass ill logic and superstitious emotion.

  29. Ray Owen
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    “starting position” sorry.

  30. Ray Owen
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Once you concede elements free will to be random and variable, it soon escalates into a set of random variables, which may aspire or expire, that might also be positive, negative or imaginary. Group and individual chaos conspires even more of these which, collectively provoke an evolutionary environment with which the collective wills interact. The idea we make individuals accountable for this, in different, just, unjust and unequal measure, is wholly reciprocal with the activity that conspired such chaotic “justice”.

    • Ray Owen
      Posted July 12, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

      “”elements of” sheesh.

  31. Posted July 12, 2012 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    How do our determinants decide for us? How does our dtermined volition work in those few seconds before we make decisions?
    Richard Carrier in ” Sense and Goodness without God: a Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism,” states how he views determinism. I find his case compelling.
    WEIT and Tom,doyou,if you have read the book?
    http://democritusnowdotwordpressdotcom.wordpress.com

    • Posted July 12, 2012 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

      My own is the last article. Sorry for blunders.Please post there to educate us all!, WEIT,Tom and others! I’d take on a co-administrator to post original articles!

  32. Ray Owen
    Posted July 12, 2012 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    I think whether your input or receipt is one of fatalism or determinism is dependent upon: ones inherent nature (genetic inheritance); ones nurture (ongoing interactive), and time/space environment. All these factors contribute to where on the range your free-will is placed or displaced as dominant or overthrown due others and combinations thereof.

  33. Ray Owen
    Posted July 13, 2012 at 12:20 am | Permalink

    Responsibility therefore is in part a position we have nurtured in us due the three unfolding strands of nature, nurture and space time environment. The inputs have , predominantly, been preprogrammed prior to any range of possible performance being viable: which is most likely to manifest actions from within the norms of potential ranges, though extremes are always possible, though less probable, of course.

  34. Posted July 13, 2012 at 3:38 am | Permalink

    Free will is out, determined volition -determined choices- is in.How does all of “us” do the deciding? How do our determinants interplay to make that determined choice?
    Michael Scriven in ” Pirmary Philosophy ” observes how we can change little by little.That book has a wealth of argumentation against God-woo.
    Remember that physics tells against clairvoyant,telepathic God! Science tells against divine teleology and miracles,etc.!
    Our naturalist case against theism wins; n ow ti’s a matter for rationalist pshycologists to help theists overcome their God-addiction!

    • Posted July 13, 2012 at 3:40 am | Permalink

      Sorry for the blunders: it’s my “dylexic’ fingers at play!I do have cortical and sub-cortical defects that impinge on my posting.

  35. Another Matt
    Posted July 13, 2012 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    Here’s another analogy to show why compatibilists say what they do (and why I think dualism is not the only important issue here).

    So, we all know that mammals survived the K-T event but dinosaurs didn’t, right? But the definition of “survive” seems to imply “could have died but didn’t.” But because of determinism we know that this is absurd – it is not the case that the mammals that “survived” could have died, because obviously we can point to mammals in the world, so they were determined to have been here since the event.

    So the mammals may have lived through the K-T event, but they didn’t survive it, because real survival depends on the possibility of extinction. “Survival” is just an illusion, then — nothing really survives (and, for that matter, whatever happens, nothing almost gets killed – there’s no such thing as really avoiding danger). In any case, we should get rid of the whole notion of “survival” because it will just confuse people who don’t understand or haven’t thought through the implications of determinism.

    Why did mammals live through the K-T event? Why didn’t they die? The whole question is absurd: mammals lived through because of determinism — what other explanation do you need?

    —————————-
    Can you imagine anyone announcing that because determinism is true, mammals didn’t really survive the K-T event? I think it’s the same thing to announce that because determinism is true, I didn’t really choose the bisque from the menu.

  36. Neil Schipper
    Posted July 16, 2012 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    Zeuglodon,

    I too think your piece is one of the better ones on this subject. (With respect, a bit of editing might have been in order.)

    I particularly appreciate your promoting to a position of centrality the question “is this (still) a good debate?”. Far too few scribblers do that.

    In my view, which I believe to be closely aligned with yours, the memes that ought to be front and center in any discussion in defense of determinism are:

    1) There is an astoundingly vast (and gargantuan, and humongous) chasm between the “ultimate fabric of reality” — this determined tape of particle motions and energy flows playing itself out (which we call “the universe”) — and, the lived experience of a sentient being.

    A lot of people get exuberant or defensive or depressed contemplating the apparent calculability in principle of future events from initial conditions. I think in peoples’ minds, it’s similar to being able to precisely calculate, say, a solar eclipse (the latter being of course a great triumph of the human mind).

    But a little reflection reveals that the required calculations (to know exactly the location and velocity of even one particular nitrogen molecule at midnight, or, the picosend at which I will stop typing this comment) are orders of magnitude, or more likely “orders of magnitude of orders of magnitude” more complex.

    Moreover, the calculations are provably impossible even with outrageous simplifying assumptions: no “quantum mechanical effects, black holes, or singularities” (etc, as you say). And why stop there? Let’s also say we don’t want to fuss about the weirdness of the very early moments of the Big Bang: we will look at the universe 1 billion or 10 billion years later, or maybe even some “now” to allow us to predict with certainty subsequent events.

    Let’s also say no Heisenberg uncertainty, so knowledge of positions and velocities of all the atoms in the universe are knowable with sufficient fidelity to calculate future states again with sufficient fidelity.

    I’m afraid we’re also gonna need to know each atom’s electron energy states. And a detailed map of the electromagnetic field at every “point” in space.

    So there’s a ton of impossibility already: gathering the data for all those particles and fields at a single point in time, whether past or present.

    Say a succession of geniuses allows us to get past that problem. Now, “sufficient fidelity” is going to mean lots of bits of precision for each particle and field value. Before the first calculation in the simulation is done, you need to store the data: an impossibility.

    So: we ought to avoid saying just “determined”. We ought instead to say “determined, and, unknowably so in accordance with the laws of physics”.

    Or, “determined by a causally chain that’s effectively inalterably ‘turtles all the way down’.”

    2) Always acknowledge that reality is, on the one hand, spooky and chilling and often disgusting, while simultaneously wonderfully, stunningly graspable (to the extent it is).

    It is already spooky and chilling and somewhat disgusting that: a brick wall (as i believe you said) is mostly empty space; I am whirling through space at ridiculous speeds along a wild-assed trajectory (set by rotations about the earth’s axis, earth about the sun, our solar system about the Milky Way’s COM, and the entire galaxy’s trajectory…); that a huge part of my body mass & volume consists of foreign (not my DNA) microorganisms.

    This list could go on for a good while: the constant predation taking place in every forest and jungle and body of water; other people’s poo; menstruation; Mom and Dad doing it.

    Many folks are not much tuned into science, and so at least some facts of the world will make them flinch on the first (and the 17th) encounter; such facts are “conversation killers”. Empathize, but with firmness.

    3) The topic of moral responsibility does not belong in a discussion of determinism.

    Moral responsibility is all about noisily competing goals within, and feedback loops among, interacting inconsistent multiple-goal seeking agents.

    Crime and Punishment: a guy’s “get resources fast” script or “I want Herman dead” script overrides his “society doesn’t want me to do that” script. Then, our “i will be less safe if that behaviour is tolerated” script kicks in, as well as the related “others must be reminded of the consequences of this behaviour” script.

    Altruism: some combination of the “alleviate perception of unease (mirror neurons)” script and the “build trust / earn prestige” script (related to genetic survival). And maybe lots of other stuff I don’t know or understand.

    Moral responsibility has no more to do with the determined-but-unknowable underlying fabric of reality than does the complete lifecycle of a grain of sand. Behaviours and outcomes are determined, but via a causal chain so complex and so inaccessible to lived experience that no mind can discern the causal chain.

    Note that this in no way precludes the possibility that someday it will be possible to look at a human embryo’s DNA and say things like: she has a 13% chance of being a murderess if her environment includes features A, B, C, and excludes features X, Y, Z.

    We cannot but be more or less surprised at the things people, including ourselves, actually do, just as we cannot but be surprised when the roulette ball drops in slot 27.

    Again, this in no way contradicts the common sense observation that, in localized situations with manageable amounts of data, smart people can and do use great models to make excellent statistical predictions about outcomes in many many areas, from personal relationships to business enterprises to political and sporting contests, actuarial tables of insurance companies, and on and on.

    The reality, and it is somewhat mind-bending, is that even people who are “almost always right” about such things have achieved their success with very nearly 0% of the data that truly determined the outcome.

    Thus, no discussion of morality or ethics, whether it’s specifically about foresight or deliberation or generosity or greed or empathy or honesty or shunning or shaming or prison terms or lethal injection or rehabilitation programs — no such discussion (which in its own terms can be deep or shallow) need change an iota in the face of the underlying deterministic fabric of reality.

    As an aside, I feel the really interesting questions about morality and ethics are questions like, “why are approximately 0% of us great moral heroes?” and “why are approximately 0% of us great moral monsters?” and “if, as many experts say, our global rate of resource consumption is leading us towards massive suffering, then, are we not to a first approximation all minor moral monsters?”.

    Trying to tie the determined-but-unknowable fabric of reality to questions of morality and ethics seems to me to be worse than fruitless; it’s downright cowardly.

    To close: I too feel this debate gets way too much oxygen, particularly in “the new atheist community”. Philosophical prattle is more fun and risk-free than engaging the world and its problems. This may say something, and something unflattering, about, not atheists in general, but about those atheists who imagine themselves somehow part of a “new atheist” community.

    The three memes I highlight above constitute a tactic to steer conversations away from “determinism vs. free will” (which as Zeuglodon rightly has it, is increasingly sterile), and towards conversations like “what are the educational and intellectual and emotional preconditions for accepting determinism without sliding into fatalistic and irresponsible confusion”?

    (Posted to both the rd and jac sites.)

    • Posted July 16, 2012 at 10:50 am | Permalink

      Neil, sounds right. How do our consciousnesses and subconsciousness work together. How does the subconscious arrive at what we’ll do? Then comes how to get better determinants.So, yes, how to a that fatalism and irresponsibility!
      WEIT, I suggest that Richard Carrier, Ted Honderich and you do some kind of collaboration about Dennett determinism and any other form of determinism.
      When people do morally better,without any social input, how do they do that? How does that thirty second subconscious input work?
      Our determinants do conflict with each other, so how does one win one time and another another time?
      The more we can know these hows, the more can we influence others to give up random free will for determinism.


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