Why we need to dispel the notion of dualistic free will

I’ve always argued that philosophers spend way too much time trying to limn conceptions of free will that avoid dualism. Instead, they write books confecting compatibilism. I regard this exercise as largely a waste of time. If philosophers truly intend for their lucubrations to change the world, then I’d think that they’d spend more of their time spreading the word about our growing knowledge of how behavior is determined and less on trying to show how we have some kind of free will.

After all, it is the dispelling of dualism—still deeply entrenched in our society—that has invidious consequences not only for religion, but, more important, for how we treat and punish criminals.  Really, is it more important for philosophers to tell us how we really have “free will” after all (and who reads that compatibilism, anyway), or to work on improving society by the proper treatment of those who do bad?  (And I deny the claim that the notion of dualistic free will doesn’t play a bad role in our present system of criminal justice.)

I have no time to post in detail, but the pressing need for neuroscientific studies of behavior and empirical tests of reward and punishment (in other words, science) to reform of how we meet out “justice” can be seen in an article in last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal by Adrian Raine, “The criminal mind.” Some excerpts:

The field of neurocriminology—using neuroscience to understand and prevent crime—is revolutionizing our understanding of what drives “bad” behavior. More than 100 studies of twins and adopted children have confirmed that about half of the variance in aggressive and antisocial behavior can be attributed to genetics. Other research has begun to pinpoint which specific genes promote such behavior.

Brain-imaging techniques are identifying physical deformations and functional abnormalities that predispose some individuals to violence. In one recent study, brain scans correctly predicted which inmates in a New Mexico prison were most likely to commit another crime after release. Nor is the story exclusively genetic: A poor environment can change the early brain and make for antisocial behavior later in life.

Most people are still deeply uncomfortable with the implications of neurocriminology. Conservatives worry that acknowledging biological risk factors for violence will result in a society that takes a soft approach to crime, holding no one accountable for his or her actions. Liberals abhor the potential use of biology to stigmatize ostensibly innocent individuals. Both sides fear any seeming effort to erode the idea of human agency and free will.

It is growing harder and harder, however, to avoid the mounting evidence. With each passing year, neurocriminology is winning new adherents, researchers and practitioners who understand its potential to transform our approach to both crime prevention and criminal justice.

Unlike some readers, Raine clearly recognizes that scientific studies of the brain, and of our notion of “agency,” have serious implications for criminal justice.  As I’ve said, the notion of retribution goes out the window when you discard dualism, for criminals have no “free choice” in their behavior. (I hasten to add, though, that we’ll still be punishing people to remove them from society, to set an example for others—this affects their own future decisions—and to reform people.)  To determine which punishments are most efficacious, you need tests: scientific tests. That’s hard and expensive, but the only way to go if you’re serious about reforming society.

I’ll leave you to read Raine’s piece, but will add two snippets:

What are the practical implications of all this evidence for the physical, genetic and environmental roots of violent behavior? What changes should be made in the criminal-justice system?

Let’s start with two related questions: If early biological and genetic factors beyond the individual’s control make some people more likely to become violent offenders than others, are these individuals fully blameworthy? And if they are not, how should they be punished?

. . . This brings us to the second major change that may be wrought by neurocriminology: incorporating scientific evidence into decisions about which soon-to-be-released offenders are at the greatest risk for re-offending. Such risk assessment is currently based on factors like age, prior arrests and marital status. If we were to add biological and genetic information to the equation—along with recent statistical advances in forecasting—predictions about reoffending would become significantly more accurate.

And the ending, with which I agree 100%:

We can avoid such dire outcomes. A more profound understanding of the early biological causes of violence can help us take a more empathetic, understanding and merciful approach toward both the victims of violence and the prisoners themselves. It would be a step forward in a process that should express the highest values of our civilization.

I am not, like some readers, one who dismisses the value of philosophy. I’ve written about its contributions before, especially in ethics. But in this case, what substantive contribution do compatibilist philosophers make by endlessly defining and redefining free will? (I’m not convinced, as some are, that if we don’t think we have free will, we’ll go wild in the streets.) And does that contribution even come close to the kind of contributions that neuroscience and psychological experiments can make toward improving our society?

The author, Dr. Adrian Raine, is not a journalist; he’s described as “the Richard Perry University Professor of Criminology, Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime,” to be published on April 30 by Pantheon, a division of Random House.


  1. Posted May 2, 2013 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    The ability to look at an image on a screen and predict behavior, does not at all mean that that behavior was determined. What still remains is that persons ability to do otherwise. However influenced a person may be, we still have the ability for second order desires (that is, desires about our desires). Because of my genetics and upbringing, I may be heavily influenced to drink. However, I have to ability to do otherwise; to choose a different path. We shouldn’t focus on educating people to their determined path. Rather, educate them to the fact that the genes do not define them.


  2. Peter
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    “And I deny the claim that the notion of dualistic free will doesn’t play a bad role in our present system of criminal justice.”

    Compatibilists around here have actually argued for the position that contra-causality doesn’t have that much to do with what’s wrong with our penal system. (Dualism is wrapped up with morality because of notions of rewards in an afterlife as well as notions of contra-causality, can we try and keep those separate?)

    Have you ever done more than just assert that contra-causality plays an important role? Have you ever actually engaged the compatibilists on this?

    • Lyndon
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      Peter, here is a possible chain of thought:

      Humans are machines (no free will)–
      Our selves are products of genes and environments, and our social structures are products created by those selves (which in turn influences those selves to create the social environment which then helps create new selves . . .)–
      many of those social institutions and relationships (including retributive institutions and claims) are products of our inability to accept that we are machines, and instead these institutions, relationships and norms are direct descendents of the reactive attitudes and the conceptions that arise from the reactive attitudes as they are aided by reason and analysis (but still taking the reactive attitudes as givens), as well as the inability to reflect on our misguided phenomenology of self-causation
      -—having reflected that contra-causality is incoherent, that the reactive attitudes are part of our hardwiring and that some of our social institutions are problematically derived out of such (such as a complex judicial system that a great deal of the time reflects societal and individual desires for retribution):
      many people therefore reject retribution and question the social institutions that are surely steeped in those individual and collective beliefs about “wrongdoing” and choice-making processes.

      More simply, upon reflection of the “machine” structures of our selves, including that contra-causal choice by individuals does not adhere and that emotional structures encourage us towards certain immediate behaviors and feelings (see the Jonathan Haidt monkey cucumber/grape thing, for instance), many people now reject retribution. People are going to reject the need for retribution arising from contra-causality (incoherent) whereas they have already rejected it because it somehow bubbles up from the reactive attitudes (such as most people would reject racism today even if it logically bubbles up from tribe-genetics, say).

      • Peter
        Posted May 2, 2013 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

        I’m having trouble understanding your argument.

        You *might* be advancing the claim that since we don’t have contra-causal free will, we need to rethink our existing social institutions. Which I would agree with, of course, but that’s a good idea regardless of our position on contra-causality, and I don’t think that’s the position you’re actually advancing (only that it sort of reads that way).

        You *might* be arguing that our embrace of (for example) retributive punishment is some sort reaction to our unwillingness to accept that our behavior is actually causally constrained by the natural world. I would consider that a very surprising claim to make, and I wouldn’t consider it particular worthy of refutation unless you want to support it.

        It looks to me most like you’re claiming that people are willing to accept their own intuitions about the validity of retributive punishment because they think those intuitions come from some contra-causal, and hence indisputable and mystically inspired, source. Er, something like “I don’t have to *learn* that bad guys need to be punished because I just *know* it in a way that shouldn’t be argued with,” and that undermining contra-causality would undermine the “authority” of such intuitions. If that’s what you’re arguing then YES! I will agree that’s relevant, but it’s definitely not what Jerry is arguing. And while it’s certainly worthwhile to argue in favor of the real relationship between our nature and our knowledge, I might quibble that refuting contra-causality is a bit of a tangent to the real goal there.

        • Lyndon
          Posted May 2, 2013 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

          I am arguing that retributive impulses and belief in retribution as an acceptable idea is tied in with our instinctive emotions and with how we view our selves based on how choice making seems to us in the first person. As we go to make a conscious choice, say a social choice, we feel both a consciousness that has the capacity to choose (seemingly) unlimitedly, that is the feeling of contra-causal free will, and we also feel the reactive attitude or the socio-reactive attitude that that choice instills in us (fairness, shame, disgust, etc.). I think it is probably a herculean task to pull apart the phenomenology of choice making, having to ~consciously choose one thing from another, from the emotional attitudes within that same choice.

          I also think it is an argument that Jerry is making to a certain degree. He has been talking a lot about morality, mainly rejecting the idea of moral facts, and, like many others, he found the Capuchin monkey experiment interesting, where the monkey has a (presumed) psychological/emotional structure of what constitutes fairness. Accepting that human beings are biological machines and delving into psychological structures, we can then see that certain emotional or reactive attitudes, which perhaps are structured with a strong retributive impulse, PUNISH THAT LOWDOWN CHEATER, is something that upon reflection of our selves is not something we have to reproduce or give into.

          As I was stating before, these attitudes get jumbled in with beliefs and other social conceptions, and our emotions and beliefs become more complex. As to free will, getting beyond the confusing phenomenology of the brain/mind, the way choice making seems as we consciously make a choice and the transparency/opacity of brain to mind or mind to brain, allows us, our selves and society, to recognize what retribution is, why we want it, and then helps us decide whether it is a useful or necessary social tool, that is, whether it is an appropriate response to the choice making structures of others.

          • Peter
            Posted May 2, 2013 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

            “I am arguing that retributive impulses and belief in retribution as an acceptable idea is tied in with our instinctive emotions and with how we view our selves based on how choice making seems to us in the first person.”

            Wait, what? Well, yes, I concede all that, but I’m particularly wondering what all that has to with *contra-causal free will*. Are you proposing that dispelling the notion of free will is (indirectly) a gateway to dispelling these other intuitions?

            Looking back on what I originally wrote, I think I was completely clear in what I was asking. Not sure how we got off topic so quickly.

            • Lyndon
              Posted May 3, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

              Peter, did you read all of my post? My last paragraph talks directly about libertarian free will. And of the part you quoted, the last part, the phenomenology of choice making is what I claim leads to belief in libertarian free will. Such a belief in libertarian free will means that most people do not accept that we are biological means programmed by genes and environment, and this means they fail to reflect on the complexity of social and emotional factors that leads them to belief in retribution. Stronger, it means there will be very confusing conceptions as they try to understand this intuition, “she deserves to die because she made this *choice,*” where these individuals have not come to grips with what they mean by choice.

              Dispelling the notion of free will allows people to begin reflecting on why their self is the way it is. Granted there are many things that help us to do that, for instance analysis of evolutionary processes and evolutionary psychology. *But one of the last important keys,* I would argue along with some other non-free-willists, is coming to grips with what happens during choice making procedures: we feel libertarian free will, and upon our belief about what our capacity to choose and others’ capacity to choose means, we then form other beliefs, blame and retribution for instance. Those beliefs about human capacities to choose in a certain (libertarian) way leads to an inability to reflect on structures and beliefs of the self, like that we are biological machines, and thus those individuals inadequately reflect on their belief in retribution. That isn’t tangential. *Belief in retribution is a reaction to a “choice” by another person,* and our emotional structures, including our reactions to choices by others, are something that as social creatures we are heavily evolutionarily wired for and that society spends a great deal of time on.

              • Peter
                Posted May 4, 2013 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

                I get impatient and need to take time away from these discussions.

                The problem with your reply is that you do not even attempt to show that belief in contra-causality *leads to* belief in retributive punishment. As in, if we are contra-causal agents, then of course we should punish people especially cruelly. Or, the best reason to refrain from retribution would be that people aren’t contra-causal agents. You know, the thing that I clearly asked about.

                The closest you are claiming to get to that is that by *arguing* with people about whether we have free will, might might be able to also engage them on related topics? Well, I suppose…

                Anyway, I’ve of course lost interest in this conversation by now.

    • Lyndon
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

      One last thing, when someone says that “the bomber deserves to die” (as opposed to needs to die for social unity, deterrence, etc.), say such is a strong retributivist claim, it probably includes instinctual emotional beliefs (it seems we have a strong “cheaters MUST be punished” hardwired psychology) but it is also a statement that reflects who this individual is, their social influences, and probably as well their belief about the power of the individual to make choices in a certain way (something also influenced by our culture, which is still supernatural and non-reflective about the incoherency of libertarian free will and does not understand the importance of transparency between brain/mind, etc.). Our social influences which become part of our selves are enmeshed with a wide variety of historical accumulation that builds upon and changes how we see behavior and how we believe social situations should be handled. And there is good reason to believe that many of those influences on our selves come from less-than-reputable sources, from institutions and social beliefs about behavior that are not the most sanguinely reflective about what our best understanding of human behavior and brain/mind processes.

  3. gr8hands
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne, why do you persist in saying we have no “free will” — no ability to really ‘make’ choices — and then constantly act as if people do have the ability to make choices?

    Which is it? They appear to be mutually exclusive.

    You claim environment, chemistry and physics combine to force reactions which we cannot control — and you then suggest we can. All your verbiage clearly states you believe we can.

    I have read every thread on your website for years, with particular attention to this topic. You have tried again and again to dispel the notion of “free will” in that if the tape were re-wound and replayed, ‘you’ could not have ‘chosen’ something different. Fine. But then you have to accept the consequences of that statement.

    The consequences mean that whatever happens was going to happen based on uncontrollable environment, chemistry and physics reactions. There can be no “try” or “attempt” — those require the possibility of choosing between options.

    You’ve dismissed these kinds of questions in the past, or ignored them, but they persist because you persist in making what appear to be contradictory statements.

    You criticize Dan Dennett for his view of free will, but your own verbiage appears to demonstrate that you also believe in it, regardless of how you protest against it.

    • Kai
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 10:00 am | Permalink

      Dan Dennett has it right in that it is evitability that evolves to give us “free will”. Or rather what we can change, the options to choose from – the controllable environment, which evolves beside the controllers.

      “The consequences mean that whatever happens was going to happen based on uncontrollable environment, chemistry and physics reactions.”

      This is correct, noting “uncontrollable environment”;

      “There can be no “try” or “attempt” — those require the possibility of choosing between options.”

      This just doesn’t follow. We have both possibilities and choices, but we neither choose what will be possible nor what we will choose.

    • Posted May 2, 2013 at 10:02 am | Permalink

      I should think it’s rather obvious.

      Do computers have “free will”? Does, say, an airliner’s autopilot have free will when it’s landing the plane?

      Most would consider a suggestion that the autopilot has “free will” to be at least somewhat bizarre. Yet most would also agree that the autopilot is constantly making decisions, of when and how much to manipulate the controls.

      But what humans do when making decisions is merely a much, much, much more sophisticated version of what the autopilot does.

      So either the autopilot is exercising its free will when it lands the plane — which would seem to me to be incompatible with every attempted definition of “free will” I’ve ever encountered — or it doesn’t, even when making decisions, and neither do we, even when making decisions.

      Of course, it doesn’t help that “free will” is exactly as incoherent as “married bachelor.” “Free” from what? Either the will is unconstrained by any systematized set of natural laws / rules / heuristics / whatever and it simply flails about at random — in which case there’s no “will” — or there’s some method to the madness, in which case it’s not “free” because it’s acting according to those rules. And that, of course, applies equally well to a naturalistic computational device (whether biological or synthetic) and to a phantasmagorical spirit puppet in the nether-world controlling human actions.

      Is the soul, whatever and wherever it is, rational? Then it is not free. Is it random? Then it has no will.

      Incidentally, I think it’s very much worthwhile to note that, when people say they’re exercising their free wills, they are, in fact, pointing to a very real and very important phenomenon. It’s just that said phenomenon is much different from what everybody is describing as “free will.”

      That is, when you make a decision, you typically construct a number of mental models of what the world will look like dependent upon different possible future decisions. You play out the various scenarios in your private virtual reality, and you base your actual, real-world decisions upon your internal analysis. This is, obviously, very close to Jerry’s own oft-repeated definition of “free will,” with the caveat that it all happens in your mind, not in reality. The process is entirely natural. It is mostly deterministic with the usual (negligible) mixes of chaos and quantum randomness thrown in for good measure. It does not fit any common definition of “free will.” But it is what you’re using when you’re exercising what you think of as your free will.



      P.S. Apologies to all for not following up on yesterday’s thread after I signed off last night. I doubt I’ll be following up much (if at all) on this one, either. The real world beckons…. b&

      • neil
        Posted May 2, 2013 at 10:33 am | Permalink

        Like the possession of consciousness or other capabilities, I believe it is not useful to constrain an entity to necessarily having it or not having it. I would say a thermostat has a scintilla of free will. Deep Blue has a fair amount of free will, but only in regard to choosing chess moves. My cat has free will, but not as much as the chess-move free will of Deep Blue. Some future artificial intelligence machine will have perhaps as much free will as do humans.

        • Gary W
          Posted May 2, 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

          I would say a thermostat has a scintilla of free will.

          Really? A thermostat’s behavior is completely determined by physical events. So in what sense does it have even a scintilla of free will?

          • neil
            Posted May 2, 2013 at 11:49 am | Permalink

            I have a “smart” thermostat that manages whether the heat pump or gas furnace should be operated and when to initiate the morning heating cyce based the internal temperature, the external temperature, the time at which I would like the internal temperature to be at a target value, and the success or failure that the thermostat had in meeting the targets on previous mornings. As such, it exhibits foresight and planning and evaluates the consequences of its past actions. In that sense, it has a scintilla of free will.

            Of course its choices are based on physical circumstances past and present. I did not claim it had a scintilla of dualistic free will.

            • Gary W
              Posted May 2, 2013 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

              As such, it exhibits foresight and planning and evaluates the consequences of its past actions. In that sense, it has a scintilla of free will.

              But what you are calling “foresight” and “planning” are just more complex forms of determinism. The behavior of your “smart” thermostat is still completely deterministic. By your definition, even a conventional “dumb” thermostat that’s a simple switch has some degree of “free will.” Do you really think that makes sense?

              • neil
                Posted May 2, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

                Yes, because we are just incredibly more complicated information processing decision makers. The fact that we are biological is irrelevant. That cannot imbue us with any magical property. That is why I say that some advanced artificial intelligence machine in the future will have the same “free will” that we have. All we have to do, and this is where compatibilist philosophers have come up short, is better define “free will” of the non-supernatural variety.

              • Gary W
                Posted May 2, 2013 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

                Then your concept of free will seems to me a reductio ad absurdum. A simple thermostat is a piece of metal that expands or contracts in response to temperature changes to open or close an electric circuit. The idea that such a mechanism can in any useful sense be said to possess “free will” strikes me as ridiculous.

              • jimroberts
                Posted May 2, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

                And yet, it has contracausal free will to just the extent that we have:(

              • Gary W
                Posted May 2, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

                Not under any useful definition of “contracausal free will.” What do you mean by that term?

              • neil
                Posted May 2, 2013 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

                A thermostat is a item manufactured to “make a choice”–whether the furnace is on or off. All choices have to be made by some physical process that evaluates information in the environment and chooses a branch on a decision tree. The physical means of the simplest thermostat is transparent and simple–a bimetal expands or contracts in response to the environmental temperature.

                Human decision-making may be vastly more complex, but like the thermostat our choices are made through physical means. We all agree on that–there is no magic non-physical spirit making the choice.

                There is no harm in saying that a simple physical system, like a thermostat designed to make a simple choice, has an “atom” of (non-dualistic) free will. If the thermostat makes bad choices, like turning the furnace on when it is warm and off when it is cold, we would say its choices are wrong and that it is broken or flawed. We might “punish” it by scrapping it and buying a new one.

                Free will, if it exists in any meaningful sense, has to start with physical processes, whether they be the expansion of a bimetal or the firing of a brain neuron. Once we reach the level of human choice, or even Deep Blue, where the decision maker runs simulations of the consequences of different possible decisions including how the environment, including other decision makers, could react, and evaluating the outcomes of those simulations in terms of some objective function, we can usefully describe our choices as reflecting full free will of the compatible kind.

                It shows up as our subjective knowledge that we could have chosen differently if we had wanted to. When I choose between steak and tofu on a menu, I might simulate the experience of eating both in my mind, and choose steak because I know it will give me a more pleasant experience. Someday, just to prove to myself I have free will, I might be tempted to choose tofu which I hate isntead of the steak. But it actually won’t prove anything because I (my brain) have just added a reason or additional satisfaction factor to the choice of tofu that tipped the balance in its favor.

              • Gary W
                Posted May 2, 2013 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

                A thermostat is a item manufactured to “make a choice”–whether the furnace is on or off.

                No, a thermostat is a device for opening and closing an electrical circuit in response to a change in temperature. There is no choice. The thermostat simply does what it is compelled to do by physical processes. Where is the “free will?”

              • Posted May 3, 2013 at 5:12 am | Permalink

                Either people make decisions and have free will, in which case the thermostat does as well; or the thermostat doesn’t make decisions and doesn’t have free will, and people don’t either.

                The differences between a thermostat and a person are quantitative, not qualitative.

                Any other position trivially reduces to wooistic dualism.


            • JBlilie
              Posted May 2, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

              It takes in data (sensors) and then executes the program using the data. It runs, 100%, on a pre-programmed set of hard rules (program), which includes a little bit of feed-back (re-writing a look-up table for instance).

              The analogy isn’t bad though: In the end, we are determined by factors “beneath” our consciouness (as well).

              We do things, they feel a certain way (to mentally typical humans) and we label that feeling, “free will”.

      • gr8hands
        Posted May 2, 2013 at 11:48 am | Permalink

        Several posters, on various threads on this website, have stated that programs don’t really make decisions. Even with a thousand IF-THEN-ELSE statements, only one of them will actually be executed during any one run. The rest weren’t really choices, in that they couldn’t have been chosen with the given criterion, or else they would have been chosen.

        Even throwing in a random number generator (were there to be one that was truly random) isn’t really giving choice in the sense we think of weighing options with consciousness.

        Do you see why that is different from the illusion of free will you’re discussing?

      • DV
        Posted May 2, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

        >>Of course, it doesn’t help that “free will” is exactly as incoherent as “married bachelor.” “Free” from what?

        You need at minimum two intentional agents to pose a problem of Free Will. “Free” means one agent acted without coercion from another (any other) agent. Until we can consider airplanes as intentional agents the free will question doesn’t apply to them.

        But it would apply to the human pilot. The pilot is an intentional agent. And he is plausibly in competition with other intentional agents – the co-pilot, a terrorist, the pilot of another plane, or even the designer of the auto-pilot system of the plane he is flying (he wants to fly the plane one way, the auto-pilot “wants” it to fly another way).

      • jimroberts
        Posted May 2, 2013 at 2:57 pm | Permalink


      • Boris Molotov
        Posted May 7, 2013 at 9:11 am | Permalink

        Autopilot is a great analogy. Most autopilot systems have the “intelligence” to land a plane successfully. There are tons of decisions involved in doing so, all of which involve environmental factors. It cannot make a decision that is not available for it to make is exactly the reason why it doesn’t have free will and neither do we.
        The thing to consider is that auto pilot is an expert system in flying a plane. If you took the autopilot expert system and included the “intelligence” of other expert systems (ad infinitum), I am pretty sure find out that perfect decisions common to all systems is an NP-complete problem that would need an approximation algorithm to make the “best” right “decision” given heuristics,goals and inputs in near real time, exactly as the brain does. This algorithm is the basis of our conciousness and what we perceive as “free will”. If not that, then what else is it?
        Yes, one day we will be able to recreate it though i think it will probably require several revolutionary advances in computer design(quantum, bio,etc.).

    • Howard Kornstein
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 1:35 am | Permalink

      I agree entirely with you gr8hands. Jerry is biased by “what he would wish” rather than “what he can prove”. For example he doesn’t like that the concept of free underpins much of religions justification of divine punishment, or its excuses for the problem of evil. If we negate the possibility of free will we negate major foundations to religious apologetics. I don’t like religion either, but the rational mine cannot allow itself to be swayed by any desire to “get at the enemy “ when we study the real world. I have argued ad-nauseum how a physical system as complex as the brain actually breaks the effects of causality, from the sound basis of Computer Science. No counterargument has been forthcoming. I have argued that punishment is essential based on the most elementary aspects of Evolutionary Game Theory. No answer to that argument either. Genetics plays a part in forming our natures, of course, but it is totally absurd to consider this the sole factor in our behaviour. We are NOT simple machines like teakettles, it is absurd to argue as if we were.

  4. moarscienceplz
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    I’m all in favor of more knowledge to understand antisocial behavior. Unfortunately, it seems to me that a lot of the diagnoses we’ll be able to make will be of a statistical nature. So what do we do with an individual who is, say, 20% more likely than average to commit a violent act? Force them to wear a t-shirt with a big red warning statement on it? Enter them into something akin to a sex offender’s registry and make them notify the police every time they move?

    • SA Gould
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      As we still have a hard time trying to get courts to exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals based on DNA testing, I think we’re a ways off from that. (www DOT innocencproject.org)

      • SA Gould
        Posted May 2, 2013 at 11:16 am | Permalink

        Damn unforgiving keyboard! Picture me with outstretched paw, yelling “NOOOOOOOO!” as I try to stop what has been sent.


    • Posted May 2, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      We could start with (a) counselling and other support services for those identified to be in that group, and move on to (b) aiming to minimise the environmental factors that contribute to people ending up in that group.

      • moarscienceplz
        Posted May 2, 2013 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

        What if it was you and you don’t want to go to counseling when you’ve done nothing wrong? Should society force you to go?

        • Posted May 2, 2013 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

          I was thinking this would fit into the regular school day. Perhaps for adults it could be available for free, but voluntary in the absence of any criminal record?

  5. John K.
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    I have never understood the appeal of compatibilist free will. It takes the traditional contra-causal free will stance, concedes all the major points (such as dualism and choice outside the bounds of physical laws), and rebrands the wholly defeated notion with the word “compatibilist” in front of the same name. Then proponents of compatibilist free will then often complain that most people confuse it with the libertarian version, which uses practically the same name to express a completely opposite thing.

    • gr8hands
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 9:33 am | Permalink

      Thank you for demonstrating why this is a difficult topic for discussion — so much jargon, with very little actual communication. There doesn’t seem to be any agreement about what the words mean, or any consistency about how they are used.

      • John K.
        Posted May 2, 2013 at 9:43 am | Permalink

        Philosophers invented the jargon, not me. My main gripe is with the terminology also, but it is already established so I have to play along if I want to discuss it effectively.

        I actually agree with the ideas behind compatabilism, I just have no idea why such a view should be called FREE will, or how it substantially differs from the “no free will” stance that opposes the dualism version.

        You know you are doing real philosophy when you are arguing about the meaning of words, as the saying goes.

        • darrelle
          Posted May 2, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

          I think the main differences are as follows.

          The Compatibilists are saying that the phenomenon that the term “free will” was coined to label does not have the properties that older concepts of the term attribute to it. Primarily dualism and the ability to make decisions unaffected by natural processes. They want to change the description of the phenomenon to comport with our current best understanding of reality, but keep the label “free will.”

          The Incompatibilists are saying that the label “free will” should be discarded because the term itself is descriptive (and therefore misleading & inaccurate) of outdated and possibly harmful concepts of the phenomenon it was coined to label, and because the belief in dualistic free will has too much inertia in our society to overcome by simply trying to redefine the phenomenon.

          As far as the actual properties of the phenomenon in question are concerned, the two sides seem to be in very close agreement. Incompatibilists seem to regard Compatibilists as similar to religious accommodationists. Compatibilists seem to think that Incompatibilists are too fixated on the “capable of making decisions unaffected by natural processes” concept of free will. The primary point of contention seems to rest on the meaning of the word “free” in the term free will.

          • Posted May 2, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

            I’m not sure they are in very close agreement.

            Over the course of my discussions with compatibilits on this site, I’ve changed my assessment of the difference between incompatibilists and compatibilits from one of semantics to one of more substance: the compatibilits I’ve interacted with think it’s a mistake to reduce our “decision/action producing mechanism” to completely mindless physical elements. There is a difference, they claim, between the way conscious entities produce decisions/actions and the way non-conscious entities behave. “Free will” lies hidden somewhere in that difference.

            • John K.
              Posted May 2, 2013 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

              Not sure how one asserts that there is more to decision making than “mindless physical elements” without jumping back into dualism, which compatabilism expressly denies.

              • Posted May 2, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

                Which is precisely why I have reservations about compatibilism. Yes, dualism is ostensibly denied, but in the conversations I’ve had the compatibilist asserts that some kind of control emerges from the mindless mechanism. Here are some quotes:

                “Nevertheless the fact remains that guided missiles can use feedback loops to actively stabilize their trajectories against external forces in a way that dumb bullets can’t. There is a real difference there, and if you’re going to deny us the use of the word “control” to describe that difference, then what word will you permit?”


                “Compatibilist: “My truck has a thermostat that controls engine temperature.”

                Incompatibilist: “Well, actually it doesn’t really control engine temperature — it merely monitors the temperature and then makes something mechanical happen when that temperature gets higher or lower than a specified range, which later brings the temperature back into range. I can’t see where control has sneaked into the causal chain.” “

          • Old Rasputin
            Posted May 2, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

            Well said.

      • Dale
        Posted May 2, 2013 at 10:55 am | Permalink

        I have to agree that there seems to be no clear and unchanging definition of what is meant by the various words that are used to describe this concept.

        It seems that all agree that there is no such thing as “dualistic free will” because there is no such thing as dualism. We also all agree that that we live in a deterministic universe, which is to say that all that occurs has a physical cause and that no organism can act or or initiate behavior that is completely counter to or contrary to those physical events that precede and determine the nature of and the moment of action.

        However, it does not appear that we live in a “pre-determined” universe in the sense that all occurrences of reality in the universe over time have played out and will play out according to a single unchangeable script that was written “at the time of” the big bang.

        Though the number of possible real occurrences is limited to those which are physically possible, the number of real ways by which the physical universe and be configured or determined is very large. Vast, I think Dan Dennett would say. (Darwins Dangerous Idea)

        Among this Vast number of possible, real potentialities, one can further distinguish those that are likely and those less so. A major distinction can be made between those events contain a biological component to their causality and those that do not. Living organisms represent an unlikely ordered state that represents the deterministic potential of thermodynamically open systems. The unlikely physical determination represented by living organisms is maintained by the energy flux through such open systems.

        Living organisms are “compelled” by the mindless law of natural selection to maintain the energy flux that makes the physical occurrence of reality represented by the living organism, possible. One could say that the organism has chosen to maintain the energy flux. This choice is a forced one, but still not a choice available to non-living instances of physical reality. i.e. rocks.

        I think that this forced choice is what Dan Dennett must be referring to as “evitability” to contrast it with the inevitability represented by the “life of a rock”. This evitabilty represents a small but very significant degree of freedom from strict thermodynamic determinism that is not shared with nonliving, physical events.

        I think that living organisms compute future behavior in compliance with the laws of natural selection so as to maintain the organism in it’s unlikely physical state. Even the simplest organism seems to have a sense of self, and can be depended on to compute behavior in such a way as to maintain and propagate the evitabilty of self.

        In more complex organisms, these computations become more complex and recursive but in all cases the intent is the same. However the more complex the computing machinery and the more complex the computed algorithms, the more likely it will be choose wrongly and initiate behavior that doesn’t serve this end and the evitability of the organism will suffer as a consequence.

        I think that the more complex algorithms may allow for more than one behaviors that might yield greater apparent evitability to the behavior of organism and to that extent, the more complex organisms have access to more degrees of freedom in their behavior than simpler organisms, and many more than non-living physical instances of reality, e.g. rocks.

        As there is no dualism, there is no will, but there is more than one way to skin the proverbial cat, (sorry Dr. Coyne), This is my take on what Dan Dennett teaches. Thanks for letting me get that out.

    • Posted May 2, 2013 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      This is odd – compatibilists don’t believe in contra-causal free will, dualism or choice outside of physical laws, since those would not be compatible with determinism. In a nutshell what compatibilists are saying is that determinism does not imply fatalism.

    • Peter
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      Incompatibilists pretend that the questions around free will are a mere matter of fact: do we or don’t we have contra-causal free will? They then provide arguments that we don’t have contra-causal free will (fair enough), and then move on to conclude (without argument) that any values that are wrapped up in free will discussions must be abandoned, too (for example, (contra-causality if false) implies (retributive punishment is bad), asserted without reasons).

      Compatiblists are more concerned with free will as a question of values to begin with. They’ve concluded (through argument) that contra-causality is not a thing that has anything to do with the values that people attach to free-will and free-will related questions. (for example, (retributive punishment is bad for reasons many reasons, regardless of your stance on contra-causality) and (contra-causality is true) would not imply (retributive punishment is good))

      So for one thing, to a compatiblist, contra-causality is not a *major point*, it’s a non-sequitur (for reasons!).

      • Vaal
        Posted May 2, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

        Well put Peter.

        It’s absolutely fascinating (when not exasperating) to dialogue so much about compatibilism and still be left with such a large divide of understanding.


  6. Posted May 2, 2013 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    I love this site and read most of the posts (when there is not a cat picture). I nod away with my irrepressible confirmation bias and respect your courage to be an outspoken atheist in the USA and challenge religiosity.

    Today I am not nodding but shaking. This biological determinism, neuroscience (that fetishizes images) and twin studies (hardly uncontroversial in providing controls on nurture), runs counter to all the posts that posit religious beliefs as important determinants/facilitators of behaviour (and a zillion other factors). What is the worry about religious fundamentalism and violence if its in the genes?

    I study addiction and criminology and North America does have a reputation for underplaying the social realm and promoting the biological and psychological when it is dealing with intractable social issues like crime. Suggesting social causes used to be considered ‘unamerican’. For an alternative perspective see Eli Godsi’s ‘Violence and Society’ ISBN 1 898059 62 4

    Am I missing something?

    • Posted May 2, 2013 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      No-one’s saying it’s wholly in the genes. Social and environmental factors clearly play their parts too.


    • JBlilie
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      No one is saying, for instance: The environment has no impact, humans can’t learn, traing has no effect, etc.

      What we are saying is that what you perceive as a free decision, is, in fact, determined by processes in your brain to which you are not consciously privy. These processes ARE affected by learning, training, etc. (environment).

      Genes provide a recipe, not a blue-print, so they are never fully determinant. Genes + development + environment determine the body and the subsequent behaviors.

  7. Posted May 2, 2013 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Professor whilst I agree with you on many points, I have just one issue to pick and that regards punishment. I don’t think punishment is to affect future behavior but rather the intent should be to show that the past action was wrong and I don’t think it can act as an example to others.

    • Posted May 2, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      Punishment as retribution is both an old practise as well a modern position in criminalogy. Kant defended a purely retributive concept of punishment.

      Point is that most criminals don’t think about the possible consequences, they tend to think they are so smart (or the police so stupid) they won’t be caugth.

      • Posted May 2, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think we need retributive justice.

        On the next point of criminals weighing possible consequences, I think even if they did, it is not a question of whether they will be caught or not but from what they derive the most satisfaction and it is in that way that they will act. Regrets may come later but they will act as they did regardless of the consequences.

    • JBlilie
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      As Sam Harris has said: Although our ideas about morality regarding crime may be wrong, that doesn’t mean it’s irrational to lock up psychopaths.

      • Posted May 2, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

        That I agree with. The society has a duty to protect itself. Locking up the psychopaths is one way the society can protect itself but we shouldn’t add to locking up such things as hard labour and indecent treatment!

    • steve oberski
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      If you see someone jaywalking run over by a car, could this not act as an example ?

      Assuming you are claiming that it can’t act as an example as opposed to it shouldn’t be used to set an example.

      • Posted May 2, 2013 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

        That would be an example for someone not to jaywalk.

        All am saying is the motive of punishment shouldn’t be to set an example to the rest for if that were the case, then I don’t think we’d have petty offenders and the US would have a lower prison population than it currently does.

      • Posted May 2, 2013 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

        Steve, are you suggesting running some over by a car is a punishment? What does the person learn in case she dies?
        Isn’t running someone over a case of bad driving?
        Is jaywalking an act of free will?

  8. Posted May 2, 2013 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    What is so awful about our current prison system that the discussion around free will often centers around it?

    God help me, I’m following a lurid case involving a woman that murdered her ex-boyfriend. She stabbed him about 29 times, slit his throat, and shot him in the head. Poor girl?

    Is she responsible for her actions? Did she know murder was wrong? Of course she did.

    This was premeditated. She faked a gun robbery at her Grandparent’s house a week before. She bought extra gas so she wouldn’t have to fill up around his place and leave receipts. She even called him and left a voicemail as he was dead in his shower.

    This woman deserves no punishment? Being locked away for the rest of her life seems just to me. I get that she is uneducated, maybe prone to irrationality, so what? She knew murder was wrong. And this was not a moment of passion thing. She had planned it weeks in advance. Do we jail her genes and let her body free?

    By the way, she’s fed in prison (obviously), reads books, communicates with friends and family, and sings in singing competitions. Is that so harsh? The man whose life she took does none of those things.

    • Posted May 2, 2013 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      I see Professor Coyne advocates removing people from society, which is what I want.

      • darrelle
        Posted May 2, 2013 at 10:57 am | Permalink

        Yes. I don’t know of anyone arguing the position you described. There probably is someone but, there are always outliers.

        Reform does not mean to do away with. It just means to change. In this case the suggestion is to change the system so that it is more likely to result in the outcomes we want*, based on our best current understanding of reality. Instead of outdated understandings that we know are not accurate.

        *Protecting us all from criminals in a way that fosters a society that equitably enables maximizing well being. As opposed to doing it in a way that fosters a society that most people wouldn’t want to live in, for example by making it law that all crime of any type is punishable by death.

        • gr8hands
          Posted May 2, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink

          And yet, Dr. Coyne is very clear that if the “tape” were rewound and replayed, the woman could not possibly “choose” to do any differently than what she actually did.

          How is that not germane?

          • darrelle
            Posted May 2, 2013 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

            I am not sure what in my comment you are questioning. I agree / am aware of Jerry’s notion and agree that it is germane.

          • notsont
            Posted May 2, 2013 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

            Are you suggesting that if the tape were rewound she could change? Keep in mind that rewinding the tape means everything is exactly the same down to the quantum level if that even matters.

            Just because people do what they are programmed to do, by a combination of their construction and the programming that comes about through living and interacting with the world, does not mean that they can’t be held accountable for their actions.

            What I believe he is saying is that trying to torture the “being” that is the person who did whatever they did, is pointless. There is nothing behind the malfunctioning machine that committed whatever it was that they would need punishing for.

            It also does not mean that in the same situation you would behave the same way, your “machinery” is different than theirs is, the same inputs would result in a different output. However, if you are similar enough than perhaps you might behave in the exact same way given the same input from reality.

            For some people aggression and violence might be the default reaction to too many inputs this could be caused by whatever genes they have combined with input from their environment. Perhaps with enough study people like Jeffery Dahmer might be spotted early enough so they wouldn’t one day decide eating people was a good idea. Because honestly beating him to death with a broomstick is not going to keep the next one from coming along.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      I don’t think it means we don’t address criminals. Ethics can help us figure out what is the best way to proceed. The person is still culpable and perhaps if we were that person exactly we couldn’t make any other choice. This doesn’t negate that she victimized someone. This is why I think spending time on free will is moot. Still the person is who she is for whatever reasons and we just get the neuroscience of consciousness better.

    • Posted May 2, 2013 at 10:58 am | Permalink

      If she had been brought up differently, would she have done the same thing? If she had had different genes would she have done the same thing? Of course we need to punish bad behaviour, for deterrence reasons, but we also should be aware that we conspire in creating an unequal society, where many don’t have the opportunity of being properly educated and can not escape their unfortunate backgrounds.

      • Posted May 2, 2013 at 11:14 am | Permalink

        I like what you’ve all had to say here. Thanks.

    • JBlilie
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      How would you feel about her if these were true?:

      A) She was severely abused as a child and had mental illness resulting from it?

      B) She was severely abused as a child, resulting in depression and anxiety, which she medicated by drinking alcohol and was too drunk to even remember her actions?

      C) She was severely abused as a child, resulting in depression and anxiety, which she medicated by seeing a doctor, receiving a prescription for anti-depressants which in turn caused a chemical imbalance in the brain resulting in a psychotic incendent (the crime)?

      D) She had a brain tumor that affected her ability to control her actions?

      (This is my paraphrase of one section from Sam Harris’s book, Free Will.)

      How would you assign blame or moral responsibility in these cases? How is this any different than being born with a brain and rasied in a situation that placed you on a path that inevitably lead to the crime? How do you know that, given the exact same set of history, she could have made a different choice? How do you know that?

  9. Chris Patrick
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    I’m certain Calvinists, like the Westboro Baptist Church, agree with your stance.

    • steve oberski
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      Calvinists believe in free will, they just claim that your actions have no bearing on whether you are saved or not.

  10. Diana MacPherson
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    I think this whole fixation with free will is moot which is why I was smiling when I read this. I find the whole compatibilist argument foggy and unclear while the idea that not being conscious of your choices but being only made aware of them based on experiments from neuroscience much more clear and straightforward.

    In my view, using neuroscience to possiblly correct or prevent problems with the brain (maybe eliminate psychopaths one day) and ethics to determine what we want to accomplish for victims and perpetrators of crimes a much more worthy endeavor. I have always felt that removing criminals from society as the best option (how that is operationalized may vary and ethics can help here).

    It is possible I am naive or I have a deep character flaw, but I fail to see what the big deal is with not having free will. Then again, I also was surprised people actually believed in hell (only learning about their real belief when I was on my 30s – in my20s I had accepted mediaeval people believed in it) 🙂

    • Peter
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      I find the position that:

      if (contra-causal) free will were true, then retributive punishment would be aces!

      foggy and unclear. Care to enlighten me?

      • darrelle
        Posted May 2, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

        I must have missed something. Or is your comment in the wrong place?

        Your comment does not seem to have anything to do with Diana MacPherson’s comment. No, I guess the foggy & unclear comment means you are responding to her.

        You seem to be putting a lot of words in her mouth. With so little to go on you might try verifying that she would agree with your characterization of her position before you attribute it to her. My reading of her comments suggests that she would not.

        • Peter
          Posted May 2, 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

          Uhm, the premise of Jerry’s original post is that compatiblist defense of free will distracts from the much more useful work of debunking free will and with it retributive punishment (and I suppose the idea that we can “really” make choices, etc).

          I would like someone to explain to me how Jerry’s incompatibilist notions have anything to do with retributive punishment. I took Diana’s post as somewhat of an endorsement of Jerry’s position, so I assume she can clearly explain the relationship to me.

          Or if she can’t, maybe in thinking about why she can’t she might better understand the compatiblist position?

          • darrelle
            Posted May 2, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

            Diana has pretty clearly indicated that she thinks the free will debate is not relevant. That is decidedly not an endorsement of Jerry’s view.

            She did seem to agree that it would be a good thing if the findings of science were used to inform our ethics and how we deal with criminals, and victims. Do you disagree with that?

            Regarding how incompatibilist notions have anything to do with retributive punishment, it seems pretty obvious that it is a value judgement. That judgement is something like “if a person is not capable of doing other than they have done then it is morally questionable to punish them, unless there are other moral issues that take precedent.” Are you sure that you can’t really see how that has something to do with it? Or is it that you simply strongly disagree with that value judgement?

            Jerry has not said that criminals shouldn’t be punished. He has said that we should do what is shown, by scientific investigation, to work at achieving the outcomes we decide would be best (based on value judgments informed by science).

            • Peter
              Posted May 2, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

              “Diana has pretty clearly indicated that she thinks the free will *debate* is not relevant.”

              I believe what she expressed is that she doesn’t know why anyone would disagree with her re: free will isn’t worth having. I’m pretty sure she did not express that she isn’t interested in why compatibilists disagree, rather that she’s having trouble seeing it from the other side.

              “it seems pretty obvious that it is a value judgement”

              Well, yes, it is.

              ““if a person is not capable of doing other than they have done then it is morally questionable to punish them, unless there are other moral issues that take precedent.””

              I’m pretty sure you didn’t express this quite how you meant to. But I think it’ll do for this discussion. So do you endorse this statement?:

              ““if a person *is capable* of doing other than they have done then it is *not* morally questionable to punish them, *even if* there are other moral issues that take precedent.””

              • darrelle
                Posted May 2, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

                “I’m pretty sure you didn’t express this quite how you meant to.”

                What do you mean by that? Do you mean my skill at expressing myself could have been better (no argument from me on that), or do you mean that you think I am trying to mislead you?

                “So do you endorse this statement?:”

                I am not sure I understand the question well enough to answer. Is it intended to be the inverse of the example I gave that you modeled it after? Are you trying to say that regardless of free will retributive punishment is not morally appropriate? Or that whether we decide it is morally appropriate or not, we should not consider what we believe about free will? Do you mean it is just not relevant in a logical sense, or that you don’t think it is relevant on moral grounds? But none of that invalidates the idea that taking away a justification that many people have / do use for retributive punishment would be helpful in making worthwhile changes to how we deal with criminals.

                If you stub your toe on a coffee table does it make sense to destroy the coffee table in revenge?

                Just to clarify, I don’t completely agree with Jerry on his ideas of free will. I wouldn’t call myself a compatibilist or an incompatibilist, though I am sure other people would. Strong proponents on both sides tend to fixate from my point of view, but that is pretty typical. I am pretty sure of my views on many aspects of the free will issue, and pretty not sure on others.

              • Peter
                Posted May 2, 2013 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

                I meant that you weren’t as careful expressing yourself as you might have wanted to be, not that you were trying to be misleading. One (important) thing that sticks out, for instance, is that the “unless…” at the end is a much broader catchall than you probably meant to include.

                My other statement is the one that could get at the relationship between free will and retribution. Right, there are many good reasons for thinking that retribution is a stupid approach to justice, and I don’t think anyone around here has actually tried to argue that any position on free will add to (or detracts from) those reasons (well, Lyndon replied to me above, but badly). By analogy: “if we don’t have free will, then you can use Euclid to prove the Pythagorean theorem” is not an interesting claim, and also tells us nothing about how someone thinks free will fits into an argument. “If we do have free will, you can’t use Euclid to prove the Pythagorean theorem” would need some support, and seeing how they argue it would tell us something about what they think about free will.

                “Do you mean it is just not relevant in a logical sense, or that you don’t think it is relevant on moral grounds?”

                I’m not sure what distinction you’re trying to make here. Of course values don’t need to be logical all the way down, but I’m dubious that anyone hold the position that all metaphysically contra-causal agents must be cruelly punished for their crimes as a fundamental value: I mean, most people will be able to offer some logic between “people do (or don’t) have free will” and “so they must (or not) be punished accordingly”.

                My position is roughly: people’s intuition that retribution is appropriate is not motivated by their conception of free will, it’s motivated by a sense of reciprocity (and ultimately as a deterrent, when they think it through that far). Free will (or lack thereof) does become relevant because it mitigates that need for reciprocity. Arguing against contra-causality in particular misses two important points here: a) the need for reciprocity as a deterrent is misguided when we have an effective penal institution, so if you really want to argue against retribution, you should probably start there. And b) the reasons that diminished free will mitigate retribution have nothing to do with contra-causality, so the committed retributionist will have no problem ignoring it.

              • Gary W
                Posted May 2, 2013 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

                My position is roughly: people’s intuition that retribution is appropriate is not motivated by their conception of free will, it’s motivated by a sense of reciprocity

                Then why isn’t our retribution reciprocal to the crime (“an eye for an eye,” etc.)? And why don’t we apply it to young children or people who are severely mentally retarded? I think the fact that our criminal penalties are strictly limited demonstrates that we don’t believe in reciprocity when it comes to retribution for wrongdoing. And the fact that we don’t impose retribution on people we deem to lack the necessary capacity for free will (children, etc.) demonstrates that we think free will is crucial. You deserve to suffer for your wrongful act only if you freely chose to commit it.

              • Peter
                Posted May 2, 2013 at 6:40 pm | Permalink


                I know that you *mean* that *contra-causal* free will is crucial to that decision, and that you *meant* to include your argument about why *contra-causal* free will is crucial, and that ordinary, less mystical notions of free will don’t suffice. And that (not necessarily contra-causal) free will is not only necessary, but also *compels* that decision in ways that we’d be deviant if we didn’t punish criminals more severely if we did have free will.

                But I realize that this column is quite narrow by this point in the argument, or maybe you were writing in notepad and suffered omitted that part by a copy-paste error. It’s too bad.

              • Gary W
                Posted May 2, 2013 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

                I know that you *mean* that *contra-causal* free will is crucial to that decision

                No, I mean free will, period. That’s why, in general, we don’t exact retribution on people who we believe to lack free will. If they’re not morally responsible for their “bad” action, they don’t deserve to suffer for it. The point is that, contrary to your claim, what motivates us to inflict retribution is our attribution of free will to the wrongdoer — the belief that he freely chose to do wrong — not “a sense of reciprosity.”

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted May 2, 2013 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

            My position is that you can be a wonderful, kind over achiever in society or a terrible, monstrous rapist. You become those things in a lot of ways: biology, nutrition, geography, peers, parents, ideas, experiences, accidents, etc. You don’t have power over those things for the most part and you don’t have free will (do not consciously choose to do something just like you do not consciously create your own biology or choose to be born to certain parents) so therefore to me free will doesn’t matter. What matters is how we deal with those people knowing what makes them who they are. We have tools to do this (neuro science, ethics, social science).

            My views on this are in some threads below and include how we deal with bad people and degrees of bad people. I hadn’t talked about the good guys – but I think the opposite of the bad guys – encourage vs deter (and I haven’t considered priorities on types of ways to deal with good people since they usually don’t harm society) but I may have missed something there too.

            • Peter
              Posted May 2, 2013 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

              Well, yes, there are things we don’t have power over, and those things can affect our lives. But we do have powers, and can make choices, and can realize our conscious desires, and can with effort to change our priorities so that we react in the future in ways that we wished we’d acted in the past.

              So it sounds like you disagree with what I just wrote, or you think we do have what you yourself would call free will. I’m confused.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted May 2, 2013 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

                My position is we do not have free will based on what neuroscience tells us.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted May 2, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

        Not too sure about the first part but the foggy and unclear part is it appears to me that compatibilists may or may not be considering free will as being conscious of an action. This to me is pretty much what free will is – consciously making a decision to do something or executing an action consciously. From what I understand (and I could be wrong), compatibilists see free will as basically if nothing stops you from doing something then you have free will. It seems really confusing to me because if you aren’t aware of what you are doing before you do it then no free will.

        I then wonder if the definitions are unclear….ie: are compatibilists and incompatibilists even talking about the same thing?

        This is the type of argument I’ve been in for weeks with a friend.

        • Peter
          Posted May 2, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

          Well, I think compatibilists aren’t quite talking about what Jerry is accusing them of talking about. As Roq Marish succinctly put it above, compatibilists are concerned with refuting fatalism: in particular, the idea that regardless of what we (might think) we want, or what we can actually do, we don’t really have the power to affect “ultimate” outcomes in our lives.

          Flavors of fatalism would be:
          (time travel paradox prevention, also captures essence of most mystical varieties): regardless of how carefully I plan, events will always conspire to prevent me from killing my grandfather

          (external social forces): regardless of talent and performance in school, a poor city kid can never escape the slum and a rich kid will always have a cushy job to fall into (exaggeration, of course, but there’s some truth here)

          (pop evo-psych): Our bad behaviors are coded into our DNA, and attempts to correct them through social forces will “always” fail

          (freudian version, I’m making this up a bit because I don’t care enough about freud to get it right): Our conscious attempts to control our behavior (our superego and ego) are often doomed to fail, subverted by the impulses of our id that we have no control over

          (Jerry subscribes to a pseudo-dualist version of fatalism like this): We can’t control our behavior, since there are forces beyond our control governing how our brains work, and we can only do what our brains decide we’ll do (in particular, compatibilists think this is a nonsensical thing to worry about, and that it doesn’t have radical consequences for our sense of agency, or in particular our notions of punishment)

    • Gary W
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 11:16 am | Permalink

      It is possible I am naive or I have a deep character flaw, but I fail to see what the big deal is with not having free will.

      The big deal is that if we don’t have free will, there’s no such thing as moral responsibility. It wouldn’t make sense to say that anyone could choose to behave differently than they actually do behave. It wouldn’t make sense to say that anyone deserves praise or blame for anything they do. It wouldn’t make sense to get angry at anyone for their behavior. It wouldn’t make sense to admire anyone for their behavior. It wouldn’t make sense to say that Hitler was a bad man or Nelson Mandela a good one. And so on.

      This view obviously has implications that go far beyond the way we treat and talk about criminals. Eliminating the notions of moral responsibility, blame, praise, deservedness, and so on would drastically change human social relations more broadly. Who could live that way? Who does live that way? No one I’ve ever come across.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted May 2, 2013 at 11:24 am | Permalink

        I guess then we have to ask ourselves if we really are just leaves on the wind because of lack of free will….does lack of consciousness of our decisions mean that?

        • Posted May 2, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

          Not true; it makes tons of sense to praise or blame people for good/bad acts, not because they could have chosen to commit those acts, but because praise and blame are things that can not only affect a person’s actions in the future, but lets other people know what to expect if they do good or bad things. In other words, praise and blame are motivators, even if we know that people don’t really choose whether to act, nor bear moral responsibility.\

          Yes, without dualistic free will there is no moral responsibility, because you have no choice about whether to be good or bad, but you can’t simply make the leap from that to saying there’s no use in assigning praise or blame. That doesn’t follow at all.

          • Gary W
            Posted May 2, 2013 at 11:42 am | Permalink

            The notion of blame rests on the assumption that someone could have chosen to behave differently than they actually did behave. It doesn’t make sense to blame someone for something they have no control over. But if there’s no free will, if their behavior is completely determined by physical events they do not control, then they could not have chosen to behave differently and therefore they do not deserve blame.

            • Posted May 2, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

              They don’t *deserve* praise and blame in the sense they could have (contra-causally) done otherwise in the actual situation (they couldn’t), but praising and punishing helps to shape future behavior and reinforce moral norms, as Jerry points out.

              Retributivists suppose there need be no forward-looking, consequentialist, benefit-oriented justification for inflicting suffering on offenders. They simply *deserve* to be punished. Such desert is what compatibilist-retributivists such as law profs Stephen Morse, Michael Moore and O. Carter Snead need to establish to make retribution morally acceptable. They don’t believe offenders could have done otherwise in actual situations, but yet they believe offenders deserve punishment whether or not it serves to reform or deter in future situations. Go figure.

              • mikerol
                Posted May 2, 2013 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

                compatibilist-retributivists a sado masochists. however, one could certainly hold that “revenge” makes the world go around

              • Gary W
                Posted May 2, 2013 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

                They don’t *deserve* praise and blame in the sense they could have (contra-causally) done otherwise in the actual situation (they couldn’t), but praising and punishing helps to shape future behavior and reinforce moral norms, as Jerry points out.

                If no one *deserves* praise or blame, what is it supposed to mean to say that someone is praiseworthy or blameworthy? What’s the difference between a “bad” action for which the actor is to blame, and a “bad” action for which the actor is blameless? If there is no free will and everything we do is compelled by natural processes, why is blame a meaningful concept at all?

                Retributivists suppose there need be no forward-looking, consequentialist, benefit-oriented justification for inflicting suffering on offenders.

                I’m not sure what a “retributivist” is supposed to be, but punishment can obviously serve both the purpose of retribution (infliction of deserved suffering for actual wrongdoing) and the purpose of deterrence (discouragement of potential future wrongdoing). The criminal justice system is intended to serve both these purposes (as well as incapacitation and rehabilitation).

            • Daniel
              Posted May 2, 2013 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

              Blame can be the cause of subsequent deterministic actions in others. Therefore, I see merit in creating circumstances that would trigger behaviours in others that are welcomed within ethical grounds, for instance.

              Something to consider is that the causal environment, for lack of better words, that we create in society could have an overarching effect on the deterministic behaviour of people that under other circumstances would tend to behave outside the bounds of tolerance and acceptable behaviour. I guess this idea applies to reform and rehabilitation programs. I do not think they change the person by providing a choice, but by creating new causes that trigger alternative behaviours in the person.

              So, all in all, I think that blame, praise, etc are fully worth our time and effort. I have no good knowledge, however, about the experimental support for this.

          • gr8hands
            Posted May 2, 2013 at 11:57 am | Permalink

            Except that this contradicts your stance on the ability to make decisions. The very word “motivator” contradicts your stance.

            It most certainly does follow that there is no use in assigning praise or blame — if you were going to do it, you’d do it. If you weren’t going to do it, you wouldn’t do it. It is irrespective of choice.

            This is an obvious part of the consequences of your stance. I’m not certain why you don’t see that. Perhaps it is like those autostereograms that are not visible to people with only one eye.

            • Posted May 2, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

              Not true; other people’s reactions form part of the environment in which a person acts, and which, in the absence of free will, determines how they will act.

            • neil
              Posted May 2, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

              There is a contradiction here because JAC continues his claim that a criminal choice is not made. It is most certainly made, and so is the choice of how to punish those who make such choices. The argument is about how a choice is made, not whether a choice is made. Most of us here agree that choices are made without the help of a supernatural form of free will.

              The marathon bombers made a choice. They knew that gunpowder ignited in a pressure cooker in the close proximity of people would kill and maim causing terrible consequence for the victims, but they did it anyway, knowing this. Yes, their brains were inflamed with some sort of religious passion incomprehensible to the rest of us, and yes the choice they made was a product of this fanaticism, and their parental upbringing, and the genocide in Chechyna,etc, etc. But they could have done otherwise and would have were they not “broken” in making choices.

              They fact that they made this horrible choice says that they are “broken”. When a machine is irreparably broken, perhaps to the point of posing a danger, we would scrap it. Executing a seriously broken human being who poses such a danger is no different.

              Unless, of course, you think that human life is “sacred”, in which case you might as well believe in supernatural free will.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted May 2, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

            I actually didn’t suggest that but posed it as a question. I actually don’t think there is an issue in holding people accountable but I also have a view that removing a wrong doer is to protect society not necessarily punish or deter though those may be consequential to the removal.

            • Posted May 2, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

              Not sure why you would devalue the crucial importance of deterrence. Clearly we want to remove offenders so that they don’t commit further offences, but prevention is better than cure so it’s very important that when people evaluate the consequences of their actions they come to appreciate that committing an offence may not be beneficial to their future well being.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted May 2, 2013 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

                I don’t devalue deterrence. I think there is proof that deterrence to wrong doers is effective in controlling unacceptable behaviour in a society. Instead when considering how to deal with dangerous sociopathic criminals, I’ve given it less priority and questioned its effectiveness. For “lesser” crimes, it most likely has more relevance.

                Perhaps I’ve made the mistake of not identifying the scenarios properly and glossing over them with a “leave it to ethics” statement. So here is what I think:

                In scenarios that involve heinous crimes committed by those who cannot be rehabilitated or stopped from committing other serious crimes, removing the offender from further harming other members of society takes a priority over punishment. Moreover, I question if deterrence works for dangerous sociopaths….will seeing a fellow sociopath caught for his/her crimes stop another from murdering or raping? Will being punished stop a dangerous sociopath from committing further crimes? I suspect not because they are mentally ill, so again removing them is the priority.

                Perhaps deterrence plays a larger role in lesser crimes; and lesser may need to be defined – maybe it only means less dangerous of a person where there is a chance for rehabilitation, where the person will most likely not reoffend. In this way punishment can deter both the offender from reoffending and other potential wrong doers from committing a similar crime.

                Anyway, free will I still think doesn’t change the above. If you’re conscious of your choices or not, you still make them. You are still a murderer, rapist, tax evader or shop lifter.

          • Gary W
            Posted May 2, 2013 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

            it makes tons of sense to praise or blame people for good/bad acts, not because they could have chosen to commit those acts, but because praise and blame are things that can not only affect a person’s actions in the future, but lets other people know what to expect if they do good or bad things.

            I think this confuses blame, which is a moral judgment, with incentives, which are simply a matter of cause and effect. Suppose a child leaves an outside door open and the dog escapes. And that the child’s action was a completely innocent mistake. The child didn’t even know there was a dog. You might take some action to deter the child from leaving the door open again (either the threat of punishment for leaving the door open, or the promise of a reward for making sure the door is closed). But that is not at all the same thing as blaming the child for leaving the door open in the first place. If that act was an innocent mistake, the child is blameless.

            If there is no free will, then all “bad” actions are innocent mistakes. We simply behave in the way we are caused to behave by physical processes. And though we may use incentives to deter “bad” behavior, the moral concept of blameworthiness is meaningless.

            • Posted May 2, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

              It’s your characterization that “blame” is a moral judgement. I don’t agree with you. Saying “you did a harmful thing” is not necessarily a moral judgement; it is a statement of fact. And saying “you did something that will make you worthy of punishment” is not a moral judgment.

              Your use of the word “innocent” is disingenuous here. Mistakes can be harmful.

              You statement that blameworthiness is a moral concept is not something I share. One can be responsible, and deserving of punishment, without being morally responsible.

              • Vaal
                Posted May 2, 2013 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

                Jerry (or someone else), can you help me understand the logic here?

                “Jane” says “If free will does not exist then we should not praise or blame people for anything they do (because they had no choice).”

                Jerry says: “No, praise and blame still produce the type of effects on people’s behavior that we wish to achieve. Therefore we still SHOULD CHOOSE to praise and blame people.”

                But Jane replies: “Well, the reason I didn’t blame/condemn my neighbor for beating his child in front of us yesterday was because I didn’t *really have a choice* to do so. How could I have any relevant choice to blame him or not, if I was fated to do as I did?”

                And Jerry would reply…?????

                If Jerry would reply that Jane actually DID have a choice and ought to have blamed her neighbor…how do you make sense of this without essentially becoming compatibilist? How do you justifying admonitions concerning our future choices (“you ought to choose to do X over Y”) and blame for past choices (“you ought to have done X instead of Y)?

                It doesn’t seem enough to simply say “because our admonitions have physical effects in the world.” Because you are still left justifying the logic “choice” and “should/ought” statements. (‘Cause if you don’t have logic behind such statements, how can they act as reasons for our actions?)


            • Gary W
              Posted May 2, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

              Well, your position just doesn’t make any sense to me. Why is someone *deserving* of punishment for an action he did not freely choose, whether it was harmful or not? And if you think people who do harmful things deserve to be punished even though they have no free will, on what basis do you oppose retribution? The whole point of retribution is to punish people because they *deserve* it, as opposed to punishing people in order to discourage harmful acts (deterrence).

              • notsont
                Posted May 2, 2013 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

                Its not a matter of “deserve” its a matter of altering the programming in a machine. It would be easy if humans had a USB port to correct faulty software but we don’t. Our programming comes from the environment.

              • Gary W
                Posted May 2, 2013 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

                Its not a matter of “deserve” its a matter of altering the programming in a machine.

                Jerry said that he thinks wrongdoers can be blameworthy and “deserving of punishment” even though there’s no such thing as free will or moral responsibility.

                Altering the programming in a machine in order to change its behavior does not imply that it is blameworthy or deserves punishment for its prior behavior.

          • Peter
            Posted May 2, 2013 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

            Jerry, you forgot to say that:

            “On the other hand, if we had free will it would make perfect sense to reward/punish people over and above mere praise/blame, because…, hence we should all be vigorously reminding the public how science undermines free will”

            Please try to remember that some of use are simple compatibilists and can’t work out the ellipses for ourselves.

  11. Kurt Helf
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Just yesterday “Fresh Air” broadcast an interview with Dr. Raine. I haven’t read the article but I did listern to the interview. He espoused all of the same beliefs, supported by evidence, as in the article. However. Toward the end of the interview he makes a fascinating and all too human admission regarding capital punishment. It’s astonishing on one level but on the other not so much. Terry Gross was certainly taken aback.
    I was going to write you today about the interview. Wait a minute. Oh. Their. God. You’re psychic, Jerry!

  12. Sagra
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    I admit that I have a terrible time remembering philosophical terms, but I don’t get why the absence of free will would ever be a reason to change criminal and/or civil penalties for destructive behaviors.

    People weigh the risks and rewards for their behavior. When considering whether or not to steal an item, they take into account the perceived utility of having the item, the perceived legal and social consequences of being caught and the perceived likelihood of being caught. You could plot it out in game theory notation, if you knew exactly how to measure all the factors.

    But we basically use the same process that one bug would use to determine whether he should try to eat another bug. We may use a bigger brain to figure out more complicated situations, but we don’t need some mystical soul whispering to us in order to make practical decisions.

    If we ever waved our hands and said “Oh, there’s no free will, we can’t punish anyone,” then the game would be changed. The rewards for the crime would remain the same while the consequences would be reduced to… what? Guilty feelings or empathy for the victims? If you take real consequences away, crime would skyrocket.

    Only in the abstract can you really ponder whether or not is morally right to punish a person who has no free will. Real people live in real societies, and societies can’t survive by passively accepting destructive behaviors by their members. It’s morally wrong to let your society degrade into anarchy.

    • darrelle
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      Jerry has never suggested, and neither does the article he is quoting here, anything remotely resembling “Oh, there’s no free will, we can’t punish anyone.” In fact he clarifies just about every time he writes on this topic that he does not support such a view.

    • Posted May 2, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      But what if the people who commit crimes are not deterred by punishment? Perhaps due to some inborn error in cognitive processes that leads to faulty risk perception, or an inability to connect cause and effect, or simple lack of impulse control?

      This is not an abstract question; there is plenty of evidence that, for example, countries with the death penalty do not have lower rates of murder. If our ultimate goal is to minimise crime rates, then concentrating resources on punishment may be not be the best strategy.

      • Posted May 2, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

        Yes, every crime committed represents a failure of deterrence so we’d do well to focus resources on preventing the formative conditions of crime.

        • Lyndon
          Posted May 2, 2013 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

          Hi Tom,

          In general I agree, and I think that asking questions about familial/social/environmental/psychological precursors is the best “deterrent,” that for many or most crimes we should be focusing on those problematic structures that lead to criminal characteristics. That is, instead of trying to organize the cost/benefit of getting caught and punished with whether that individual decides to carry out the crime.

          But, as well, it seems in many instances that simple facts of deterrence can be brought about. A security camera or the claim of a security camera can deter many petty thieves, for instance. If we include the greater likelihood of getting caught (and thus getting punished) as part of deterrence, then in many cases an extra camera or a regular cop patrol may help deter. Then of course we get into the annoyances and infringement on our persons of continuous surveillance or of panoptic control.

          By the way, on that note, I was baffled by the idea that the two recent bombers walked by all sorts of cameras, did not think they would get caught, and then hung around Boston like nothing would come of it. So, in that case we could chalk it up to people who either did not recognize the deterrence, that they would be found out and punished; or possibly that they were the more dangerous sort that getting caught and punished and probably killed meant nothing to them, in which we are back to stressing more fundamental issues of character, which is definitely the more appropriate level there.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted May 2, 2013 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

        I address this in a post in amongst these discussions somewhere. I see those that cannot be rehabilitated or may not be discouraged by deterrents as needing to be removed from society ASAP. People who can be discouraged are better off being “punished” as both to prevent them doing the crime again and as a way to deter others from committing the same crime.

        • Posted May 2, 2013 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

          That’s not really addressing the point. There may be other ways of reaching people who are less deterred by punishment – reducing the incentives to commit crime by addressing social inequalities, for example. Sure, there will always be a place for punishment, but the overarching focus on it is detrimental to progress. It plays into conservative narratives that are (in my opinion) damaging to society.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted May 3, 2013 at 5:26 am | Permalink

            I consider those deterrents as well. Punishments as well as other “positive” methods are both deterrents.

  13. Posted May 2, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    We could speak about gap philosophy (after god of the gaps), in which philosopher deal with subjects not fully covered by science and when science enlarge its understanding the philosophers are forced back.

    In relation to criminal law, I am in favour of basing our penal system on the results of empirical criminological research.

  14. Posted May 2, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    If strict rigorously mechanical determinism renders ANY and ALL cognitive volition mere realistic illusion such that ANY example of (seemingly) exercised cognitive volition (being AT BEST mere realistic illusion) is actually no more significantly VOLITIONAL than a fully mechanically (pre)determined psychosomatic twitch-per-script at the end of a looooooong causal chain writ real by (and inexorably extending all the way back to) the initial conditions of the universe, what could possibly really MATTER about punishing wrongdoing in order to “affect future behavior” or to “show that past action was wrong?”

    Indeed what does it even MEAN that any given act/action is “wrong” (or “right,” or blame-worthy or praise-worthy) if that (as any other) act/action is rigorously mechanically (pre)determined (TOTALLY constrained to the script writ real In The Beginning) and is not to ANY degree in ANY sense a function of genuine cognitively volitional decision-MAKING (as distinct from decision-SEEMING or decision-ILLUSION)?

    [I ask as one who is NOT a “dualist” in any sense; I am presently persuaded (perhaps by the initial conditions of the universe) that cognitive consciousness is 100% a product of material processes (mass/energy in spacetime) and that any given cognitive consciousness terminates when the functioning brain that produces it ceases to function. How any level of cognitive volition could be “uncoupled” to any degree from strict rigorously mechanical determinism by the initial conditions of the universe I HAVE NOT A CLUE — but I am NOT yet persuaded that “having not a clue” is a sufficient condition for ruling-out all possibility that no level of non-dual cognitive volition can to any degree be genuine.]

  15. Posted May 2, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    How would the world look tomorrow if free will existed (any form or vague conception)? Compare that answer to that of the converse question, i.e. no free will, determinism. If the answers are indistinguishable or entirely unanswerable then free will may or may not exist and remains necessarily unknowable. What’s important is that most people find free will as a useful concept. We all go about our business as if free exists. People are not going to let go of free will because neuroscientists say there is evidence against it. Free will is deeply entrenched into our minds and I cannot imagine a non-physical way of changing that.

    • Posted May 2, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

      Agreed. If case A (exercises in free will volition/decision-making are to some degree or level genuine) and case B (exercises in free will volition/decision-making are to all degrees and levels mere realistic illusion) cannot be empirically distinguished (and I have been unable to think-up a reliable method by which they could be empirically distinguished even in principle, let alone in practice), then the A or B debate is perhaps mildly interesting as an exercise but of no special genuine value — not to me at least.

      Same with solipsism (the philosophy that all reality is the realistic illusion of a single immaterial consciousness).

      Whether solipsism is IN FACT true or whether strict rigorously mechanical determinism is IN FACT and clean-to-the-bone(/psyche) true can neither one be crucially tested empirically and shown to be false (if either are false) and thus it seems to me that AT BEST all we can say is that either one MAY or may NOT be true.

      And so, even though presently I have myself found no reason to prefer either to apparent “realism,” I simply hold that either MAY or may NOT be true and that I cannot know which is the case, freeing me up for other debates that offer more promise of bearing epistemological fruit.

  16. Dale
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    I’ve often thought that an example of some kind of “will” or learning modifying behavior is to be had with anyone who has ever quit smoking of their own accord, as I did years ago. Without question, tobacco is physically addictive and it takes some kind of something to override one’s natural inclinations to continue smoking once addicted. I don’t know if it is so much will or reprogramming to provide a different response to the same stimuli. If so, the individual has to intentionally second think the action and substitute one action for another, or an inaction for the natural addicted action. It seems that only reasoning, or second thinking of an action about to happen can provide the motivation to override what would otherwise naturally occur.

    VS Ramachandran has noted that the data from Libet type experiments sometimes show false positives. The brain can gear up unconsciously to make a certain decision which is then changed just before the action. He has said that it appears that where we don’t have free will, we may very well have “free won’t’.

    Cognitive dissonance theory would have it that it is very difficult to hold two or more conflicting ideas “in mind” at once. I think the practical limit for most of us is two but that most of our behavior is made up of non decision between any particular future paths and that where we might exercise free won’t, we don’t.

  17. Kevin Henderson
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Dualistic freewill is archaic.

    The universe is deterministic.

    Although I would be impressed if anyone can prove to me that determinism implies that we can predict the future of anything with arbitrary precision. Until then, I must conclude that the trajectory of any particle in the universe is not fully predictable and therefore its future is uncertain and without the ability to predict the future that particle has epistemological free will.

    • Posted May 2, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      Dualist if free will may be archaic but, even if true, that has nothing to do with whether it is true or not.

      You say the universe is deterministic a fact, yet that is merely a claim. It is untestable, thus unknowable. See my comment above 3 or so posts.

      • Kevin Henderson
        Posted May 2, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

        I think the universe is deterministic, i.e., that it is physical and there are no magical, supernatural forces. I suppose we cannot test that theory, but evidence suggest that the universe is deterministic.

        What is presently untestable is whether determinism is predictable to arbitrarily high precision. At present, evidence suggest that our theories fall short of such predictions.

        • Posted May 2, 2013 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

          At the quantum level of physical nature it sure appears that there ARE SOME natural physical events that are INdeterminate (by any definition) without requiring the involvement of anything “magical or supernatural” nor any “dualism”)

          One example that we know about is the nuclear decay of unstable elemental nuclei; if we begin with one mole (1 gram-atomic weight) of radium-226, or 226 grams) we know that in 1,601 years we will have only 1/2 of a mole of radium-226 left (or 113 grams, the other 113 grams will have decayed into radon gas); but if we begin with one ATOM of radium-226, we have NO IDEA how long we may wait until that atom decays into radon — it might do so before noon tomorrow, and it might still be radium in 20,000 years.

          Not saying THIS means that some degree or level of genuine free will cognitive volition is therefore possible in physical nature, just saying that we know of SOME indeterminate uncertainties in physical nature that do not seem to required any “magical or supernatural” forces, actions or agencies, and so there MAY be others that we do not yet know about.

          Or there may NOT be.

          Presently we don’t know.

          And thus, we cannot presently say for certain just what all may occur in physical nature indeterminately.

          Or so it seems to me (opinions do vary, sometimes vehemently — watch and see).

          • Kevin Henderson
            Posted May 2, 2013 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

            226 grams of radium is quit a few atoms (10^23), but I would not be surpised if the result were 0.5000001 total decays. Not very close to half, considering we can build clocks and count their frequency to one part in 10^17 or that we have bounds on the electron dipole moment to 10^-28 or the proton lifetime to about 10^33 years.

            This got me thinking that if the universe is deterministic (no magic) and that we find out fundamentally all of the laws of physics can lead to predictable solutions for all particles and fields, it is likely we will also recognize that we can not calculate that solution. We arrive at an irrecoverable case that for even small systems, like a cat, we will be unaware how to solve where all of the particles of that cat will be in even one nanosecond. Good grief, how do people think free will is of any value if virtually nothing of pragmatic value can be predicted? I still do not know how to escape from the idea that free will is indistinguishable from unpredictability.

  18. RGBowman
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    There was a true crime TV series that ran up to about a half-dozen years ago on a US cable channel, where a criminal psychiatrist with about 30 years of experience ranked criminals on a scale of 1 to 25, with 1 being the worst. In several of the episodes, he showed MRI brain scans of serial murderers and serial rapists, comparing each one to a scan of a normal person. Certain areas were almost devoid of activity, while other areas were completely lit up. It was implied/stated (I can’t remember which for each episode) that the differences could well be caused by genetic and/or environmental conditions. It really started to make me think about the argument of free will. Of course, these were extreme cases. But still…

  19. James Walker
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    “meet out” should be “mete out”

  20. DV
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    >>I’m not convinced, as some are, that if we don’t think we have free will, we’ll go wild in the streets.

    Are you saying the evidence is not convincing? Because there has been some studies done on this – telling people they are not responsible for their actions produces more occurences of cheating versus the control group.

    • Posted May 2, 2013 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      I’ve posted on this before; the experiments that supposedly showed this were not repeatable: when someone did there over again in a different population, there was no increase in the incidence of cheating. My post on this is here.

      And even if this were true, do you believe that we should tell people they have dualistic free will just to keep them from cheating? AFter all, telling people lies to control their behavior is what religion does.

      • DV
        Posted May 2, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        We don’t have to choose between telling them they have no free will, and telling them they have dualistic free will. There is a third option – telling people free will is not dualistic.

        • Vaal
          Posted May 2, 2013 at 2:35 pm | Permalink


          Just like we explain to theists that morality is not derived from incoherent or untrue concepts like dualism/the supernatural.

          Or that life does not require a vitalistic conception of “life.”


        • steve oberski
          Posted May 2, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

          That’s still a religious answer, like the religious claim that the soul is not material.

          It’s giving attributes to something that one (presumably) does not think exists and is just another form of deception, except now one is deceiving ones self as well.

          • Vaal
            Posted May 2, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

            No it’s not. It’s saying the explanation is wrong.

            It’s similar to disabusing other wrong explanations. For instance, the theist may say: “I raised my hand because there is an immaterial soul operating my body.” And we reply “Actually, no, it’s because your material brain controls such actions. Not only is it incoherent and un-evidenced to attribute something non-material that causes your material body to react, it’s not necessary and not how things seem to work anyway.”

            Similarly, if someone says “The reason I had can choose between A and B is explained by dualism or my mind being some sort of contra-causal entity.’

            The compatibilist points out: No, the reason you had a choice is because “being able to consider different options and act on the one most likely to fulfill your desire” is a true description of the type of being you are. You really do have such powers, but they are entirely material. In fact, it’s the ONLY way you could be making the type of “choice” that you think you can make.

            BTW, do you wish to say that morality is nonsense, or non-existent, or unjustified, or some non-subject? I’m curious how many babies you wish to throw out with the bathwater.


            • steve oberski
              Posted May 2, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

              The original question had to do with whether telling people that they had no free will would result in an increase in bad behaviour as one experiment of dubious rigour seemed to indicate.

              It was then claimed that it might be OK to tell people that they had non dualistic free will, which I claim is just a deceptive way of telling them that they have no free will at all because, just like a soul, free will does not exist in the first place.

              And how you (incorrectly) divined my viewpoint on morality from my previous post is beyond me and of course your reference to babies and bathwater is just a silly rhetorical ploy designed to cloud the discussion with emotional overtones and is usually the refuge of one who has no substantive point to make.

              • Vaal
                Posted May 2, 2013 at 4:14 pm | Permalink


                No need to get hot under the collar here.
                I wasn’t making some personal pot shot.
                I presumed you had responded to my post.
                (Not the case?)

                As for my questions about your view of morality, how can you miss the relevance if you were in fact responding to my post?

                You claimed (as I understand it) that promulgating compatibilist free will is disingenuously giving attributes something that “doesn’t exist” in the first place. And you drew a comparison between dualism, e.g. non-existent souls and free will.

                I pointed out that’s wrong and that the ACTUAL comparison would be between morality and free will. A great many people have linked dualism and supernaturalism to morality as much as they have to free will.

                So if we are going to throw out Free Will because of such associations, why would we not throw out “morality” for the same reasons (as something that “doesn’t really exist” due to all the dualistic/supernatural associations for many people)?

                That’s what I was asking you, and it’s quite a reasonable question. In fact, there are incompatibilists who bite the bullet and DO talk about throwing out the notion of morality along with free will.

                I was just asking about your answer to such questions.



  21. Posted May 2, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    If you start dispelling the notion of free will, you also have to start breaking down the notion of the Just World Fallacy. Without doing that, things like rape culture or poverty/income inequality will just become worse. The problem is that the Just World fallacy goes hand-in-hand with god-belief. So you would have no choice but to start arguing against the existence of god as well.

    • notsont
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

      Thats kinda what they do here…

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

    After all these rounds it surely makes no sense to point out once again that the issue of compatibilist free will is purely semantic.

    I am, however, always very confused about the possible application “to work on improving society by the proper treatment of those who do bad”, as you put it.

    First, I am sorry if the US penal system is still based entirely on revenge, but in Germany for example the idea of re-socialization became a central part of the philosophy of the prison system in the 60ies and 70ies. That was not based on brain scans but on the utterly trivial insight that one’s social circumstances and environment have a strong impact on one’s propensity for crime. If it is nothing more than that what is discussed here then there is much bruhaha about nothing.

    But I am confused whether the idea is even to use neurobiological insights to make the penal system more humane or to make it the opposite. After all, what I would suggest doing is to use these insights to realize that some people have a reduced free will when it comes to the decision of whether to commit a crime, and then punish the people who have a lot of free will and treat the people who don’t. That seems logical, but is it what you suggest?

    Presumably not – the logical consequence of suggesting that nobody has any more free choice about committing a crime than anybody else would be to treat everybody exactly the same, no matter if they stole bread to avoid starvation, to avoid paying although they would have had the money, or because they are mentally impaired and do not understand the concept of property. Five years of prison for all of them! – after all, they all had the same choice, i.e. none. If this is not what you mean, if you agree that there are differences between those cases, then how is what you really mean different from the previous paragraph except that you don’t like the term that is used to describe the differences?

    But perhaps the idea really is to make the system less humane – there are some very chilling sentences in this post and, in particular, the cited article:

    Liberals abhor the potential use of biology to stigmatize ostensibly innocent individuals.

    “Ostensibly innocent”? Sorry, but before somebody has committed a crime they are simply one thing, and that is “innocent”. Is this professor seriously suggesting that we scan everybody’s brain at age 16 and then preemptively lock all those away who are assigned a more than 50% likelihood of becoming criminal? It sure sounds so. I thought Minority Report was a dystopia and not something to aspire to.

    • Gary W
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

      First, I am sorry if the US penal system is still based entirely on revenge …

      It isn’t. Traditionally, criminal justice has four main purposes: retribution (deserved suffering or loss for crime), incapacitation (physical prevention of further crime), rehabilitation (therapeutic restoration of moral character and behavior) and deterrence (discouragement of crime through the threat of punishment).

    • notsont
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

      Severe reading comprehension fail on your part if that’s what you think he was suggesting.

      • Posted May 2, 2013 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

        What I am trying to say is this:

        If this interpretation is a reading comprehension failure, then preemptive brain scans and dispelling the notion of free will will not make any difference whatsoever because even many people who pretend to believe in free will already think in terms of extenuating circumstances, reduced culpability, etc.

        If they are supposed to make any difference, then what precisely is it if not one that would be implied by a negative interpretation of that article?

        Again, all civilized people are already taking the fact into account that we are the products of our environment and genes, and have done so decades before the advent of brain scanners.

    • dth
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

      Germany hasn’t figured anything out.

      Crime is almost exclusively committed by young men, mostly because it is fun and entertaining to them.

      Germany simply turns young criminals loose time and time again. This is done until they either grow out of it by the age of 25 or so and are claimed as evidence for the efficacy of resozialization. Or they manage to actually kill or permanently injure somebody, at which point they are finally locked away for a couple of years.

      If Germans had truly figured out the technology of resozialization, they should offer their services to Chicago and LA and see how it works.

      Btw., you should look up “The Great Society”. The US tried leniency and resozialization before some European nations copied the US and crime shot through the roof.

      The main reason the german model didn’t end in disaster, is that Germany used to be full of Germans. Today, 80% of serial offenders with dozens of convictions in Berlin have a muslim background. Muslim youths consider a mere admonition by the judge, resozialization, or probation to be acquittals. A study by the interior ministry showed that a large chunk of muslim youths don’t consider the non-islamic, secular, governmental judiciary to be legitimate in the first place.

      Leniency and finger wagging might work reasonably well in a tightly knit, homogenous society, but not in a nation of immigrants, such as the US.

  23. Tulse
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    How exactly are we supposed to choose to dispel the notion of free will? Isn’t that inherently contradictory (at least if one believes there is no actual free will)?

    • Gary W
      Posted May 2, 2013 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

      Yes. In fact, if there’s no free will, any statement expressing a belief about what we should choose to do or what we ought to choose to do is meaningless, since all such statements presuppose the ability to choose between alternatives. If there’s no free will, there is no such ability. We simply do whatever we are compelled to do by natural processes.

      • mikerol
        Posted May 2, 2013 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

        And thank God for those “natural processes” – what if every breath e.g you took became an “to be or not to be” – or course there are those hard-bitten tom cats who just cant help control their passions!

  24. mikerol
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    we have choices, whether they are free or not would be beside the point – well, we can alter contexts and different sets of choices appear. and we can make believe that whatever choice we make is free – of someone else telling us to make it, although once the unconscious is factored into the equation and how choices are influeced unconsciously the matter actually becomes moot. “free” would seem to be a fetish.

  25. Cremnomaniac
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    A more profound understanding of the early biological causes of violence can help us take a more empathetic, understanding and merciful approach toward both the victims of violence and the prisoners themselves. It would be a step forward in a process that should express the highest values of our civilization.


    Apologies if ths might have been pointed out already, but here is a clear example of science spearheading moral growth in criminal justice. It is science improving our morality; It is science teaching us to be more humane: It is science that leads us to greater understanding of the human condition.
    It is NOT religion. Those who suggest science has nothing to say about morality are wrong.

  26. Terry
    Posted May 2, 2013 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    the initial wordage in the first paragraph is enough to put one off. Try for straight, true, simpler?

  27. Pete UK
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 12:25 am | Permalink

    I’m increasingly thinking that we take too much of our system of justice for granted. I’ve been the victim of crime (burglary), so I know what it’s like to desire retribution. I also know that much discussion takes place about the merits of punishment versus rehabilitation, the need to consider the victims etc etc. But it still strikes me that the whole thing is still framed in a biased way. True objectivity would be to say:

    OK. Something appears to have happened. It seems to have involved humans doing stuff to humans. That’s why we’re concerned.

    Question 1:
    What actually happened? Why, as far as we can determine it, and what was the result/impact?

    Question 2. Given 1., what is the best way of moving forward given that we’ve decided what has happened? That’s where we are. What do we do for the victim(). Was someone responsible. What’s the best thing to do to/for them? Is the thing reversible to any extent? What is best for people who weren’t involved? What lessons can we learn? What’s the best outcome we can extract from it in its entirety?

    But of course, it isn’t like this. The focus is largely on the wrong doer, deciding if he/she/they is/are “guilty” and how to punish him/he/them if they are. Everything else is subsidiary.

    The light that neurophysiology and the science and philosophy of free will cast on the notion of “perp” must surely drive us in the end to ditch the whole adversarial, wrongdoer-oriented system in favour of a more objective process focussed on making the most for everyone out of what happened. What do others think?

    Qualifier: f**k knows how we get there.

  28. kelskye
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 2:19 am | Permalink

    What changes would dispelling the notion of dualistic free will (as opposed to compatibilist free will) mean for how we structure society?

  29. Christopher Cudworth
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    I find the term compatabilism quite funny. It objectifies what? The idea that two ideas, having both common roots (as I argue here: http://werunandride.wordpress.com/2013/05/02/universal-thoughts-on-why-we-run-and-ride/)and common goals are inherently objectionable?

  30. Posted May 7, 2013 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Using neuroscience to justify determinism completely ignores all the well-established evidence of neuroplasticity.

    What we are was sculpted by what we thought and did. What we think and do largely determines what we become.

    See my book, Atoms of Mind, Springer.

    • Tulse
      Posted May 7, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      Using neuroscience to justify determinism completely ignores all the well-established evidence of neuroplasticity.

      Neuroplasticity is a purely (neuro)biological phenomenon. It does not require some sort of ghost in the machine.

      What we are was sculpted by what we thought and did.

      How do you distinguish between “what we thought” and “what our brain activity was”? And how do you know brains are affected by the former rather than simply the latter?

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