Jim Al-Khalili mistakes unpredictability for free will

UPDATE: Reader Chris Quartly noticed that I posted about this same article by Al-Khalili in January here.  All I can say is that I forgot; blame it on advancing age. At any rate, those readers who didn’t catch the earlier post may want to engage with this one. Mea culpa.  Too, my views have developed since then, and there have been additional neuroscience experiments showing that decisions are partly predictable up to several seconds before the subject is aware of having made them.


Most of you have probably heard of Jim Al-Khalili, who has a busy career as a professor of physics at the University of Surrey, as a broadcaster on the BBC (he does “The Life Scientific” show, and I believe he once interviewed me about Steve Jones), and as president of the British Humanist Association. He also has his own eponymous website.

Al-Khalili is clearly one of the good guys, but I think he erred a bit when he put up a post on January 18 that  just came to my attention: “Do we have free will—a physicist’s perspective?” The answer, of course, is “yes.” (How often do you see anyone say “no” these days?”) But his reasons for thinking that we have free will are odd, and ones that I haven’t yet encountered.

Al-Khalili seems to be a compatibilist—that is, he seems to find physical determinism compatible with free will, though he sees quantum mechanics as throwing a wrench into the determinism. I agree: if we reran the tape of the universe, or even the tape of life, I think things would come out differently, for in the origins of the universe, and probably in the origins of new species, true quantum indeterminism plays a role. In the case of life, for instance, it may have a hand in the production of mutations, which are the very fuel of evolution.

But Al-Khalili, unlike some other compatibilists, doesn’t see quantum indeterminacy as rescuing free will.  And I don’t think others, do, either—even if that indeterminacy plays out in our brains so that at any given moment we could equally well make either of two decisions. That kind of “quantum” free will is based on pure physical randomness and, to paraphrase Dan Dennett, “is not the kind of free will worth wanting.”

No, Al-Khalili finds free will elsewhere: in unpredictability. That is, our brains are incredibly intricate—they contain roughly ten billion nerve cells, each cell connected to others through about 10,000 synapses (cell-to-cell connections made via chemical or electrical stimuli)—so predicting how a series of environmental inputs will result in a given behavioral output—a decision—can often be impossible. We do know that certain behaviors are broadly predictable: how often have you said, when a friend made a decision, “I knew she would act that way!—but predicting fine-scale behaviors like dinner choices and the like may be forever beyond our abilities, even when we learn a lot more about the brain. The input-output algorithm is just too complicated.

Nevertheless, it may be possible to predict which decision a person can make not from first principles of understanding one’s wiring, but simply by scanning the brain in advance. Recent neuroscience studies, many highlighted on this site, show that one can predict with fair accuracy the results of a dichotomous choice (which button to press, whether to add or subtract two numbers) several seconds before the subject is conscious of having made it.  So Al-Khalili may be asking too much to predict decisions from brain wiring. That may be superfluous given that we may ultimately be able to predict them with fair accuracy from brain activity itself, and I’m pretty sure we’ll be able to do this for many behaviors when our scanning methods improve.

Too, many decisions can’t be predicted way in advance, simply because we don’t know what environmental inputs bear on a decision until close to the time it’s made. You may, for instance, decide to order lamb chops at a restaurant because your brain receives the environmental input of seeing an adjacent diner tucking into a rack of lamb only a few seconds before you order.

All this aside, though, for I think Al-Khalili goes wrong when he says that our decisions are free because we don’t know enough about the brain to predict them.  In his words (note that he explicitly rejects quantum mechanics as a basis for free will):

So do we have free will or don’t we? The answer, despite what I have said about determinism, is yes I believe we still do. And it is rescued not by quantum mechanics, as some physicists argue, but by chaos theory. For it doesn’t matter that we live in a deterministic universe in which the future is, in principle, fixed. That future is only knowable if we were able to view the whole of space and time from the outside. But for us, and our consciousnesses, imbedded within space-time, that future is never knowable to us. It is that very unpredictability that gives us an open future. The choices we make are, to us, real choices, and because of the butterfly effect, tiny changes brought about by our different decisions can lead to very different outcomes, and hence different futures.

So, thanks to chaos theory our future is never knowable to us. You might prefer to say that the future is preordained and that our free will is just an illusion, but the point is our actions still determine which of the infinite number of possible futures is the one that gets played out. . . It is precisely this unavoidable unpredictability about how a complex system such as our brain works, with all the thought processes, memories, interconnected networks with their loops and feedbacks, that gives us our free will.

Chaos theory, of course, is deterministic: it’s a theory that simply says that very slight alterations in the initial conditions of a complex system (say, weather patterns) can lead to very different outcomes (whether you get a hurricane). It’s all deterministic, playing out through the non-quantum laws of physics. It’s just that, like the three-body problem, we don’t know enough to work out such systems from first principles.

What baffles me is how you can derive “free will”, if that term has any meaning, from unpredictability.  Yes, we can’t predict our decisions, but they still are, according to Al-Khalili, determined by the laws of physics.  How does that add up to “freedom” in any meaningful sense? His statement that the choices are “real” choices is ambiguous. They look as if they are choices, but in principle we could have predicted them had we sufficient knowledge.  They are illusory choices—choices that aren’t what they seem to be or how they feel to us as agents. There is still only one future; it’s just that we can’t predict it.  And if those futures are altered by tiny differences in the environment, or previous “decisions” (i.e., brain states), well, that’s still deterministic and predictable in principle.

In the end, Al-Khalili says that, predictable or not, it doesn’t really matter whether our decisions are pre-determined:

Whether we call it true freedom or just an illusion in a way does not matter. I can never predict what you might do or say next if you really want to trick me because I cannot in practice ever model every neuronal activity in your brain, anticipate every changing synaptic connection and replicate every one of those trillions of butterflies that constitute your conscious mind in order for me to compute your thoughts. That is what gives you free will. This despite the actions of the brain most probably remaining fully deterministic – unless quantum mechanics has a bigger say in the matter than we currently understand.

But he’s wrong here.  It is critical whether our free will is an illusion or not. It matters whether our decisions simply reflect the laws of physics acting on our brain. Why? For two reasons. First, because it dispels the widespread and religiously based view that we can make true contracausal choices, and that those choices influence our postmortem fate.  What kind of God would send you to heaven or hell simply because your brain obeys the laws of physics? That means that you really don’t have a choice of accepting Jesus as your personal savior: that choice is purely the result of your genes and environment. Of course, as an atheist, Al-Khalili would certainly concur.

But the more important reason why the illusory nature of free will matters is because it has profound implications for how society metes out punishments and rewards. If a criminal has no choice about his actions, then we should treat him differently, something we already do when we take into account “mental capacity” when sentencing criminals.  Well, all of us have “diminished capacity” because our choices are completely constrained by our genes and environment. And if that’s the case, then we should punish not for retribution (even though we do), but for three reasons: rehabilitation, to set an example for others, and to keep dangerous people out of society.  And the efficacy of those punishments can, in principle, be determined scientifically. The efficacy of retribution cannot.

In other words, recognizing that free will is not “true freedom” (which Al-Khalili really admits it isn’t!) but illusory can help us build a better society, one in which we treat others in a way that’s best for them and society as a whole.  We may, for example, determine that, compared to incarceration without parole, the death penalty achieves nothing and, in fact, could make society more brutal.  The death penalty accomplishes nothing beyond retribution, since it’s actually more expensive than lifelong imprisonment.

All that aside—and I’m sure some readers will disagree—I find it odd that Al-Khalili buttresses his free will with the struts of unpredictability. That’s a tactic I haven’t seen used by compatibilists, but of course I haven’t read everything about free will.

Nevertheless, the logical extension of Khalili’s views is that many other animals, and even some plants, have free will as well. After all, can we predict from first principles how an earthworm will move, or how many leaves a tree will produce? Those, too, are subject to chaos theory.


  1. Posted April 24, 2013 at 5:46 am | Permalink

    What baffles me is how you can derive “free will”, if that term has any meaning, from unpredictability.

    This, of course, depends entirely on what one means by “free will”. Under a compatibilist conception there is no difficulty here.

    But the more important reason why the illusory nature of free will matters is because it has profound implications for how society metes out punishments and rewards.

    You keep asserting this, but you don’t expound on how in practice you want things to be different (as oppose to some superficial commentary about our legal systems being different).

    Personally I don’t think that the presence or absence of dualistic free will does make much difference to our society and legal systems.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted April 24, 2013 at 6:31 am | Permalink

      One very small example of how things might be different is exemplified by the “swift, certain, and NOT severe” approach to punishment that is used in Hawaii’s Project Hope. It is based not on retribution and traditional ideas of punishment, but based on an actual awareness of how people think, and how bad we are at factoring time value into our calculations of risk. This program is effective in terms of reducing parole violations and reducing costs of incarceration.

      Changing our approach to drug enforcement from one of retribution to one of rehabilitation and recovery is another way that we might reduce prison populations, reduce costs to society in terms of incarceration costs and lost productivity costs, and reducing the psychological costs to families and individuals are some of the benefits that can come from losing the puritanical view that people indulging in pleasure with drugs must suffer punishment as a form of moral revenge. That seems to be the only thing that keeps our drug laws in place.

      It should be obvious to anyone who studies the history of psychology and approaches to punishment that as we make new discoveries about the mind we have new ideas and approaches as a result, so obviously there will be much discovered in the future that will open up possibilities in prevention and rehabilitation that we can’t even imagine today. The only thing that might threaten such enlightened approaches from being implemented in a future world would be the tragic survival of stubborn traditionalist views on moral retribution and the puritanical religious imperative to purify by inflicting suffering.

      • Posted April 24, 2013 at 6:35 am | Permalink

        … approach to punishment that is used in Hawaii’s Project Hope.

        And since I’m betting that the Hawaiian populace’s attitude to “free will” is not that different from in other states of the US, I’m betting that this has nothing do to with dualistic freewill or its absence.

        Everything in your comment is sensible. None of it depends on or follows from a rejection of dualistic freewill.

        • Posted April 24, 2013 at 10:27 am | Permalink

          Even outright physicalists such as myself suffer from the illusion of free-will. It is a mental illusion. Unlike many optical illusions, where you can change the POV to see how the illusory mechanism is working (e.g. rotating mask illusion), you cannot do this with mental illusions. We cannot sense our neurons at work, so subjectively it feels as if our will is free of physical causes.

          So, it’s quite straight forward to intellectually acknowledge there is no evidence for a will that is free of physical causes, while still personally experiencing the illusion. Just as we feel we are solid while knowing that we are made of atoms that are empty space.

          For compatibilists, what is the will free of? Is the compatibilists’ free-will merely a term for a human automaton, albeit a very complex one?

          • Posted April 24, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

            For compatibilists, what is the will free of?

            For compatibilists, being “free” means being able to (deterministically) select from a range of behaviours based on one’s (determined) internal brain state.

            For example, a person selecting from a range of ice-cream flavours is exhibiting this (deterministic) freedom. It is this complex goal-oriented option-selecting behaviour that we call (deterministic) free will.

            House bricks and rain drops and mountains don’t do this. We do, chess-playing computers do, aircraft auto-pilots do, cats do.

            Note that this interpretation of “free will” has a long history (“we are free to do what we will, but not to will what we will”). It also accords with everyday language.

            If I say that I am free to decide to go to the cinema or a football game, in a way that a prison inmate is not, then I am not talking about whether one’s will is determined by the prior state of the system (which it is).

            Likewise the question “did you sign this contract of your own free will or were you coerced” is not asking about dualistic free will.

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted April 25, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

              Note that this interpretation of “free will” has a long history (“we are free to do what we will, but not to will what we will”). It also accords with everyday language.

              The original, by Schopenhauer, is well translated as “Man can indeed do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wants”. If this is not a statement that we don’t have freedom, I don’t know what it is. This says we can have wants, desires, longing, preferences, etc. and provided we aren’t physically constrained we can act on those. The point of saying we don’t have freedom is that we did not have the inner mental freedom to will ourselves to want other than we wanted. It is saying that our wants are determined by our nature, and given what we are we are not free to change what our nature determines we want at any given time. The closest we get to freedom comes from the fact that our brain is plastic, it develops and changes slowly over time, so our nature can change. This isn’t the same as free will.

              Likewise the question “did you sign this contract of your own free will or were you coerced” is not asking about dualistic free will.

              Neither is it asking about compatibilist free will. It is asking whether you were coerced by any external force when you signed.

              • Posted April 25, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

                That’s a pretty good explanation Jeff. I think that “we did not have the inner mental freedom to will ourselves to want other than we wanted.” is just a way of saying that the whole idea of contracausal free will is incoherent: You can’t will your own character, in the same way that you can’t pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. If one can change for better or worse, it’s only because the seeds of change were already present as part of one’s mental equipment (or part of one’s surrounding environment) in the first place.

              • Posted April 25, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

                If this is not a statement that we don’t have freedom, I don’t know what it is.

                Obviously it is a statement that we don’t have classical dualistic “freedom”. But it’s also a statement that we do have compatibilist freedom.

                Neither is it asking about compatibilist free will.

                Yes it is! That is exactly what it is about! Why oh why do the incompatibilists never understand what compatibilism means, despite it having been explained oodles of times?

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted April 25, 2013 at 4:24 pm | Permalink


                Neither is it asking about compatibilist free will.

                Yes it is! That is exactly what it is about! Why oh why do the incompatibilists never understand what compatibilism means, despite it having been explained oodles of times?

                No it is not.

                If someone asks “Did you sign of your own free will, or were you coerced”, they clearly want to know if you were coerced. They don’t give a damn how you decided to sign it as long as there was no foul play.

                We could look at it again without the explicit “or were you coerced”, and it still means the same thing. People are using “free will” in a very non-technical colloquial way in this context, and all it means is that you were not being forced by another person to do something you didn’t want to do.

                This says nothing at all about compatibilism nor does it require any understanding of compatibilism to understand what this question means.

                The key, in my view, as to how different people look at this confusion over “free will”, is whether you are coming at it from a standpoint of a scientist or engineer, or whether from the stand point of an end user.

                Compatibilists are end users. When they click their mouse or type a key they don’t need to understand how it works, they just want it to do what they want it to do. And they take the same approach to the brain.

                But compatibilism will never ever help anyone figure out how the brain works, and by that I mean how consciousness arises out of biological cells following the laws of physics. As soon as you start to peer inside the brain, compatibilism is entirely irrelevant. You simply can not be thinking about how the brain works and believe that there is some thing in the brain that can will whether it is going to choose A or B, but can not be reduced to a more fundamental level where its operation is explainable, where it is possible to see how and why it chose B, and could not have chosen A.

                Compatibilists simply don’t have the right way of thinking about this to approach that problem.

                Compatibilists are like people who drive cars and think that means they know something about them. You put in gas, turn the key, press the pedal, and turn the steering wheel. Automotive freedom. Incompatibilists are needed to design, build, and repair cars.

                Your compatibilist car can go where it wants, until it breaks. Then you are lost, and you are finally forced to admit, stranded out in the desert, that there was no free will in that motor after all, no matter how free you felt when you were cruising down the highway. At this point you have to admit that what you were experiencing as power and freedom was really based on more fundamental mechanisms, and only a very detailed understanding of these mechanisms can get your car back to a happy state of “power and freedom”.

                So compatibilism has some domain of applicability, presumably in social sciences and humanities, in situations where it feels good to talk about freedom and it is possible to ignore how things work. Also indeed in religion as well. It’s that freedom worth having that allows people to choose to worship god of their own compatibilist “free will”.

                But that domain of applicability doesn’t include thinking about how the brain works.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted April 25, 2013 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

                Jeff, that’s a caricature of compatibilism. Dennett is one of the leadings proponents of compatibilism, and he’s written whole books on how he thinks the mechanics of consciousness and decision-making work. Nobody thinks harder than he does about the nuts and bolts of this stuff and what it all means; it’s his specialty.

              • Posted April 26, 2013 at 1:43 am | Permalink

                People are using “free will” in a very non-technical colloquial way in this context, …

                No, we are using the term in a clear and long-standing compatibilist tradition.

                And it has the advantage that compatibilist freedom is the only sort of freedom that actually exists.

                The incompatibilists will get round to our way of thinking one day, once they’ve finished with arguing against the dualists.

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted April 25, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

              Regarding the “everyday language” remark.

              Consider the word “choice”. The meaning of this word changes depending on how it is used.

              There is the sense that exists when we face a set of options and have yet to select one. We have a choice.

              Then there is the act of in fact selecting one of the options. We make a choice.

              And finally, after this act is completed, the option selected is our choice.

              Suppose I’m traveling and come to a fork in the road. Before I proceed to either one or the other branches, I have a choice before me. After I have travelled beyond the fork, and am committed to one branch or the other, I have made a choice.

              I think compatibilists can only say their idea of free will is in accord with this latter sense of choice, that we make choices. I don’t think it can accord with the former sense of the word that we actually have choices. In fact which branch we take is determined by our nature, the state of our brain, our knowledge, our goals, etc. all of which is determined by the physical state of our brain.

              These different conceptual referents of the word “choice” are hidden under all of the words compatibilists associate with human free will, choice, and decision. They can claim the latter sense, that we do in fact arrive at choices, we act according to our wants and intentions, even though we don’t have the freedom to arbitraily change these things.

              But when language usage relies on the former sense of choice, of having options before us, then equivocation happens. This meaning of choice is a linguistic artifact of human belief in libertarian free will, or dualism, of a sense that given branching alternatives we can exercise an unconstrained freedom in choosing. There seems to be no way a brain whose working is explainable in physical material terms could operate this way. To insist on this sense of choice is to disavow determinism.

              • Posted April 25, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

                +1 that’s how I see it too. But I think there is a tendency, once people have accepted the incoherence of contra causal free will, to head directly to a position of fatalism, where choices are predestined and not a function of our own wishes, as if our cogitations have no meaning at all. My feeling is that the compatibilist redefinition of “free will” is just an opposition to that way of thinking. And so I have some sympathy with compatibilists, such as Dennett, who after all are only saying that in the absence of the incoherent concept of contra causal free will we have the best thing which is actually coherent. But whether, we should continue to call that “free will” is where I have an issue.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted April 25, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

                In fact which branch we take is determined by our nature, the state of our brain, our knowledge, our goals, etc. all of which is determined by the physical state of our brain.

                All true, but it’s nevertheless also true that which branch we take is the result of a (deterministic) decision procedure executed by our brain. Just as you can’t know the millionth digit of pi without doing the calculation, you also can’t know which choice to make without doing the appropriate decision calculus.

                That’s what compatibilists mean by “real choices”: there’s a real need to engage your decision-making apparatus in order to behave effectively in the real world. The fact that the decision process may be physically determined doesn’t negate that need.

                And note that it’s possible to say all that without making any claims about metaphysical freedom.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted April 25, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

                That’s what compatibilists mean by “real choices”: there’s a real need to engage your decision-making apparatus in order to behave effectively in the real world. The fact that the decision process may be physically determined doesn’t negate that need.

                True, a real need to engage the decision apparatus. But where is the freedom? Presumably the freedom would come from being able to end up on either side of the decision, from being able to somehow override the result of the decision apparatus using something independent of that apparatus and its determined outcome, something that we could call “free will”. I simply don’t see freedom in this model of our decision making.

                I see that the end result is the ability to form goals and navigate the world according to one’s interests, and that’s important. A child can see that this is what humans do. And it is fair to call that a kind of freedom. I can go to the store and come home with the foods I want to eat. That’s great.

                But when we look for the will behind all the decisions guiding that navigation, we don’t see freedom in it. That is, we may experience the results as some kind of freedom, but we don’t see freedom in the way the decisions are made. How could it be called “free will”? It’s deterministic computational will.

                The sticking point it seems is that compatibilists focus on the end result at a macroscopic level, while incompatibilists focus on how the decisions might be made, on the mechanisms that explain how the brain’s decision making works. If you look at it from that angle, you just can’t see any freedom in it. Instead you see powerful, flexible, intelligent, computation that enables us to do all the things that everyone can obviously see we do. From my perspective it seems like compatibilists are just saying “look at the great things human beings can do, the things that every single human being including children knows that humans do every day, stuff that we have historic names for. Wow, lets call it free will because that’s a popular name for what humans do.” It seems trivial and tautological. There is no explanation in it. It reveals nothing new. It doesn’t get us closer to bridging the gap between how we behave and what we know about the brain. It brushes aside a lot of hard work still waiting to be done.

              • Posted April 25, 2013 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

                But, define a coherent meaning for “free decision” that is anything other than an attempt to achieve a result that follows from a deterministic calculation of our own best interests. There just isn’t anything more that you can ask for that makes any rational sense.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted April 25, 2013 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

                Jeff, did you not read my last sentence? The only thing I said about freedom is that it’s possible to have a coherent conversation about human volition without mentioning the word “freedom”. Since that word seems to bother you so much, let’s all agree to stop using it, and see where that gets us. Hopefully it will get us beyond pointless repetitions of “Where’s the freedom?”

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted April 26, 2013 at 10:06 am | Permalink


                Jeff, did you not read my last sentence? The only thing I said about freedom is that it’s possible to have a coherent conversation about human volition without mentioning the word “freedom”. Since that word seems to bother you so much, let’s all agree to stop using it, and see where that gets us. Hopefully it will get us beyond pointless repetitions of “Where’s the freedom?”

                I did read your last sentence, but not accurately apparently. Sorry.

                I agree, we can talk about making choices, having intention, volition, goals, etc. without talking about freedom. In fact, we can even talk about freedom as long as we understand it’s a limited macroscopic freedom in the sense of being able to respond intelligently to one’s environment in a way that takes into account complex needs, interests, history, and knowledge.

                I think what bugs me, and lots of other people, is the use of “free will” as compatibilists use it isn’t saying that “free will” is a special physical (or otherwise) property of the brain, but rather that it is a possible subjective way of interpreting human behavior at a macroscopic level.

                What further bugs me is there is still a vast world and history that doesn’t understand that limitation on the meaning of the phrase, so saying “free will” is always bound to confuse lots of people who don’t have this specialized compatibilist understanding of what kind of freedom is meant. There are lots of people bound to interpret “free will” as meaning an actual freedom from determinism.

              • Peter
                Posted April 26, 2013 at 11:59 am | Permalink

                “I think what bugs me, and lots of other people, is the use of “free will” as compatibilists use it isn’t saying that “free will” is a special physical (or otherwise) property of the brain, but rather that it is a possible subjective way of interpreting human behavior at a macroscopic level.”

                Well, to be fair, when Jerry is writing about free will around here he is also talking about how we should subjectively *interpret* the fact that the brain follows deterministic rules.

                And in particular:

                “special physical (or otherwise) property of the brain”

                There’s a common word for that. Soul. You can talk about “soul” separately from “free will”. And I don’t think compatibilists around here are shy about denying the existence of souls. Are you reading something that I’m not?

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted April 26, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

                Re: “free will” as a property of the brain.

                I was saying that if you declare that humans have “free will”, as compatibilists do, it is quite easy for people to think that means “free will” is a physical property of the human brain. This is, in my view, a false conclusion. Yes, you could interpret that as dualism, but you could also interpret it is thinking that some kind of quantum “consciousness” or other Sheldrakian fantasy is part of the physics of the brain that confers free will on humans.

                I’m not arguing with compatibilist ideas that we have abilities worth having, which is pretty obvious to all humans, even to children. I’m questioning what is the value of insisting that “free will” is an accurate description of the capabilities of human intelligence. I see much wrong with it, and very little benefit.

              • Peter
                Posted April 26, 2013 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

                “I’m not arguing with compatibilist ideas that we have abilities worth having,…”

                Well, the compatibilist position is a bit stronger, in that we think agency without contracausality is in no way less valuable or less “genuine” than contral-causal agency.

                Are you claiming that *that’s* obvious to everyone, and that Jerry for instance never suggests otherwise?

                For a specific example: what about the penal system? Would you argue with a compatibist over:
                “I don’t think that the presence or absence of [contracausal] free will does make much difference to our society and legal systems”

            • Posted April 25, 2013 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

              Free will has meant dualistic free will, most clearly since Descartes. You’re merely quoting attempts to get around this. I can’t even figure out why you would want to call your described freedom ‘free will’. It seems more akin to ‘degrees of freedom’. See other commet here: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/jim-khalili-mistakes-unpredictability-for-free-will/#comment-426732

              • Posted April 26, 2013 at 1:47 am | Permalink

                I for one am not hung up on terms, if for clarity we agree to ditch the term “free will” then that’s fine with me.

                However, we do need words such as “choice”, “will”, “volition”, “decision”, “freedom”, etc.

                And one day the incompatibilists will come round to the idea that we need a compatibilist understanding of those terms.

                So far they’re so hung up on the ghastly spectre of dualism that they refuse to enter the debate.

        • Posted April 26, 2013 at 3:11 am | Permalink


          “No, we are using the term in a clear and long-standing compatibilist tradition.”

          And it has always been a mistake. Can you address the point of the qualifying of ‘will’ by the word ‘free’ and its inconsistency with the notion of being “free to do but not free to will”.

          And still you slip in freedom, as in ‘freedom’ in place of ‘free will’, as here:

          “If this is not a statement that we don’t have freedom, I don’t know what it is.”


          “However, we do need words such as “choice”, “will”, “volition”, “decision”, “freedom”, etc.”

          Fine. They are apporpriate words. The term ‘free will’ is not, because ‘free’ qualifies ‘will’ and because of the meaning so inherent in dualist free will, and because we feel like we have duualist free will.

          “I for one am not hung up on terms, if for clarity we agree to ditch the term “free will” then that’s fine with me.”

          Good. But I think your fellow compatibilists, of all variations that can’t agree on what has free will and what doesn’t, might not be so keen to abandon it. That is the problem after all, since we do all seem to be physicalists at core.

          “And one day the incompatibilists will come round to the idea that we need a compatibilist understanding of those terms.”

          I don’t think you have any different an understanding that incompatibilists, you compatibilists just seem to be (or maybe not now so much yourself) hung up on insisting we have free will when we don’t.

          “So far they’re so hung up on the ghastly spectre of dualism that they refuse to enter the debate.”

          The debate would be over if compatibilists would accept that ‘free’ in ‘free-will’ qualifies ‘will’ and give up on “free to do what is willed but not free to will”.

          After all, most, though perhaps not all, compatibilists have other motives for clinging on to free will. Even if you don’t think it yourself you are stuck with the likes of Raymond Tallis, many philosohers that you maigh disagree with in other respects, where you might be closer to incompatibilists. Try to find the compatibility of your understanding with that of Howard Kornstein, DV.

          With incompatibilism everything is genuinely physicalism, and all freedoms are relating to degrees of freedom, and all decisions are mechanistic unfoldings of physical systems into one state or another. There is no distinction in these principles between rocks falling down mountains, fridge thermostats switching, computers running programs or brains thinking and deciding and ‘willing’ as consequences of prior causes. The only different is in the complexity of the system and the specific chemical elements it is composed of an their arrangements. Everything unfolds and a tide of energy gradients. Nothing more.

          And if you think dualism is only a ghastly spectre then you’re not paying attention to the billions of theists and their souls. Incompatibilst physicalism is a direct tool against the dualist free-will of theism, in that it has all evidence on its side and none against. Compatibilist free-will is a misnomer that is accommodating to the theists in that they see a gap in the atheist argument: if atheists think we have free will then it’s obvious we have a free mind and a soul. Their free will is clearly not the same as yours. In all but name yours is the same as ourse, except that some compatibilists really do seem to describe dualist free-will when they describe decision making in brains, as if their is a disconnect in their own minds between large scale localised neuronal outcomes we call brain decisions and the small scale physical processes that they consist of.

          Maybe one day all compatibilists will realise that free-will can only sensibly mean dualist free-will, and that all other terms often used, such as ‘decision’, ‘(degrees of) freedom’ are perfectly fine physicalist terms applicable to all mechanistic systems. Perhaps they will realise than in everyday social contexts using ‘freedom’ is more akin to ‘political freedom’ than ‘free-will’, whereby we are driven (not of our free will) to survive and one mode of survival is freedom from political oppression. I can be free of political oppression while being non-free-willed. And that works because ‘free-will’ is an actual illusion we have evolved to feel we have, and maybe we have been also socially, culturally, convinced that we have it. We can live that illusion quite comfortable, in our daily lives, just as we are quite comfortable talking about sun rises and sun sets when we know the earth rotates in front of the sun – because, how could we tell the difference, using our basic senses. Science tells us we rotate in front of the sun, and all of science provides zero evidence for free-will, a will that is free of physical constraints.

          When will compatibilists take this on board and start debating what we should do about it. Dennett is a prme culprit. It would rather people not know they don’t have free will, he worries so much about the consequences without thining them through. Raymond Tallis is even worse.

          • Posted April 26, 2013 at 3:23 am | Permalink

            Fine, our will is not free, it is determined.

            But we do still have a will and goals and a choice-selecting capacity to pursue those goals and we have freedom and volition to those ends — in ways that house bricks don’t.

            In your above you’re too busy fighting dualism to discuss these things sensibly. Now, you’re right, fighting the ghastly spectre of dualism is worthwhile.

            But you also need to consider, having rejected dualism, what next? Now let’s talk about the sorts of choice-selection, volition and freedom that do exist.

            • Posted April 26, 2013 at 4:07 am | Permalink


              House bricks, like neurons, are generally stuck in place and don’t change so often. Unlike bricks they are far more active. But you come back with one of the least dynamic objects in opposition to the very dynamic physics of the brain. That’s why I stuck with the more dynamic example of rocks falling down a hillside, and the similarity with electrons falling down potential energy gradients in circuits, and neuronal action potentials propagating down neurons.

              “In your above you’re too busy fighting dualism”

              Clearly not, since most of the debate here is between compatibilists and incompatibilists. The debate with actual real dualists goes on elsewhere, wherever we meet theism, and in some philosophy. This site, as covered by Jerry, is pretty much done on dualism, and only tackles the continued deference to free-will when it arises.

              ” Now let’s talk about the sorts of choice-selection, volition and freedom that do exist.”

              Well, at least with you, that debate could now proceed. Not that it’s been left out. If you look back at all of these debates on this site incompatibilists are often picking up the consequential debate that many, maybe not all, compatibilists worry about.

              The nature of choice I think has been expressed pretty clearly – it’s mechanistic, an unfolding of dynamic physical activity.

              Then there is the social aspect of this, which takes us on to how to deal with choices that we don’t like in others, such as what criminals do, and choices we struggle with ourselves, as when we try to lose weight or keep fit. But these then become scientific debates around how neuroscience fits in with our social interactions and the consequences for the legal system, and they too are generally to be had elsewhere.

              This site is mainly an evolutionary biology one, and because of the imposition of religious belief on evolution education in the US it also has a strong anti-religious theme, which then leads on to philosophy and the free-will debate. This is why this particular site doesn’t get onto the consequences of illusory free-will; and when it does it is stalled by compatibilists insisting we have free will. The debate against free will does not go away just because we think it’s done.

              If you care to go back you’ll often see that one consequence typically feared by compatibilists is pretty inconsequential. We will not stop locking up sociopathic killers. They are the most localised cause of their actions, but cause to do it they are, even if the most recent and local decision mechanism operates right in their heads, just before they kill. They are caused to do their actions by all prior causes, including up-to-the-second ones in their heads. But that doesn’t mean they go free, any more than a car with faulty brakes gets to stay on the road. The sociopath may kill ultimately because he lacks empathy, and because he had a pretty awful childhood (a combination that seems fairly well evidenced) – but we still lock him up, and maybe prosecute his father for child abuse. We take the car with faulty brakes off the road, and maybe prosecute the negligent mechanic who botched the job.

              But, knowing that the sociopath is a statistical phenomenon – the statistics of having a brain predisposed to lack of empathy, and the background that conditions that brain to violence in turn, statistically – then we can start to consider intervention sooner rather than after the event. Is it an infringement on the liberties of an individual who has not yet killed? Sure. Is it a more serious infringement on the liberties of the victims if we don’t intervene. Dammed right. This remains a social political problem of balance, but what the neuroscience does is remove the nonsensical perspective of free-will that implies sin and evil and their solely retributional consequences. For more on this very issue of the perspective of evil see the very poor philosophy going on here, and the debate that follows: http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=6561. The OP contains inherent free-will in its consideration of evil.

              • Posted April 26, 2013 at 4:19 am | Permalink

                most of the debate here is between compatibilists and incompatibilists.

                Only in the sense of the incompatibilists continually accusing the compatibilists of pining after dualism!

                And/or being fearful of the consequences of the populace rejecting dualism (fat chance of that happening, but even if it did it wouldn’t matter).

  2. Posted April 24, 2013 at 5:49 am | Permalink

    I would suggest that the fact that we don’t know all the inputs before a decision the unpredictability of a decision by a human being is certainly true but what this does is makes the illusion of free will more complete.

    • Posted April 24, 2013 at 5:51 am | Permalink

      “unpredictability of a decision by a human being is certainly true ”

      should have said “makes the unpredictability of a decision by a human being true “

    • Rob
      Posted April 24, 2013 at 6:36 am | Permalink

      Exactly this.

      All it does it make free will a useful model. It doesn’t mean it exists.

  3. Steve Reilly
    Posted April 24, 2013 at 5:53 am | Permalink

    So the weather has free will…

    Here’s a previous post on thttps://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/01/18/a-physicist-gets-muddled-about-free-will/he same topic:

  4. TJR
    Posted April 24, 2013 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    You don’t seem to disagree with each other over anything apart from the definition of “free will”.

    • Posted April 24, 2013 at 9:22 am | Permalink

      Yes, many of us have noticed this. It’s totally unclear (an uncharacteristic failing) what point Jerry is trying to make about free will in his posts on the subject. And what do these early decision experiments have to do with compatibilist “free will”? It’s a mystery.

      • Howard Kornstein
        Posted April 26, 2013 at 12:41 am | Permalink

        I agree. These experiments prove nothing. Just because a part of the brain that is processing the alternatives for a decision and the part of the brain that becomes finally conscious that a decision is reached may have some time lag between their state does not imply that the decisions thus reached ” are not our own” or are in any way predetermined. It is in fact something that we would expect to find present in ANY “state machine”

    • Posted April 26, 2013 at 2:23 am | Permalink

      Since Descartes free-will has meant dualist free-will, and any other re-definition of it is a fudge that mistakes free-will for degrees of freedom of action, essentially inertia: once a decision is made that’s what happens unless something else interferes to stop it. Free-will means that the will is free; the ‘free’ qualifies he ‘will’. That’s why compatibilists that say “free to do what is willed but not free to will” have it quite wrong. If you are not free to will then you do not have free-will.

      And, we actually feel as though we have dualist free-will. You can’t feel the physical effects that are driving your neurons, so you cannot feel the constraints on your will – your will feels free.

      Physicalism is quite clear in this respect, as an opposing notion to free-will, dualist free-will; and it is correct in saying that this free-will is illusory, in that we don’t have it.

      When compatibilists use the term ‘free will’ it is a complete misnomer. Just read the different things that compatibilists think have free will. Some will allow computers, some not; some will allow AI, some not. Compatibilism, even in the small sample represented here, is all over the place.

  5. Posted April 24, 2013 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    This post reflects my own ideas regarding free will, which I developed while reading Frank Tipler’s The physics of immortality. In this book, Tipler defended, among other things, that quantum indeterminancy in combination with a compabilistic definition would be evindence, if not proof, of the existence of a libertarian free will.

    As I an eighteen year old I saw that this argument is flawed. And my arguments were similar to those of this post.

    Afterall if our choices are determined by random quantum events, we have still no control over our will.

  6. Posted April 24, 2013 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    It’s kind of odd in a way that religious people would be so against the idea of no free will, because to me it always seemed like a scientifically respectable reframing of the whole “God’s plan” idea.

    And it’s not like theists could ever get any useful work out of that concept by explaining just what the hell that plan is for – At least determinists can say that’s because it’s not “for” anything. (Besides, what was God ever “for,” anyway?)

  7. Posted April 24, 2013 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    I think in your last paragraph you mean “earthworm” – though “earthwork” is also thought-provoking.

  8. Posted April 24, 2013 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    Everyone talks about criminal law, but think also about social welfare policy. In the US, much of our social welfare policy is compromised by mechanisms designed to make sure only morally worthy people receive benefits. The absence of free will renders this utterly incoherent.

    We currently divide the poor into two groups. The first group is poor “through no fault of their own”, and they tend to be treated with compassion. We recognize that society has a duty to help the unfortunate. The second group includes everyone who we consider to be at fault (to some extent) for their own circumstances, like addicts, gamblers, grifters, lazy people, freeloaders. We have contempt for this group, and we try to design social welfare policies to exclude them. Once you recognize that there is no free will, this distinction becomes completely untenable.

    • Posted April 24, 2013 at 6:32 am | Permalink

      mechanisms designed to make sure only morally worthy people receive benefits. The absence of free will renders this utterly incoherent.

      No it doesn’t, we still need morals in society and notions of worth and what people deserve, regardless of whether we have dualistic free will.

      • simbol
        Posted April 24, 2013 at 8:59 am | Permalink

        The same determinism that produces the bad behavior of an individual, produces the social answer of protection of the species through punishment or prevention of bad behavior. Determinism doesn’t leads to impunity. Maybe the individual is not responsible because his behavior is deterministic, but the same happens for society: its rules protect because this rules are a determistic answer: Instinct of conservation.

  9. Chris Quartly
    Posted April 24, 2013 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    I like Jim Al-Khalili a lot but agree with Jerry on this one. However, worth pointing out that Jerry has already blogged about this exact thing a little while ago 🙂

    • Posted April 24, 2013 at 6:36 am | Permalink

      Indeed–a senior moment! This is the first time I’ve written twice about the same piece, and I simply forgot my earlier post. Well, I’ll leave this stand but add the link above. I suppose there’s some benefit in the post as it’s not identical to the earlier one, and readers who didn’t see that one might see this one.


      • Walt Jones
        Posted April 24, 2013 at 7:10 am | Permalink

        I, for one, appreciate seeing it revisited, because to paraphrase Hitchens, I have no choice but to believe we have free will. Reading more about it helps me understand the argument (so I don’t have to take it on faith that you’re right).

  10. Posted April 24, 2013 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    I think Jerry is a bit hasty here. I always suspect chaos theory is actually giving us, a decision-making entity, our cloud of self, the one that make “decisions”.

    What happened is something like this, a super-complex system (our brain) weighing all inputs and internal states, and then “make decision” based on an algorithm that mostly deterministic (and most likely on the border of chaos), this decision is recorded in the emergent system of our synapses (no-one really there, just the emergent phenomena), later on sent to our output processors, the part of brain that instruct the limbic system to respond. That’s why it seems that the decision is earlier than what consciousness is percepting.

    And the reason for these “free-ness” of the decision is because it is in the border of chaotic system, so it has the characteristics unrepeatable, unpredictable in some cases, and otherwise in other cases.

    This explanation is actually more detailed than what Jerry usually say, because the consciousness is late comer in the game, therefore there is no free-will, the system is totally deterministic.

    Yes, theoretically it is true that our mind is driven by deterministic forces, but we also know that complex deterministic forces create chaotic systems, and within the chaos system there emerge some special phenomena.

    This system inside our brain hardware (which it fully natural and deterministic), create profound unpredictability, that gives a ‘consensus builder’ inside our head to come with a specific result / plan of action.
    This result come out as our decision (it is made earlier than the conscious part of our brain), and that decision is unpredictable, and traditionally called free-will.

    The way I see it, Jerry makes a jump from the fact that all part of our system is deterministic, to saying that there is no free-will, which usually meant much more than the word itself actually means.

    The decision made was not totally deterministic because of the emergent phenomena in the ensuing chaotic system.
    Even though the components of our system is deterministic, the decisions made by the system (in the same way of blizzard in weather system) is definitely not deterministic. And the fact that our consciousness record it later is just because consciousness is part of output system of the brain.

    I need to read more of Al-Khalili’s article, but I suspect that is what he meant, not a very simple and silly sounding as Jerry made it (free-will is unpredictability).

    • Rob
      Posted April 24, 2013 at 6:38 am | Permalink

      All that translates to is “free will is a useful model”

      Useful != exists.

      • Posted April 24, 2013 at 6:54 am | Permalink

        No Rob, you need to read carefully.

        • Rob
          Posted April 24, 2013 at 7:27 am | Permalink

          No, that’s what it says. There is no room for equivalency to the ghost in the machine that is supported, not even by chaos.

          It’s still deterministic. (absolutely identical inputs = identical outputs). We don’t know and can’t manipulate all the inputs. We don’t have the absolute precision (indeed, it’s impossible) to predict the outputs.

    • Posted April 24, 2013 at 6:49 am | Permalink

      The problem on the question “do we have free-will” is not on the free part of free-will, but on the who is “we”.

      A decision is made inside our head (out of necessity, evolutionary we do not have the luxury to postpone decisions), it is made by a committee, an emergent consensus, which in most cases works inside a chaotic system of our brain (some decisions may not be very chaotic).

      I agree with Jerry that our bodies are totally natural and work within deterministic framework of the universe, but because of complexity of our brain, the outcome of the the system is in most cases based on emergence in complex system, which means unrepeatable, unpredictable, and “free”. That we call it OUR free-will is the mistake, because WE do not consciously make that decision, the deterministic brain did it, through the complex system of our synapses. But it is a FREE decision, in the sense that it is NOT deterministic toward the input sets (you will never be able to infer the decision based on knowledge however detailed of the input set).

      Indeed it is not the quantum-ish explanation, it is the complex system of our synapses, in the same way of the ecology economy and all large complex system.

  11. neil
    Posted April 24, 2013 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    Speaking of free will and physicists, this paper (The Free Will Theorem) is interesting. One of the authors is the eminent John H. Conway. The authors prove that if the experimenters’ choice of how to measure a spin 1 particle is not a function of the state of information in the universe available to the experimenters at the time of choice (which I guess would be described as the experimenters having libertarian free will), then the state “chosen” by the particle does not depend on the state of the universe either. That is, the particle has the same free will.


  12. Celtic Atheist
    Posted April 24, 2013 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    A question that occurs to me about all this is, when you observe somebody making a decision or considering what to do, you can actually see their outward behaviour change. They might have a blank look on their face, or direct their gaze to the side or whatever. It clearly looks as if something effortful and deliberate is going on. Why do we do this? And why does it feel effortful to make your mind up? If these things were determined then why not just have the decision making be automatic? You see two types of ice-cream and then just find yourself reaching for the chocolate which is the one you were going to choose anyway.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 24, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      Making decisions is work. The fact that the outcome may be determined doesn’t save you from doing the work.

      Consider the millionth digit of pi. Nothing could be more determined than that. But if you actually want to know what it is, you have to do the calculation, and that takes time and energy.

      Similarly, if you want to know whether chocolate or vanilla will make you happier, you have to imagine yourself eating each of them in turn to see how it feels. Your brain can’t just pluck an answer out of the air and expect it to be right; it actually has to do the calculation, and that’s the process that feels (and looks) like effortful decision-making.

  13. Posted April 24, 2013 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that genuine free will will indeed manifest with (at least some) utterly unpredictable (even in principle, not just in practice) products (outcomes), so that “unpredictability” of outcome is a bona-fide NECESSARY condition (or criterion or “sign”) of manifest genuine free will; but “unpredictability” is NOT a SUFFICIENT condition (or criterion or “sign”) of manifest genuine free will, and I suppose this is the “fine point” that Al-Khalili may have missed.

    [IF strict rigorously mechanically determinism is true and ALL apparent manifestations of “free will” volition are mere realistic illusions, AND if what I wrote up above is wrong, then don’t blame me, for it is NOT ME but rather the initial state of the universe billions of years ago that is totally to blame for my error — I am merely twitching faithfully at the end of a looooooong chain of rigorously mechanical causality to the inexorable script writ In The Beginning — and same for all the actions of all the people that have ever lived, including all y’all, each and every one !]

  14. Posted April 24, 2013 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    The odd thing about this article is that Jerry isn’t arguing with anything Al Khalili actually says; Al Khalili and other compatibilists (such as Dennett) certainly don’t believe in contracausal free will or that our brains don’t work according to the laws of physics. Surely the only thing we can glean from all this is that compatibilists when they use the term “free will” don’t mean what Jerry means when he uses the term “true freedom”, since compatibilists by definition don’t believe in contra causal free will.

  15. Sines
    Posted April 24, 2013 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    While I agree with you philosophically, I still disagree with your conclusions.

    First of all, the idea that religion could be rejected because someone realizes the determinism of choices is absurd. That someone would come to truly believe in the deterministic nature of reality before they stumble across an inescapble problem of evil, or the simple burden of proof? It’s such an unlikely event that I daresay it never has happened, nor ever will happen.

    Second, I don’t see how it would affect law enforcement. I already don’t think we should engage in ‘retribution’ for the same reason theists can agree on seperation of church and state. It simply represents a power that the government should not be allowed to have, for it makes tyranny too easy.

    Perhaps more people might be persuaded to non-retributive punishments by the realization of determinism. However, that desire is based in compassion and understanding. After all, the malacious person may not care whether or not it fits some abstract philosophical notion of ‘blame’. But I think the good person might be persuaded of the humanistic reasons to not cause needless harm. The rational person might say “But what benefit to we get from retributive punishment?”

    I won’t say that this has no persuasive power, but it’s a weak and subtle one.

    Personally, I find the concept of free will to be incoherent. I’ve never heard a non-trivial definition of it (the kind of free will worth having) that makes any kind of meaningful sense. So, I enjoy taking apart the arguments of most people who argue for it.

    But really, the simple pleasure of debate is all the realization of determinism has ever done to me, positive or negative. It’s true, and I think, almost tautologically so. But it’s also one of the most unimportant things about reality.

    In a sense “We don’t have free will” is a sort of inverse deepity. In one sense, it’s true but trivial. And in another, the sense that there are decisions being made (even if only in a purely material sense) and consequences resulting from them affect beings capable of suffering or joy… means the statement is, for all meaningful senses, false.

    • darrelle
      Posted April 24, 2013 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      “Second, I don’t see how it would affect law enforcement.”

      At least one other comment above made a similar statement, and I am puzzled by it. If our knowledge of human cognition / behavior increases and / or improves why wouldn’t that new or improved knowledge be put to good use?

      Are you doubting that knowledge of human cognition / behavior is useful for analyzing and modifying a societies’ penal system to better benefit the society?

      That seems to be the same as saying that new discoveries in aerodynamics would not be useful in improving airplanes.

      Or, do you not see the issue of free will as a matter of understanding how the human brain works, how it makes decisions?

      I may just be misunderstanding you.

      • Sines
        Posted April 24, 2013 at 11:30 am | Permalink

        In the sense that acceptance of deterministic behavior might be useful in rehabilitation of criminals, or prediction of crimes, then yes, it would be useful.

        Rather, I should have specified that I was talking about punishment. Simply put, any ethical course taken because someone accepts deterministic behavior can be arrived at more easily for other reasons, such as a desire to not harm even criminals unneccesarily (already well possessed by many), or for keeping uneccesary power out of the hands of the government.

        I believe we will be able to study the brain to the point that it’s behavior will be seen as purely deterministic by any intellectually honest person, and this understanding will help us solve and prevent crimes, as well as rehabilitate criminals.

        However, the acceptance of determism there is not needed. If an analyst still persists in some notion of free will, while accepting the validity of brain scans (or whatever they will be in the future) it will not meaningfully affect their behavior.

        There’s some obvious rebuttals to what I’ve said, but I have thought those over and am not concerned with them. Going over them is not needed to get my general point across, and I’m not particularly compelled to discuss this matter too much, both as it’s boring (to me, anyway), and as I noted, because whether people agree with me or not is basically irrelevant.

        I normally skip Jerrys posts on free will, except when I feel I can gain enjoyment by mocking the poor reasoning of those who would defend its existence. This is the first, and probably only time I’ll comment on it.

        Nothing against the subject matter, I just don’t get into it, either emotionally or intellectually.

  16. Posted April 24, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Love your topics! How could we still need to prove evolution is true in this day and age?!

  17. Howard Kornstein
    Posted April 24, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Hmmm… given my computing background I’ve always pictured the brain as a complex multi-processor parallel computing system. From what I’ve read on brain structure this model is not inappropriate. In the brain (as with many multi-computer systems) the various “sub-units” are specialised in function, passing pre-processed information to a general data integrating central processor(s) – or in computer terms an Executive unit- executing as it were the “executive” programme. This “executive” functionality is where I see consciousness (and “decisions”) finally arising – drawing on pre-processed sensory inputs, on-going memory referencing, and dataprocessing and simulating functionality. Conceptually it’s not unlike a Cartesian Theatre but in computer architectural terms – certainly it is a lot more complex, in that the executive forms feedback loops with the other subprocessors. But –important point – the executive is not aware of the finer details handled by the subprocessors. We get a hint of this in the times that a solution to a problem we have been thinking about suddenly “pops out” fully formed – actually surprising us with its novelty. Anyhow, such a system is non-deterministic FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF THE EXECUTIVE. The executive itself cannot predict the results which will occur from any particular situation, as it does not have the information or the processing capacity by itself-alone to do this. Someone could claim that the ENTIRE system is deterministic, but that does not help. (in any case chaos theory makes the entire system less than predictable anyhow)
    So what does this all mean? – it means we have free will.

    • Posted April 24, 2013 at 10:32 am | Permalink

      The EXECUTIVE is still causally determined in what it does. It may be making decisions, but any simple element of a computational system makes decisions. What is the will free of? Free-will in philosophy is Cartesian dualism, whereby some non-physical executive is free of physical prior causes, and yet causes physical events itself.

      • Howard Kornstein
        Posted April 24, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

        “Free-will in philosophy is Cartesian dualism, whereby some non-physical executive is free of physical prior causes, and yet causes physical events itself.”
        Exactly… but the system I have described IS fully physical, and because IT cannot determine prior cause itself (but still AFFECTS prior cause processing) it produces a system that is non-deterministic in terms of its own “consciousness”. Without any knowledge of the result of the affect on its feedback into its “preprocessing computers” it influences the data upon which it will reach a subsequent decision. This breaking of causality is, in effect, free will.

      • Emma
        Posted April 24, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

        Thank you so much for the clarification!

        For me, determinism seems very compatible with “free-will”, and did not understand why it seems to be such a debated issue. I now realize that the “free-will” of the philosopher is quite different from the more common meaning of “free-will”.

        I am clearly out of my depth on this subject but I am wondering if part of Jerry’s position on the subject does not arise from mixing these two meanings of free-will. Because, yes, the philosophical “free-will” is incompatible with determinism, and therefore probably does not exist. But the common meaning of “free-will” (i.e., I am making my choices), is not incompatible with determinism. And when talking for example about jail sentences, it is I think the common meaning that is the most relevant.

        (PS apologies for the very clumsy english, non native english speaker, etc..)

        • darrelle
          Posted April 24, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

          Your written English is better than most US natives, so no worries there.

      • Peter
        Posted April 24, 2013 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

        “Free-will in philosophy is Cartesian dualism”

        Oh, that’s not actually standard usage among philosophers. For example: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freewill/

        Maybe among theologians?

    • Posted April 24, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      You could write the whole program out on paper and replicate it on any other universal Turing machine, which would given the same starting conditions evolve in exactly the same way.

      • Howard Kornstein
        Posted April 25, 2013 at 1:04 am | Permalink

        That is a bold statement.
        A Turing Machine can only produce results with “computable numbers” eg something that can be solved by algorithmic means. In other words just because you have a computer doesn’t mean it can solve all problems or model all behaviours. You still have to prove that “free will” is computable.

        • Posted April 25, 2013 at 4:42 am | Permalink

          The brain is physical (as far as we can tell). And if that is the case and mental activity arises from interactions between neurones, then there is nothing going on that could not be implemented on other hardware. The only reason we can’t disentangle the brain’s software is that it is incredibly complicated and intertwined; evolution does not favour modular solutions. So the brain’s function is a bit like a very long program written by a very bad programmer for a system with a convoluted architecture. That makes writing an emulator extremely hard, but not impossible in principle.

          You can’t talk about “free will” (whatever you take it to mean) or consciousness (whatever explanation that may have) sensibly at the level of machine code, just as you can’t describe animal behaviour in the language of the physics of atoms. But that doesn’t imply that animal behaviour results from something other than the laws of physics.

          Chaos theory is not relevant to brain function, except that for practical reasons it may not ever be feasible to record brain states in their entirety, so that future states are predictable, something you can easily do for current computer programs with their limited inputs and outputs. But if the brain is physical it does have states and those states are in principle recordable.

          • Posted April 25, 2013 at 4:57 am | Permalink

            … and, computers are only moderately deterministic, because they are implemented using real electronic components which have inherent physical variability, suffer from faults.

            The notion of computability is also tricky, since any decision system, at its core, is nothing ore than the unfolding of physical outcomes in some way.

            And the only ‘evidence’, such as it is, for free-will is that humans seem to feel they have it, in a dualistic sense, because they can’t sense their neurons ticking away, producing outcomes, causing decisions. In all respects and from all of physics and other sciences we have no good reason to suppose we have free will that is free of physical constraints in any way. That’s why free will is considered to be an illusion, the subjective feeling that we have it.

            The best parallel between computers is one of automata. Our computers are designed, as much as possible, to be deterministic. Our brains evolved to do whatever brains do, but in all their complexity, as soon as we accept that neurons can be modelled conceptually as decision components, and without any additional magic injected, we are already conceding that brains, like computers, are computational, are automata – albeit very different in implementation and operation.

            The concept of free-will is most clearly defined to be dualistic free-will, since that’s what most people feel it is subjectively, even we physicalists. It is therefore an illusion.

  18. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted April 24, 2013 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    It’s just that, like the three-body problem, we don’t know enough to work out such systems from first principles.

    And if those futures are altered by tiny differences in the environment, or previous “decisions” (i.e., brain states), well, that’s still deterministic and predictable in principle.

    I think you’ve misunderstood what chaos theory says. It’s not just a statement of our ignorance about initial conditions. What it says is that there’s no physically possible way to remedy that ignorance. No matter how carefully you measure, chaos can still amplify tiny differences below your threshold of measurement into macroscopic divergences. So perfect predictability is not possible even in principle. Even deterministic systems are inherently unpredictable over the long term.

    What this means in terms of free will is that our brains are instruments of such amplification. Immeasurably small differences in neurochemical states are magnified into macroscopic differences in behavior. Whether you want to call this “free” or not is a semantic quibble. What’s undeniable is that (in al-Khalili’s words) “our actions still determine which of the infinite number of possible futures is the one that gets played out.” “Free” or not, our thoughts are causally effective agents of change in the world, largely due to the chaotic nature of our neurological processes.

    • Peter
      Posted April 24, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

      Well, this description of chaos theory leaves something out, that I think is important for understanding why compatibilists are unfazed by the consequences of physical determinism on how we think of agency.

      First, yes, chaos theory is interested in systems where errors in measurement or computation propagate, uh, faster than a polynomial function of the error, I guess? So basically, you can’t predict where individual particles in a chaotic system will be. (even if you were allowed arbitrarily small, but finite, precision in measurement and computation, you can’t be guaranteed some finite amount of error in your prediction; then factor in QM so you can’t even have arbitrarily small measurement error. And assuming infinite precision, even for the sake of argument, means your argument has nothing to do with reality).

      But that doesn’t really mean that chaotic systems are unpredictable in the aggregate. That’s one of the interesting things about chaos theory: finding the patterns, such as the attractors, that do govern chaotic systems. (I’m being sketchy because while I do a lot of math, I don’t do chaos theory).

      And that’s similar to what we see in human behavior. Predicting the state of the human brain (and hence a person’s behavior) by measuring the positions/momenta of all the particles that make up the brain, and doing the physics on them, is a non-starter, because of chaos. But people still behave predictably. The (pseudo-)randomness of the physics of our brain does not result in erratic and unpredictable behavior on our part. But it’s not physics, as such, that is the important constraint on our behavior (or at least not on our purely mental behavior, e.g. our imaginations), because the physics is too chaotic. The important constraints are, for example, evolutionary history, society, experience, our personal tastes and dispositions, etc. (Dennett discusses the relevant but still naturalistic constraints on behavior in Freedom Evolves)

      So, getting to the point (I hope), everyone has always known, whether they believe in libertarian dualism, compatibilist free will, hard determinism, or some variation, that there are lots of constraints on our behavior. And to a compatibilist, discovering (or deciding, or being satisfied) that everything going on in our brain does in fact obey the laws of physics, does not meaningfully add anything new to the constraints that we’ve always known were there. But it seems that incompatibilist like Jerry (et al), think that Physics is the only constraint on behavior that anyone would ever be interested, and that accepting physics as a constraint *changes everything*. (and that was my point, hope it was worth it.)

      So I think that this is difference in perspective is a major source of miscommunication between compatibilists and incompatibilists around here. I hope that for some incompatibilists, this provides a little more context for the compatibilist position, and maybe they’ll better appreciate why we don’t think physical determinism has much to do with what people mean/value when they talk about “free will”. (On the other hand, there are those who always conflate free will and immaterial soul…but that’s another thing)

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted April 24, 2013 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

        But it seems that incompatibilist like Jerry (et al), think that Physics is the only constraint on behavior that anyone would ever be interested, and that accepting physics as a constraint *changes everything*.

        I don’t think this is necessarily true. I think incompatibilists must realize that other constraints are important or they couldn’t function in society at all.

        Accepting physics doesn’t *change everything*. It changes a few important things, one of which is that the idea that our will is “free” in any sense is merely a linguistic convention compatibilists use, but “free will” does not actually correspond to any real phenomenon. It’s just a name you give some behaviors that aren’t really free in any fundamental way, but at best can be talked about as free of certain external constraints, say not being tied to a chair. Whether you are tied to a chair is unimportant to the question of whether we have free will.

        What I think is true is that if one sets one’s self the task of understanding how the brain works, how brain matter and neurons could give rise to the brain’s behavior and consciousness, that, then it seems that physics (or chemistry) is the only set of constraints that matter for solving that problem. Of course solving other problems at the level of social sciences require paying attention to other constraints.

        • Peter
          Posted April 24, 2013 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

          Your misunderstanding me. My point is that it happens to turn out that those constraints all are reducible to physics, but in a way that physics isn’t really a constraint. If I say that physics actually accords us many more degrees of freedom than we would have guessed we had if all we knew about were the social /biological /psychological constraints we already knew about?

          Or how about this: why is it important for morality or our sense of agency that all these constraint actually happen to reduce to physics rather than some of them reducing to something supernatural or “fundamentally spiritual”, however one conceives of that working? Now, if that meant that we were very predictably mechanistic, that would be one thing. But it doesn’t mean that (chaos and all, I address that below because you seem to still not understand the concept of “sensitive dependence on initial conditions”).

          Also, when I said “changes everything,” I didn’t mean that literally, I was being hyperbolic. That you are “only” arguing that it has very important consequences for very important things is what I meant. I mean, there is an important consequence to all the science that Jerry brings up to refute free-will. That consequence is that we don’t have an immaterial, possibly immortal soul, and that when our brains die, so do our minds. But I would argue that you can believe that, and also believe that that the agency we think we have is real.

          So anyway, you’re having trouble understanding chaos theory, such as when you said:

          “then it seems that physics (or chemistry) is the only set of constraints that matter for solving that problem”

          That’s the thing about chaos theory. You *can’t* do the physics well enough to predict how a brain will work. You might not be able to do the neurology well enough to predict how a brain will work. Or maybe you can. But trying to, say, correct human misbehavior by, say, tinkering with the flow of the right ions through the brain *can’t* work. Well, I mean, you could maybe implant a chip that induces seizures…

  19. Kevin Henderson
    Posted April 24, 2013 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Unpredictability is indistinguishable from free will.

    Just because something is unpredictable does not mean that it could eventually be predicted. At present we do not have an understanding of what happens to a single water molecule of water in a cup of water after a couple of picoseconds. It loses its memory and we have no way to recover its initial state(s). This happens to also be a good reason why not to believe in homeopathy or a transcendent existence, i.e., life after death, since we know of no way to recover the states of all of the atoms in a persons body, let alone one atom.

  20. Pluto Animus
    Posted April 24, 2013 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Many of the properties are not present in either hydrogen or oxygen. But these properties emerge from the combination of the two.

    Why can’t free will be an emergent property of consciousness, a phenomenon that itself isn’t present in any of the brains billions of nerve cells?

    Eh, Jerry?

    • Posted April 27, 2013 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

      Exactly the same point I made above.

      We call it “free-will”, which is a very loaded word (Jerry mostly seems to think this word in correlation with religions only), actually what it means is just a decision-making algorithm (which is a necessity for an evolutionary being such as humans) inside a complex system of a brain.
      It is a system of determining plan of action based on input sets within reasonable time frame. It is an emergent phenom.

      It is not created, it just is, an emergent phenomenom within a complex system, which always arise in any complex system.

      We just name is free-will, and create a lot of unnecessary confusion.

  21. Jeff Johnson
    Posted April 24, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    This is a great discussion. As usual it comes down to the difference between compatibilism and incompatibilism being one of how to interpret the phrase “free will”. The compatibilists don’t have any substantive disagreement with incompatibilists. They agree on the essential facts of determinism and materialism, they simply have a different psychological orientation to the ideas of what is “true”, what is desirable, and what is important when it comes to answering the question “do we have free will?”

    I like seeing the question framed in terms of predictability or unpredictability. Here the difference between compatibilism and incompatibilism seems to be whether our decisions are predictable in practice or in theory. In practice they are not predictable, which I believe is an important foundation of compatibilist thought. In theory our decisions are predictable, which means that when we are making a choice, only one possible result exists and must be the result because of the configuration of matter involved. This is the result that is important to those who seek an accurate scientific understanding of the brain and consciousness, rather than an answer which is more culturally acceptable to humans in all their psychic weakness and vulnerability. Because we can’t know what our decisions are in advance of making them, we think it’s as good as being free (though it is NOT free). And anyone worried about being a puppet can imagine a thought experiment: if we were spontaneously deleted from existence entirely, it would change future outcomes for others around us. So even though our actions are determined, they also matter. We count, and that is meaningful.

    If you consider dice, in theory they are an entirely predictable physical dynamical system, provided one could ever know all the boundary and initial conditions with perfect accuracy. In practice we can’t do that, so in practice they are unpredictable for us. This gives rise to the appearance of randomness in dice, which is not true randomness. It is only a varying distribution of results determined by their unpredictable or chaotic nature, which is embodied in the mathematical ideas we call chaos theory, and has a probability distribution with a high degree of random-like character. We can take that further, if we wish to project properties like randomness onto the dice, and say also that they have “free will” because they have the ability to vary their “choices”, a kind of freedom that is worth having (if you are a die I suppose). This is, in my opinion, the kind of projection of meaning compatibilists do when they say humans have “free will”. No matter how warm, fuzzy, and kind their intentions, they definitely compromise the goal of arriving at what is true and real.

    Someone may ask: “well, is love real?” I think the answer is yes, it is real. Free will, on the other hand, can’t be located and identified as easily as love. Rather than an emotional experience triggered by neurotransmitters and hormones, free will seems to be a product of our self-awareness and how we view our conscious abstract reasoning processes. In other words, it is created within our thoughts by the way we think. We can in principle point to brain processes and say “this is how we feel love”, or this is how we compare two abstract ideas with a set of associated properties located in our memory. But I don’t think there will ever be such a process we can point to and say “this is how we exercise our free will to decide something differently than our deterministic neurological processes are forcing us to decide”.

    If we swing a weight tied to the end of a string in a circle, we feel an outward pull on the string. If we have a correct understanding of this system, we know that this is the fictitious force known as the Coriolis force. It is not real. It does not exist. Anyone who feels the tension in the string and concludes that something is exerting an outward force upon the weight at the end of the string will make inaccurate predictions about the path the system will follow if suddenly released. What you feel is tension in the string caused by the continuous angular acceleration of the weight from the straight path its momentum would ordinarily follow. Some, imputing properties the weight doesn’t possess, might say “the path it wants to follow”. This appearance of an outward force leads us to false conclusions.

    In the same way, fictitious freedom appears in our subjective experience and our observations of other’s behavior, which leads us to conclude, falsely, that we have free will. Instead of freedom we have memories, knowledge, reasoning capacities, the ability to formulate wants and to have needs, all of which is deterministic. We can also (deterministically) observe and invent narrative explanations for these thoughts and feelings in our conscious mind. No free choice enters into the process. It is flexible, adaptable, intelligent, complex, and satisfying, but simply not free. Or put another way, it is as free as dice, but the results are determined by a far more complex set of conditions.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 24, 2013 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      If you consider dice, in theory they are an entirely predictable physical dynamical system, provided one could ever know all the boundary and initial conditions with perfect accuracy.

      But perfect knowledge is theoretically impossible. So no, dice are not predictable in theory; chaos theory explicitly tells us that they’re inherently unpredictable.

      The dice analogy fails on other grounds as well. Dice have no feedback loops, no models of their own behavior, and no agenda; they’re merely inert lumps of matter reacting to external forces. Organisms are also lumps of matter, but not inert; they have the ability to organize their internal state to store and process information and to engage in goal-directed interaction with their environment. That’s what makes it meaningful to say that organisms have volition or intentionality (or whatever you want to call it) but rocks and dice don’t. If you care about what’s true and real, that distinction ought not to be swept under the rug.

      (And by the way, general relativity says that centrifugal force is as real as gravity. If you hold the centrifuge still and spin the entire universe around it, that generates a gravitational field exactly equivalent to the centrifugal and Coriolis forces. There’s no experiment you can do to tell the difference.)

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted April 24, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

        I don’t understand what you are disagreeing with because the next line after the ones you quote say exactly what you said, that in practice we can’t get perfect information and thus the dice are unpredictable.

        The point of the analogy is to say that if we can’t predict something, it can look random to us. In the same way, a human, if we can’t predict what they will do, can look like they have free will. In fact dice can in some way look like they have a will of their own when they “choose” different values according to their own methods (which we can infer something about, knowing physics), but if we view them as a black box we simply see them choosing an unpredictable sequence.

        That organisms are more complex than dice is obvious and irrelevent to the point I was trying to make.

        Sure, I can agree organisms have volition and intentionality, they have goals, they resist coercion, they interact with their environment and make decisions that are in their best interests based on the will to acheive their goals.

        It still is meaningless to say they have “free will”. You can point to processes in the brain and say “this is how love works”, but there is no place you can point and say “this is the free will part” of the brain. What is free about it? Not free of causality, not free of determinism, and not free to choose A when the configuration of matter determines that we choose B.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted April 24, 2013 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

          But in fact there are parts of the brain you can point to and say, “These are the brain’s volitional centers; this is where behavior is generated that people commonly say is freely willed.” And when those brain centers are damaged (for instance by prefrontal lobotomy), that appearance of free will vanishes and behavior becomes stereotyped and predictable.

          “What’s free about it?” is just a semantic quibble about the appropriate use of the word “free”. It’s not a proof that no such brain centers exist.

      • Jimbo
        Posted April 24, 2013 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

        So is a robot that is programmed to vacuum the carpet and does interact with its environment, an “inert lump of matter”? What if it “learns” by adjusting its “behavior” based on experience (e.g. ‘avoid vacuuming a quadrant of the room in the future if it takes 30 or more repeats of the “get unstuck subroutine”? Does the robot have free will or volition?

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted April 24, 2013 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

          If by “free will” you mean the magical, impossible kind that by definition nothing can have, then obviously robots don’t have it either.

          But I would not have a problem saying that robots have a kind of volition, to the extent that they engage in goal-directed behavior — with the proviso that “volition” is not a binary property but a quantitative measure of behavioral complexity.

          Let’s say your vacuum robot has about as much volition as an ant. If we descend down the scale of life from ants to rotifers to bacteria to viruses to RNA molecules replicating in a test tube, sooner or later we’re going to get into a gray area where it’s not clear whether the concept of volition still applies.

          I’m OK with that. I don’t think we need a sharp line to know that decision-making and goal-directed behavior are real phenomena, and that some lumps of matter (those that we generally think of as “alive”) engage in them and others (the ones we call “dead” or “inert”) don’t.

  22. Posted April 24, 2013 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    I have to comment to follow comments, apparently, so I guess I will choose to enter this comment, although I feel a bit chaotic today.

  23. Posted April 24, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    JC wrote, in a previous response to Peter Hitchens,”Evolution is so strongly supported that it would be perverse to reject it, and in that sense it’s a scientific fact.)” Agree 100%. But determinism is NOT so well supported by neuroscience, physics, etc. that it would be perverse to reject it. From many comments, a major reason JC provides for determinism is that it opens a door to religion; that seems an awfully weak reason, for if determinism is true then religious folks are predetermined to be religious – they just can’t help it and shouldn’t be criticized for it! BTW, I presume everyone here knows that compatibilism is just determinism by another name.
    My take: determinism – significantly supported by science, but not nearly so well as evolution, quantum physics, etc. Some (unknown) version of freewill is scientifically possible (see Thomas Nagel, Raymond Tallis, David Chalmers, Colin McGinn,Bob Doyle, et al.) but, of course, not proved. We just don’t know! In the determinism/freewill contest, Ignorance Rules!

    • Posted April 24, 2013 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

      Compatibilism just means that free will is *compatible* with determinism. A compatibilist need not believe that the universe actually is determinstic (who knows?).

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted April 24, 2013 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

        Even somone who believes in hard determinism in the brain need not believe in a deterministic Universe from the moment of the Big Bang to the end of time. A non-deterministic Universe could contain deterministic systems like the brain.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted April 24, 2013 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

      Even non-free willed deterministic intelligent beings can be influenced to change their views by outside influences of the environment. So you may be right that the religious believers can’t be criticized, but their ideas and beliefs can be criticized and refuted by evidence and argument. This is an important distinction.

      Deterministic and without free-will doesn’t mean static and unchanging. Even non-free willed deterministic religious believers have intelligence and can be influenced by new inputs from their environment.

      • Jimbo
        Posted April 24, 2013 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

        This is what I find so fascinating: imagine the myriad of brain states that you have when asked a factual question such as “are you 36 years old?” Assuming that you are, the answer throughout the year will reliably be “yes”. What happens when someone changes your mind? Eg. “You’re not. I just found your original birth certificate which contradicts the record you had at the orphanage–see for yourself”. Isn’t it strange that the thought “36”, that presumably occurs before you are even aware of it, can be replaced with “38”?

  24. JimV
    Posted April 24, 2013 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me physically (i.e. physics-ally) possible for human decision-making to be either totally deterministic or not, and either totally predictable or not, depending on how sophisticated our neural programming is. I base this on a layman’s knowledge of quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle, and chaos theory, as well as some practical experience in the need for randomness in even simple computer games, and in how that randomness can be generated by using unpredictable external inputs as random seeds.

    So if asked whether it is possible for a rational human being to make two different decisions under identical conditions (as precisely as we can measure such conditions, which is not infinite), and provided there is not a significant advantage favoring one decision over others, I would say yes, guessing that billions of years of evolution could do at least as well as I could do in my first year of owning an Apple II+ computer and learning Applesoft from the manual.

    That satisfies my personal definition of free will. I am not sure what extra properties a dualist might claim, but if they are not (in principle, as in the above case) determinable by experiment, I am not interested in them.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted April 24, 2013 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

      External inputs can provide something that is random from the perspective of the computer viewed as a closed system, say user input or network traffic. But those seeds are then fed int a pseudo-random algorithm which is totally deterministic.

      If you are in the same situation, up to the not very demanding level of specification that your “random seeds” are the same, you will generate the same sequence of numbers so that even a 50/50 decision will come out the same every time in the totally deterministic example of your Apple II.

      This leaves aside the consideration that randomness in the brain isn’t the equivalent of free choice; it’s choice driven by random precursors, which would be non-free deterministic random behavior.

    • Posted April 25, 2013 at 4:45 am | Permalink


      1. The two situations are absolutely identical, including quantum states, however precise our measurements, and the same result will ensue. Thus we have no contracausal free will.

      2. The situations are not identical, at a point beyond the precision of our measurements, in which case a different result may ensue, but this is not a test of free will.


  25. DV
    Posted April 24, 2013 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    I recently read Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design. In it he talks about ‘model-dependent realism’ and ‘effective theory’. Those interested can read up on these topics. I would just give Hawking’s examples here. It is not that Einstein was right and Newton was wrong about gravity, their theories have domains of validity. Newton’s theory of gravity is an effective theory in the medium scale because the relativistic effects are negligible (or the level of prceision is good enough) in this scale. He also says that that we have free will and responsibility is an effective theory that we use because essentially that theory works in practice. I would add that all those who say our actions are predetermined and that we don’t have free will do not in fact have any working theory to predict our actions. By the principle of model-dependent realism we choose the theory that is most convenient, from the available competing theories that produce the same result. In the case of Free Will, there isnt even a competing theory that works.

    • DV
      Posted April 24, 2013 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

      By “he also says” I mean Hawking.

  26. Posted April 24, 2013 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    Hawking’s model-realism sounds very similar to William James’ pragmatism, with a sophisticated scientific cast?

    • DV
      Posted April 25, 2013 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      Not exactly. The main point of model-dependent realism is that we don’t (can’t) know absolute reality. We only know reality as it fits our working models. So if we have 2 models that agree with observation, we can choose which one to use based on convenience.

  27. Posted April 25, 2013 at 12:21 am | Permalink

    In response to Coel, from here: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/jim-khalili-mistakes-unpredictability-for-free-will/#comment-426425

    (but also for Howard Kornstein and Emma, from here: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/jim-khalili-mistakes-unpredictability-for-free-will/#comment-426380, and all oter compatibilists)

    Many compatibilists will refuse to use the term ‘automata’, which is clearly what your kind of free-will implies, and what I think humans are.

    The feeling of dualistic free-will is precisely what we all feel because we can’t detect, at all, the physical connection. In that sense dualistic free-will is the illusion we say it is, and yet many compatibilists object to it being called an illusion.

    Your use of ‘freedom’ is nothing more than the physics/mechanics term for freedom of movement, or the more general ‘degrees of freedom’.

    “we are free to do what we will, but not to will what we will”

    This isn’t as old as the notion of dualistic free will, and is a terrible fudge anyway. It is precisely the type of expression that conforms with the degrees of freedom notion. If we are not free to will what we want then we are not free to do what we want but what our determined will drives us to do – or at least to attempt to do, and this is part of the problem. Compatibilists can see that we are constrained from doing things where larger scale more obvious constraints act on us, but this notion expressed by the above quote is confused, and if anything the wrong way round. See later.

    “We do, chess-playing computers do, aircraft auto-pilots do, cats do.”

    But many compatibilists will disagree with you there precisely because they want free-will for humans. Many compatibilists will not allow cats free-will. Seriously. Try Raymond Tallis, a neurologist atheist who insist humans have free-will but concocts pejorative terms like ‘neuromania’ and ‘Darwinitis’ in his effort to cling on to the traditional notions of human specialness, and clearly would make the distinction between humans and cats. His notions of free-will being related to the ‘whole’ person would give free-will to a tennis player’s tennis racket, if only he followed to the logical conclusion what he claims for parts of the human body. And try persuading many of the philosophers that JAC has covered and you’ll find many of them not liking the idea that cats have free will, let alone computers. Many compatibilists will not be prepared to condone free-will in AI systems, will not even admit they will be possible.

    While a mountain has far fewer degrees of freedom that a computer, it still conforms to the physical laws that apply to a computer and as such consists of decision making elements. There is a sequence of increasing complexity that has been built up on earth by the interaction of elements in the massive energy gradient of the solar system. In very much simplified terms it goes like this…

    Mountains are forced up by large scale evens, so that when continents collide there is a sense in which the material must go somewhere, and there are vast decision points, and where a mountain has risen, that is the decided outcome, according to the effects of least required energy. This is no different in principle than what happens in a computer transistor component when a decision point comes and the electrons in the transistor must obey similar but smaller scale laws and switch on, or off, the transistor through which they flow. When a mountain decays and rocks succumb to gravity they fall down an energy gradient; and electrons do to, as they decay from interfaces, except the forces are not predominantly gravitational but electromagnetic; and yet, the forces that constitute the rock atoms bound together as it falls are predominantly electromagnetic. When a rock falls and reaches some decision point, to fall left or right of a tree, depends entirely on the physical detail that brought it to that point. In a sense this is, to us, indeterministic. This also applies to individual electrons in circuits, and, like a landslide, the operation of circuits in computers relies entirely on the bulk average action of electrons and not individual ones. But, as circuit scales reduce, there is just as much indeterminacy in circuit operation and a lot of effort has to be made to avoid the effects of indeterminacy, which in electronic circuits is metastability.

    And the same applies in human brains. The detail of any neuron, or the electrical-chemical at lower scales, consists entirely of matter interacting in energy gradients. This is the very nature of the complexity of all matter. The degrees of freedom that you consider to be free-will is nothing more than a localised conglomeration of degrees of freedom in one spatial-temporal system, the human brain. Nowhere is the will, the decision making system, actually free of that physical basis. So, your mountain and computer are examples only of objects that are near some distant ends of localised complexity continuum.

    When you get down to the scale of the detailed physics there is no point along that continuum where ‘free-will’ comes in that can justify the term free-will. From your examples, where would you place a fridge thermostat control system? How about a water clock?

    Decision making is a human concept that we apply to physics in action. There seems to be a desire to apply the concept of decision making in some respect but not others. What needs to be examined is how the notion of decision making fits into our understanding of physics. A decision point is merely the outcome of a physical interaction of particles, a consequence of dynamic matter where matter on the smallest scales has ‘degrees of freedom’. If you apply it a computer, you must examine closer and see that a computer is no more than a mass of decision points, each constrained in some gross average sense to a 1 or 0 outcome, but which in turn is the bulk outcome of billions of decision points as each electron flows down energy gradients, just as rocks in a landslide or snowflakes in an avalanche flow down a mountain. Will a particular rock flow left or right? Who knows what ‘decision’ will be made at that point. But can the bulk flow of rocks be estimated, can the contour of the mountain act as a ‘programmed’ path for the rocks overall? Yes. Everything, when considered in detail, can be modelled as decision making systems, as computational. Compatibilism confuses the physical outcome notion of a decision point with the dualistic free-will notion of decisions of the will, and tries to conflate them by the fudge of “we are free to do what we will, but not to will what we will”

    In all systems we do consider to be decision making, humans, some animals; and then as humans invented automata themselves, from simple clocks, complex multipart tools, on to various machines, and even the mechanical automata, from the designs of da Vinci through to those of the 17th century. And it was Descartes, who really got the idea that animals were automata, but because of his religious beliefs he couldn’t bring himself to think that of humans, and so human dualistic free-will was made a real distinctive concept, and that is what we have been left with since, this dichotomy of free-will versus automata. This is why compatibilism is a fudge around this distinction.

    This is the dichotomy that actually applies, because that’s how it feels. Even physicalists feel as though their will is free from physical constraints, even if our will is not. The actual feeling we have is almost the opposite of your “we are free to do what we will, but not to will what we will”, but instead should be, “We feel we are free to will what we want, but we are not free to do all we will (because of gross physical limits), and neither are we actually free to will”. In other words, we do not have free-will, we only feel as though we do – it is an illusion.

    The problem for our conceptual perspective is historical, and evolutionary. We cannot see the untold number of non-intelligent ‘decision points’ that made each of our ancestors survive, that made our non-free-willed biological bits become the supposedly free-willed things they are now. Without a clear understanding of what you mean by free-will, without that clear demarkation between dualistic free-will, which actually has some clear and specific meaning, and the evidence from all levels of physics that implies that all decision points in all systems are just the unfolding of dynamic physical systems. In physics, a ‘decision’ is nothing more than the unfolding of physical outcomes in energy gradients. The bulk energy flow from the sun pushes matter on earth up-hill energy-wise; and in falling back down smaller scale up-hill waves occur. The waves act on ever smaller scales, but can produce ever more complex systems. This is all it is, all of it, the flip-flopping of decision points as some matter pushes other matter around, and the outcomes are ‘decisions’, in our conceptual terms.

    The problem is that human brains have evolved through an uncontrolled process that looks to theists and ID’ers as if there is some more sophisticated design process at work, and they know very clearly what they mean by free-will. It is very specifically a free-will of a God, and the free-will of a soul that a God has given to man, it is very clearly a dualistic free-will. The majority of people on earth are dualist theists, or have some notion of free-will they retain from theistic influences.

    There is a clear and genuine distinction between dualistic free-will proponents, mostly the theists, and the illusory-free-will proponents, the physicalists.

    This is the problem with compatibilist free-will. It is a total fudge where compatibilists will not agree with each other, and are not prepared to accept the basic physics of the matter, that the physics applies all the way up, and they are mixing the notion of degrees-of-freedom with the notion of free-will that is the illusion we all suffer from. Many compatibilists will not accept at all that computers have free will. The compatibilists are floundering around in between the various notions of freedom with no clear definition of free-will, because they cannot draw the arbitrary lines somewhere between mountains, computers, and humans – and none of them agree clearly what side of the line any of the many intermediately complex systems lie. Some compatibilists will not allow mountains free-will and yet might start at fridge thermostats, or maybe computers. For other compatibilists the line is drawn not through complexity but through some mechanical v. biological divide, and then typically they waver about unsure about which biological systems have free will. This becomes ridiculous when they might wonder if some animal with a few brains cells might have free will, and yet they might not want to accept that their own gut, which has a pretty autonomous but complex nervous system, has free-will.

    Compatibilism is a confused mess. I have never seen a definition of free-will from a compatibilists that doesn’t amount a description of an automaton, or which, like the “we are free to do what we will, but not to will what we will” seems so flawed logically, unless the ‘free to do’ means nothing more than the mechanistic ‘freedom to fall down a hill’ that a rock on a mountain has.

    Compatibilist free-will amounts to nothing more than the freedom of inertia, the continuing on some path until other forces interact. Again, let’s look at “we are free to do what we will, but not to will what we will”. According to this you seem to accept that what we ‘will’ is the outcome of physical activity in the brain, and so is not free. But then, following that putting into action, that electro-chemical activity that comes to some gross level bulk operation ‘decision’ point, the rest of your body conforms to that decision and in some complex way continues along that inertial path, that degree of freedom, unless constrained by other forces. So, when my brain un-freely ‘wills’ that I raise my arm, my inertial brain body system un-freely but within the confines determined by how my arm is connected to my body, moves my arm upward. That freedom is constrained by factors, such as, my not being able to reach up to a twenty foot shelf, or not being able to lift my arm if it is tied down to my side. Compatibilism must then apply to mountains and rocks – they have free will to the very same extent. The rock is not free to ‘will’ itself to fall, but when it does fall it is free to do so, in as much as it is constrained by gravity and the mountain side.

    Compatibilist free-will is a hopeless fudge. Illusory free-will is a far better description of what is actually going on: we conform to the laws of physics in all respects, but we subjectively feel as though our will is free from physical constraint, and this is the nature of the illusion.

    • Posted April 25, 2013 at 7:41 am | Permalink

      Illusory free-will is a far better description of what is actually going on: we conform to the laws of physics in all respects, but we subjectively feel as though our will is free from physical constraint, and this is the nature of the illusion.

      Or as Samuel Johnson succinctly remarked:

      All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience for it.


      • DV
        Posted April 25, 2013 at 9:15 am | Permalink

        Samuel Johnson is wrong.

        There is no working theory that says humans don’t have free will.

        We have a working theory that humans have the capability for free will. I say capability because it’s not all or nothing, it is situational. If you put a gun to someone’s head and tell him to choose pancakes for breakfast, you just removed his free will and you can predict he will have pancakes. But if you don’t coerce him in anyway, he can make your prediction wrong 100% of the time.

        What would a theory that we don’t have free will look like? It will be falsified by the breakfast test above.

        • Posted April 25, 2013 at 9:53 am | Permalink

          I could deterministically program a computer to react in the same way. That isn’t free will. That is merely a system, human or computer, making a decision.

          There is as yet no theory that there is no free will, and no theory that there is, because we don’t have any theory of consciousness of neuroscience that addresses free will.

          What we do have is all the evidence from neuroscience that shows that humans suffer mental illusions, as well as visual ones. We have evidence from many experiments that humans can be made to perform some act predictable and they yet they report they have made a free choice. We have all of science that collectively suggests that the brain follows the physical laws entirely, as anything else does. We have no evidence of souls or minds. We only have the subjective feeling that our decisions are free from physical determination.

          There is nothing other than the last point that even suggests we have free will.

          • DV
            Posted April 25, 2013 at 10:04 am | Permalink

            Yes a computer programmed to provide random (and hence unpredictable) choices does not have free will. Clearly unpredictability is not a sufficient condition for free will. The other necessary condition is consciousness. You don’t say a computer has free will because you don’t consider a computer to be conscious.

            You use the theory that people have free will everyday without even realizing it. That’s why you give ask people what they want, why you give them choices, why you hold people responsible for their actions. We act everyday on the theory that free will exists.

            This doesn’t mean that people’s choices are free from causation. It means only that it is too difficult for us to work out the cause and effect chain of the inputs and the processing that goes on in the brain to produce a predictable result. It means that “people have free will” is an effective theory – it agrees with observation.

            • Posted April 25, 2013 at 10:36 am | Permalink

              “You use the theory that people have free will everyday without even realizing it. ”

              Yes, because we all have the illusion of free will. But this isn’t a scientific theory, it’s a subjective notional one, as is ‘the theory of mind’.

              Computers ask each other what they want in their communication protocols.

              If a sociopaths kills then we say he is responsible for the killing. Responsibility in the non-free will sense is the attribution of cause to the most spatial and temporal accumulation of prior causes into the most localised most recent cause. As such the killer is the most obvious entity to lock up to stop further killing.

              In a similar sense a car’s prior history of being ridden over rough terraine and the absence of any recent checks may result in a brake failure. Even though in that case we can more easily attribute the cause of an accident to prior causes, more easily than we do for a sociopath, we still say that right now it’s the car that is at fault, and it’s the car we take of the road an fix.

              In the case of sociopaths there is evidence that combined brain conditions and an abusive childhood are most likely to lead to a sociopath killing that either of the two conditions in isolation. Many people have the brain conditions for being a sociopath, but have had a loving history and are more likely to follow social rules, even though they might lack the empathy for others that non-sociopaths have.

              The car example is much simpler, much more deterministic. To prevent further accidents we might introduce rules about having cars serviced more often. It migh be beneficial, for the future victims at least, to check for sociopathic tendencies and other conditions that lead to sociopaths killing, but it’s complicated, technically and politically.

              But in principle the examples are similar. In both there are prior causes that can lead, statistically, to a bad outcome for any specific entirty, car of person. In both cases the events are caused, identified and attributed most recently, locally, and easily by the entity that we say has caused the event. But in neither is there any evidence of free will.

              The free will we attribute to people is the mistake we have been making for millenia, because we have had no way of figuring out what might be causing individuals we observe to make decisions (even 100% contrary to expectation), and on top of that, when we observe ourselves, we can’t feel or sense the neurological mechanisms of decision making working. We simply feel that we are making free will decisions.

              “This doesn’t mean that people’s choices are free from causation.”

              Well, what are they free from?

              “It means only that it is too difficult for us to work out the cause and effect chain…”

              Then why call it ‘free’? What does ‘free’ mean in that sense? We can’t determine the outcome of a role of the dice. Do we say it has free will? Not being able to predict outcomes isn’t generally considered to be free will.

              ““people have free will” is an effective theory – it agrees with observation.”

              It agrees only with subjective feeling, not with scientific observation. There is no scientific observation of free will, and much science that makes it unlikely; and without evidence it is as counter-physical as any woo any theist can come up with. You even say yourself that human bahaviour is entirely causal.

              “Clearly unpredictability is not a sufficient condition for free will.”

              But that’s precisely what you are saying is sufficient when you say “It means only that it is too difficult for us to work out the cause and effect chain…”

              • DV
                Posted April 25, 2013 at 10:44 am | Permalink

                >>But that’s precisely what you are saying is sufficient when you say “It means only that it is too difficult for us to work out the cause and effect chain…”

                I already told you the implicit condition. And you come back to me and say I’m not saying it explicitly everywhere???

              • DV
                Posted April 25, 2013 at 10:55 am | Permalink

                >>Well, what are they free from?

                You must be new here because I’ve been repeating this for as long as Jerry has been posting free will topics.

                The free part of “free will” refers to freedom from unwanted influence from other intentional agents. We are conscious intentional agents that live among and in competition with other conscious intentional agents. I am exercising free will, if it is I, not You or any other intentional agent, who owns the intention that led to my action.

                If I sign a contract of my own free will, that means I intended to sign it and I did. If I signed a contract NOT of my own free will, that means that somebody probably put a gun to my head. Free means free from coercion by another.

              • Posted April 25, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

                & again…


              • Posted April 25, 2013 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

                “If I sign a contract of my own free will, that means I intended to sign it and I did.”

                Then it’s your particularly feeble definition of free will. It isn’t free of prior causes. Again, you’re only describing localised caused events, your intention, which in turns causes other events, your action. This is no different from automata – which is what we are.

                And your definition doesn’t agree with what other compatibilists are saying here. Compatibilism is fudge where even compatibilists define free will differently – though I’m not surprised, given it’s such a fudge. A free will that isn’t free of causality, while subjectively we feel it is. Far better to say outright that we don’t have free will in actuality but that we suffer the illusion that we have it.

        • Posted April 25, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

          I think you’re conflating legal and philosophical terms there.


          • DV
            Posted April 25, 2013 at 11:04 am | Permalink

            The only difference is that the legal, everyday usage, has the philosophical justification that makes sense – free will in the context of competition of wills.

            The “philosophical” (which I would probably call the “academic”) usage has a philosophical justification that doesn’t make sense. It mistakes the problem of free will as a problem of causation, when it is properly not. Even historically when people wondered if humans have free will, they wondered this in the context of whether we can act freely from the will of God. Historically it was a question of our will versus God’s will – so a competition of wills. Somewhere along the way academics conflated the issue with determinism, while the legal everyday usage retained the proper context.

            • Posted April 25, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink


              But it’s clearly your “academic” free will which is being dissected here.


    • Posted April 27, 2013 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

      You need to read about complex theory, such as weather systems. Totally deterministic atoms (or synapses in brain) in huge numbers create an emergent phenom which is not linearly correlated with any of the input sets.

      It answers the “dualistic nature” of all complex systems.

  28. Posted April 25, 2013 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    If a rock emerges from deepest space and you see that it’s going to hit you, do you dodge to the left or dodge to the right? If the universe is deterministic, you might think, that was all decided in advance at the very beginning of time within the universe’s blueprint. You have no choice! You were always going to dodge to the left and there is nothing you can do about it. So how can the compatibilist (who believes that choices can be made in spite of determinism) possibly say that we can decide which way to jump?

    “But”, the compatibilist would answer: “What would be the point of that big lump of grey matter between our ears if it couldn’t make decisions? What you should be asking is *where* it was determined that you were going to jump to the left. And as it turns out the decision to jump left was made inside your brain by the machinations of your brain, so how can you possibly say that the choice of which way to go was not down to the decision that you yourself made?”.

    So the compatibilist position is that we do make choices, because the decisions we take are “down to us”. Such a position obviously has nothing to do with contra causal free will as that is ruled out by the compatibilist’s acceptance of determinism.

    • Posted April 25, 2013 at 7:43 am | Permalink

      Surely you’re confusing determinism with predestination… ?


      • Posted April 25, 2013 at 8:38 am | Permalink

        No, but lets be clear what a deterministic universe implies: If the universe is deterministic then, in principle, if you were able to run it again with exactly the same starting conditions it would unwind in exactly the same way. In that sense the future evolution of the universe is implicit in it’s starting conditions.

        • Posted April 25, 2013 at 10:23 am | Permalink

          You’re doing it again!


          • Posted April 25, 2013 at 10:53 am | Permalink

            You’ll need to explain what you mean. All I did here was define what it means for a system such as a universe to be deterministic.

          • Posted April 25, 2013 at 10:58 am | Permalink

            And that doesn’t imply either predestination or fatalism – although many people find it hard to see why.

            • Posted April 25, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

              How is “it would unwind in exactly the same way” different from predestination?


              • Posted April 25, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

                If I go into a restaurant and I decide to eat fish, because of the smell from the kitchen or by seeing the meal of another diner, then, the decision my brain took to eat the fish happened after I entered the restaurant. So I don’t see why you would imagine that some kind of predestination is involved in my decision to eat the fish. Clearly it can’t have been fated that I eat fish before I entered the restaurant since my decision was influenced by another diner in the restaurant and I made up my mind then and there to have the fish. And surely this choice that I made is only possible because my brain processes, even if not the universe as a whole, *are* deterministic. Otherwise my choice would just have been a random one, and that is no kind of choice at all.

              • Posted April 25, 2013 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

                But what happened to “it would unwind in exactly the same way”?

                Are you saying that you could have done otherwise than decide to have the fish? That the other diner could have decided differently? That you could have decided not to go into the restaurant? … ???


              • Posted April 25, 2013 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

                Nothing happened, repeatability is implicit in what deterministic systems are and that is necessary for any system in order to make a choice that isn’t random. If the first time we ran the universe I chose the fish and the second time I chose the meat then there would have to be a random element in the choice and so it wouldn’t be *my* choice. In that case my brain would be useless for making decisions, to the extent that it was random. But, none of this implies fatalism or predestination since I clearly made the decision to have the fish after I entered the restaurant.

                The reason people find this so difficult to swallow is, I think, just a question of perception. We are used to thinking of ourselves as one thing and the universe as another separate thing. That then fuels the perception that because a deterministic system’s evolution is implicit in it’s starting conditions, then everything in that system is akin to a puppet having it’s strings pulled. But, you can’t have puppets unless there is something *outside* of the puppet to pull the strings and the universe, which *includes* us is all that there is (barring the existence of an omniscient god out side of space and time – then we really would be puppets).

              • Posted April 26, 2013 at 12:05 am | Permalink

                “since I clearly made the decision to have the fish after I entered the restaurant.”

                But if you could not have decided otherwise, how is that not predestination?


              • Posted April 26, 2013 at 1:30 am | Permalink

                When you make a choice you can’t choose otherwise than to make the choice you do, otherwise it wouldn’t be your choice. Why should that imply predestination? I didn’t even know that the restaurant would be serving fish before I went in, so there is no conceivable way that I could have made the decision to have fish before hand.

                Imagine that we don’t live in a deterministic universe (who knows?). Now the evolution of the universe is not implicit in it’s starting conditions so would you then say that, in that case, we are no longer predestined to carry out our actions even if our brains still function entirely deterministically (as they probably do regardless of QM)? If scientists were then to find that the underpinnings of QM were deterministic, after all, would we then suddenly have to say that all our actions are predestined? Why would it make any difference? Could a predestined entity even exist in an indeterministic universe, without access to it’s pre determined decisions?

              • Posted April 26, 2013 at 2:26 am | Permalink

                Ignoring for the moment, your second para., how is that choice not predestined, if it follows as an inevitable consequence of everything that went before?


              • Posted April 26, 2013 at 4:57 am | Permalink

                << popped up some levels

      • Posted April 26, 2013 at 4:57 am | Permalink

        Imagine that the universe is actually a circular deterministic cellular automata (who knows again), so that it constantly circles through the same set of events every week for all eternity. Then you wouldn’t even be able to say which was the first event and it becomes clear that decisions occur in deterministic systems at the time and place that they are realised, they don’t carry forward information from previous frames that determines what events are going to happen next. The implication of determinism is that events follow from previous events, but there is nothing in the universe that knows what the universe is going to do next and if there is nothing outside of it, then there’s no source of predestination there either. It only appears that our actions are predestined, when you look backwards at past actions, since they are the results of decisions that have already been made and so, in a deterministic system, could not have happened otherwise. And in my circular universe, which repeats every week, if I eat fish on a Friday then I eat fish every Friday, but I still have to make the decision separately every Friday, since the universe hasn’t retained any information from the previous Friday; it can’t have done so since otherwise Thursday wouldn’t have been like last Thursday!

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted April 26, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

          But if an infinitely powerful computer were outside your circular universe, and could have perfect knowledge of it, the computer could in principle simulate your universe and predict what happens at each instant without remembering what you did the week before.

          So it’s hard for me to see how you are avoiding pre-destination. But there is something important in the idea that at each moment we are actually choosing, even though we could make no other choice, because if we were removed at any instant from this Universe it would change future events.

          One thing I often see in these discussions though is that people seem to leap from a deterministic brain to assuming we must require that the Universe in its entirety is also deterministic.

          A non-deterministic Universe can contain systems that are deterministic, such as the brain. We don’t really have to answer the question “Is the universe deterministic” to assume the brain is deterministic as a closed system.

          And even if the Universe is totally deterministic and we are really predestined, we still make unique and important contributions (if we were removed destiny would change), and since we can’t predict what happens next, we still live satisfying lives.

        • Posted April 26, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

          But, there isn’t either a super powerful computer outside of the universe, or for that matter an omniscient god, because the universe is all that there is (i.e. universe in this sense refers to the totality of everything). That gives the universe a special status, as a deterministic system, which is different to that of say a chess program or a Conway’s life type cellular automata. Certainly if there was an omniscient being, outside of space and time, and it could observe and predict all our actions, then the situation would be different, but there isn’t! Once we reject god, then we need to reject him/her/it entirely and there is no god sized void in which we can insert a super computer.

          In answer to your third para, as we already agree in this thread, compatibilists hold that determinism is compatible with the ability to make choices, not that the universe is *necessarily* deterministic. It’s an important distinction since the current scientific view of how the brain works is deterministic, but we don’t yet know how to think about determinism/indeterminism in the context of physics, in particular QM.

          If you believe that our actions are predestined, then consider this thought experiment: Imagine that we minutely change the starting conditions of our universe (A), to get a universe (B) that is somewhat different. Now Scotty, on the Starship Enterprise, is able to beam people between universe A and universe B, but he is reluctant to do so, since he reasons as you do that all our actions are predestined and since the starting conditions in universe B are different to those in A he imagines that you would be totally non functional in universe B, without all those predetermined reactions. Do you think, then, that Scotty is right to be worried or would you think that we would have no problem functioning in universe B because our actions are decided in the present through the decisions we make right now in our brains? Because if we really didn’t decide our actions in the present, then Scotty would be quite rightly concerned about our imminent confusion, when he beamed us across to universe B, where we have no determination in the past to rely on.

        • Posted April 26, 2013 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

          I appreciate your efforts, Roq, but I’m not sure your elaborate thought experiments are illuminating. (I’m also doubtful of their value when you introduce special boundary conditions that don’t comport with the universe our minds work within… but never mind.)

          The nub (which is getting lost in these epicycles) is, is there a meaningful distinction between events happening inexorably as a consequence of prior events (“unwind[ing] in exactly the same way”) and predestination. Maybe: Is there any empirical way to distinguish one from another? Or are they interchangeable models (cp. model-dependent realism)?


        • Posted April 27, 2013 at 12:59 am | Permalink

          I don’t think that you can ever solve problems like that, because when it comes down to it they are just issues of semantics like so many other philosophical problems that get beaten to death when the two sides only really disagree on the wording.

          But there is a real issue lurking under these discussions, which is that when you accept that contra causal free will is incoherent (it’s such an absurd idea that it always amazes me that it still has any currency), many people then go to totally the opposite extreme and say that we are nothing but puppets and that our choices are meaningless, since they’ve already been made. It’s as if once one has accepted the bitter pill that we can’t bootstrap our own characters, people them want to drain the bottle of every bitter pill they can imagine to expunge the ghost of theological thinking. But, it seems obvious to me (and compatibilists), that although we can never be responsible for what character we get allotted in life’s lottery (or the environment that acts on it), that is where our impotence ends, because we actually do have the mechanisms to make decisions that are in accord with our character and we make those decisions dynamically in, or at least close to the current moment.

          It’s fine that you aren’t convinced by my arguments, but, in your terse replies, you haven’t made counter arguments of your own: It certainly would appear that, when I walk into a restaurant, I make my decisions then and there, so if you wish to show otherwise the burden is on you, despite my picking it up :). It doesn’t help to throw around words such as “predestination” and “fatalism”, since there are many subtle shades of ambiguity hiding in these ill defined words.

  29. Jeff Johnson
    Posted April 26, 2013 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    @Gregory: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/jim-khalili-mistakes-unpredictability-for-free-will/#comment-427371

    I don’t think the label “compatibilism” has to cover everything Dennet does. He can take off his compatibilist hat when he stops arguing that human behavior and thought merits the label “free will”. I’m wrong to give the impression that a compatibilist can’t address the details of how the brain works. I should clarify that I mean the concerns of compatibilism, which seems to have an interest in being able to defend the claim that we have “free will” at all costs, seem to me generally oriented to questions regarding how human beings view themselves and interact at a macroscopic subjective and social level. I’m not trying to diminish the importance of this. But we are all human beings, we have a long shared history, we all know what we can do, that we can love, live, work, create, enjoy life, etc. There really isn’t a large population in the world on the edge of their seats waiting to find out if they have free will or not. So I simply don’t understand the importance of compatibilism, unless it is to reassure some people who were genuinely worried that scientists might conclude that they can’t do the things they do every day.

    The fact is, humans can go about their business without an accurate understanding of how the brain works, which amounts to proof of one simple fact: despite the deterministic nature of the brain and the material nature of the mind, we have “sort-of-free-enough will-type-behavior” to do what we’ve always done. I think calling it “free will” goes way too far. Nobody ever questioned if we can do what we do. Going back to the stoics, and including many theologians and philosophers, Des Cartes, Hume, and many others, people have always wondered why or how we can do what we do.

    I think having a more accurate detailed explanation for how the brain works can have enormous impact in medicine, psychology and psychiatry, law, human interface technology for computing and robotic equipment, and really any field where new insights may come from reducing the gap between how we think our brain works and how it really works. When viewing the brain as a machine or system and trying to understand its inner workings, there just doesn’t seem to be a place where one can find freedom to decide anything other than is dictated by the state of the system, its history and development as determined by gene expression and environment interacting. At this level it seems absurd to say there is something, some property, some process, or ability that is “free will”.

    So these are two perspectives, and in one perspective apparently it is appealing to support the proposition that humans have free will, and from the other prospective the idea seems like a delusion or perhaps a reassuring fiction.

  30. Jeff Johnson
    Posted April 26, 2013 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    @Coel: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/jim-khalili-mistakes-unpredictability-for-free-will/#comment-427600

    There are long standing traditions of the San people of the Kalahari in Africa, but I don’t really know what they are.

    I grew up in the US speaking english, and I didn’t learn a thing about compatibilism. I did however grow up understanding what people meant by the phrase “to sign of your own free will”.

    As I see it, there are two factors people are concerned about when someone signs a contract committing them to terms or liabilities:

    1. Has the person made the decision with ehough information and knowledge to understand what they are committing to, and that they have made a clear and unambiguous decision in their own mind that they are at peace with, with no lingering doubts.

    This concern is not addressed by asking about free will. It is addressed by asking if the person understands the contract, if they know what it implies they must do, and if they are happy and satisfied with that.

    2. Is the person being influenced by someone else? Are they signing because somone has threatened them, or influenced them with some kind of deception, or any other form of uninvited and unwelcome influence.

    This concern is what people are addressing if they ask someone whether they are “signing of their own free will”.

    In this case people are using the term “free will”, as I said, in a colloquial way that has nothing to do with the concerns of compatibilists or incompatibilists.

    Incompatibilists are not arguing with dualists. That question is settled. Incompatibilists, or at least I and many others on this site, especially it seems those who have a more deeply scientific approach toward the issue and questions of truth in general, are arguing with compatibilists, in particular their claim that humans have some capability that should be known as “free will”.

    There are reasons why compatibilists need to struggle to define what they mean by “free will”, and why they have to qualify its usage for clarity by saying “compatibilist free will”. That reason is because people in general are confused by what compatibilists mean when they say “free will”, and people in general, traditionally and still today, have associated much more with the phrase “free will” than compatibilists are willing to admit.

    This phrase: “compatibilist freedom is the only sort of freedom that actually exists” reminds me of the magic show analogy. If we go to a magic show, are we going to see “real magic”? No, we are going to see the only kind of “magic” that exists. That’s all fine, but there is something that people understand generally by the term magic, it doesn’t exist, and it won’t be seen at a “magic” show. What they see at the magic show are illusions, despite the fact that they are illusions that actually exist.

    People call it a magic show and understand that it’s not really magic, or that it’s “magic”, nod nod wink wink, as in illusions. But still in other contexts, when something mysterious occurs and someone says “it must be magic”, it is clear what is meant, and it has nothing to do with illusionists stage acts. So people are very complex context dependent language users.

    Obviously this is an analogy where you can substitute “free will” for “magic”. You can’t point to a particular usage of the phrase “free will” and claim that it encompasses all of what people think “free will” means. And just because compatibilists can train large groups of people to accept their specialized and limited definition of “free will” in a particular context, just as happens with “magic” in the context of an illusionist’s stage show, that won’t change the meaning of the term “free will” for all the other people in the world, and all the rest of history and civilization. Just like “magic”, which we agree is impossible, “free will” retains the meaning of a special ineffable quality unique to humans, and connected to some magic spark that leaves the body and goes elsewhere at death. We ought to be able to agree that “free will”, like “magic”, is impossible (except as an illusion), but what we have is a very flexible and powerful intelligence that allows us a kind of freedom or latitude in the world (one everyone knows we have from direct experience) that is not “free will” (except in a very special and limited way that ignores the full scope of the meaining).

    It really does just come down to the fact that compatibilists are wedded to defending the unbreakable association between human beings and the compound phrase “free will”. Why this is important, I can’t imagine, other than perhaps habit, tradition, professional comittment, or other factor that seems not related to a rational interpretation of the true facts involved, and a committment to accuracy in using language.

  31. Jeff Johnson
    Posted April 26, 2013 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    @Peter: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/jim-khalili-mistakes-unpredictability-for-free-will/#comment-428116

    [compatibilists] think agency without contracausality is in no way less valuable or less “genuine” than contral-causal agency.

    I can think of objections, though I agree with the following: the agency that we observe humans to actually have, which is very valuable, is fully consistent with determinism, i.e. non-contra-causal agency.

    If we actually had contra-causal agency we would be more successful at things like dieting, quitting drugs, drinking, smoking, gambling, being disciplined with respect to work and procrastination, avoiding criminal acts, keeping new year’s resolutions, etc. There would be many human weaknesses that would either be less persistent, less pronounced, or even non-existant if we actually had contra-causal will. I think there is a pretty good case for it being more valuable than what we have, if it were possible. I don’t really think contra-causal will is possible.

    Are you claiming that *that’s* obvious to everyone, and that Jerry for instance never suggests otherwise?

    No. I don’t recall Jerry discussing whether contra-causal free will would be less or more valuable than the compatibilist “free will”. I don’t think he bothers because he is busy arguing that free will does not exist (except for the trivially existing compatibilist kind, which is not actually free and is trivial because it has been defined to exist, defined to agree with how everyone already knows that humans behave). There isn’t any argument over whether compatibilist’s conception of free will exists, only whether it makes any sense to call it free.

    Would you argue with a compatibist over:
    “I don’t think that the presence or absence of [contracausal] free will does make much difference to our society and legal systems”

    Yes, I would argue with that. I think that vengeance and moral retribution in our penal system is based on the general belief among the populace that criminals can easily choose a different path, and living a crime free lifestyle is a mere decision point that can be taken as easily as law abiding citizens do. In other words, it is based on an implicitly assumed contra-causal free will. They may not be conscious of their assumptions, nonetheless the popular view is that people commit crimes because they are willfully bad, not because circumstances are determining their choices. So a different understanding of human behavior would lead us to design a different penal system that would really make a difference.

  32. Posted April 27, 2013 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    Most of commenters here are caught between old ideas of religious free-will, against the modern simplisistic physic based fact that all things are deterministic in nature.

    Naming things like compatibilist and incompatos like Jerry did, doesn’t help either, because it framed the answer only in those two possibilities, either you’re good athiest or bad religionistas.

    While clearly something else is there (no! not the quantumish ghost!). Like things in weather systems, stock market, societies, human brains.

    In systems where there are myriad number of (simple) members such as atoms, drops of water, synapses, human-beings, interact between each other and the environment, then something emerges, the hurricanes, the swarms, the flock movements, the herd instincts, the bubble stock markets, the consciousness, the “free-will”.

    WEiT is a very good book, and I like the discussions in this blog, only that Jerry is not always right.

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