A Gedankenexperiment on free will

You’re a philosopher with an interest and expertise in science, have followed the latest discoveries in neuroscience, and realize that the idea of contracausal free will is long dead.  You see that people’s choices are completely determined by their genes and environments (internal and external), and that, save for quantum indeterminacy, people could not have chosen otherwise when making any decision. In other words, all the religious people and laypeople who think that they have classical contracausal free will are wrong.

What do you do? (Choose one.)

a). Realizing that physical determinacy has profound implications for punishment and moral responsibility (after all, our justice system must take note, as it already does to some extent, of the fact that a criminal could not have chosen otherwise when doing a crime; and how is one “morally” responsible if one can’t do otherwise?), you ponder and then write about what should be done in the light of neuroscience, suggesting reforms of the penal system and new ways to think about “moral responsibility.”

b). You spend time concocting new definitions of “free will” to replace the ghost-in-the-machine “contracausal” free will that no longer holds.

In my view, choice a). is eminently worthwhile, while choice b). is a complete waste of time. I am mystified that most philosophers choose b).

354 Comments

  1. Posted January 19, 2013 at 5:07 am | Permalink

    Simply put and right on, I think.

  2. Donkeyotee
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 5:08 am | Permalink

    “I am mystified that most philosophers choose a” — typo?

    In any case: Obviously the physical constraints set out in a) is making them choose b) … you’re not blaming them, surely? 😉

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 5:14 am | Permalink

      Yeah, typo; fixed, thanks. Of course I’m blaming them (they’re responsible, but not morally responsible) because they weren’t influenced by the profound disturbance in their mental environment caused by a.

  3. Graham Martin-Royle
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 5:09 am | Permalink

    Do you mean , you are mystified that most philosophers choose b? It doesn’t make sense otherwise.

    • Miles_Teg
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 5:13 am | Permalink

      Typo?

      Anyway, if there’s no free will there’s nothing you can do about.

      • Notagod
        Posted January 19, 2013 at 8:41 am | Permalink

        Can’t change the genes but can work to change the environment. The question becomes what environmental change(s) would work best given the prior environmental influences combined with the specific genes and to what degree each variable has an influence.

        That won’t provide for an easy fix but, if it is framed correctly, at least there is a possibility that it might be contemplated correctly.

        • Prof.Pedant
          Posted January 19, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

          To a certain extent we can sort of ‘change the genes’ in the sense that administering different medicines modify the situation created by the genes and the environment.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 5:14 am | Permalink

      Yeah, as I said above, that’s a typo, now corrected.

  4. Posted January 19, 2013 at 5:11 am | Permalink

    Although…

    I still haven’t quite figured out Daniel Dennett’s point that free will is real, or as real as something like money is real. Not sure if he’s just being practical or what exactly he means by ‘reel’…

    Thoughts?

    • Posted January 19, 2013 at 6:53 am | Permalink

      I think Dennett is persuaded too much by consequences. He has expressed his concern that if we tell people they have no free will they will feel no responsibility. Since when has science required that we ignore evidence if its inconvenient? Maybe that’s a philosopher thing. It’s definitely a theologian thing.

      Of course the lack of free will does change our approach to justice, but it doesn’t get criminals off the hook. A brain that wants to murder is still a dangerous non-free willed brain.

    • physicalist
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 8:15 am | Permalink

      What Dennett means (IMO) is that both freedom and money are higher-order structural features of the world.

      They’re real in that there true facts about money (I have $40 in my wallet) and freedom ( I’m typing this of my own free will — no one’s forcing me and I could have ignored your question).

      Of course people can have false beliefs about money and freedom. Some think there’s no real money unless it’s tied to the value of gold. And some people think there’s no real freedom unless I can break the laws of physics.

      • shelterit
        Posted January 22, 2013 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

        Are you saying that your free-will is somehow detached from the laws of physics, then? Or, are you shifting the definition of “free-will” into the “higher order structural feature” category in order to do b) as Coyne points out?

        • Another Matt
          Posted January 22, 2013 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

          “Detached from the laws of physics” is another one of these phrases that has multiple interpretations. Does it mean, “violates the laws of physics,” or does it mean “not fully expressible as a conjunction of physical facts?”

          Consider the analogy with money:

          Is the Laplace Demon capable, in principle, of telling whether a cappuccino maker or a cardboard box of air is worth more in an open market? It has all the physical facts, but it could be that “money” or even “cardboard” are not even close to being on a level of organization it has any ability to perceive or care about.

          If it can’t make these distinctions, is it missing something? From our perspective I think it is; but for some people it would imply that “money isn’t real.”

          • shelterit
            Posted January 22, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

            Well, when I say “detached from the laws of physics” I’m rhetorically pointing out that as far as we know, there is no other world than the physical one, and that we, as physical being, are attached to it no matter what we might think of as “higher order concepts” or “abstractions” or “categories”; these are mere collections of sounds and letters that are processed in the brain as something abstract. By this notion, everything is imaginary, and while fun to go down that solipsict path for a while and explore the threshold between the real world and the one we perceive, let’s get back to the main premise for this post;

            “the idea of contracausal free will is long dead”

            What to do? Admit it, and proclaim it? Or re-define an old definition so that we can use the old word without causing too much confusion amongst the people who – probably – need it the most?

            You ask: “If it can’t make these distinctions, is it missing something?”

            Yes, I agree with you, and we already know that there’s tons of stuff that we can’t discern between but are fundamentally different things. (The recent biological example of a Brazilian bull ant and a mimicking spider should also have philosophical consequences)

            However, I don’t agree that “for some people” this is ok (even if you don’t say that it is ok). YEC should be ridiculed for its glaring faults, even if it is someones’ opinion. Compatibilist free-will should be ridiculed for its glaring faults, even if it is someones’ (even someone famous or ‘important’) opinion.

    • Dan L.
      Posted January 21, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      We experience making choices. We call the experience of making choices “free will.” Making choices may not be the result of some magical little homunculus in our heads but that in itself doesn’t mean free will doesn’t exist.

      As one example, take phlogiston theory. It’s been debunked — heat is not a fluid, is not stuff. But no one is so silly as to assert that this means that heat “does not exist”. Heat clearly exists. Its nature is not what we once thought it to be but it is still a feature of the world.

      As another example, suppose “dark matter” turns out not to be matter. Would that mean that “dark matter” does not exist or that its nature turned out to be other than what we thought it was? “Yes,” “no,” “both,” and “neither” are all acceptable answers here. As long as you account for the extra gravitational acceleration that we have labeled as “dark matter” it’s not really relevant whether you call it matter or energy or space-time curvature.

      You can say “free will doesn’t exist” but then you have to trip over yourself trying to talk about what it means for people to make choices and to experience making choices. Far easier to join Dennett and say “there’s such a thing as free will but it’s not what you think it is” — just like heat in the 19th century.

      • shelterit
        Posted January 23, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

        If we find that dark matter isn’t matter, then we will make a new name for it, and say that dark matter doesn’t exist. I don’t understand how this example is an example of anything. We don’t know this yet, so we’ve got a temporary name that does a bit of guessing in it, but apart from that I think we’re perfectly happy with the “not knowing” part for now. Just because something has a name doesn’t have any bearing on its existence.

        “Far easier to join Dennett”

        I don’t want easy; I want correct.

        • Posted January 23, 2013 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

          “We don’t know this yet, so we’ve got a temporary name that does a bit of guessing in it, but apart from that I think we’re perfectly happy with the ‘not knowing’ part for now.”

          Likewise I’m safe to make the same assumption about ‘dark’ free-will or non-determinacy. I’m perfectly happy ‘not knowing’ how it works. I’m confident from experience that it does happen. And I’m fairly confident that in the future we will be able to demonstrate how complex systems can and do make non-determinant choices. Until it’s proven one way or the other we’re all guessing.

          • shelterit
            Posted January 23, 2013 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

            But, hang on. We *don’t* have a working definition for “dark matter”, because we don’t know pretty much anything about it.

            “Free-will” have a few but mostly agreed upon definitions that we’ve been using for a looooong time, there’s no lack of writings and musings on the subject where tomes are dedicated to it in crazy detail.

            The two concepts are not comparable by any stretch of a very flexible imagination.

            The only reason we’re dealing with this now are advances in science that pokes holes in thousands of years of faulty thinking. Redefining this so it fits some old way of thinking is – to me – simply lazy crazy talk. And, most importantly, not science. Nor progression.

            • Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:02 am | Permalink

              “The two concepts are not comparable by any stretch of a very flexible imagination”

              Why do we posit both dark matter and free will? We observe effects and assume those effects come from somewhere. So how are they different concepts? It’s true that we’ve known about free-will for a considerably longer time. It affects us more personally. Therefore many words have been written about it from many perspectives for a long time. But how does that count against it? It looks to me that you choose to put it under quarantine simply because you’ve made up your mind it belongs there. Some say begging the question is faulty thinking.

              “The only reason we’re dealing with this now are advances in science that pokes holes in thousands of years of faulty thinking.”

              Holes? I see the attempt to fill in those so-called holes as paradox generators. Maybe you can tell me, since nobody else has, how your determinism is more rational when it forces us to believe Shakespeare’s Hamlet was written, not by Shakespeare, but by nature in the infinitely chaotic goo that became the Big Bang?

              “Redefining this so it fits some old way of thinking is – to me – simply lazy crazy talk. And, most importantly, not science. Nor progression.”

              I agree a redefinition like Dennett’s is lazy and unscientific. Tentatively, I stick to an old fashioned free-will because it’s the only thing that makes sense to me so far. But more to your point, as yet, I don’t see any scientific handling of the issue from any party. I’d be interested in how one might design a controlled, scientific study of free-will’s alleged imaginary nature.

              • shelterit
                Posted January 28, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

                “We observe effects and assume those effects come from somewhere. So how are they different concepts?”

                Again, because free-will has been used in a particular way for a very long time. The meaning of it is far more settled than any dark matter, which even experts in the field will tell you they know nothing about.

                What we do at every turn is to test concepts and ideas. Free-will can be tested easily, and have been, showing that a lot of the human “choices” are far less “choice” than what free-will traditionally has meant. Neuroscience is finding out more and more about the fickle state of the mind. If your ethical views are tested more positive if you hold a warm cup of coffee for three seconds, then we need to revise what it means that we have a choice. There are far less rational reasons for our choices than we think, whether we dare to admit that or not.

                A free will should imply that my choice is under my control. A compatibilist will say that since it is still your own body making the choice, whether you’re aware of it or not is almost irrelevant; you are still making that choice. I personally think this is a trap, or, more specifically, a dualistic trap where we define our “mind” somewhat distinct from the body (and I see this problem a lot in philosophy as well; we play around with works and concepts that are somewhat disjoint from the hard physical bodies and world we live in).

                But once you get over the “the mind is separate from the body” stupidity, then the physical determinism comes into full play. Every little thing causes every other little thing. Shakespeare’s Hamlet was indeed written by the big bang. This conversation was, too. None of them could have happened any other way. We act and think as if we’re making choices, but it’s just theatre that’s writing itself as it happens, and we can’t stop it, or alter it. The pondering and writing about it that we’re doing right now is beyond my control. I may have a feeling that what I write here is my choice, I might even feel that I’m somehow free to do so, that my brain are somewhat free from influence to some magical point where I dare call it “free will”, but I’m of course kidding myself, and I don’t think compatibilistic definitions of “free-will” fixes anything. But most importantly; it is not *true*.

              • Posted January 28, 2013 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

                “Again, because free-will has been used in a particular way for a very long time. The meaning of it is far more settled than any dark matter, which even experts in the field will tell you they know nothing about.”

                From the comments here, that statement appears to be dubious. All we seem to agree on, and I’m not sure people agree even on this, is that we see effects some (like me) attribute to free-will. Nobody is clear on a mechanism. Even those who deny it altogether aren’t clear. ‘Genes and environment’ is extremely vague. What genes? What environmental factors do what? A dualist might say, “mind” but I hope you agree we can’t get more vague than that. So I don’t see this conformity of beliefs you claim.

                “Free-will can be tested easily”

                Since it’s so easy to test perhaps you could tell me how you would test it. I don’t see any way to test it.

                “If your ethical views are tested more positive if you hold a warm cup of coffee for three seconds, then we need to revise what it means that we have a choice.”

                Do you know of such a test? Please point me to it.

                “But once you get over the “the mind is separate from the body” stupidity, then the physical determinism comes into full play.”

                I’m no dualist or compatibilist. I agree both are (to put it mildly) weak positions. But I’m no determinist either. So your assertion does not apply to me. And I doubt it’s possible for you to prove determinism is the only option I can accept once we reject dualism and theism.

                “Shakespeare’s Hamlet was indeed written by the big bang.”

                Any determinist who believes that is welcomed to the belief. But it’s only a belief. There’s no way you can demonstrate the truth of it. There’s no chain of causal links you can show. You merely accept on faith that such a chain exists. So it’s fundamentally no different than theology.

  5. Posted January 19, 2013 at 5:14 am | Permalink

    Realizing that physical determinacy has profound implications for punishment and moral responsibility.

    No it doesn’t! Our notions of morality, punishment, responsibility, etc are ideas programmed into us by evolution to to a job, and thus that programming is entirely pragmatic.

    Ideas of dualistic free will and theological notions about morality are superficial commentaries that we invent about ourselves, that are not true and not rooted in reality.

    The religious tell us that morality is founded in religion and that without religion society would have no morals. What does the evidence say? Scandinavia etc tells us that that is wrong, and that you can ditch the superficial commentary without it making (to first order) much difference at all.

    You are equally wrong to say that ditching the false superficial-commentary notions of dualistic “free will” will have profound consequences for society. If won’t! All it will change is some of the superficial commentary about our legal systems. It won’t change very much who is actually in jail.

    Anyhow, I go for option (c) realising that some things (e.g. cats) do exhibit goal-orientated choice-selecting behaviour in a way that house bricks don’t, we start thinking about what “choice” means in a deterministic universe. Ditto for what “morality” means in a deterministic universe. Both of these are still entirely valid concepts that we can’t do without.

    But, I do agree with you that when confronted by people who believe in dualistic free will the right thing to do is to tell them that there is no such thing.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 5:19 am | Permalink

      Yes it does. We already try to take account of people who had no choice when they did crimes, and send them to hospitals instead of jail. That will happen more often as the idea of rehabilitation will become more profound. The idea of retribution should disappear because it makes no sense under determinism. We will “punish” to protect society from bad people, to serve as a deterrent to others, and to help make sure that criminals, so far as they can be, are rehabilitated. If they can’t be, and are dangerous, put them away for life. But do not punish simply to satisfy your own desire for retribution, for that accomplishes nothing for society.

      Look, penal reforms in light of what we know about “responsibility” are ALREADY BEING MADE. Or are you saying we should just put people with brain tumors who make them aggressive to death by lethal injection?

      I think it’s profoundly foolish to say we should ignore what we find out about the causes of behavior when deciding how to deal with bad behavior.

      • Posted January 19, 2013 at 5:47 am | Permalink

        We already try to take account of people who had no choice when they did crimes, and send them to hospitals instead of jail.

        Exactly, we already take account of such things! We ready distinguish between having no choice and exercising compatibilistic choice. Or what else did you mean by “choice” in that sentence other than choice as understood by compatibilism?

        And it’s because we already have all of these concepts in place in our legal systems that ditching the false superficial-commentary of dualism will make very little difference.

        Or are you saying we should just put people with brain tumors who make them aggressive to death by lethal injection?

        So you want to distinguish that brain-tumor situation from other scenarios involving aggression? Yes, so do I, and so do all compatibilists (and so already do our legal systems). But how do you do that (in a deterministic universe) without adopting compatibilist understandings of choice and of morals and of responsibility?

        What would you say is the difference between the choices made in those different scenarios?

        • Matt
          Posted January 19, 2013 at 6:29 am | Permalink

          Coel is 100% Correct.

          “We will “punish” to protect society from bad people, to serve as a deterrent to others, and to help make sure that criminals, so far as they can be, are rehabilitated.” –JC

          These are exactly the reasons we already use. When we debate drug laws how many people do you hear saying that we should do it because they wicked and deserve punishment and how many people do you hear talking about deterrent and keeping the bad guys off the streets?

          The one aspect you are missing is this one: We punish for the benefit of the victims. This may not be the best reason, but it’s out there all the same, and is fully compatible with determinism. This is why people talk about “closure” for victims when they go to the sentencing hearing of the perpetrator.

          None of the changes you want made to our criminal justice system are any different whether we have contra-causal free will or not. Which, by the way, is exactly the point Dennett keeps trying to make.

          • Posted January 19, 2013 at 6:37 am | Permalink

            I’m not sure what point Dennett is trying to make. From Jerry’s quotes of Dennett, it seems that Dennett does worry about the consequences for society if the populace doesn’t believe in dualistic free will, but if so I think he’s completely wrong. (And it’s not often I say that about DD!)

            To my mind the consequences for society of no more dualistic free-will are about as catastrophic as the consequences of no more school prayer.

            There are people who believe in prayer, consider it essential to society, and worry deeply about the consequences of a society lacking it. They are simply wrong, mistaking what is an inconsequential commentary for something that is actually important in society.

            Ditto those who worry about the absence of notions of dualistic free will (or who think that there would be major consequences).

            • Notagod
              Posted January 19, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

              It may be possible to change the environment in prisons to make prisons more conducive to rehabilitation. It may be possible to change the environments within non-prison society so that those environments produce fewer people that are inclined to actions that result in prison sentences.

              In a round about way christianity was partially intended to provide a scary deterrent to crime but christianity has a faulty foundation and in many respects is not up to the task.

              • Prof.Pedant
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

                My compulsive expression of my current understanding of my current understanding of the lack of free will, happiness, and social responsibility:

                Postulate: humans are ‘programmed’ to make an effort to understand ‘the real world’. (What is going on? Where is the food? What does my family need today? Etc.)

                Postulate: the ‘real world’ that we attempt to understand is an approximation of reality as mediated by our perceptions and preconceptions (based in our genes and experiences). Since our ‘programming’ takes into account the fact that we always have missing, inadequate, or inaccurate, information we are able to tolerate a number of discrepancies between our mental model of ‘the real world’ and our experiences with perception/preconception mediated reality. This results in understandings of ‘the real world’ that are fundamentally misunderstandings of reality, but which are stable or quasi-stable perceptions of the ‘real world’ because they ‘work well enough’.

                Assertion: Knowledge that we – as implied in the second postulate above – do not have ‘free will’ in any meaningful sense is only additional information for the ‘programming’ referred to in postulate one to take into account. In essence, how do I use the knowledge that I have no choices to improve my inevitable actions/consequences in ways consistent with how I define ‘improve’?

                One answer I think I have found to ‘how do I make better choices by knowing that I don’t choose’ is to question everything and to be as honest/literal/precise as I possibly can. Knowing that our genes and our previous experience shapes our thinking makes it easier to contemplate “what am I overlooking/misunderstanding” because admitting that I do not know all that I think I know is no longer an admission of failure, it is instead a useful insight.

                Interestingly I experience this as an increase in ‘certainty and security’, I think because it makes it easier to triple-check my assumptions and because it makes ‘not making the best decision’ into both something that happens to everyone and something that can be improved with better information. (And also, there is no need to declare that a decision I made is a ‘best decision’, definitionally I do not have a basis for making that claim and there is an excellent chance that even the very best decisions I’ve made in my life were not as good as reality would have allowed. The decisions I’ve made are the decisions I’ve made, considering them ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is only useful for the purpose of doing ‘better’ in the future.)

        • physicalist
          Posted January 19, 2013 at 8:17 am | Permalink

          +1

      • Peter
        Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

        “The idea of retribution should disappear because it makes no sense.”

        This part is true without any reference to determinism or dualism.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

      I agree with you there is a degree to which we already account for different levels of responsibility in our penal system. However I think when you say nothing would change you are underestimating the degree to which our notions of justice are still influenced by moral rage and the desire to inflict suffering on a perpetrator.

      A more complete and widespread understanding of the deterministic nature of our brain and how it constrains our ability to think and reason would lead to big changes in who is or is not in jail. I’m also assuming this change in awareness will in the long run be accompanied by much more advanced options in treatment, therapy, and rehabilitation involving drugs, surgery, implants, or behavioral modification by immersing subjects in environments that over time change their patterns and habits of thought and how they react to challenging situations.

      I think the most obvious change would be the elimination of the death penalty, a primitive rage based punishment that involves assuming the criminal is irredeemable, and even if so not deserving of a chance for rehabilitation.

      But also in the long run we will not morally distinguish between the murderer driven by an out-of-control organic growth in their brain, and the murderer driven by a brain structure that developed over decades due to normal genetic and environmental influences. The only difference will be the steps we take to rehabilitate them. The whole concept of “jail” may disappear and be replaced by “mandatory therapies”.

      What enables us to distinguish the tumor case today is a deeper knowledge of the brain. What once would have been blamed on demonic possession is rendered absurd by MRI and modern brain surgery. Such progress in our knowledge will continue into the future to transform how we view morality and punishment. Many people simply jailed today will, depending on the causes of their behavior, be retrained, given surgeries or implants, or medicated, or some combination of therapies deemed most effective. Of course some of this sounds creepy, and mistakes will be made, but we will get better at it. And remember, we are talking about a substitute for our current violent rape factories run by frustrated jocks who enjoy engaging in a little sadism when they can get away with it.

      Certainly many of these mandatory therapies will still be viewed as punitive and have deterrent effects. But society will view them as oriented much more toward reclaiming rather than disposing of a lost individual.

      • Posted January 19, 2013 at 9:41 am | Permalink

        I think when you say nothing would change you are underestimating the degree to which our notions of justice are still influenced by moral rage and the desire to inflict suffering on a perpetrator.

        Sure, but why do we have these feelings? Because evolution has programmed us with them for pragmatic reasons, and those pragmatic reasons (deterrence etc), still hold! Evolution wouldn’t have bothered programming us with moral feelings unless it was a social glue necessary for our human nature.

        So, even if we ditch dualistic freewill, those pragmatic reasons about human nature (deterrence etc) will still mean we need much the same judicial system. Only the superficial commentary changes.

        Again, dualistic free will is a complete red herring here, ditching it will change very little.

        I think the most obvious change would be the elimination of the death penalty …

        Already done in most of the developed world. Complete elimination would be a minor update. (By the way, I bet that in most of the countries that have abolished capital punishment the majority of the populace still holds to dualistic freewill, to the extent they think about it, which isn’t much, so again, this issue is a red herring).

        I’m also assuming this change in awareness will in the long run be accompanied by much more advanced options in treatment, therapy, and rehabilitation involving drugs, surgery, implants, or behavioral modification …

        Yes, and it’s noticeable that all your examples really come from those advances in treatment! Again, the role that notions of dualistic freewill play in any of this is minor and mostly irrelevant.

        • Lyndon
          Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:00 am | Permalink

          “So, even if we ditch dualistic freewill, those pragmatic reasons about human nature (deterrence etc) will still mean we need much the same judicial system.”

          Coel, the idea that this is what our judicial system is, what it always has been, and what it always will be, is wrong.

          There may be some fairly steady reactive attitudes that underwrite all justice or social regulatory procedures, that does not mean that our judicial system has not dramatically changed or will continue to dramatically change based on what we believe about human behavior or on trial/error; including as we understand why we have certain reactive attitudes and then work to not allow those attitudes to be basis for social policy, if we feel like such is a good move (think similar to the idea of “natural desire” for sugar versus dieting strategy or even a sin tax and regulatory procedures to limit the overexposure of sugar and fat).

          Furthermore, my two dangerous answers that are only marginally talked about on this question: First, welcome back behaviorism. Secondly, social constructionism. With the help of insights from evo psych, we can better analyze the environmental structures of any particular self (for instance, some of the baseline factors about why most of us do not consider robbing the bank or committing murder, while others . . .). This leads to a reanalysis of the myriad of institutions (socialization/education structures, neighborhoods, family structures, economic structures) we interact with, and maybe even the creation of totally new social institutions to better structure our selves; not to mention new technologies that automatically means that our selves enter into new relationships with our environment and other people. The reactive attitudes, if such things are some unmoveable object, are always being seen in new light as we have dramatic social changes, e.g. “internet lives.”

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:08 am | Permalink

          The fact that we once feared daemons and witches and burned them was also due to evolutionary programming. More knowledge changed how we think and act, and overrode emotion and fear based responses to perceived threats. Your line of argument is denying that similar progress will happen going forward. Cultural evolution happens more rapidly than biological evolution, and new knowledge helps us see and think differently.

          The idea of free will is part of the intellectual set of beliefs that justify and reinforce our primitive emotional urges for retribution. Eliminating belief in free will would weaken the domination of these primitive moral instincts. However that may not be how it occurs. People are obviously stubbornly attached to the concept of free will. What may be more likely is that more knowledge of the brain will challenge our current moral assumptions, and the idea of “free will” will be gradually be seen as an illusion and an unimportant artifact of the past.

          • Posted January 19, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

            Your line of argument is denying that similar progress will happen going forward.

            No, I’m not denying that such progress will continue, I’m denying that it has anything to do with attitudes to dualistic freewill. As you say, large amounts of change has already happened, and the penal system in some liberal European countries is a vast improvement on that in many third-world nations.

            Is this caused by differing notions about dualism? No, not really — the majority of people even in those liberal European countries would hold to dualism if you asked them. Though more to the point they likely don’t consider the question much.

            Since people’s attitudes don’t actually derive from thinking about dualism (which they don’t, even if people claim, when asked, that they do), whether people hold to dualism is largely irrelevant to what attitudes they do and will take.

            • Leigh Jackson
              Posted January 21, 2013 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

              Jeff didn’t use the word but the word “evil” is easily associated with witchcraft and magic. Ideas of saints and sinners, disembodied souls, salvation and damnation etc. was woven into the social fabric of Europe for a thousand years. Since the Enlightenment we have slowly been throwing off these delusions.

              Nevertheless dualism remains with us.

              Having a totally erroneous picture of human nature has had and always will have impact on morals, social norms and institutions. Getting society to understand that the human mind/brain is subject to the physical laws of cause and effect and nothing else, like the rest of nature, will inevitably lead to the reshaping of social norms and institutions.

              It’s not credible to imagine that it won’t.

              • Posted January 21, 2013 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

                “Getting society to understand that the human mind/brain is subject to the physical laws of cause and effect and nothing else, like the rest of nature, will inevitably lead to the reshaping of social norms and institutions.”

                What evidence could you supply to demonstrate a cause and effect link here?

        • Lyndon
          Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:08 am | Permalink

          Specifically on deterrence, accepting that an individual is a product of their genes and environment, the “better” “deterrent,” the one that is more humane and leads to better lives, is not gauging how much punishment is necessary to play into the pondering bank robber’s cost/benefit brain/mind system or into the murderer’s self, it is instead to create individuals like most on this blog, I assume, who may never give serious consideration to robbing banks or committing murder, who essentially are “deterred” because of the homes, neighborhoods, schools they come from, as well as parents who perhaps set very rigid “morals” into them, etc. A system that fully accounts for non-free-willed individuals starts asking more pointed questions about “deterrence” (not retribution at all), and places things like better schools within the deterrent category. Like the myriad of different personalities on this blog, this does not require some narrow form of scary behavioralist program, just some recognition of baseline needs about building adequate “social” selves.

          • Lyndon
            Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

            XXX—on this “website”—not blog—that is always in the back of my brain/mind, somewhere, arising into consciousness or action too late . . .

  6. Dick Veldkamp
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 5:18 am | Permalink

    Strangely ,the typo “choose a” instead of “choose b” is still there. But we cannot blade them more than we would blame a defective computer!

  7. Dick Veldkamp
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    Oh – now it’s fixed. This is weird.

    Of course the non-existence of free will has (or should have) big implications for the legal system. Because there is no free will, the legal system should only concern itself with the question: “How can we prevent as much crime (and associated misery) as we can?” To give an hypothetical example, this might mean that rather than have the police chase and lock up burglars, we would all put more locks on our doors (supposing the latter is more effective).

    Of course if it is widely known that burglars will not be arrested, this might create a wave of burglaries, so it could be most effective after all to try to arrest them. But not because the burglars are morally wrong – effectiveness remains the overriding criterion.

    • Grania Spingies
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 5:56 am | Permalink

      I’m not sure how you can move from this:
      “How can we prevent as much crime (and associated misery) as we can?”
      To this:
      “rather than have the police chase and lock up burglars, we would all put more locks on our doors”.

      Accepting determinism doesn’t mean that measures against unacceptable actions and behavior must be passive or come in one form.

      • Dick Veldkamp
        Posted January 19, 2013 at 8:40 am | Permalink

        I’m just saying that IF putting more locks on doors prevents the most burglaries, we should do that instead of putting burglars in jail. There is no moral imperative to punish burglars, because they have no free will.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted January 19, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

          Except in your hypothetical you need to consider costs. If more locks and security were the answer, presumably we would only do it if the cost to individuals and society was less than the cost of tracking and arresting criminals. The cost in lost convenience to innocent citizens needs to be factored in. I suspect that given our current technology making every structure that may tempt a burglar impenetrable would probably cost more and burden innocent individuals more than having a dedicated force to track and capture criminals.

          More widespread use of CCTV might be a better tradeoff, but we would need to strengthen our democratic processes, court proceedings, and general transparency and adherence to rule of law to reassure citizens that increased surveillance can not be abused, or that detection and remedies exist if cases of abuse should occur. In the UK they feel better about cameras than guns, and I think that is a more intelligent choice than the rogue Yosemite Sam impulse that drives a lot of thinking in the US.

          I agree with you there should be no moral imperative to inflict suffering and pain on criminals, but there is a moral imperative to deter them from repeating their crimes, which may involve inflicting involuntary loss and inconvenience on them, i.e. confinement and/or fines.

          I suspect that making prisons miserable places probably increases the likelihood that incarceration will lead to more crimes in the future. The deterrent effect is weakened, I believe, by aggravating people. This causes deeper anger and resentment, and makes them feel outcast from society and vengeful rather than included stakeholders, so that the tendency toward crime must be reinforced. I’m not saying incarceration should be a walk in the park. It still needs to be a deterrent. But it shouldn’t involve training people to be violent, to survive by intimidation and deception, and to bond in tribal affiliations that provide an identity dedicated to resisting and subverting more peaceful and constructive social orders. Along with the loss of freedom it should provide some promise and hope that finding a satisfying place of value in society is possible.

          A more sophisticated, humane, and medically informed detention system will provide both deterrence and rehabilitation, and while it might be more expensive per individual than our current system, it should in the long run reduce the length of sentences and the prison population, leading to an overall reduced cost.

          • Dick Veldkamp
            Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

            Jeff,

            I do not disagree with you – one needs to factor in all effects and all costs. I just wanted to show that if we accept the absence of free will and moral responsibility, this could lead to some counterintuitive choices.

    • Posted January 19, 2013 at 6:14 am | Permalink

      Because there is no free will, the legal system should only concern itself with the question: “How can we prevent as much crime (and associated misery) as we can?”

      Isn’t that exactly what the legal system is already overwhelmingly concerned with? I’m not asking about superficial commentary associated with it, but about actual jail sentences and actual practical measures.

      I really don’t get what the “big implications” are. Can someone spell them out? Again, I’m asking about actual punishments etc, not about commentaries.

      • Notagod
        Posted January 19, 2013 at 9:16 am | Permalink

        Maybe we shouldn’t have judges on the bench who state, as part of the sentencing procedure, that a lighter sentence will be imposed because the criminal is a good christian.

      • Posted January 19, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink

        Here are just a few “big” implications, but I’m only one person, and I’m sure that if everyone were on board we’d come up with even more implications.

        1) Incarcerating people is just a means to an end (reducing crime) and not an intrinsic good. Therefore, if we find better ways to reduce crime with taxpayer dollars (i.e. social safety nets, education, income redistribution) then we should divert money from prisons to these causes. It seems plausible that reducing inequality will lead a larger drop in crime than incarcerating more people or keeping inmates in prisons for longer periods of time (as most inmates recidivate anyways). Or, if not, I’m sure there is some kind of optimal trade-off in terms of spending taxpayer dollars. But people are not even open to this idea, because they see punishment as an intrinsic good, and so no arguments get made and no research gets done on alternative, more effective means of reducing crime. There is a whole ocean of possibilities here, but nobody’s thinking about them because they buy into the myth of moral responsibility.

        2) Prison rape. Solitary confinement. These are widespread in prisons, and the only reason legislation has not passed to prevent them is that people want prison’s to be miserable place so that criminals will get there comeuppance or “just deserts,” concepts which make no sense without free will. This is pure sadism, and it interferes with the project of successful rehabilitation, which we are extremely bad at (see below).

        3) Rehabilitation. We do almost nothing to rehabilitate criminals. No psychotherapy, no psychopharmacology, no educational programs, no job-training programs, no impulse-control training, nothing. Instead, we send our criminals to hell holes where they are raped and kept in madness-inducing isolation when they try to defend themselves from it. Our recidivism rates are preposterously high. As high as two thirds of inmates who leave prison end up committing another crime and getting sent back to jail. Does this seem like an effective crime-preventing institution to you? If we were actually interested in preventing crime, as opposed to satisfying our retributivist urges, we would invest way more of our resources rehabilitating criminals instead of making life as miserable as possible for them in prison.

        4) Chemical castration. This has been scientifically established to be effective in reducing sex offending. Yet instead of issuing this treatment to, say, pedophiles and then releasing them, people opt instead to see them rot away in prisons for years only to commit more sex crimes upon their release. Again, we see a disconnect between the option that reduces more crime and saves more money, and the option that satisfies our retributivist urges. Neuroscience will surely deliver us many more tools like this in the future, and we can’t be too wedded to retributivism when they come along.

        5) Optimal deterrence. If we are to actually calibrate our criminal justice system to be optimally deterrent (as opposed to optimally satisfying for our retributivist desires), then we would take probability of detection — that is, the proportion of committed crimes that go undetected – into account when issuing sentences. We don’t. People just do not care about this. If we did, the punishment for illegal downloading (which has a very low probability of detection) would be much higher than it is. The reason we don’t raise the punishment for illegal downloading is because we don’t have a burning desire to punish illegal downloaders the way we do with murderers. But our burning desires are irrelevant; we only care about deterrence, right, or so you say? I can scarcely imagine what our justice system would look like if we actually made a concerted attempt to achieve optimal deterrence, as opposed to optimal retribution.

        These are just a few, but I’m sure if people took seriously the death of free will, many more implications would be discovered. Thinking without free will is counterintuitive and difficult, but if everyone did it I have no doubt serious changes would be made in our society and culture.

        • Lyndon
          Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

          Very good response.

          On the last, I am a little tempted to say that even if lengthy prison sentences would end all music pirating, as a society we would decide that such would not be useful or “justifiable.” Though deterrence is the only justification for punishment, I am not sure we would want to say that any and all crime should be deterred by life sentences, where simple burglary drops to almost zero because we threw one music stealer in jail for a lifetime.

          But maybe that would be a better world . . . and I just can’t see from here to there.

          In other words, there are (probably) justifiable reasons not to “optimize deterrence.”

          • Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

            Yea, I wasn’t necessarily arguing that we should increase the punishment for music pirating — I’m actually not sure where I stand on that issue. My point was merely that our criminal justice system is not optimized for deterrence and we shouldn’t pretend like it is. Rather, it is optimized for satisfying our primitive desires for retribution, which are ultimately based upon a myth of moral responsibility.

        • Dick Veldkamp
          Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

          #davidpinsof

          Very well said.

          From what I have read on the subject (but I do not claim to be an expert), almost everything seems to be more effective than prison sentences if you look at the ratio (crimes prevented) / (taxpayer dollar).

          Moreover, generally measures that are considered to be ‘soft’, like education about crime in schools, punishment by community service rather than jail time, social work in bad neighbourhoods etc are effective. However people do not like these measures because these are ‘too soft on the criminals, who deserve to be treated harshly’. The absence of free will makes this notion nonsense.

        • Posted January 19, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

          Incarcerating people is just a means to an end (reducing crime) and not an intrinsic good.

          I’m not sure which county you’re in (maybe the US?), but in my country (the UK), incarcerating people is not seen as an intrinsic good but instead as a necessary evil, and there are repeated suggestions that the jail population is too high and costs the taxpayer far too much.

          Similarly, all of the other points you discuss are already been talked about and implemented.

          Is this because people in the UK no longer believe in dualistic freewill? No it isn’t, most of them still do. And the debate in the media about such matters is never about dualistic free will, but is always about what is effective in reducing crime rates and bettering society.

          The reason we don’t raise the punishment for illegal downloading is because we don’t have a burning desire to punish illegal downloaders the way we do with murderers.

          Indeed, nobody thinks that illegal downloads are all that wrong.

          But our burning desires are irrelevant; we only care about deterrence, right, or so you say?

          Not at all, our moral judgements are the basis of all of this and always will be. In the case of illegal downloads we don’t care about deterrence because we don’t regard the action as all that morally wrong.

          • Posted January 19, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

            Well, if the UK has already been talking about and implementing the points I’ve raised, then that is commendable. But that is clearly not happening here in the US, where incarceration really is seen as an intrinsic good, and where the phrase “necessary evil” is rarely if ever used to describe it.

            Nonetheless, I’m curious: If most people in the UK believe that people are truly responsible for their actions, such that they deserve praise or punishment for those actions, then why wouldn’t incarceration be seen as a good thing — a much-needed institution for giving criminals what they justly deserve? Indeed, why shouldn’t we make prisons as unpleasant as possible, replete with rape and solitary confinement and poor nutrition, all the better for making evildoers pay for their crimes? While the UK may endorse the points I made above, I think those points follow much more easily from a worldview that doesn’t recognize moral responsibility as a legitimate concept. I, for one, cannot see how you would go about arguing for those positions without first admitting that moral responsibility is a myth. Perhaps you could enlighten me?

            • Posted January 19, 2013 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

              I’m curious: If most people in the UK believe that people are truly responsible for their actions, such that they deserve praise or punishment for those actions, then why wouldn’t incarceration be seen as a good thing — a much-needed institution for giving criminals what they justly deserve?

              People are not consistent. In particular, many attitudes that people have about morals and similar are rationalisations, they’re not the real reasons, and people may not be aware of the real reasons they hold certain views (this is what psychologists tell us).

              Thus people have a whole amalgam of attitudes, not necessarily consistent ones. There are plenty of people in the UK who would argue for prisons to be nasty and sentences lengthy, but more humane and pragmatic approaches tend to win out, with efforts at rehabilitation and reducing prison populations winning support (for one things, prison costs huge amounts of money, even more if you then have a prisoner’s family on benefits).

              If you want to advocate penal reform it’s much better to do it on a pragmatic basis of it working better, and benefiting both people and society, and costing less, than to attack the largely irrelevant red herring of dualistic freewill.

              The UK has a decent tradition of humane prison reform (certainly compared to the US, which locks up a ridiculous fraction of its population in nasty conditions, though other European countries may do even better still), and none of that derives from considerations of dualistic freewill. (I’ve read oodles of newspaper articles about penal policy and the prison system in the UK over the years, and I can’t remember even one time when the article brought the issue of dualistic freewill into the discussion.)

              And no, you don’t go about it by first arguing that moral responsibility is a myth, you do it by fully accepting moral responsibility, but then tempering it with humanity and recognition that people will be the product of their circumstances.

              • Leigh Jackson
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 7:38 am | Permalink

                “more humane and pragmatic approaches tend to win out, with efforts at rehabilitation and reducing prison populations winning support”

                Not so. The prison population in England and Wales is continually reaching record levels with each passing year. Kenneth Clarke tried to bring a more rational approach to the penal system in line with your comments but failed miserably in the face of a barrage of abuse from the deeply punitive-minded not-so-great British public,led by those staunch bastions of enlightenment values: The Sun and Daily Mail. Dualists to a man and woman, without doubt.

              • Neil Schipper
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

                Coel, for god’s sake, why are you supplying oxygen to every gasbag with a master plan for perfecting the justice system and the educational system.. and H. Sapiens altogether?

                You started out with a fine argument about how little impact accepting determinism needs have on practical thinking about and implementation of a system of justice. It’s become buried in noise (and I’m only about 20% through).

                I think Jerry (and others) can be knocked out of the “huge implications” rut with suitable explication (or of course, change our minds). But help keep the conversation focused; either ignore extraneous comments, or at least kindly and gently say: “that’s outside the scope of this discussion”.

        • Marta
          Posted January 20, 2013 at 10:01 am | Permalink

          The optimal use of incarceration, and for which we do not need to consider free will, responsibility (moral or otherwise), recidivism, retribution or anything else is also the one purpose for which we can’t use it: The prevention of future anti-social actions (assuming one excludes the abhorrent application of “3 Strikes” laws.)

          We can’t incarcerate people for the things they might do later (justice doesn’t work this way), but this is a legitimate reason to fence bad actors off and away from other people.

          • Gary W
            Posted January 20, 2013 at 11:32 am | Permalink

            The optimal use of incarceration, and for which we do not need to consider free will, responsibility (moral or otherwise), recidivism, retribution or anything else is also the one purpose for which we can’t use it: The prevention of future anti-social actions (assuming one excludes the abhorrent application of “3 Strikes” laws.)

            That may be your preferred use of incarceration, but that doesn’t mean it’s the optimal one. Your unstated and unsupported assumption seems to be that the only legitimate purpose of imprisonment is the prevention of future crime (or “anti-social actions”). That assumption doesn’t seem to be widely shared.

            • Marta
              Posted January 20, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

              What we most want to do is protect ourselves from people who would harm us.

              We were never going to rehabilitate Jeffrey Dahmer.

              We desperately want to keep our children safe from pedophiles.

              Whatever society decides is appropriate to do about offenders (like Dahmer, for example, or pedophiles) after they’ve offended, it is inarguable that we certainly don’t want to give them more opportunities to kill people or rape children.

              We don’t have to have responsibility or free will or anything else in mind when these actors are adjudicated. It’s enough to have as our goal that they must not be allowed to create more victims. One was too many, but is any case, more than enough.

              • Gary W
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

                What we most want to do is protect ourselves from people who would harm us.

                Assuming “we” means “people in general” or “our society” or somesuch, how do you know this? Do you have polling data? I wish people would stop making empirical claims that they do not know to be true.

                But granting your premise — that protecting ourselves from harm is what we *most* want to do — that doesn’t preclude additional purposes for the criminal justice system, such as retribution. In other words, we may choose to put criminals in prison, or execute them, both for the protection of society *and* because we think they deserve to suffer for their crimes. And in fact I think that is probably how most people feel about criminals.

  8. Chris
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    Jerry, I can’t help thinking your view of free will is mired in simplistic semantics. Anything that can think, has free will. Deterministic but unpredictable. This includes chess computers. I wonder if you’ve ever programmed a computer to do anything more interesting than crunch numbers? If not, I can see why you might regard thinking as a simple input-output process effectively performed by puppets. If you program a computer to *learn*, then input-output gets infinitely more interesting and infinitely less predictable. Add a few supervisory daemons to monitor the process and you quickly end up with something that can think, and moreover, out-think its observer.

    • Grania Spingies
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 6:00 am | Permalink

      That something is hard to predict does not mean it is impossible to predict.

      • Somite
        Posted January 19, 2013 at 6:09 am | Permalink

        But practically at this point it is impossible to predict and we must have laws accordingly.

    • Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:06 am | Permalink

      I think the point is that the term “free will” in the context of religion (libertarian free will) means something entirely different to the way compatibilists have redefined the term in relation to things such as computer programs. Confusion then arises, since the term still carries with it the ghost of it’s former meaning (which is still extant among many believers). And there’s a sort of accomodationism going on here, in that some scientists don’t think the general public are grown up enough to do without the echo of dualism and libertarian free will.

    • Posted January 19, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      This is a red herring. How difficult it is to predict the outputs of a system is irrelevant. Here is the relevant question: does it makes sense to say that a chess program is “responsible” for the moves it makes and therefore inherently worthy of praise or condemnation for those moves? Is a program “responsible” for its programming? Obviously not. Now just extrapolate this to humans. Is the human brain “responsible” for its programming? Is the human brain “responsible” for the choices it makes such that it can be inherently deserving of praise and condemnation for those choices? This is the crucial question, and Jerry and I would say that the difference between brains and chess programs is a difference in degree. Brains are not responsible for their programming, however complex; and they are therefore not responsible for the outputs of that programming.

      • Chris
        Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:49 am | Permalink

        <>

        Yes, if it is a learning machine. Learning implies feedback, feedback into its own program. The program evolves and hopefully becomes wiser.

      • Chris
        Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:50 am | Permalink

        That should have looked like this:

        —-
        Is a program “responsible” for its programming?
        —-

        Yes, if it is a learning machine. Learning implies feedback, feedback into its own program. The program evolves and hopefully becomes wiser.

        • Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

          Yes, but learning depends on environmental cues, which are out of the machine’s control. Should we blame a machine for failing to exist in an environment with a particular set of environmental cues? Plus, learning itself is part of the machine’s programming, for which the machine is ultimately not responsible. Though the machine can alter it’s own code, it cannot alter the original programming that made it possible for it to alter its own code. Since that original programming is the ultimate cause of its behavior, and since it cannot be responsible for that programming, it cannot be responsible for what it does based on that original programming.

    • Posted January 19, 2013 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      The question comes down to this. Given ten identical HAL computers, when each is exposed to the same inputs will they learn the same response? Will they all adapt themselves in the exact same way? Train all ten the same. Then expose each to a new game with the exact same moves. Do they all play the same? If so, your example is not what you claim. If not, then what randomness is in the system to have resulted in these differences and are they in any way related to free will as humans understand it?

      • Chris
        Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:41 am | Permalink

        I don’t follow what you’re getting at here? 10 identical computers will behave identically, unless some part of the decision making process is randomised, a function I could see as being an inherently plausible way of deciding between multiple options with the same outcome weighting.

        • Posted January 19, 2013 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

          “10 identical computers will behave identically, unless some part of the decision making process is randomised,”

          Exactly. So either those computers are deterministic systems (even if we can’t predict how they will choose), or there was some randomness introduced into the system. Is randomness equivalent to free will? I don’t think a good argument could be made for that even though a certain degree of randomness is in any biological system (as well as any non-biological system). We have no idea what free will is just like we have no idea what consciousness or creativity are. I seriously doubt a computer is a valid model.

          • Posted January 19, 2013 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

            I seriously doubt a computer is a valid model.

            Then you are suggesting that minds are doing something that is fundamentally different from what computers are doing. In other words, you do not think that the Church-Turing thesis holds. There are good reasons to consider Church-Turing equivalent to conservation, which would put you on very shaky ground, indeed.

            Consider, for a moment, a computer model down to the molecular, or even atomic, level, of a brain (or, if necessary, an entire human and the proximate environment). Would said mind-bogglingly powerful and complex computer and the human thus simulated be fundamentally different from a “real” human?

            If so, how?

            If no, then the computer is, indeed, the perfect model.

            b&

            • Posted January 20, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

              “Then you are suggesting that minds are doing something that is fundamentally different from what computers are doing.”

              I certainly am. As a software engineer I think I’m on very solid ground saying that current hardware (and software) is not functionally equivalent to a human brain. We have a long way to go yet to achieve that sort of interconnectedness, adaptation and parallelism.

              • Posted January 20, 2013 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

                I am afraid you will find your position to be in serious disagreement with much of the current research in computer science. Although Ben mentioned the Church-Turing thesis, the more relevant version here is the so-called Extended Church-Turing Theses, which posits that all possible models of computation can be “efficiently simulated” by the Turing machine model. The only major challenge to this thesis comes from Quantum Computing (factoring integers a la Shor, and to some extent the Deutsch-Zosja problem). On the other hand, everything we know about the brain suggests that it is a large “threshold circuit”, which roughly corresponds to the complexity class TC0: this presents no challenges to the extended Church-Turing. In keeping with that, parts of Mammalian brains have been simulated. In summary, on current evidence, the difference between mammalian brains and modern electronic computing does not appear to be one of a fundamental nature, but one of technology: something like the difference between a vacuum-tube filled ENIAC and a modern 2 core processor chip.

              • Posted January 20, 2013 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

                the more relevant version here is the so-called Extended Church-Turing Theses, which posits that all possible models of computation can be “efficiently simulated” by the Turing machine model.

                So you think this is a simple computational problem? Let me know then a computer writes a great novel. Or let me know the algorithm for consciousness.

                “In summary, on current evidence, the difference between mammalian brains and modern electronic computing does not appear to be one of a fundamental nature, but one of technology: something like the difference between a vacuum-tube filled ENIAC and a modern 2 core processor chip.”

                I doubt many people associate “free will” with rats. I think the issue is the human brain. And on that matter there is a fundamental difference between us and a 2 core processor chip — which is a tiny part of a complex computing system, by the way.

      • Another Matt
        Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

        Given ten identical HAL computers, they will cease to be identical after a while because there is no way to expose them to identical inputs.

        • Posted January 19, 2013 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

          “Given ten identical HAL computers, they will cease to be identical after a while because there is no way to expose them to identical inputs.”

          Of course there is when we’re talking about computers learning chess. It’s extremely simple to do so in a lab.

          • Another Matt
            Posted January 19, 2013 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

            I see. I thought you really meant HAL computers as they appear in 2001, but I see now that you’re talking about completely shutting down all their automatic information gathering capacities and limiting the input to a discrete chess program to what is relevant to that chess program. You aren’t talking about HAL playing chess.

            • Posted January 20, 2013 at 10:56 am | Permalink

              “You aren’t talking about HAL playing chess.”

              I’m using chess as a narrow example as is was used above:

              “Here is the relevant question: does it makes sense to say that a chess program is “responsible” for the moves it makes and therefore inherently worthy of praise or condemnation for those moves? Is a program “responsible” for its programming? Obviously not. Now just extrapolate this to humans. Is the human brain “responsible” for its programming?”

              I think that’s a bad analogy. No chess playing computer is a self-aware individual in the sense that humans are. All its learned moves (even with the HAL of 2001) can indeed be controlled in a lab. They can be taught in the same way using the same methods. The only difficulty is this: If randomness is introduced into the HAL by design then it makes it difficult to teach it in precisely the same way. But my point is this. Suppose we can compensate for this randomness. Once we taught all ten over a span of years, would they all respond the same to a difficult move — say in the middle of a famous game. If they do, they are identical. If not, that difference was due to randomness and nothing more. I don’t believe we can attribute individuality to randomness. But that’s what it boils down to using this model, imo. And the results imply a worse problem. We can’t predict what teaching will do. Results are unpredictable. Therefore rehabilitation is an unpredictable exercise. It’s an illusion too.

              • Another Matt
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 11:18 am | Permalink

                I was confused because for HAL the state of the machines would be widely divergent due to differences elsewhere in the environment, even if they started out in the identical state. This isn’t due only to randomness — it’s also due to differences in input.

                I also don’t think HAL would have a separate chess-playing program built in, but would instead learn to play chess over time like other intelligent beings. There’s no practical way to tease out the combined effect of the differences in the 10 HALs’ environments on their chess playing.

              • Posted January 20, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

                “I also don’t think HAL would have a separate chess-playing program built in, but would instead learn to play chess over time like other intelligent beings.”

                I agree.

                “There’s no practical way to tease out the combined effect of the differences in the 10 HALs’ environments on their chess playing.”

                Why? HAL would play against an opponent. That “opponent” would be a series of games meant to teach, like we teach kids multiplication tables.

              • Another Matt
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

                “There’s no practical way to tease out the combined effect of the differences in the 10 HALs’ environments on their chess playing.”

                Why? HAL would play against an opponent. That “opponent” would be a series of games meant to teach, like we teach kids multiplication tables.

                Because the chess games are not the only thing in the HALs’ environments that might make a slight difference. If HAL’s attention was a little different from another’s when they’re being trained on the same game, the implication of that difference might affect how they play other games, and there’s no practical way to find out how to attribute those differences when it comes to polling a given HAL about its reasons for making its decisions.

                This is why I’m never really convinced by thought experiments that say, “Make an atom-for-atom copy of the solar system out in space somewhere, and you’ll see the copies of the people on both Earths behave in exactly the same way.” I don’t think that’s even remotely true — there are going to be small differences in weather due to differences in the way radiation enters the atmosphere from the surrounding cosmos. The geometry of the sky will be slightly different, so animals that use the sky to navigate will have different behaviors.

                Even if you made an atom-for-atom copy of the galaxy, there would be differences in the ways that astronomers pondered and reported on other galaxies — there’s no practical way to find out what eventual differences in individuals’ behavior to attribute to what subtle differences in environment.

              • Posted January 20, 2013 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

                “If HAL’s attention was a little different from another’s when they’re being trained on the same game, the implication of that difference might affect how they play other games, and there’s no practical way to find out how to attribute those differences when it comes to polling a given HAL about its reasons for making its decisions.”

                A computer gets its input through sensors. For the purposes of this experiment we would tightly control what those sensors saw. In an extremely complex and sensitive system, this might be difficult. Would a nanosecond delay trigger something unexpected? I don’t know. But let’s suppose it does. How would we apply this finding to the claims made elsewhere that rehabilitation is a serious proposal? How would we rehabilitate HAL to play chess better? If a nanosecond in timing means the difference between a good move and a bad one, how are we going to predict the results in our sloppy rehabilitation program?

                If, as you say, 100% copies of complex systems are impossible then it’s nonsense to talk about determinism in us humans. We would never know what caused a malfunction. Was it design? Experience? Something unknown? If we can’t reproduce the error in a controlled environment and find the ultimate cause, we’re guessing as much as any theologian.

              • Another Matt
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

                Right, but this is why we need science in the first place, and why we’ll continue to need it forever. If we were able to replicate situations 100%, then we could eventually deduce the outcomes. But that wouldn’t be any better for “real life” than making a totally accurate recording of the data from some event and then playing it back over and over — the data from that event would only be good for that event, and extrapolating to even slightly different situations would be unwarranted.

                When we “repeat an experiment,” we do not mean that we “replicate the physical situation 100%.” Instead, we’re trying to control some aspects and let others vary slightly to see which changes make a difference we care about, and how. In most cases (especially in biology), we’re very unlikely to be able to create strict if->then laws, but rather we’re going to come up with probabilities. This is also why we have statistics — we often talk about attributing a certain percentage of variance to some cause or another and the rest to “chance,” where “chance” is a shorthand for “all the environmental stuff we have no practical way to control to test to see what is relevant.”

                So, yes, I think you could shut down all of the HALs’ environmental sensors and feed in nothing but chess 24/7, and they’d be pretty convergent. On the other hand I think we’d be even more interested in seeing why, say, 8 out of the 10 HALs converged on the same solution even if they were trained in slightly different environments, no matter whether we could attribute the differences in the other 2 to anything specific.

  9. Posted January 19, 2013 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    I am surprised that scientists might be afraid that people have free will and might exercise it and be deemed responsible for their actions.
    If people are predisposed to make the decisions that they make then those that make the wrong social decisions are defective and need to be eliminated not only from society, but the gene pool. That’s a pretty stark assessment, isn’t it. What other logical choice can be made?

    • Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:16 am | Permalink

      We’re probably all predisposed to make the wrong social decisions in one situation or another, so perhaps we are all defective in your view?

      The point of laws is to try to create a society where the lowest number of people get into a situation where they actually *do* something detrimental to society. The Newton killer may have lived an entirely blameless life if he hadn’t had access to lethal weapons at a time when he was predisposed to violence.

      • Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:23 am | Permalink

        I am making a point that if we have no free will then what other choice do we have than eliminate the impediments to society. Rehabilitation is impossible, unless we have free will. If someone is predisposed to certain behavior how can urging them to do otherwise be of any consequence.
        I think we have free will.

        • Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:37 am | Permalink

          The point is that we aren’t just the product of our genes – we are the product of our genes very heavily modified by our interactions with the world. So of course rehabilitation is possible – you can educate people to have different dispositions. Why would you think it wasn’t?

          • Posted January 19, 2013 at 8:19 am | Permalink

            Genes modified by our interactions with the world? I don’t see how that is possible for the individual. For a population yes, but only over many generations.

            • Notagod
              Posted January 19, 2013 at 9:24 am | Permalink

              You aren’t considering the environment. With no free will (as is the case) actions are the result of genes plus environment.

            • HaggisForBrains
              Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:05 am | Permalink

              No doubt Roq can speak for him/herself, but my reading of the comment is that it is “the product of our genes” not “our genes” that is heavily modified etc. This reading makes more sense to me, anyway.

              • Posted January 20, 2013 at 2:48 am | Permalink

                Yes, of course genes don’t alter during a lifetime, but the brain does by learning – drenn really needs to go back to basics on this one.

  10. Posted January 19, 2013 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    I dunno. On the one hand, I see your point: no matter how philosophers redefine “free will,” ordinary people are going to hear the intuitive, classical contra-causal definition. It is perhaps the case that the term “free will” has become so bound up with the contra-causal definition that a new term is necessary.

    On the other hand, the label “free will” has a long history of labeling not just the classical definition, but the more vague definition of what it is that makes humans different from rocks, trees, animals, and the most complicated but uncontroversially non-sentient human artifacts such as a 747, aircraft carrier, or nuclear power plant (leaving the status of computer programs controversial). It’s important to talk about what makes us different, and it’s important to have a label for that concept, and it seems evident that many philosophers consider “free will” an adequate label.

    Fundamentally, though, I think your dichotomy is not as dichotomous as you think. I don’t think philosophers can use physical determinism as a sound basis for moral philosophy. We must figure out what it is that makes us people, at all levels: political/sociological, psychological, and philosophical. I don’t think it’s correct to simply say we are unexceptional instances of the general class of physically determinant things. Even though human beings definitely are physically determined, what makes us characteristically different from other physically determined things, in my considered opinion, profoundly affects our moral philosophy.

    Personally, I find the argument over the quality of specific labels to be tedious, but I suppose the debate has value. However, it’s not entirely clear if your post is lexicographical or substantive. If you’re arguing that the discussion going on underneath the label “what is ‘free will'” is itself a waste of time, I would argue you’re mistaken. Regardless of the label, we really do need to investigate the qualities of decision-making, goal-seeking, outcome-weighing, etc. that seem to make us specifically human, and we need to do so to craft a meaningful moral philosophy.

  11. Posted January 19, 2013 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    Er… I don’t think philosophers can use physical determinism by itself as a sound basis for moral philosophy.

  12. Somite
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    “save for quantum indeterminacy”

    Wait. Is there any evidence that quantum indeterminacy plays a role in creating the appearance of free will? Plenty of non-quantum processes can add indeterminacy to a system.

    Do we even have an example where quantum indeterminacy is used in any other biological process? Biology seems to avoid it like the plague and spent considerable energy to avoid it.

    Maybe genetic mutations, but look at the complex machinery that has evolved to keep it an acceptable rate. I am not even sure that quantum indeterminacy even plays the most important role in this process.

    • Owlglass
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:49 am | Permalink

      There are algae that uses some quantum magic. See here:
      http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/02/100203131356.htm

      • Somite
        Posted January 19, 2013 at 8:20 am | Permalink

        That’s interesting but it seems yet another way for nature to overcome indeterminacy. Not take advantage of it.

    • michaelbusch
      Posted January 21, 2013 at 2:21 am | Permalink

      No, there isn’t. Even the interactions of a single small molecule are predictable, although you need to include quantum mechanics to get the right answer. The structure of a molecule has a very small range in its probability distribution function.

      Being made of many many molecules, the human brain is a not significantly quantum-indeterminate system. But it is a _chaotic_ system. We may be able to describe bounds on peoples’ likely behavior, and their reactions to given events, but that chaos means that things will not always happen as expected and will diverge more with time. This is a fancy way of saying that people are somewhat unpredictable.

      So quantum should not have been mentioned here at all. This misrepresentation can lead to dangerous woo.

      @Owlglass: that has nothing to do with indeterminacy. It simply is a cool demonstration of quantum chemistry. The path of energy through the system is still predictable, just like we can describe where the electrons are in benzene even though the bond structure is a superposition of two states.

      • Leigh Jackson
        Posted January 21, 2013 at 6:48 am | Permalink

        Appreciate your comment; wonder what you make of this paper by Jim Al-Khalili:

        http://www3.surrey.ac.uk/qe/pdfs/mcfadden_and_al-khalili.pdf

        • michaelbusch
          Posted January 22, 2013 at 12:51 am | Permalink

          My understanding was that almost all mutations occur because DNA replication isn’t occurring in isolation (e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DNA_damage_%28naturally_occurring%29 ) and involve classically random interactions between the DNA and its surroundings. So that paper seems to be trying to address a problem that does not exist.

          But I am trained as a physicist and astronomer, so while I was taught quite a bit about quantum mechanics and something of how to describe chaos, my knowledge of the details of biochemistry is very limited.

  13. Posted January 19, 2013 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    You’re a philosopher with an interest and expertise in science, have followed the latest discoveries in neuroscience, and realize that the idea of contracausal free will is long dead.

    Jerry, I think you misunderstand the philosophy here. You’re trying to define philosophy into a corner. But a philosopher with expertise in science need not necessarily conclude that what we call ‘free will’ is contracausal. What you are suggesting is that a compatibilist is simply shifting deck chairs on the Titanic. This, however, is not a conclusion based on scientific evidence, but on your own philosophical analysis of what is meant by ‘free will’, as well as what we mean by ‘responsibility’. (That it is a philosophical analysis is something you seem unable to see.) It is already clear that we make distinctions between cases in which someone is not held responsible because of (say) a medical condition. You seem to be suggesting that such distinctions are meaningless, since none of us has the capacity for choice. What we do is determined by factors over which we have no control.

    What does society look like in which we do not make distinctions between those who are responsible and those who are not? Instead of thinking about this in terms of crime (which is a red herring here, since punishment should never have been retributive in the first place, a deeply religious idea), think of it in terms of things like promising and contracts. I borrow money from you, and sign a contract agreeing to repay, and then I refuse to do so. Since my actions are already predetermined, according to the incompatibilist, this is just a fact about the way things are. It makes no sense to hold me responsible for a decision over which I had no choice, and you should have known that before you so thoughtlessly loaned me the money. But of course that was determined by your genes and environment, so your loaning me the money was simply a fact about how things are as well.

    This, however, doesn’t seem to make much sense. When you loan me the money you must believe that I have at least some control over how I will act, otherwise loaning money would be foolhardy. But of course you were not really able to make any such judgement about whether or not I would repay, for your choices are constrained as well, so all our language of choice and its consequences is ill-formed.

    The whole point here is that this is either an issue of substance, or it is not. Certainly our choices are constrained in all sorts of ways, but are they uniquely constrained, or is only the range of choices constrained? Could you devise an experiment that would show how they are constrained? It is usually assumed, in respect of loans, for example, that I can choose between spending my money on repaying the loan I have contracted to repay, or spending it on a holiday instead. And you would be justly aggrieved if I should go on a holiday instead, and doubtless you would set in train an action that would recoup your loss. But if my choices are uniquely constrained, as you seem to be suggesting, then you must be wrong to hold me at fault, for I had no choice.

    What seems to be unique to the phenotype of Homo sapiens is culture and language. This has made us particularly successful in exploiting the environment. Instead of being entirely shaped by the environment we shape the environment so that we can survive in an almost endless variety of environments. So, as we have evolved, and as our cultures have evolved, the range of choices available to us has increased immeasurably. Indeed, creative choice is now possible, so that we create the context of hitherto unknown choices. The causal relationship between environment and action has become so complex that there is no one-one relationship between cause and effect, for it is mediated by meaning and intention. In fact, we can make Gedankenexperimente. But your suggestion for a Gedankenexperiment seems to deny that we can do what you suggest, make a choice between (a) and (b). Whatever choice we make is determined.

    This, however, and unfortunately, makes Plantinga’s point correct, for if our choices are constrained in the way that you suggest, there is no reason why naturalism should lead us to the truth. The reason it can lead us to the truth is that we can make the choices you seem to deny that we can and do make, and thus, as stated, the point you seem to want to make is impossible to make. That is why philosophers try to explain in more detail why it does make sense to speak in terms of freedom (though it seems that at your Moving Naturalism Forward conference the group concluded that speaking in terms of free will as if it were a mental faculty is misleading as to what is meant by the ability to make choices).

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:18 am | Permalink

      Hi Eric.

      I have to disagree with you here. OF COURSE I hold people responsible for what they do: we do that for the good of society and of the people themselves. Where did I ever say otherwise? (But I don’t think it adds anything to say that they are “MORALLY” responsible).

      A society in which we hold people responsible but realize that they don’t have contracausal free will would in fact be better than the one we have now, for we wouldn’t use justice as retribution, and we’d realize that the person who kills because of a brain tumor has no more control over his actions than a kid who’s been brought up in the ghetto surrounded by thugs and drugs. But of course we’d treat those people differently, depending on what we determine (scientifically if possible) is best for society and them.

      If we redefine free will so that it means that we are evolved to make complex choices, no practical consequences ensue. It’s either an academic exercise alone or a ploy to keep the masses satisfied by hiding the truth about determinism from them.

      Surely you agree that our choices ARE constrained, don’t you? Or do you really believe that at any moment we can make alternative choices, even if the situation were completely replicated? Surely you don’t think that we have contracausal free will. And if we don’t, then what do you mean by “there is no one to one relationship between cause and effect”. Of course there is! If the molecules are aligned the same way in two situations, then, yes, there is only one possible outcome (save for any effects of quantum indeterminacy). Or do you think something other than molecules determine our choices?

      As for the odious Plantinga, the reason naturalism leads us to the truth is because a. we’re evolved to recognize reality and b. we’ve constructed an elaborate cultural system, with corss-checks, to ascertain that truth.

      Really, Eric, I’m confused as to what you’re saying here. Do you REALLY think there’s something beyond molecules and physics that result in our choices, so that we can make REAL choices (that is, given a situation that is replicable in every respect, we could have chosen otherwise)?

      As for philosophers, yes, I think that those philosophers who write books and papers on “here’s how we can reconceive free will so we have it” are wasting—if not their time—the time of the public. They have no effect on how we live our lives or on public policy. In contrast, those philosophers who ponder the effect of brain science on how we punish and reward people can potentially have a real effect on society, and a salubrious one.

      There was a time when the business of philosophy was meant to help us figure out the best way to live our lives, and how to behave. I still believe that’s the most admirable goal of philosophy, and that involves choice a. Those who choose b. are behaving like academics who are writing for other academics, and they don’t influence society one iota. Redefining free will so that we have after all (yay!!!!) has no salubrious effects at all, unless you believe Dennett and others’ claim that if people don’t think they have free will in some sense, they’ll go nuts and riot (or lie in their beds sticken with ennui).

      BTW, did you get the email I sent you the other day with some questions?

      cheers,
      Jerry

      • Posted January 19, 2013 at 8:36 am | Permalink

        Jerry, first, I didn’t receive the questions, but I see now that the email was caught up in my Junk Email filter. I’ll have a look at them straight away.

        However, here I have to ask you what you think is different between REAL choices and the choices that we make. If you acknowledge that we make choices, and can make choices for reasons, then that is what “free will” is all about, and it does make us morally responsible, and adding ‘morally’ simply points to the harm that choices can make or avoid. (Moral responsibility is simply a special kind of responsibility that ranges over types of choices.) That doesn’t mean that we have thereby a justification for retributive punishment, for very few philosophers have believed in “libertarian free will,” and even they need not think that retributive punishment is justified, since, even for a libertarian, choice is not completely unconstrained. Indeed, it is not clear that it makes sense (or ever did make sense) to speak of completely unconstrained choice, for choice itself implies constraint. That’s why I think your position lacks philosophical detail.

        Your position is not scientific, because you have no evidence. Even the fMRI evidence cannot simply equate the decision with the bloodflow patterns in the brain, because this experiment is done in such a limited context that at most what it can show is that a person is likely to make a certain choice based on analysis of bloodflow patterns. This does not provide evidence, even for this very limited context, that choice is no exercise, and certainly not that in more complex situations choice is not exercised. In fact, I can tell you today which amongst two different possible uses of my time tomorrow I will spend my time doing, and I can give you reasons for making that choice. Your denial of REAL choice (as I say, I can’t see what the caps are doing here, and whether it makes a real distinction) is simply based on a simple cause-effect analysis, and a denial that complex neurology does not escape a simple one-one cause-effect constraint. But if I do something tomorrow for a certain reason, and you tell me later that I ought to have done so-and-so, because I had a good reason to do it, since I had promised, then I would have to acknowledge that you are right, and I would have to give a reason why I did not keep my promise, and simply saying, “I forgot”, is often not a good enough reason, for there are certain things that you simply do not forget. For example, suppose that I was getting married, and on the day of the wedding I did not turn up. In that case, saying “I forgot” would simply not excuse what I had done. I would have had to have a better explanation for failing to do something that can be seen to have caused real harm.

        I still think that you need to pay closer attention to what, say, Dennett is saying when he is speaking about the free will worth wanting. Owen Flanagan too.

        • Posted January 19, 2013 at 8:39 am | Permalink

          Sorry, should have read ‘choice is not exercised’ rather than ‘choice is no exercise’

        • Notagod
          Posted January 19, 2013 at 9:59 am | Permalink

          Everything in your example appears to point to the conclusion that you have no choice but to attend your wedding, but you are using that as an example that you have the only free will worth having? Your genes plus the environmental factors that you outline, it seems, will compel you to attend the wedding.

          You provide no evidence that you could have chosen differently given the exact same conditions.

          • Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:06 am | Permalink

            Notagod. This is always an impossible thing to do. It will always be logically impossible for me to provide evidence that I could have chosen differently given exactly the same conditions. For I cannot change the past. However, suppose I were to tell you:

            I have two choices. I could go out to lunch with my friend, or I could go to my wedding and get married, and I am finding it hard to make up my mind.

            What would your response be? I suspect that you would find it odd, perhaps even incomprehensible, how I could put these options on the same level, such that I would find it hard to choose between them. The point is that our actions are certainly constrained, even causally constrained, but are our choices always the outcome of only causal constraints? I don’t think so. I think we establish social constraints precisely because the field of choice (where each choice would be an effect of all the preceding physico-chemical responses) is so broad that, for social reasons, we need to limit what we or others might choose to do. Knowing this, because (let us assume) it is very important to you that I do X, you say, “Very well, then. Do you promise?” And I say, fully intending then that (a) I will do what I have said that I will do, and (b) I am willing to be bound by that intention, that I promise to do X. Now, when the time comes to do X, does that mean I cannot do something else? Not obviously true. But it is certainly true that you and I have set it up in such a way that I have a very good reason to do X, and, some other important circumstance not arising, no reason not to do X. But this is a matter of intentions and reasons, not of physical causation.

            • Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:35 am | Permalink

              The point is that our actions are certainly constrained, even causally constrained, but are our choices always the outcome of only causal constraints? I don’t think so. I think we establish social constraints precisely because the field of choice (where each choice would be an effect of all the preceding physico-chemical responses) is so broad that, for social reasons, we need to limit what we or others might choose to do.

              Eric, the point is that those social constraints are themselves causal and deterministic (or, at least, probabilistic). It’s a complex feedback loop, yes, but adding a few iterations, or a few billions of iterations, doesn’t fundamentally change the fact that there’s no “other way” that isn’t ultimately following rules (deterministic); not following rules (random); or making random choices in a larger deterministic framework (probabilistic / weighted random).

              Do all sorts of complex patterns emerge in the real world? Of course. We are much more than merely a random collection of subatomic particles. But we are still, ultimately, a collection of subatomic particles, and those particles are following a very well-defined set of rules. More complex than we can predict in practice, yes. More complex than can be predicted even in principle in less than real time, yes. With various (but largely insignificant) forms of true randomness thrown in for good measure, yes. But there’s still no ultimate “freedom” to be drawn on, no matter how many layers of complexity it all gets built up to.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Neil Schipper
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

                Right.

                Eric needs to spend more time visualizing interacting and reacting molecules.

                It is inconceivable that anyone on the planet would have predicted that I would compose precisely this comment at this time. Yet here it is.

        • Vaal
          Posted January 19, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

          I agree Eric. In every incompatibilist stance I have seen, it seems rife with incoherence and special pleading.

          I have argued that it is a mistake for incompatibilists to assert that “Libertarian/contra-causal” free will IS free will, as if it is the definition of what every means by “free will.”

          But when you look deeper into the history of the issue, and into what the subject of free will entails, it turns out that contra-causality/duality isn’t the definition of free will but is ONE EXPLANATION for how some people think we could have free will.

          The central question is “could I REALLY choose otherwise?” It you can answer “yes” then you can go on to say we have free will.
          But there are more ways than one to answer “yes” (or “no” for that matter).

          Everyone intitively thinks they could choose otherwise and in that sense feel free. But then some people notice this SEEMS to be in tension with the other intuition that all things have a cause (which, even before you get to modern physics, lead people to determinism). So which is it? Well, some portion of people’s solution is this: I really can’t seem to dismiss the idea I have free choice, and the only EXPLANATION for how I could have a choice in a physical determined world is that my choices are an exception – they are excepted from the causal chain. And from this beliefs move on to dualism as a further “explanation” for how one’s intuition about having a choice must still be true.

          It’s right for incompatibilists to point out that contra-causal/dualist answers to “could I have chosen otherwise?” are a failed explanation – compatiilists point out exactly the same thing. But that doesn’t mean therefore that it doesn’t have a BETTER more cogent answer for why it would be true and significant to say “I could have chosen otherwise.”

          Like some other compatibilists, I keep pointing out that when I (and the rest of us) say “I chose cheerios for breakfast today but I could have chosen corn flakes instead” that this is not really in the context of “if every state of affairs, every atom, every cause were exactly the same preceding that choice.” No one actually thinks like that. Rather, we think in abstractions. Our very notions of the identity and nature of anything or anyone is an abstraction – a statement of how an entity has acted over time in order to state it’s characteristics and powers. The “I” to whom I refer is an abstraction of the “me over time” who has been in similar situations and has shown the ability to have chosen corn flakes. It’s a general statement of my empirical powers to choose between cereals in roughly similar situations and it ASSUMES that at least one thing would be different – my desire for corn flakes over cheerios.

          It is special pleading to deny that such a statement as “I could have chosen corn flakes instead” would be talking about reality because it’s very basis – a general observation about my nature put together from many particular observations over time – is the one we use to make informational statements about virtually EVERYTHING both in science and everyday passing of information to one another.

          As I’ve said before, confusing the contra-causal/dualistic answer to how we could have free will with being the “definition of free will” is like the Christian who confuses Divine Command Theory – one possible explanation for why we ought to treat each other X way rather than Y – with the definition of morality itself. “Well, if you aren’t talking about God’s commands, then you aren’t talking about ‘Morality.'”

          Vaal

          • Posted January 19, 2013 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

            As usual Vaal, you talk with a lot of sense and clarity on this topic.

          • Leigh Jackson
            Posted January 21, 2013 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

            So if I say I have free will, then my brain is creating two abstractions. Accepted. And as long as I am aware that the “I” which I think I am is nothing other than an abstraction, a vivid proxy for the body/brain which is actually conscious, then I can say I have free will, as I mean nothing more than another abstraction to the effect that this body/brain now is conscious of making different choices such as xyz preceded by different desires at different times in accordance with cause and effect.

            Now consider this statement: “My choices are determined by my genome, connectome,and present internal and external environmental influences on my brain.”

            True, we can say we have free will in the rough and tumble language sense which you describe, as long as we understand what is meant. But if, as I believe, my statement is correct, then I prefer to say simply that my will is part of nature’s process of cause and effect. I, (meaning simply my living body, which includes my brain, which includes my mind, will etc.), am part of nature’s process.

  14. Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    Given that the impetus for “(b)” (scare quotes because of course it’s not “concocting” if the relevant notions are already available) can be traced back to Plato and can be found in philosophers such as Kant, Nietzsche, and Emerson, and given that it’s just bad — not even bad philosophy, but simply a somewhat shocking inability to understand other people when they speak — to assimilate the moral import of the perfectly acceptable phrase “could have chosen otherwise” to “could have acted in contradiction to the laws of physics”, I find it mystifying why anyone would wish so fervently to insist that the only notion of human freedom anyone should talk about is the dualistic one.

    Since that sentence is phrased in a way that represents my exasperation (with the line of thought itself, for one, and with the obnoxious insult directed at philosophers for another) more than it makes my point clear, some explanation:

    Regarding the first point, it is not a new idea at all to see human freedom (in the morally relevant sense) as intertwined with rigorous constraint. Thus in Plato’s dialogues (the Lysis, for instance), Plato time and again indicates that it is the person who knows and follows the rules (say, of a particular craft) who is freest, and the “anarchist” who is the least free. (The general truth of this can be seen if you reflect on art: were I to try to compose a piece of music, I would be much less free than, say, Bach was, since I am musically illiterate.) This is clearly a conception of freedom that is unconcerned with whether or not the universe is deterministic. In Kant you explicitly have human freedom to choose intermixed with adherence to a complete determinism. Numerous contemporary moral philosophers are broadly Kantian, and are not concocting anything, but simply refining and improving Kant’s ingenious but problematic solution. In Emerson and Nietzsche (two extraordinarily similar thinkers), you have a very close alliance between freedom and necessity (think of Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence). For them, freedom is not just compatible with necessity, but dependent upon it. I suspect you will find a similar intermingling of freedom and necessity in stoic philosophy, though I’m not familiar with that firsthand. I will add that I have certainly not read all the philosophy there is to read, and the fact that these ideas are so prominent in these philosophers, who I can think of off the top of my head, suggests that there are probably others as well. Probably many others. But that is of course a tentative conclusion open to refutation.

    Regarding the second point, reflect on the cases in life where, as common English usage has it, we make choices. Here is one: I am hungry and need to go the grocery store. So I think about my options (Giant Eagle or Whole Foods — these options are quite objectively determinable, since these are the groceries in my area. Of course, I could go to the Japanese market down the street, but they don’t have a very broad selection and I can’t read half the labels, so they don’t enter into my consideration). While I would very much prefer to go to Whole Foods, I am not rash in acting on this desire, and instead think about the fact that I am a graduate student on a livable but not lavish stipend, and further that I am saving money in order that I might visit China with my girlfriend this summer. As such, I resign myself to going to Giant Eagle. Nevertheless, there is no reason why I could not have chosen gone to Whole Foods (notice I said ‘reason’ and not ’cause’). It simply would have been imprudent. Hence, by common usage, I chose to go to Giant Eagle, but I certainly could have chosen to go to Whole Foods instead.

    Now compare this to the case where I am at an atm and someone comes up behind me with a knife and tells me to withdraw all my money and give it to him. Superficially, I have two options: (1) give him the money, (2) run/fight/something else. Since I am unarmed, in a weaker position, a slow runner, etc., none of the actions I’ve lumped together under (2) are serious options for me. So I give him the money. By common usage, I did not choose to do so; rather I was coerced. In a certain sense, I had no other options and so could not have chosen otherwise (in another sense, I could have chosen to fight, and perhaps would have were I stupider).

    In the third case, I am an avid reader of Nietzsche and notice a more hysterical tone to his later writings than to his early-mid 1880s writings. I attribute this later tone to the onset of his insanity (which I take to imply that he was losing control of himself), while I marvel at the careful control he showed in my his stylistic decisions in those earlier works. (I, having read Higgins’ Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, particularly marvel at his decision to present Thus Spoke Zarathustra as he did, applauding his choice not to solely use the style that had up to that point defined his writing, while decrying the non-trivial scholarly neglect/panning of the work.) (Should one find this example fanciful, I recommend looking at the “look inside” section of this book, since in the introduction the issue is addressed.)

    What is interesting about these cases is that none makes any assumption about either (a) the laws of physics (whether they are deterministic or not) or (b) whether those laws are contravened. Instead, all they talk about are options available (which are easy to determine with reasonable precision and objectivity, e.g., for the first case, by looking at the grocery stores in my area), whether these options are reasonable enough to count as serious options (as running in the second case was not), and whether or not the person had control over themselves (e.g. was sane, or, we might imagine, did not have a brain tumor). No commitment is made over and above this that says that the physical causes are relevantly distinct in the three cases. Our ordinary language of choices and freedom does not make such commitments. The ‘could’ in the phrase “could have chosen otherwise” is not making a claim about what is possible according to the laws of physics. It is making a claim about there having been other sufficiently reasonable options available.

    It was rude of me to say that it is a failure of basic English comprehension not to recognize this. But I do maintain that it is bad philosophy to assimilate our ordinary use of such phrases to a particular philosophical/metaphysical conception of choice and freedom, especially when alternatives to that conception have been available for the entirety of the time that there has been western philosophy. In reality, that way of talking is not inherently allied to any of them. (Hence it is further bad philosophy to assume that the untenability of the one conception necessitates the overhaul of our common notions about morality.)

    Of course, none of this means that it is not an altogether good thing for us to have a government that puts more emphasis on rehabilitation and prevention than it does on moral condemnation — I, for one, wholeheartedly agree that that would be a very good thing. It is, of course, a moral choice that we, as a nation, might make (this goes, of course, for all democratic nations, not just my own). And surely the knowledge of the causes of human behavior (at the individual and social scales) gained from the various sciences will be invaluable.

  15. physicalist
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    Jerry, you’ve been told many time that compatibilists are not “concocting new definitions.”

    The compatibilist account has been around since Aristotle and forms the core of both the common folks’ notion of responsibility and the core of the legal system’s notion of responsibility.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:23 am | Permalink

      Please, I don’t need you to act like my mom: “Jerry’ you’ve been told many times. .. ” That’s offensive. Philosophers CONTINUE to find different ways to effect compatibilism. Dennett’s way wasn’t, I think, proposed by Aristotle, who knew nothing about evolution.

      What you may mean, minus your snark, is that the notion of compatibilism has been around since Aristotle, but really, do you not think that philosophers have, in the last few decades, concocted new (and incompatible!) ways of effecting compatibilism?

      I completely disagree with you about what the common notion of compatibilism is. The studies are conflicting, but the notion that one can make real choices is, at bottom, the core of our legal system and of much religion. And I’ve had many discussions with SCIENTISTS who, not having read the philosophers, harbor a deep-seated dualism.

      I’d appreciate less patronizing, please.

      • physicalist
        Posted January 19, 2013 at 9:12 am | Permalink

        I apologize for my tone, but I felt a touch of snark was in order because (as I see it) you’re being dismissive of philosophers while also misrepresenting what philosophers are doing.

        You say that we philosophers are wasting “time concocting new definitions of “free will” to replace the ghost-in-the-machine “contracausal” free will that no longer holds.”

        My point (minus the snark) is that this is an uncharitable mischaracterization of what we’re doing:

        (a) To represent the compatibilist project as a new effort that is motivated by the successes of various sciences is to ignore the fact that compatibilists have argued for millennia that contra-causal freedom is irrelevant.

        (b) To suggest that current efforts to understand how freedom fits in evolution, sanity, rationality, neuroscience etc. are attempts to “replace the ghost-in-the-machine contracausal free will” is to wrongly imply that modern compatibilists are looking for something like contra-causal freedom — that our motivation is to find something to stand in for the “ghost” that science has snatched from us.

        But that’s just wrong. This mischaracterizes Dennett’s motivation, and it mischaracterizes the motivation of every other compatibilist I can think of.

        Nearly all compatiblists will say that contra-causal libertarian freedom isn’t something that we would want even if we could have it. Indeed, many of us argue that the notion is incoherent at its core.

        So what we’re interested in is figuring out how the actual (compatibilist) freedom we have fits into the world that is revealed by physics and other sciences.

        And we are also occasionally interested in correcting the confusions of the masses (and of the libertarians) about what freedom involves.

        You ask: “do you not think that philosophers have, in the last few decades, concocted new (and incompatible!) ways of effecting compatibilism?

        There are, of course, real disagreements. But these are disagreements about the origin and nature of compatibilist freedom (and they almost always have considerable overlap with the core compatibilist notion that’s been around since ancient Greece). My complain is that you characterize these efforts as (a) motivated by desire to retain a vestige of contra-causal freedom, and (b) a new project was forced by science falsifying older philosophical claims. This simply misrepresents what’s actually going on.

        You say: “the notion that one can make real choices is, at bottom, the core of our legal system.”

        I agree.

        And as I and many others have argued” we can and do in fact make real choices in a deterministic world.

        Now I know that you remain unconvinced by these arguments, but if you ignore the fact that the arguments have in fact been made (over the centuries, and over the years in the comments here on this website), then it seems like you’re more interested in calling names than advancing an reasoned discussion.

        “i>And I’ve had many discussions with SCIENTISTS who . . . harbor a deep-seated dualism”

        As have I. And I believe that this explains why most people believe in contra-causal freedom.

        People are dualists, so think that if the physics is doing the deciding, then it can’t be them doing the deciding. So they think they have to “win out” over the physics if they’re going to make a difference.

        Our job as physicalists is to make people understand that the physics’ deciding is the very same thing as your deciding because the physics is you. You are physical.

        The problem is dualism, not freedom.

        Sorry about the length of this reply. Snark is quicker.

  16. jose
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    So you’re advocating to abolish prisons because murderers had no choice.

    • jose
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:13 am | Permalink

      I guess Bin Laden has been unfairly criticized for his actions. It was not his fault after all.

      • Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:26 am | Permalink

        There’s no implication that people don’t have faults. Just that given their genes and background they could not have done otherwise. Are you contesting that?

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:27 am | Permalink

        Give me a break, jose. Have you not read what I’ve written about free will in the past? Obviously not. This website is full of my comments about how we still have to punish people even if we’re total determinists and non-dusalists, but that punishment should be conditioned by knowledge of brain science and how our actions are produced.

        Your comment is, I’m sorry to say, ignorant. Go back and do some reading before you discuss free will again, please.

        • Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:29 am | Permalink

          Everyone is ignorant about freewill, in my opinion. Of course, you knew I would write that, right?

      • Secularjew
        Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:49 am | Permalink

        Bin Laden is at fault and is responsible in the sense that he did those terrible things, but he is not responsible in the sense that he did not create his brain or his environment, just as you are not responsible for NOT having the compulsions of a serial killer. No one is advocating abolishing prisons. Such institutions serve a purpose of reforming and isolating, but our attitudes toward criminals should be more like our attitudes toward wild animals. It’s reasonable to put down a rabid dog, but not to blame it for being rabid. And while feeling anger and desiring revenge against someone like Bin Laden is natural and the elimination of people like him from society is necessary, it does not mean that criminals have free will in the deepest sense of the term.

  17. Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    A few compatibilists getting their knickers in a twist here. The significant point that Jerry makes is with regard to philosophy and the perspective of philosophers. The brain sciences are showing quite clearly that the classical notions of morality, virtues, sin, evil are so out of touch as to be near meaningless in scientific and philosophical debate. And yet philosophers cling to them and theologians live by them.

    Yes, thankfully the justice systems of the western world have been adapting to the evidence from the brain sciences for some time. But it’s not universal. Death row is still a favoured alternative to waiting until a brain can be examined and fixed. And even repentant renewed killers tend to get executed, fixed or not. And though the justice system might be somewhat up to speed would you be happy having your life in the hands of Southern states court of evangelical jury members?

    And try telling the population of Mali that Sharia law is up to date on neuroscience.

    If you doubt the persistence of outdated classical views in western philosophy try these posts and comments on the philosophy blog associated with The Philosophy Magazine.

    http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=6626

    http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=6594

    http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=6678

    http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=6651

    • Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:54 am | Permalink

      Death row is still a favoured alternative to waiting until a brain can be examined and fixed.

      That’s because there is no fix on the horizon.

      And even repentant renewed killers tend to get executed, fixed or not.

      There’s still a need for deterrence. Let’s say that anyone caught committing rape, theft or similar just got an injection in the arm that fixed them. What’s to stop someone enjoying their first crime and then just accepting the fix?

      I’m still not at all convinced that any major changes would result from a general acceptance of no dualistic free will. The justice system is actually quite pragmatic, for all the rhetoric around it.

  18. Gabriel
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    You are right, option a) is a no brainer, but only if you assume that the only stakes on the table are the truth and the problem of free will; but that is, in my opinion, a wrong assumption. When you realize that there are many other kind of bets on the table (vanity, pride, a distinguished career behind based on ghost-in-the-machine like assumptions, fear of having to go back to philosophy 101 and starting all over, having to admit that a “mere” professor of biology is ahead of you in your own field, etc.) things begin to look different: If you take all these factors into consideration then it’s easy to understand why our philosopher prefers option b).

  19. Posted January 19, 2013 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Jose’s comment reflect the blood lust that so many individuals feel concerning crime–eye for an eye, etc. It comes so readily to many that retributive punishment is right, that they get angry when this perspective is solidly challenged, for their all-important moral grasp on how to live one’s life is regarded as just so much ineffective nonsense. I do strongly think that religion serves that purpose, that is, making the challenge of living appear easier to take in stride as much as promising eternal life.

    I admire your focus on this issue as I do David Eagleman’s and especially his activism regarding changing the Law based on neuroscience findings on how brains work. He advocates warehousing, that is, not punishment, but simply to protect others from the criminals, therefore certain criminals are kept apart (if tests reveal that either deterrence or rehabilitation are not possible).

    For those that say that the law does take into account neuroscience findings, then why is there Capital Punishment in America? If those findings were truly taken to heart, there would be no capital punishment. If a criminal is so dangerous, that the only way to keep others safe, is to execute the criminal, then say that, not that the punishment fits the crime.

    • Posted January 19, 2013 at 8:24 am | Permalink

      He advocates warehousing, that is, not punishment, but simply to protect others from the criminals,

      Sounds very like many of the prisons (and attitudes to prisons) in much of Europe.

      … then why is there Capital Punishment in America?

      Given that capital punishment is very rare in the West today (only in a few US states and then with not that many being executed), too much focus on it is unwarranted.

      If a criminal is so dangerous, that the only way to keep others safe, is to execute the criminal, then say that, not that the punishment fits the crime.

      Note that that change is solely one of commentary. The more important question is what major changes of actual practice would follow if the populace came to ditch dualism?

      • Posted January 19, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

        Given that capital punishment is very rare in the West today (only in a few US states and then with not that many being executed), too much focus on it is unwarranted.

        Would that that were true. Texas alone for the past few decades has been ritualistically murdering people on an average of once per lunar month.

        b&

        • Gary W
          Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:55 am | Permalink

          Would that that were true.

          It is true. The average annual number of executions in the United States over the past few years has been less than 50, or less than 0.00002% of the population. In 2010, there were about 15,000 criminal homicides but only 46 executions. The death penalty is used extremely rarely.

          • Posted January 19, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

            By your own numbers, we’re ritualistically slaughtering somebody almost every week of the year, and you consider that rare?

            Damn.

            I just —

            Damn.

            I mean, what the fuck?

            b&

            • Gary W
              Posted January 19, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

              Yes, I do consider a criminal penalty that is applied to only 1 in 300 convicted killers, and to only an infinitesimal fraction of the population as a whole, to be rare. Extremely rare.

              • abrotherhoodofman
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

                Compared to what, pray tell?

              • Gary W
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

                Compared to, say, imprisonment or fines, which are common penalties for crimes.

              • Posted January 19, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

                That’s the North Korea argument for the moral justification of the horrific.

                You see, what we’re doing isn’t quite as bad as what they do in North Korea, so it’s just fine.

                No, it’s not just fine. It’s fucking bullshit that we should be ritualistically sacrificing somebody every week, and for somebody to not think it’s a problem for us because it’s even worse in North Korea is insane.

                b&

              • abrotherhoodofman
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

                Your argument seems to be that if something is “rare” then not much focus should be placed on it.

                Rather than coming up with elebenty-billion counterexamples, including leprosy and nuclear meltdowns, I’ll assume that I’m once again, simply not understanding your subtle insights.

              • abrotherhoodofman
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

                Just out of interest, GaryW:

                In terms of capital punishment statistics, what percentage would you deem much too frequent?

                If you want to include a justification, that would be great also.

              • Gary W
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

                No, it’s not just fine.

                The use of the death penalty in certain, rare cases of particularly heinous murder seems to be acceptable to Americans in general.

                Your argument seems to be that if something is “rare” then not much focus should be placed on it.

                It didn’t make that argument. I simply pointed out that the death penalty is very rarely applied in the United States. But I do believe that the fact that it’s so rare is a reason not to put much focus on it. Your comparison to nuclear meltdowns doesn’t make much sense, because nuclear meltdowns, unlike the death penalty, are likely to cause widespread death and destruction to innocent people.

              • abrotherhoodofman
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

                My apologies, GaryW.

                Coel made the argument, and you’re just backing up the statistics.

                Coel? Care to respond?

              • Gary W
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

                In terms of capital punishment statistics, what percentage would you deem much too frequent?

                I think 100% would certainly be too frequent. I could ask you the same question about various lesser kinds of criminal penalty — life imprisonment without parole, life imprisonment with parole, 30 years imprisonment, 10 years imprisonment, and so on.

              • abrotherhoodofman
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

                Fair enough.

                Why is 100% too frequent?

              • Gary W
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

                Because I don’t think every criminal, or even every murderer, deserves to die for his crime.

              • abrotherhoodofman
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

                The next question is obviously “How do you decide who deserves it or not? – but I’ll just assume you know somehow.

                😉

              • Gary W
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

                How do you decide who deserves it or not?

                Through the law and the criminal justice system. The law defines what types of crime are eligible for the death penalty, and prosecutors, judges and juries make the decision for particular cases. Same as for imprisonment.

              • abrotherhoodofman
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

                No further questions, your honor.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

                prosecutors, judges and juries make the decision for particular cases.

                So there is no consistent way of making the decision to kill someone. There is no infallible or absolute standard. It all comes down to how badly some fairly arbitrary group of people want to inflict pain and suffering because of their moral outrage. It can come down to the human variability of sadism, self-righteousness, vanity, pomposity, or cruel indifference.

                This explains why there is suh a large number of executions in the South, and far fewer in other regions.

              • Gary W
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

                So there is no consistent way of making the decision to kill someone. There is no infallible or absolute standard.

                No, of course not. The decision obviously includes a lot of subjective judgment. Same as making the decision to imprison someone. I’m not sure how you think there could possibly be an “infallible or absolute standard” for deciding these things.

              • Posted January 20, 2013 at 2:43 am | Permalink

                Coel? Care to respond?

                Sure. My argument was a response to “if we ditched dualism then we’d abolish capital punishment”. Well, we mostly have; nowhere in Europe has it. Yes there are a few holdout US states, but even there the numbers are low. In medieval and other past times rates of judicial execution were 10,000 times higher (relative to population).

                Has that change come about because the populace no longer holds to dualism? Nope. My point here is that ideas of dualism are superficial commentaries that don’t actually determine our actual policies.

              • Gary W
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 11:41 am | Permalink

                Well, we mostly have; nowhere in Europe has it.

                There appears to be strong public support for the death penalty in Europe: Europeans Support Capital Punishment Too. Quote:

                There is barely a country in Europe where the death penalty was abolished in response to public opinion rather than in spite of it.

    • Posted January 19, 2013 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      The argument for capital punishment when it gets raised in the UK, generally revolves around deterrence. Certainly, retribution is out of fashion ATM.

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:31 am | Permalink

        I wish I could agree with you, but I think there is still a strong element of retribution in certain cases, perhaps fuelled by the tabloid press.

      • Leigh Jackson
        Posted January 20, 2013 at 8:14 am | Permalink

        Those who thirst for retribution argue for deterrence. They still cannot avoid the fact that inevitably innocent people get exucuted. They don’t like to face this fact but they cannot hide from it.

        Retribution is alive and kicking in the UK.

        • Gary W
          Posted January 20, 2013 at 11:48 am | Permalink

          A number of death row inmates have been exonerated in recent years, but as far as I’m aware there’s no proof that any innocent person has been executed in the U.S. for at least the past few decades.

          Whatever type of criminal penalties you favor, there is always the risk that they will be applied to innocent people. There may be thousands of innocent people in prison in Europe, for example.

  20. Blaise
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    Eliminating the concept of contracausal free will does not better allow us solve the problem of how to better design our system of justice. If we act as if we have choice, and we think we can shape behavior based on choices we make (we must choose which behaviors to allow and which to prohibit), then what we call the underlying principle behind that system is irrelevant.

    I think what we must do is to agree that whether or not we have a loving extranatural creator, we live our earthly lives embedded in a natural world. Whether that natural world reflects some supernatural goodness is an empirically unanswerable question, but we can empirically answer what is the best way for us to make the natural world that we inhabit a place that is good for all of us. It seems to me that if there is a loving creator, that goal would reflect its love, and if there is not, then it would still be the most desirable goal.

    We should debate how, not why. Can’t we all agree to keep our own why, and still come to the same how?

  21. Stephen Ryan
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    I don’t get it.

    You, the person being asked to choose, have accepted as fact: “You see that people’s choices are completely determined by their genes and environments (internal and external), and that, save for quantum indeterminacy, people could not have chosen otherwise when making any decision.”

    You then put the choice to them: “What do you do? (Choose one.)”

    Isn’t the question irrelevant, since what they choose is “completely determined by their genes and environments (internal and external)”.

    Surely the question asked in the experiment is absurd, if one accepts the stated proposition as fact. Is it any different to asking: “assuming the universe and time as we know it ends Monday, what will you have for breakfast on Tuesday?”. It is reminiscent of Grellings’s paradox.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 8:51 am | Permalink

      I was trying to make a point, not saying that people could freely choose one. Do you not see that? Obviously their choices are completely determined by their genes and environments, but my question, which is an environmental stimulus can stimulate them to think and respond, AS THEY HAVE DONE. So we have a nexus of environmental factors that themself act as deterministic factor evoking responses.

      Really, what you say is completely irrelevant to the discussion.

    • Posted January 19, 2013 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      “Surely the question asked in the experiment is absurd, if one accepts the stated proposition as fact.”

      Exactly. Ultimately those who claim determinacy will speak the language of choice.

  22. MNb
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    I’m not a philosopher, but a is the obvious choice indeed. And I don’t think it should be that hard, for the simple reason that any justice system provides an external factor influencing (criminal) behavior as well. The next step should be finding out how to use those factors, including the justice system, to influence that behavior in the desired direction and in the most effective way.
    Guess what? That’s exactly what pedagogues do and what teachers like me apply.

  23. Posted January 19, 2013 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    The issues raised by determinism, quantum physics, and the use of the teleological terms “decision” and “decide” is a separate issue that is as yet a metaphysical speculative problem because it goes beyond current science. It raises issues about the understanding of ideas like causality and randomness.

    Imagine a marble hitting a pin on a pin board. Which way will it go and why? If strict determinism is true than it was always going to go the same way under all re-runs of the universe. It could never go any other way. In that case the term “decision” in this context, as a logical switch, as a probabilistic possibility, has no meaning.

    If we introduce quantum randomness then maybe each re-run of the universe could result in a different outcome. In that case “decision” has some sort of meaning in that the physical interaction of particles at that point in space-time contribute to a “decision” as to which direction the marble goes.

    But what does randomness mean? I don’t think we understand it outside of the meaning of indeterminism that humans suffer from for the lack of access to detail. Even in a deterministic universe the roll of a dice is still indeterminate to us and is considered random. So, are quantum random events caused or not? If they are, what causes them and how and why at the apparently random times that they do occur? If they are not caused then are they uncaused causes that go on to make deterministic caused down the line?

    And then what do I mean by ‘down the line’ here? We don’t really understand time. Time seems necessary to make meaning of causation. But together we don’t know much about time and causation.

    The result of all this metaphysical stuff is that there’s a lot we don’t know. But one thing seems clear enough and that it has nothing to do with free will. If it did then we would have to admit that the quantum events making a marble go one way or the other is providing the marble or the pin machine with free will.

    The reason that this sounds like nonsense is because the traditional concept of dualist free will that is independent of what physical reality is. That is the only sense in which a will can be free. In all other senses the will is just events in a brain that culminate in some whole brain-body action that we call a decision in that context because we also have classically associated the notion of agency with biological systems, and we feel agents make decisions.

    But we are still confused by this as we consider where agency and decision making capacity begin and end. We think computers can make decisions (which is not the case if strict determinism is true), but as yet we don’t think computers have free will. We feel some animals are intelligent enough to have free will and others not – and we debate this at length. What about plants? They sometimes seem purposeful. But a Venus Fly Trap seems to have some agency, as do all creepers when viewed in time-lapse. But the Venus Fly Trap is more like a computer device in that it has detectors that result in motor drivers.

    We anthropomorphise a lot, attributing agency everywhere, and yet we have difficulty going in the other direction. Our fears for the loss of our humanity are lurking in our heads when we toy with notions of humans being automatons. The insistence that we must have free will seems more like a non-willed perspective that is argued for so vehemently and with so much equivocation by compatibilists.

    Whatever the ultimate nature of the universe, deterministic or not, there’s no evidence for free will hidden there. It is our physical brain’s introspective perspective that convinces us we have free will in the first place, and our fears for our humanity that drive our brains into the unwilling defence of it.

    • abrotherhoodofman
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      +1

    • strongforce
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

      +1

  24. guilherme21msa
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    To be honest, I find the free will vs determinism debate a waste of time.

    First, there is no coherent definition of free will. Sometimes determinists use one definition of free will, sometimes they use a different definition, and the same applies to different groups of Free Willies.

    Second, many determinists commit a semantic mistake by divorcing the concept of decision-making from its definition.

    For example, Sam Harris says that our decisions are made by unconscious factors, but these unconscious factors he describes are the mechanism by which we make decisions.
    Saying that we have no free-will because our decision making mechanism makes our decisions for us is the same as saying that we don’t think because our brains think for us.

    The very definition of thinking is the brain thinking for us, and the very definition of making decisions is the decision mechanism of the brain making our decisions.
    So saying that we don’t think because our brains think for us makes no sense, and the same applies to tthe so-called decision making mechanism of our brains making our decisions.

  25. Posted January 19, 2013 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Hi Jerry,

    Why not do both?

    (A) Explore, as you suggest, the ethical (including political and jurisprudential) implications of the falsity of libertarianism.

    (B) Note that most people mean something by “free will” that’s compatible with determinism.

    Philosophers do a bunch of different things. One of the things we do is try to learn normative truths, so we do (A). Another thing we learn is try to learn the essence of something (e.g. justice, piety, truth), and so we do (B): we want to know what ‘free will’ really is. So (A) and (B) don’t seem incompatible to me.

    More generally, it looks as if defenders of something like traditional legal punishment face four jointly incompatible and individually plausible propositions:

    1. We do not have indeterministic free will.
    2. One can only be morally responsible if one has indeterministic free will.
    3. One can only deserve to be punished if one is morally responsible for what one does.
    4. People who commit serious moral evils deserve to be punished.

    You’re suggesting, I take it, that we accept (1)-(3) and reject (4). Perhaps that means you find (4) the least overall plausible of the four. Some days, I agree; other days, I find the disjunction of not-(1), not-(2), and not-(3) overall more plausible than (4).

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      I don’t agree that most people conceive of ‘free will’ as something compatible with determinism. What’s your evidence for that? You may cite one or two papers that sort of suggest that, and I can cite one or two papers that suggest the exact opposite.

      It rankles me that people make the claim that everybody’s down with determinism and compatibilist free will in the complete absence of convincing evidence for that. One thing I know for sure is this: religions that are not Calvinistic, and believe in heaven and hell achieved through free choice, are NOT down with determinism. They have a dualistic free will.

      Instead of asserting (B), why don’t people do proper surveys? All I can go on is my own experience, which is anecdotal, but shows me that a surprising number of scientists are dualists. In the absence of several surveys that all give concurrent results, I reject the claim that most people accept both determinism AND compatibilist free will.

      As for the propositions, you have clearly not read what I have written about punishment and responsibility. I don’t think there’s anything like moral responsibility since people don’t have a choice about how they behave. Punishment is for the good of the person who transgresses, as well as for society as a whole, and has nothing to do with morality. Ergo, you punish based on how that punishment works to rehabilitate, deter, and protect society from the offender. Period. All those processes can in principle be experimentally examined to see if they work.

      • Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

        Hi Jerry,

        I appreciate your reply.

        I don’t think there’s a “complete” lack of evidence that people in general are compatibilistic. But you’re right; the evidence is mixed.

        We can also just look at the way people use language, as W. T. Stace suggests: people’s judgments about whether they did something of their own free will often depend on whether they were coerced. Here’s one of Stace’s examples:

        Smith: I once went without food for a week.

        Jones: Did you do it of your own free will?

        At this point, Smith might say two things:

        ‘Yes; I was on a hunger strike.’

        ‘No; I was lost in the wilderness.’

        This is a really natural way of speaking, and if it is, that seems to imply that at least sometimes, people’s judgments about free will are more about whether, e.g., they had the ability to satisfy their desires. I also wonder what you think of Frankfurt’s work on the Principle of Alternate (sic) Possibilities: when we say that someone freely chose to stay in a room, even though (unbeknownst to them) it was locked, that’s further support at least that we don’t need alternative possibilities in order to freely choose something.

        I’m not sure why you think I haven’t read what you’ve written about punishment and responsibility; if I’ve missed something, I apologize. If you accept (1)-(3) and reject (4), that’s consistent with what you say here, that punishment serves many purposes. Surely you accept (1), and I take it that you accept (2), from what you just said in your reply. As for (3), I thought you accepted (and rejected (4)) it because I thought you believe that punishment is not appropriate because offenders “deserve” it, but instead, because it serves a useful purpose. So off the top of my head, I don’t recall anything you’ve said that disagrees with (1)-(3) or supports (4).

  26. Posted January 19, 2013 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    It’s useful to act as though we have free will. This idea gets lost in futile effort in trying determine whether free will exists. In this way it s similar to the concept of god. Both concepts make no testable predictions yet most people find it useful to live as though they represent fundamental truths. Whether they represent reality is a nonissue for many although this might be difficult for scientifically minded individuals to accept.

  27. Posted January 19, 2013 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    To me, choosing (a) is idiotic. It goes against my experience, so to speak. I do wonder about those who choose (b). What in their lack of experience has lead them to conclude they have no will? Somehow I think they aren’t really being honest with themselves. Some of them may simply like the freedom to succumb to forces they believe are beyond their control — much like a theist succumbs to the will of God.

  28. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    As gedanken experiment it fails, as those alternatives doesn’t have the equivalent ramifications.

    In general, as long as a) behaves exactly like b), you can use b) if it is simpler (an effective theory) regarding ethical theories.

    I think this is important, because I see it as the only area where philosophy can help, where abstracted opinion instead of facts is legitimate. (If we had solid facts on all moral situations, we wouldn’t need ethics.)

  29. beyondbelief007
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Jerry, is your deterministic position rooted in retrospect? That is I understand how, AFTER an event you could claim that no other action could have happened… Everything leading up to the event was determined by laws of physics. But from a prospective view to a future event, like picking Whole Foods or Safeway to shop at, choice exists…and we make those choices. Your position seems unfalsifiable.

    I want to find a way to see your position as useful, but it seems about as valuable as looking ata a lottery winner and saying that everything that happened up to that point “determined” the winner.

  30. morkindie
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    “In my view, choice a). is eminently worthwhile, while choice b). is a complete waste of time. I am mystified that most philosophers choose b).”

    +1

    Punishment as a deterrent is only useful for some kinds of criminals.

  31. Mark Fuller Dillon
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Most of us apparently agree that dualistic, contra-causal free will is a myth. But where does that leave choice?

    Today is a fine, snowy day. I can stay home and read, or I can go for a walk, or I can do laundry, tidy up, that sort of thing.

    Within a limited range influenced by the weather, my mood, and so on, I can make choices. I can also cancel my choices if something unexpected comes up (I get a phone call, and spend a long time talking).

    None of these actions defies the laws of nature, and I would argue that they represent, for most people, our concept of freedom, our concept of will. And although a powerful machine, somewhere, might be able to predict the outcome of all the factors contributing to my current state and to my ultimate choices, I cannot. Nor can anyone else. In that sense, we’re all improvising.

    And so I can’t understand how any rejection of dualistic, contra-causal free will would fundamentally change our lives… because that kind of “free will” never existed in the first place.

    But at the same time, I would argue that choice is real… and I’ve not yet come across any convincing reason to abandon the concept.

    Am I missing an essential detail, here?

    • Posted January 19, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      Yes, no one doubts that you make choices. Computer programs make choices. Chess programs evaluate different courses of action and then choose the course of action that leads to the highest probability of winning the game. Your brain undoubtedly does something similar to this when making decisions. The thing you are missing, and the thing on which this whole debate depends, is the concept of moral responsibility. Is a chess program ultimately “responsible” for the moves it makes, such that it can be inherently deserving of praise or condemnation? I hope you agree with me that the answer is no. Now, since the brain is, crudely put, an extremely complicated chess program of sorts, the same logic applies to the brain, which suggests that moral responsibility is a myth. You make choices, sure, but you are not responsible for the genetic and environmental elements that determine your neural programming, and which in turn, determine the choices you make. And so you are not inherently deserving of praise or punishment for the things you do. We may wish to praise or punish you for pragmatic reasons (e.g. deterrence), but that doesn’t mean that you “deserve” it, in any deep sense, any more than a chess program “deserves” a medal for doing what it was programmed to do. Taking this idea seriously would radically alter the way we think about criminal justice (see my previous comment).

      • Posted January 19, 2013 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

        Is a chess program ultimately “responsible” for the moves it makes, such that it can be inherently deserving of praise or condemnation?

        Of course it is. Why on Earth not?

        b&

        • Posted January 19, 2013 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

          Seriously? It’s not responsible for what it does because it’s not responsible for its programming, which ultimately determines what it does. Do bears “deserve” to be punished when they occasionally eat people? Does the gun that shot JFK “deserve” to be dismantled, because it was responsible for firing the bullet that lead to his death? Should we detonate explosives below the earth’s crust to punish the tectonic plates that cause earthquakes? Guns, bears, chess programs, and tectonic plates do what they do because of the way they are structured, and it is absurd to spite them for that structure. Same thing goes for the structure of human brains.

          • Posted January 19, 2013 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

            Punishment is barbaric. Nobody and nothing deserves punishment under any circumstances.

            It is morally justifiable to use the minimum necessary force to prevent somebody from doing unto another that said “another” does not wish to be done unto. And there, historically, have been situations where punishment was the minimum effective means of doing so…but there also was a time when bloodletting and anesthetic-free amputation with dirty hacksaws was the state of the medical arts. We know better now and thus have no excuse for punishing anybody.

            b&

            • suwise3
              Posted January 19, 2013 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

              Who needs an excuse to punish anybody? The state of Texas who continues to execute the mentally ill, those who have been forgiven by the families of the victim AND those who have been PROVEN to be innocent by DNA testing.

              • Gary W
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

                But if there’s no free will, the State of Texas can’t be blamed for executing innocent people. It just does whatever it does, in accordance with the laws of nature, and is entirely blameless.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

                We can’t blame a bear or a tiger that kills either. But we still shoot them or preferably tranquilize them and transport them away from inhabited areas. We still take actions to remedy wrongs even if no free will or blame is involved.

              • Gary W
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

                Yes, obviously. But we also *blame* people when we think they have done something blameworthy. For example, a lot of people blame George Bush and Dick Cheney for deaths from the Iraq War, or for their so-called “torture regime,” or for cutting taxes on the rich, and so on. If there’s no free will, no moral responsibility, these accusations don’t make any sense.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 12:28 am | Permalink

                The accusations still make sense. They mean we put the wrong people in office. Even if people don’t have free will it still makes sense to compare the behaviors of different people and decide that some are better suited to a job than others.

                Words like “blame” and “fault” can be assigned an extra emotional charge, but the words still have meaning without that. One can blame in a way that involves nursing a grudge or even a vicious hatred, but one can also blame in a forgiving way, assigning responsibility for failure to a person’s incompetence while understanding that they acted the only way they could. Such blame could lead to pragmatically relieving somone of their position without carrying the emotionally charged need for retribution and vengeance, without needing to punish and inflict pain and suffering as payback.

              • Gary W
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 1:24 am | Permalink

                The accusations still make sense. They mean we put the wrong people in office.

                No, if there’s no free will, accusations of blame make no sense at all.

                Words like “blame” and “fault” can be assigned an extra emotional charge, but the words still have meaning without that. One can blame in a way that involves nursing a grudge or even a vicious hatred, but one can also blame in a forgiving way, assigning responsibility for failure to a person’s incompetence while understanding that they acted the only way they could.

                Huh? If they “acted in the only way they could,” if they were not free to choose to act differently, why are they any more blameworthy than a virus or a volcano? “Volcano, I BLAME you for erupting and killing people!” That makes sense to you, does it?

                Conversely, if you think people are blameworthy for “acting in the only way they could,” then criminals are blameworthy even if they could not have acted differently.

      • Posted January 19, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

        Is a chess program ultimately “responsible” for the moves it makes, …

        Yes.

        … such that it can be inherently deserving of praise or condemnation?

        No, because (1) praise and condemnation are things that evolution has programmed us to apply to other humans, as part of our social interactions with other members of our species, and the computer doesn’t come within that category (i.e. we have feelings about how other humans behave that we don’t have about computers), and (2) the computer has no capability to be affected by praise or condemnation and thus they are pointless.

        Now, since the brain is, crudely put, an extremely complicated chess program of sorts, the same logic applies to the brain, …

        Not at all, neither of my two answers above applies the same to a human brain.

        … which suggests that moral responsibility is a myth.

        If by that you mean there is no absolute and objective status of morals then yes, indeed not. But humans sure as heck have plenty of moral feelings and attitudes, and they are certainly very real and not at all mythical.

        Further, it is absolute bonkers to link human morality (which we all have and need) with dualistic freewill (which is indeed a myth). Yes we should ditch dualistic freewill, but wanting to ditch moral sentiments is bonkers.

        Are you really wanting humans to not care about, for example, gunmen massacring children? Sure, we should think carefully about deterrence, and about optimal penal policies, but we can only want to deter something if we first take a moral stance about it!

        • Posted January 19, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

          Coel,

          I think we’re basically in agreement. We both believe that nobody deserves punishment or praise for its own sake, but rather only for the sake of some kind of pragmatic goal. What you don’t seem to realize is just how radical a statement this is, and just how profound an effect it would have on the way we think about criminal justice, and about society in general, if we said it more loudly and forcefully. What this statement means, for me, is that moral responsibility is a myth: nobody really deserves the good or bad things that come to them. Punishment and praise are nothing more than matters of prudence and efficiency; if they could be shown to be imprudent or inefficient, we would dispense with them as we would any defective tool.

          I also agree with you that there is no “absolute and objective status of morals.” This is also a far more radical claim than you seem to realize. If everyone recognized this, our political discourse would be immeasurably different — but also, I think, immeasurably better.

          Where we disagree seems to be how loudly and forcefully we proclaim these radical propositions. I proclaim them loudly, because I think they will lead to a better, more rational society. You seem to veil them behing the language of “free will,” “compatibilism,” or “moral sentiments,” making them sound more conventional and therefore less threatening to the status quo. I take the opposite approach: I think the death of dualistic free will is deeply counterintuitive and deeply at odds with the way we think about social institutions and social life in general. The counterintuitiveness should be emphasized, not masked.

          And no, I do not want humans to “not care about gunmen massacring children.” What I do think is that such gunmen should be treated as hurricanes or earthquakes — random confluences of molecules that tragically happen to wreak havoc upon us. Just as we should do what we can to prevent and lessen the dangers of natural disasters, so we should do what we can to prevent and lessen the dangers of deranged gunmen. But just as it is absurd to claim that a hurricane is “morally responsible” for the havoc it wreaks on a city, I think it is absurd to claim that humans are “morally responsible” for the havoc they wreak on other humans. We are all just confluences of molecules; we are no more responsible for what we do than hurricanes are for their deadly trajectories.

          • Posted January 19, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

            … moral responsibility is a myth: nobody really deserves the good or bad things that come to them.

            I wouldn’t say that, I’d say that that ideas of moral responsibility and the deserving of punishment mean exactly what you go on to say:

            Punishment and praise are nothing more than matters of prudence and efficiency; if they could be shown to be imprudent or inefficient, we would dispense with them as we would any defective tool.

            Exactly, moral responsibility and punishment are that tool, and yes, we can evaluate and update our tools (and thus our notions of moral responsibility) as we understand things better. As said up-thread, understanding a brain tumour (which medieval people would not have done) leads to improved concepts of moral responsibility.

            What I do think is that such gunmen should be treated as hurricanes or earthquakes …

            To a large extent, this is how Norway is treating Anders Breivik.

            But just as it is absurd to claim that a hurricane is “morally responsible” for the havoc it wreaks on a city, I think it is absurd to claim that humans are “morally responsible” for the havoc they wreak on other humans.

            I disagree, and would claim that so long as you understand moral responsibility properly, as a pragmatism-based tool that is necessary for human interactions in society (and not as any theological absolute) then we both need it and it works well.

            Is the resistance to this way of thinking shown on this thread by many (I presume) Americans because your nation is still so steeped in theology that you automatically think in such ways, whereas Europeans more readily use these concepts without any theological baggage?

            (The reason we don’t apply the concept to the hurricane is that as a tool it would be useless for that, the effect on the hurricane would be zero.)

            • Posted January 19, 2013 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

              Yes, this largely confirms what I thought — that our disagreement is more a matter of semantics than substance. Perhaps the phrase “moral responsibility” comes with more theological/dualistic connotations in the US than it does in the UK. Fair enough. I find that, for my purposes, it is better to argue against those connotations first before making any arguments about revision of the criminal justice system. For your purposes, this may not be necessary as people in your neck of the woods already mostly reject those connotations (oh how I envy you).

      • Another Matt
        Posted January 19, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

        I’m not sure what work you’re trying to get the word “inherently” to do in your argument. Can you clarify that?

        • Posted January 19, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

          Yes, what I mean by “inherently” is that the punishment or praise is deserved for its own sake, as opposed to for pragmatic or instrumental purposes.

  32. Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    I suppose it won’t come as much of a surprise that I go with option (C).

    That is, I start by observing that “free will” is as incoherent as “north of the North Pole.” Free from what? Either actions — whether those of brain or computer or spirit / soul or whatever — follow some sort of rules and are deterministic; or they are random. Or they’re probabilistic, random according to a distribution with the distribution following rules; weighted random. None of those options allow for anything vaguely resembling the freedom of contracausal free will.

    At the same time, when people say they’re exercising their free will, they’re pointing to a very real deterministic physical process, of imagining the outcomes of various options and selecting which action to pursue based on that mental simulation. What they’re doing is nothing like what is commonly understood as “free will” and thus shouldn’t actually be termed “free will,” but it’s nevertheless important to understand that that’s a real phenomenon that’s really happening to real people and that it’s what they’re pointing to when they use the words, “free will.” Even though the common explanation is radically different from the reality.

    Insisting that “free will” is still a meaningful term is a bit like insisting on describing people who suffer from schizophrenia as being possessed. It used to be that somebody would say such a person was possessed, and it is certainly true that such people suffer from a very real illness. But insisting therefore that it’s reasonable to use possession as a term for schizophrenia is decidedly less than useful.

    Let’s drop the useless religious baggage of “free will” and stop worrying about how far north of the North Pole we really are. Let’s instead approach the matter head-on, rationally, and forget about how well reality does or doesn’t align with primitive superstition.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      I’ve been trying to think of how this is actually possible – I mean, what would you replace it with? The best I can come up with is “moral accountability”, that still raises the same questions as “free will” (determinism, doing otherwise etc.).

      • Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:42 am | Permalink

        As a practical matter, regardless of the actual process by which you make choices, the fact is that you do still make choices — or, at least, you do still have the illusion or perception of making choices.

        Think of it this way. The chair you’re sitting on is almost entirely empty space, with just an insignificantly thin layer of electron orbital shells providing an electromagnetic repulsion between the floor and the chair and the chair and your bottom keeping you from falling through to the center of the Earth — or, for that matter, keeping the Earth from collapsing in on itself.

        But that the chair isn’t “really” solid is entirely irrelevant to whether or not it’s useful for you to sit on.

        So forget worrying about how free your willies are, and instead concentrate on the choices you make and how best to influence the choices that others make that influence how you live your life.

        Once you do that, you’ll generally discover that making wise decisions leads to greater comfort and happiness for yourself as well as those around you — and who wouldn’t choose happiness and comfort over despair and agony?

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:50 am | Permalink

          I have no problem with the theory, I’m asking how we can adopt terminology that bypasses the desire to answer the questions that arise with a term like “free will”. I’m not convinced that it can be done.

          • Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

            I don’t see why not. We’ve done it lots of times in the past. Demons are no longer responsible for illness and heat is no longer caused by the flow of caloric. Why, then, can we not continue to make decisions even though “free will” is as nonexistent as demons and caloric?

            b&

            • Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

              You’re so close to answering my question – let’s try to get there by formulating it like a quiz!

              Demons are to germs, and
              caloric is to thermodynamics as
              free will is to [insert your term of choice]

              • Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

                “…as ‘free will’ is to the decision-making process.”

                Does that work for you?

                b&

              • Another Matt
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

                This is useful in many ways. Here are the compatiblist semantics as I see them:

                Demons are to Illness, and

                Caloric is to Heat, as

                Contra-Causal Souls are to Free Will

              • Posted January 19, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

                Contra-Causal Souls are to Free Will

                Curious. To me, contracausal souls are to free will as a workshop north of the North Pole is to Santa.

                That is, both are unsalvageable phantasms, and only regular decision-making is real. That decision-making in humans is quit complex is what has created the illusion that there’s something magical (“free will”) going on, but it’s an illusion born of complexity.

                b&

              • Another Matt
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

                Well, Ben, I get it, but I think on this issue compatiblists are comfortable with regimenting old language in new ways:

                Contracausal Souls : Free Will ::

                Cupid : Love ::

                Élan Vital : Life ::

                Phlogiston : Fire ::

                Angels : Planetary Motion

                Imagine someone saying,

                “Curious. To me, élan vital is to life as a workshop north of the North Pole is to Santa.

                That is, both are unsalvageable phantasms, and only regular metabolism and reproduction is real. That metabolism and reproduction in humans is quite complex is what has created the illusion that there’s something magical (“life”) going on, but it’s an illusion born of complexity.”

              • Posted January 19, 2013 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

                Again, it comes down to the definition of “free will.” “Free” from what? In common practice, “free” from determinism in some ultimate sense. You even get that from the a-spiritual compatibilists — decisions are made that are somehow free despite either exactly following an immutable set of rules or being subject to undirected random variation.

                b&

    • neil
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      Although the religious make use of free will to overcome the problem of evil, it is certainly more than “religious baggage.” Greek philosophers struggled with it mightily. Although there was no greek work for free will, they discussed it using words that are relevant to this thread–chance, necessity, responsibility and “depends on us”. (I won’t attempt the greek translations.) Chrysippus was the first “compatibilist”, and Alexander of Aphrodisias the first “libertarian”. Augustine seized on Alexander’s thinking to address the problem of evil.

      What is fascinating, and distressing, is that the arguments haven’t changed much in 2000 years.

      • Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

        What is fascinating, and distressing, is that the arguments haven’t changed much in 2000 years.

        That’s generally an excellent indication that the fundamentals of the argument are over something incoherent and / or nonexistent and / or meaningless.

        A third of a millennium before the invention of Christianity, Epicurus had already conclusively demonstrated that there are no powerful agents with our best interests interacting in our midst — that is, there are no good gods. And yet, theologians continue to “wrestle” with the “problem of evil.”

        I’m not as familiar with the work of the Greeks on the subject of free will, but I’ll bet you a cup of coffee that at least one of them observed that everything, including hypothetical spirits, either follows rules or doesn’t and that neither option permits for what is understood as “freedom” in this context. And I’ll bet you the second cup of coffee that it’s largely the religious philosophers that have ignored whoever was the first one to identify the fundamental incoherence of the term.

        b&

        • neil
          Posted January 21, 2013 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

          Ben,

          Maybe. But I suspect the main problem is that the issue of free will is difficult to answer using objective evidence. When I claim, as I feel I have full right to, that when I make certain (but not all) choices, I know I could have chosen otherwise “had I wanted to”, that knowledge is purely subjective. I do not think that makes it any less real, but I understand that I cannot convince anyone with that.

    • strongforce
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

      +1

  33. Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    When I watched your exchanges with Dan Dennett on this question at the Moving Naturalism Forward conference, there was a lot of philosophical babble before it became clear that this really is just a semantic question where we’re trying to decide the positive and negative consequences of defining “free will” in various ways.

    First, I would agree with you (as I think you said in a post recently) that the notion that people need to believe in free will to behave well is not only wrong, it is condescending, and I might go so far as to say hypocritical. Was it not Dennett who coined the term, “belief in belief” to refer to people who do not believe in god themselves, but who go on to say that god is a good idea for everyone else? Dennett knows that he functions deterministically, but he’s trying to reconcile that view quite dubiously with popular notions of free will because he thinks people will be more comforted and better behaved. But notice how this necessarily duplicitous because what we have are two positions on free will that are, in substance, identical, but he persists with his chosen label precisely because he wants to hijack unsophisticated conceptions of free will. Embedded in this approach is a presumption that people will not understand the full extent of the science and its moral consequences, because if they did, they would not need to be told that they have free will in order to placate them. In essence, he’s saying that Jerry can get along just fine believing that he doesn’t have free will, but as for everyone else…

    Dennett said in that conference that it is the role of philosophy to reconcile the manifest and scientific images; in that case, he should consider it his duty to communicate how a lack of free will can be reconciled with moral accountability.

    Given this situation, I think it is far more important and beneficial to society if we abandon the idea of free will as quickly as we can. This way, we will be able to interact with each other in ways that are more realistically aligned with how we actually think and behave, we will be less quick to demonise others, our conception of the purpose of punishment will change, and, actually, I think we will be closer to the scientific truth.

    • strongforce
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

      +1

    • Posted January 20, 2013 at 3:15 am | Permalink

      Yeah, once you’ve said that brains are in principle no different to computers then whether you call the decisions they make “free will” or not is irrelevant.

      Some people don’t seem to appreciate that language is a way of describing the world and that language constructs only have meaning in so far as they differentiate between *different* things in the real world. In the case of the term “decision” adding the adjective “free” makes no definable difference to it’s meaning.

  34. Gary W
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    What does it mean to “hold people responsible” for the things they do, but not “morally responsible?” If we ditch the “moral” component, what’s the difference between saying that a murderer is “responsible” for murdering his victim, and saying that he simply caused the victim to die, just as a disease or a natural disaster may cause someone to die? It seems peculiar to say “I hold this virus responsible for killing people,” as if the virus could have chosen otherwise and deserves blame for what it did. So without morality, why does it make sense to talk about “holding people responsible” for the things they do at all?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      There’s no difference between saying someone’s responsible and someone did the crime. That’s exactly what I MEAN by responsible. There’s nothing in my own construal of the word that has anything to do with “choice”.

      • Gary W
        Posted January 19, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

        But if you just mean causation, why use the language of “holding responsible” at all? Again, would you say “I hold this volcano responsible for the deaths it caused?”

        • abrotherhoodofman
          Posted January 19, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

          Yes. The eruption of the volcano was responsible for the deaths.

          It isn’t a “bad” volcano, though.

          • Gary W
            Posted January 19, 2013 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

            That’s not what I asked. Would you say “I hold this volcano responsible for the deaths it caused?” I think most people would think that sounds very bizarre, as if you think the volcano somehow deserves blame for its eruption. I think “holding responsible” implies an attribution of moral responsibility, not simply blameless causation.

            • Posted January 19, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

              Of course it’s reasonable to state that the volcano was responsible for the deaths. The failure of the levees in New Orleans under the onslaught of Katrina was responsible for much of the death and destruction there. Global warming was responsible for the increased damage from Sandy, and Sandy itself was responsible for wiping out huge swaths of the Eastern Seaboard. And the defective o-rings were responsible for the loss of the Challenger.

              This is standard, everyday, uncontroversial usage.

              b&

              • Gary W
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

                Of course it’s reasonable to state that the volcano was responsible for the deaths.

                For the second time, that wasn’t the question. Do you hold volcanos responsible for the deaths they cause? If so, what’s that supposed to mean?

            • abrotherhoodofman
              Posted January 19, 2013 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

              Not every question is coherent. Let’s try this:

              I hold that this volcano is responsible for the deaths.

              Holding a volcano is impossible. They’re too big and hot.

              • Gary W
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

                You’re confused about the meaning of the word “hold” in the phrase “holding responsible.”

              • abrotherhoodofman
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

                Not confused one bit.

                Disinterested because it is a meaningless tangent would be a much more accurate semantic formulation.

              • Gary W
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

                It’s not a tangent at all. It’s a response to the claim that it makes sense to speak of “holding people responsible” for the things they cause if there’s no such thing as free will.

              • Posted January 20, 2013 at 10:53 am | Permalink

                If you had a brain tumor and did it because of that you are not held responsible, but if you are considered to be in your right mind you are. The reason for this can be viewed entirely pragmatically:

                1) When cured of the tumor there is no reason to believe you will offend again.
                2) Deterrence measures are aimed at people considered to be in their right mind, so if you commit an offence whilst in your right mind you have to be punished, otherwise the deterrence system would not work.

                And, since there are no moral absolutes, there is no such thing as “moral responsibility” that isn’t relative to some human defined moral system.

              • Gary W
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

                The only difference between your examples 1 and 2 is the nature of the physical causation. The fact that one is amenable to deterrence and the other is not is irrelevant to the question of moral responsibility. If there’s no such thing as free will, it doesn’t make sense to “hold the perpetrator responsible” in either case.

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted January 19, 2013 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

              Here are just a few quick instances of inanimate objects or phenomena being labeled as responsible for death in ordinary usage:

              An example
              and another
              and another.

              We use the word responsible in cases of obligation or accountability. But we don’t have to mean morally obligated or accountable. For example a software module can be responsible for monitoring a device and responding in predetermined ways to asynchronous events. Or we could say “this button is responsible for triggering the alarm”.

              We mean these things are obligated by design to behave as they do, and if the system fails they could be accountable for the failure. This doesn’t mean we should be mad at them for failing, that we should be judgemental for the defects, that we should wish to punish or harm the offending opponents. We simply repair them or we isolate them from the system to prevent further harm or failure.

              We reserve angry punishing impulses for cases of moral outrage and moral retribution, which are part of our evolved emotional system of justice that functioned in social groups prior to the advent of rule of law. We still feel these impulses to a large degree, even though we can step back from our moral outrage and acknowledge that vigilantism is primitive and inferior to a rational systematic and methodical application of laws and evidentiary standards. We regard these as more civilized than moral judgement and moral retribution.

              Nonetheless in our democracy many still feel compelled by moral rage to support the death penalty and torture. If we take a more rational view of human behavior, i.e. that it has causes and is not based on freedom, then we are less inclined to emotional reactions.

              We can still hold people responsible to meet certain well defined obligations and accountable for the failure to do so without invoking the primitive emotional apparatus of morality.

              • Gary W
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

                Here are just a few quick instances of inanimate objects or phenomena being labeled as responsible for death

                I don’t know how many times I have to repeat this. I’m not talking about using the phrase “is responsible for” as a synonym for “causes.” I’m talking about the attribution of responsibility to inanimate objects for the outcomes they cause. None of your examples involve inanimate objects being “held responsible” for the deaths they caused. What is that phrase even supposed to mean?

                We regard these as more civilized than moral judgement and moral retribution.

                I’m not sure who this “we” is that you keep referring to. I think that most people’s conception of justice probably includes a component of retribution. That is, I think we punish criminals in part because we think they deserve to suffer for their crimes, not just because we think the punishment will have a preventative effect on crime in the future.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

                “We” are the people in modern civilization who consider rule of law to be superior to vigilantism.

                Are you from the South by any chance?

              • Gary W
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

                “We” are the people in modern civilization who consider rule of law to be superior to vigilantism.

                It has nothing to do with vigilantism. It’s about the nature of justice as codified in law. And as I said, I think that includes an element of retribution. If you ask people why they support the death penalty, for example, they will often say something to the effect that they think certain crimes are so heinous that the perpetrator deserves to pay with his life.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

                I was answering your question about the “we” I was referring to. I answered that question accurately, and it’s not subject dispute.

                I think vigilantism is a perfect expression of our biologically evolved intuitive emotional morality. Rule of law is the cerebral rational expression of subsequent cultural evolution.

                The retribution you refer to exists, as I mentioned originally. But my bigger point is that that retribution is a primitive artifact that depends on the mistaken notion of free will. As I see it our culture is evolving beyond that, and in the future the better we understand the brain the more completely we will dispense with the sadistic violence of retribution.

                I predict in the future our correctional systems will focus on repairing, reclaiming, and rehabilitating offenders, because we will have much better tools to accomplish these things reliably. The notions of punishment, of inflicting compensating pain, of disposing undesirables will be as abhorrent to us as slavery and biblical retribution is today.

              • Gary W
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

                I didn’t dispute your answer about the “we” question. I pointed out that retribution is not “vigilantism.”

                I very much doubt that we’re going to abandon retribution.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

                I very much doubt that we’re going to abandon retribution.

                There are a lot of people who very much doubted that we would ever abandon slavery or monarchy, or that gays would ever marry or that we would ever have a black President. I figure time and history are on my side in this debate.

                Of course people will feel retribution for a long time. People still feel racism too, but that doesn’t stop rational thought from building a consensus that overrides these primitive remnants of tribalism.

                As we develop a deeper and deeper understanding of the brain, retribution will become as outdated and obsolete as burning witches and heretics. It will be as crazy as worshiping imaginary gods, a burdensome relic of our ignorance and our animalistic origins.

              • Gary W
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

                As we develop a deeper and deeper understanding of the brain, retribution will become as outdated and obsolete as burning witches and heretics.

                I don’t know why you think it has anything to do with our understanding of the brain. It’s a moral belief, a belief about how we ought to treat one another, not an empirical belief about how the brain works.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 12:10 am | Permalink

                I explained a bit mor in another post: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/01/19/a-gedankenexperiment-on-free-will/#comment-367622

                Our moral beliefs have changed as we have gained knowledge. In my view deeper knowledge of the brain will lead to better options and more control for rehabilitating criminals. As that occurs, our attitudes will change, including no longer having a need for retribution. We will better understand the causes of violent or harmful behaviors, and we will have more remedies and be better able to predict the liklihood of recidivism after imposing these remedies on criminals. With that kind of knowledge, our present approach, our prisons and punishments will be seen as inhumane, brutal, savage horrors of an ignorant age.

              • Gary W
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 12:35 am | Permalink

                We already know that brains and bodies are made of matter and that matter is subject to the laws of nature. That knowledge hasn’t caused us to abandon the idea of retribution, or moral agency more broadly (morality, immorality, guilt, innocence, blame, praise, virtue, deservedness, etc). Indeed, those ideas are central to human social organization. I can’t imagine how you think a society could function without them.

  35. stephnlawrnce
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Jerry,

    I think we can do both A and B. But far too little attention is paid to A. And I think we need to realise this isn’t just a case of the justice system, it’s about all human relationships.

    It’s OK for people to defend B but do also it needs to be stressed that we need to deal with the fact that almost everybody believes in contra causal free will and it’s a terrible, tragic mistake.

    I’m glad to see you tackling this along with Sam Harris and Tom Clark.

    The key is don’t be bamboozled by the compatibilists. Contra causal free will is a particularly nasty fiction. Sure we have compatibilist free will, to lesser and greater degrees, depending upon our circumstances but the point is people don’t deserve to suffer, nor deserve their good fortune in the way people suppose, as if they are ultimately responsible for their choices.

    Things do change when we recognise it’s all the luck of the draw in an important sense. Whilst compatibilism is an exercise in brushing that under the carpet, it’s not really compatibilism at all.

  36. matunos
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Let’s be fair… this post does not “ponder and then write about what should be done in the light of neuroscience, suggesting reforms of the penal system and new ways to think about ‘moral responsibility.'”, so there appears to be an option c.

  37. Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Tsk, tsk. This is what we call in the philosophy biz a “false dichotomy,” Dr. Coyne. (I’m sure you’re familiar with the idea, but the cheap shot nature of this post deserves some snark.)

    What you appropriately label “contracausal free will,” which is a Christian invention rather than being originally a philosophical position, is not a necessary element of ethical reasoning. Aristotle didn’t believe in any such fool notion, and wrote about the important distinction between being responsible for one’s actions and being blameworthy for them in Nicomachean Ethics, Book III.

    • Gary W
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      … the important distinction between being responsible for one’s actions and being blameworthy for them

      So what is that difference? How is “A is responsible but not blameworthy for B” any different from simply “A caused B?”

      • Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

        Blameworthiness is a moral judgment. Responsibility is a causal judgment. I am responsible for the consequences of my action simply by being the originator of the action, but that does not necessarily mean I deserve blame (or praise). Suppose some action of mine causes someone else harm. If the action took place in circumstances where there is no way I reasonably could have *known* what the harmful consequences of my action would be, my action would not be considered blameworthy — that is, I would not be judged (by anyone reasonable) as having done something morally wrong — even though I am still responsible for the action and its consequences. However, if some action (or inaction) of mine has harmful consequences I could easily have known about, my causal responsibility also comes with moral blame: Hence the concept of criminal negligence.

        For further details, I really do recommend reading Nicomachean Ethics, preferably the translation by Joe Sachs.

        • Gary W
          Posted January 19, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

          But if there’s no such thing as contracausal free will, if our actions are completely determined by the laws of nature, why is anyone “blameworthy” (as opposed to merely “responsible” in the sense of causation) for anything they do? Why does it make any more sense to blame a murderer for the deaths he causes than to blame a disease or a natural disaster?

          • Posted January 19, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

            I’ll answer with a question: Why, given that there is no such thing as free will anyway, should you think that moral blame (or praise) depends on it? That is the implication of your question.

            If we abandon the notion that free will has anything to do with it (because free will in that sense does not exist), making the distinction between mere causal responsibility and moral blameworthiness (and praiseworthiness) just becomes a matter of elucidating moral standards for blame and praise.

            • Gary W
              Posted January 19, 2013 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

              I’ll answer with a question: Why, given that there is no such thing as free will anyway, should you think that moral blame (or praise) depends on it?

              Because I don’t know what else it could depend on. What do think it means to say that someone has no free will about how to act, but is morally blameworthy for his actions anyway?

              • Another Matt
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

                Here’s another approach.

                If blameworthiness depends entirely on the existence of free will, and there is no such thing as free will, then nobody has ever really been held blameworthy. It may have appeared as though someone ascribed blame to someone else for their actions, but since that’s as impossible as levitating, that’s not an accurate picture of what’s going on.

                It seems to me we can then either try to find an accurate account of what is really going on when people think they’re ascribing blame, or we can agree to ignore that whole business as hopelessly faulty — and thus irrelevant — and discuss causes and consequences directly.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      My post was not a cheap shot, and it doesn’t deserve snark. The rest of what you have to say doesn’t seem to be relevant, since contracausal free will has BECOME a philosophical position.

      Tsk tsk indeed. Your rudeness saddens me.

      • Posted January 19, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

        You frequently insult philosophers as a whole profession, as you do in this post, when you discuss the free will issue. No matter how much I admire you, it irritates me. But it was inappropriate to let that irritation prod me to respond in kind nevertheless, and I apologize for my rudeness.

        Here is what is insulting: Every modern philosopher I have ever read discussing, for example, matters of crime and punishment DOES take seriously the problem that criminal behavior is itself caused. Your option (a) is very much the norm in moral and political philosophy, and not a rarity at all. Thus, I do not think your claim that “most philosophers” pursue (b) is even remotely accurate or fair.

        As I pointed out (quite relevantly), Aristotle never believed in any of this contracausal free will stuff, so of course his ethical and political philosophy did not depend on it. John Stuart Mill, who turned Bentham’s utilitarianism into something more closely resembling a viable ethical theory, also rejected contracausal free will, and explicitly said so. Even Kant, idealist that he was, argued that the metaphysical standing of free will was ultimately not relevant to ethics, but only the phenomenological character of moral decision-making mattered: We experience ourselves as weighing options and making choices, so we cannot help but think and act as if we are free.

        If virtue theory, utilitarianism, and Kantian deontology — the three most widely influential approaches to ethical theory in the history of philosophy — don’t depend on the contracausal definition of free will at all, what justifies your claim that most philosophers discussing matters like moral responsibility don’t take determinism seriously? (Also note that none of the philosophers discussed above needed to wait on the findings of modern neuropsychology to see that contracausal free will was a bust. The view has always been conceptually incoherent, not just contrary to scientific evidence, and the motivations of those arguing for contracausal free will have largely been religious rather than truth-seeking.)

        Moreover, your characterization of (b) was itself insulting. Contracausal free will has largely been abandoned by philosophers. (No bad idea is ever completely abandoned in philosophy, unfortunately; there are still mind-body dualists floating around, for crying out loud! Then again, biology has its proponents of naive panadaptationism and evopsych just-so stories, and the newly-fashionable epigenetics “revolution” you’ve rightly been criticizing, so the “glass houses” rule ought to be observed.) But there are good reasons not to give up on the very concept of “free will,” because Kant’s phenomenological observation that we perceive ourselves as free is true regardless: Simply dismissing phenomena we all live with all the time as illusory is not nearly as constructive as re-thinking the underlying meaning of the phenomena — which requires re-defining free will. I will grant that some of those new definitions of free will are convoluted attempts to save some variant on what ought to be abandoned. But is simply false to characterize ALL attempts to redefine free will in such insulting terms.

  38. Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    I think even more interesting that “do we have free will” is “how should we behave differently if there is or is not free will”. That’s a question on which the discussion has been even less coherent, and if that’s innate to the concept, it begs the question of how this can matter.

  39. Posted January 19, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Reading through some of the above discussions, especially the very insightful one started by Coel, it occurs to me that this long-going controversy may be too consequentialist and, connected with that, too parochially USAmerican.

    For the first, there appears to be too much concern about taking a position that might “help” the religious in a completely unrelated discussion (JC), that might make people less moral (Dennett), or that might mislead people when they rewrite penal laws (JC), as opposed to simply taking the position that is intellectually justified. And that despite the usual rationalist position of following the evidence where it leads, valuing truth over comfort, etc.

    For the second, I read all these comments about solitary confinement, revenge, etc, frown, and mentally compare the US penal system with that of certain European countries like my own. Perhaps there are other reasons why the USA do not do enough for rehabilitation than merely a philosophical argument? It is not as if dualism does not exist in central or northern Europe or as if rehabilitation was only invented after a critical mass of people became atheist.

  40. Another Matt
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=1470#comic

    🙂

  41. MadScientist
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    The choices I would have given are:

    (a) You exercise your free will and declare that it just isn’t so, there is indeed free will.

    (b) You cannot overcome the compulsion to declare that there is indeed free will and proclaim that scientists do not know everything and therefore know nothing.

    It may not look like much of a choice – but that’s all you get with no free will.

    • Dawn Oz
      Posted January 20, 2013 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

      Thanks MadScientist.

      I usually say to them, ‘you can’t help saying that, can you!’

  42. Another Matt
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    I’m also curious about the motivation behind this statement, as it’s shown up on this website many, many times:

    …people’s choices are completely determined by their genes and environments (internal and external)…

    Why the appeal to genes at all? Why not just include genes as part of the internal environment?

    (Eventually someone might ask why the distinction between internal and external environment, or between “people” and “environment,” but that’s a separate question.)

  43. Diego
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know. I actually enjoyed the free will conference I recently attended. It was full of philosophers, neurologists, and psychologists and there was a fair amount of obfuscating (at least from my biologist fly on a wall point of view). But it seemed like they had some very interesting things to say.

  44. Posted January 19, 2013 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    In the summer of 1970 I decided I wanted to run a 1000 miles to become more competitive in track and cross country. So for 90 days in the Texas heat I ran when my classmates sat in their air conditioned homes. Every day I faced a choice. Do I take the day off or do I stick to my plan? Friends would see me running beside the highway. They thought I was going crazy. Drunks driving home from the lake shouted out their windows or threw things at me (this was before people ran in large numbers). My feet got so blistered and my muscles so sore that some mornings I could hardly walk. But I chose to keep at it. I willed myself to succeed. And I did.

    Now it’s asserted that my will was imaginary. There was never a choice. There was nothing other than genes and environment that separated me from other athletes. I was a billiard ball called Don Jindra which had certain properties that forced Don to put one foot in front of the other in the only manner it could have that hot summer. All that dread of having to go on today’s ten mile run was wasted brain activity. Don shouldn’t have dreaded what was determined from birth and stimuli. It could not have failed. It could not have decided to relax. It had to run the last mile at a 5:30 pace rather than a relaxed 6:30 pace. Even 5:35 was out of the question, beyond choice. Such is the tyranny of determinism.

    I suppose I ought to be patient with those who discount will. Maybe they are the unfortunate few. We’re all born with some abilities more than others. Maybe they were born with no will at all. I’ve run across a few of those people in my life. Failures, all of them. Maybe if they searched for free will within themselves and failed to find it, well, then they might hope such a thing doesn’t exist in anyone else either. I seriously doubt that this is the case here. It takes will to succeed at almost anything, especially science.

    But from my perspective, I think philosophers and scientists have no credible evidence my will is absent. I find their assertions to be absurd and totally without merit. Has neuroscience demonstrated we are merely reactive objects with no free will? Not at all. It’s, to put it mildly, premature to jump to that conclusion. The brain is extremely complex. We are nowhere close to revealing its secrets. So, for now, the theory that genes and environment completely determined people’s choices relies solely on the fact that we know so little about the system. Arguments from ignorance don’t convince me, particularly when the theory in question treats genes and experience in a mystical manner. Exactly how did they mix in that summer of 1970 to force me to do what I did? Nobody has an answer for that. Am I supposed to assume an answer is forthcoming? Get back to me when there is a real answer. I dismiss non-answers posing as answers. So for now, when personal experience runs so strongly against behavioral determinism, I’ll stick with my free will.

    • Gary W
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think you understand the basic philosophical problem with free will. Everything you do is either caused (i.e., the outcome of a cause-and-effect process) or uncaused (i.e., irreducibly random — it “just happens”). There is no other logical possibility. So how can anything you do be the result of “free will” that is somehow neither caused nor uncaused? The idea is just incoherent.

      Or as Steven Pinker put it, “If I choose to do something, I could have done otherwise — but what does that mean in a single universe unfolding in time according to laws, which I pass through only once?”

      • Another Matt
        Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

        Compare:

        “Everything an organism does is either caused (i.e. the outcome of a cause-and-effect process) or uncaused (i.e., irreducibly random — it “just happens”). There is no other logical possibility. So how can anything an organism does be the result of ‘natural selection’ that is somehow neither caused nor uncaused? If its probability of dying before it has reproduced is either 1 or 0, and this is beyond its control, how could its behavior matter?”

        • Gary W
          Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

          Who said natural selection is neither caused nor uncaused? Not me.

          • Another Matt
            Posted January 19, 2013 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

            I suppose you didn’t. Let me put it another way. What do you think is wrong with this:

            “If the process of natural selection is caused (or is in part uncaused), how does it itself cause anything like the diversity of life? Surely if it’s caused/uncaused by something else, it has no ability to operate on life.”

            • Gary W
              Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

              As with many of your cryptic comments, I really have no idea what you’re trying to say. I doubt I’m the only one. If you disagree with something I wrote, explain the nature of your disagreement as clearly as you can, and we can go from there.

              • Another Matt
                Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

                OK, I apologize for being cryptic. Let me answer my own question, and maybe it will be more clear why this is relevant.

                I think the problem with talking about natural selection that way is that “natural selection” is not something that needs to have causal power to talk about intelligibly. We can discuss the causal processes, point to random mutations, reproductive advantages, adaptations, and the like without “natural selection” having to do anything — this whole process itself amounts to natural selection.

                I think we can see free will that way: it doesn’t have to have any causal power. We can point to our abilities to affect our environments (inner and outer), our abilities to make decisions, our ability to think and deliberate, etc. and all of this taken together constitutes any form free will that could possibly exist. It just does not have to be thought of as a magical essence that subverts causality.

              • Gary W
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 12:19 am | Permalink

                I think we can see free will that way: it doesn’t have to have any causal power. We can point to our abilities to affect our environments (inner and outer), our abilities to make decisions, our ability to think and deliberate, etc. and all of this taken together constitutes any form free will that could possibly exist. It just does not have to be thought of as a magical essence that subverts causality.

                Still don’t get your point. Yes, obviously we can *call* our mental processing “free will,” but that doesn’t make our actions any less causal. So in what sense exactly are you claiming that they’re “free?” Free from what? In what sense are we “free” to act one way rather than another?

              • Another Matt
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 12:40 am | Permalink

                Still don’t get your point. Yes, obviously we can *call* our mental processing “free will,” but that doesn’t make our actions any less causal. So in what sense exactly are you claiming that they’re “free?” Free from what? In what sense are we “free” to act one way rather than another?

                In the same sense that we say an airborne airplane has more degrees of freedom in its motion than an airborne arrow.

                Both are going to go wherever they’re determined to go, of course, but it still makes sense to talk about the airplane’s greater freedom of motion. But what is the airplane “free from?” It’s “free from necessarily flying ballistically,” not “free from causality.”

              • Gary W
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 1:04 am | Permalink

                In the same sense that we say an airborne airplane has more degrees of freedom in its motion than an airborne arrow.

                But that’s just a statement about the mechanical limits on the plane’s range of motion. It doesn’t have anything to do with “free will.” The plane is no more “free” to act one way rather than another within its mechanical limits than is the arrow. So again, in what sense do you claim we are “free” to act one way rather than another?

              • Another Matt
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

                But that’s just a statement about the mechanical limits on the plane’s range of motion.

                Isn’t that a hugely important statement, though? Doesn’t it make all the difference when you’re trying to fly from New York to Los Angeles, that hitching a ride on an airplane makes a lot more sense than hitching a ride on an arrow (or a banana), given the kinds of statements you can make about the mechanical limits on their range of motion?

                It doesn’t have anything to do with “free will.” The plane is no more “free” to act one way rather than another within its mechanical limits than is the arrow.

                I think “within its mechanical limits” is the whole game. Here’s a question that I think will illustrate what I mean:

                Imagine a plane whose specs say it is able to fly across the Atlantic. However, it only makes 30 flights back and forth between Seattle and Miami before it is crashed by a drunk pilot. We are faced with a question about the veracity of its specs, which I think can be answered in two main ways:

                1. Its specs were correct — throughout its life the plane retained the ability to fly across the Atlantic. This ability was never realized because it crashed before it had a chance to make a transatlantic flight.

                2. Its specs were incorrect — flying across the Atlantic was never within its mechanical limits because it crashed after 30 flights between Miami and Seattle. In principle this fact about the plane could have been listed in its specs, or alternatively we can retroactively strike “Able to make transatlantic flights” from the plane’s list of specs as they applied for the life of the plane. It could not have flown across the Atlantic, because it didn’t.

              • Gary W
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 11:14 am | Permalink

                Isn’t that a hugely important statement, though?

                No, it doesn’t have anything to do with free will. You still haven’t answered the question: In what sense do you claim we are “free” to act one way rather than another? If it’s not freedom from causality, what is it?

              • Another Matt
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink

                In what sense do you claim we are “free” to act one way rather than another? If it’s not freedom from causality, what is it?

                Let me reword your question because I think I understand you better this way:

                In what sense do you claim we are “free” to act in some way other than how we actually act? If it’s not freedom from causality, what is it?

                I’d say it’s freedom from the inability to act in that other way (with “ability” defined in the way that would make us prefer the first answer to the second in the plane spec question I outlined).

                I’m faced with whether to have cheerios or corn flakes. I’m clearly able to have one or the other — I’m free from the inability to have one or the other. When I eat the cheerios, and say “I could have had corn flakes, but I couldn’t have levitated,” that is a statement about my abilities, not about causality. Whatever I do in the future, it will include instances of cheerio eating and corn flake eating, but not instances of levitation. I would affirm “able to choose and eat cheerios” as one of my abilities, even if, unbeknownst to me, someone was waiting to kill me just before I reached into the cupboard or took the first bite.

                If I lose my arms and legs in an accident, I lose some of my free will in this sense — I’m no longer free from the inability to conduct an orchestra or handwrite letters or play softball. My future will not contain any instances of any of these things — they are no longer in the range of options available to me when I choose my activities.

                All this changes if you change the sense of “abilities” so that they are just a tally of all the things I actually do at which times between my birth and my death.

              • Gary W
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

                I’d say it’s freedom from the inability to act in that other way

                But we’re not free from the inability to act in the other way. We could only act in that other way if we were caused to do so.

                If I lose my arms and legs in an accident, I lose some of my free will in this sense

                But that has nothing to do with free will. It’s just a physical limitation of the body. Within the physical limits of your body, how are you “free” to act one way rather than another?

              • Another Matt
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

                But that has nothing to do with free will. It’s just a physical limitation of the body. Within the physical limits of your body, how are you “free” to act one way rather than another?

                My point is that this depends on how far you want to take the notion of “physical limitation.”

                I have to learn some group theory for my dissertation. I believe I’m able to do it, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing my dissertation. I’m also about to walk my dog — if I’m hit by a car and killed, then was I ever able to learn the group theory I needed for my dissertation? In other words, is claiming an ability a statement about potential, or is it a statement about what will actually happen? Does the fact I’m going to get hit by a car count as a physical limitation — a learning disability of sorts for math, or does it count as something that prevented me from bringing my ability to learn math to fruition?

                To me these kinds of questions have everything to do with free will.

              • Gary W
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

                My point is that this depends on how far you want to take the notion of “physical limitation.”

                Then your point simply doesn’t address my question. Within the physical limits of your body, whatever you think those limits are, how are you “free” to act one way rather than another? If you can’t provide a clear answer to this question, I don’t think your claim that we have “free will” is meaningful.

              • Another Matt
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

                I guess we’re doomed to talk in circles, then. There are more senses of “free” than “freedom from causation.”

                Here’s another: I create a controlled experiment where I pick a variable to vary deliberately, others which might confound the results if I left them to vary I control, and all other variables I leave free to vary.

                You could object that the other variables are not free to vary because they’re determined by prior causes. But this is irrelevant to the experiment because the hypothesis is that these things won’t make a systematic difference to the outcome.

                This isn’t the sense of “free” I am thinking about when I think of “free will,” but neither is “free from causation.” I’ve already explained what I think the “free” in “free will” means, but you dismissed it as “just an account of the mechanical limits of a system.”

                I could pose a similar question to you — do you ever use the words “ability,” “capacity,” “opportunity,” and the like? If so, what do you mean by “ability?” If I’m “able to drive a car,” is that only true when I am in fact driving a car (that is, when determinism has determined that I wasn’t “able” to do anything other than drive a car), or is it something about me that can be true when I’m having dinner at a restaurant?

              • Another Matt
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

                That should probably be my last comment in this back and forth — I don’t want to violate Jerry’s commenting policies. Feel free to take the last word.

              • Gary W
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

                I guess we’re doomed to talk in circles, then. There are more senses of “free” than “freedom from causation.”

                No, we’re not talking in circles; you are simply unable to identify a sense in which “free will” allows our actions to be “free.”

                I’ve already explained what I think the “free” in “free will” means, but you dismissed it as “just an account of the mechanical limits of a system.”

                Because it’s completely irrelevant to the issue of “free will.” A Concorde can fly faster than a Boeing 747. In that sense, a Concorde is “free” of a constraint that applies to a Boeing 747. I doubt anyone except you thinks this means a Concorde has “free will.”

              • Another Matt
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

                Well, dammit, I lied about not posting on this again.

                I don’t think the Concorde has free will, because it doesn’t do things that could possibly be interpreted as having a will at all. But I do think it has more freedom than the 747 (not freedom from causation). And it’s also a similar sense of “freedom” that I’m talking about with regard to human will.

                Human adults have more of this freedom than human infants in virtue of their greater latitude of ability. Cats have more of it than slugs. Slugs have more than thermostats. None of this depends at all on whether a given action was caused or uncaused — what is important is the confluence of causes and the organization of the biological system that makes the activity possible at all.

                OK, I’m really done — I know I’m not that gifted a writer, but I really don’t know how much more clearly I can explain myself.

              • Gary W
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

                Human adults have more of this freedom than human infants in virtue of their greater latitude of ability. Cats have more of it than slugs. Slugs have more than thermostats. None of this depends at all on whether a given action was caused or uncaused — what is important is the confluence of causes and the organization of the biological system that makes the activity possible at all.

                You still haven’t identified the nature of what you refer to above as “this freedom.” It’s not freedom from causality, but it’s “similar” to the sense in which one type of plane is “free” to fly faster than another. You talk in riddles.

                But your comparisons above suggest that what you’re actually talking about now is not freedom at all, but complexity. Adults are more complex than babies. Cats are more complex than slugs. Slugs are more complex than thermostats. So when you say “human beings have free will,” what you now apparently mean is that human beings are very complex and are thus capable of complex behavior. I doubt anyone would disagree with that. But complexity is not the same thing as freedom. You’re using the word “free” in a very idiosyncratic and misleading way, much as religious adherents do with words like “knowing.”

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

              Natural selection doesn’t cause the diversity of life. Genetic variation and gene expression cause the diversity of life. Selection pares down that diversity to successful forms, it channels and restricts genetic variation, it doesn’t create diversity.

              Natural selection doesn’t really exist. There is no entity doing the selecting. There is just a bunch of stuff happening called life and death, and natural selection is an abstract conceptual tool we invented to help us understand and make sense of all the complicated stuff that is happening. It is a conceptual model that helps us visualize what we can’t see, what happens to gene carrying organisms when they replicate over billions of generations and across varied environmental conditions, gradual changes so numerable we are incapable of stepping through one by one or simulating them to compute a result. The idea of natural selection helps us to impose some intelligible order on all that chaos and complexity.

              There is no thing we can point to and say “this is natural selection and this is what it’s made of and this is how it kills what it doesn’t like”. At best we could characterize it as a vast network of processes and interactions distributed across time and space that we can attempt to identify and consider separately, but nothing other than the human need for explanation actually ties them together. What is the physical connection between a starvation event on an African savannah a million years ago and an ice age 30 thousand years ago? Only the tenuous conceptual connection humans would make by associating these things with the idea “natural selection” because some species died out while others survived and evolved.

              So perhaps natural selection and free will have this in common, that they don’t physically exist, but they are both conceptual explanatory models humans use to understand observed phenomena. But explanatory models have their limits and new information can render them obsolete. Such is the fate of gods as explanations for natural phenomena. I would add free will to that category, an explanatory model, like Epicurus’ swerve, whose usefulness is behind us because we have enough knowledge that it no longer “explains” anything.

              • whyevolutionistrue
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 4:05 am | Permalink

                This is completely wrong; selection of course “causes” diversity, it doesn’t just pare down variation, or channels and restricts it, but selection is a process in which new variation, which can put diversity into new channels, can be preserved. The idea that selection is a restrictive force, and can’t create anything new, is a trope of creationists, and is dead wrong.

                I don’t know what you mean by “cause” here, but natural selection is a two step process. New variation is generated by random mutation, that that variation which enhances an organisms’ reproduction is preserved. Hand in hand,those phenomena produce the amazing diversity of life. We would not HAVE that diversity, including things like birds and whales, were it not for that differential reproduction.

                If you doubt that that differential reproduction leads to enhanced diversity, read The Blind Watchmaker or Climbing Mount Improbable.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

                Okay, thanks for the correction Jerry. I had it in mind that only mutations and other genetic processes generate, or cause, new diversity, and that selection picks out a subset of individuals from the more numerous and diverse pool of random forms generated by mutation. But perhaps the view of causation you are describing is that selection, by preserving variation that is valuable for survival, plays a coequal part with genetic mutations in a feedback loop that in combination accounts for diversity.

                Clearly there is no active paring force that seeks to minimize diversity, but whenever there is an extinction, a branch of the tree of life is pruned. Perhaps the mistake is to express this as a restriction or reduction of diversity, because an extinction need not lead to a net reduction in diversity, but could be part of a net increase in diversity over time, for example if the extinction is a result of competing species’ success. Some environments naturally lead to greater diversity than others, for example mountain vs valley, equatorial vs polar, etc. which pretty much says that selection plays an important role in diversity.

                I was reaching in the struggle to make sense of Another Matt’s substitution of “natural selection” for “free will” in a sentence. The main point I was trying to make, and I wonder if you agree, is that natural selection is a conceptual tool the human mind uses to impose a pattern and make sense of a complex network of different and not necessarily related processes, rather than a thing with independent existence, an entity we can identify as we can gravity or matter. There isn’t a selection force or selection particle. Selection is an abstraction that enables the human mind to make sense of the net results of a seeming chaos of countless birth and death events and the processes of gene expression occurring over vast stretches of time. Natural selection is an abstract concept that encompasses phenomena ranging from how solar radiation interacts with various chemicals to how water cycles between land and atmosphere to the composition of the atmosphere to the solubility of various compounds in water to how successfully various organisms compete for food supplies, avoid predation, and reproduce.

      • Posted January 19, 2013 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

        “I don’t think you understand the basic philosophical problem with free will. Everything you do is either caused (i.e., the outcome of a cause-and-effect process) or uncaused (i.e., irreducibly random — it ‘just happens’).”

        We live in a world of multiple causes. To claim there is no free will implies those causes can have one and only one outcome. It also implies we know the best outcome rather than imagining two or more equally good ones. I don’t claim we live lives isolated from external input. I deny that input is 100% deterministic. We can weight the input. We can ignore other input. We can put too much emphasis on others. In worst cases we can flip a coin.

        • Gary W
          Posted January 19, 2013 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

          We live in a world of multiple causes. To claim there is no free will implies those causes can have one and only one outcome. It also implies we know the best outcome rather than imagining two or more equally good ones.

          No, it doesn’t imply either of those things. You still haven’t explained how you think it’s possible for an outcome to be neither caused nor uncaused. Outcomes that have multiple causes (e.g., “If A and B, then C” or “If A then B; if B then C”) are still caused. Caused and uncaused outcomes cannot be combined to produce an outcome that is neither. The idea of an outcome that is the product of “free will,” neither caused nor uncaused, is just logically incoherent.

          • Posted January 20, 2013 at 11:26 am | Permalink

            “You still haven’t explained how you think it’s possible for an outcome to be neither caused nor uncaused.”

            I don’t have to. I assume will is a cause too.

            • Gary W
              Posted January 20, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

              Your assumption is logically incoherent, as I explained. Some outcomes are caused. The rest (if any) are uncaused. There is no other logical possibility.

              • Another Matt
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

                I think you can interpret your statement to say that nobody has ever actually observed something cause an event, because that something was also caused.

              • Posted January 20, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

                Why is it logically incoherent to claim will is one of many causes in some behavior? You might as well say it’s logically incoherent to claim my leg muscle is one of many causes in my ability to stand upright.

              • Gary W
                Posted January 20, 2013 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

                It’s incoherent to claim that an outcome can be neither caused nor uncaused, since those are the only two logical possibilities.

                But since you now seem to saying that you think “free will” is just a particular kind of causation (“I assume will is a cause too”), I really have no idea what you believe. If our actions are caused, in what sense are they “free?” Free from what?

              • Posted January 20, 2013 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

                “But since you now seem to saying that you think ‘free will’ is just a particular kind of causation … , I really have no idea what you believe.”

                Fair enough. But when someone tells me “free will” is determined — that I have so part in it — I really have no idea what they mean and/or believe either.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

      Now it’s asserted that my will was imaginary.

      You are misunderstanding what is meant by saying we don’t have free will. Of course we will things. Of course we have goals and priorities that we can value so highly we will sacrifice comfort to achieve them. Anybody who doesn’t know this has not really paid any attention to how people behave every day.

      This does not mean our decisions are in any way free, though they are personal and unique to ourselves.

      The point is that your will and your choices were the result of all that you learned and experienced, the result of your genes and how they interacted with your environment to structure your brain. Your choices were determined, though you felt them to be in your best interest and what you wanted to do.

      If our will were in some way “free” rather than determined by our biology and the laws of physics, we could make unencumbered and frictionless choices, we could originate wholly new feelings and ideas out of thin air, we could be sources of thoughts that had no connection to anything we had ever learned or seen. We could simply decide to stop feeling jealous when that emotion overtakes us, and we could effortlessly decide to stop grieving after suffering a great loss. We would never struggle between our health and our cravings for unhealthy foods, we would never be depressed or angry, and we would never do anything against our better judgement. Habit would not make us do things we don’t intend to do.

      We think we are free because we feel free, but careful examination of how we operate leads to the realization that what feels like free choices are no more free than the choice to keep breathing or keep our heart beating.

      The common mistake is for people to assume what is meant by lack of free will is that we are helpless like a leaf blown about by the wind. Clearly that is false. We have metabolism and use energy to control our interactions with the world, to seek our own best interest, and to resist external coercion. But there is no magic source of freedom inside of us that allows us to conjure into existence will or feeling or thought that has no basis in pre-existing physical conditions. We feel like we have that ability, but that is only an illusion created by the interplay of our conscious and unconscious minds.

      • Another Matt
        Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

        Add Jeff Johnson to those in the first category of incompatibilists I mentioned here.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

          I so hate to be categorized. 🙂

          • Posted January 19, 2013 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

            So…do you or do you not belong on the list of people who do not belong on a list of people?

            b&

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

              If I told you I was from Crete, would I be lying?

      • Posted January 19, 2013 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

        “You are misunderstanding what is meant by saying we don’t have free will.”

        — but then you continue on and show I do understand what you mean by free will.

        Free will certainly does not imply we must have an easy time of it. In fact, the opposite is the case. Free will demands tough choices. It’s the decision to ignore pain when your body is telling you to quit. It’s more free precisely when we suppress those jealous feelings our genes and experience give us. To say there is no free will demands that we could never overcome hardships — we would always choose the easy road. But my experience and history is fraught with evidence to the contrary.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted January 19, 2013 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

          You aren’t giving the deterministic human brain enough credit for its intelligence. When you assume a free will would always take the easy road you are placing a value judgement on laziness and hedonism, as if these were the optimal states that would invariably be sought. Humans are way more complicated than that.

          You are working with an idea of free will that means you can decide to do what you think is best for yourself, even if that involves passing up what you most would enjoy in the short term. You are talking about will power and self discipline. This isn’t evidence of freedom from determinism. It simply means the human brain is capable of forming long term goals and placing greater value on achieving these goals than it puts on short term pleasure and comfort. It’s also capable of doing the opposite.

          This means we have agency and control, but it doesn’t come from freedom, but rather from intelligence. Free will is a concept invented before we could imagine how a deterministic biological computing engine could account for the complex and varied behaviors we observe in ourselves. It’s like the swerve of Epicurus, or the gift of release from divine determinism given by god. It’s like the invention of gods to explain the thunder and lightening, a conceptual crutch to fill a gap in our knowledge. Free will is the imaginary ability of humans to create from nothing ideas and intentions that are uncaused by physical biological processes. We don’t have that ability, we simply have very complex and very intelligent physical biological processes going on in our brains.

          • abrotherhoodofman
            Posted January 20, 2013 at 12:24 am | Permalink

            Nice comments, Jeff.

            • Leigh Jackson
              Posted January 20, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

              Seconded.

          • Posted January 20, 2013 at 1:05 am | Permalink

            I read a lot of these comments, and have come to the point that determinism is probably true. Thus, I would disagree we humans have any agency, control, desires or responsibility for whatever we do- insofar as I have understood the words.

            Now, I think of murderers and the like, and realize- when we say they are responsible for their actions, it’s really a shortcut for saying the biological processes of their lives are responsible for these turn of events.

            The domestic abusers have no control over what they do, and I have as much agency in determining what cookie I want as a dog over what treat to scavenge for.

            And, greatest of all, the annoyance and irritation we feel towards the religious is completely uncalled for, and maybe a bit hypocritical for the religious have no choice in the matter. They don’t ‘ignore’ or ‘refuse’ science (again, insofar as I have understood the words) any more than I ‘accept’ and ‘acknowledge’ it.

            We need to work around (and redefine) these feelings to make a more accurate portrayal of human thought in a deterministic universe.

          • Posted January 20, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

            “When you assume a free will would always take the easy road you are placing a value judgement on laziness and hedonism, as if these were the optimal states that would invariably be sought.”

            You misunderstand me. Free will would not always take the easy road. Free will might discount difficulty altogether. Deterministic non-will might take the path of least resistance. Or in might not. But whatever it does, it would always look at the same criteria and reach the same conclusion.

            A free will selects criteria and, yes, it places value judgements. But even deterministic “will” places value judgements. That judgement merely manifests itself as species instinct.

            There are two choices for me in a case: 1) I value short term gratification, or 2) I value long term gratification. Which is optimal? That’s a value judgement too. Yes, we’re complicated. One reason we’re complicated is right in front of us here. Choice, for some strange reason, matters to us — or most of us. Why should it matter? Does an ant wring its antennae over similar choices? No matter how intelligent we believe ourselves to be, we are not prophets. We cannot know we will see that long-term gratification. We might die tomorrow. So what calculation do we use that permits us to throw away that bird in the hand and pursue those two in the bush? Surely it’s more than number crunching.

            “You are talking about will power and self discipline. This isn’t evidence of freedom from determinism.”

            Maybe you can tell me how self-discipline is forced upon me. Discipline can be forced upon me, but surely not self-discipline. And while you’re at it, explain how will power differs from free will. Personally, I see no difference. IMO, if you deny free will you must deny all will. You must deny self discipline. You must deny agency and control. How can you control when it is you who is being controlled by genes and environment? How can I choose what’s best for myself if that choice isn’t mine in the first place?

            Moving free will under the guise of “intelligence” means nothing. We’ve just made “intelligence” more inclusive and more elusive. Perhaps we should put down intelligence as some sort of determinism too. Einstein couldn’t help but come up with his theories. Shakespeare couldn’t help but create his plays. They were determined by his genes and environment. Where do we stop with this determinism meme? And once we stop, how does it differ in essence from free will?

            “Free will is a concept invented before we could imagine how a deterministic biological computing engine could account for the complex and varied behaviors we observe in ourselves.”

            Do you really think anyone has shown how “a deterministic biological computing engine” has accounted for the varied behaviors we observe in ourselves? Please point me to this machine and the evidence it has provided.

            “[Free will is] like the invention of gods to explain the thunder and lightening, a conceptual crutch to fill a gap in our knowledge.”

            It’s funny, but I see this determinism as the same sort of mystical crutch. It’s meant to explain a gap in our knowledge of how the brain really works. We both agree we have “very complex and very intelligent physical biological processes going on in our brains.” We differ on how complex that activity is. I say it’s far more complex than you do. We’ve barely begun to figure it out. So let’s not jump to scientifically unwarranted conclusions.

            • Another Matt
              Posted January 20, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

              That’s right — if “determinism” “explains” everything, it shouldn’t really count as an explanation for anything.

    • Marta
      Posted January 20, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      I lurk in free will threads.

      I find the language impenetrable and academic; the discussions intense and messy; links to scientific support few and problematic; conclusions premature and hypothetical. In that regard, it’s like discussing theology.

      There are occasionally stand-out comments. Like this one, by donjindra.

      The literature about will-power and self-control is booming–we want more will-power, and to be better at self-regulation. It’s a quality of life/well-being issue, and I think it’s urgent.

      This is what Dennett is getting at, I think–that a consequence of eliminating an individual’s sense of free will is that you’ve reduced their sense of well-being.

      The science is the science, it’ll take us where it takes us, and we’ll deal with it when the results are in. We aren’t even close to being there yet.

      Meanwhile, donjindra, that was a monumental achievement, you wrote about it beautifully, and I deeply appreciate it that you wrote about it here.

      • Posted January 20, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

        Thanks, but I’m just stumbling through this like everyone else here.

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted January 20, 2013 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

      “It takes will to succeed at almost anything.” Indeed, natural selection, in the end, sees to it that organisms have sufficient will to ensure replication of their genes.

      In the case of humans there are many possible successful strategies for will to acieve that end. Individuals with genes, brains and experiences resulting in high athletic ambition do not necessarily achieve gene replication. However, social achievement of some kind is generally viewed as a very attractive quality by sexually active women. In the UK professional footballers can vouch for the combined aphrodisiac effects of athletic prowess, fame and bulging bank balances. Successful professional footballers are not generally found to be lacking in the will and willy departments.

      The human brain is an amazingly complex physical structure. Human behaviour and consciousness is complex in the extreme. Science is far from having a deep understanding of what is the most complex physical structure in the known universe, but many neuroscientists are pursuing a research programme, predicated on what we know now, that attributes all attributes of conscious mind to be the result of genome-body-connectome interaction with the environment.

      Yours is the argument from ignorance. We do not know the half of it, for sure, but what we do know points firmly in the direction which you prefer to look away from. Nothing in your confessional argues against the current scientific understanding of mind/brain. Virtually all opposition to the mind=brain thesis comes from religious and philosophical sources, not from working neuroscientists.

      As regards those “failures” which you mention, it’s all relative to reproductive success. If they got to reproduce they were not failures. If they didn’t they were. If you don’t get to reproduce, for all your will, then you too will be an evolutionary failure.

      • Posted January 20, 2013 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

        “Yours is the argument from ignorance. We do not know the half of it, for sure, but what we do know points firmly in the direction which you prefer to look away from.”

        And what direction do you presume that is? You’re wrong if you think I’m opposed to the mind=brain thesis. In fact. I reject any thesis that claims the mind does not equal the brain. Nowhere have I contradicted that thesis. If you think I have, I’ll be glad to clarify as best I can. I’m certainly not approaching it from a religious angle. I have no supernatural or religious beliefs. You say nothing in my “confessional” argues against the current scientific understanding of mind/brain. I hope that’s true. I expect that it’s true. Because as far as I know, nobody has a scientific clue as to what consciousness or will or creativity or self-awareness are. So as far as the argument from ignorance goes, nobody can claim much else. The truth is, as you’ve stated, we don’t know the half of it. I’d go further. We know almost nothing of it.

  45. Posted January 20, 2013 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    I think you’re being quite unfair to what the compatibilist philosophers are trying to do, so much so that the charge you’re levelling at them can be levelled against you as well.

    This is a very simple summary and so likely to be a bit inaccurate, but there are three basic positions in this debate:

    1) Strong Determinist: Determinism is incompatible with free will/moral responsibility/responsibility, but determinism is obviously true and thus so much for all of those things.

    2) Strong Liberatrian: Determinism is incompatible with free will/moral responsibility/responsibility, but we obviously have those things and thus so much for determinism.

    3) Compatibilism: Determinism is obviously true, but is not incompatible with free will/moral responsibility/responsibility.

    So, under this, I’d be tempted to slide you into the “compatibilist” camp, because you want to preserve responsibility (note that philosophically the problem with determinism and moral responsibility is not that it removes morality, but that it removes responsibility). And both the Strong Determinist and the Strong Libertarian would accuse you of redefining “responsibility” so that you can keep it, and the Strong Determinist would in fact level against you the claim that you really should just drop the notion altogether instead of simply concocting new definitions. Thus, to the Strong Determinist, what you are doing is a waste of time just like you accuse Dennett et al of doing.

    I think that once you understand why you wouldn’t be likely to accept the Strong Determinist’s argument, you’ll understand why other compatibilists don’t accept yours. And note that if your answer is “Well, I argue for how we can preserve a meaningful notion of responsibility even if determinism is true”, compatibilists like Dennett will gladly point out that they, in fact, do the exact same thing.

    On a separate note, if you have not read B.F. Skinner’s “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” yet, I strongly recommend that you do so, as what you say reminds me a lot of what he said. And since Dennett has written a takedown of Skinner’s views there if you do find yourself agreeing with Skinner you would thus find a source from him that would be aimed directly at the views you hold, instead of at more general issues or at issues raised by other views.

    • Posted January 20, 2013 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      Note, compatibilism does *not* rely on taking the position that determinism is obviously true. It is just the claim that *if* the universe is deterministic then free will would be compatible with that. You can, for instance, be a compatibilist and accept that QM may be indeterministic (In fact I think Dennett takes exactly that position).

      • Posted January 21, 2013 at 3:23 am | Permalink

        Well, I DID say that it was a very simple summary [grin]. What you say is true, but holds for my version of Strong Determinists; Dr. Coyne here, for example, clearly accepts that QM is indeterministic but argues that that indeterminism doesn’t impact human behaviour (or, alternatively, that even if it did that still wouldn’t mean we have free will).

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted January 20, 2013 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      I think the idea that responsibility depends on free will is wrong. The idea that responsibility is not compatible with determinism is also wrong because it is based on an overly simplistic view of the implications of determinism.

      This is a deterministic view that preserves responsibility but does not accept the existence of free will and thus is not compatibilist.

      The difference with compatibilism comes down to how “free will” is conceived of. I think the idea of free will, and the habitual practice of joining the two separate ideas of “free” and “will” into a single compound idea, is much more deeply bound up historically in the idea of a contracausal exception than compatibilists are willing to admit. The compatibilists can’t really define “free will” as a primitive idea or independent premise. Instead their notion of “free will” entirely excludes any contracausal notions, despite the deep historical connection to the idea, and sets up “free will” as a kind of dependent variable or contingent phenomenon by saying that whatever we observe the deterministic human brain doing that we can assign certain value to, we will attribute that to “free will”. By “certain value” I mean anything that appears to enhance the individual’s independence from deterministic causal forces, such as the ability to analyze alternatives and make choices, or the ability to resist external coercion. But there is circularity here; in this view “free will” doesn’t have any fundamental definition, but it is just something inferred from the existence of a set of behaviors we chose to interpret as arising from “free will”.

      If we go back to the stoics, they were grappling with the idea of determinism, and needed to resolve its apparent contradiction with how humans observe themselves and each other to behave. They resolved this contradiction by inserting flexible play in between the deterministic base of atomism and the observed independent will of humans. This was the “swerve”. It was just a convenient concept made necessary because of ignorance and the need to explain. In other words it was an imaginative guess. I think “god” and “free will” fit into this same category of convenient concepts imaginatively invented because of the tension between the need to explain and ignorance.

      Free will as an idea has always existed as a kind of release from the lock of determinism, the ability of humans to defy god’s determining will, the thing that allows the swerve or slippage from causality, the immaterial magic ghost that is free to invent and originate new feelings and ideas out of nothing using only the creative power and freedom of our unique will. So to separate dualism and contracausality from free will is to cut off this perennially glued compound of separate ideas from its roots.

      So compatibilism seems to me a desperate attempt to jam a square peg into a round hole based on a pre-existing commitment to preserve the precious ideal of “free will” while attempting to face the reality of determinism. But “free will” isn’t really so precious because all the things we imagine to depend on it don’t really depend on it. For example responsibility. Does responsibility really depend on an individual’s ability to will something counter to what is expected of them? Why should responsibility rest on what someone might have done but didn’t do, rather than resting squarely upon what they actually did do? We could instead view responsibility in terms of the human ability to commit to contracts informally and accept obligations and to follow through on these. This doesn’t require free will but rather intelligence and the ability to estimate the probable consequences of projected actions and to measure those consequences against our goals, all of which is entirely consistent with deterministic computation.

      If someone with a brain tumor kills, that person was definitely the vehicle of force and action that caused death. In this sense they are the responsible party. We are used to associating the responsibility for causing a death with the liability to suffer the consequences of other humans reacting to that action. And we are used to the idea that there is something unfair if a person lacking the standard human capacity to control themselves and think clearly is subjected to the pain and suffering of retribution. And we bind all that together into the mostly unquestioned assumption that holding a person responsible depends on their freedom to act differently. But if we unbundle this combination and compare the case of a murderer with a brain tumor to a murderer with a “normal” brain, is the difference really one of freedom? I strongly suspect that in both cases they have equal freedom, which is none. Instead we say that the brain tumor sufferer had diminished capacity, or the inability to know wrong from right. What does that have to do with freedom? Nothing. It has to do with the ability to think and reason, the ability to estimate consequences of actions and to form plans that rationally have a chance of accomplishing desirable goals.

      So where does this idea that responsibility depends on the freedom to act differently come from? I can’t say, but I can speculate that it actually comes from the religious idea that freedom to act in ways contrary to divine determinism is a divine gift. It was too great a paradox that divine will could force a person to sin and condemn them to hell without them ever having any chance of reaching heaven. So this gift of freedom was required in order to make any sense out of divine judgement. But biological determinism is not divine determinism, and humans don’t need to be uncoupled from it in order to have the responsibility to differentiate good consequences from bad consequences. We just need to have the intelligent capacity of the deterministic human brain.

      Nobody seems to pay any penalty for preserving the poetic notion of human free will as long as they think within a closed system of emergent human behaviors that brackets off determinism by essentially ignoring it entirely. But as soon as one seriously asks the question “how does the physical brain give rise to human behavior and the human mind?” there is no free will to be found. It’s determinism and causality all the way down.

      Free will is a very natural concept because we feel like there is an independent “I” inside that is a source of wants, intentions, desires, goals, and preferences that we will out of nothing. This naturalness probably accounts for the persistence of the idea. But our conscious notion that we create or originate goals, desires, tastes, and needs is only enabled by the fact that our underlying unconscious deterministic processes cause these mental phenomena to well up into our conscious awareness. The processes themselves remain hidden from our awareness. The concept of free will totally discounts these invisible unconscious processes. Our behaviors originate from within us, and they are ours, but “we” don’t will them out of nothing. Instead our biology and our material configuration causes us, causes our will, causes our behavior and causes our experience of willing our behaviors.

      • Posted January 21, 2013 at 3:36 am | Permalink

        The big issue here is that you are focusing very much on freedom and free will, which I was explicitly not focusing on, and for good reason. I think that determinism can challenge both free will and responsibility INDEPENDENTLY, as opposed to what you seem to be arguing where we lose responsibility BECAUSE we lose free will. And the way it challenges both is that determinism seems to imply that we don’t actually make choices; that the decision-making process is just going through the motions much like an automaton would and has no actual impact on our behaviour at the end of it all. If we don’t make choices, then we don’t have free will because that’s all about making choices. However, if we don’t make choices we INDEPENDENTLY don’t have responsibility, because you cannot be held responsible for an action that you didn’t choose to take.

        This is why it seems to me that most compatibilists focus on trying to preserve the idea that we really do make choices, and if we do really make choices then we have both free will — but not contracausal, because that rules out determinism — and responsibility. It is quite possible to determine that free will requires contracausality and so cannot be compatible with determinism while arguing that responsibility can be saved … which is what Dr. Coyne requires for his argument, actually. And so what Dennett and Carroll and others talk about is having a decision-making process in us, and saying that that then really makes choices just like our digestive processes really do digest. From there, if there is a brain tumour that interferes with the operation of that decision-making process, we can say that they didn’t really choose that — because their decision-making process was impaired — and so don’t have responsibility for the action, preserving that intuition.

        Also note that vanishingly few compatibilists would deny the role of unconscious processes. Heck, even most Strong Libertarians — speaking as one myself — wouldn’t deny them a role. So that seems unlikely to be something that is overlooked, as you suggest.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted January 21, 2013 at 9:22 am | Permalink

          you seem to be arguing where we lose responsibility BECAUSE we lose free will.

          I was arguing the opposite of this, that responsibility in no way depends on free will, and that deterministic systems can have responsibility.

          It’s impossible to make sense of that statement without having a consistent and clear idea of what is meant by free will. I tried to outline what my idea of “free will” is. Briefly, the history of free will as an important concept, and the subjective experience that humans have of themselves and their thought processes, mean that the strongest connotations evoked by the term “free will” are contra-causal in nature. There is a sensible way to talk about “will” without having to call it “free”. I feel that adding “free” is a habit that originated in a context where belief in dualism and and belief that humans are not subject to determinism was dominant.

          I believe we are subject to determinism, that we don’t have free will, that we do make choices, and that these choices are based on entirely deterministic forces. Based on your post, you probably see contradictions in that sentence. Basically if I say “free will”, think “contra-causal free will” because I think any other notion of free will is confusing given the historical provenance of the term. In particular, I think compatibilists who are also determinists, like Dennet, abuse the term “free will”.

          determinism seems to imply that we don’t actually make choices; that the decision-making process is just going through the motions much like an automaton would and has no actual impact on our behaviour at the end of it all.

          Well, computers make choices, and so do insects. But you probably wouldn’t agree that they have free will. Neither would I, because I don’t think free will is a real thing. I don’t think that the difference between humans and computers or simple organisms involves the addition of something special we can call “free will”. It involves adding self-awareness and much more complex intelligence, which I consider to be fully consistent with a deterministic brain. These two things create the illusion that our will is in some way free from causation and determinism. We make choices that take into account our interests, and involve estimation of outcomes, and many complex feats of logic and abstract reasoning, but ultimately our choices are determined. When we choose, the end result had to be the one we made because of the state of our brain. The state of our brain is always changing, and we can even add new reachable states because of learning and plasticity, so that given exactly the same options and context at another time, we might choose differently. But in each immediate instance of choosing, the choice we make is determined by our brain at that time.

          If we make choices that appear to not be in our best short term interest, which indicates an apparent freedom that a simpler machine would not have, it is because we involved some longer term strategy in our choice, or some other goal that is more complicated than pure self-interest, which changes how our decision process arrives at the optimal choice. But these values that parameterize our choices are also determined. If we choose something that we consciously know to not be optimal for ourselves, it’s because we have deemed sharing, altruism, or sacrifice to be more optimal than having what we most want or think is best. In all these cases, our choices can be seen as deterministic algorithms, provided the algorithm is of sufficient complexity.

          At this point I should say that I realize what I’m describing is what many compatibilists actually call free will. But it is at best increased “degrees of freedom” in our deterministic reasoning, by which I don’t mean our choices are free, but rather complex. It is not freedom from causality, it is not freedom to be an original source of ideas and feelings and thoughts that we conjure out of nothing but the power of our will. It is not evidence that a special immaterial force enables us to slip outside of material causation and pull a quick last second switcheroo to arrive at a choice other than what was determined by the state of our brain. It is simply more sophisticated computation with conscious self-awareness and emotion involved as integral components of the computation. So I can’t see how it rises to the noble status that most people associate with the term “free will”. To me it feels dishonest to claim that this is what everyone really meant by “free will” all along, or that this kind of freedom is a special unique human quality that elevates us into a fundamentally new category above other animals, or that it justifies assigning moral responsibility because more than one option was considered. Computers can consider millions of options, but a determined choice from millions of options is as free as having only one option.

          Also note that vanishingly few compatibilists would deny the role of unconscious processes. Heck, even most Strong Libertarians — speaking as one myself — wouldn’t deny them a role. So that seems unlikely to be something that is overlooked, as you suggest.

          I was trying to suggest something a bit different. I wasn’t suggesting that people who have an interest in studying determinism, free will, compatibilism, and the brain, have overlooked the role of the subconscious. I was trying to say that ordinary people from childhood, especially if they have never thought about free will, compatibilism, or determinism, have a natural intuitive sense that their will is free. I was suggesting that this is a powerful illusion brought about by the fact that we typically ignore any unconscious activity and think of our vision, tastes, preferences, desires, memory, reasoning, emotions, etc. as originating whole and uncaused from an “I” that we think of as having “free will”. We think of these things as being attributed to our character, our personality, and most especially we think of them as being the unique and special set of things that “we” want because “we” freely chose them. This illusion I think is so powerful that probably many who actually study these things aren’t quite able to see through it.

          • Posted January 21, 2013 at 11:17 am | Permalink

            “I believe we are subject to determinism, that we don’t have free will, that we do make choices, and that these choices are based on entirely deterministic forces.”

            That makes no sense to me. It’s contradictory. And you’ve just created a universe permeated with choice. An oxygen atom chooses to mate with two hydrogen atoms. A planet chooses to revolve around a star. It’s a wonderful new form of animism.

            “Well, computers make choices…”

            If a computer makes the “wrong” choice who is to blame? The programmer. It’s a corruption of the language to say computers make choices. Gates switch. That’s all. levers lift. That’s all. It’s the people who design tools and use tools who make the choices.

            “We make choices that take into account our interests”

            Our interests? How can there be an “our” if everything is imposed upon us? If we possess this “our,” why doesn’t a donut have an “our?” Doesn’t it possess its hole? Doesn’t it have an interest in its hole? If not, how can we claim an “interest” in our thumbs? What gives us the audacity to think so? Anyway, why should we be interested in what was determined for us? — imposed, like slavery, upon us? Surely if “will” is an illusion, so is this “I.” Therefore concepts like “our” and “interests” need to be banished with free will. This philosophy of determinacy has a lot to work out, imo.

            “It is simply more sophisticated computation with conscious self-awareness and emotion involved as integral components of the computation.”

            Now apply that to Shakespeare choosing each word when writing Hamlet. Let’s see if it can rise to the occasion.

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted January 21, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

              That makes no sense to me. It’s contradictory.

              There are probably several ways you could see it as contradictory, depending on how you view determinism, free will, and the brain. I maintain that it is not contradictory, and that if you see it as contradictory, you are thinking about it wrong. But you’ll have to explain why you think it is contradictory for me to explain without writing an essay.

              And you’ve just created a universe permeated with choice. An oxygen atom chooses to mate with two hydrogen atoms. A planet chooses to revolve around a star. It’s a wonderful new form of animism.

              You are seriously devaluing the human brain if you compare a passive subjugation to external forces, as in your water molecule analogy, with the active intelligence of the human meat computer.

              If a computer makes the “wrong” choice who is to blame? The programmer. It’s a corruption of the language to say computers make choices. Gates switch. That’s all. levers lift. That’s all. It’s the people who design tools and use tools who make the choices.

              It depends on how you are using the word blame. If you are asking who do you get angry at and want to punish or harm, probably it would be a member of your tribe. If you want to rationally look at what is causing a malfunction in order to remedy it, you might blame a circuit board or a program or an algorithm for not performing the contract it is expected to fulfill. Who or what you blame and how you feel about really depends on what you are trying to accomplish.

              You can reduce a digital computer down to logic gates, and you can reduce the brain down to neurons firing, but neither approach allows you to understand how either computer makes choices. Any control software that is using sensors to receive input about the environment and translating that into control decisions is making choices. Examples are intelligent thermostats, manufacturing equipment control, fuel injector control, industrial ovens and paint or chemical mixers and subway controllers to name only a few. A more dramatic example is any software that learns from the history. State machines that can modify their list of reachable states and the conditions that trigger transitions dynamically are not only making choices, but they can learn to make better and better choices over time. A dramatic example would be fuzzy logic controllers using neural networks to feedback detected errors into the control parameters in order to successfully correct the errors. An application of this is able, for example, to control the movements of a platform in an XY plane in order to balance a broomstick on the platform. As the balanced stick falls due to gravity “randomly” in any direction of a 360 degree range, the platform detects the movement and decides to adjust accordingly in order to maintain an upright position for the balanced stick. This was implemented at NASA Ames back in 90s.

              These kinds of learning algorithms and self-modifying state machines give us just a tiny hint of the kinds of things the brain could be doing when it makes choices. But there is no reason that the brain’s choices should be any less deterministic than our most complex computer algorithms. It is simply more complex, not less deterministic. This complexity gives us the illusion of indeterminacy or free will.

              “We make choices that take into account our interests”

              Our interests? How can there be an “our” if everything is imposed upon us?

              I don’t understand how you conclude that things are being imposed on us.

              If we possess this “our,” why doesn’t a donut have an “our?”

              Humans have subjectivity and donuts do not. So in our language, when we talk about what humans in general share we talk about we, us, and our. Why is this surprising?

              Doesn’t it possess its hole? Doesn’t it have an interest in its hole?

              One could metaphorically talk about a donut possessing it’s hole, but generally we talk about possession in reference to animate objects with subjectivity, like humans and other animals. Donuts aren’t smart enough to have interests, except again if you talk metaphorically about the selfish genes of wheat, which have an interest in using human’s agricultural abilities as a tool to propagate themselves.

              If not, how can we claim an “interest” in our thumbs? What gives us the audacity to think so? Anyway, why should we be interested in what was determined for us? — imposed, like slavery, upon us? Surely if “will” is an illusion, so is this “I.” Therefore concepts like “our” and “interests” need to be banished with free will. This philosophy of determinacy has a lot to work out, imo.

              I don’t think will is an illusion. I just think it is an illusion that it is in some way free of determinism. Perhaps that is hard to understand. Think of the brain as a massively parallel set of hundreds of thousands or millions of complex modules each advancing a particular need or goal or interest or sensory data or emotion or relevant memory etc. that have been excited in response to some situation where we are presented with a context and inputs and the need to make a responsive decision. Depending on the situation, i.e. the inputs, these modules will be excited to greater or lesser degrees, and thus output stronger or weaker signals into the decision process. There could be many hierarchical layers of such primitive signals feeding into higher level composite functions, which in turn feed into even more complex composite functions at higher layers. The way inputs are transmitted from layer to layer is like a competition, where input signals could be combined additively in sequence, or in parallel and averaged or otherwise combined into a single signal or small set of signals that is passed on. Each layer has more and more information factored into its competitive networks. At the highest layer or layers we reach consciousness and subjective conceptualization, which is fed into by the results of perhaps many many thousands of intermediate layers whose net results are conscious emotions, memories, ideas, wants, etc. that are excited at varying levels of strength. If we are consciously choosing between say items on a menu, we are probably receiving signals that involve memories of things we have tasted before and varying strengths of associations with the linguistic descriptions on the menu, and we compare evaluations of these signal strengths in a logical process that amounts to a deterministic competition between signal strengths, almost certainly in a complex network rather than a simple scalar comparison, but in the end some set of signals is dominant and triggers a choice or action. We consciously experience this as an internal dialogue as something like “Hmm, I’d kind of like the Rueben, because those are always good, but a burger might be nice as well. I’m sure my girlfriend wants me to have the salad, but crap that’s not really going to satisfy that gnawing hunger in my belly that wants something really substantial. Mmmm I can practically taste that Reuben now and yes that’s what I really want..”. But that little narrative rested on some very very tall unconscious shoulders, and in the end it was all accomplished with deterministic algorithms. That means if we could have loaded the entire state of our brain into a simulator capable of taking the exact same sensory input as us and of simulating our thinking faster than we can do it, then it could have predicted our choice before we actually arrived at it.

              If we think of “I” as our entire body, there is no illusion. If we think of “I” as our conscious subjective experience, as a self-contained wholly autonomous uncaused source of free choices residing inside of our body but in some way distinct from it, unencumbered by any conditions or determinism, that is an illusion.

              I don’t know about you, but if my thumbs were cut off I’d be seriously pissed off. I’m very interested in all of my appendages and what I can do with them. I’m interested in happiness, in living a satisfying and rich life, in helping my family, in learning more and more, in a very long list of things. Having interest is just one of the many successful adaptations our brain has evolved.

              We participate in what is determined, it is determined largely by us, but nonetheless it is determined. It is just not determined by a flickering light of consciousness in our head, it is determined by our entire organism, by our genes and our environment acting in a dynamically learning and growing process of feedback and interaction over the course of our lives. The things we want, the things we believe, the choices we make are all unique to us, but they are determined by the physical state of our body. There is no contradiction there unless you are used to thinking of humans as having “free will” rather than having complex intelligence.

              “It is simply more sophisticated computation with conscious self-awareness and emotion involved as integral components of the computation.”

              Now apply that to Shakespeare choosing each word when writing Hamlet. Let’s see if it can rise to the occasion.

              Of course, I’ve simplified this to a very skeletal description that fits in a sentence and is meant to be suggestive, not complete, but generally it is obvious that the brain rises to the occasion. Otherwise Shakespeare could not have written what he did.

              • Posted January 21, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

                “If you want to rationally look at what is causing a malfunction in order to remedy it, you might blame a circuit board or a program or an algorithm for not performing the contract it is expected to fulfill.”

                Did the computer write the algorithm? Did it design itself? A determinist claims free will is illusion because we can’t have an uncaused cause, yet you seem reluctant to follow this cause to its source. I don’t blame you. As you’ll see, it gets kind of embarrassing. We can’t really blame the programmer. His error was determined by forces beyond his control. He had to make that error. It was determined and inevitable. Then we take a closer peek at him. It turns out he was formed from the dust of nature, so nature is ultimately responsible for both the error and, most importantly, the computer itself. And if we follow the lines of causality as they loop through eternity we arrive at the ultimate “end” only to discover the Great Paradox. Silicon had a big hand in it. Before that, the goop of the Big Bang which formed the Si and everything else. This is where the computer was designed. In that goop. Logically, oops, it turns out our computer did design itself. And with luck it will correct itself. We have found our culprit and, unfortunately, another uncaused cause.

              • Posted January 21, 2013 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

                “Any control software that is using sensors to receive input about the environment and translating that into control decisions is making choices.”

                I deny that characterization. Gates switch states. They don’t make choices. We humans assign our own meaning to those states. You may choose to label what that gate does as “1” or “0” or “true” or “false” or “open” or “closed.” But that’s your doing. The gate switches without any meaning attached to the states. There is no inherent meaning in the states. So there’s no difference between a gate switched at ground or 3v and a hydrogen atom either bonded or not bonded. If you want to call a gate switch a “choice” then everything in nature becomes a choice. The word becomes virtually worthless.

              • Posted January 21, 2013 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

                “Of course, I’ve simplified this to a very skeletal description that fits in a sentence and is meant to be suggestive, not complete, but generally it is obvious that the brain rises to the occasion. Otherwise Shakespeare could not have written what he did.”

                Yes, obviously the brain does. It’s not obvious that it does so in a deterministic fashion. In fact, it seems obvious that it doesn’t.

            • Posted January 21, 2013 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

              I don’t understand how you conclude that things are being imposed on us.

              You conclude it, not me.

          • Posted January 22, 2013 at 3:18 am | Permalink

            I was arguing the opposite of this, that responsibility in no way depends on free will, and that deterministic systems can have responsibility.

            I know. My comment was more that you seem to think that the determinist argument against responsibility is only or can only be made through free will, and so if you can split responsibility off from free will then it won’t have that problem anymore. As I pointed out, that isn’t really true.

            Basically if I say “free will”, think “contra-causal free will” because I think any other notion of free will is confusing given the historical provenance of the term. In particular, I think compatibilists who are also determinists, like Dennet, abuse the term “free will”.

            At which point I can refer you back to the Strong Determinist making the same charge against you wrt responsibility. Now, I’m not saying that you don’t recognize that that might be a similar charge, but it does, I think, nicely outline the problem you face while trying to preserve responsibility by tweaking its definition while criticizing compatibilists like Dennett for trying to preserve free will.

            (Strong Libertarians, BTW, would simply charge both sets of compatibilists with having failed to preserve the important things about the terms in a deterministic world.)

            Well, computers make choices, and so do insects. But you probably wouldn’t agree that they have free will.

            Well, _I_ wouldn’t, because I’m a Strong Libertarian. But a lot of compatibilists would. Dennett, for example, tends to argue that computers do indeed obviously make choices and yet are completely determined, and so it isn’t reasonable for us to say that you can’t make choices if things are completely determined. As for insects, most people will argue that a simple “stimulus/response” is not a choice in any meaningful definition of the term.

            To me it feels dishonest to claim that this is what everyone really meant by “free will” all along, or that this kind of freedom is a special unique human quality that elevates us into a fundamentally new category above other animals, or that it justifies assigning moral responsibility because more than one option was considered.

            But for compatibilists like Dennett, they argue that what people think of as free will doesn’t capture what is important about it and is contradictory — and we have proven that through psychological studies — and so they are aiming to get at what’s important, which for them is usually choice. They deny that this is a special unique human quality (Dennett, at least, certainly does unless I’m remembering him terribly wrong). As for moral responsibility, again the issue with moral responsibility and determinism is NOT over the moral part, but over the responsibility part. If you save responsibility, then I argue that you save moral responsibility.

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted January 22, 2013 at 6:26 am | Permalink

              Thanks for that reply. That’s useful and thought provoking feedback.

            • Another Matt
              Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:59 am | Permalink

              Hi VS, nice post.

              Dennett, for example, tends to argue that computers do indeed obviously make choices and yet are completely determined, and so it isn’t reasonable for us to say that you can’t make choices if things are completely determined. As for insects, most people will argue that a simple “stimulus/response” is not a choice in any meaningful definition of the term.

              One response from the incompatibilists here has often been, “congratulations, you just gave cockroaches free will.” I’ve never been clear whether they’re saying, “…and only humans could possibly have free will and I find the idea of cockroaches having it offensive,” or simply, “…so free will isn’t that important a concept, is it?”

              Anyway, there are a few ways to look at this, because it seems to me that this is a classic degree/kind problem — if you’re a compatibilist, is free will something you can have more or less of, or is it binary (either you have it or you don’t)? I think it’s a lot more useful to have it be a matter of degree, like intelligence — we compare a cat to a butterfly, and although the cat will never learn Tae Kwon Do, we can still call it “sweet” or “conniving” in a way that would not make sense for the butterfly. I think consciousness is a similar matter of degree.

              But there are caveats. It’s possible that our extra degree of intelligence makes other kinds of behaviors manifest. When you say that Dennett argues that computers and insects make choices, it’s only to the degree that you can represent those systems’ intentionality (their beliefs, desires, etc.) without begging the question of whether they have “real intentionality.” I think for Dennett, only intentional systems make choices.

              But while most mammals have beliefs, desires, intentions, etc., it could be that humans are the only animals so far to have achieved higher-order beliefs, desires, intentions, etc. (beliefs about beliefs, desires about intentions, and so forth). For some people, the butterfly doesn’t make choices because it doesn’t even have beliefs, and the cat doesn’t make choices because it doesn’t believe anything about beliefs or desires.

              Similarly, Chomskians might say that even though language evolved by degrees, it’s a kind of intelligence that no other animal has. And not only does it allow us to communicate, but it allows us to think rationally by putting handles on concepts so that they can be brought forth and turned over deliberately. Dennett has a similar concept called “reason representing”: animals, plants, and anything with survival interests has reasons for doing things whether they’re aware of them or not. But humans represent reasons — we think about reasons, have beliefs about reasons, communicate about reasons, and so forth. For some people, “making real choices” is also dependent on the ability to represent reasons.

              Yet another approach is that for some, “merely making a choice” doesn’t amount to free will, but being conscious of that activity as making a choice does.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:53 am | Permalink

                I for one am perfectly happy to view human intelligence as belonging to a continuum that includes computers and animals. Consciousness seems like a kind of quantum leap, but I think of it as being like a phase transition.

                I’m deeply committed to naturalism and hence to determinism. The fact that we can’t yet explain self-awareness and qualia in terms of physical determinism doesn’t bother me much because I think it can and will be done.

                It’s perfectly sensible to talk about will, and to view it as having weaker and stronger forms on a continuum. A spider certainly demonstrates a will to live as far as I’m concerned. It’s evasive movements seem to qualify as motivated behavior, even though they wouldn’t likely include human like emotion. One can belittle it as mere stimulus/response, but then let’s not forget that a mere voltage stimulus from an electrode can instantaneously stimulate heartfelt griefstricken weeping and sorrow or ecstatic joyful laughter in a human.

                If we just talk about “will”, I seem to be in perfect agreement with compatibilists. I just can’t get on board with calling it “free will”

                Adding the “free” qualifier implies too much that simply isn’t true. There is so much historical baggage that construes “free will” as a unique and special human quality, and too much association with theological and dualist notions.

                To me saying the human will is free seems like saying a dog tethered to a pole is free. Yes it has some free play or latitude, and it is free to go to the end of its leash, but to say it is free is going too far. It is constrained by real physical and deterministic limits. We could talk about orders of constraint perhaps. A dog could be bound immobile to a fixed point. To be somewhat kinder you could keep it tethered to a pole connected on the other end to a central axis that allows it to run in circles at at a fixed radius. You could add play by replacing the stiff pole with a flexible leash allowing it to cover all the territory within a disc. You could lengthen the leash to expand the disc. Or you could unleash it, and then we are tempted to say it is free. But it is still constrained by walls perhaps and gates and gravity. So it is free to greater and greater degrees, but never quite becomes fully free.

                So how free us free enough? A human brain has layer upon layer of complexity and latitude and free play beyond what a clock or motor or computer or spider has. But I think it is still a deterministic machine, and it still has substantial limits and constraints.

                So I’m happy talking about the human brain having degrees of freedom or added dimensions of latitude that other machines or other brains don’t have.

                I simply can’t escape awareness of the connotations that are added when we say our will is “free”, period. This seems to imply absolute unqualified unlimited freedom, which as I see it could only be the case if free will were contra-causal, which is in my view impossible. This is what conferring the property of “free will” seems to say, even if as a compatibilist you intentionally restrict what you mean. How it is heard and read by others will most often far exceed your intended meaning.

                Like it or not, it is part of our unavoidable cultural legacy that “free will” as a compound unit is a concept associated with a threshhold of qualitative difference that makes humans unique and special and even divine in the minds of the typical member of our culture, which at minimum includes all the inheritors of the western tradition, but likely also all within the realms of monotheism’s reach, and quite probably beyond to include all or nearly all of humanity.

              • Another Matt
                Posted January 22, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

                I simply can’t escape awareness of the connotations that are added when we say our will is “free”, period. This seems to imply absolute unqualified unlimited freedom, which as I see it could only be the case if free will were contra-causal, which is in my view impossible. This is what conferring the property of “free will” seems to say, even if as a compatibilist you intentionally restrict what you mean. How it is heard and read by others will most often far exceed your intended meaning.

                Yep, I agree that this is the most salient point. I disagree about “absolute unqualified unlimited freedom,” though. I remember an “existential crisis” I had in 4th grade or so: “Wait a minute, if I have ‘free will,’ shouldn’t I be able to fly, or teleport? What’s going on?” Of course, I pretty quickly updated my understanding of what “free will” meant — of course it doesn’t mean making the impossible possible, it just means freedom to act within one’s constraints, to operate within one’s milieu and to change it when possible. And it’s the nature of those constraints that we are rightly worried about and spend a lot of time and energy investigating.

                The phrase “to the best of one’s ability” is important in compatibilist literature. When I grade a paper and write “B. You and I both know this could have been better,” what I am not saying is that the student could have subverted causality “at will” and written a Pulitzer-worthy essay, but that I have judged the student’s intelligence/ability and deemed this particular paper unworthy of his/her ability.

                There are other commenters here who would say, “but the student really did give you a paper that was the best of his/her ability; in fact it was the only paper the student was capable of writing at the time, because of determinism.” This is not how I understand “ability” and “capable,” and other concepts like “competent,” “capacity,” and so forth. It’s why I’ve tried really hard to get incompatibilists here to explain what they mean when they invoke those concepts.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted January 22, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

                I agree with both of your last two paragraphs, and don’t see them as contradictory. The student did what they did because of deterministic forces, which may have involved too much surfing or partying to perform up to A standards.

                What the teacher really means by “this could have been better” is that hopefully this feedback will inspire a better job next time, that desire for a better grade or for the teacher’s approval may inspire harder work in the student.

                I don’t think the student really could have done better unless we travelled back in time and tweaked the physical state of the universe. I do know what it means to think the student didn’t apply full capacity to the job, and to hope they may do better next time.

              • Posted January 22, 2013 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

                Hello, Another Matt,

                On insects, I think the key is really treating their decision just as nothing more than a simple stimulus/response. I’m pretty sure Dennett gives an example in one of his books of the bug — taken from Dawkins, I think, but don’t quote me on that — that drags its dinner to its hole and goes inside to check it, and then drags it in the rest of the way. But if you move the bug away, it will drag the bug back, and go and check the hole AGAIN. If you keep moving the bug away, it will keep doing this, potentially forever. That’s a simple stimulus/response and is really not what we want when we talk about making choices or decisions; it LOOKS like its reasoning, but it really isn’t.

                A similar example would be of how ants, when they find two food sources, will always exploit the closer one first and then the one that’s further away. It looks like intelligence and organization … except that I read a Starlogo (massively threaded Logo) experiment that demonstrated that it was simply because they follow the scent trail, and because the travel time is less to the closer source it gets the stronger scent trail and then more ants follow it, giving it a stronger scent trail, and so on. Again, that’s not what we want from decisions.

                So, I think that Dennett is quite open to computers at least potentially being able to have reasons the way we have reasons, even if most simple programs don’t really have that full intentionality. Insects, on the other hand, wouldn’t normally have something beyond simple stimulus response.

                As for having higher-order beliefs and desires, it is indeed considered that humans are the only ones who generally have that, as well as “consciousness about consciousness”, which allows them to make far more complicated and interesting decisions than other things. Meaning that we can have beliefs about our beliefs, and desires about our desires, etc, etc.

              • Another Matt
                Posted January 22, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

                That insect is the Sphex wasp. Douglas Hofstadter even coined a word (as is his wont) for that kind of preprogrammed/hardwired behavior — “sphexish.”

              • Another Matt
                Posted January 22, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

                Jeff,

                Note that the wrong lesson for the student to learn is:

                “Well, I did absolutely as good as determinism allowed me to. Maybe I’ll do better next time, but I don’t know — we’ll see, but determinism will determine whether I only have the ability to party again or whether I only have the ability to apply myself this time.”

                This might be a caricature, but I think this kind of reasoning is what Dennett et al. worry about. I can understand eliminating talk of “free will” as too fraught, but telling people that science has shown that we don’t even have real abilities after all might be detrimental to training of any kind (not just moral training), unless we’re really clear about what this entails and what it doesn’t.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

                People are used to struggling with their own limitations. I can’t do this math problem, I can’t quit smoking, I can’t make myself study more. And they are used to overcoming limits by repetition, by trial and error. I don’t think it matters that much if they think of it as determinism or human weakness, as long as they don’t succumb to fatalism, which is already a danger even without knowledge of determinism.

                There is fear and desire that motivates people, and they don’t generate that of their own free will but it moves them to have a will to keep trying. Then our brain plasticity and dynamic features play a role as we adapt and adjust and stretch our limits. This gives us latitude or degrees of freedom to grow and change, but its all deterministic, it all depends on if we have what it takes, which pretty much means genes and experience.

                So I think this worry about the psychological impact of acknowledging determinism is over blown, as long as the information about how complexity creates dynamic possibility for humans is understood, which it seems natural observation of life in action already teaches us intuitively. People deal with the idea of depression, mental illness, and medication much more these days. The lesson there is already that our brain has physical limitations and physical remedies. People are accustomed to using a wide variety of medical information to adjust habits and strive for a healthier lifestyle because determinism makes them desire health, success, and longevity. So I agree their are wrong lessons to take from determinism, but I think there are also correct and positive messages that can be communicated.

              • Posted January 22, 2013 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

                “This gives us latitude or degrees of freedom to grow and change, but its all deterministic,”

                I doubt there is much fear in the general population about determinism. It’s just too absurd to take seriously notions like 1) the winner of the Super Bowl has already been determined and 2) Shakespeare’s Hamlet was created in the Big Bang. John Calvin would be proud though.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted January 22, 2013 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

                It’s just too absurd to take seriously notions like 1) the winner of the Super Bowl has already been determined and 2) Shakespeare’s Hamlet was created in the Big Bang.

                Whether or not every event in the universe is pre-determined, and whether our brain works deterministically, are two separate questions.

                If there is indeterminacy in the universe, it’s very doubtful that it is introduced in people’s brains. What we at least have that can be confused with indeterminacy is the inability to predict, which is just as good as indeterminacy. I don’t see how it matters if the future is determined now or later, as long as it’s unknown and surprising. Here is an important point: even if it were all determined, if any one of us were instantaneously subtracted from the universe, it would change the future, determined or not. That means we each play an important role even in a fully determined universe.

                And of course the winner of the Super Bowl is determined. It’s the Forty F’ing Niners! 🙂

              • Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

                “Whether or not every event in the universe is pre-determined, and whether our brain works deterministically, are two separate questions.”

                For consistency’s sake we must. If the universe is not predetermined we have to ask, why not? If we suggest something like chance or randomness at a quantum level, we admit an effect that has no cause. And if we allow it there, we must be open to the possibility that uncaused cause be allowed in brain function too. Otherwise we have to explain how we can have a scope for chance which includes the whole universe yet excludes a small part of it.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

                It could be that the only significant indeterminacy was in the first tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang. Machines like computers involve quantum effects in the behavior of semi-conductors, but the net effect is zero at the machine level. The performance of logic gates is predictable within engineered tolerances. The brain appears to be the same: the firing of neurons causes our mind, and the neurons depend on deterministic biochemistry.

                If there were indeterminacy in the brain, it would introduce randomness, which doesn’t give you any more freedom than full determinacy. You are grasping at straws in order to avoid coming to terms with the idea that a deterministic dynamic massively parallel and chaotic protein based computing engine can account for the human mind.

              • Posted January 22, 2013 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

                “It could be that the only significant indeterminacy was in the first tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang.”

                If it could be, then we need to how it could be. And if it stopped we need to know at what point it stopped and why. Once we’ve introduced the principle, it’s the elephant in the room. It can’t be introduced for no reason and yanked out for no reason. And if we allow the principle without thoroughly understanding how this randomness could happen, even for an instant, we’ve got to explain why we’re confident we’ve found the one and only case of it.

                “If there were indeterminacy in the brain, it would introduce randomness, which doesn’t give you any more freedom than full determinacy.”

                True. But the uncaused cause is the issue, not randomness. What guarantee do we have that this uncaused cause we label randomness is the one and only case of an uncaused cause? Once the elephant is in the room it’s not going to be easy to get rid of it.

              • Another Matt
                Posted February 8, 2013 at 6:32 am | Permalink

                Jeff –

                Just wanted to say, sorry about the Forty F’ing Niners. 😦

  46. neil
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    To answer the question as to why (b) rather than (a) one need only note that this topic has already attracted 254 responses, and an earlier one attracted over a hundred as well. The question of free will is one which we seem unable to answer and unable to leave alone.

  47. DV
    Posted January 20, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    c) you try to understand what “free will” truly means. If free will is not about freedom from causation then what is it really?

  48. Howard Kornstein
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 12:05 am | Permalink

    I cannot understand why anyone that understands evolution and also does not believe in free will would ever propose the elimination of punishment as we use it in society. Those who hold these positions, very badly need to read up on the subject of Evolutionary Game Theory, which clearly sets out in mathematics both how we have come to adopt the inate genetic “strategy” of punishment, but also why why punishment is so necessary. For example the Repeated Prisoners Game which helps us understand the selection pressure on our geneticlly behaviour of altruism also clearly mathematically shows that without any punishment for “defection” the strategy of cooperation totally collapses. The Ultimatum game further shows how defection punishment becomes essential to achieve “fairness”. This does not mean that we cannot change the form or extent of punishment to meet present moral norms, it only means we cannot realistically do without it.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted January 21, 2013 at 5:44 am | Permalink

      I haven’t heard anyone advocate for the total elimination of punishment. The question raised by an absence of free will is whether punishment should contain elements of sadism designed to gratify the anger and rage of moral retribution, or whether it should be designed purely from a standpoint of deterrence and coupled with more humane elements designed in the interest of rehabilitation.

      So I think it is not punishment itself that is questioned, but rather the character of punishment. A comparison of prison conditions and sentencing in the US and Scandanavia reveals that in addition to isolating and confining offenders as punishment, the US prison system reflects attitudes supporting the idea that prison ought to also be threatening, dangerous, violent, miserable, and demeaning. I wonder whether as a result of these attitudes, which I consider to be primitive, brutal, and derived from moral rage, our prison system doesn’t tend to train people to have a permanent criminal attitude of anger and resentment toward the law and society, a feeling of being rejected and outcast from society, and of having no place in society other than that of adversary to peace and justice.

      • Howard Kornstein
        Posted January 24, 2013 at 1:00 am | Permalink

        I agree with you to a large extent, but with a few caveats. First, you cannot look at a fellon and just say “poor fellow, he only did that because he has no free will and was victim of a bad set of deterministic circumstances” and ALTER punishment to any considerable level because of that. From a realistic Game Theoretic approach this lack of free will is irrelevant, as lesser punishment would only cause other similar potential “defectors” to do more criminal things. Second, although rehabilitation is greatly desired, it is post-event and is not a factor in deterring the original criminal event. I really don’t think that “harsh” punishment is done mostly for the sake of “moral rage”, it is merely the effect that different countries vary on the calculation of the value of deterrence in the punishment they set. Even if moral rage were a factor, this in itself could be shown to be a form of Ultimatum Fairness which helps society tick on effectively. It’s all very complex – my point being free will considerations should have NOTHING to do with setting penalties. Of course “sanity” is a factor in mitigation, but lets not go there for the time being, while we discuss generality.

        • Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:16 am | Permalink

          “I really don’t think that “harsh” punishment is done mostly for the sake of “moral rage”, it is merely the effect that different countries vary on the calculation of the value of deterrence in the punishment they set.”

          If I understand you, I agree. No matter where we come down on the free will issue, it will make no difference on the punishment issue. Even those who believe genes and environment are the sole determinant in behavior could easily conclude threatening, dangerous, violent, miserable, and demeaning prison environments will bring about rehabilitation more effectively.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:27 am | Permalink

          I think that the difference between a life sentence and the death penalty is almost entirely moral rage. Especially when one considers the costs to the state, and the studies that have suggested that the death penalty is not a greater deterrent than a life sentence. But I think you are right that most of our sentences are calculated with deterrence in mind.

          On the other hand it seems our failure to make prisons more humane by tolerating the prevalence of violence and rape is a result of moral rage. The attitude that better conditions are undeserved is founded on moral rage or at least indignant moral disapproval. Let’s face it, the biological evolutionary basis of moral rage and vengeance seems to be that it acts as a deterrent to future infringements, so it’s very hard to separate the two.

          It may very well be that today we can’t do a lot better than we are already doing, though I think we could learn something by studying how it’s done in Scandinavia, and by relaxing our fairly pervasive vengeful notion that prison must be a place where prisoners suffer and live in fear.

          In the future though I believe that having a deeper knowledge of the brain will improve our ability to detect and treat organic causes of criminal behavior. That will open new options. We may use drugs, therapies, surgeries, or even implants to treat people with violence problems or the inability to respect the property of others. Submitting to these treatments is in itself a kind of punishment. It may be that convicts would have a choice between submitting to such a therapy or taking a longer sentence. There is already a precedent for this kind of thing with sex offenders. And as a compliment to a period of confinement, such therapies or treatments are likely to increase our confidence that recidivism would be reduced. The more deeply we can understand the brain, the more accurately we can estimate what the length of sentences should be, and supplement confinement with conditions that reduce recidivism.

          So I think knowing more about the brain will provide many different opportunities to have a correctional system that truly is correctional and inflicts a minimal amount of unnecessary pain and suffering while accomplishing the goal reducing crime and it’s harmful effects to law abiding citizens.

          • Howard Kornstein
            Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:32 am | Permalink

            Well, I do believe we must try as much as possible to be humane, but remembering at the same time we are both trying to achieve some maximum good, as well as primarily to deter crime. But I can’t see that not allowing a factor of moral rage to have a part in setting penalities is at all sound – I would even claim that all penalties are ultimately set by moral rage. Why is violent rape more penalised than illegal parking – because that crime produces a greater innate moral rage.
            The issue of using mind-engineering to stop criminality fills me with dread, I think it’s inherently an ethical minefield and open to dangerous abuse. Example: treatment of Alan Turing. Just imagine the state with more powerful mind altering technologies. Free will is again an issue – what “natural right” does a person have not to have his free will altered by anything except consequences (penalty)?

  49. charming
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 2:18 am | Permalink

    why do philosophers resist that nice vanity free will? because there’d be nothing left for those thumbsucking, *******ucking, ditherers to be paid for.

    • charming
      Posted January 21, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

      i meant to say ‘persist with that nice vanity…’. which, i guess is much worse than a typo. sorry.

  50. Posted January 21, 2013 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    “An application of this is able, for example, to control the movements of a platform in an XY plane in order to balance a broomstick on the platform. As the balanced stick falls due to gravity “randomly” in any direction of a 360 degree range, the platform detects the movement and decides to adjust accordingly in order to maintain an upright position for the balanced stick.”

    Sorry, but that doesn’t sound like a very difficult problem. The most difficult part would be the resolution of movement and controlling the motors precisely. Motors ramp up slowly and overshoot when stopping. Plus, you have to compensate for backlash.

  51. Howard Kornstein
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Lets see if some mathematical thinking can crack this issue of free will. If something is physical and totally determinable it can be expressed mathematically, even if it is non-linear or affected by previous states ( eg a “state machine”). Now the equations describing the outcome are horrifically complex, mostly because there are so many variables and factors in the equations – hundreds of thousands if not millions – involving genes, structures, events, senses, memory effects, state, past state, learning process and bias, data retained etc ect. We could try a bit of reductionism- seeking first order factors only – after all the decision which I will make about sticking my hand in a fire or not sticking my hand in a fire is determined by a relatively few key variables that “matter”. But this is rarely the case, most actions would be at a tipping point on a twentieth order factor say. To complicate things even more, we are conscious, that is we are aware of the decision, and many ( but far from all) of the factors. And we are that state machine, with variables influenced by past events. NOW… Is the equation solvable, either by our conscious mind or in some external computing device? The answer – NO. No equation of this type, although potentially expressible is in practise fully defined or even solvable if it were. We can not even predict the weather accurately, which is a much simpler equation set. Certainly we cannot hope to predict our future decisions by “ourselves” ie by our own conscious mind. So where do we stand? NOTHING CAN PREDICT THE EXACT RESULT. But we DO make a result happen. What do we call this agency to act out the unsolvable mathematics, deterministic but undeterminable – FREE WILL.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      But why not just call it “will”? Why choose “free will”? Certainly not for mathematical or physical or scientific reasons. What is it free of? Free of prediction or solution?

      The tradition of the term “free will” goes back to people believing they were actually free of determinism. That is the reason we call it free will, and your example pretty much includes the assumption that we don’t have that.

      So what lack of freedom is causing you to pick out the particular phrase “free will” as a name for this complexity and unpredictability our deterministic behavior?

      • Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

        “The tradition of the term ‘free will’ goes back to people believing they were actually free of determinism.”

        I’m not clear about what you mean by that. Certainly few people use “free will” to mean their choices are free from all environmental or passionate influence. They usually mean, I think, that they aren’t compelled to make a choice like a slave might be; that they do have options and they can and do choose either option even if the options aren’t obviously equal, so to speak.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted January 27, 2013 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

          Obviously people appear to have, and feel like they have, free will. Even slaves have free will by that standard. A person with a gun to their head has the free will to make choices on how to deal with the situation. They might have the courage and daring to try to wrestle the gun away, for example, or to decide that such a move would exceed their physical capabilities and be too risky. But I maintain that these choices are not as free as we think they are, and not just determined by the external constraint of the gun. The behavior in such a situation will be determined as much or more by the history, experience, state and structure of the victims brain as it would be by the external coercion of the gun. Some might piss their pants, tremble and be paralyzed by fear, others more stoic. Some might have mental clarity and seek to negotiate their way out cleverly, while others might be mute and mentally muddled from the fear. These are not things the vicitms are choosing.

          What I mean by the tradition of free will going back to people believing they were free of determinism, is to look at the stoics and the Christian theologians. Under the stoics, in order to find an explanation for the compatibility between a deterministic atomism and the apparent free willed behavior humans demonstrate at the macro level, Epicurus invented the concept of the “swerve”, which was the idea that atoms had the ability to deviate from rectilinear billiard-ball determinism in order to introduce flexibility that gave rise to human freedom.

          The notion of theologians like Aquinas was that god’s all powerful will, which would be quite capable of imposing absolute determinism on all things, would place the human in an unfair position if humans were forced to sin and go to hell by god’s will, never having a choice in the matter. It was therefore necessary, in the Christian metaphysical model, to have a notion of free will that was god given in order to give humans some rope to hang themselves with. This gift of freedom is again, like the stoics swerve, a release from the lock of determinism. Interesting to note that a paradox is introduced with this god given free will: if humans are truly free of divine will, can god still predict the future?

          This theological notion of freedom along with the conception of the soul gave rise to the dualistic basis of free will, which Descartes probably did the most to clarify and formalise in his “Cogito ergo sum” meditations.

          Modern compatibilism has a different notion of free will, accepting determinism and the vast amount of scientific evidence for it, but still noticing that humans have the same baffling range of behaviors that puzzled the atomist stoics way back a few millenia. These behaviors include the ability to control our behavior in certain ways in reaction to our environment, and the feeling subjectively that “we” are “creating” this “freedom” in our minds. The simplest analysis is that if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck it must be free will. Yet such a simple analysis failed miserably in classical wave theory of electromagnetism, and this failure gave rise to quantum mechanics.

          So what looks like a duck isn’t necessarily a duck, and what looks like free will isn’t necessarily truly “free” of determinism, and isn’t as free as it feels in our subjective head-space.

          I see it as something akin to an extremely elaborate version of the stoic’s swerve that accounts for our apparent free will. Except it’s not just a swerve, but rather trillions of complex spirals and cascades of neurons firing in hierarchies of networks with unimaginable complexity, exhibiting complexity and chaos and emergent properties but still fully deterministic. It is not predictable in practice, but predictable in principle, and the vast complexity of it introduces a lot of flexibility that goes way beyond any simplistic conception of determinism that people tend to imagine as puppet strings or lowly stimulus response. There is metabolism and internal autonomy, but this autonomy is generated deterministically by our internal complexity. Ultimately, there is no freedom from determinism, only an apparent one that satisfies human needs and wants. And no, to say “needs and wants” is not inconsistent with the idea of a complex brain with emotions generated deterministicallly by unconscious processes.

          • Another Matt
            Posted January 27, 2013 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

            These behaviors include the ability to control our behavior in certain ways in reaction to our environment, and the feeling subjectively that “we” are “creating” this “freedom” in our minds.

            Thanks for your excellent comments, Jeff. I’ve been thinking a ton about this for the last week.

            For me, “ability to control our behavior” is enough of a “concession” from incompatibilists to move forward with an understanding. But I don’t see many commenters besides you talking this way.

            I’ve been thinking… one of the humanist phrases these days seems to be “good without god,” or “you can be good without god,” or “you can choose to be good without god.” I think it’s a lot harder to propose “you can be good without the ability to control your behavior,” or “you can be good without being able to make choices.”

            So while I understand why it might be important to forgo the concept of “free will” because of its religious connotations, it is not even close to the same category as the “if there is no god, everything is permitted” debate. Hence the need to try to explain what the implications of determinism really would be, which I take you to be doing rather well.

          • Howard Kornstein
            Posted January 28, 2013 at 3:04 am | Permalink

            An excellent post Jeff, and an excellent summary of where this discussion has reached (for some of us anyway).
            Your historic perspective is important because the historic religious context of the concept of free will muddies the controversy. We materialists should not allow ourselves to be repelled or made deniers of a concept because it was, or is, a central theme in a religious context. It is the religious context which is nonsensical and irrelevant, not the concept. As for that particular religious context “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence”. We need to look at the concept in terms of what we do accept- materialism and determinism. In this context we can claim free will exists. It is NOT a “swerving the ball” sort of determinism, it is determinism as bounded by chaos theory. The ball doesn’t swerve, we just can’t predict where it will go.

            So it is two elements that are key to all this -Predictability and Influence.

            We have a deterministic system, for sure, but we cannot predict what action will follow. But we can still be happy we are dealing with determinism. A mathematician is totally comfortable with such apparent paradox for it is an essential part our chaos theory

            YET what is the entity that most influences the initial conditions in the equation? – it is the self. Surely we must accept that this self-entity exists and we can define its boundaries. This self is also a vital part of the initial conditions so the resultant action is determined by its agency, while not predictable, even by that “self”.

            Ergo free will

          • Posted January 28, 2013 at 10:31 am | Permalink

            “These behaviors include the ability to control our behavior in certain ways in reaction to our environment, and the feeling subjectively that “we” are “creating” this “freedom” in our minds.”

            I think modern compatibilism would have to modify “the ability to control our behavior” because it becomes meaningless. IMO the sentence should read, “These behaviors include the ability to witness our behavior in reaction to our environment, and the feeling subjectively that ‘we’ are in ‘control’.”

            But free will includes more than simple reactive situations. It includes the freedom to ignore our environment, to change our environment, to explain our environment, or to enhance our environment through technical and artistic means. Free will covers a lot of ground.

            I’m aware of the historical context. Even Plato discussed the issue but he did it from a different direction. In Protagoras, for example, his Socrates argues no man does wrong willingly. He can’t be overcome by passions because knowledge forces a man to choose what he believes is best. The same sort of argument is made in The Republic too, I think. Basically these reject free will. I don’t find Plato’s arguments compelling.

            Like you, I approach this issue as a materialist. Our difference appears to be what we believe materialism is. You seem to see the universe as 100% deterministic. I don’t. I find it impossible to believe our here and now was determined at the moment of the Big Bang and could not have become otherwise, down to this response I’m writing right now. We can predict a lot. But you admit yourself that the universe as a whole is “not predictable in practice.” I have to ask, What does that mean? It means we can’t prove this determinism. We’re outside the realm of science. So what we have is a leap of faith. It’s a matter of opinion with no hope of rising above opinion — that is, if you take the epistemological stance I do (that science and empiricism provide our only reliable and objective means to gain knowledge.).

            And it does seem that we do have at least two reasons to doubt determinism. We have the empirical evidence at the quantum level. That, to me, implies a universe driven by probability, not strict determinism. And we have animal life itself which does seem, empirically, to make choices that are not strictly determined. I see no way of determining they are determined. If someone claims we have a deterministic system “for sure,” I want to know what makes them so sure. That someone claims these behaviors are “predictable in principle” means nothing to me. “In principle” is a very slippery slope. By what principal are we going to make this claim?

    • Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      “NOW… Is the equation solvable, either by our conscious mind or in some external computing device? The answer – NO.”

      Furthermore, if it isn’t solvable (and I agree that it’s doubtful that it is) how could we use the scientific method to say everything about it? I don’t suggest science can’t say a lot about it. And I’m pretty optimistic about what it can do. It will probably tell us everything we can know. But I think it will never be able to prove an absolute determinacy.

      • Howard Kornstein
        Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

        Yes, that’s essentially what I’m saying donjindra. My last sentence of the post is my definition. When certain people argue that our behaviour is predetermined, how can they do so when they can NOT determine it, nor even can we do so ourselves, and none of us have any chance of ever doing so? “Choice” ultimately has a physical basis but is non-determinable,and yet choice IS made – consciously. This gives an impression that we have free will, and that impression is, for both mathematical and scientific reasons, essentially true.

        • Howard Kornstein
          Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

          … I didn’t clarify the “scientific reason”, only the mathematical. In science we are dealing with something we can predict. Not just measure, but predict – or have some possibility of developing THEORY to the point that it CAN predict.
          Not so here.

          • Howard Kornstein
            Posted January 25, 2013 at 1:58 am | Permalink

            … and just one final word on the math. I might have beaten this poor horse into the ground already, but this point needs saying. The nature of the mathematical structure of this problem lends itself to chaos theory. I am not saying this with the certainty that this is absolutely true as we don’t know the equations at all. But the iterative nature of the mathematics, the complex initial conditions etc.all lend themselves to this strong possibility. BUT part of these initial conditions of the system is our consciousness and our ability to trigger the dynamic behaviour of the system. Chaos theory is a reflection of determinacy….but as with great complexity we have insolubility (even GREATER insolubility). What does this mean? If our mind sets part of the initial condition in such a system then for all intents and purposes we have free will as we crudly define it….WE are the agent that triggers the state the dynamics will lead to.

  52. Posted January 25, 2013 at 3:25 am | Permalink

    What’s all this about the lack of free will meaning punishment for crime needs to be changed? Most modern penal codes don’t include vengeance anyway. Reasons for penalties are deterrents, protecting society and helping the criminal to improve. None of these depend on whether the criminal was morally responsible.

    In other words, just because there is no free will doesn’t mean that a criminal would commit a crime in any case; society has the responsibility to create an environment which makes crime less likely, even if there is no free will. Punishment as a deterrent, protecting society from known criminals and reforming a criminal are all in line with this.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted January 25, 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

      I haven’t noticed anyone saying that lack of free will implies we should do away with prison sentences. I agree with you our present system mostly sentences for deterrence. Even though we don’t have free will, we can reason and take into account consequences of our actions, which can help tilt the balance toward following the law if a person’s natural mental processes lean toward disrespecting life and property. So clearly detention and isolation are useful tools to protect society and discourage crime, and I haven’t heard any critics of the “free will” hypothesis argue against this.

      However I believe moral anger plays a role in people’s support of the death penalty, and I think that our tolerance of violence and rape in prisons reflects attitudes of the public and of guards and prison officials (in many but not all cases) that include dehumanizing tribal moral anger in addition to the rational motives for deterrence and rehabilitation.

      I also think that deeper and more widespread knowledge of the brain and how it works has the potential to create what I would call a more enlightened attitude toward criminals, as well as new opportunities for rehabilitation. We certainly have developed new attitudes toward the mentally ill since the days they were considered possessed by demons. We did make progress during the twentieth century in factoring out some of the more sadistic forms of punishment, and I believe that trend will continue.

      What I don’t expect to see is any radical dramatic overnight transformation of how we do things, but rather gradual evolution.

      • Posted January 25, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink

        “I also think that deeper and more widespread knowledge of the brain and how it works has the potential to create what I would call a more enlightened attitude toward criminals, as well as new opportunities for rehabilitation.”

        I don’t see how that follows. I think we might change our rhetoric — what we call things — and possibly our “anger” level, but there’s no reason to think our acts would change. And to the guy receiving the “treatment” it makes little difference that the correction officer is acting out of a behaviorist’s “reason” rather than a moralist’s “anger.”

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted January 25, 2013 at 10:16 am | Permalink

          I think if prison guards are turning a blind eye to rape or beating people unnecessarily out of anger, it makes a big difference.

          And you seem to completely discount future possibility. I was trying to emphasize changes that could take place as a result of very dramatic increases in our understanding of the brain, not changes we can or should institute today.

          Just compare how things are today with how they have been in the past. That ought to suggest the kinds of changes that might take place over the next hundred years. In the past there was little understanding of how a brain tumor or a head injury might effect behavior. Now we have some idea, and we might understand with ten or a hundred times the detail in the future. In the past horribly cruel public executions were applauded by a cheering population. In the past mentally ill people were considered possessed by demons. So my point has already been proven by changes over the last several centuries, and progress is greatly accelerated today. I don’t see any reason why the already existing trend shouldn’t continue. Humanity has never stood still for long.

          • Another Matt
            Posted January 25, 2013 at 10:21 am | Permalink

            And you seem to completely discount future possibility. I was trying to emphasize changes that could take place as a result of very dramatic increases in our understanding of the brain, not changes we can or should institute today.

            Well, either this will come to pass or it won’t — determinism will see to it that there is only one “future possibility!” 😉

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted January 25, 2013 at 10:43 am | Permalink

              Absolutely true, which is not an argument for abandoning action or the application of our intelligence to problems, as our genetically determined will to survive and prosper motivates and impels us to do.

              We will continue to struggle to make the world as good as we can make it, which is exactly how deterministic forces will cause us to arrive at the determined world of the future. This is also exactly what allows me to imagine predictions of what the future might look like, some of which may be totally wrong, and others of which might be very close to the truth. If it weren’t for determinism, we probably could never make predictions that were in any way close to the truth.

              If deterministic forces had created a different universe, humans might be persuaded by the dumb idea that determinism makes us helpless puppets. If our brains worked that way, and we were led to quit using our abilities, we might have died out by now, or might never have evolved the intelligence and rich cultural legacies that we have today.

              Let’s not forget: we ourselves ARE a significant component of deterministic forces at work.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted January 25, 2013 at 10:30 am | Permalink

          I might add that there is some evidence suggesting the possibility that the widespread use of leaded gasoline increased levels of crime, and that the elimination of leaded fuel has contributed to the falling crime rates of the last several decades. There seem to be no other good explanations for the falling crime rate, and this attempt to explain it may or may not turn out to be true.

          This at least suggests another way in which deeper understanding of the how the brain works can contribute to reductions in crime, treatment of criminals, or perhaps early detection of people with high probability of becoming criminals, knowledge which might enable compensating education or medication.

  53. Jeff Johnson
    Posted February 4, 2013 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Anyone still following here and interested in our prison system may be interested to read the following, and the stories it links to:

    http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/political-animal-a/2013_02/how_to_fix_our_monstrously_unj042765.php


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