Yet another failed attempt to argue for free will

Oy gewalt, and this defense of free will appears in Harvard Magazine, the vehicle of my alma mater.  In a short piece called “Two steps to free will,” Craig Lambert presents the pro-free-will views of Robert Doyle, of the university’s department of astronomy. Note that at the outset Lambert states the problem as one of dualism, a view that many compatibilists claim, nobody really holds. I disagree, of course, for it’s the view of millions of religious folks. (The “will of God” bit below is unfortunate).:

For five years, Doyle has worked on a problem he has pondered since college: the ancient conundrum of free will versus determinism. Do humans choose their actions freely, exercising their own power of will, or do external and prior causes (even the will of God) determine our acts?

Now I haven’t read Doyle’s writings on this topic, but the “two-stage model” as presented in the article seems specious. There aren’t really even two stages:

Doyle limns a two-stage model in which chance presents a variety of alternative possibilities to the human actor, who selects one of these options and enacts it. “Free will isn’t one monolithic thing,” he says. “It’s a combination of the free element with selection.”

This is reminiscent of natural selection, in which mutation presents a variety of genetic variation which is then winnowed by natural selection. But Doyle’s model seems wrong in both its steps.  The “alternative possibilities” are, in my mind, illusory: they are the possibilities that the actor thinks she has, or that an outside observer thinks are available. In reality, there’s only one real option, and even compatibilists believe that. Further, nobody thinks that the alternative possibilities arise by chance: the things that appear possible arise as a combination of one’s genes and one’s environments. Nobody, for example, would say that I even have the possibility of choosing to play the piano. But leave that aside for the moment.

What is more important is that we don’t “select” a possibility—if by “selection” Doyle means that we could just as easily have chosen another possibility.  To the naive reader, at least, this is pure dualism.  That impression is reinforced by something  Doyle says later in the piece:

But [Doyle] identifies James as the first philosopher to clearly articulate such a model of free will, and (in a 2010 paper published in the journal William James Studies and presented at a conference honoring James; see “William James: Summers and Semesters”) he honors that seminal work by naming such a model—“first chance, then choice”—“Jamesian” free will.

In 1870, James famously declared himself for free will. In a diary entry for April 30, he wrote, “I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s [French philosopher Charles Renouvier, 1815-1903] second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will—‘the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts’—need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present—until next year—that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”

The key phrase here is “when I might have other thoughts“, i.e., one can at a given moment make a free decision about which thought to entertain.  We can’t do that, for which thoughts we entertain are the products of our physical brains, which themselves come from our genes and the environmental influences that have molded our brains. We are constrained to think the next thought we think. Further, having read the new Schurger et al. paper (reference below) that has been widely touted in the press as giving neurophysiological evidence for free will, don’t find that implication convincing (I’ll post more on this complex paper later).

I’m willing to grant that the Harvard piece might present an incomplete, compressed, or even distorted portrait of Doyle’s views, but I’m going on the article as written.

I know most readers will disagree, but I still think that compatibilist attempts to resuscitate free will are rearguard actions designed to make a virtue of the determinism that most scientifically-minded people agree on. (Victor Stenger, in his book Quantum Gods, makes some calculations implying that the action of quantum indeterminacy on brain function seems unlikely.)

_______________________

Schurger, A., J. D. Sitt, and S. Dehaene. 2012. An accumulator model for spontaenous neural activity prior to self-initiated movement. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA, online http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1210467109

194 Comments

  1. physicalist
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    . . .dualism, a view that many compatibilists claim, nobody really holds.

    Who says that? Obviously the vast majority of the common folk are dualists and a good number of scientists are too.

    What is true is that dualism is a minority position among professional philosophers generally, and among philosophers who believe in free will more specifically.

    Also, I believe Doyle’s book is self-published. It probably is not considered a serious academic contribution by researchers in the field.

  2. Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    I know most readers will disagree, but I still think that compatibilist attempts to resuscitate free will are rearguard actions designed to make a virtue of the determinism that most scientifically-minded people agree on.

    How come compatibilists are getting stick for an article that is pure dualism?

    And, as someone who has argued for compatibilism here, I agree with the first comment above that a vast fraction of the population are dualists, and have never suggested otherwise.

  3. Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    The following paper is well-worth reading. There is an experimental literature starting to build in the area.

    http://carlson.umn.edu/assets/165663.pdf

    Do Conscious Thoughts Cause Behavior?
    Roy F. Baumeister, E. J. Masicampo, and Kathleen D. Vohs

    Key Words
    consciousness, action, control, automaticity, dual process
    Abstract
    Everyday intuitions suggest full conscious control of behavior, but evidence of unconscious causation and automaticity has sustained the contrary view that conscious thought has little or no impact on behavior. We review studies with random assignment to experimental manipulations of conscious thought and behavioral dependent measures. Topics include mental practice and simulation, anticipation, planning, reflection and rehearsal, reasoning, counterproductive effects, perspective taking, self-affirmation, framing, communication, and overriding automatic responses. The evidence for conscious causation of behavior is profound, extensive, adaptive, multifaceted, and empirically strong. However, conscious causation is often indirect and delayed, and it depends on interplay with unconscious processes. Consciousness seems especially useful for enabling behavior to be shaped by nonpresent factors and by social and cultural information, as well as for dealing with multiple competing options or impulses. It is plausible that almost every human behavior comes from a mixture of conscious and unconscious processing.

    • gillt
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      From the paper linked above:

      Third, conscious thoughts are influential
      in situations that present multiple alternative
      possibilities. In many cases, the causal flow
      of events is leading in one direction, but an
      alternative is structurally possible. Conscious
      thought can simulate alternative realities and
      by imagining them increase the likelihood that
      they will come true. Studies of overriding automatic processes, mental practice, and selfcontrol indicate the importance of replacing one imminent future with another, more appealing one. Studies of implementation intentions, counterfactual thinking, and mental
      framing are based on the fact (of situation
      structure) that there are multiple possible alternatives that could happen.

      I’m not familiar with the studies reviewed to reach this conclusion, however I don’t see an argument for free will arising from a limited set of supposedly alternative possibilities.

    • Posted August 25, 2012 at 1:14 am | Permalink

      If conscious thought did nothing, caused no action, what would it be for? Given how much is known about unconscious brain activity causing actions it seems the only real question is about identifying what the conscious brain actually does do.

      But none of this is particularly informative on the issue of free-will, since there is no reason to suppose that the conscious brain function is not itself caused by unconscious processes – if you rule out full blown dualism, which has its own problems regarding causal effect.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted August 25, 2012 at 5:25 am | Permalink

      It doesn’t matter. Consciousness is also deterministic. So, unless you posit dualism…

  4. PhilosophyProf
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    At the opening of his post, JC writes of “dualism, a view that many compatibilists claim, nobody really holds.” How are we to trust anything that comes after that howler? I don’t know of any compatibilists, let alone “many,” who claim that nobody is really a dualist. Where is JC getting that? It makes me worry that he hasn’t been paying attention.

    Contrary to what’s been attributed to me on this blog, my complaint isn’t that JC lacks training in philosophy. My complaint is that he’s so obviously bad at philosophy. The lack of training only helps explain why.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:05 am | Permalink

      Ummm. . . this is a completely unfair claim and I think you should withdraw it. Several commenters on this website have cited surveys that supposedly said that in general, people, when questioned, don’t really accept the dualistic notion of free will. I am sure that somebody on this website can dig up one of those surveys. Now clearly many religious people are frank dualists, but the contention was that dualism is not the going belief among the general public, and that I was attacking a belief that isn’t widely held.

      And if those surveys exist, I expect you to apologize for your characterization of me as being bad at philosophy; I was only citing what other people said.

      In addition, you use that “howler” to dismiss everything I say as “bad philosophy”? You’re simply a rude person who doesn’t know how to act on someone’s website.

      • physicalist
        Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:22 am | Permalink

        Ah, so that’s what you meant.

        I’d suggest that it would be better phrased as talking about libertarianism rather than dualism.

        Yes, many compatibilists claim that our basic intuitions about freedom and responsibility are more compatibilist than libertarian. And that this can be revealed with careful questioning.

        However, this is not to say that these same people won’t explicitly deny compatibilism if asked. Most would articulate a libertarian position if asked (though they won’t have the terminology).

        Most students walk into an intro to philosophy class as incompatibilists, and most walk out as compatibilists.

        And those of us who claim that our intuitions about freedom and responsibility are best thought of along compatibilist lines, don’t think that this shows that most people reject dualism.

        Indeed, I’d say that the reason most people think their intuitions require incompatibilism is that they are dualists (or if they are physicalists, they haven’t thought through the implications of physicalism sufficiently).

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

        ” … but the contention was that dualism is not the going belief among the general public, and that I was attacking a belief that isn’t widely held.”

        I don’t remember anyone claiming that. I think the claim is more that: (1) yes, most of the public, when asked, would advance a naive dualism, but: (2) notwithstanding that, many popular usages of “will” or “free will” are, when examined, found to be in accord with compatibilism.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted August 25, 2012 at 4:50 am | Permalink

          I can concur with Jerry that compatibilists on this site have often argued that most people believe in free will consistent with compatibilism, and not free will based on dualism. This has often been directly in opposition to the assertion that most people think ther free will is connected to their possession of a soul, which is tied up in their theological beliefs and in long standing theological teachings on free will and the ability to choose god for salvation.

          Part of the compatibilists denial of this common dualist notion of free will has been related to the denial by compatibilists that their usage of the term ‘free will’ is confusing to the general public. I think the compatibilists notion of free will is quite hard for people to understand, and it is not as natural as determinism vs free will as it has been framed for centuries in common theological teaching. Generally people’s sense of their freedom comes from their sense of unique personal identity, which is connected to their theological and dualistic notion of having a soul.

          To get to the compatibilists understanding of free will is not natural or intuitive at all, but requires a considerable amount of explaining to teach it and a lot of thought to understand. This is why I think the compatibilists notion of free will is a redefinition of the historical meaning of ‘free will’, and that it is bound to confuse the general public because determinism basically means we don’t have the kind of free will people believe they have.

          I agree with compatibilists that we still have the abilities that lead to the behaviors that people have always observed and associated with free will. But I disagree that people in general see these behaviors as compatible with determinism. The billions of religious and spiritual people on the planet see their choices as connected to their unique personal psychic energy which is what they feel will be preserved after they die. In other words, they are dualists and their idea of free will is opposed to determinism and founded upon their dualism.

          And this is why when compatibilists say ‘free will’ it is confusing to most people on the planet, and why in order to say we have free will in a deterministic non-dualist model of the mind they must redefine ‘free will’ to be something more limited and constrained than the average person believes ‘free will’ to be.

      • Tim
        Posted August 24, 2012 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

        I think that the compatibilists among the readers of your website there are few if any dualists. I doubt among those same individuals (of which I’m one), there are few if any who would make the claim that nobody is a really dualist. Clearly, most of us are atheists who are well aware that most other people (in the US, at least) are Christians and almost all Christians are dualists (what the hell else could a “soul” be about?). Thus, it is really illogical to characterize atheistic compatibilists as claiming that there are few people who don’t really accept the dualistic notion of free will. That is why, when your throw in these comments like you did, you get push back; it really really seems like you’re trolling a segment of your audience.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted August 25, 2012 at 5:03 am | Permalink

          Have you read many of the debates on free will on this site? Many compatibilists have argued, and cited studies backing it up, that their definition of free will is consistent with the average person’s and the traditional view of free will. It seems a point of honor among compatibilists to insist they have not redefined ‘free will’ to make it fit into the compatibilist mold of conforming with determinism. This is understandable, because to admit that the compatibilist conception of free will differs from the traditional and common view of ‘free will’ is to admit that there really is no compatibilism.

          • BillyJoe
            Posted August 25, 2012 at 5:36 am | Permalink

            In fact compatibilists have redefined “free will” and then renamed tradition free will as “contracausal free will”.
            They fool no one but themselves and dualists. That is to say, we determinists see right through the trick.

          • Posted August 25, 2012 at 7:02 am | Permalink

            Jeff Johnson:

            Have you read many of the debates on free will on this site?

            Yes, almost all of them.

            Many compatibilists have argued, and cited studies backing it up, that their definition of free will is consistent with the average person’s and the traditional view of free will.

            Can you give cites for that? Sorry, but that’s not my recollection. What we might have said is along the lines:

            (1) The average person, when asked, advances naive, classical, dualistic free will. (2) The average person, in every day usage of such language, usually does not think about what they mean by it, whether it’s dualistic or not. (3) Many actual usages are consistent with compatibilism and do not refer to dualism.

            To give an example, take the question: “Did you sign this contract of your own free will or under duress?” That question is not asking about dualistic free will (even though the average person would consider the actors to have dualistic free will), it is asking about environmental influences on the decision. Thus the question makes entire sense to a compatibilist.

            It seems a point of honor among compatibilists to insist they have not redefined ‘free will’ …

            Not at all, we fully accept that our definition is radically different from the most widely held conception of free will, namely dualistic free will.

            However, we *also* point out that this issue has been debated for eons, and that the compatibilist conceptions of “free will” are hundreds of years old or more and also have a long history. In that sense, compatibilism is not a recent, new-fangled redefinition, it is actually a very common stance among philosophers who have sensibly considered the issue, and has been for a long time.

            • BillyJoe
              Posted August 25, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

              Yeah, it’s like saying: I have a parachute, and then someone pointing out that you do not have a parachute, that what you have is an umbrella, but then you insisting that an umbrella looks like a parachute and that therefore, in a sense, you do have a parachute.

  5. Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    Great post!

  6. Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    The following is well-worth reading, as the experimental literature starts to build in the area.

    http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.psych.093008.131126

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21126180?dopt=Abstract

    Annu Rev Psychol. 2011;62:331-61.
    Do conscious thoughts cause behavior?
    Baumeister RF, Masicampo EJ, Vohs KD.
    Source
    Department of Psychology, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida 32306, USA. baumeister@psy.fsu.edu

    Abstract
    Everyday intuitions suggest full conscious control of behavior, but evidence of unconscious causation and automaticity has sustained the contrary view that conscious thought has little or no impact on behavior. We review studies with random assignment to experimental manipulations of conscious thought and behavioral dependent measures. Topics include mental practice and simulation, anticipation, planning, reflection and rehearsal, reasoning, counterproductive effects, perspective taking, self-affirmation, framing, communication, and overriding automatic responses. The evidence for conscious causation of behavior is profound, extensive, adaptive, multifaceted, and empirically strong. However, conscious causation is often indirect and delayed, and it depends on interplay with unconscious processes. Consciousness seems especially useful for enabling behavior to be shaped by nonpresent factors and by social and cultural information, as well as for dealing with multiple competing options or impulses. It is plausible that almost every human behavior comes from a mixture of conscious and unconscious processing.
    PMID: 21126180

  7. Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    I am always gobsmacked when someone makes the claim that they have libertarian free will control over their thoughts… that they can think thoughts that control which thoughts they will think.

    To utter that “via my free will choose to believe in free will” is nothing more than to illustrate how pervasive the illusion of free will can be and how taken in by the illusion the individual uttering such claim is.

    • Another Matt
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      Note that even under dualism nobody could “decide which thoughts to think” in such specific terms, because it would lead to an infinite temporal regress of thoughts referring to thoughts referring to thoughts…

      However, if you accept that you can choose some behavior, you can do things like “seek out a quiet place to study,” “consent to sex,” or “drop acid” in order to constrain the direction of your thoughts.

      • Lyndon
        Posted August 24, 2012 at 11:13 am | Permalink

        Another Matt, I am not sure what you are driving at here. A computer could have some switch on it that measured if it was overheating, if it was it turned on a fan, that then allows the normal functioning of its processors to continue on, to continue “thinking.” The fact that a system (say a brain/mind) chooses some function, e.g. “go to the library,” so that the future thoughts/processing will be better does not seem to aid the libertarian free will position, and when such selection processes are fully broken down shows the inadequacies or the non-necessity of the compatibilist position.

        • Another Matt
          Posted August 24, 2012 at 11:34 am | Permalink

          Well, the point is that incompatibilists try to get a lot of mileage by making “the ability to decide what to think next” as the litmus test for “real free will.” Granted, in this case it was the person who believed in free will making the argument that they could, in fact do this.

          But the proper response from incompatibilists should be to show that it’s incoherent in every conceivable circumstance (including dualism), not to affirm that that is what having libertarian free will would really be like.

          The latter point is just to show that there are ways systems can constrain their future actions, perhaps by constraining its inputs. Such “selection processes” are compatibilist in nature – I’m not sure how you can even interpret “selection process” in a non-compatibilist way.

          • Posted August 25, 2012 at 1:39 am | Permalink

            Another Matt,

            As an incompatibilist I struggle to see exactly what compatibilists are claiming. I have a problem with compatibilism in the following way.

            “there are ways systems can constrain their future actions”

            As an incompatibilist I’d ask what is driving that action, that constraining. Ultimately it’s more unconscious physical processes, isn’t it?

            What you seem to be describing, in incompatibilist terms, is localised autonomy.

            We can design systems that are autonomous, in that once set up with some rules, some program, from then on make all their own decisions as they act within novel environmental situations. They are not conscious in the sense that we are, but they are autonomous. Humans are autonomous, to the extent that once they are programmed (dynamic continuous program adaptation, development, learning, etc.), and this autonomy may well be overseen by a conscious system.

            So, is it the degree of autonomy that makes a system free? If so then would you class non-conscious autonomous systems as having free-will?

            Is it the dynamic nature of the programming, the self-programming that comes from learning choices made within the human brain?

            Or is it about consciousness, self-awareness?

            Or is it both all three, as specifically seen in humans, that are sufficient to define this combination as the embodiment of free-will?

            Am I missing anything else? Do compatibilists and incompatibilists differ only in what they are prepared to label as free-will?

            • Posted August 25, 2012 at 3:48 am | Permalink

              Ron Murphy:

              As an incompatibilist I’d ask what is driving that action, that constraining. Ultimately it’s more unconscious physical processes, isn’t it?

              Yes.

              What you seem to be describing, in incompatibilist terms, is localised autonomy.

              Yes.

              So, is it the degree of autonomy that makes a system free?

              Yes.

              If so then would you class non-conscious autonomous systems as having free-will?

              Yes, with a proviso. Like all similar emergent biological properties (intelligence, consciousness, complexity, etc) autonomy/free-will is a continuum, and how far along the continuum you have to be to deserve the label is essentially arbitrary. One could, for example, describe certain behaviours of microbes as being “intelligent” (processing information and then acting accordingly), or as displaying “autonomy” or “will”.

              Or is it about consciousness, self-awareness?

              It’s sort-of related, displaying “will” (aka autonomous decision making) does require a degree of acquiring and processing information, and then using that to adopt behaviour that leads to a desired goal.

              Or is it both all three, as specifically seen in humans, that are sufficient to define this combination as the embodiment of free-will?

              I’d say no: for starters most mammals seem to me to display “free will” (in my compatibilist and deterministic understanding of the term).

              Do compatibilists and incompatibilists differ only in what they are prepared to label as free-will?

              Yes!

              Incompatibilists insist that the term refers to some dualist, violating-physical-law, supernatural agency. They reject anything such and so say there is no free will.

              Compatiblilists agree wholeheartedly and with great joy and happiness that there is no such dualist, contra-causal “free will” (the rhetorical exaggeration there is because many incompatibilists refuse to assimilate this; no matter how many times this is stated the compatiblist is always suspected of hankering after dualism).

              But compatibilists then point out that there is actually something interesting about the behaviour of complex, goal-oriented, locally autonomous biological agents (for example children), which though entirely deterministically programmed, do display very different behaviour from, say, bricks.

              And, given that the English language is what it is (rather than something we can re-write from scratch), it makes sense to use words we have, such as “will” for such agents.

              Any incompatibilist disagreeing is invited to attempt the challenge posed by Another Matt in comment 12.

              But incompatibilists never attempt that. They just ignore such challenges and turn once again to yet another assertion that there is no dualist contra-causal free will, and suggestions that compatiblists are hankering after it.

              Arguments against dualist free will might be worthwhile directed against a general public that is mostly dualist. But they are pretty pointless directed at an audience who are mostly compatibilists, as are the commentariat here. Which is why Jerry sometimes gets tetchy replies when he posts yet another argument against dualist free will (while avoiding yet again addressing the compatibilist stance).

              • BillyJoe
                Posted August 25, 2012 at 5:42 am | Permalink

                You know your opponent has reached rock bottom when he is forced to grant thermostats free will. It just demonstrates the hollowness of the argument.

              • Posted August 25, 2012 at 6:42 am | Permalink

                Once you accept that (to a compatiblist), “free will” is a property on a continuum, just like most other biological properties, and thus accept that a thermostat is somewhere on the continuum with a brick at one end and a human at the other, then it’s not a problem.

                You rebuttal is only a problem for someone who considers that “free will” must be a binary has-it or doesn’t-have-it property, and only dualists think that, compatibilists don’t. To use Dennett’s phrase “freedom evolves”, and anything that evolves is a continuum.

                So, yes, a thermostat has slightly more “free will” and “intelligence” and shows more “goal-seeking” behaviour than a brick — and a heck of a lot less of all those things than a human.

              • BillyJoe
                Posted August 25, 2012 at 7:56 am | Permalink

                “Once you accept that (to a compatiblist), “free will” is a property on a continuum, just like most other biological properties, and thus accept that a thermostat is somewhere on the continuum with a brick at one end and a human at the other, then it’s not a problem. ‘

                Life is a continuum. Right? But life does not exist in a brick. Or a thermostat. If there is free will and free will is a continuum, it doesn’t have to start in a brick. Or a thermostat.

            • Another Matt
              Posted August 25, 2012 at 8:10 am | Permalink

              If you can stand a Douglas Hofstadter dialogue (they aren’t for everyone), read this:

              http://jsomers.net/careenium.pdf

  8. MAUCH
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    The only way that you could sidestep determinism would be to make decisions by random chance. Maybe your brain does a virtual roll of the dice. Then again if random chance were employed that in itself would indicate determinism.

    • MNb
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      Nope. Probability is not the same as random chance.

  9. Darth Dog
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    The article seems like very muddled thinking to me. I think Doyle misses the difference between deterministic and determined. He shows a lot of anxiety that the course of events in the universe is determined. In other words, with perfect information about the state of the universe you could predict the course of all future events. So he introduces his two step model, where chance changes the options presented to an individual before they make a choice.

    But I don’t think this helps most people’s conception of free will at all. I could write a simple computer program that takes various inputs and produces different outputs depending on those inputs. The program is deterministic. But I could also hook it up to a random source of input data (some quantum indeterminate events, like radioactive decay). Now I don’t know what the computer will produce as an output but I don’t think I would declare that it has free will. For any given possible set of inputs I could tell you the outputs.

    So I don’t understand how Doyle thinks that “chance, then choice” helps free will at all. The best it does is say that the future is not determined. But it could still be deterministic.

    • MNb
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      “with perfect information about the state of the universe”
      That implies rejection of quantummechanics.
      But see JAC’s last remark on Victor Stengers calculations.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted August 25, 2012 at 5:50 am | Permalink

      I once wrote a program that could solve the Knights Walk puzzle (the knight, makin gits usual move must land on every square of a chess board once only starting at any position on the board). At some point the program had to choose betwen two equal options and it used a random number generator to make the decision.
      So I suppose that program must have exhibited free will.

  10. philosophercj
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    “…dualism, a view that many compatibilists claim, nobody really holds. I disagree, of course, for it’s the view of millions of religious folks.”

    “nobody,” as physicalist points out above, refers to professional philosophers. If we are having a discussion about what the best account of free will is and whether human beings have it, who cares what the view of “millions of religious folks is.” Millions of religious folk believe in creationism too, that doesn’t mean we should take their view as a serious alternative to neo-darwinian evolution.

    I see this kind of slippage a lot on this blog. If we are trying to discover what is actually the case, then the public’s view is generally not a very good place to start. The topic of discussion here is philosophy of mind. A good place to start then is with the experts in this field, professional philosophers. If, however, we are talking about policy then the public’s view might be relevant.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      If we’re fighting misconceptions, then the public’s view really is a good place to start. After all, I spend a lot of time fighting creationism, even though you say we shouldn’t take their view as a serious alternative to neo-Darwinism. It is their belief that it’s a serious alternative to neo-Darwinism that makes them fight to put it in the schools.

      Likewise, philosophy is not just for professional philosophers: it started out, after all, as a way to help people think about and live their lives. If many people accept dualism, and a kind of spirit or soul that makes them think independently of their physical substance, then that’s something that we should address, especially since it props up religion. As I’ve said before, I think philosophers might be more productively employed in dispelling the popular ideas of dualism than in constructing definitions of free will that comport with determinism.

      • philosophercj
        Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:22 am | Permalink

        Fair enough, but my concern is that you don’t make it clear what the target of your post is and this causes confusion. Many responses to your posts seem to assume you are simply trying to get at the best account of free will and whether it is true that we have such a thing. This is a different project than clearing up public misconceptions. Clearing misconceptions restricts you to using only views that there is an expert consensus on. In this case, I would agree that most professional philosophers are not dualists, though there are still some.

      • Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:27 am | Permalink

        +1

      • physicalist
        Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

        I agree that philosophers should dispel popular ideas of dualism. And I’d say that they do. Just read just about any contemporary philosopher of mind: Searle, Churchland, Dennett, Chalmers (who is a property dualist, but he rejects souls and supernaturalism), etc.

        But the question of freedom and responsibility is a distinct question. I don’t see why philosophers should ignore the robust compatibilist accounts that have championed for thousands of years – - just so they can emphasize to the public that there are no souls and libertarian freedom is a myth.

  11. Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Even honored Harvard astronomers can have subtle, but still, crackpot ideas.

    An astronomer “pondering” free will is no more scientifically credible than him “pondering” kidney function. Stop pondering and read the primary research.

    If he went into the hospital would he (philosophically and semantically) “ponder” his medical matters?

    So he is professionally strictly evidence-based in his life’s work but when moving over to a question on the brain he starts using what? Philosophy and word-play!?

    That’s the only dualism and it’s quite wacky.

    • Posted August 26, 2012 at 2:51 am | Permalink

      Even honored Harvard astronomers can have subtle, but still, crackpot ideas.

      Is he an “honored Harvard astronomer”? Being an astronomer myself, but never having heard of a Robert O. Doyle, I’ve just stuck the name (Doyle, R. O.) into NASA’s Astrophysics Data System.

      It seems he has a Harvard PhD from 1968, one lead-authored paper in a good journal in 1968, one co-authored paper in a good journal in 1969, and nothing since then (it seems he then left academia).

      His web-site doesn’t demonstrate any sort of academic standing
      (he has one correspondence item in Nature in 2009, which is not a refereed part of the journal).

      After some googling I’ve been unable to ascertain what his standing (if any) at Harvard currently is (presumably Robert O. Doyle is not Robert G. Doyle, listed as an associate dean there), and further the wiki page about him gives the impression of being entirely self-written.

      • Posted August 26, 2012 at 5:36 am | Permalink

        Ah so the typical crackpot, lying of these folks. Of course, in their delusional minds they are lying for a good cause — reinforcing their solipsism.

        Thank you for the effort.

      • Posted August 26, 2012 at 7:11 am | Permalink

        Just an addendum, he calls himself an “associate” of Harvard’s astronomy dept, yet their website contains no mention of him.

        And on his website (linked above) he gives his address as:

        Astronomy Department
        Harvard University
        77 Huron Avenue
        Cambridge, Mass 02138

        That is not the street address of Harvard’s Astronomy Dept, and the street address given is for a private house, an address also given for various web-sites that Doyle has produced.

        So, I think it pretty clear that Robert O. Doyle is a fraud and a crank with no academic standing and no track record in astronomy since doing a PhD in 1968.

        His philosophy credentials can be judged by this line from his website: “Bob had the great privilege of working with some of the world’s leading philosophers of the free will problem starting in 2009, when his first published philosophy appeared in Nature”, which refers to a mere non-refereed “correspondence” item. Beyond that he has a self-published book and a few powerpoint presentations on his website.

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted August 26, 2012 at 7:20 am | Permalink

          I have informed Craig Lambert, who wrote the article (and whom I’ve had some contact with over the years) about the questions regarding Doyle’s credentials. I’ll get back to you folks if I hear anything.

          JAC

  12. Another Matt
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    I guess it’s gonna be a “free will” day.

    I would like to know if the following simple experiment can be interpreted in any but a compatibilist way:

    You put a mouse into a tube maze. The tube dead-ends into T-junction, where it can turn either right or left. If it turns right it is rewarded with food; if it turns left it gets a shock. Eventually it learns to turn right.

    The challenge is to reword this and explain what is going on without using compatibilist “rationale” concepts like “avoidance,” “pursuit,” “altered behavior,” “can turn right or left” and the like.

    Can something as simple as the above really be “cashed out” for purely incompatibilist language?

    • Another Matt
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:47 am | Permalink

      And if it can, can the natural selection that instilled the mouse’s behavior be similarly cashed out? No reference to “survival,” “advantage,” “contingency,” or other similar compatibilist concepts allowed!

      • David Evans
        Posted August 25, 2012 at 4:02 am | Permalink

        Now that’s silly. Consider a chess-playing computer with no random elements. It’s entirely coherent to say of it “If it makes move X it will probably lose” or”…gain an advantage” without implying that it is in any way free to choose any move than the one it actually does make. The “If” refers to our limited knowledge, not to its freedom.

      • BillyJoe
        Posted August 25, 2012 at 6:09 am | Permalink

        Our language is dualist. So waht? I can certainly give an account in determinist language but it would a week to write it. But I don’t need to. I’ll just refer you to my program that solves the Knights Walk puzzle by following an algorithm. If that comnputer program has free will, then my thermostat has free will and it is clear to me that free will has been defined…wait for this…out of existence!

      • Posted August 25, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink

        Alternative language sounds contrived, because dualist language is so familiar to us.

        I’ve made that point here:
        http://ronmurp.net/2010/04/22/secret-agents/

        And the language used about Evolution often suffers the same problem. Evolution is undirected, and yet we see still see phrases like “was selected for”, as if it’s an active selection process, when really it has a more passive meaning, something like the sense of “those organisms that are left behind in the current environment to reproduce, when those organisms that do not survive the current environment are no longer in the pool of reproductive candidates”. All much clumsier language. Evolution is not an active cogniscent ‘agent’ in the sense that we use that term about ourselves, and yet Richard Dawkins has had to explain that repeatedly because his famous book’s title smacks of such agency: The Selfish Gene.

        A significant point of the incompatibilist case is to overcome these notions of dualist free-will. That’s why the purely physicalist nature of human behaviour is stressed.

        Matt, the challenge you put is already taken up, with regard to free-will. It’s in the very view that the incompatibilist language constructs – “we are biological machines”, for example, “free-will is an illusion”, for another. But of course it’s this very language that sets the compatibilist on edge. No! We are human! We are not machines! We have a free-will worth having (Dennett)! And it seems (though often denied) that the compatibilist view is a consequence of fears for the state of our humanity.

        Someone like Dennett (like many theists) is concerned that if we say we don’t have free-will it implies loss of responsibility, with consequential social nihilism, or with consequential incapacitating fatalism (both wrong). It’s not that incompatibilists won’t use non-free-will language, it’s that when we do someone is up in arms about it.

        And as for the specific words you listed: ‘survival’, ‘advantage’, ‘contingency’, they’re now specifically compatibilist words. ‘survival’ just means what’s left over, ‘advantage’ merely represents quantitative comparison of once sort or another. I’m not sure how you think ‘contingency’ has any relevant meaning.

        Now, having said all that, it’s still fine for incompatibilists to use terms normally associated with free-will when appropriate – e.g. in every day language. I don’t have a problem using the ‘free-will’ metaphor, any more than using other metaphors. I might say, “I’m flying!”, meaning that whatever I’m doing I’m doing at higher than normal rate; but if I thought I was literally flying it would be an illusion (or a delusion, according to why I felt I was literally flying). I’m happy to use metaphorical language of free-will, knowing it’s metaphorical, while even at the same time realising that to some extent my brain still feels the illusion to be true.

        • Another Matt
          Posted August 25, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

          This might be my last post for a while because I have to get on a plane in a couple hours. Let’s focus on just one part of this because I think it gets at many issues:

          ‘survival’ just means what’s left over

          That is what “survival” means in the barest sense. But if you want to infer anything from “what’s left over,” it has to mean more than that. This is where the “quantitative comparison” of “advantage” comes in.

          If you’re an evolutionary biologist, the question before you is “why did the things that are left over live rather than die?” It’s the “live rather than die” part that is inherent to the compatibilist sense of “survival” — “it could have died but it didn’t. Why?”

          This is the compatibilist “could have done otherwise” that Jerry has many times denied has any sense for rhetorical purposes, but which he helps himself to all the time in other posts. The point is that once you have retrospectively ascribed a reason why some things survived based on a systems attributes or capabilities, you have stepped into compatibilist territory in exactly the same way you do when you describe why someone made a decision they did based on the set of determinants that held at the moment. In order to do the latter, you have to have a sense of what other kinds of behavior might have manifested and an explanation for why one did, in fact, manifest, but not any of the others.

          Whatever survives is whatever is left over, but to say that it survives because it was determined to survive really says nothing. Determinism can (and should, if it’s true) underlie our explanations, but it does not itself count as an explanation for anything.

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted August 25, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

            If you’re an evolutionary biologist, the question before you is “why did the things that are left over live rather than die?” It’s the “live rather than die” part that is inherent to the compatibilist sense of “survival” — “it could have died but it didn’t. Why?”

            This is the compatibilist “could have done otherwise” that Jerry has many times denied has any sense for rhetorical purposes, but which he helps himself to all the time in other posts.

            If we say we could not have chosen otherwise, this in no way excludes considering how or why we chose that way, nor does it prevent thinking about the unchosen alternatives. Especially if one is thinking about a future iteration of the same choice, or considering a population of choosers who could all choose differently from the first chooser, but none of whom could choose differently than their own personal deterministic choice.

            The same in your survival analogy. In considering the effects of mutations and selection pressures one has to look at populations and distributions. The individuals don’t have a free choice of whether or not they survive. If so they would all choose to survive. But whether they fall to disease or predation or survive to reproduce is not a free choice and depends on deterministic forces.

            You can’t apply the “could have done otherwise” to the individual who doesn’t survive; you can only apply it to the many members of the population when considering statistical distributions of outcomes. In reading your descriptions it’s not clear you understand the meaning of “could not have done differently” when applied to one instance of an individual making a decision with a deterministic brain. Just because you believe that about an individual does not stop one from imagining counter factually or considering alternatives that in other instances of choosing, by the same individual in the future, or by other individuals, may lead to different choices. That would be putting an absurd constraint on people’s ability to think, an ability we know people have.

            There is still no freedom for an individual to choose differently. All our thinking and comparing and contrasting is the result of incredibly complex networks of diverse components representing various factors in a deterministic process. The fundamental meaning of deterministic process is that it has a single unique result (could not have arrived at a different result, to echo Dr. Coyne). Given your concerns and explanations it really seems like you don’t have a good model in your mind for determinism, and for how really complex human reasoning can be the result of a deterministic protein based machine.

            • Another Matt
              Posted August 25, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

              Yes, you have to apply “could have done otherwise” to survival as it varies over a population, but also to an individual over time.

              But there’s more — I think I can dodge an oncoming car, but not an oncoming bullet. I have thankfully not yet had to test either ability, but I think it’s OK to say I have the former ability even though I’ve never actually demonstrated it.

              Or consider when you admonish a child, saying “don’t run out into the street like that, you could’ve been killed!” The second half of this is not a statement about determinism, but a statement about ability and rationale.

              There have been readers in these discussions who have denied that there is any sense of “you could’ve been killed” that carries meaning in the real world, because if the child wasn’t killed in that instance of having run out into the street, then deterministically the child could not have been killed.

              Similarly, there have been readers who said that it’s meaningless to say that you have ever “changed your behavior,” because whatever you do is whatever your behavior is. This even included such activity as “stifling a sneeze” — if there was no sneeze event, then there was never going to be, and hence there was nothing to stifle in the first place. I don’t think you would agree with them, but plenty of them have claimed that this is what incompatibilists believe, and I have seen similar arguments from Coyne from time to time.

              In any case, “The ability to respond to contingency” is a good enough definition of the compatibilist version of “free will.”

              • BillyJoe
                Posted August 25, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

                Not if that ability and the “decision” is determined by prior causes

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted August 26, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

                Yes, you have to apply “could have done otherwise” to survival as it varies over a population, but also to an individual over time.

                But this isn’t even relevant to the question of individual free will because then you are talking about variation between different individuals or the changes in an individual over time. You said before “This is the compatibilist “could have done otherwise” that Jerry has many times denied has any sense for rhetorical purposes, but which he helps himself to all the time in other posts.” But this statement is false. You have not understood what “could not have done otherwise” means. I don’t think anyone would deny that different individuals or the same individual at another time could do differently. I’ve never seen Jerry write such a thing.

                You are on a completely different topic that lies beyond the question of individual free will, at least as Jerry discusses it, and as I imagine most incompatibilists think of it. You are discussing how intelligent the human brain is, not whether it has freedom from causation.

                I have dodged an oncoming car. The decision to change direction comes in response to new information input to the brain, seeing the danger of an oncoming car you did not see a moment before. This information triggers a new decision process, which is heavily influenced by the fact that evolution has structured our brain to aid our survival. Much of the reaction is totally unconscious, more like a flinch than a choice.

                I think the example of the child is silly. It no longer relates to the working of the brain, or individual free will. It is concerned with universal determinism and fatalism. One would require omniscience to know in advance whether or not a child would be hit by a car or not before it enters the street. Given that we are not omniscient, of course we use our intelligence to estimate the probabilities of desirable or undesirable outcomes of various possible choices. Of course, it is trivially obvious that we understand a child has greater probability of being hit by a car if it is in the street. So we tell them “you could be hit if you play in the street”. By doing so we hope to impart information to the child’s brain so that it will make better informed decisions, improving its odds of survival.

                When I think and talk about determinism in the context of free will, I dispense with the question of global determinism, as it is not relevant. I don’t know if the big bang were replayed exactly whether or not I would exist. I can think of arguments for and against.

                I look at how the biological computer we call the brain works or must work in a manner localized to an individual brain and an instant of time. This is consistent with Jerry’s tape rewind thought experiment, but I think Jerry’s example is stronger than it needs to be. Our brain has quite a lot of stability, so I believe individual particles or atoms could have different states and the brain could still be in the same meso-state that is relevant to its logical state space, which begins at the level of neuron state, not particle states.

                Our brain is deterministic in its operation, but whether or not the larger world is deterministic in every last detail, we don’t know enough to be aware of what our future holds. So we manage risk with probability and it influences our decisions. Again this has nothing to do with free will, but with human intelligence. And we can understand our brain internally to be deterministic, not free of causation, and still make sense of counterfactual and hypotheticals involving the word ‘could’. None of this impacts the question, as I see it, of whether we have free will.

                For me, and for all of Jerry’s arguments I have seen, the question of free will depends on the assertion that when an individual makes a choice that impacts some outcome in the world as that individual interacts with it, the brain’s decision process is a deterministic computation that could in theory be simulated and predicted, in other words the choice must be what it is and could not be otherwise because of the deterministic path through brain state space that is followed.

                Any larger discussion about fatalism or global determinism is outside the scope of the discussion. The question is, in that one choice, could the individual literally have altered the result by using some kind of inner force not caused by the material biochemical/neuronal processes in the brain but using some degree of freedom outside of material causation? If you answer yes, then you are not a determinist, and possibly not a compatibilist. Another way to say this is that the individual “could not have done otherwise”, and despite the possibility of being able to find ambiguity in the formulation, if you interpret this as Jerry obviously means it using the tape thought experiment as a contextual guide, then if you believe the brain is deterministic and material, you must affirm Jerry’s claim. To continue to say “he could have done otherwise” is to either misunderstand what Jerry is saying, or to disavow determinism. In other words, if a compatibilist accepts determinism in the brain, then they must agree with Jerry’s “could not have done otherwise” claim. It should be apparent that the way I define free will, and the way it seems Jerry defines it, free will requires dualism of some kind. This ignores the incoherence of dualism due to the infinite regress on the causal chain. It relies on the historical theological basis of the word combination ‘free will’, which I also believe is the basis of the most common understanding of what free will is. And that kind of free will we don’t have!

                None of this contradicts the full intelligent abilities we observe the brain to have. So debating whether we are now committed to abandoning statements involving ‘choice’, ‘intent’, or ‘could’, or any of the other linguistic diversions that are based on people not understanding how a deterministic brain can still make probabilistic estimations of future outcomes, and still make sense of counterfactuals and hypotheticals, is diversionary noise.

                If you are either compatibilist or incompatibilist and you accept that the brain and the mind is the result of a material deterministic process, then you should still be in agreement with what Jerry claims up to this point.

                Then the discussion must move to the question of where is the freedom?

                At this point what one means by “free will” is the only point of contention. I have a human brain, and Jerry has a human brain, and he obviously uses it, so to say he thinks we don’t make choices or that rationale or intent are ‘compatibilist’ words that he can’t make sense of is silly, based on misunderstanding. To say these are ‘compatibilist’ words is even insulting, and frankly it comes off as arrogant, even if your intent is pure and sincere, as i believe it is. These words are human words, in most if not all human languages, and they are based on how the human brain works, based on its very flexible intelligence.

                Of course we have a kind of freedom. Of course we ‘will’ things, and our choices are based on this will, based on our organism meeting it’s needs. But we can’t choose what we will! And our freedom is in the ability to resist external coercion, to find and take advantage of opportunities, to learn and develop new competences, to control our environment, to adjust our behaviors in the attempt to optimize outcomes based on our memory and understanding of past experiences.

                None of this requires free will, and it is all consistent with a deterministic intelligence.

                So what does ‘free will’ mean? Jerry claims, and I agree, that compatibilists use an artificially narrow definition of ‘free will’, just so they can claim it is compatible with determinism. This isn’t very impressive. I can reverse the orientation of the earth by changing the meanings of the words north and south.

                It is practically a tautology to say that all human behavior is compatible with determinism, so I don’t see compatibilism adding anything new that everybody doesn’t already understand. At best I can see compatibilists have thought a lot about how human abilities once believed to be predicated on free will still make sense with a deterministic understanding of the brain. And that understanding matters. But as you said before, they aren’t adding a new ontological category; it’s more like a style of using language. There isn’t really something new compatibilists say we have that incompatibilists say we don’t have. There is just a disagreement on what deserves to be called free will. You could say that incompatibilists take a descriptive approach based on the historical common and theological meaning and usage of ‘free will’, and compatibilists take a prescriptive approach based on what they think deserves to be called free will, what they think ought to be called free will.

                But to point to choice and other capabilities of human intelligence that once were thought to require freedom from causality, or free will, and to say since our deterministic model still includes these behaviors we can still claim we have free will, is effectively nothing more than an equivocation on the term ‘free will’.

                Clearly compatibilists limit the meaning of ‘free will’ in order to be able to say we have it.

                The discussion then could move on to asking why do compatibilists believe it is important to say we have ‘free will’?

                I actually believe the opposite, that it is very important to say we don’t have free will, because I believe the most common meaning, and also the theological meaning, of ‘free will’ is connected to dualism. I think it is important to make clear the scientific consensus on materialism, and because the term ‘free will’ is historically and currently bound up with dualism in the minds of the majority of earth’s human inhabitants, it seems compatibilism muddies the water with respect to the growing scientific consensus against dualism and in favor of materialism.

                So why do compatibilists think it is important to say “we have free will” even if they can agree with incompatibilists on every aspect of human behavior and intelligence, but not on the definition of the term ‘free will’? Because of fretting over the impact on social order because of experiments like Vohs and Schooler? I think it’s quite likely their results are skewed by a cultural bias caused by a majority of people being raised believing their morality depends on free will to win God’s favor and avoid his wrath, rather than being raised to believe their moral choices are rational decisions based on taking sole individual responsibility for one’s actions. Thinking you have no control and your choices don’t matter could temporarily skew a person’s deterministic decision making so they are more likely to cheat. But people experienced and educated with an awareness of how choices matter even in light of the deterministic lack of uncaused free will would not, I believe, cheat more than those believing a more traditional free will model. I think Vohs and Schooler may have temporarily induced an ill considered sense of fatalism in many of their subjects.

                Evidently there are some compatibilists who believe free will and determinism would be compatible if the brain were deterministic, but they don’t believe the brain is deterministic. I don’t think such people will ever contribute to the knowledge of how the brain works. They are in philosophy land, disconnected from any concrete scientific understanding of the world. They are concept jugglers, and that has its uses and rewards, but not in figuring out how the brain works and how it operates to produce consciousness. They can make useful qualitative observations about our subjective conceptual level, but not about the physical levels of our intelligence.

                Considering all this, it seems incompatibilists and those compatibilists who accept the deterministic model of the brain (which I believe is most) can agree on everything except the definition of the term ‘free will’. And that doesn’t seem like an adequate justification for two schools of thought. It seems like the schools are about those committed to a discourse that might shock the layman into reassessing his idea of self, identity, and the existence of the soul, and those committed to a discourse designed to minimize the challenge to the layman’s habitual notions. I would like to shake and unseat the old comfortable notions of dualism, the soul, and the afterlife. It seems compatibilism treads on eggshells in this respect.

              • Another Matt
                Posted August 26, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

                Jeff, I thought this reply was excellent, and I agree with nearly all of it. I certainly have never intended to be insulting or arrogant, so I’m sorry for that.

                Dennett makes an analogy somewhere in one of his books — I can’t remember which one. Let’s say a culture had a “cupid myth,” where it was believed that “falling in love” was actually caused by a spirit of some kind shooting people with a love arrow.

                When that culture is shown that there is almost certainly no cupid, and that everything can be explained (in principle) by biology, they will be likely to say, “so you’re saying nobody falls in love, not really, because real love requires a cupid arrow.”

                The response can take what you described as the descriptivist approach or the prescriptivist approach. The former says, “It’s really important that people no longer believe in cupid, so yes, whatever that was, it wasn’t real love — it was merely the illusion of having fallen in love. Let’s find something else to call it, then, though of course in everyday language we’ll just keep calling it ‘love.’”

                The latter (prescriptivist) approach says, “yes, people fall in love all the time — its causes just aren’t what you thought they were. Let’s update our concept of ‘love’ to include all the same actions and behaviors, include the new biological considerations, and eschew cupidism.”

                I don’t think this analogy quite extends to all the relevant contours, but I think you get the idea.

                So, I should put my cards on the table and say that the capabilities you describe humans having sound exactly like what I have most always thought free will to be, but I think that’s only because I don’t think I ever thought of dualism as an ontological cure for determinism — all the same ontological problems resurface under dualism. When I hear you describe human behavior and capabilities, I hear you describing free will, but then you say “but of course none of that has anything to do with free will.”

                I think at this point we are just talking past each other and tearing our hair out, because we agree on the specifics. I will point out, though, that many, many other commenters, have, as I’ve said, gone much further by saying that contrafactuals are nonsensical when talking about human action, that a determined selection from among a set of alternatives can’t be called a “choice,” that humans have no control over their actions, etc.

                And in fact, the way these commenters (and even Jerry sometimes) describe the issue this way: we don’t make choices; our brains have the appearance of making choices for us, and there’s nothing we can do about it — we’re just along for the ride.

                This in itself is a form of dualism (let’s call it “fatalistic dualism”) which posits an “I” which sits trapped in a deterministic body and universe, incapable of influencing its future, like a roller-coaster on its determined track. This description doesn’t square with what we know empirically, nor with how we “do empiricism” in the first place, and it can’t be how to go about it.

                But I’ve never seen you (Jeff Johnson) argue this way, so if we disagree on what deserves the label “free will,” I’d still want to know what you would say to the comments I’ve described (and hopefully I haven’t erected another straw man).

                Probably enough from me in this thread — always fun!

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted August 27, 2012 at 8:59 am | Permalink

                Matt,
                I get the cupid analogy; the arrow is determinism, and when the cause changes, love still walks like love and quacks like love. Then substitute free will for love.

                But if one scrutinizes the analogy of ‘free will’ and love more closely, I find this tale less than convincing.

                Think of the common response to the notion that human emotions are deterministic biochemical reactions: a sneering rendition of “you think love is just chemicals?”

                So evidently people are conditioned to believe that the cause is fundamental and non-negotiable in valuing human capacities. I disagree with this, as I’m sure you do. It vastly underestimates the grandeur and beauty and wonder of “just chemicals”.

                Love possibly has no rival in its ubiquity in literature and popular culture. But I bet people tend to think that the importance and quality of love is predicated on having ‘free will’. If we are not free to choose, what’s the point? The answer is, the point is still there even though our choices are less free than we imagine, but people never have to think about this if their notion of free will is never challenged.

                I think the whole discussion we keep going around in circles about really does just come down to the semantics of ‘free will’. I elaborated a bit more on this in the post linked to below, which you may like to read.

                https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/yet-another-failed-attempt-to-argue-for-free-will/#comment-270182

                I think it makes sense to define compatibilism as the school of thought that emphasizes and illuminates how human autonomy and control are compatible with determinism. Let’s dump the classical definition that compatibilism is a school of thought that claims ‘free will’ and determinism are compatible.

                That is at least how I will think of it, and under the new definition of compatibilism I agree with it. For reasons mentioned the in post I linked to, I don’t like the classical definition of compatibilism because I think it is important to disagree that we have ‘free will’. We really and truly do not have ‘free will’.

              • Posted August 27, 2012 at 10:40 am | Permalink

                Jeff,

                I’ve appreciated your yeoman efforts for the last couple of days (and a tip of the hat to Ron Murphy and BillyJoe).

                Here is what we are up against, “The human will is not free, but WE MUST NOT SAY IT IS SO.” This is what the Compatiblist message really is. Yes, yes, yes, free will is an illusion, that humans are exempt from causality is a myth, now shut up about it, before the “common folk” take this message to heart. Let us say to the public free will IS… (not that free will isn’t). Let not the notion that there is nothing special in kind to humanity be spread about, let man continue to think he is made in the image of god(s) even if we deny the existence of god(s).

                You know why certain atheists are labeled strident or militant? It is not because they say there is no god(s), it is because they dare to say this message to the “common folk”, out loud as it were. Those that profess belief in their theologies, I sincerely suspect they know better about them, they know they are only man-made fictions. Sophisticate Theology is merely a front for a great lie: they are really theological compatiblists who say theology and atheism are compatible, there can both be god(s) and also no god(s). So let it be told to the “common folk” that there really are the god(s) they’ve ever really wanted… (just like there really is the free will that they really want).

                Here are mankind’s three great lies:

                There is a god(s).

                There is a [heavenly] afterlife.

                There is free will.

                Anyone who would dare to elucidate the common man to the contrary is to be thwarted. Call them hectic, militant, strident… whatever.

        • Posted August 25, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

          Ron Murphy:

          Matt, the challenge you put is already taken up …

          Well, no it hasn’t been. The fact that it would take a week and the result would extraordinarily clumsy is exactly the point. But if you’re a genuine incompatibilist then you need to construct such a dialogue and then use it all the time in your everyday life! If you don’t, you’re being a compatibilist. And, yes, the difference is indeed mere semantics.

          But of course it’s this very language that sets the compatibilist on edge. No! We are human! We are not machines!

          Nooo! No, no, no! I love being just a machine, in fact I am deliriously happy about it. I regularly dance around in glee at being a mere machine; and nor do I think I have anything qualitatively different from what most mammals also have.

          (The rhetorical exaggeration there is frustration at incompatibilists never believing us no matter how often we say this. Please note that Ron Murphy is not actually quote any compatibilists saying what he attributed to us.)

          We have a free-will worth having (Dennett)!

          Sure, and by that he meant that the classical, dualist view is actually incoherent when examined.

          And it seems (though often denied) that the compatibilist view is a consequence of fears for the state of our humanity.

          You are simply totally wrong in that assessment.

          Someone like Dennett (like many theists) is concerned that if we say we don’t have free-will it implies loss of responsibility, with consequential social nihilism, or with consequential incapacitating fatalism (both wrong).

          Yes, they’re both wrong. And compatiblists see that just as well as you do; which is why compatiblists are not afraid that of the consequences of us being determined machines.

          I’m happy to use metaphorical language of free-will, knowing it’s metaphorical …

          Now ask yourself, why is it helpful, appropriate and useful to use such metaphorical language about, say, children, but not about, say, bricks?

          And when you’ve answered that, realise that the non-metaphorical use of such language doesn’t actually exist. In contrast to your “flying” analogy (where flying does exist), dualist free will doesn’t. So, the “metaphorical language” use is the only actual meaning of such language. At that point you’re a compatibilist — all bar the shouting.

          • BillyJoe
            Posted August 25, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

            So because our language evolved in an ancient civilisation that believed in free will, and because, as a result, our language is full of free will metaphors, therefore there is free will?
            I see a new logical fallacy: The Argument from Metaphor – making a case by taking metahpor literally.

          • Another Matt
            Posted August 25, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

            The fact that it would take a week and the result would extraordinarily clumsy is exactly the point.

            Interesting — you and I mostly seem to agree, but I’m not sure I agree completely that it’s just that it would take a week to unpack the shorthand.

            I’m suggesting something a bit more strong, which is that I don’t think it’s coherent to try to cash in just a part of it in the description. It’s hard enough to unpack “the mouse’s choice” in the terms I described (that is, eschewing use of “alternatives” and “choice”).

            But I think it’s flat impossible to do it, even in principle, without ultimately also eliminating the “mouse” altogether as an entity that can be referred to consistently over time with the label “the mouse,” with behavior as a discrete system, with interests and desires, etc.

            It’s not just that it would take too long, but at that level we lose the mouse altogether.

          • Posted August 26, 2012 at 1:44 am | Permalink

            “you need to construct such a dialogue and then use it all the time in your everyday life!”

            Why? We use the language appropriate to the situation all the time. Chemists talk in the language of chemistry. They don’t use the language of particle physics every day, but acknoledge that physics lies beneath it. We all talk about sun sets, the sun going down, sun rise, the sun moving across the sky, etc. We all adapt our language to what is appropriate.

            I understand that compatibilists are doing this when they use expressions such as “I decide to …”, but compatibilists object to the incompatibilist language when we ask what is actually doing the deciding – it’s more deterministic processes at work.

            No incompatibilist is denying that the ‘biological system that is a human being is the most localised focul point of action that, the culmination of long sequences of cause and effect, that leads to this centralised decision making entity making a decision, so that responsibility can be attributed to such an entity’. But it’s simply easier to say, “I decided to … and so I bear the responsibility.”

            You already acknowledge in your answers to questions above (comment 7 stream) that this is a fair understanding. But when you say “it’s more than that” then I fail to see what this ‘more’ is. It’s this ‘more’ that I’m not getting. And your explanations using the examples of survival I don’t get at all. That’s just a matter of using that language in familiar ways.

            “Please note that Ron Murphy is not actually quote any compatibilists saying what he attributed to us.” … “Yes, they’re both wrong. And compatiblists see that just as well as you do; which is why compatiblists are not afraid that of the consequences of us being determined machines.”

            I’ve quoted Raymond Tallis several times in response to various posts on this site and others: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/aug/07/aping-mankind-raymond-tallis-review

            Look at his own website and follow the links to articles and interviews about him. You’ll see that his whole motivation comes from the fear of the dehumanisation of humanity that he feels is necessitated by two specific views of the human being: that we are animals, and determinism rules. This terrifies him. And he says himself it was born of his teenage angst.

            I believe him (i.e. I believe he believes it) when he says he is not a dualist nor a theist. But his arguments play out as theirs do, and this may explain why he is often mistaken for one or the other.

            And Dennett has similar fears about the lack of free-will, though his are specifically related the fear of the social consequences of some people learning that fact. But, if we are deterministic and we do not have free-will then his argument of Dennett’s amounts to denying guns exist because if we admit they exist they may be used to kill people. The consequences of some fact should have no bearing on whether its a fact or not. Even if Dennett does beleive we have a free-will worth having it’s still a bad argument, and poor philosophy. Try this link:
            http://www.pointofinquiry.org/daniel_dennett_the_scientific_study_of_religion/
            and listen to Dennett on free-will – about 20 minutes in.

            “At that point you’re a compatibilist — all bar the shouting.”

            I could give the corresponding incompatibilist response to you when you answer the questions in comment stream 7.

            There are several problems I have with a variety of compatibilist positions. We agree on the physical basis of human brain function. But several other points, not all used by all compatibilists, do give the impression of dualism:

            http://ronmurp.net/2012/08/25/my-problems-with-compatibilist-free-will/

          • Posted August 26, 2012 at 2:14 am | Permalink

            “Now ask yourself, why is it helpful, appropriate and useful to use such metaphorical language about, say, children, but not about, say, bricks?”

            I have used it about bricks (well, a rock falling on my toe) with regard to the attribution of responsibility. The purpose of using rocks, or thermostats, is precisely to draw the comparison that emphasises the spatial and temporal localisation physical activity in a particular entity. The difference between a rock and a human is that the insides of a human are more complex, with more feedback systems and memory that ’cause’ the actions to related to what goes on inside the human brain more than it does the inside of the rock. The rock does have internal states that contribute to its action: mass that ‘responds*’ to gravity, the strength of the bonds that make the rock ‘survive*’ the fall, the momentum of the rock such that it ‘strikes*’ my toe.

            We are atoms – you’re not denying this. The only difference between a human and a rock is the complexity of its internal states. Life is nothing more than inanimate matter that collectively is animated, as part of the dynamic unwinding towards greater Entropy. A thought in a human brain is nothing more than physical activity – little rocks rolling down energy gradients. All undirected, all unintended, all un-willed. When human-entity dynamics results in a sub-system, the brain, not only sensing activity in its wider environment but also sensing its own internal processes, so that this particular dynamic matter becomes not only self-adapting (as all biological systems are), but also self-aware of these processes, then such an entity develops short-cuts in its means of referring to itself. This is the language of dualism.

            Incompatibilists are doing nothing more than emphasising this for very specific purposes: to object to the mystical stuff of the mind and the soul, and for overcoming the inappropriate use of the notion of free-will in the attribution of responsibility and the association of free-will with religious guff like ‘evil’. We are not claiming that the notion of free-will should never be used, or that we need to adapt some stilted language in our every day lives.

            I’m not sure why you don’t see this distinction. The only reasons I can see are the ones I object to here:
            http://ronmurp.net/2012/08/25/my-problems-with-compatibilist-free-will/

            *Note the pseudo-intentional language. That humans do use intentional language to describe inanimate things sort of counters your point about language. If we can use such language for what we all agree is an inanimate object I don’t see how you can object to incompatibilists using it for the description of human activity in every day language. It is the incompatibilists that is putting too much resistance to the language of inanimate matter (we are machines, we don’t have free-will). It’s the compatibilists that wants to emphasise the use of the language of dualism that makes their position easy to mistake for dualism (I do accept you’re not a dualist).

            • Posted August 26, 2012 at 4:06 am | Permalink

              … but compatibilists object to the incompatibilist language when we ask what is actually doing the deciding – it’s more deterministic processes at work.

              Do we? I’ve never seen compatibilists object to an incompatibilist interpretation — we agree with you entirely that it is just more deterministic processes.

              But, we are then saying that in addition there is a useful viewpoint of considering counter factuals and alternative possibilities and thus “choices”, and thus adopting a compatibilist view, even when we fully accept that it is all determined.

              In the same way, a chemist might adopt a higher-level description of a molecule’s behaviour, even though this is determined by lower-level physics, and thus could also be described entirely correctly at the lower level, and both descriptions would be entirely consistent and compatible.

              That’s the point: a higher-level description such as “serrated tooth for shredding flesh” would be entirely consistent and compatible with lower-level descriptions of the same in terms of molecular bonds or elementary particles — but the higher-level description does have usefulness and validity, and not just as a metaphor, not just as a metaphor about some Platonic essential tooth that doesn’t actually exist.

              Thus, we compatibilists are not objecting to incompatibilism, we’re just objecting to your incompatiblist objections to compatibilism! And, yes, this really, really is just about semantics!

              You could indeed take the stance: since the (ancient Greeks) held to ideals of Platonic essentialism, and since no actual Platonic essential tooth actually exists, therefore I’m going to disallow any reference to “tooth”, because it might be confused with a Platonic-essential tooth, even by those who consider a “tooth” to be just an aggregation of molecules.

              We [incompatibilists] are not claiming that the notion of free-will should never be used, or that we need to adapt some stilted language in our every day lives.

              Excellent! Welcome to compatibilism. Because all we are asserting is that such usages are useful and meaningful, even though we entirely agree that it is determinism all the way down (in the same way that the concepts “tooth” and “tooth function” are meaningful, even though it is just particles all the way down).

              I’ve quoted Raymond Tallis several times

              OK, fair enough, but I’ve never seen Tallis expound or defend a compatabilist stance, so he’s not quite what I was looking for. As for Dennett, I’m sure that he himself does not fear any consequences of determinism, but he way well have written explaining why no-one else should fear it either.

              • Posted August 26, 2012 at 5:32 am | Permalink

                “Do we?”

                Yes, many do. But I accept you don’t.

                Excellent! Welcome to determinism.

                I appreciate that many compatibilists and determinists are on the same page with regard to core physicalism of brain function.

                “But, we are then saying that in addition there is a useful viewpoint of considering counter factuals and alternative possibilities and thus “choices”, and thus adopting a compatibilist view, even when we fully accept that it is all determined.”

                That might be your particular intended message, but that isn’t what comes across from many compatibilists. If it were then compatibilists wouldn’t make the objections that we see here:

                http://physicalism.wordpress.com/2011/07/21/what-jerry-needs-to-know-about-freedom

            • Posted August 26, 2012 at 4:56 am | Permalink

              Ron Murphy:

              There are several problems I have with a variety of compatibilist positions.

              I’ve just been reading your blog post. It seems that you either misunderstand compatibilism or are very resistant to accepting compatibilists explanations. You accuse us of:

              property dualism, and fear of consequences, qualia, ‘I’

              Property dualism: I reject it. I’m a materialist and reductionist and consider that everything can be explained as the sum of its parts. Mental states are patterns of physical brain stuff.

              Fear of consequences: I have no fear, and anyhow don’t think that there are any harmful consequences of thoroughly embracing determinism.

              Qualia: to me, qualia are patterns of physical brain stuff, a bit like hurricanes are patterns of physical air.

              As for “I”, you ask:

              My question to compatibilists is, what is this ‘I’ if it is not the physical brain-body system? … Could some compatibilist explain what this ‘I’ is.

              Why, it’s the brain-body system, obviously. There really is nothing to be afraid of in compatibilism, honest, there really is no dualistic woo snuck in somewhere!

              • Posted August 26, 2012 at 5:35 am | Permalink

                Again. I accept your objection to property dualism. But be fair, I do make the point at the outset:

                “Not all compatibilists need hold all these points of view, but that some do, and that these points are raised frequently, causes misunderstanding for an incompatibilist such as myself.”

                The diversity of compatibilist views doesn’t help.

                Granted there is some diversity in determinist views of the free-will issue, but they seem to be minor in comparison.

              • Posted August 26, 2012 at 5:41 am | Permalink

                “There really is nothing to be afraid of in compatibilism, honest, there really is no dualistic woo snuck in somewhere!”

                I’d like to know what other compatibilists make of the collection of your responses to me. I think some would consider you a determinist (which of course you say you are) and would not think you are a compatibilist in the same way they are.

                I feel you and I are mostly disagreeing only on what context we should use the term ‘free-will’.

                Do you see ‘free-will’ in the dualist sense as an illusion – i.e. we feel we have it, even though all the way down to the physics there is no place where we are free of deterministic effects?

              • Posted August 26, 2012 at 6:00 am | Permalink

                I think some [other compatibilists] would consider you a determinist (which of course you say you are) and would not think you are a compatibilist in the same way they are.

                Eh? Of course they would consider me a determinist, just as they’d consider themselves one. That’s what “compatibilism” means, a viewpoint that is *compatible* with a thoroughly embraced determinism.

                (Incompatibilist response: “but, but … I still suspect you of wanting to sneak some dualistic woo in somewhere …”)

                Do you see ‘free-will’ in the dualist sense as an illusion – i.e. we feel we have it, even though all the way down to the physics there is no place where we are free of deterministic effects?

                Why sure. That’s exactly how I see it (and if any compatibilist doesn’t see it that way then they are not a compatibilist, by the very definition of the term).

              • Posted August 26, 2012 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

                coelsblog,

                If all compatibilists agreed with all determinists about the deterministic nature of human behaviour to the extent you do then the only dispute would be about whether we should call the consequential actions ‘free-will’ or not.

                But again and again compatibilists keep bringing up ‘choice’, which is already covered as not being real choice. Statements are made that include phrases such as ‘it’s more than that’ and ‘humans can choose’ are stated as if they should be taken at face value as reasons why human actions should be called free-will actions – when it is already agreed (so you say) that these are accounted for by the determinism (or indeterminism) that prevents anything like ‘choice’.

                When there is a struggle to get across to dualists that they do not have the free-will they think they have I don’t see why compatibilists insist on still claiming we have free-will, by merely labelling our deterministic behaviour as free-will.

                Unless there really are other reasons for doing so. And of course there are other reasons, such as the ones I listed in my post. That you seem to reject all those other reasons, agree with the detrministic nature of human behaviour, do disagree with the dualist understanding of free-will, I don’t see what you have left that makes you want to insist on being a compatibilist.

              • Posted August 27, 2012 at 12:36 am | Permalink

                coelsblog,

                Neil is another compatibilists that doesn’t seem to be your type of compatibilist:

                http://ronmurp.net/2012/08/25/my-problems-with-compatibilist-free-will/#comment-882

              • Posted August 27, 2012 at 5:00 am | Permalink

                Ron Murphy:

                If all compatibilists agreed with all determinists about the deterministic nature of human behaviour to the extent you do then the only dispute would be about whether we should call the consequential actions ‘free-will’ or not.

                Exactly! And we do! And it is!

                But again and again compatibilists keep bringing up ‘choice’, which is already covered as not being real choice. … determinism … prevents anything like ‘choice’.

                So by “real choice” you mean something that doesn’t exist? OK, so we either (1) drop the word “choice” from the English language, or (2) retain it as a metaphorical use, where the metaphor refers to something non-existent, or (3) we re-map the word “choice” to something that does exist. Options 2 and 3 are, de facto, much the same, since the meaning of a word is ultimately what it is used for.

                So the real choice is 1 or 3. Compatibilists are happy with 3; incompatibilists are unhappy with 3, but never follow through by adopting 1. De facto they adopt 2, which is more or less 3 without admitting it.

                I don’t see what you have left that makes you want to insist on being a compatibilist.

                It’s really, really simple. I just want to be able to say to a kid, when buying an ice cream, “choose a flavour”, rather than “report to me your appearance-of-choice of flavour”. That’s it!

                Why are you so insistent on mapping our language to a failed metaphysics?, what is so wrong with mapping our language to reality? After all, we didn’t abandon the word “life” when science abandoned vitalism, we just carried on with “life” now mapped to a non-vitalist understanding.

                And yes, this is only a dispute about semantics. It really is! I’ve said that on these threads multiple times, I keep telling incompatibilists that I am disagreeing with them only on semantics, only on that I map words to. And they never, ever accept this, they always suspect me of trying to sneak in some dualistic woo. Sigh.

              • Posted August 27, 2012 at 6:35 am | Permalink

                coelsblog,

                “Exactly! And we do!” – You might, but I’ve given examples of those that don’t.

                On the semantics of the words, ‘compatibilism’ as a point of view has arisen in opposition to the ‘incompatibilism’/’determinism’ objection to dualist free-will. In other words the meaning of the ‘in-compatibilism’ is referring to dualism, and therefore logically the term ‘compatiblism’ should be referring to compatibility with the very same dualist free-will (which it is to many compatibilists). But compatibilists (some of them), distancing themselves from dualism, now want to stress that the compatibilism is about how their deterministic view of the brain body is compatible … with what? The normal use of the term free-will? But the normal use of the term free-will *is* dualist free-will.

                “the compatiblist is always suspected of hankering after dualism” – Can you see why?

                “Arguments against dualist free will might be worthwhile directed against a general public that is mostly dualist.”

                They are so directed, and against theists and all dualists. But then compatibilists come along and say, hold on, we don’t agree with your determinist incompatibilist language (i.e. objecting to ‘free-will is an illusion), because our view of determinism is compatible with free-will (i.e. free-will is not an illusion). But which free-will? It has to be the dualist free-will in this context. There was never a non-dualist free-will to be otherwise compatible with. Compatibilists have invented their own free-will, and then declared themselves compatible with that? I don’t think so. It’s always been about being compatible with dualist free-will. It’s the compatibilists that are “so insistent on mapping our language to a failed metaphysics” as you put it.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted August 25, 2012 at 8:19 am | Permalink

      I don’t get the point. Our language evolved over tens of thousands of years in the minds of people who feel like they have free will and who couldn’t conceive of a deterministic model for the human mind.

      If you truly believe in determinism, how can you say anything other than that the mouse is following deterministic algorithms evolved to maximize its liklihood of survival? It doesn’t matter how the mouse feels, what it experiences, or what it learns; those feelings, experiences, and learning are part of how the algorithms work to encourage or even guarantee the behavior that results in the best outcome biologically for the mouse. It is merely the fantastic complexity of the algorithms that create the appearance of free will.

      • Another Matt
        Posted August 25, 2012 at 8:41 am | Permalink

        “Survival” is itself a compatibilist term, as is “maximize likelihood.” Can you eliminate those altogether in your description? If you did, would you be losing something important that was true about the world? An incompatibilist description would need to frame this in a way such that there is no rationale for the mouse to turn right, from any point of view (i.e. the observer’s or the mouse’s POV).

        In fact, I’m not sure an incompatibilist would get to say “it went right rather than left,” because that would let in “could have done otherwise” through the backdoor — the incompatibilist would have to say that the question “Why does it turn right rather than left?” is inherently meaningless.

        Put another way, the Laplace Demon has no need of rationale or hypothesis, nor even for categories like “mouse” and “maze,” in its explanations for how the universe operates. From our limited epistemic standpoint we need those things – scientific method depends on them. But we could go a step further and say that maybe there are some things about the universe that the Laplace Demon is missing, that it can’t see from its vantage point, but that we can see from ours.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted August 25, 2012 at 10:03 am | Permalink

          I think you are claiming way too much territory for compatibilism, and at the same time reducing incompatibilism and determinism to an absurd parody. Straw man fallacy, in other words. Step back and ask yourself, must you be compatibilist to sensibly use the words “survival” or “maximize likelihood”? Incompatibilists are not forced to deny the human mind has rationales. It’s just that what we experience as reasoning and justification, what we name “rationale”, does not occur outside the real limiting factors of brain biochemistry, neuronal structure, and causality. To say anything otherwise is to deny determinism, and then you aren’t a compatibilists.

          the incompatibilist would have to say that the question “Why does it turn right rather than left?” is inherently meaningless.

          I think the incompatibilist would say that at some meso or macro level the question has meaning, but that still leaves no room for free will. At a micro level the mouse turned the way it did because a cascading multitude of firing neurons led to the action of turning right. It was physically capable of turning left, and it makes sense to imagine the counter factual scenario of turning left, but again these considerations, all totally available to incompatibilists and compatibilists alike, still do not confer any kind of internal freedom of will on the mouse. The mouse does what it must do, what the brain in that particular situation demands it to do, regardless of whether the conscious experience of the mouse allows it to feel it is choosing without the constraints of causality and with indifference to the billions of tiny imperceptible chemical reactions in its brain and body.

          • BillyJoe
            Posted August 25, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

            Well put, Jeff.

          • Another Matt
            Posted August 25, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

            OK, this is a useful point of entry, and forgive me if I’m misunderstanding you.

            Take these two points:

            1) “The mouse does what it must do, what the brain in that particular situation demands it to do”

            and

            2) “It was physically capable of turning left”

            Lots of commenters in these discussions have claimed that affirming former amounts to a denial of the latter. That’s how I understand the “if you play back the tape of the universe…” thought experiment — that argument is meant to show that if the mouse turned right, it was physically incapable of turning left at that moment (and therefore choices don’t really exist). The opening to the left was not one really an alternative path for that mouse.

            The only way out that keeps reference to the mouse, its behavior, and its species’ evolutionary history intact is the counterfactual scenario you said it makes sense to imagine. But in this case we should allow counterfactuals everywhere.

            Compatibilist “free will” is in this sense very much like dispositional properties of other objects — the only way to talk about them at all is with counterfactuals.

            • Posted August 26, 2012 at 2:27 am | Permalink

              “It was physically capable of” is consistent with there being nothing in the physical laws of nature that would prevent it turning left, had prior deterministic states been different, had the universe unfolded differently, had the universe had a different beginning.

              I accept this is using the fully deterministic sense for the purpose of making the point. If you wish you can inject quantum stuff just prior to the event of left and right paths taking place, so that in the hypothetical case of the universe re-running from that point (rewinding the tape just so far) it ‘could’ have caused a different outcome; but that would make no difference to the fact that the actual outcome was determined, even if being determined by events that were themselves non-deterministic.

              So in the sense that is relevant here there is no choice, for any one, even if there are random events. It just feels like a choice.

              This is why I’m not only an incompatibilists myself, but why I also see compatibilist notions of choice being incompatible with their claims that everything is physical when we get down to the physical.

    • lyndon
      Posted August 25, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      Counterfactual postulations still make sense. Even when we use this about our selves’s future decisions, we are clearly doing it to explore what would happen if we took our bodies in different directions. Some statement like, “if the wind blows, the house of cards will be knocked down,” or “if the wind had blown, our house of cards would have been knocked down,” is neither compatibilist or incompatabilist. It is a description about relational information, that will be used by our selves to make self-beneficial situations occur in the future.

      Likewise, when the computer “selects” to turn its fan on or a brain/mind chooses to go to the library, self-regulating in order that future conditions contain, we should focus on explaining those systems and how their environment led to those actions and what those effects will mean to the future state of the world.

      But just for grins:

      We have placed Mouse X in our tube maze. The tube dead-ends into a T junction, with an opening to the left and opening to the right. The mouse’s brain at such a junction will take in information, mostly in smell, about what is at the end of each tunnel. If the reading for smell is negative in both cases, and essentially a Buridan Ass decision is present, the brains of mice flip a neuronal coin which makes the animal go in one direction. As we run this experiment over and over again, however, the mouse’s brain maps that food is always rewarded when it turns right. Such rewards have rewired the brain structure so that the mouse always turns right.

      Stimulus-response training seems like one of the easier things to avoid compatibilist language on.

      The incompatibilist can and will readily grant all of the capacities that the compatibilist will claim exist (usually, or in the perfect world), the only difference is a semantic difference, about whether such capacities justify the reproduction of the term “free will.”

      The argument over the word “choice” in the past on this blog is because the word is closely aligned with “free will.” As pointed out by others, when someone says “I chose the vanilla ice cream,” they do so in the compatibilist sense, but if they are libertarians on free will,” the word “chose” here is carrying their stance on radical free choice as well. Free will in the end means to choose in some kind of manner, so obviously the same semantic troubles arise around the term “chose.”

  13. memlax
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne, since you are in the mood for discussing free will again, i thought i should let you know that Dr. William Vallicella wrote several responses to you on his blog. See here:
    http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2012/01/jerry-coyne-on-why-you-dont-really-have-free-will.html

  14. Rob
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    (Victor Stenger, in his book Quantum Gods, makes some calculations implying that the action of quantum indeterminacy on brain function seems unlikely.)

    For the sake of argument, let’s grant that quantum indeterminacy affects brain function, in direct contradiction to this statement.

    How the heck does that imply free will? Isn’t randomness opposed to (the common conception of) free will?

    • MNb
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      Again, quantum indeterminacy (QI) is not the same as randomness. It implies probability.
      Compare the famous double slit experiment. You might say that every single electron can freely choice which slit to take, while the overall result is determined. By adding factors you can influence the “decision” of the electrons.
      The idea is that something similar happens in brains. You can influence the outcome, but not determine. Hence the prediction is that neurobiology will have to incorporate QI, which will result in redefining free will when applied to that small scale.
      Stenger’s calculation is a severe blow to that idea, which I think a pity, because I liked it.

      • BillyJoe
        Posted August 25, 2012 at 6:23 am | Permalink

        But the factors that are added are determined. There’s just no way out here.

      • BillyJoe
        Posted August 25, 2012 at 6:26 am | Permalink

        Not only do thermostats have free will but so do electrons! This just shows how incoherent the idea of free will actually is.

  15. Blas
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    “We can’t do that, for which thoughts we entertain are the products of our physical brains, which themselves come from our genes and the environmental influences that have molded our brains. We are constrained to think the next thought we think.”

    You are saying this because your brain is constrained to think is this way. How do you know your brain is the correct one?

  16. Posted August 24, 2012 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Here’s an ally for you Jerry.

    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/one-among-many/201208/cold-comfort-in-compatibilism

    Not one punch is pulled.

    “The human will is seen as the only force that can set in motion a new causal chain, with itself being uncaused. This type of free will is radical and godlike; it creates something out of nothing; it does not have to answer to prior causes. Alas, this conception of free will is certainly false, impossible, and logically incoherent. No one (correct me if I’m wrong) has demonstrated that or how this type of will can triumph over the old soldiers of necessity and chance. Radically free will does not exist because it cannot exist.”

    • Posted August 24, 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      Thanks for that link.

      I found this line very interesting: “Some aspiring compatibilists maintain that only humans are judged morally because only they could have acted differently. Those who try this argument must realize that they are not compatibilists at all; they are libertarians.”

      You can say that [libertarian] free will is, or you can say that [libertarian] free will isn’t, but I don’t see how anyone (with a straight face) can say that their deepest conviction is that free will both is and isn’t.

    • Posted August 24, 2012 at 10:43 am | Permalink

      Not one punch is pulled.

      They may not be “pulled” but they miss. From that article:

      Cold Comfort In Compatibilism

      Compatibilism is not about “comfort”, it’s about figuring out how the universe is.

      Hence, the compatibilist must find a defense for moral judgment that is applicable only to humans …

      Wrong. The compatibilist considers that moral senses are programmed into us by evolution to facilitate our social and cooperative way of life. Thus, other higher social animals will also have their own moral senses. It seems obvious that, for example, chimps have ideas of how they *should* interact with each other and notions of shame, justice, etc.

      In its pure form, the logic of deterrence is exactly that: a matter of logic and hence rationality; it is not a matter of morality, and that’s why few people like it. Most people want judgments of punishment (and praise) to be moral.

      Sure. The “logic of deterrence” is *why* evolution has programmed morals into us. Our moral *feelings* are *how* evolution has programmed morals into us. There is no inconsistency here.

  17. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    I think that it is all too easy to prettify the idea of Free Will by using language sloppily.

    Hypothesis: What if the notion of Free Will arises from the personal feeling of agency?

    What if the notion of Consciousness arises from the personal feeling of continuity?

    What if the notion of Hunger arises from the personal feeling of being hungry?

    If Free Will, Consciousness and Hunger (and seeing Red, Love, etc.) are all qualia then it is not a big stretch to imagine all those ‘things’ to be the dashboard lights and dials of our existence. A natural outcome of very complicated associations of homeostatic and allostatic control systems.

  18. eddie
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Why blame people for holding to the idea of free will? Surely they don’t have a choice. And, of course, there’s no ideas, debate anyway, just the inevitable and ineluctable drift of time.

    • Rob
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      Given that the state machine that is the brain has feedback loops, yeah, there’s ideas and debate.

      Deterministic != Predictable.

      • eddie
        Posted August 24, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

        I’m not sure that’s true. The deterministic, unpredictable process involves feedback, sure, but any notion that this enables us to take sides in a debate, as far as I can see, still is arguing for free-will. I argue one way and you argue another. We cannot do anything else, or indeed choose to not do anything.

        OTOH, we might try to find what it is about the deterministic, unpredictable interaction between biology and environment that allows us to have these debates and adopt that as a working definition of free will, instead of beating on stawmen such as dualism.

        I know there are vast numbers of people who believe in the body-soul dualism of religious dogma. they arre simply wrong. But on the other side I see people making implicit distinction between conscious high-level, forebrain thinking and deep, sub-conscious thinking that happens before out higher brain is aware of it (the brain-scanning experiments in particular). This seems dualist to me. If my hindbrain is not me, then who is it?

        • Rob
          Posted August 24, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

          One state machine is trying to influence the other when the extent and details of the influence is unknown. That’s debate.

          Technically, I don’t think there’s free will. But I think the system is so complex that there’s a good enough approximation in assuming that there is.

          Is it right? Of course not. Neither is Newtonian Mechanics and it got us to the moon.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted August 25, 2012 at 6:35 am | Permalink

      “And, of course, there’s no ideas, debate anyway, just the inevitable and ineluctable drift of time.’

      So nothing ever changes if there is no free will? Is that what you’re saying? Then pray tell how did we get here from the big bang, from the first traces of replicating structures on the Earth? Things change without free will.

  19. andreschuiteman
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Why should philosophers have special insights in the free will question? I don’t see how it is anything else but an emperical problem of neurobiology and (ultimately) physics. Philosophers have just been able to hijack the discussion because the problem is perhaps not yet accessible to emperical science. At this stage, philosophers discussing free will are like ancient Greek thinkers speculating on the composition of matter.

    • MNb
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

      I agree completely. I rather wait for the outcomes of neurobiological research. I have a preference for free will, because causality is just an extreme form of probability. That doesn’t mean I think the outcome of the debate is established.
      Of one thing I’m sure. A semantic approach won’t help. Heck, free will and consciousness aren’t even well defined.

      • BillyJoe
        Posted August 25, 2012 at 6:49 am | Permalink

        It’s pretty hard to define something that doesn’t exist (;

        Free will: It CANNOT be based on anything and it CANNOT be random. So what exactly CAN it be.

        “Then Freewill, the director, smells a rat.
        Pulls another rabbit from His hat.
        Sniffs the air and He says, Well, that’s that I’m going.”

        • MNb
          Posted August 25, 2012 at 7:26 am | Permalink

          Santa Claus is pretty well defined, I’d say.
          Using Caps Lock doesn’t make your arguments any less weak.

          • BillyJoe
            Posted August 25, 2012 at 7:49 am | Permalink

            It’s better than no argument.
            And good luck on defining santa claus.

            In my experience, anyone who attempts to define something that doesn’t exist faces an exponentially curved uphill battle. The very attempt sees the subject of his defintion disappear in a cloud of smoke.
            …hence the Jethro Tull reference (;

  20. Brad
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Many of you have included links to research articles on this topic…and I appreciate that. I find this whole thing fascinating, but I believe I lack the proper philosophical background to understand the terms being thrown around here (dualism, compatibilism, etc).

    Could someone offer a relatively philosophy-illiterate person (albeit an inquisitive one) some reading to help me understand my position on this matter (using the proper philosophical terms)? Maybe something that is balanced and presents the issues as opposed to one that argues for one side and against the other.

    Thanks!

    • Posted August 24, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      And I would likewise request the same regarding the existence of god(s) and/or what happens after one dies.

    • physicalist
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      Brad:

      The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a very good resource, though it might be a bit technical as a starting point. I think the most helpful two entries for someone new to the debate would be the one on compatibilism and the one on incompatibilism.

      The Wikipedia entry has some serious flaws, but it might be helpfully accessible for the beginner.

      Honderich has a useful collection of essays here.

      (My own take, if you’re interested, can be found here and here.)

      • Brad
        Posted August 24, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

        Thanks to everyone for the links!

    • MNb
      Posted August 24, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      English Wikipedia is a good start as far as I can see.
      But I rather advise you to investigate the physics and neurobiology involved than philosophy. It’s not that I have something against the latter, but it seems to me that way too few philosophers these days are aware of empirical results.

    • Posted August 26, 2012 at 4:25 am | Permalink

      Brad, welcome to the confusing world of philosophy.

      Be warned that Physicalist’s link to the Stanford Incompatibilist might cause confusion because that page is really describing dualism – i.e. those dualists who believe in a free-will that is incompatible with determinism. Our use of ‘incompatibilist’ here is slightly different, in that it means those determinists that see dualist free-will as being incompatible with determinism. More detail here:

      http://ronmurp.net/2012/08/26/the-confusing-philosophy-of-free-will/

      Physicalist,

      You misrepresent the determinist case in your post here:
      http://physicalism.wordpress.com/2011/07/21/what-jerry-needs-to-know-about-freedom/

      “Incompatibilists like Jerry claim that the lack of libertarian freedom has serious and unsettling consequences.”

      That doesn’t quite express who feels unsettled. Not we determinists. It’s many compatibilists and dualists that are unsettled by the lack of free-will. Others have pointed out where they think you are mistaken. I’ll comment on your post later, but for now I want to get at this issue of responsibility again, in the context of who is actually unsettled by the lack of free-will.

      Compatibilists Dennett fears the consequences of denying free-will:
      https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/yet-another-failed-attempt-to-argue-for-free-will/#comment-269333

      But determinists keep on responding that non-free-will does not avoid responsibility. If anything it has positive implications for the way in which we attribute responsibility. Determinists certainly don’t fear this aspect of non-free-will but welcome it.

    • Posted August 26, 2012 at 6:28 am | Permalink

      The references mentioned below seem adequate, but I’d also add the slightly more historical collection edited by Derk Pereboom. (I’ve only seen the 1e, though.)

  21. BillyJoe
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    In a nut shell…

    The incoherence of free will:

    If there is a basis for free will, then it is not free will, it is determinism.
    If there is no basis for free will, then it is not free will, it is a random coin flip.
    If it is a combination of the above, then it is still not free will but a conbination of determinism with a random coin flip here and there.

    There are no other options.

    • eddie
      Posted August 26, 2012 at 12:39 am | Permalink

      Exactly. This is why we need better definitions; so we can be sure we’re not talking to strawmen. Even what I called a working definition, because we can’t wait until we solve the problem before we get to name it.

  22. emmageraln
    Posted August 24, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on emmageraln.

  23. Posted August 25, 2012 at 1:27 am | Permalink

    I find the whole free-will vs determinism thing goes over my head. I think I have free will, because it feels as if I do, but how would it feel if I didn’t? Exactly the same, I think.

    (It reminds me of – was it? – Wittgenstein who said, “When someone says people think the sun goes round the earth because it looks as if it does, I ask, ‘What would the earth rotating look like?’” And of course, since the earth does rotate, that must be exactly what it looks like.)

    So can it be that the illusion of free will arises because our frame of reference is so firmly anchored in our bodies (and we feel just like a homunculus behind our eyes driving the giant digger that is our bodies, and choosing to think the thoughts we do) – when in fact we are just buffetted in extraordinarily complex ways by forces inside and out, past and present, and we’re not really in control at all?

    • Posted August 25, 2012 at 1:31 am | Permalink

      And underlying this is a problem of definition. Just what do we mean by “free” “will”? If my thirst pushes me in the direction of making a cup of coffee, has it not significantly reduced my freedom not to? How significantly is significantly enough to say I was no longer free?

    • BillyJoe
      Posted August 25, 2012 at 5:21 am | Permalink

      That’s right.

      Even when we know that the Earth rotates on its axis, we still, every day, think of it as the sun revolving around the Earth. And it doesn matter.

      Similarly, we act every day as if we have free will. That is an illusion but it doesn’t matter, it still feels the same as free will

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted August 25, 2012 at 6:36 am | Permalink

      Well put. It is how we feel that led to the notion of free will and dualism. Even when we learn differently because of scientific advancement, it still feels the same. This illusory feeling of free will is encoded deeply into our language and culture. I believe it is this correlation between the free will we feel we have and its deep influence on our language and culture that enables compatibilists to play this game of grand equivocation that involves pretending we still have free will even though our discoveries strongly indicate that we don’t have it. Incompatibilists keep saying we don’t have free will, it only seems like we do, or, the sun doesn’t circle the earth, it only seems like it does. Compatibilists keep saying “but we do have free will”. It’s like they are saying: “but the sun moves across the sky, which is compatible with the earth rotating, yet our subjective experience remains that the sun revolves around the earth”. It’s maddening because it seems the compatibilists ignore what is and focus on our subjectivity and language, which is all based on how things seem. They privilege how things seem in human perception over how things are in physical reality. And of course human concerns and behavior and language are very important. But still just because we seem to will freely doesn’t mean it is free in the way it seems, and just because the sun seems to orbit the earth, doesn’t mean it moves the way it seems.

    • eddie
      Posted August 26, 2012 at 12:42 am | Permalink

      Well, there is a thing. The surface of the earth, at the equator, is moving at about a thousand miles per hour. This isn’t felt by people walking around on it so it’s not intuitively obvious.

  24. logicophilosophicus
    Posted August 25, 2012 at 4:30 am | Permalink

    WEIT: “This is reminiscent of natural selection, in which mutation presents a variety of genetic variation which is then winnowed by natural selection. But Doyle’s model seems wrong in both its steps.  The “alternative possibilities” are, in my mind, illusory: they are the possibilities that the actor thinks she has, or that an outside observer thinks are available. In reality, there’s only one real option, and even compatibilists believe that.”

    Not so – Doyle is one of many physicist-philosophers who home in on quantum state collapse as the correlate for choice from multiple possibilities. Naive determinist arguments are inadequate to address this view.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted August 25, 2012 at 5:17 am | Permalink

      This is a classic error. The mind/consciousness does not collapse the wave function. If you think so, try to alter the outcome of a double slit experiment with your mind. So, nope, classic fail. And determinism (plus the odd coin toss) is still the only game in town.

      • logicophilosophicus
        Posted August 25, 2012 at 7:26 am | Permalink

        “…determinism (plus the odd coin toss)…”

        Which physicists hold this view?

        In any case, I don’t know whether consciousness is involved in q. collapse, and I didn’t state that; merely that a classical determinist stance is irrelevant to a quantum-consciousness argument.

        • BillyJoe
          Posted August 25, 2012 at 7:40 am | Permalink

          There is no quantum-consciousness argument. That’s the point.

          • logicophilosophicus
            Posted August 25, 2012 at 10:43 am | Permalink

            Ah, those physicists (???

            As to quantum consciousness, there are plenty of physicists and philosophers who make such arguments. Your complete dismissal of them, without a single piece of evidence, does not prove “there is no quantum-consciousness argument.” Nor does your slit-experiment example: quantum-consciousness is not telekinesis.

            • BillyJoe
              Posted August 25, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

              Either you’re misreading them, or you’re reading views that are out of date, or you’re reading physicists on the fringe. The fact is that the so called “collapse of the wave function” depends only on the interaction of physical objects. Consciousness plays no role whatsoever. Consciousness cannot collapse the wave function and consciousness is not necessary in order for the wave function to collapse. Despite your denial, the double slit experiment demonstrates this. If the sensor is on, a scatter pattern results. If the sensor is off, an interference pattern results. This is always and in every case true and no mention need be made about consciousness because it plays absolutely no role whatsoever.

              • eddie
                Posted August 26, 2012 at 12:50 am | Permalink

                What is consciousness if not a physical process?

    • Posted August 25, 2012 at 6:31 am | Permalink

      Doyle is one of many physicist-philosophers who home in on quantum state collapse as the correlate for choice from multiple possibilities.

      “We don’t understand wavefunction collapse, and we don’t understand free-will; therefore freewill is bound-up with wavefunction collapse”. Hmm, I’m not impressed by that argument, it’s very much God-of-the-gaps reasoning.

      • logicophilosophicus
        Posted August 25, 2012 at 7:34 am | Permalink

        Given that both effects – loosely quantum collapse and conscious volition – seem to be involved in selecting among possibilies, it is a very reasonable assumption that they are “bound up” in some way.

        • BillyJoe
          Posted August 25, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

          Except that “quantum collapse” does not “select” amongst possibilities. They just fall where they do. It’s like saying that “the lotto machine selects a number” instead of “a number falls into the slot of the lotto machine”.

          In fact “free will” is like the lotto machine – deterministic – and hence not free will at all. The lotto machine does not select a number. That is an illusion. And so is free will.

          • logicophilosophicus
            Posted August 25, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

            “They just fall where they do.”

            I would still like some idea of which scientists hold this view. (That determinism plus some randomness is the basis of reality.) I’m more familiar with complete determinism (either Many Worlds or less popularly Hidden Variables) or fundamental Indeterminacy. In the latter case, there is still (e.g. Roger Penrose) a valid (unresolved) discussion to be had about the role of the conscious observer. In the former case, Hidden Variables could include observer-related effects – who knows? Basically – this is just my take – the Many Worlds view is an ugly solution preferred specifically because of a dogmatic rejection of observer effects.

            BTW “select” is used in its commonsense meaning.

            • BillyJoe
              Posted August 25, 2012 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

              Why is the many worlds view ugly. In fact, it is beautiful. It turns indeterministic quantum physics into deterministic quantum physics. All possible solutions occur all at once, just in different worlds. Perhaps you mean that it’s wasteful? Well, the whole universe is already wasteful. Life exists in only an infintesmally vanishingly small dot in the staggeringly great vastness of the universe. What difference would more waste make?

              “I would still like some idea of which scientists hold this view. (That determinism plus some randomness is the basis of reality.)”

              In our universe, that is necessarily the case. Quantum indeterminism is not all hidden at the subatomic level. Random quantum events trigger geiger counters for a start. That is a macroscopic manifestation of quantum indeterminism. Of course, if the many worlds view is correct, the Universe that encompasses these many worlds is completely deterministic.

              “observer-related effects’

              Convince me with an unequivocal demonstration (eg an experimental result) that there are obeserver effects in quantum physics. There just aren’t any.

              • eddie
                Posted August 26, 2012 at 12:57 am | Permalink

                There are two problems, AFAICS, with the many workds model. The first is that splitting makes multiple universes from one universe, all the time. This violates conservation of energy, unless we can establish that the new energy of a whole uuniverse is zero and it’s all just fluctuation. The second is that the universes are said to be separate, but if they are not connected to each other, they can’t have a distribution of outcomes from one universe to another that looks like the probability we observe in experiments.

              • logicophilosophicus
                Posted August 26, 2012 at 1:01 am | Permalink

                In 1997 an informal – but now famous – poll of scientists in the field of QM showed that the Copenhagen Interpretation was still more popular than Many Worlds. CI basically concedes that the observed world is subjective, thus ceding a special place to the conscious observer. (Of course many avoided the issue ["shut up and calculate"] – others, like Wigner, embraced it. None successfully escaped it.)

                The Many Worlds theory is a Many Universes theory. There are no deterministic of even probabilistic universes within it: all possible universes/histories exist and that is all that is determined when MWI insists that the universal wave function evolves deterministically.

                This is an ugly “solution” to me, and I was careful to give that as a personal aside, irrelevant to the argument. You homed in on that and ignored yet again the question: which physicists believe in general determinism plus occasional ramdomness. You imply that they all must; I suspect that the available theories leave no room for such a view, i.e. they all must NOT. I’d hate to be wrong on this, so can you tell me WHICH physicists, one or two will do.

              • Posted August 26, 2012 at 6:31 am | Permalink

                Moreover, you don’t need MW to do this. The decoherence program is a way to spell out detaols; an axiomatic approach shows the result simply. (The latter being available at least since 1967.)

  25. Zack
    Posted August 25, 2012 at 5:20 am | Permalink

    Does a dice have free will because there is a chance it might land on two instead of four? Don’t worry Dr. Coyne, I’ve got your back. ;)

    • Posted August 25, 2012 at 6:28 am | Permalink

      Does a dice have free will because there is a chance it might land on two instead of four?

      No, because there is no “will”, no goal-orientedness to that outcome.

      • BillyJoe
        Posted August 25, 2012 at 7:05 am | Permalink

        Well, compatibilists have painted themselves in a corner where even thermostats and electrons must have free will. So what’s so special about dice that they don’t.

        • Another Matt
          Posted August 25, 2012 at 7:44 am | Permalink

          I disagree about electrons but agree about thermostats, to an extent. It might be OK to say that, due to feedback a thermostat is able to process information about its world and react to it, so it has free will to an extremely vanishingly small degree. It would be like ascribing “life” to an organic compound which can assemble copies of itself.

          Robert Nozick once wrote something to the effect that “nobody has ever announced that because determinism is true, thermostats do not really control temperature.” This is the most important thing about the compatibilist stance, to my mind — if you want to eliminate ideas like “choice” and “control” for humans because determinism is true, on the grounds that “could have been otherwise” is false or meaningless under determinism, then on the same grounds you should also eliminate “choice” when doing Skinner experiments on animals, or saying what it is that the Mars rover’s computer is doing to control it. (The computer doesn’t control it at all — determinism controls it!)

          In other words, compatibilism is an epistemological stance, not an ontological one. Our scientific method depends on some notion of “could have been otherwise” — “hypothesis” is meaningless without it. Compatibilism is about the attempt to integrate our understanding of behavior of complex systems with biology and physics in a way that retains the full conceptual apparatus of science.

          I think if your use of thermostats to denigrate compatibilism actually shows quite neatly what I’m talking about — you recognize that a thermostat has far, far fewer degrees of freedom than an airplane, a slug, a dog, or a human. Compatibilism is about finding out what makes us different from thermostats, not about what makes us the same.

          • BillyJoe
            Posted August 25, 2012 at 8:07 am | Permalink

            “It might be OK to say that, due to feedback a thermostat is able to process information about its world and react to it, so it has free will to an extremely vanishingly small degree. ”

            What happens in a thermostat is clearly and completely deterministic. There is an algorithm that determines what happens in a thermostat. There is no basis to say that a thermostat has free will (even to an extremely vanishingly small degree).
            …unless your definition of free will has lost all meaaning

            • Another Matt
              Posted August 25, 2012 at 8:31 am | Permalink

              I’m not sure how your argument does you any good. Maybe I’m wrong, but aren’t you trying to say that what happens in a human is clearly and completely deterministic? Why this angst about comparing thermostats to humans, then?

              For the record, though, I prefer “degree(s) of freedom” to “free will.” A “google car” that drives itself across the desert with no human control has about the same degree of freedom as a monarch butterfly (at least, for migrating).

              Now, imagine you take a newly minted google car into a lab to run some tests on it. You start with a full analysis of all its parts and its software control structures, and you determine that yes, this car ought to be able to traverse the average desert.

              Just then, the south wall of your lab crumbles to reveal Bart Simpson riding an elephant. The elephant walks up, smashes the google car, and they leave while Bart laughs, and Nelson points at you saying “ha ha!”

              The question now is — was the analysis you made before the calamity valid? A compatibilist would say that yes, that car was capable of traversing the desert even though it never had a chance to demonstrate it. I think an incompatibilist would be forced to say that the analysis was invalid because it failed to take into account the deterministic events that were about to unfold with Bart and the elephant — the car never was capable of traversing the desert because it was about to be smashed.

              The compatibilist has an epistemological advantage, though, because he/she can extrapolate the analysis to another google car. Incompatibilists don’t get to do that, because that kind of extrapolation is inherently compatibilist — as soon as you do it, you’ve stepped into the compatibilist’s territory.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted August 25, 2012 at 9:30 am | Permalink

                I think an incompatibilist would say the analysis was valid, that before the unexpected event the car was capable of making the journey, but none of this confers free will upon the car. The car was only capable of doing what it was designed to do, which in the cases both of cars and humans, does not include the capability of exercising uncaused will. If the car had been equipped with the right sensors and logic, it could have detected it’s impending doom, and provided it was equipped with goals including the high priority goal of crossing the desert, it could have sprung into action, evaded Bart, and set out across the desert. None of this implies free will, which would require some uncaused decision-making factor internal to the car to be able to decide to cause the car to do something other than its goal satisfying computations “want” it to do.

                Before you cry foul and say I’m talking about dualism now, I say yes, the incompatibilist would say that free will requires dualism, which is an incoherent historical notion. Rather than free will, we have the ability to make reasoned choices that maximally satisfy our goals subject to the constraints of the moment, which is all physically determined by the structure of our brain, which is determined by our genes, our experiences, our learning, and our memory.

              • Another Matt
                Posted August 25, 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink

                Rather than free will, we have the ability to make reasoned choices that maximally satisfy our goals subject to the constraints of the moment, which is all physically determined by the structure of our brain, which is determined by our genes, our experiences, our learning, and our memory.

                Yep, that’s also exactly what the compatibilists like Dennett say about it. “Reasoned choices.”

                But what would you say to those people who claim that there are no choices and no alternatives besides what actually happens? Are they missing something about the capabilities — the degrees of freedom — of systems?

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted August 25, 2012 at 9:04 am | Permalink

            When you say compatibilism is not an ontological stance but an epistemological one, isn’t that the same as saying that free will doesn’t exist, but is merely an idea bound up with how we think and talk, how we receive and process knowledge and information?

            It is astonishingly obvious that we make choices, have desires, and exercise control. This has always been so. Who proposes abolishing these things from the language? Nobody as far as I know.

            It is certainly a fascinating aspect of our deterministic brain that it is complex enough to create consciousness, emotion, reason, and learn over time. This doesn’t change the fact that when I feel I make a choice for no other reason than that “I” willed it, this is only an appearance created in my mind, and that “I” am not exercising free will because what I’m really doing is behaving according to a complex network of causes that my conscious mind is not fully aware of.

            So how does it help anything to redefine free will from what people feel they do, to fit what people actually do using language that also fits what people feel they do? The whole thing is a giant equivocation made possible by the fact that language evolved in the minds of people who felt they had free will.

            I think it’s great to discuss choices and options and decisions and outcomes and how humans go about meeting their needs. But none of that depends on using the words “free will”, which becomes confusing because you no longer believe “free will” is an ontological category but rather a part of the epistemological framework we use to understand the world. It simply doesn’t seem clear what the importance is of still insisting that free will is something we have, unless it is simply the badge required to maintain current membership in the compatibilists club, which evidently has some value I can’t perceive. I know that sounds insulting, which I don’t mean to be. It simply reflects my own frustration at the unwillingness to simply say, as you seem to believe, that free will is not a characteristic or ability we possess, but rather that we possess a bunch of characteristic behaviors that can be attributed to a notion of “free will”, and that this is an historic mistake people have made because they lacked sufficient understanding of how the brain works.

            • Another Matt
              Posted August 25, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

              Fair enough, and no insult taken at all.

              I care much less about the term “free will” than I do accurate and useful description of what is the case.

              Jerry Coyne himself has said many times on this blogsite that we don’t make choices, not really — we might have the appearance of having made a choice, but not the real thing.

              The compatibilist response is simply that we do so make choices — a real choice is a type of behavior that does exist in the real world. A system is faced with a set of alternatives, and through an extremely complex set of deterministic algorithms it selects one of the alternatives and eschews others, and if it is an evolved system, it does so for reasons, which may not be represented by the system at all. That’s what a “real choice” is.

              But incompatibilists here have often denied that there was ever an array of alternatives to begin with, because whatever happens happens.

              So fine, I equate “the ability to choose from a set of alternatives” with “free will,” and incompatibilists equate “free will” with all kinds of dualistic nonsense. But there’s still the question which so far you’re the only one I can remember taking up, which is “‘choice,’ ‘control,’ and the like — are these concepts that define real differences in behavior between different systems?” I say “yes” as a compatibilist, and you have said “yes” many times in these conversations, but so far Jerry has time and again said “no” because to say “yes” would be to imply dualism. That’s where I think the disconnect on this issue lies, not in whether we retain the phrase “free will” or not.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted August 25, 2012 at 11:42 am | Permalink

                I’m a computer programmer, so it is natural for me to think of software algorithms that make choices, have goals, or want to maximize the satisfaction of various criteria, possibly using feedback derived from sensors determining the results of previous decisions and actions, so that the whole system can learn and converge on some gradual improvement on its efforts.

                In spite of the fact that we know computers are deterministic systems implementing digital logic, due to various asynchronous events triggered by either internal or external sources, a computer, or it’s software, can exhibit apparent non deterministic behavior, for example a bug that occurs occasionally but not always under the same apparent conditions of input. This is generally caused by what is called a race condition, which is a bug triggered when various competing sources demand usage of the computing resources at different times or different rates, leading deterministic processes to seem to be acting in an indeterministic manner. But this is an illusion.

                I think it might help to look at a human choice as not an instantaneous and atomic binary, but rather as a process of gradually accumulating points in favor of various options until one option reaches some triggering threshold that in turn initiates the action of announcing or manifesting our choice in some way. On the back end of this process out pops a discrete choice from among a variety of alternatives. It’s not really clear exactly when you started to make this choice, when the process begins. Presumably your awareness of the options plays a role in starting such a process, which can last seconds, minutes, days, or years. The options can be dynamic and change over time. Many forces impacting the process are external and beyond our control or ability to foresee. But there is some delta of time before the final choice is arrived at when no new external forces impinge, and everything we need to make the decision is in our head. During this time their is a sequence of brain states that is deterministic, and if we could have perfect knowledge of the state of the brain we could predict the result of the choice before it occurs.

                When Jerry says we don’t make real choices, he means nothing more than that: once any unforeseeable external impacts are out of the way, that process in the brain can reach one and only one result, and no other result is possible. Given an exact physical replication of that system, the result would be the same. There is no real freedom in the process, only apparent freedom because that whole deterministic process really is taking into account our needs and our desires based on past memories, and it even allows us the conscious window onto the process to make us feel that something we call “I” has made an indispensable contribution to the process.

                Now given the exquisite complexity of this system it enables us to go about our business with no need to be concerned about the elaborate unconscious processes that are doing everything from processing our visual and auditory input to regulating our emotional responses to orchestrating and determining the results of our decision processes, all while allowing us to feel that end result of our choice is a simple effortless exercise of our will.

                Jerry knows he chooses his boots, and he knows he chooses which delicious items to order at the yummy sounding Hunan restaurant he has described. Human beings make choices and we all know it. To misconstrue his point to mean that he thinks we dont make choices is to call Jerry inhuman, and I wish people could get past that relatively trivial point of semantics. It is just that some think about how we make choices on a deep enough physical level to understand the full implications of determinism, which is that the unfathomably complex processes that implement our choices actually arrive deterministically at the one and only possible conclusion every time. A bit of deeper reflection shows that we really could not have chosen differently even though a more superficial examination of the situation makes it seem as though we could have chosen differently because there were distinct alternative options we could perceive, understand, and consider, and we were even consciously aware of having the physical capacity to make or act on the other options. Our brain however, following its deterministic path through state space was physically incapable of arriving at a different conclusion then the one that we experienced as our final choice. Even though there was not the kind of freedom people like to think they have, there is a consolation that compatibilists should find extremely important: the choice our decision processes arrive at is the one we want, the one that is good for us, the one that we would have made if we were a disembodied intelligence floating in a totally frictionless mental space without constraints or causes. Hence we have the illusion of free will, derived from the fact that our deterministic processes are finely honed and exquisitely tuned by our genes and our experience to be in sync with and to incorporate our emotions, our memories, and our conscious reasoning.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted August 25, 2012 at 11:58 am | Permalink

                I lost your last point in what I intended to be a brief post. I failed at that as usual.

                When you talk about comparing different systems, If I understand you correctly, I seriously doubt that Jerry would deny that different kinds of systems of varying complexity can have different qualitative characteristics and abilities. And I doubt he would claim the opposite to defend the position, if I read you right, that human brains are in no way different from other animals or machines, ergo humans are not special, ergo no dualism.

                It’s obvious that many mammals share certain human mental capacities, and that humans have greater mental capacities, but also that other mammals, bats for example, possess brain capabilities that humans do not have.

                Jerry’s main point is that it makes no sense to claim we have free will given the way the brain works, which is deterministic. Any extrapolation from that to say he thinks we don’t choose, plan, anticipate, predict, or have emotions, hopes, goals, dreams, or other human qualities, in my opinion, amounts to a baseless quasi-ad hominem denigration of Jerry and his actual thoughts.

              • Posted August 25, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

                Jerry Coyne himself has said many times on this blogsite that we don’t make choices, not really — we might have the appearance of having made a choice, but not the real thing.

                An incompatiblist is someone who thinks we should always use the phrase “appearance of choice”, but most of the time forgets and uses “choice”.

                Whereas a compatibilist is someone who notes that “appearance of choice” is all that actually exists, so why not call this “choice” and have done with it?

                Why insist that the only “true” or “non-metaphorical” meaning of such words are phenomena that don’t actually exist and can’t even be conceived of coherently?

            • eddie
              Posted August 26, 2012 at 1:11 am | Permalink

              “Who proposes abolishing these things from the language? Nobody as far as I know.”

              This I think is what Jerry WEIT is proposing. We don’t fully know what’s going on and people use the same terms while talking about different things and talk past each other. It’s not just the phrase ‘free will’, but terms like consciousness that are not well defined.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted August 26, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

                I’m not sure if that is true. I’ve seen lots of commenters claiming something like this from a standpoint of disgruntled compatibilism, but I on’t recall Jerry actually advocating such a thing. Maybe you saw someone else claim Jerry wants to do that. Otherwise you had better find a quote from Jerry saying such a thing.

                In trying to make a point I’ve seen him qualify words, such as saying ‘real choice’, something he makes clear from context is an attempt at explication, not a recommendation for changing the way people speak.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted August 25, 2012 at 10:42 am | Permalink

        Actually, since with a pair of dice we can statistically observe some totals are more probable than others. We could then say the dice have a top priority goal of totaling 7, a secondary goal to total 6 or 8, and so on. If we were totally ignorant of the physics involved we might be tempted to speculate that the dice are controlled by some kind of will to satisfy this goal of matching the outcomes to the probability distribution. We would speculate so because of our own internal experience of goals and will, which we imagine to be free and uncaused, even though that is an illusion of our conscious subjective experience, and in fact the goals and will are caused by forces we are not entirely aware of.

        This would be the compatibilism of dice. The incompatibilists would say the dice have no will, no freedom, they only appear to behave that way. This is because the incompatibilists maintain awareness of determinism in their reasoning. The compatibilists, for some reason, after claiming to accept determinism in the brain, abandon it and try to premise their conclusions on concepts and linguistic representations of those concepts that were created in and by the same human brain that perceives itself to have uncaused free will. In some way that is not apparent to me this qualifies as a justification for claiming free will and determinism are compatible. By that reckoning determinism and dreams of heaven are compatible because the functioning of the deterministic brain can create dreams of heaven. That doesn’t mean dreams and heaven are real things that people can observe in action.

        • Posted August 25, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

          We could then say the dice have a top priority goal of totaling 7, a secondary goal to total 6 or 8, and so on.

          No we couldn’t! Such a claim would make no sense.

          Surely you accept that there is discernable purpose in the behaviour of two classes of objects, namely: biological products of a long process of Darwinian evolution, and some of the gadgets deliberately created by these biological entities, such as thermostats and beaver’s dams?

          The biological evolutionary products have both local autonomy and goal-seeking behaviour, so they have “will”. And if the gadgets they create also have sufficient local autonomy and goal-seeking behaviour (say a Mars landing robot) then they also can be said to have “will”.

          Extending this concept to thermostats is pushing it but just about valid (the thermostat can adjust its connection to achieve a goal of a particular temperature), but extending it to dice is not sensible — a dice is incapable of any goal-seeking adjustment or selection in the way that a thermostat (minimally) is.

          • BillyJoe
            Posted August 25, 2012 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

            The problem with using those words they way you use them, is that the default meaning of these words – the meaning most people recognise – is different. You will be mistaken for a dualist, a believer in souls, a believer in gods.

            At the very least you should use them with scare quotes to indicate you don’t really mean free will, choice, decisions the way the general public means them.

            Maybe in the future when gods have been buried, we might be able to exapt these words to mean what you mean by them, but that time is not now. You will be misunderstood by mostly everyone.

            • Posted August 26, 2012 at 2:17 am | Permalink

              You will be misunderstood by mostly everyone.

              The empirical evidence is indeed on your side, that compatibilism will indeed be “misunderstood by mostly everyone”, especially given the determined efforts incompatibilists make to misunderstand compatibilism.

              And you’re right, when talking to a dualist public we do need to clearly reject dualism and clearly argue for determinism.

              But, in the long run, compatibilism is the stance that thoughtful people will eventually arrive at. I refuse to believe that anyone really does go around saying and thinking “appearance of choice” every time they use the word “choice”, and I refuse to believe that anyone really does scrupulously avoid the word “choice” when consulting their kids on the flavour of ice cream to be consumed.

              • BillyJoe
                Posted August 26, 2012 at 4:18 am | Permalink

                Of course not. We live as if we have free will and talk as if we have free will because the illusion is that good. But, when you look below the surface, there’s nothing but illusion.

                And, no, we’re not about to change our language to spell out this fact every time we speak. Nor do we spell out every time we show an illustration of an atom with its nucleus and electrons that it doesn’t really look like that.

              • Posted August 26, 2012 at 6:14 am | Permalink

                “But, in the long run, compatibilism is the stance that thoughtful people will eventually arrive at.”

                When thoughtful people believe it is possible for determinism to be true and libertarian free will to also be true, not only will we have to have a new definition of “free”, but also “thoughtful”.

              • Posted August 26, 2012 at 7:02 am | Permalink

                nonfreewillist:

                Then it’s a good job no-one believes in both of those things, isn’t it?

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted August 26, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

                You seem to be engaging in compatibilist club urban legends here. Nobody I’ve ever heard has changed their language in this way or advocated people to do so. The modified language only occurs when trying to explicate concepts somewhat foreign to our language, such as the difference between a contra-causal choice, and a mere selection between alternatives via a deterministic algorithm.

                That’s because our language evolved according to the way humans have always and still behave, and it is often inflected with dualist notions of the human as material animated by some spooky substance.

                So what is it that compatibilists add to understanding of the world, other than saying that all the human behavior that everyone already understands and has never changed due to discovering deterministic materialistic models for the brain, can still be called free will if we change the meaning of free will?

                I don’t really see anything of value there, just a stubborn emotional attachment to a long term investment in preserving the notion that something called ‘free will’ exists, even if you have to redefine the term to claim that. That’s the very definition of compatibilism right?

              • Posted August 26, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

                It’s not a stubborn emotional attachment to certain terms, it is asserting:

                1) humans like everything else are deterministic.

                2) Nevertheless, goal-oriented, choice-selecting behaviour is a very real phenomenon displayed by some things (humans) and not by others (bricks).

                3) We need to understand that, and have a language to describe it.

                Those 3 are the basics of compatibilism. And, yes, incompatibilists agree on all 3 also (I hope). From there the only difference is semantics.

                The incompatibilist chooses language such as “… appearance of dualistic-choice” — referencing something that doesn’t exist, so what is the point of referencing it?

                The compatibilist just uses “choice” and “will”, and refers those terms to things that actually exist (the deterministic, goal-oriented, choice-selecting behaviour).

                And you know what? So do the incompatibilists, when they’re honest enough to admit what language they actually use day to day! Therefore we’re all either dualists or compatibilists.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted August 26, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

                Therefore we’re all either dualists or compatibilists.

                The goal oriented behavior you described is not free will, it is intelligence.

                I could only be a compatibilist if I thought it was so important to be able to tell people that we have ‘free will’ (because I was afraid to hurt their feelings of something), that I was willing to change the meaning of what has long been a term implicitly inferring dualism, all in order to simply preserve appearances.

                The only difference between compatibilists and incompatibilists is that incompatibilists are not willing to abuse language to placate a sensitive faith addled public, or other emotional attachments of the fragile human ego. Compatibilism adds nothing to our understanding other than a contorted definition of the term ‘free will’ that corresponds to obvious real behavior that no one questions, but denies the history of the term.

                Instead I prefer to see this as it truly is: we don’t have free will. We have intelligence which people have always in the past mistaken for free will, the magical special human quality that allows us to evade determinism. We don’t have that magical special human quality, and you agree; we have intelligence. Yet you still want to use the name for that magical human quality you agree we don’t have.

                It’s as if you wanted to redefine the term elan vital to correspond to the aggregate actions of the human nervous, immune, and endocrine systems. That may comfort some people emotionally attached to the idea that life and matter are fundamentally different, but it still would be a self-deception, as is the insistance that we have ‘free will’.

              • Posted August 27, 2012 at 5:02 am | Permalink

                Jeff Johnson:

                The goal oriented behavior you described is not free will, it is intelligence.

                Don’t you see that that depends entirely on how one defines “free will”, and the whole point here is that we are using a different conception of it than you! This is so frustrating:

                Incomp: That is not what “free will” means.

                Comp: It is what *we* mean by “free will”.

                Incomp: But that is not what “free will” means.

                Comp: It is what *we* mean by “free will”.

                Incomp: But that is not what “free will” means.

                Comp: It is what *we* mean by “free will”.

                Repeat ad nauseum over multiple threads.

                … why hold on to the false dualist term ‘free will’?

                If it were only the term “free will” at issue I’d happily ditch it to reach agreement. But it’s not, it’s also “choice” and “decision” and “attempt”, “option”, “plan”, “threaten”, “test”, “compel”, “consider”, “coerce” and dozens of others. Why hold on to these? Because the alternative is re-writing the entire English language. So a better alternative is interpreting them in deterministic & compatibilistic ways.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted August 27, 2012 at 7:08 am | Permalink

                Coelsblog,
                I agree with you, the whole debate seems to be semantics. I don’t see the problem with the other words you mention that I do with ‘free will’. It is not a word at all, but a compound of two words with an enormous philosophical and theological history that neither free, or will, or the other words have.

                Why not make the definition of compatibilism be that human control and agency are compatible with determinism? The very definition of compatibilism is loaded with history because it is standardly formulated in terms of ‘free will’. The stoics had an urgency to defend an innovative theory of nature. Today the urgent need of compatibilism is different; it is to conservatively defend the long unchallenged notions of identity, ego, free will. I expanded on this idea below in #30.

              • Posted August 27, 2012 at 7:40 am | Permalink

                Jeff Johnson,

                I agree with your suggestion that compatiblists should ditch “free will” (perhaps using simply “will” instead) but retain all other words such as “choice” — and then we’re all in agreement!

                Indeed I suggested exactly that on my blog about nine months ago in response to an earlier WEIT free-will thread. And after umpteen subsequent threads I’m still standing by what I wrote then.

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted August 26, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

            We certainly could say so under my hypothetical that we were totally ignorant of the physics. If the dice were a black box to us in the way the human brain is, or was, and we had very primitive understanding of nature, we might, like many gamblers do, believe mysterious forces of fate or luck were controlling the outcomes.

            This isn’t very different from the way humans imputed free will and souls to themselves in the distant past. Mysterious invisible motivating forces, spirits, daemons.

            To claim a thermostat has will makes sense, in that it is a deterministic system with a purpose that adjusts its behavior to changes in its environment. But this is changing the definition of will from what it originally was, which depended upon consciousness. In this same way, compatibilists change the definition of ‘free will’ from what it originally was, which depended upon a dualistic notion of human consciousness.

            So compatibilists identify various senses of agency and control that deterministic humans really have, have always had, and many of which caused humans of long ago to imagine a mysterious invisible motivating force to inhabit our bodies. Then you take the language that evolved in the context of this false dualism, and redefine it in terms of deterministic humans, which isn’t hard because we still have all the behaviors we’ve always had. Nonetheless, the words take on different meanings, and especially ‘free will’, the foundation of the whole determinist project, is entirely distorted from the original meaning by compatibilists.

            The only way your usage of ‘will’ makes any sense is based on the abstract knowledge that human will is also deterministic like a thermostat. But this is a peculiar meaning of ‘will’ that bears no relationship to what a human being feels inside when they will something.

            • Posted August 26, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

              Considering that the compatibilist view of free will goes back at least as far as some of the Greek Stoic philosophers, and was resurrected by Hume and since then has been advanced by many of the leading philosophers, up to today’s Dennett, the complaint: “you’re redefining free will” is a bit feeble.

              Yes, we do know that we are using a definition of “free will” different from that of the majority of the populace who are naive dualists. You don’t have to repeatedly tell us that.

              The point is that we have a stance on free will that is (1) much better than naive dualism, being thoroughly deterministic and thus in accord with science; and (2) does actually account for the fact that, for example, human children show goal-oriented choice-selecting behaviour in a way that bricks don’t; and (3) doesn’t involve re-writing the English language to remove dozens of words such as “choice”, which is what incompatibilism would require if anyone actually meant it. (1) is why it’s better than dualism, (2) and (3) are why it is better than incompatibilism.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted August 26, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

                Children have always shown goal-oriented choice-selecting behavior. I don’t see how asserting that free-will is compatible with determinism accounts for that. What accounts for that is human intelligence.

                Who ever proposed rewriting the English language, or any other language? Is there an incompatibilist who objects to using language as everyone understands? If they do then they are foolish and their position is not essential to incompatibilism, so you are knocking down a straw man there.

                Did any of the compatibilists such as Hume or the Stoics actually have a good idea of the brain as a material deterministic machine, and did they then rectify their belief in free will with that? Or did they all allow some kind of dualism to creep in to their explanations?

                Observing human freedom makes it easy to believe in free will. Children do it. The harder part is seeing how these behaviors are exhibited by a deterministic machine. And once you’ve done that, it just makes sense to admit that oh, it really wasn’t free will like we thought it was. That was just an illusion created by our limited conscious view of the whole unconscious brain, in a way similar to how it creates optical illusions in doing its work.

                Because we metabolize food into energy, and because we are intelligent, we are not at the mercy of external forces like a leaf blowing in the wind. Because of this we can exercise agency and control and will. But hasn’t free will always been seen as something that involved a kind of escape hatch from determinism, a way to slip out of the causal chain? Isn’t that the way freedom has been envisioned by past compatibilists such as Hume and the stoics?

                The stoics were committed to an atomist view of nature, but obviously they observed human freedom as well, since even children do.

                How did the stoics and Hume actually explain human freedom in a deterministic world?

                Because if they were dualist at all, or made arguments that resembled dualism, such as postulating localized relaxations of determinism, my point is a lot stronger than you claim.

            • Posted August 26, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

              Sorry, forgot to add:

              The only way your usage of ‘will’ makes any sense is based on the abstract knowledge that human will is also deterministic like a thermostat.

              Yes. And isn’t it a good thing that our terminology makes sense in the light of that, given that it is true?

              But this is a peculiar meaning of ‘will’ that bears no relationship to what a human being feels inside when they will something.

              What are you saying here? Are you saying that the dualistic meaning of “will” *does* relate to what a human feels? If you assert that then you’re a dualist.

              Humans are deterministic, therefore what we feel *does* “bear a relationship” with our compatibilist and deterministic meaning of “will”!

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted August 26, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

                What are you saying here?

                I’m just saying that the word meanings, such as will, are based on human subjective experience. Ask anyone if a thermostat has a will, and virtually everyone will say no, unless they admit that there is a secondary figurative sense, but not a literal sense, in which one could say it has a will. We do irony and metaphor and other non-literal uses of language pretty well. This is intelligence at work. Understanding that non-literal sense of language does not eliminate the human intuitive subjective notion of what will ‘really’ is.

                Humans know how it feels to will something. I’m sure you do and know what I mean, and they don’t suspect that a thermostat feels that.

                Claiming a thermostat has a will (I indicated above I understand the logic of this) is confusing to most people, just as claiming that we have free will is confusing and misleading to most people.

                Therefore I don’t see the value in preserving this misleading claim.

                I think that traditionally compatibilism, going back to the Stoics as you mentioned elsewhere, originated with trying to reconcile an unconventional belief (determinism based on atomism) with a very common every day observation (human freedom). But once we understand how this ‘freedom’ is actually intelligent capabilities of a deterministic protein based machine, why hold on to the false dualist term ‘free will’, which has always held a sense of being able to evade the forces of determinism? I mean, what reason other than to placate human ego and sense of self-importance?

        • eddie
          Posted August 26, 2012 at 1:15 am | Permalink

          From what you say, I think that incompatibilists have a newtonian idea of determinism; clockwork and definite outcomes to every interaction, while compatibilists have a heisenbergian idea of determinism; probabilistic at its core.

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted August 26, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

            From what you say, I think that incompatibilists have a newtonian idea of determinism; clockwork and definite outcomes to every interaction, while compatibilists have a heisenbergian idea of determinism; probabilistic at its core.

            I think that is going too far. I don’t really have a position on whether the Universe as a whole is deterministic, and I think quantum indeterminacy leaves plenty of room for doubt about that.

            But in looking just at the internals of the brain, I think of it’s operation in terms of multi-threaded software algorithms involving multiple specialized modules competing for control and contributing portions of the whole in parallel. Of course it involves networks of analog connections, not the same as a digital computer at all, but it just may be that some software concepts that are not dependent on the digital nature of computers are useful in modeling aspects of the brain’s higher level functioning.

            Just as the solid state physics of digital computers relies on quantum effects, yet the higher level logic remains intact and logically deterministic as long as there are no malfunctions, so the brain probably has a high degree of stability with respect to low level atomic level fluctuations. The substrate of the brain’s logic is not particles or even molecules, but cells, neurons, and their state make up the lowest level brain equivalent of the 1′s and 0′s that are the foundation of digital logic, except that the brain is not digital. What I mean is that the state of a cell is probably the lowest level microstate that actually impacts the results of the brain’s operation, so the impact of quantum effects is highly unlikely, unless as some have proposed there is a large scale quantum effect analogous to superconductivity or second sound in a superfluid, but at the brain’s temperature that also seems unlikely.

            We use probability in our thinking, and it’s likely the brain uses probability in its algorithms. That becomes obvious if you carefully observe how you think and how you make decisions. It is not binaries and absolutes, it consists of using relative values on sliding scales that seem to participate in additive superposition in a kind of fuzzy probabilistic arithmetic. Decisions build over time and at some point the various options vying for control arrive at a conclusion because one aspect or component crosses a threshold and dominates relative to all the other activity. There is a relativity that is like the brain is associating various competing probabilities to the options when making a choice.

            But just like a computer, I believe it is an algorithm, you could in theory map the brain’s neural patterns into a very complex state space, and the brain makes a definite deterministic path through that state space that will arrive at a particular result based on the state of the brain.

            I really don’t believe that compatibilists who truly understand determinism see anything differently than incompatibilists, except that compatibilists have a lot invested in being able to claim we have free will. They don’t mean the same thing that incompatibilists mean when they say free will, and the kind of free will compatibilists say we have isn’t disputed by incompatibilists, except that they don’t call it free will.

            It seems to me that incompatibilism is more the scientific mode of thought, and they are people who care more about how the brain works. Compatibilism seems more appealing to psychologists, philosophers, and other social scientists who care more about relations between people than they do about the nuts and bolts of how the brain does what it does. That is my subjective impression, which may or may not be true, but I’ve inferred it from the kinds of arguments people make.

  26. Posted August 25, 2012 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    It’s been pointed out by our Jerry but always worth noting how much time and energy pretty much everyone is willing to spend arguing for their personal feelings on these matters while avoiding spending anytime learning about the science and facts on the matters.

    So our brains are hyper-dedicated to protecting our feelings of the moments and “epiphanies” and magical thinking and avoiding any empirical knowledge.

    Even established “thinkers”/intellectuals and professional academics. Very odd.

    They hold forth at length on their feelings and supernatural impulses but fight against learning anything new, interesting or useful.

    • logicophilosophicus
      Posted August 25, 2012 at 10:50 am | Permalink

      If you have truly diagnosed these universal traits, then materialist evolutionists have a major task ahead of them: to explain how all these meat computers have been programmed by genetics and environment to think and behave in such ways.

      Why should an organism have “personal feelings” about philosophy, quantum mechanics, free will…

      • Posted August 25, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

        Simple, reproductive advantages.

        • logicophilosophicus
          Posted August 25, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

          How are “personal feelings about philosophy, quantum mechanics, free will…” “simple reproductive advantages”?

          There’s nothing simple about such a claim. Reciting your mantra doesn’t cut the mustard.

  27. BillyJoe
    Posted August 25, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    Jeff,

    While reading your posts, it occured to me that you may have written up on the topic (article or book maybe?). You seem to enunciate the incompatibilists point of view better than most that I’ve read.
    Even better than Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris!

  28. jeffery
    Posted August 25, 2012 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    Doyle needs to stick with astronomy.

  29. Posted August 26, 2012 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    BLTN and FWIW, I’ve reviewed Doyle’s book at http://philocafe.org/articles/review-of-free-will Here’s an excerpt:

    What matters mostly for Doyle – the significance of the free will debate as he sees it – is that we not be machines, not just the working out of a pre-determined fate. It’s very important that our futures be open by virtue of quantum indeterminism, even as the past gets fixed by our deterministic deliberations. The concern that “new information” come into being, so that the universe can be truly creative through human choices, palpably motivates Doyle’s as yet unconfirmed quantum noise hypothesis.

    Now, he may be right, but why does it matter? Speaking for myself, discovering facts about the world, having novel and enjoyable experiences, living out a complex and demanding social and political life with one’s partner, friends and peers (Zorba the Greek’s “full catastrophe”), and making the world a better place (according to my lights), is enough. Even if all this were the inexorable working out of causal laws such that the future is fixed, not open, the fact that I don’t know what the future holds makes the game of life compelling. My ignorance is what drives my concern about the future, for myself and others; determinism be damned. For Doyle, this sort of epistemic uncertainty isn’t enough; there has to be a constant injection of new information into our lives via indeterministic quantum noise, otherwise …what? Well, we’d be merely machines.

  30. Jeff Johnson
    Posted August 27, 2012 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    It is a bit remarkable that in these discussions we go around in circles regarding whether we have choice or real choice.

    A lot of it seems to be disagreements about the implications of determinism, or confusion about the usage do language.

    The deterministic nature of the brain is supposed to be something we agree on. I think it is correct to say the only real disagreement is on the semantics of the term ‘free will’.

    I think we should all agree with Schopenhauer’s statement: “Man can indeed do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wants” if we remember to interpret “man” as “humans”.

    I think we should also be able to agree with: humans can indeed choose what they want, but they cannot really choose what
    they choose.

    This is simply a consequence of determinism, coupled with the intelligence of that deterministic system. To argue over whether we have ‘choice’ or ‘real choice’ is a kind of level confusion; it is correct that we choose, in that our intelligence is able to evaluate a set of alternatives, and based on their properties and their value to us arrive at a single selection from the set; it is also correct that when we make that when we make that choice, we really aren’t free to do it differently, hence the formulation that it wasn’t a ‘real choice’, which means there wasn’t the kind of free will people like to believe they have.

    If during the choosing process we change our minds from one leading candidate to another, it is by deterministic causes that happens. It didn’t represent a radical unconstrained libertarian free will as the chooser is inclined to perceive it. It meant that the choosing process, which gradually tallies up the relative merits of the alternatives, reached an inflection point at which a lesser alternative gained a relative advantage over the previous top contender.

    So yes we choose, but we don’t really choose what we choose. We have internal metabolic power intelligently guided, so we are not listlessly tossed about in the winds of external deterministic forces. Yet this internal force that resists external forcing is itself based on deterministic processes, but they are our deterministic processes acting at the boundary of our organism on our behalf.

    Thus we have the agency and autonomy that compatibilists tout, and determinism does not make us slavish victims or objects of mindless compliance. We are subjects originating our own views and interests and acting on these in the world around us.

    But incompatibilists are also right that this control, which of course is well worth having, is not really the kind of freedom people believe they have, it is not what we feel like we have. What we feel like we have is the conscious ability from some localized original source within us to generate new thoughts or ideas spontaneously and uncaused by anything but our will. This is what people feel ‘free will’ is, and we simply don’t have it. We greatly over estimate our creativity; we never create completely new or original ideas in the sense of being wholly unconnected to anything that preceded it. Our creations are always incremental modifications and new combinations of what has come before us.

    I think everyone should agree with these points, regardless of which side of the compatibility of free will argument you are on, or else you aren’t really clear on or accepting of determinism.

    If we go back to the stoics, whom I presume are the originators of the idea of compatibilism, I thinki it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to sense the urgency compatibilism must have held for them. After all they were advancing a controversial atomist theory in a world where such an idea was highly speculative, and given the obvious visible signs of human freedom everywhere, there existed a gaping contradiction that would encourage people to scoff at the atomist notion.

    Fast forward to our time, and it just doesn’t seem compatibilism adds much. We understand the bodies internal systems in vastly greater detail, nobody challenges the atomic theory of matter, and we have a very good picture of how determinism results in the apparent human freedom that is so eminently visible. What is challenged today is not the stoics grand theory of nature, but rather the freedom that has always gone unchallenged.

    It means that compatibilism has transformed from being a radical idea defending an innovative theory of nature, to a conservative bastion defending the long unchallenged and comfortable notions of self, ego, and human freedom.

    I can no longer see a difference in the claims of incompatibilists and compatibilists other than what we are willing to call ‘free will’. But my sense of progress and liberalism, and my native antipathy toward the conservatism that resists serious questioning of the status quo, lead me to favor the incompatibilists interpretation: we don’t have free will, we make choices but don’t freely choose what our choice will be, we do what we want but don’t freely will what we want, we are an exquisite machine with autonomy and control yet fully deterministic, and thus we can only be granted a part but not all of what people tend to view as the meaning of freedom.

    • Another Matt
      Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:05 am | Permalink

      Compatibilists have a problem: we have to constantly deny that our stance is the same as dualism or that we really do espouse contra-causal free will for humans.

      I think a lot could be resolved in this discussion if you could tell us what you would say to the kind of person who believes that determinism implies the following:

      1) There is no meaningful difference between an automobile and a roller coaster – they both go where they are determined to go.

      2) The only “dangerous” bullet is the one that connected. If one passes by my ear it wasn’t dangerous because it was determined not to hit my head.

      3) It’s meaningless to say that an unwanted state of affairs was “avoided,” because that state of affairs never was manifest in the world, so nothing ever existed that can be described as that situation, so there was literally nothing to avoid.

      4) Nobody can influence their future. The future is whatever happens deterministically, and we haven’t an ounce of control over it.

      I see this kind of person as a “problem for your side” in the same way that the dualists are a problem for ours. If you could clear this up, I think that we inhabit exactly the same middle ground in all but semantics.

      I made similar points on Ron Murphy’s site here:

      http://ronmurp.net/2012/08/26/the-confusing-philosophy-of-free-will

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted August 29, 2012 at 9:17 am | Permalink

        I would say (as I have in another post) that such reasoning requires omniscience, which we don’t have, and it assumes the entire universe is deterministic. I think the determinism of the Universe is an open question, or at least I don’t know the answer to it. But fatalism is simply not warranted by our experience, nor is it an effective living strategy.

        I would also say, look at how people think and behave in practice. We consider options from a finite range of possibilities and we assign risks and probabilities to avoid problems and harm and encourage desirable outcomes.

        It’s the only way an intelligent non-omniscient being can proceed in a universe that is way more complex than our mental capacity, regardless of whether it is all deterministic or not. It’s the only way we can proceed without the wherewithal to predict the future, regardless of whether it is determined or not.

        But within this larger framework our brain and body work according to the deterministic properties of biochemistry. This is the important aspect of determinism that matters for ‘free will’.

      • Posted August 29, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

        As I said there, with regard to fatalism, it depends on what type of fatalism you ar referring to. The lap of the gods, “I can’t choose to do anything so I might as well do nothing” is no more than being deterministically caused to do nothing – contingent of course on actually being able to do nothing, which would not only seem to contradict biologically driven processes but also the 2nd law.

        We have no choice but to do stuff. So stressing over what might or might not have happened had the gods not willed it or not seems to be a fear related to this type of unhealthy fatalism. By living by that fatalism you’d still be doing something, but maybe a different kind of something.

        Wondering if determinism will lead to a fatalism like this, and a disablement of the self, as Dennett supposes, is a mistake. Deterministic view of illusory free-will need not. A determinist fatalism is merely an acceptance of the deterministic state of our being, and being comfortable with that.

        Take a look at some of these videos:

        say the one at about at 0:38 where the white van just misses the guy near the camera. What would the two possible responses be to that?

        “Wow, that was close. Thank you God for making it miss me!” (not generally you’ll note, “God you shit, why did you scare me like that!”) “I was destined to survive that.”, “Someone up there is looking out for me.”, “My fate is in the hands of the gods.”

        Alternatively, “Wow, that was close. Shit happens. It just happened not to happen to me on this occasion. Now, what was I doing? Oh, yes. On to the pub. I have a new anecdote to tell.”

        A deterministic fatalism won’t revent the biological response of shock when we experience a near miss, or worse, when we suffere the loss of a loved one. But it can help you get through it. I think it has the same therapeutic effect as atheism can have in this sense. Some theists wonder how we atheists deal with the prospect of death. Well, when it’s done it’s done. What’s there to worry about, other than the dying itself.

        What I don’t have answers to are the following. I wonder what the psychology and neurobiology of all this is. Is this peaceful fatalism a consequence of my atheism and philosophical determinism, or is it my mental makeup that makes it easy for me to accept these philosophies once I’ve decided they are rational. Is it the mental make-up that prevents theists seeing life this way, that drives them to seek religious explanations, the after-life and so on? Is it the loss of free-will that still narks compatibilists, even though they have squared themselves with the rationality of determinism?

  31. Vaal
    Posted August 27, 2012 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    I’m late to this one but…

    My attempt to help alleviate the confusion incompatibilists have about compatibilism would
    move along these lines:

    Take the scenario: I’m at an intersection in buy car. I make a right hand turn. But…(I claim)…I COULD have turned left instead.

    In the context of the Free Will debate, how would the incompatibilist and the compabilist evaluate the truth of this “I could have turned left (instead)” claim?

    Here’s the difference as I see it:

    The incompatiblist (e.g. Jerry Coyne and others who agree with his version of incompatiblism) will take this claim as being about a distinct, single point in time and specific set of causes. Could anything else have happened at this exact time GIVEN those exact set of causes. (Answer: no).

    Whereas the Compabilist would take the claim to be about the NATURE of the entity (person) being described. The point of time being identified – my sitting in the car at the light – is simply useful for describing my nature and powers.

    “I could have turned left” is understood as an empirical claim about the type of entity I am (or was) around the time of the claim/in similar circumstances. Understanding the nature of any entity requires understanding how it behaves IN VARYING CIRCUMSTANCES (A popsicle will melt IF you leave it in the sun, stay solid IF you keep it frozen, be digestible IF you swallow it, etc – introducing variables uncovers the nature of a thing).

    So my claim would mean that “If I had the desire to have turned left, I had the physical ability to do so.” Introducing that counterfactual, that variable, elucidates a TRUE feature of my nature, just as introducing the variable of “If someone ate/or froze the popsicle” counterfactuals elucidate TRUTH about the nature of popsicles.

    If you deny this, you’ve pretty much denied all scientific claims that describe the nature of any entity. But then of course, you’d have also put into the “illusory” bin the very scientific claims about the nature of humans that you use to make arguments for incompatibilism!

    Just try to impart any TRUTH, that is any knowledge,useful, predictive knowledge, about say…a gun, a bowling ball, a snake, water, copper…without appeal to if/then counterfactuals, in which you gently “shake” circumstances, introduce some new variable, to get at the nature of the thing you are describing. Good luck trying to describe things otherwise. That’s why we appeal to counterfactuals – far from only talking about fiction, they are actually the way we grasp and talk about what is REAL and how we have “knowledge” that helps us predict how anything acts.

    The point we compatilists keep making is we are simply being consistent in our use of counterfactuals and jiggling variables to make claims about the very real nature of any entity, humans-making-choices included. We watch puzzled as incompatibilists make this strange exception only for humans making choices – we get: “Wait…stop talking in counterfactual terms…because if you are you aren’t making claims about REALITY!” (And then the incompatibilist goes off and talks in exactly this way when making all his other empirical claims about every other entity but human beings!).

    In compabilist terms, “I could have turned left instead” is a claim about my nature around that time: that, for instance, had I desired to, I had the physical ability to make a left turn instead of a right turn. (Additionally, I could also make claims about my ability to have different desires – that a true description of my nature around that time would inform that it was possible for me to have desires-to-turn-left as well as desires-to-turn-right, so introducing the variable of those different desires remains “true” of “me” at the time.)

    So between incompatibilists and compatibilists, the question of free will boils down to whether
    we are making a claim about a human in a specific time and circumstance ONLY, or whether we are making a more general claim relating to the NATURE of the person being discussed (an empirical claim about it’s powers), which of necessity allows for introducing counterfactuals and variables (like “if I had desired to to so”).

    Another question we get to associated with all this is whether one of these approaches better addresses what we tend to understand as “free will?” When I someone says “I could have done otherwise” are they typically making a claim concerning a very specific moment in time (as specific as the incompatibilist claims – the same moment where every atom/cause would have been the same)? Or is it, as the compatibilist would say, better understood as an empirical claim about the nature of the person, the powers this person thinks he has under very similar circumstances?

    As someone who has argued for compabilisim, I think it’s more likely the latter, which is one reason I find compatibilism makes more sense.

    Vaal

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted August 28, 2012 at 4:12 am | Permalink

      You have outlined two points of view on the ‘right turn/could have turned left’ scenario that should both be understood by compatibilists and incompatibilists alike. I don’t see that as the disagreement, though confusion in language usage has led to arguments on those distinctions.

      Your first instant of time example is how you have to think if you are trying to understand how the brain works, and if compatibilists are serious about determinism they have to understand and accept this point of view.

      Your second “could have done otherwise” example is not at all exclusive of incompatibilists. Of course as you approach the intersection with intent to turn left you could get a phone call, or a passenger might make a remark, or you could suddenly remember something, which could cause you to choose to turn left. Anyone who is determinist can agree that all of these and more are possibilities. We would need to be omniscient to predict the outcome, but all determinists should agree that after the event, the outcome was caused by the specific circumstances, and what did happen had to happen.

      Arguing over what ‘could’ or ‘could not’ have happened at this point doesn’t illuminate any fundamental difference between incompatibilists or compatibilists. It would only be a confusion over which meaning of ‘could’ to apply, and either sense could have utility to either camp depending on the context. A compatibilists struggling to understand hoe the firing pattern of neurons caused the choice could say and know what is meant by ‘could not have done otherwise’. To claim otherwise would be disingenuous in my opinion. An incompatibilist working in economics or sociology or population biology could say and understand what is meant by ‘could have done otherwise’ because repeated iterations are involved over time or across individuals. To claim otherwise would be disingenuous as well.

      We are all smart enough to understand and apply both of these points of view, compatibilists and incompatibilists alike, and I see no reason to claim either point of view as unique territory. There should be no dispute here, only chosen emphasis to match a given context.

      The only real dispute I believe comes from what people are willing to consider ‘freedom’ or ‘free will’, a term embedded in the classical definition of compatibilism, though I don’t see why it needs to be.

      I’ve added more to this debate above in #30.

      I really don’t see why we can’t say compatibilism is a perspective that emphasizes the kinds of autonomy and control a deterministic intelligence can have. We could all agree that there are no ontological differences between compatibilists and incompatibilists, and that humans do not have the ‘free will’ they feel like they have, which would be the ability to originate will spontaneously and uncaused from a localized inner source known as the self.

      • Vaal
        Posted August 28, 2012 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

        Jeff Johnson,

        We are all smart enough to understand and apply both of these points of view, compatibilists and incompatibilists alike, and I see no reason to claim either point of view as unique territory.

        Of course incompatibilists DO know and accept the use of if/then and counterfactual language – but in many of their criticisms of compatibilism rely on suddenly making an exception to applying it to human choice.
        This type of language makes perfect sense to many incompatibilists to make truth claims in the world outside the free will debate, but suddenly apply this thinking to humans and the compatabilist gets accused of talking about “illusory” claims and suspected of harbouring dualism or libertarian free will. See nonfreewillist’s reply to me as yet another example of this response.

        You seem more willing to make an effort to understand compabitilism (not that you have to agree with it of course), but the issue I raised seems to rise up again in statements like this:

        Your first instant of time example is how you have to think if you are trying to understand how the brain works, and if compatibilists are serious about determinism they have to understand and accept this point of view.

        But thinking in terms of “instances of frozen time” is precisely how you do not get much understanding of how anything works. Understanding, being able to describe and predict the nature of something, brains included, come from generalizing from series of past events, and applying if/then and counterfactual concepts to describe how brains work. Sticking with a frozen moment in time is conceptually inert and as useless for understanding brains as it is for trying to make sense of human choices.

        The point I keep trying to make is this “moment frozen in time” perspective on “could I have done otherwise?’ is a non-starter that we have all agreed to throw out. But in throwing it out we are not therefore totally throwing out any notion of traditional free will. Far from it: most of our language and understanding is, of necessity, built upon if/then and counterfactual ways of describing reality and we tend to have this also built in to the underpinnings of all our claims, including our claims about what we could and could not have done. (I think these claims are at bottom standard, generalized claims from empirical experience – “nature” claims, where even people thinking they are dualists are basing claims this way. It’s simply to fundamental to get away from).

        I really don’t see why we can’t say compatibilism is a perspective that emphasizes the kinds of autonomy and control a deterministic intelligence can have.

        Sure, but words like “freedom” and “free will” seem to be quite useful in describing this. Like we have said many times, it’s not that libertarian and dualists are “wrong” in thinking “I could have done otherwise.” It’s only that they have misunderstood the justification for their claim. Just as the theist is right to say “I shouldn’t steal” but is wrong to think it’s true on the basis of God saying so; a secular moral realist will point out it’s still true, but will explain the “real” basis for it’s being true.

        This is why I don’t go along with calls to eliminate words like “freedom” and “free will” as if they merely confuse issues. If compatibilism is sound then it makes perfect sense, and utility, to use those terms, having understood the “real” basis on which they are justified.

        Vaal.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted August 29, 2012 at 2:04 am | Permalink

          I’ve never said anything about an exception for humans. I think most if not all intelligent organisms have brains that operate on similar principles. The human brain is different in degree, more complex and intelligent, but not having any special magic in the physical basis of its activity.

          It seems to me that anyone who wants to claim humans have free will are the ones trying to carve out a human exception.

          I never said anything about time being frozen. It is the case in analyzing any sequence of events that breaking it down into discrete snapshots in time of sufficiently small deltas can help to understand the states of the system and how it transitions from one state to the next.

          I meant it when I said I don’t think arguing over the differences between ‘could have’ and ‘could not have’ is illuminating any differences between compatibilism and incompatibilism. We are all determinists, and either you understand determinism or you don’t.

          Just as Schopenhauer said we are free to do what we want, but not free to will what we want, if you get that it’s not hard to see that we are free to choose what we want, but not free to choose what we choose, and we could do many things, but what we do is determined and could not have been otherwise.

          I think anyone who argues with the previous paragraph doesn’t get determinism or they believe in libertarian free will.

          There is no compatibilism/incompatibilism argument there. The argument is about “what is free will?” and “do we, or does anything, have it?”.

          Just as our our brain creates the illusion in our seeing of a 3d spatially proportioned view of the world by unconsciously processing a 2d map of photochemical events on our retina, our brain also creates the illusion that our self is the original source of uncaused ideas and decisions that we ‘just think up’ out of nothing. I feel this conscious illusion is what people feel constitutes their free will. And that free will is something we don’t really have. Our ideas and decisions don’t spontaneously originate out of nowhere by us willing them into existance; they have causes in our brain that are their source.

          Of course we do stuff and we have words that describe what we do and we make sense of them. Our objective terms and descriptions describe what we see others doing and what others see us doing. Our subjective terms, willing, intending, wanting, reasoning, etc. are all based on what we feel ourselves doing in our heads. But the feeling that these things are freely created spontaneously out of nothing inside ourselves is the illusion our sense of free will is founded upon. And to confuse that illusion with something actual is to deny determinism and to believe in libertarian free will.

          Beyond these realities of the deterministic functioning of our brain and our limited conscious subjective impressions of that functioning, there is no source of freedom. There is only the conceptual flexibility of our intelligence that enables us to imagine and talk about freedom.

          Of course we have autonomy and control and pleasure and fulfillment, and it’s all lovely and wonderful.

          We have degrees of freedom and we will, but in what way do we will freely? Free of what exactly? Because it is certainly not free of causation, and it is not free of the physical constraints of our brain’s capabilities. Free will is like dragons and unicorns. It doesn’t exist, but it’s fun to imagine. The solution to the ancient compatibilists dilemma is that the human freedom that seems based on ‘free will’ and seems to contradict atomism and determinism, doesn’t contradict at all. It is based on the conceptual flexibility of a complex deterministic intelligence. I don’t see how the term ‘free will’ is, as you say, useful. It is meaningless at best, and more likely to be confusing because it is just the illusion created by our subjective consciousness. It still totally escapes me why someone who really understands deterministic intelligent machines would insist upon ‘free will’ rather than sticking to actual things that really describe human behavior, unless the purpose is to flatter human egos with tales of how special and exceptional they are, because that too seems to be a deep human need.

          I’d better back out of this conversation because I’ve probably already broken Jerry’s latest rules update. The bottom line of what I want to say on this debate is in post #30.

    • Posted August 28, 2012 at 5:31 am | Permalink

      A lot of words that say nothing about there being any freedom to the human will. The best I can tell is you are presenting a compatibilist case in which humans do have libertarian free will. If I am wrong, then what is your point? I do not recall any non-free willist ever saying that human nature precludes individuals from behaving differently under different circumstances (either at another time and/or place).

      And as always, it makes no sense to call something “free will” that is devoid of any freedom.

      • Vaal
        Posted August 28, 2012 at 7:37 am | Permalink

        Serves me right for trying to post when on vacation. I’ll try a reply tonight.

        Cheers

        Vaal

        • Posted August 28, 2012 at 8:44 am | Permalink

          Vall,

          Ha! It’s a bugger isn’t it. :) Can’t quite leave it alone? Don’t know what earth shattering debate you’re missing out on? Possibly sneaking a peak while family and friends aren’t looking?

          You’re lucky if you have your PC with you. But maybe you’re trying to comment from a phone while sat on the loo, and the web page doesn’t display well, comment box keeps moving all over the place. Then clunk! you’ve accidentally hit the post button. Damn!

          The joys of being a blog junky on holiday.

          • Posted August 28, 2012 at 8:45 am | Permalink

            Vaal, sorry, I’m on a PC and can’t even spell your name right.

          • Vaal
            Posted August 28, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

            Tell me about it….
            While on vacation last year I got into the debate with Edward Feser over on Eric’s blog.
            Typing responses on an iPad was so excruciating I said “never again, on vacation.”

            Yet, here I yam…

            I seem to have no choice but to do so. :-)

            Vaal.

            • Posted August 29, 2012 at 2:59 am | Permalink

              Ah, Edward Feser. I find his site to be a prime example of dodgy philosophy tied to theology.

              A recent post on human enhancement plunges into the depths of philosophical navel gazing:

              “Humans have potential for numanity according to the actualization of P.

              No, humans have no potential for numanity. Humans have the substantial form of humanity, period. A numan would have the substantial form of numanity, period. They are different. A human does not become a numan. A human is a human, and a numan is a numan.

              Until P is actualized, there are no numans.”

              from:
              http://edwardfeser.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/the-metaphysics-of-bionic-implants.html

              Sorry, getting off-topic. My brain made me do it. Sure, but my brain can make me stop.

      • Vaal
        Posted August 28, 2012 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

        nonfreewillist,

        No, what I wrote had nothing to do with a libertarian basis for free will.

        My point is made by the very fact you just assumed I was trying to sneak in Libertarian free will…simply because I am applying generalizations (if/then and counterfactuals)
        to answering whether someone could have done otherwise. Everywhere else you will use this form of reasoning to make truth and knowledge claims (e.g. “If you don’t fill the gas tank the car won’t start…the car could have started if you filled the gas tank…)

        But you only make an exception and starting thinking this is woo-talk when applied to humans in the act of making decisions.

        I gave the scenario of turning right at a light, while claiming I could have done otherwise: “I could have turned left.”

        Would you argue that determinism requires us to say that “in reality” the claim that “I could have done otherwise” would always be false? Since I turned right, there is no sense in which it is true that I could have turned left?

        If you insist that is the case, then you are making the type of inconsistent objection I’ve been talking about. Because you would have to consistantly apply that to all other determined entities, not just humans, and when you do you’d find your ability to describe your knowledge of anything pretty much nullified.

        However, if you ARE consistent and if you think there is a sense in which “I could have done otherwise” could be both true and usefully descriptive, then you don’t really have a beef with compatibilism.

        Vaal

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted August 29, 2012 at 4:29 am | Permalink

          There is no exception for humans. Either the gas tank is empty or it is not. Supposing it is empty, if you say “the car could be started if I fill the tank”, I guarantee you that will not allow the engine to start. If it did there would be some serious woo indeed.

          The same applies to humans and other intelligences. If it turns right, you can always say “it could have turned left”, and our intelligence allows us to understand the meaning. Saying that will not change the physical state of the brain that caused the right turn, it won’t add any freedom, and it won’t change the direction of the turn. Again if it could, you would be using magical incantations.

          There is no freedom from causation or determinism, which is what “free will” has always implied. We can imagine there is free will, just as we can imagine a full tank or turning left instead of right. None of this imagining makes it so, and it is silly to think or say it does.

          If we say something is free, then we must be able to say what it is free of. External constraint or coercion can be dismissed as inconsequential to this question because they are external and we are asking about what is supposed to be an innate internal capacity of the human mind. Anyone who wants to claim there is ‘free will’ had better be prepared to say what it is free of.

          If you say it’s free of causes or limits you are rejecting determinism and materialism. So if we have some kind of will that is free of something, what exactly is it free of? A failure to convincingly answer this question ought to lead to abandoning the claim that we have free will. Anyone who claims we have free will should try this challenge: think a thought or will something that has never been thought or willed before, and that is without connection to any thought that has ever been thought or willed before. Mentally this is like lifting yourself off the ground by your boot straps. This is what we would be able to do if we had a will that is “free” in any meaningful sense. But I won’t let that stop me from enjoying the illusion of freedom my autonomous flexible intelligent mind allows me to feel, just as I continue to enjoy the illusion of direct 3d vision which is really just qualia representing the pattern of photons scattered off molecules occupying the space around me. I can enjoy the practical utility these mental models afford me without mistaking the models as identical to the reality they represent.

          • Another Matt
            Posted August 29, 2012 at 7:49 am | Permalink

            If we say something is free, then we must be able to say what it is free of.

            Just a moment ago you said that humans do have “degrees of freedom.” What does that freedom mean? It’s certainly never meant “freedom from causation,” at least in engineering or statistics.

            Anyone who claims we have free will should try this challenge: think a thought or will something that has never been thought or willed before, and that is without connection to any thought that has ever been thought or willed before.

            This sounds like mental illness, and not the kind of ability anyone would want to have on a moment’s reflection. The usual “hmm, think I’ll have a peach” kind of free will that most people care about is fully grounded in experience and evolutionary causes.

            Further, not even a dualist could claim that anyone could meet your challenge even in principle (except, now that you’ve carved out that concept, they might claim that god can do it).

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted August 29, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

              Absolutely correct, degrees of freedom is not freedom from causality, otherwise we wouldn’t have it. Degrees of freedom could be stated as something like the dimensionality of the space of all possible human behaviors, which must be a large number. For example the degrees of the freedom of movement of the hand to make fundamentally different movements alone must number in the many thousands. And our brain is much more complex than that.

              This is not free will. This is the latitude offered us by the extraordinary capacity of our mind and body within the constraints of causality and determinism and physical law. It seems the compatibilist notion of free will piggy-backs on this complexity. It seems to me like a kind of obscurity via large numbers; it’s like going to the beach and looking out to sea and thinking “this must go on forever and ever”. Of course it doesn’t. And of course humans are not free of limits and constraints, we just have a large range of possibilities so we feel free.

              That kind of freedom, you could say, is free of the severe constraints of say a rock or a plant or a leaf blowing in the wind. But it isn’t the kind of infinite free will we actually feel like we have when we make decisions. Thus modern compatibilism seems to me a substantial retreat from what it must have been in the days of the stoics, with respect to what you consider ‘free will’ to be.

              That’s why I can’t escape the uncomfortable feeling that compatibilism today is a huge disappointment that doesn’t add anything and rests entirely on a convenient and somewhat dishonest equivocation on what ‘free will’ means. The question used to be how do we fit this speculative determinism with the overwhelming evidence of human freedom? Now the question is how do we salvage some scraps of freedom from the overwhelming body of evidence for determinism? And you get this right: we have control and autonomy and the possibility of joy and pleasure that is worth having. But I don’t think anyone ever doubted that. We are all living breathing humans who experience all these things; to doubt it would be incredibly stupid. And it seems a popular compatibilist straw man is to exaggerate the meaning of statements about determinism at a low conceptual level to falsely infer that incompatibilists don’t believe that we have ordinary everyday human behavior at a higher conceptual level. This is nothing but a childish game that is very annoying.

              So compatibilism reminds us that the discovery of a deterministic basis of the brain doesn’t invalidate and eliminate all of human behavior. Duh. And even though this is obviously true on it’s surface, it takes some puzzling out to understand how this is, which compatibilists have done a good deal of, but this doesn’t amount to salvaging the original notion of ‘free will’. It just isn’t equivalent to the long standing subjective concept of having the freedom to will whatever we wish to without constraint.

              The usual “hmm, think I’ll have a peach” kind of free will that most people care about is fully grounded in experience and evolutionary causes.

              Maybe something eludes you in the statement “We are free to do what we want, but we are not free to will what we want”.

              The fact that you want a peach is not a free choice. The fact that you are hungry and a peach seems desirable and that you know and remember what peach tastes like is not something that comes freely out of nowhere, drawn from a frictionless infinite space of options. None of it is free of causality. Your choice has a complex set of causes that depend on the state of your body, as does the desire that motivates the choice.

              So what is ‘free will’ free of? You haven’t answered that question. As I see it, our will is not freely chosen, but caused by the state of our brain and body. So it isn’t free of anything, yet we do have broad latitude within our constraints so that life is worth living.

          • Vaal
            Posted August 29, 2012 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

            Jeff Johnson,

            Drat, just as I thought we were getting closer, I find I’d have to protest most of what you claim in your recent posts.

            There is no freedom from causation or determinism, which is what “free will” has always implied.

            That’s simply not the case. The concept of free will is like morality – it has has not been the sole possession of one brand of thought, but has been conceived of from various angles as far back as we can look. Way before the mechanistic vision from modern science ever started providing puzzles for free will, the infallible knowledge and the great power of the Gods had put the same question about our freedom. In the face of the issues there have been determinist/incompatibilist, libertarian and compatibilist formulations of free will.

            We can imagine there is free will, just as we can imagine a full tank or turning left instead of right. None of this imagining makes it so, and it is silly to think or say it does.

            Who is talking about pure imagination???

            We are talking about our ability to make true statements about the world, to have knowledge of it, to predict it. All of which REQUIRE that we ultimately think in terms of understanding the “nature” of any entity. Reducing our ability to know truths about the world only to “what happened at X time” would utterly impoverish our ability to know and communicate truths about the world.

            Water can turn into ice OR it can turn into vapour. That is a true statement, right? Obviously the truth of that statement assumes a jiggling of the variables – temperature for instance. But that is how we understand the nature of water. The same information, the same TRUTH, is conveyed by saying “the water turned to ice but it COULD have turned into vapour (had the surrounding temperature been high enough).

            If you can’t admit it’s actually true that I could have turned left instead of right, had I desired to do so – if you think it is somehow “cheating” to include such variables as “if I’d desired to,” then it’s the same as saying we are cheating everywhere else in our empirical descriptions which rely on the same if/then descriptions. So this talk of “woo” just never needs to arise.

            But then maybe you want to say only in the context of the free will question it’s cheating to add the “if I so desired” part to make the statement true. But…why? It’s the common way we make truth claims about every other empirical domain, so it’s just special pleading to say we can’t speak this way about the empirical facts of our choice making. And I argue this underwrites our common claims about what we could and could not have done in a situation.
            (These claims tend to be generalizations from sets of previous experience, hence claims about the nature of our powers, and NOT simply claims of dualism or acausality).

            If we say something is free, then we must be able to say what it is free of. External constraint or coercion can be dismissed as inconsequential to this question because they are external and we are asking about what is supposed to be an innate internal capacity of the human mind. Anyone who wants to claim there is ‘free will’ had better be prepared to say what it is free of.

            Sorry, but that’s ridiculous! You may as well say “if someone is going to explain to me the use of a temperature gauge, we first have to dismiss the concept of heat, and talk only of the internal capacity of the gauge.” That would be silly since the very justification of the temperature gauge is it’s relationship with external heat. Same with the compatibilist concept of free will, where free will is the relationship between expressing our will and external constraints put on expressing our will. You can’t just beg the entire question and dismiss that very relationship out of hand!

            Free will concerns the description of my powers to exercise my will (my conscious desire to do X) in a given situation. Freedom can come in a sliding scale. – My “freedom to do X” will relate to how much constraint/coercion is placed on my fulfilling that desire. If I say “I turned right of my own free will” it is a claim that I had the unimpeded ability to perform that action, fulfilling my desire. “Could it have been otherwise?” Yes, construction may have made that turn impossible. In which case, if my will to turn left were externally impeded I could say I was not sitting at that intersection of my own free will (I actually wanted to turn, but could not). Could I have made that right turn but NOT of my own free will? Yes, someone may have been coercing me with a gun to make a turn when I actually desired to be at home with my family. Of course it was an act of my will, fulfilling another desire – the desire to stay alive – that formed the basis of my capitulating to the demands of the gun holder. But here we are talking about how our making the turn was more an expression of the desire of the person with the gun, than it was of our un-coerced desires. Again, in real life, a sliding scale will come in concerning just how opposed our own desires were to that of the person holding the gun.

            If I say “I chose the soup of my own free will” it means I could have done otherwise – not chosen it or chosen a sandwich instead. If it’s true such things ware physically possible around that time, had I the desire to do them instead, then I was “free” to choose form among those variables. All of these rely on extrapolations from past experience, and allow for variables of desire. And it all depends on the context. This is in fact how we tend to talk about free willed choices in real life. I’m not describing some new, novel “choice” or free will.
            (In contrast, some incompatibilists start casting our ability to “do otherwise” as an “illusion.”
            Yet they still want to hang on to and use the word “choice.” But since the common understanding of having a “choice” assumes the possibility of actually choosing A or B or C…, then it’s the incompatibilists who is now using terms idiosyncratically, relative to the common conception).

            Anyway…vacation time calls….I gotta go read a novel or something.

            Vaal.

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted August 30, 2012 at 9:09 am | Permalink

              There is no disagreement on what are true statements. Of course water in general has a nature that includes phase transitions under certain thermodynamic conditions. It does not confer any freedom if I can say the “boiling water could have remained liquid”, even though it is a true statement merely because you take advantage of the wide and sloppy latitude granted by the word ‘could’.

              There is validity to looking at the general nature of water and understanding it’s tendencies in a variety of situations.

              None of that changes the fact that on a particular experiment, with a particular design, there is a deterministic result that could not be different if those exact circumstances are repeated thousands or millions of times. And this is just a specific consequence of the general nature you are talking about.

              Still, no freedom is introduced. The discussions of ‘could’ or ‘could’ not are a confused waste of time when it comes to talking about ‘free will’. They are only debates over how you want to draw the boundaries around the system you are studying and talking about.

              Of course there are language uses of ‘free will’, which you have given examples of, that make sense in everyday usage of language. No disagreement there. If that weren’t so this debate couldn’t happen. This debate is dependent on that history of human self-image, and repeating easily understood examples of how humans talk and act does not add anything to answering the question “what is free will, and do we have it?” What understanding do we gain of water by endlessly repeating that water is wet and ice is cold? Very little if any. What counts as deeper understanding is understanding what it is about water and heat that enables us to predictably create steam or ice, and enables us to build power generators that run on steam or refrigerators and freezers.

              Just as we believe we are actually “seeing” what is in the room around us, when in fact we just have an unconsciously generated approximate internal representation gleaned from the properties of photons that have scattered off of molecules around us. So do we actually see what is around us? By some practical tests, we see in a very useful way. But if we want to focus on scientific truth, no we don’t actually “see” what is around us, we have a map in our heads that is good enough to enable us to navigate our surroundings quite well, but is not identical to them in many important respects.

              So you are quite correct that in everyday usage it makes sense to say ‘free will’, even though people don’t have a precise sense of what that means, but it’s good enough to convey some practical meaning.

              But I still say that people think they originate their will out of nothing free of all causes, and they are wrong. This is the illusion our mind creates, just as it creates the illusion that we are perfectly seeing what is actually surrounding us.

              In the way the brain works, in its underlying mechanisms, which is quite distinct from what people do or say, that characteristic we call ‘will’ is not free of anything. It is entirely subject to the structure of the brain and our genetic and environmental history.

              So while practically everything you say is entirely true about human nature and language usage, you are obscuring the fact that there is no freedom in the underlying mechanisms. Sure there is practical value in discussing alternatives generalized across time or across individuals.

              But still you can’t say what your concept of ‘free will’ is actually free of, except the obvious and irrelevant examples of external coercion or constraint. So adding the adjective free is questionable, without solid justification.

              Your usage of ‘free will’ is a contingent cultural and linguistic phenomenon that has practical value but it obscures scientific truth. Your usage of ‘free will’ is entirely disconnected from determinism and the material causes of intelligence, and rests solely upon the cultural and linguistic by-products of human intelligence, and I can’t deny the truth of your statements within that limited context.

              But it is practically a tautology to say that the ‘free will’ people always thought they had is logically equivalent to a set of behaviors we can describe using the words people invented back when they thought they had libertarian free will.

              You aren’t discovering or illuminating any new truth; you are merely re-describing what is obvious to every breathing human with a slight twist on word meanings that amounts to a subtle and deceptive equivocation. I don’t see any value in this other than to calm some worries people have based on their fear of scientific truth.

              It is this obscuring of scientific truth that I find particularly annoying. It seems a useless battle over turf, the desperate need to preserve an historical philosophical tradition for the purpose of coddling insecure minds with reassurances that they are still pretty darn special, even though they aren’t as magnificently special and magical as they have always thought they were. I’ve explained perhaps more clearly why I think the insistence that we possess something called ‘free will’ is pointless and harmful in #30.

              • Vaal
                Posted August 30, 2012 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

                Thanks Jeff. Too much of that inspires a response that will have to wait for another day.

                On another note:

                After a while of these free will discussions the sense of never being understood, of continually talking past one another becomes wearying. It’s common and expected when we are talking with theists, but it becomes almost disorientating to go through it with other atheists, once you think once we’ve removed “woo” from the table the promise of coming to agreement would be there.

                Ah well…

                Vaal

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted August 31, 2012 at 8:42 am | Permalink

                Vaal,
                I agree it can be maddening and tiring. We do agree on so much. I think it really boils down to using the words ‘free will’. I don’t disagree with any of your assertions of what humans can do. After all, we’ve all known what we can do for many millenia. We just never understood why we can do it, and the explanation was ‘free will’ and ‘the soul’.

                So much that is good about humans has historically been attributed to free will, that it may be painful to let go of that term. But all that goodness does not really depend on ‘free will’ as it has traditionally been viewed, which is contra-causal. It depends on the flexibility and intelligence of the brain.

                Given the historical meaning of ‘free will’, I can never feel comfortable calling this flexible intelligence ‘free will’. It seems contrived and artificial to me, a contortion undertaken solely to avoid admitting that by definition, compatibilism is wrong, or out of the fear that admitting we don’t have free will would be too emotionally hurtful to people attached to the notion that humans are higher beings of some kind.

                If you go back to the stoics, their idea of human freedom depended on a conception of the soul. Human cognition was free of determinism. They were effectively dualists. Thus compatibilism in stoicism is not justified by today’s compatibilism. If we compare compatibilism today to the original paradox faced by the stoics, it doesn’t seem that compatibilists have shown that we have free will. Rather, they have shown that being wholly deterministic beings is not so bad as people once suspected. Calling this ‘free will’ looks like slight-of-hand to me. This isn’t the same as showing that the stoics conception of free will, and the most common general conception of free will, is something that we actually have.

                Historically ‘free will’ was an ontological category, or at least represented an ontological category, the soul. Compatibilists today admit that ‘free will’ is not some aspect of being that gives us our human capacities. They have simply turned the tables by stating that the set of human capacities that once led us to believe there was some internal freedom called ‘free will’, what used to be considered evidence of ‘free will’, has been re-imagined to be the thing itself. Seems circular and, to be charitable, unenlightening to me.

  32. Posted August 28, 2012 at 12:06 am | Permalink

    We all know that we turn over in our sleep. Is this action whilst asleep not a clear example of us NOT having free will?

  33. Aaron Schurger
    Posted September 3, 2012 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    The author wrote: “Further, having read the new Schurger et al. paper (reference below) that has been widely touted in the press as giving neurophysiological evidence for free will, don’t find that implication convincing…”. The author has good reason to not be convinced of this: our research does not provide evidence for the existence of free will. Our study offers a new explanation of prior evidence that has been cited against the existence of free will, which is not the same thing as arguing *for* the existence of free will. Of course, I would still encourage you to read our paper :) The most important implications of our research have less to do with “free will” and more to do with the self-initiation of movement and the accompanying feeling of deciding or intending to move (what you might call “conscious will”). Our study also changes the playing field in the debate about free will, beyond simply refuting prior evidence.
    Aaron Schurger, PhD


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] free-will I’ve been looking at stuff from Dan Dennette and David Chalmers. Then along comes this post from Jerry Coyne. Trying to clarify my appreciation of the compatibilist case I asked specific questions of [...]

  2. [...] at Jerry Coyne’s place Brad asked for some links to the topic. Physicalist commenter offered some that included a link to this page at [...]

Post a Comment

Required fields are marked *
*
*

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 25,564 other followers

%d bloggers like this: