Annual Edge Question, and my answer

The annual “Edge question” has been published along with its answers. As you may know, Edge is the website run by John Brockman, the world’s premier agent for writers of popular science, who is a tough customer (beneath which lurks a softhearted Jewish grandfather) as well as someone with a remarkable feeling for the Zeitgeist about popular science. It was John, as I recall, who pushed Richard Dawkins to publish The God Delusion at just the time when it would hit the hardest.

Every year John poses to many of his authors a question that we’re supposed to answer in 1000 words or fewer, and these questions are ultimately collated and issued as a book. This year’s question is this one:

THE 2014 EDGE QUESTION 

Science advances by discovering new things and developing new ideas. Few truly new ideas are developed without abandoning old ones first. As theoretical physicist Max Planck (1858-1947) noted, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” In other words, science advances by a series of funerals. Why wait that long?

WHAT SCIENTIFIC IDEA IS READY FOR RETIREMENT?

Ideas change, and the times we live in change. Perhaps the biggest change today is the rate of change. What established scientific idea is ready to be moved aside so that science can advance?

We were asked to title our mini-essays simply with the name of the idea that we thought should be retired.

You can see the list of 174 responses on the same page (those respondents include many famous scientists, philosophers, and public intellectuals) and you can read all the answers here.  I noticed that Sam Harris published his answer on his website: what he wanted discareded was “Our narrow definition of science.” That is, Sam sees no hard-and-fast distinction between science and other forms of rational inquiry such as philosophy, and wants to jettison the narrow definition of science as “what scientists do”. I’ve been saying that for a long time (I use plumbing and car mechanics as examples of “science construed broadly), so of course I like his answer.  And since Sam saw fit to publish his answer, I’ll publish mine.  The concept I want to discard doesn’t seem like a scientific idea, but a scientific/philosophical idea, which by Sam’s lights, however, makes it scientific.  And John had no problem with it.

Yes, folks, I don’t expect you’ll all agree with me, but I think it’s time to jettison the notion of. . .

Among virtually all scientists, dualism is dead. Our thoughts and actions are the outputs of a computer made of meat—our brain—a computer that must obey the laws of physics. Our choices, therefore, must also obey those laws. This puts paid to the traditional idea of dualistic or “libertarian” free will: that our lives comprise a series of decisions in which we could have chosen otherwise. We know now that we can never do otherwise, and we know it in two ways.

The first is from scientific experience, which shows no evidence for a mind separate from the physical brain. This means that “I”—whatever “I” means—may have the illusion of choosing, but my choices are in principle predictable by the laws of physics, excepting any quantum indeterminacy that acts in my neurons. In short, the traditional notion of free will—defined by Anthony Cashmore as “a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature”—is dead on arrival.

Second, recent experiments support the idea that our “decisions” often precede our consciousness of having made them. Increasingly sophisticated studies using brain scanning show that those scans can often predict the choices one will make several seconds before the subject is conscious of having chosen! Indeed, our feeling of “making a choice” may itself be a post hoc confabulation, perhaps an evolved one.

When pressed, nearly all scientists and most philosophers admit this. Determinism and materialism, they agree, win the day. But they’re remarkably quiet about it. Instead of spreading the important scientific message that our behaviors are the deterministic results of a physical process, they’d rather invent new “compatibilist” versions of free will: versions that comport with determinism. “Well, when we order strawberry ice cream we really couldn’t have ordered vanilla”, they say, “but we still have free will in another sense. And it’s the only sense that’s important.”

Unfortunately, what’s “important” differs among philosophers. Some say that what’s important is that our complex brain evolved to absorb many inputs and run them through complex programs (“ruminations”) before giving an output (“decision”). Others say that what’s important is that it’s our own brain and nobody else’s that makes our decisions, even if those decisions are predetermined. Some even argue that we have free will because most of us choose without duress: nobody holds a gun to our head and says “order the strawberry.” But of course that’s not true: the guns are the electrical signals in our brain.

In the end, there’s nothing “free” about compatibilist free will. It’s a semantic game in which choice becomes an illusion: something that isn’t what it seems. Whether or not we can “choose” is a matter for science, not philosophy, and science tells us that we’re complex marionettes dancing to the strings of our genes and environments. Philosophy, watching the show, says, “pay attention to me, for I’ve changed the game.”

So why does the term “free will” still hang around when science has destroyed its conventional meaning? Some compatibilists, perhaps, are impressed by their feeling that they can choose, and must comport this with science. Others have said explicitly that characterizing “free will” as an illusion will hurt society. If people believe they’re puppets, well, then maybe they’ll be crippled by nihilism, lacking the will to leave their beds. This attitude reminds me of the (probably apocryphal) statement of the Bishop of Worcester’s wife when she heard about Darwin’s theory: “My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray it will not become generally known.”

What puzzles me is why compatibilists spend so much time trying to harmonize determinism with a historically non-deterministic concept instead of tackling the harder but more important task of selling the public on the scientific notions of materialism, naturalism, and their consequence: the mind is produced by the brain.

These consequences of “incompatibilism” mean a complete rethinking of how we punish and reward people. When we realize that the person who kills because of a mental disorder had precisely as much “choice” as someone who murders from childhood abuse or a bad environment, we’ll see that everyone deserves the mitigation now given only to those deemed unable to choose between right and wrong. For if our actions are predetermined, none of us can make that choice. Punishment for crimes will still be needed, of course, to deter others, rehabilitate offenders, and remove criminals from society. But now this can be put on a more scientific footing: what interventions can best help both society and the offender? And we lose the useless idea of justice as retribution.

Accepting incompatibilism also dissolves the notion of moral responsibility. Yes, we are responsible for our actions, but only in the sense that they are committed by an identifiable individual. But if you can’t really choose to be good or bad—to punch someone or save a drowning child—what do we mean by moralresponsibility? Some may argue that getting rid of that idea also jettisons an important social good. I claim the opposite: by rejecting moral responsibility, we are free to judge actions not by some dictate, divine or otherwise, but by their consequences: what is good or bad for society.

Finally, rejecting free will means rejecting the fundamental tenets of the many religions that depend on freely choosing a god or a savior.

The fears motivating some compatibilists—that a version of free will must be maintained lest society collapse—won’t be realized. The illusion of agency is so powerful that even strong incompatibilists like myself will always act as if we had choices, even though we know that we don’t. We have no choice in this matter. But we can at least ponder why evolution might have bequeathed us such a powerful illusion.

Let me add one thing here, which is a point also made by the philosopher Bruce Waller in his remarkable book Against Moral Responsibility. (The book’s thesis is that because we are the products of our genes and environments, and cannot “choose” how to behave, we must discard the notion of moral responsibility, which depend on the notion that we can choose between the “good” and “bad”. But before you start raising objections about how society would fall apart without this, or about how some philosophers have comported determinism with moral responsibility and free will, read how Waller answers those objections.)

Waller points out that while philosophers have thought of diverse ways to rescue our notion of moral responsibility even in the face of determinism, those ways are orthogonal and often incompatible.  The same holds for free will, which is closely connected with moral responsibility (Waller happens to be a compatibilist, but his notion of “free will” seems pretty lame to me—the one weak link in an otherwise wonderful book.)  There is only one kind of incompatibilism: we don’t have free will in any sense because we are beings whose molecules obey the law of science.  But there are gazillions of different forms of compatibilism: ways to rescue the notion of free will. That diversity shows you right off the bat that there is no easy way to claim that humans have moral responsibility. As Waller says of those who try to rescue that responsibility, “These are wonderfully creative theories, but their sheer number indicates their problems.”

I am convinced that philosophers want to save the notions of free will and moral responsibility because our sense of having these facilities is so strong that we are forced to believe in them (and rationalize them, which philosophers seem to do with the same facility that theolgoians rescue the notion of God) despite the evidence that our “choices” are the inevitable products of our genes and our experiences.  An added factor is that philosophers like Dennett and van Inwagen (I don’t mean to imply that they share the same ideas!) have said explicitly that if the public truly thought that they couldn’t make real, free choices, or had a moral responsibility stemming from the idea of free will (Dennett’s a compatibilist; van Inwagen a libertarian), society would fall apart. I don’t believe that, for I don’t see hard determinists acting immorally.

242 Comments

  1. Peter Beattie
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    Before I comment on the free will question, let me point out that another Edge contributor, Roger Highfield, has written a response to the same question and said: “Evolution is True”. In it, he very quickly, and without acknowledging the transition, moves from statements about how something is true to how certain statements are “the Truth”—and then attacks that blatant strawman. I would have thought that at Edge maybe there is an editor to check for that sort of thing?

    • Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      Oy, gewalt, I missed that (I read an earlier version of the site, when the answers were fewer). Here’s an email I just wrote to some friends:

      I had a severe attaack of gastritis this morning when I saw Roger Highfield’s answer to the Edge Question. What he wants to discard is the idea that “evolution is true”.

      Here’s part of what he says:

      If evolutionary biologists are really Seekers of the Truth, they need to focus more on finding the mathematical regularities of biology, following in the giant footsteps of Sewall Wright, JBS Haldane, Ronald Fisher and so on.

      The messiness of biology has made it relatively hard to discern the mathematical fundamentals of evolution. Perhaps the laws of biology are deductive consequences of the laws of physics and chemistry. Perhaps natural selection is not a statistical consequence of physics, but a new and fundamental physical law. Whatever the case, those universal truths-‘laws’-that physicists and chemists all rely upon appear relatively absent from biology.

      Little seems to have changed from a decade ago when the late and great John Maynard Smith wrote a chapter on evolutionary game theory for a book on the most powerful equations of science: his contribution did not include a single equation.

      Yet there are already many mathematical formulations of biological processes and evolutionary biology will truly have arrived the day that high school students learn the Equations of Life in addition to Newton’s Laws of Motion.

      Moreover, if physics is an example of what a mature scientific discipline should look like, one that does not waste time and energy combating the agenda of science-rejecting creationists, we also need to abandon the blind adherence to the idea that the mechanisms of evolution are Truths that lie beyond discussion.

      _______________

      [JAC]: Highfield’s problem seems to be that he wants mathematical laws that characterize evolution like they characterize physics. Well, that won’t work because evolution is contingent on unpredictable things like new mutations, environmental change, and the invasion of predators and parasites. I contend that the important and testable principles of evolution are largely nonmathematical, and can be expressed in a few sentences:

      1. Evolution happens: populations change genetically over time.
      2. That change is gradual and transformative rather than instantaneous, affecting all individuals at once. And substantial evolutionary change takes hundreds to millions of years.
      3. Lineages split, creating the diversity of life on Earth today from the first Ur-organism (and yes, there is, rarely in eukaryotes, horizontal movement of genes, but that rarely effaces the pattern of ancestry and descent).
      4. That splitting gives rise to common ancestry, so that any pair of species on Earth had a common ancestor at some time in the past.
      5. The “designoid” features of organisms arose through the process of natural selection, though random processes like genetic drift can cause evolution (but not the appearance of design).

      These are all true statements. What we need to abandon is not the idea that evolution is “true”, but that a “mature” scentific discipline of evolutionary biology will rest on the same type of predictive equations as does physics. It would be futile, for instance, to try to use “evolutionary laws” to predict what will happen to the gene pool of, say, the prairie dog.

      –Jerry

      • JBlilie
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:17 am | Permalink

        Great stuff.

      • Dominic
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:33 am | Permalink

        Essentially, evolution is messy because there is a mass of stuff going on at many levels, pulling in different directions.

        We know Highfield is firmly on the group selectionist camp you will recall.

      • gbjames
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:52 am | Permalink

        Oy, gewalt, indeed. (aka: “sub”)

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:12 am | Permalink

        It seems very odd that someone with his job description (Director, External Affairs, Science Museum Group) should concentrate on the goals of evolutionary research and completely ignore the “culture war” aspect of evolution.

        In the same way, when I studied chemistry at university, I was never told about the truth of the Periodic Table, though I did marvel at how Mendeleev had glimpsed the electronic structure of atoms.

        Tell me about the hordes of Fundamentalists ouside the chemistry classroom trying to overthrow periodism with pitchforks.

        • NewEnglandBob
          Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:17 am | Permalink

          “Tell me about the hordes of Fundamentalists ouside the chemistry classroom trying to overthrow periodism with pitchforks”

          Wouldn’t they be using mortar and pestle?

      • Steve Gerrard
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:21 am | Permalink

        Can physics calculate the weather next month? Or which traffic accidents will occur tomorrow? When is the next volcano going to erupt? The claim that physics is all locked down is silly.

        Biology can calculate the frequency of wrinkled peas in a garden, or the fate of a glucose molecule entering the Krebs cycle. Not being able to apply that precisely to a massive number of objects simultaneously is just as much a problem in physics as it is in biology.

        Get back to me when the many-body problem has been solved.

        • NewEnglandBob
          Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:25 am | Permalink

          +1

        • Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:52 am | Permalink

          There’s probably some residual Platonism in this guy.

          That said, I agree, it would be nice to have more exact principles and laws known in biology and many other fields. But that doesnt’t entail that they are easy to come by – they sure aren’t, for all the reasons canvassed, nor does it entail that what we know now isn’t a spectacular accomplishment.

          • peterr
            Posted January 16, 2014 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

            Unsubstantiated blame of “platonism” for that with which one disagrees seems to be an occupational hazard here.

        • Posted January 15, 2014 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

          Yes, biology and physics are not far apart when it comes to general mathematical laws vs contingency. We can make excellent quantitative mathematical predictions about the temporal evolution of the gene pool of the prairie dog, if the boundary conditions are well-specified, the fitness of all gene combinations is known, the mutation rates are known, and the frame is “inertial” (no new force appears during the time period of interest). These are the same kinds of “ifs” that limit mathematical predictions in physics.

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:39 am | Permalink

        Meanwhile, in opposition to Highfield we have:

        Kurt Gray
        Numbering Nature
        Just as evolution can create infinite species by expressing a common process in specific environments, so too can the mind create infinite mental species. One can no sooner count emotions or moral concerns than snowflakes or colors. To be sure, there are descriptive similarities and differences across instances, but any groupings are arbitrary and rest heavily on the intuition of researchers. This is why scientists can never agree on the fundamental number of anything; one scientist may divide a mental experience into 3, another 4, and another 5.

        It is time for psychology to abandon the enterprise of numbering nature, and recognize that psychological species are neither distinct nor real. Biology has long recognized the arbitrary and constructed natured of species; why are we more than 200 years behind?…

      • darrelle
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink

        1st order problem with Highfield’s piece, major switch & bait to create the precise strawman he wanted. He can’t really believe that JC believes what he implies in this piece, does he?

        2nd order problem, even if you give him his straw man, his entire argument is still a non sequitur. Off target, intended target does not exist. A swing and a miss, wwwoooooof, nothing but air.

      • Robert Seidel
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

        I sense that you might get a second fit of gastritis over Martin Nowak on Inclusive Fitness (don’t know how to link to the specific answer – it’s about two fifths down, second below Susan Blackmoore).

        • Posted January 15, 2014 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

          Glad I checked the comments; I was about to write the same thing. I would like to hear Jerry’s rebuttal to Nowak’s essay.

          • Talking Snake
            Posted January 16, 2014 at 6:55 am | Permalink

            I third this. Please, Prof. Ceiling Cat. A comment on Nowak’s essay would be highly appreciated!

            • Posted January 16, 2014 at 9:12 am | Permalink

              Reading Nowak’s piece I was really struck by one of Nowak’s concluding sentences:
              “Inclusive fitness was originally understood as a crude heuristic that can guide intuition in some cases, but not in general. It is only in recent years that inclusive fitness has been elevated—mostly by mediocre theoreticians—to a religious belief, which is universal, unconstrained and always true.”

              Well, of course we all know that Nowak ‘s views on the incorrectness of inclusive fitness was universally rebutted by 136 fellow scientists in the field of Evolutionary Biology in a letter to Nature. In this EDGE contribution he now has chosen to call many such critics “mediocre” – their opinions a “religious” sort of belief. This is indeed a bit rich, given that Nowak himself has been extremely proactive in forwarding his own religious views (and in his case religious really does mean RELIGIOUS – he is an ardent Catholic as well as a Templeton Board member). It seems to me Nowak is indeed, the pot calling the kettle black.
              Nowak also seems to infer a lesser mathematical skills in his peers when he points to their “mediocrity”. Again I would point out that some of the strongest criticism of his views on inclusive fitness comes from the most respectable and mathematically adept of theoretical biologists, including Alan Grafen who heads the Formal Darwinism Project – the mathematical work set to fully describe Darwinian mechanics. Grafen’s summary of Nowak’s idea’s – “unscholarly” “transparently wrong” and “misguided”. Anyhow, anyone wanting a comprehensive rebuttal of Nowak thinking could simply follow this link: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/store/10.1111/j.1420-9101.2011.02251.x/asset/j.1420-9101.2011.02251.x.pdf;jsessionid=2FD6B2D545221AF3A58275AE0B264129.f02t03?v=1&t=hqi0serx&s=1f56fb91553f9a553136c6a967e971b4e20a5fe7

              • Posted January 16, 2014 at 9:32 am | Permalink

                Alan Grafen (when he’s not co-signing a letter with 135 other authors) freely admits that inclusive fitness theory, as it exists, does not apply to most situations in nature:

                “The positive message is the range of circumstances in which inclusive fitness
                is known to apply is always being extended. The negative message is that range is still quite small, and there is a long way to go to cover the situations that most empirical biologists would consider usual.”

                Alan Grafen, “Formalizing Darwinism and Inclusive Fitness Theory” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 2009.

              • Posted January 16, 2014 at 10:51 am | Permalink

                Benjamin:
                “Alan Grafen .. freely admits that inclusive fitness theory, as it exists, does not apply to most situations in nature”

                Well, given that “most situations” in nature do not involve kin interactions, this is hardly surprising. But a relatively large number of interactions still do involve kin, as outlined in the Nature letter (e.g. alarm calling, parental care, food sharing, kin altruism etc etc). And sophisticated competitive social structures such as social insects or human societies, where Nowak most targets his overall mathematical models, are rarer still. Moreover, Nowaks particular criticism that using the simplification in mathematical models that contests are pair-wise is not just a criticism of inclusive fitness mathematics, it is a criticism that would undermine his own extensive work in spatial evolutionary dynamics if it were true. And it would undermine almost all of Evolutionary Game Theory. Even if Nowak’s model was more universal, by replacing a simple model that makes very good predictions with relatively easily measured data, with a model that is highly example specific and is almost impossible to gather input data for is NOT the path of progress in theoretical biology.
                As we seem to be trading Grafen quotes let me give you this one, concerning Nowak’s model:
                “Lunacy!” Even if you knew all of this it would only illuminate the process for one species. So it would be better to stick with inclusive fitness, rough and ready though it is, because it will enable biologists to make predictions about how various species should behave – and indeed already has.”

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted January 17, 2014 at 2:59 am | Permalink

        It seems to me that points 1-4 are already systematized mathematically in mathematics of phylogenies, of which there is a lot but most general in phylogenetic reticulated networks. (Point 2 would then be supplemented by dating.)

        Point 5 would perhaps be population genetics to describe trait fixation.

        So I don’t get Highfield’s whine.

  2. NewEnglandBob
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    Subscribing.

    • francis
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      //

      • Diane G.
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

        //

  3. brian faux
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    “Punishment for crimes will still be needed, of course, to deter others, ”
    and exactly how does that influence their (predetermined) behavior?

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:17 am | Permalink

      It is one of the inputs if it already exists.

    • Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      Determined =/= predetermined

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      As others have pointed out, we are influenced not only by our biology (and constrained by the laws of physics) but also our experiences and how those experiences interact with our biology. Deterrence influences how we behave if we have the type of biology that processes it (most of us do).

      • brian faux
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 11:10 am | Permalink

        How are we `influenced` by anything? This in itself implies a choice. Che sera sera – there`s no avoiding fate or influencing it.

        • darrelle
          Posted January 15, 2014 at 11:31 am | Permalink

          No, that is an unnecessarily narrow defintion of influence. A magnet influences electrons in a conductor, and no choice is involved. The influence is an inevitable consequence of the properties of magents and electrons, and everything else, and their interactions.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted January 15, 2014 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

          Not necessarily. I didn’t choose to be white but here I am. I didn’t choose to be an empath (vs sociopath), but here I am.

          I may change my mind because a person makes a good rational argument, but I didn’t choose to be the type of person who makes decisions on rational persuasion. I may think that I made a choice but I didn’t really.

          • Posted January 15, 2014 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

            +1

          • darrelle
            Posted January 15, 2014 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

            I’ve never been comfortable with using “choice” in that way. It’s like giving up yet another word because some people on the other side of the argument use it to mean something else.

            People on the contracausal free will side use “choice” to mean being able to choose independent of cause and effect. Probably merely because that concept of “choice” follows necessarily from a belief in contracausal free will, not from any specific reasoning about it.

            But, so what? Just like “true” and “believe,” why should we give up a perfectly useful word? Whatever it is that takes place in our minds that we informally use the word “choice” as a label for, that thing is the only kind, or method, of choice that is possible.

            In other words the argument could also be charaterized as being about what the properties of the phenomenon we have used the label “choice” for, for a really long time, actually are. Not whether or not the phenomenon exists.

            • Diane G.
              Posted January 15, 2014 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

              “I’ve never been comfortable with using “choice” in that way. It’s like giving up yet another word because some people on the other side of the argument use it to mean something else.”

              I agree.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted January 16, 2014 at 7:28 am | Permalink

              Not sure if you mean in the way I used it. I used “choice” in a simplified manner to illustrate that there are things that happen without a chooser/influencer. That we can be influenced without an influencer.

        • John Taylor
          Posted January 15, 2014 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

          Like charges repel each other. Opposite charges attract. Photons interact with electrons by providing them with energy. These are some of the mechanisms by which we are influenced by our environment.

  4. JBlilie
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    “1000 words or fewer”

    Thanks for the correct grammar sir!

  5. eric
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    When we realize that the person who kills because of a mental disorder had precisely as much “choice” as someone who murders from childhood abuse or a bad environment, we’ll see that everyone deserves the mitigation now given only to those deemed unable to choose between right and wrong.

    Or the reverse; jail for the insane! After all, without morality there can be nothing evil about jailing people who are not morally culpable for their actions. So, while I personally agree with you about criminal justice reform, your argument that every brain is in the same responsibility boat does not rationally lead to such reforms.

    IMO you are on much better footing when making the argument ‘no free will…therefore consequence and outcome-based criminal justice.’ Without moral culpability, pretty much the only viable reason for criminal justice is behavior modification; any response to crime that doesn’t alter behavior is essentially a waste of resources. But you should take care even with consequentialism. GPS collaring every male between the ages of 15-35 would probably drastically cut down on crime (or at least make it easy to identify the perpetrators). Pure consequentialism has no problem with such preemptive behavior modification (as long as it works). Exactly how consequentialist are you willing to go?

    • Dominic
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      What might or might not be considered a crime varies with time & convention – there is no consistent view of morality is there? These things are agreed by states or imposed by rulers depending on local views & customs. I am not saying that I am a moral relativist, but that views on morality & criminality vary.

      • eric
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:23 am | Permalink

        Yes – societies have to decide what behavior they want to prevent. Then test what works to reduce/prevent it, and test to make sure any solution doesn’t create some other bigger problem.

        Jerry’s very liberal ideas of criminal justice reform kinda rely on the expectation that the tests will show harsh punishment doesn’t work as well as some equivalently cheap reform-focused alternative. They have to, because without free will he cannot argue against harsh punishment on grounds that there is something ethically wrong with doing it. The judge and prison guard have no more free will in meting out punishment than the criminal did in committing the crime. Without free will, the only argument left to him is that conservative-style criminal justice doesn’t “work as advertised,” and so we need to use this other criminal justice product to accomplish the goal we want to accomplish.

        I hope that’s true, but I’m not sure it is. One thing I am pretty sure about is that the observation “we don’t have libertarian free will” does not lock-step lead to the conclusion “conservative punitive-focused responses to bad behavior do not work as well, for equivalent costs, as liberal reform-focused responses to it.” That conclusion might be true, but the argumentative connection Jerry is trying to draw isn’t there (IMO).

        • gbjames
          Posted January 15, 2014 at 11:06 am | Permalink

          “without free will he cannot argue against harsh punishment on grounds that there is something ethically wrong with doing it”

          I think this is untrue. Abandoning the idea of free will is not the same as abandoning ethics.

          • Posted January 15, 2014 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

            How can ethics exist without the presupposition that human beings can make meaningful choices? It seems to me that the rejection of even the combatibilist definitions of free will results in a complete rejection of the field of ethics.

            What are the ethics of murder absent the idea that someone has made a choice to kill?

            • gbjames
              Posted January 15, 2014 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

              The field of ethics forms part of the world in which we exist. It therefore influences us.

              The absence of free will does not make influences from the universe evaporate.

              • Posted January 16, 2014 at 4:08 am | Permalink

                “The field of ethics forms part of the world in which we exist. It therefore influences us….. The absence of free will does not make influences from the universe evaporate.”

                This is a rather strange assertion. If the field of ethics is substantially influenced by the misconceived premise of free-will then it is ridiculous to base any future considerations of what we should do based on this false premise. Ethics is essentially the study of what we OUGHT to do. If free will does not exist there is no such thing as “ought to do” – we do what is predetermined that we do, and nothing else. We have killed “ought”.
                Along a similar lines , there is no sense in LESSENING punishments if there is no free-will, because criminals have no option but to commit the crimes they do commit and have no moral culpability for their acts. We should instead INCREASE all penalties for crime, because increased penalty increases deterrence to commit crime. (after all, evolutionary game theory shows that defection to the violent “Hawk” behaviour is proportional to the ratio of V/C …. V the value of the illicit gain and C the cost of losing. So if we increase C we decrease the population of defectors).
                Yes it is USEFUL to maintain the by-products of believing there is free will, but it is totally incoherent to do so.

              • Posted January 16, 2014 at 4:22 am | Permalink

                You need to read Waller’s book, for he takes on your premise that “ought” is dead under determinism. In his view, you are wrong. I won’t go into the argument; you can read the book for yourself.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 16, 2014 at 6:03 am | Permalink

                @howiekornstein: I fail to see how the assertion is anything but obvious. Ethics exists in exactly the same way that like anthropology, literature, and chemistry. It is a field/area of human exploration in which people consider the effects of how they treat one another. Free will may or may not exist. If it does not, the study of how we treat one another does not simply evaporat.

                Theology exists despite there being no god out there. In this case it is a pointless effort. Ethics, in the absence of free will has more value since people exist, and how they treat one another under various conditions is important to understand.

              • Posted January 16, 2014 at 10:31 am | Permalink

                While I basically agree with what you say – that beliefs and knowledge about ethics can influence our behavior – this concept strikes me as completely at odds with the belief that human beings lack the ability to make meaningful choices about our behavior.

                If humans can make choices and behave differently based on those choices, that implies that free will exists in contradiction to what Dr. Coyne said.

                If there is no free will and humans don’t make choices that implies no ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’ decisions. That is why ethics (along with quite a few other human activities) gets swept away when when the idea of compatibilitist free will is jettisoned.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 16, 2014 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

                If humans can make choices and behave differently based on those choices, that implies that free will exists in contradiction to what Dr. Coyne said.

                No, the behaviour changes because it is another input into your mind. You may think your decision was a conscious one but your mind made that without involving you at all.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 16, 2014 at 10:52 am | Permalink

                If you had said “gets significantly changed” instead of “gets swept away” then I would have gone with you. But you didn’t and I can’t.

                I’m not taking a position on the free will question, although I’m inclined toward the “none” position. But either way questions of how human ideas of justice, fairness, etc. affect human life are real questions and consideration of these questions will still be known as “ethics”. So, sure, ethics will be re-thought. But it won’t just disappear.

    • Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      That objection to consequentialism only works if you pressupose stopping crime is the only value to measure. It isn’t (or at least one would have to argue in that direction) – social freedom, etc. are valuable even if there’s no contra-causal, etc. freedom.

  6. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Others have said explicitly that characterizing “free will” as an illusion will hurt society. If people believe they’re puppets, well, then maybe they’ll be crippled by nihilism, lacking the will to leave their beds. This attitude reminds me of the (probably apocryphal) statement of the Bishop of Worcester’s wife when she heard about Darwin’s theory: “My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray it will not become generally known.”

    This is, to say the least, an uncharitable way to characterize the compatabilist challenge to you in which many of us have asked you to explain how you avoid nihilism. Rather than answer that question, you engage in a kind of ‘guilt by association’ – we’re just like the Bishop’s wife.

    For the record, neither I nor most of the other people here who have asked you to explain your position on this point have ever made the argument from consequences you have associated us with in this passage. Clearly, your view that deterministic free will is an “illusion” doesn’t keep you from getting up in the morning, so why should I fear that you will not have the will to get up in the morning? I couldn’t care less about the consequences of your position – mainly because I think virtually no one really acts as if choices are illusions. But that is an aside and has nothing to do with the central question which has to do with your inconsistent attitude regarding what human brains produce.

    What I and several other compatibilists have asked you to explain is how the chain of reasoning by which you defend the proposition that “free will is an illusion” does not apply to all things that human brains do. You have repeatedly said that choices made by brains are illusory because they arise by processes of brain chemistry. Obviously, you think that thinking and creating, the processes of intellectual achievement are in some way “important”. Why? Aren’t they also illusory, since they are the inevitable products of brain chemistry? Are those “illusions” important?

    • Dominic
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      ‘Are those “illusions” important?’

      If you decide they are, yes, but they are only important if that is your evaluation. The universe is indifferent to humans – it has no personality, so nothing REALLY matters though.

      I think I really am a nihilist, at least on an intellectual level if you like, but that does not mean I go around causing mayhem!
      🙂

      I imagine my short answer will not satisfy you though…

      • Diane G.
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

        Decide, choose : decision, choice

    • strongforce
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think one avoids nihilism although maybe some people can. What I think happens for most people that truly accept all of the implications of science and determinism is a profound readjustment in perspective on the nature of existence. Many go through a period of existential angst and deep disillusionment. But most come out the other side still able to appreciate the absolute marvelousness of it all.
      If humans can face our ultimate annihilation with death, than I think we will be able to eventually deal with the consequences of there being no free will. As others have mentioned, we have a multi-millenia history of having to confront and adapt to the long string of disillusionments brought about by our deeper understanding of the universe through science. Personally, I think it is absolutely wonderful that we have the intellectual ability to discover these deeper truths. Now we need to develop the moral character to face them head on without resorting to obfuscation and myth making (read:religion). We are the Universe aware of itself. Isn’t it marvelous.

  7. Dominic
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    A fine succinct essay, & I am with you on this. As I have said before on WEIT, in a sense though I think that the idea of choice is meaningless anyway, because we can only ever have the one outcome (at least that we are conscious of, or unless you postulate multiple splitting of the universe at every ‘instant’, whatever that might mean). There is no chance to try it again because time is not like a tape in a tape recorder that can be rewound then re-recorded.

    • Jimbo
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

      That’s a really clear way of explaining it.
      +1

  8. krzysztof1
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    I agree that free will should be abandoned, but I haven’t run across anything that suggests it was ever a scientific concept at all. I confess to being ignorant about that. Can anyone point me to a scientific defense of “free will”?

    • Dominic
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      How about this?
      The Value of Believing in Free Will
      Encouraging a Belief in Determinism Increases Cheating
      http://pss.sagepub.com/content/19/1/49.short

      Maybe this?
      http://mitp-webdev.mit.edu/sites/default/files/titles/content/9780262013543_sch_0001.pdf

      sorry – no time to dig properly…

      • Dominic
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:05 am | Permalink

        OK one more…
        The Oxford Handbook of Free Will: Second Edition
        edited by Robert Kane 2011

        I am not going to buy it because it doesn’t exist!
        😉

      • Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:52 am | Permalink

        The paper you cite, by Vohs and Schooler, was weak to begin with, but now an attempt to replicate their results has failed. I’ve posted on that failure: see here. I wish people would quit citing that paper as if it were gospel!

        And even if something false has good social consequences, are we supposed to believe it on those grounds (many people say that about faith!)?

        • Posted January 16, 2014 at 3:41 am | Permalink

          I forgot that – sorry – & do not agree with them anyway. I was merely trying to point out that there are scientific reasons to discuss the idea of ‘free will’ – which does not exist other than as an idea! 🙂

  9. Matt
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    > “compatibilist” versions of free will: versions that comport with determinism. “Well, when we order strawberry ice cream we really couldn’t have ordered vanilla”, they say, “but we still have free will in another sense. And it’s the only sense that’s important.”

    I wish somebody who agreed with Jerry could explain to me how indeterminism would allow ordering a different ice cream in a way determinism wouldn’t.

    Obviously, if the choice came down some unpredictable coin flip then certainly a different ice cream could be “chosen” but I fail to see how that is in any way a change in “will”. Is anybody concerned about their ability to make random choices (which we know we are terrible at anyways)?

    He’s posted this exact argument repeatedly but I’ve never seen any explanation of what it’s supposed to show.

    • eric
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      if the choice came down some unpredictable coin flip then certainly a different ice cream could be “chosen” but I fail to see how that is in any way a change in “will”

      AIUI, that is in fact what JAC is saying. You are agreeing with him. Mere indeterminancy is not free will, and I think Jerry would say that random or uncontrolled indeterminism would not allow ordering a different ice cream in a way determinism wouldn’t.

      We can program robots and computer programs that make decisions based on random number generators or electronic coin flips. This does not give them anything we recognize as free will. If we are meat robots with some random number generators at the heart of our decision-making algorithms, we are still not “free” in any philosophically meaninful sense. At least, that’s the argument I think Jerry is making.

      • Matt
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

        I guess I see Jerry’s position as being:

        1. The world is naturalistic and (mostly) deterministic.
        2. Therefore we don’t have free will.
        3. Therefore we need “a complete rethinking of how we punish and reward people.”

        The argument seems to be over what “free will” means. Frankly, I don’t really care. Even if we accept “free will” to mean “only dualism”, what ideas about morality and reward/punishment apply differently whether determinism (or dualism) is true or not?

        Whether it’s our soul or our brain, what makes us “us” is still our collection of memories, biases, personality traits, etc… Our decisions are still based on these things. How does retribution against a soul make more sense than retribution against a brain?

        I simply don’t understand what Jerry thinks has changed and I would love somebody to explain it to me.

        • Posted January 15, 2014 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

          Well, I don’t want to write a huge answer here, especially because I’ve answered this question on this site many times before. We’d eliminate all kinds of retributive punishments and work more on a. eliminating the bad environments that create criminals rather than locking them up in horrible places like “The Shoe” and b. work on a scientifically based method of determining what is the best deterrent, how “fixable” are criminals, and so on. It’s a lot of work but a hell of a lot better than just sticking people in jail cells for years for selling a small amount of dope. If people cannot choose how to act, then we need to take that into account when we blame/punish them.

          The literature is filled with answers and I don’t have time to provide them; read Harris’s book or the last couple chapters of Waller’s.

          • Posted January 15, 2014 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

            I think one of the very first things we’d discover is that prohibition is inexcusable. Yes, reckless endangerment (driving under the influence of whatever, for example) is something suitable for the criminal justice system, but simple possession, sales, and usage of any substance should be no different from alcohol and tobacco.

            Next, without black markets to mess up the works, we’d figure out that the best way to prevent crime is to ensure we have a well-educated, healthy population with full employment — and that, in the overwhelming majority of remaining criminal cases, providing the education, health care, and job opportunities the individual was lacking is all that’ll be needed to prevent recidivism.

            The few remaining cases are going to be the mentally ill who belong in proper health care institutions. Those who can be cured (or, at least, treated) can then be released — but, again, not until they’re educated, healthy, and employable.

            Retribution is barbaric and inexcusable, especially in a modern society such as we like to pretend we are.

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Jesper Both Pedersen
              Posted January 15, 2014 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

              The few remaining cases are going to be the mentally ill who belong in proper health care institutions. Those who can be cured (or, at least, treated) can then be released — but, again, not until they’re educated, healthy, and employable.

              I don’t think you mean any harm, but speaking as someone who’s labelled as mentally ill, I find that scenario rather dire and dystopic.

              Incarceration based on one’s mental health, employability ( a somewhat diffuse term ), and ability to “be educated” are completely off the mark and I’d fight you tooth and nail to prevent an implementation of such a system.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted January 15, 2014 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

                blockquote fail. Here goes:

                The few remaining cases are going to be the mentally ill who belong in proper health care institutions. Those who can be cured (or, at least, treated) can then be released — but, again, not until they’re educated, healthy, and employable.

                I don’t think you mean any harm, but speaking as someone who’s labelled as mentally ill, I find that scenario rather dire and dystopic.

                Incarceration based on one’s mental health, employability ( a somewhat diffuse term ), and ability to “be educated” are completely off the mark and I’d fight you tooth and nail to prevent an implementation of such a system.

              • Posted January 15, 2014 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

                Yes, you’re absolutely right. I could have phrased that more clearly.

                I most emphatically was not referring to blanket incarceration of the mentally ill; rather, that convicted criminals with mental health problems should not be re-released into society until they do not represent a significant risk of recidivism. For most, that will mean simply providing the healthcare, basic education, and job training they missed out on the first time ’round. For only the slimmest minority will their mental health be incurable and unmanageable such that they should not be released.

                And even for those, that doesn’t mean caging them up. There might be safety reasons for limiting physical interaction with them, but they still should be treated with the dignity and respect due all humans, and efforts to reintegrate them with society should never cease — even in those cases where such efforts are almost certainly doomed to failure.

                What I find unproductive is simply assuming that a fixed-term incarceration dependent upon the specifics of the crime committed will do anything for either the criminal or society. Whatever it takes to return that person to society as an healthy, contributing member; that’s what needs to be done. (And, obviously, it’ll also mean, in many cases, managed and supervised periods of gradual reintroduction, from halfway houses to parole checks and so on.) But just dumping somebody back on the streets, with nothing to show for the time but time served? Now that’s insane.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted January 15, 2014 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

                Then I’m more at ease and wholeheartedly agree with you.

                Now if only we could create some more jobs.;-)

              • Posted January 15, 2014 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

                That’s actually going to increasingly be a significant problem as more and more stuff gets automated.

                If more automation meant more leisure time for the same pay, we’d be in good shape. But more automation generally means that the parasite class takes in all the profits from increased productivity and fewer total jobs.

                It’s been slow building. For example, the automakers don’t have any welders any more; instead, they have one or two guys supervising an entire factory full of welding machines. Airliners used to have three or four people in the cockpit; now they have two, and they spend most of their time sitting on their thumbs waiting for disaster to strike. In a few years, we’re going to see commercial driving hemorrhage jobs like you won’t believe as autonomous vehicles start to take over.

                These should be good things, with society doing more and better things with people not having to spend so much time on mindless, repetititititive tasks. But, in reality, it’s just going to mean more concentration of wealth and more people who could and want to be productive left with nobody who wants anything they’ve got to offer.

                “First world problems,” yes — but these types of problems will turn the first world back into fiefdoms, and we’ll soon be right back where we were before the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century.

                b&

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted January 15, 2014 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

                Although I’m a bit more optimistic, I do think there’s some substance to your concern.

                If we all get too bored I’m sure we’ll invent some more problems to worry about, but let’s cross that bridge when we get to it.

              • Posted January 15, 2014 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

                The problem is that bored people with no way to buy bread tend to invent violent problems. And, in some cases, even, arguably, justifiably so.

                b&

              • gbjames
                Posted January 15, 2014 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

                I want to say “This.” to Ben’s comment above.

                But I might get in trouble for using that term.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted January 15, 2014 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

                Well, you could argue that we’re already pretty good at inventing violent conflicts out of thin air and despair, but I think we’d digress quite a bit if we start contemplating causes of conflict.

                Sadly there’s a shitload of variety in ways which we humans can inflict pain and suffering upon one another, justified or not.

          • Matt
            Posted January 15, 2014 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

            Thanks for the response! My question was actually a bit different. I understand the changes you would want to make to our justice system, and I agree with them.

            The part I don’t understand is why those things would make less sense if dualism were true. For example, why would retribution make sense even if dualism was true?

    • Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      The other sense (compatibilist sense) is that the reactive attitudes are still regarded as appropriate; this appropriateness is what Jerry and others deny.

  10. eric
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    After browsing the Edge site, some comments:
    1. Its annoying you can’t pull up a list of just the titles and authors. Lots of unnecessary scroll wheel use just to see who wrote and what they wrote about.
    2. Lots of very interesting topics, yet…
    3. …A disappointly low number of them discuss formal scientific theories that they think will be overturned. Big data? Knowing is half the battle? I can’t say I see how they fit with what Planck was talking about, which (IMO) was more the resistance of many scientists to new theories such as QM, plate tectonics, big bang theory, etc…

    • Posted January 15, 2014 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      And Planck was not as correct as many (including the Edge people, it seems) suppose. The philosopher of biology David Hull many years ago did an investigation of Planck’s sociology of science hypothesis. It does seem undersupported, at least in biology, if I recall correctly. I think the stuff is in D.H.’s _Science as Process_, if anyone cares to look.

    • Posted January 15, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      I too was pulling out my hair at the lack of an index. I couldn’t believe the editor would be so stupid. Then I realized that it was probably me who was stupid, and I looked harder. Click Contributors [176] or follow this link:
      http://www.edge.org/contributors/what-scientific-idea-is-ready-for-retirement

  11. Dominic
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    By the way, the quotation attributed to the Bishop of Worcester’s wife, was investigated a couple of years ago here by the Quote Investigator –
    http://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/02/09/darwinism-hope-pray/

    This is what they say –

    The earliest cite QI has found is in an 1893 text titled “Verbum Dei: The Yale Lectures on Preaching”. In this volume a variant of the quote was attributed to a spinster and not to a married woman within a lecture written by a British pastor named Robert Forman Horton [VDY]:

    The Church swarms with people who have no spiritual sinew, and whose lungs cannot breathe the invigorating air of Truth: they take up the cry of that timid and decorous spinster who, on hearing an exposition of the Darwinian theory that men are descended from apes, said, “Let us hope it is not true, or if it is, let us hush it up.”

  12. KP
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    I agree. Free will is crap. I am watching my mother go through dementia in which she is losing her ability to distinguish right from wrong and fantasy from reality. Someone losing their mind provides an easy argument against “free will.”

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

      Sorry about your mom.

      It’s also a good argument against the homunculus self.

      • Steve Gerrard
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

        Ditto.

        My mother is also vanishing due to dementia, with memory loss as the main effect. She is not entirely sure who I am anymore. Loss of memory equals loss of self, plain and simple. She is slipping away like the Cheshire cat. Nothing makes it quite as clear that our minds and selves are entirely in our brains.

        • Posted January 16, 2014 at 3:46 am | Permalink

          I saw something related in my mother with Parkinsons. With dementia it seems like taking the layers off an onion, bit by bit. With Parkinsons it was more like pulling wires out of a bit of complex electrical machinery – parts stopped working. She said to me at one point that she felt like she was going mad.

    • Andrew Platt
      Posted January 16, 2014 at 6:04 am | Permalink

      I can sympathise, KP, as my father has dementia too. People with dementia still make decisions though – just ones that the rest of us might regard as irrational. It is an easy argument against a “self” separate from the brain but it is not an argument against free will. Read the essay by W. Daniel Hillis and consider that if cause and effect break down in a fully functioning brain they will also break down in a dementia-addled brain.

      Best wishes for the best possible outcome.

    • paxton
      Posted January 19, 2014 at 6:52 am | Permalink

      Why is that? Free will does not provide immunity against disease, decline and death.

  13. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    I am convinced that philosophers want to save the notions of free will and moral responsibility because our sense of having these facilities is so strong that we are forced to believe in them…

    I agree. The illusion is so strong (and the result of natural processes) that it discourages almost all of us from even trying. Could there be a society where all were Zen masters? I suspect not. Those that accepted the illusion would leave more children… where have I heard this idea before?

  14. Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    But if you can’t really choose … what do we mean by moral responsibility? … by rejecting moral responsibility, we are free to judge actions … by their consequences: what is good or bad for society.

    By “moral” responsibility we mean whether things are good or bad for society. What else are morals about?

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      According to many religious people, morality is conforming only to their dogmatic nonsense, else it is immoral.

      • Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:37 am | Permalink

        But why buy into their agenda, allowing the religious to own the language?

        In Europe few people nowadays think morality equates to religion. Vastly more think it equates to what is good or bad for people.

        In a poll in the UK in 2012 only 10% of self-labelled *Christians* said they looked to religion as their main source of moral guidance. 54% said they looked to their own inner moral sense.

        It seems to me that Jerry’s aversion to some of this language is very much an American thing, reacting to the religiosity of America.

    • Curt Cameron
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      I see it the same way, Coel. My views on free will align with Jerry’s views, but I do disagree with him on the way he wants to avoid the term “moral responsibility.” I have no problem calling it that, since that’s what morals are, and I don’t think it confuses the discussion between us and out mostly theist countrymen. On the other hand, I do think that if you say you DON’T accept the idea of “moral responsibility” then it can give those people the idea that you’re saying something that you’re not. It can sound like you’re advocating for not having any kind of justice system.

  15. paxton
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    “These consequences of “incompatibilism” mean a complete rethinking of how we punish and reward people.”

    How can we change anything, or even rethink anything if we don’t have free will?

    • Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:36 am | Permalink

      You appear to have skipped the prerequisite intro level classes. Search the term Free Will on this website and read through the posts and comments. Once you are caught up, you will be able to answer your own question and this will all make much more sense.

    • Posted January 15, 2014 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      It is an elementary error of anti-free-willers to argue that incompatibilism prevents minds from being changed. Just think of the mind as a complex meat computer: its operation can be changed by reprogramming it (environmental change) or hooking it up to another computer that affects its program (other people). Certainly one can change one’s mind and rethink things based on outside influences!

      • Diane G.
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

        Maybe “anti-no-free-willers?” Or am I completely lost?

      • paxton
        Posted January 16, 2014 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

        I’m ok with the meat computer, but that, along with its various sensors and actuators is what I call “me” or my “self”. Although subject to the same physical laws as other “selves”, my “self” is unique, in that it doesn’t respond quite the same to the external stimuli it encounters as another “self”. Clearly my meat computer has a role in determining what action to take in any situation. Is that not free will?

        If I can influence the behavior of my environment, then through my environment, I influence myself. What I am, the very structure of my meat machine is influenced by my previous behaviors. Perhaps it is this recursive influence of my past on my present that we consider free will.

        “Free will” is not a good description of the role one assumes in shaping one’s environment and one’s life. Perhaps “agency” is better. Yes, I am largely directed by my genes, my experiences, and the current environment. So my choices are not free. But my behaviors matter in the world and I am responsible for them. So that should be dignified with some term that distinguishes the level of processing of my meat computer from those of rocks, bacteria, and monkeys?

        • gbjames
          Posted January 17, 2014 at 6:03 am | Permalink

          “Although subject to the same physical laws as other “selves”, my “self” is unique, in that it doesn’t respond quite the same to the external stimuli it encounters as another “self”.”

          This is true of all critters, but irrelevant. Free will does not follow from the fact that your “self” is different from my “self” and the “self” of Mabel, the little dog in the upstairs flat.

          • paxton
            Posted January 17, 2014 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

            gbjames, did you read the rest of my comment? It’s not just that you (your meat computer plus peripherals) are unique, it is that you have made yourself. True, you started with a certain set of genes and were gestated in and born into a certain environment. But from birth, maybe before, you have interacted with and altered that environment. And the data from the environment that your sensors have collected to program your meat computer, have been influenced by your behaviors, selected by you, and interpreted by your meat computer. When your meat computer receives an input and makes a decision, it is making it based on a program that you have developed through a lifetime of interaction with your environments.

            If a rock falls off a cliff and kills someone, the rock is responsible, but it was simply obeying the laws of physics, so it has no agency and no moral responsibility. But if you kill someone, that “you” is something you have helped to build through your lifetime. This, I claim is enough to make you morally responsible. And the fact that the human meat computer is by far the most complex and capable machine developed in the long history of earth, further endows us with responsibility, because it allows us to understand our situation in the universe as no other being can. OK, ultimately it is all determined by the laws of physics, but is it not useful to distinguish between the agency of a rock falling off a cliff and a human throwing a rock, and what words shall we use to describe the distinction? “Free will” may be a misnomer but it evokes an important truth about these marvelous meat computers with which evolution has endowed us.

            • gbjames
              Posted January 17, 2014 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

              “you have made yourself”

              I don’t think this is a meaningful statement. Or at least I don’t think it has any more meaning than “you are the product of your genes and your environment”. It is as if you have that humunculus fellow sitting somewhere “making you”. Not helpful.

              Yes, I did read the rest of your comment. But as is so often the case, when a comment starts off in the wrong direction the rest of it just follows.

      • Posted January 17, 2014 at 1:58 am | Permalink

        Certainly one can change one’s mind and rethink things based on outside influences!

        One just can’t make a not-pre-determined *choice* to do so!

    • Kevin
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      A photon passes from air into a window, its path is changed and its speed is changed among other things. It has no choice, no free will, but it changed according to the laws of physics. People change too, I am not entirely sure why, but they can only change according to the laws of physics, that I do know or at least believe.

  16. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    In a similar vein:


    Bruce Hood
    The Self
    It seems almost redundant to call for the retirement of the free willing self as the idea is neither scientific nor is this the first time that the concept has been dismissed for lacking empirical support. …

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:44 am | Permalink

      Susan Blackmore
      The Neural Correlates of Consciousness

      … We feel as though our conscious experiences are of a different order from the physical world. But this is the same intuition that leads to the hard problem seeming hard. It is the same intuition that produces the philosopher’s zombie—a creature that is identical to me in every way except that it has no consciousness. It is the same intuition that leads people to write, apparently unproblematically, about brain processes being either conscious or unconscious.

      Am I really denying this difference? Yes. Intuitively plausible as it is, this is a magic difference. Consciousness is not some weird and wonderful product of some brain processes but not others. Rather, it is an illusion constructed by a clever brain and body in a complex social world. We can speak, think, refer to ourselves as agents and so build up the false idea of a persisting self that has consciousness and free will.…”

  17. John K.
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Was “free will” ever a truly scientific notion? Did it ever make any predictions that could be tested and falsified? Without a time machine, the question “could I have done otherwise” is not one that can be definitively answered. Kind of like what spells you could cast with a “real” magic wand, it ends up un-falsifiable and as such scientifically meaningless.

    I find free will to be one of those concepts humans experience and use to decent effect in day to day interactions that just breaks down under rigorous scientific scrutiny, an illusion like the concept of solidness that does not fit with the understanding that atoms mostly consist of empty space. We all experience solidness, it can be a useful approximation for various tasks, but in the broad scheme of scientific understanding it does not work. We don’t really have to worry about people being afraid of falling through the floor with this kind of knowledge, the world you experience has not really changed, there are just better ways to think about the old things that describe and accurately predict more of what we can observe. People do not despair that they will fly off the earth when they learn it is moving around the sun either, and yet we can still use the idea that the ground is stationary when using a map to navigate around the city. Just use the right tools for the job and stop worrying so much.

    • Posted January 15, 2014 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      At one point, contracausal freewill was not a scientific notion or an anti-scientific notion, like it is now. Descartes was arguably the first to run into trouble with conservation laws and “the mind body problem” of which the question of FW is debatably connected to. By the end of the 19th century, when conservation laws were well established, the evolution of human brains was being studied, etc. I would say it became an antiscientific notion.

    • Posted January 15, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      “Falsification” is another Edge thing to be discarded; see Sean Carroll’s piece.

      • Peter Beattie
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

        In that particular case, Sean Carroll doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He has apparently only read this piece, a very short summary of Popper’s views on the demarcation problem and falsifiability in particular. (The linked text is only about half of the original text, whose title is “Science: Conjectures and Refutations”, from Conjectures and Refutations.)

        No one who has read The Logic of Scientific Discovery, which is the main text by Popper to explain falsifiability, could fail to see that the concept is as far rmeoved from what Carroll calls “amateur philosophising” as possible. The problem with “fortune-cookie-sized mottos like ‘theories should be falsifiable’” is that this represents the embarrassingly shallow level of understanding of the concept of falsifiability that Carroll seems to think is sufficient to declare it obsolete.

    • Andrew Platt
      Posted January 16, 2014 at 5:53 am | Permalink

      But the difference is, no-one is calling for a change to our legal system based on a lack of solidity or the earth moving around the sun. That is what makes the free will argument potentially dangerous.

  18. sambricky2013
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Okay,so I’ve been trying to lose weight for six months now. My mind keeps telling me to eat drink and be merry. But my mind is struggling against this merry ism because I, me wants to lose weight. I feel like My brain has evolved through the years to eat whatever I want. But now I, me am making the choice to fight this evolved sentiment. Now either I have aduel personality or I have some choice in the matter.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:46 am | Permalink

      Will your duel personality fight it out?

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:57 am | Permalink

        +1

      • Simon Hayward
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 11:01 am | Permalink

        Beaten too it – shouldn’t get sidetracked while commenting

    • Simon Hayward
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      I find that if my mind lets me reduce my food intake until I’m pretty much constantly hungry I will lose weight slowly. After a number of weeks I’ll get to where I want to be – or somewhere within striking distance. Or at least to the point where the scales stop actively insulting me. Then the weight will seem less important, so I’ll focus less on maintaining my hungry state and pretty soon the weight will prove how much it loves me by coming right back again. I’m told that my body is fighting to maintain its expanded perception of itself (this having changed since I was 27 and slim – and maintained this sate without any real effort!)

      As an aside, does someone with a duel personality have to shoot himself, or does he have a choice? 🙂

    • Kevin
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      I could handcuff you to a bathroom sink and feed you what I feed the cats…you will lose weight quickly; of course there would be no choice in that.

      Eat what you want…always more happiness that way. If you really want to lose weight, you will.

    • Posted January 15, 2014 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      Starving yourself to weight loss is almost never going to work. Even when it does, the body you wind up with is unhealthy. Indeed, there’s a very good chance that you actually need to gain (total) weight — especially if you’re “just carrying a few extra pounds.” Muscle weighs a lot more than fat.

      The answer, of course, is the same one you hear everywhere: “diet and exercise.” But “diet” means “plenty of healthy foods,” and “exercise” means “that which builds muscle and lean body mass.”

      For diet, you first want to eliminate (virtually) all refined sweeteners, including sugar, honey, “diet” shit, high fructose corn syrup, all of it. A good limit is a tablespoon (15g) per day. That right there will, incidentally, take off your plate almost all prepackaged and restaurant food. If you have a sweet tooth that won’t let you ignore it, satisfy it with fresh whole fruit (not juices).

      That’s the biggie of what you shouldn’t eat. What you should eat is healthy portions of healthy proteins, fresh vegetables, complex carbohydrates, and fats. The Mediterranean Diet is as reasonable as any, but anything in that spirit is fine.

      For exercise, you want to build lean body mass. The action of building and maintaining lean body mass is far more metabolically expensive than the action of performing the exercise. Just a single piece of fruit will power an entire workout; you’re not going to burn off any extra calories just by being an human hamster. Take two people who both weigh 180 pounds and are 5’8″ tall; one is an elite athlete, the other an overweight pencil-necked geek. Just sitting there, doing nothing, the athlete is burning far more calories than the geek.

      The good news is that you don’t need any fancy equipment or skills or inordinate amounts of time for the exercise portion. An half an hour or so a few times a week will do the trick, and you can do it in your living room with what’s already there and whatever you’re wearing. See here for all you need to know:

      http://www.marklauren.com/

      If you need the motivational factor of a community support system, CrossFit seems to be a good bet. I have no experience with them and that type of thing personally turns me off, but they would seem to be great for people who’re more social than I.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • JBlilie
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

        Exactly the right advice Ben. I keep telling people the same things as they fly off after the latest food or diet fad.

        I tell them: Magic bullets don’t exist!

        The entire supplements and self-help book industries are based on promising magic bullets.

        • Posted January 15, 2014 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

          And, what’s frustrating is that the real answer isn’t all that terribly far off from a magic bullet. Just eat the way people did before food became industrialized, and make an habit of the same sorts of exercises you might have had in gym class. Is that really so hard? Is it too much to ask for?

          …of course, it doesn’t make huge profits for industries that rely on advertising to convince people they need magic bullets….

          b&

          • gbjames
            Posted January 15, 2014 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

            A lot of people didn’t eat very well in pre-industrial times, either.

            • Posted January 15, 2014 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

              True…but generally not by choice. Look to the pre-industrial diets of working-class people in countries wealthy enough that people could get what they wanted.

              b&

              • gbjames
                Posted January 15, 2014 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

                I think the goalpost just moved.

                People in the past weren’t any wiser than people are today. They were probably less wise. Their bodies had pretty much the same cravings ours do. The biggest difference is that availability of foodstuffs was much more constrained in pre-industrial days. Imagine craving some fruit in January in Norway or Wisconsin in 1500.

              • Posted January 15, 2014 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

                If I’m moving the goalpost, it’s certainly not intentionally or knowingly.

                I was mainly referring to things like the Irish Potato Famine. Plenty of volume of food there; just not enough to sustain healthy living.

                But look to places not experiencing that sort of crisis, and…well, they ate not unlike how Jerry’s been eating in Poland.

                I’m no expert on the subject, but I’m pretty sure sixteenth century Norwegians had plenty of grain stockpiles to keep them in carbs through the winter. I have no clue what the Native American diet was like, but long-established hunter-gatherers (which is who would have been living in Wisconsin in 1500) did pretty well by way of diet, also.

                I’m not sure how well anybody in 1500 would fit the definition of, “working class,” either.

                b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 15, 2014 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

                Just a quibble – the Irish Potato Famine can be seen as genocide as well. I checked Wikipedia just to make sure I wasn’t mis remembering my facts & here it is:

                Although the potato crop failed, the country was still producing and exporting more than enough grain crops to feed the population. Records show during the period Ireland was exporting approximately thirty to fifty shiploads per day of food produce. As a consequence of these exports and a number of other factors such as land acquisition, absentee landlords and the effect of the 1690 penal laws, the Great Famine today is viewed by a number of historical academics as a form of either direct or indirect genocide.

              • Posted January 15, 2014 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

                Ah — yet another bit to chalk up to an education that’s not actually as good as I had long assumed it was.

                <sigh />

                b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 15, 2014 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

                I think I had to learn that one on my own. In elementary school we just sang stupid songs like “the pratties they grow small over here”.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 15, 2014 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

                They were farming people here in Wisconsin in 1500, with some hunting.

                My point is that the popular notion of a near-ideal diet in pre-industrial times is almost always little better than myth. Well-off people have always had it better than not-so-well-off sorts, but pre-industrial farmers were often much more susceptible to famine and hard times simply because food storage and transportation systems were nothing like what we just assume.

                My comment about the goalpost move was because you had shifted from “before food became industrialized” (which I interpreted to mean “before the Industrial Revolution”) to something about limited choice.

                It is the old archaeologist in me pushing back against the common myth that our ancestors ate so much better than we do.

                (Special note, so as to avoid unnecessary thrash: I’m not advocating the kind of meat production industrialization we see today. I don’t eat meat largely because of it.)

              • Posted January 15, 2014 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

                Fair enough.

                My main point is that there’s lots of shit readily available and consumed in large quantities that didn’t even exist before we applied the techniques of industrialization to food, and that very little of what was on the menu before then was problematic, especially in the quantities readily available.

                Or, most of the problems of the modern diet are of excesses of stuffs that were largely inaccessible in the past. For example, a single 12-ounce soda has about as much sugar as the average person in the eighteenth century would consume in an entire week. It’s no exaggeration to state that the average American today eats as much sugar every year as many Colonials would have eaten in their entire lives.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • gbjames
                Posted January 15, 2014 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

                Fair enough, back.

                We’ve largely swapped problems of excess for problems of deficiency. IMO, it is better to have our current problems and learn to consume less than live with the constant threat of famine.

                Not that there aren’t parts of the world that aren’t suffering constant threats of famine. These are political problems, though. We could do something about them.

              • Posted January 15, 2014 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

                This is true, in principle.

                In practice, it’s just about as hard to get people to not indulge in unhealthy food as it is to get them to not have sex. With sex, that’s only a problem if, like the Church would have it, birth control is unavailable. We have no dietary equivalent of the condom, though.

                b&

              • gbjames
                Posted January 15, 2014 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

                Well, I’m not going to respond “will power”.

              • Posted January 15, 2014 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

                Yeah — that’s just it. If willpower were enough for people to starve themselves into weight loss, it’d also be enough to stop unwanted pregnancies and the spread of sexually-transmitted infections.

                For the former, the answer, fortunately enough, isn’t self-starvation, but rather eating plenty of healthy foods and not eating industrialized food-like substances. It still takes willpower to not chug the entire two-liter bottle of soda, but it takes a lot less willpower to drink water and snack on fresh fruits and veggies and nuts instead. Eat the portion sizes the textbook says to for protein, complex carbohydrates, and fats…and then stuff yourself silly on radishes and celery and carrots and cabbage and the like. Literally — as much as you can eat. Some fresh fruits and nuts if you’re still hungry after that. Doesn’t take much willpower to indulge yourself to your heart’s content with salad!

                And, of course, for the latter, there’s Planned Parenthood….

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Diane G.
                Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

                “…radishes and celery and carrots and cabbage…” =/= “my heart’s content”

    • Sam Salerno
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for all the weight loss ideas. But this was meant to be a comment about choice or free will. I guess I should have used a smoker trying to quit smoking scenario or something like that. And I’m losing weight fine by eating right and exercising, thank you.

      • Posted January 15, 2014 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

        Very well — carry on, then!

        …but, back on topic, it should come as no surprise that we often have competing desires. You have a desire to enjoy tasty food and to laze around. You also have a desire to be free of the negative consequences of poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle.

        When you have conflicting goals, is it any wonder that one is going to have to win out over the other? Or that you should feel regret and loss for whichever goal you sacrifice?

        Cheers,

        b&

      • Steve Gerrard
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

        I think you must have read or been exposed to the idea that excess weight is bad for you, and your mind assigned it high value (deterministically, based on all your prior experiences and learning). That high value means it now wins out over the inclination to consume vast quantities you previously mentioned.

        No one said you can’t have competing ideas in your mind, but which one wins is based on the current state of your brain, not some additional mysterious self-thingy.

        Once you realize that means you are doing what you want, because “you” is defined by your brain in the first place, you will have no problem with determinism.

        • Posted January 16, 2014 at 10:52 am | Permalink

          Isn’t that the compatibilist position though? That free will exists in the form of making choices without the addition of any “mysterious self-thingy”?

  19. Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Where’s Vaal? I wanna get in a fight with Vaal today. Hey Vaal, compatibilism is stupid. What do you think of that?

    • Posted January 15, 2014 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      OK, that made my day. 🙂

      Lucid and sharp essay by Jerry!

      • pacopicopiedra
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

        Thanks. I was hoping at least one person would laugh.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      Ha ha! Oh, poor Vaal! You know he is sitting there trying not to read the comments!

      • Vaal
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

        🙂

        Vaal

  20. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Hmmm.

    Donald D. Hoffman
    Truer Perceptions Are Fitter Perceptions

    He should consider that truer perceptions are more likely to be beneficial in a wide variety of circumstances, whereas false perceptions that increase fitness in one set of circumstances may decrease it in others.

  21. Kevin
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Science has no boundaries. People who want it constrained need to retire their fearful ideas.

    Our attempts to understand free will have really only begun. Dualism has been invalidated by science, long ago, in my view. But scientific morsels are abundant in the field of free-will-science: how we are programmed genetically and the socio-economic repercussions of being able to predict actions of individuals and societies with greater accuracy will have many future scientists thinking for a long time about these interesting problems. Not to mention how physicists will, hopefully, put quantitative constraints on what it means to predict the outcomes of complex events which are tied to deterministic actions.

  22. Posted January 15, 2014 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    You nailed it, Jerry. Hole in one.

    b&

  23. JohnJay
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    This reminds me a lot of Twain’s essay “What is Man?”, a discussion between a young man and an old man:

    O.M. Yes. Man the machine–man the impersonal engine. Whatsoever a man is, is due to his MAKE, and to the INFLUENCES brought to bear upon it by his heredities, his habitat, his associations. He is moved, directed, COMMANDED, by EXTERIOR influences–SOLELY. He ORIGINATES nothing, not even a thought.

    Y.M. Oh, come! Where did I get my opinion that this which you are talking is all foolishness?

    O.M. It is a quite natural opinion–indeed an inevitable opinion–but YOU did not create the materials out of which it is formed. They are odds and ends of thoughts, impressions, feelings, gathered unconsciously from a thousand books, a thousand conversations, and from streams of thought and feeling which have flowed down into your heart and brain out of the hearts and brains of centuries of ancestors. PERSONALLY you did not create even the smallest microscopic fragment of the materials out of which your opinion is made; and personally you cannot claim even the slender merit of PUTTING THE BORROWED MATERIALS TOGETHER. That was done AUTOMATICALLY–by your mental machinery, in strict accordance with the law of that machinery’s construction. And you not only did not make that machinery yourself, but you have NOT EVEN ANY COMMAND OVER IT.

    • Posted January 15, 2014 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      Dude was brilliant.

      …and people like to suggest that “New Atheism” was a response to 9/11, and nothing like it ever existed before….

      b&

    • Kevin
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      ‘Putting borrowed materials together’. Well said. We are made from the stuff of stars…what did they care of us? Not at all.

    • natalielaberlinoise
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for that nice quote! Found it online, bedtime reading sorted. Cheers, n.

  24. Mehul Shah
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Jerry,

    This is fascinating.

    I have always wondered how something that is unknown becomes known in a deterministic system. What is the role of insight ?

    For example, how did Newton come to his insight about gravitation, or Darwin about evolution ? Was it just a synthesis of lots of prior information – and is that process of synthesis also just another part of this deterministic system ?

    /mehul

    • Steve Gerrard
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

      Yes. Isn’t the brain wonderful?

  25. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Douglas Rushkoff
    The Atheism Prerequisite

    … By starting with Godlessness as a foundational principle of scientific reasoning, we make ourselves unnecessarily resistant to the novelty of human consciousness, its potential continuity over time, and the possibility that it has purpose…

    1) Fails to supply any evidence that this may be true.
    2) Fails to explain how theism would provide better answers.
    Not impressed.

  26. Lianne Byram
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Great post Jerry. I don’t think we can accurately predict the ramifications of a widespread acceptance of determinism and materialism. I suspect that there would be far-reaching changes to the social, economic and political landscapes. For good or ill I would prefer to accept reality as it is and let the chips fall where they may.
    I enjoyed Frank Wilczek’s response to the Edge Question on a related topic – “(Mind does not equal Matter): The End of an Illusion”. I think that the understanding our true nature as “mind/matter” as Professor Wilczek puts it, is one of the most exciting discoveries of all time. I don’t fear the consequences of said knowledge – bring it on!

  27. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Accepting incompatibilism also dissolves the notion of moral responsibility. Yes, we are responsible for our actions, but only in the sense that they are committed by an identifiable individual. But if you can’t really choose to be good or bad—to punch someone or save a drowning child—what do we mean by moral responsibility? Some may argue that getting rid of that idea also jettisons an important social good. I claim the opposite: by rejecting moral responsibility, we are free to judge actions not by some dictate, divine or otherwise, but by their consequences: what is good or bad for society.

    This is the big one. It will require a praradigm shift that won’t happen overnight.

    Morality is a vague and relative term that doesn’t really make much sense on the societal level. How do you define morality as a whole seen from the viewpoint of what basically constitutes a corporation?
    Morality differs from person to person regardless of societal norms and objectively it’s a pretty shitty arbiter of justice.

    That said, I think you’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater here.

    Morality and ehtics can be based on very real and reasonable observations and assessments that are based on prior experiences and desired outcomes.

    You can make case-to-case decisions with a bit of applied statistics and build your morals around some very simple ideas.

    For example: Apply the golden rule on a personal level and work towards diminishing suffering on the societal level.

    In other words, secular morality is very real as opposed to free will and many, many, people live by what could be described as secular morals even though they also believe in a deity.

  28. TJR
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Agree entirely that the term “free will” should be retired, because as illustrated in many threads here, the different ways in which people define the term just lead to long arguments among people who don’t in fact disagree about anything substantive.

    • Richard Wein
      Posted January 16, 2014 at 7:06 am | Permalink

      I agree. Wittgenstein famously said that philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intellect by our language. And there’s a lot of bewitchment over the term “free will”, especially on the part of compatibilists.

      The trouble is that the term “free will” doesn’t have much use in ordinary language, so we have little basis for assigning it any meaning. That leaves compatibilists free to make up any meaning they like, but there is no value in their doing so, except that it lets them fool themselves into thinking they have established something meaningful.

      That said, one ordinary use of the term “free will” is in such statements as “the hostage acted of his own free will”, meaning he wasn’t coerced. But philosophers take the term out of this sort of (marginally) useful context, and use it in contexts where it no longer has any such meaning. It makes no sense for the compatibilist to define “free will” to mean “not coerced” because then his assertion that we have free will amounts to no more than the assertion that we can act without coercion. But that’s obvious and uninteresting. Why bother saying it? It’s clear that the compatibilist only bothers saying it because at some level he feels he is establishing some more significant result than this. And the feeling that he’s succeeded in establishing that more significant result arises from conflating the two senses.

  29. Robert Seidel
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    No geology in the edge questions. Indeed, no geologist, if I saw right. I feel discriminated.

  30. Kurt Helf
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    I thought giving Alan Alda a chance at answering the question was odd. I like Alan Alda very much as an actor and the host of various science shows on PBS but I wouldn’t consider him a public intellectual. I don’t really care what he thinks about this question. I know, I don’t have to read his answer but I thought the space he took up could’ve been much better utilized.

    • gbjames
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      You should make sure that John Brockman clears his choices with you in the future.

      • Kurt Helf
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

        What? I’m not allowed to make a comment about the odd choice of including Alan Alda among a rather august crowd regarding a scientific question? Perhaps I should’ve checked with you first.

        • gbjames
          Posted January 16, 2014 at 5:29 am | Permalink

          I do believe you are so allowed. As are others allowed to respond similarly.

          The point is selection criteria are set by John Brockman. While you are welcome to your evaluation of Alan Alda as a contributor, he is more than just an actor and TV show host. Your information is probably not as well-rounded as Brockman’s and wisdom would suggest that it would be better to read his contribution before deciding it is unworthy of Edge.

          • TJR
            Posted January 16, 2014 at 7:45 am | Permalink

            Just read the Alan Alda piece and its pretty good. Indeed he is saying something related to what Richard Dawkins says in his. If I’d written something there it would have been in very much the same vein, say “binary thinking”.

  31. Posted January 15, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    I noticed this one–

    Athena Vouloumanos
    Natural Selection is the Only Engine of Evolution

    It’s epigenetics and that mouse + stress study again (ala Rudolph Tanzi), single-handedly rewriting evolutionary theory to include Lamarckianism.

    Is there any other major, well established scientific theory that people are so eager to turf out on the strength of a few “maybe’s” and “perhapses”?

    And describing natural selection as an “engine” seems a bit weak. Surely “engine” would be the better word for mutation rather than selection? That quibble makes me wonder how clearly the author of the piece understands evolutionary theory.

  32. Posted January 15, 2014 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    It probably does not make sense to go through all the discussion about how free will is not a synonym for supernatural processes, how self is not a synonym for soul, how a sentence like ‘we have no agency because our neurons decide for us’ only makes sense if one is a stealth dualist who considers themselves distinct from one’s own neurons etc, because it only ever goes round and round.

    So instead I wonder why you answered the question what scientific idea needs to go by nominating a philosophical idea; that seems odd. Are there not enough scientific ideas to chose from? For example, I might nominate panbiogeography, in particular its dogma that long distance dispersal is impossible.

  33. Matthew Kosak
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    This is incorrect on so many points I’m not sure where to even start. It’s surprising that this position is accepted without much contention. If it’s considered in the realm of a scientific hypothesis it should be testable and it should have proof or evidence to back it up that’s a little better than what’s given here. Let’s take the purported real world examples or implications of this theory, that choosing a flavor of ice cream is somehow “not a choice.” If it wasn’t a choice, then you are claiming this is a pre-determined outcome, since no other flavor was a possibility. But, we have no idea what physics to identify that made this outcome 100% certain!

    The other example, of MRI studies: which are the basis presumably to claim that something else is controlling the brain and not the brain itself, which is unfounded (what other brain is controlling the brain? Are we to infer that they can predict that someone will reflexively grab an apple, before the apple falls? It takes a single brain study out of context to support the contention that every action we make is controlled by genes and envirtonment. What genes are pulling the strings to make one walk across the road? Genes don’t operate that quickly. The claim that it isn’t pre-determinism is going to automatically disqualify it as a scientific theory of any sort, since it, determinism in fact never makes a prediction that can be tested. Grab your life vests, the SS Determinist is going down.

    • Posted January 15, 2014 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

      First of all, your answer is rude to the host, so lay off the snark.

      Second of all, your “arguments” hold no water. The science behind the lack of conscious decisions include not only the predictability of MRI studies, which gets better and better (and farther and farther in advance) as technology improves. Plus there is all the evidence that we have in favor of determinism in science. Further, there are all the experiments, detailed in Wegner’s book, where you can delude people into thinking they’re consciously controlling a cursor when they’re not, and similar experiments, as well as the confabulations in which brain manipulations cause involuntary motions that people later pretend they intended. Plus all the psychological experiments in which you can manipulate people’s behavior in profound ways by trivial changes in their environment–ways that they would argue they could never have been manipulated. Plus all the times, and we’ve seen it ourselves, when we come up with a name or answer when we haven’t been thinking about it: our brain has been doing that manipulation unconsciously. Isn’t that enough science for you?

      Right now we can predict right versus left choices with crude brain scanning at about 65% accuracy, well before people claim they’ve made the choice. Just think how much better we could do if we had better ways to monitor the brain.

      Your second paragraph is so hard to parse that I’m not going to,but it certanly doesn’t show that you have a firm grasp of the issues. Determinism certainly does make predictions that can be tested, as with the Libet experiments and their successors in which the prediction (fulfilled) is that we can predict with statistically significant results which way someone will decide before they’re conscious of deciding it.

      You sound like some kind of ghost-in-the-machine libertarian, since you reject determinism. Regardless, your answer is not only uninformed but rude, and is not in the least convincing to me. And as for the last sentence, you should simply apologize. Or go to some other website where you can be incoherent and snarky without penalty.

      Your main mistake is saying that because we can’t yet predict human behavior completely, it is inherently unpredictable. Of course that would hold for all of physics a couple of hundred years ago.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

        Your brain is processing stuff all the time and not letting us know about it. I heard an interview with Piers Howe of Melbourne University this evening where he discussed his study on the sixth sense. I looked up his study on PlosOne. He basically proves that there is no such thing as a sixth sense because our brains are just processing information without us knowing it (of course many lay people reject his evidence).

        It’s not hard to understand that we are just as unaware of choices (I know this is by no means direct evidence of that but it shows how the brain works) and post hoc believe we made a choice just as we post hoc believe we have a sixth sense.

      • Posted January 15, 2014 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

        You were far more charitable than I would’ve been with that response. Incoherent is right. All Mr. Kosak has established with that comment is to make it clear that he didn’t understand your post. And Mr. Kosak, where you say things like “presumably,” and “are we to infer…” what you are presuming or inferring is wrong. No, that is not what he meant. You’ve misunderstood everything.

  34. Peter
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    I found the response by Hillis quite interesting (Cause and Effect) especially in response to Jerry’s response above. This part in particular:

    “The notion of cause-and-effect breaks down when the parts that we would like to think of as outputs affect the parts that we would prefer to think of as inputs. The paradoxes of quantum mechanics are a perfect example of this, where our mere observation of a particle can “cause” a distant particle to be in a different state. Of course there is no real paradox here, there is just a problem with trying to apply our storytelling framework to a situation where it does not match.”
    http://www.edge.org/response-detail/25435

    I think that quantum mechanics definitely rules out logical determinism. Also true randomness (eg radioactive decay) definitely plays a part in ensuring that it is possible for two different outcomes if we could rewind the tape of time.

    • natalielaberlinoise
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

      Reply to you came out as next comment 35.

    • paxton
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

      “The notion of cause-and-effect breaks down when the parts that we would like to think of as outputs affect the parts that we would prefer to think of as inputs.”

      This is what is called feedback and is fundamental to systems theory. It doesn’t eliminate cause and effect, but it makes the relationship much more complex.

    • Darkwhite
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

      The problem is mostly the fact that you cannot ‘merely observe’ something in quantum physics. Take in on Dirac’s authority, rather than mine:

      —A measurement always causes the system to jump into an eigenstate of the dynamical variable that is being measured—

      Which means that whenever you are ‘merely observing’ something, you are simultaneously violently forcing it into a new state and generally exchanging energy with the quantum system. This is why ‘merely observing’ have effects beyond the ‘mere observation’ – it is not like watching something from afar through a telescopic lens, but like walking up and administering a grope test. If people realized this, quantum physics wouldn’t seem as mysterious.

  35. natalielaberlinoise
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    “… I think that quantum mechanics definitely rules out logical determinism. …”

    Am not sure if I read your comment correctly, so I must ask: are you arguing that there is a loophole for human volition in there? Sorry if I misconstrued.

    • Peter
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

      Quantum mechanics brings in random events due to quantum indeterminacy. Entanglement seems to bring in another way of modifying causality (mentioned in the Hillis quote above) that is not your traditional tree based version of causality (with the start of the trunk being the Big Bang). I’m not stating that traditional free will exists, however, I’m stating that there can be two different outcomes from the exact same conditions due to randomness resulting from quantum mechanics (random particle decay).

      • Posted January 15, 2014 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

        You can state that there can be two different outcomes from the same conditions in quantum mechanics, but you CANNOT state that this will result in two different choices of behavior at the same decision point with all else equal. We don’t know if quantum mechanics plays out that way in human behavior, and if you’re honest you have to admit that.

        And even if that were true, it has nothing to do with “will,” since our “will” can’t make a quantum particle do one thing rather than another.

        • Peter
          Posted January 15, 2014 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

          Your points sound reasonable to me. My main point is that the future is not exactly determined due to quantum indeterminacy – that is logical determinism can’t be correct. I think that QM has shaken up a few determinists due to the wacky things that QM results in, eg entanglement as mentioned by Hillis in my original quote.

          I do think that random decay of atoms in the brain is interesting. Could it make a difference to how we act? We don’t really know yet do we? This however doesn’t give free will a foot hold.

          I do find magnetoreception in animals interesting in terms of QM. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_biology

  36. moarscienceplz
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    “Our thoughts and actions are the outputs of a computer made of meat—our brain—a computer that must obey the laws of physics.”

    I agree with materialism and determinism, but I think there are a couple of issues that tend to make this argument hard to accept:

    First, a brain is not A computer but rather it is more like a network of millions or billions of ‘nano-computers’, each one processing different sets of inputs and then struggling to get its outputs recognized by others in the network. This explains why a person could ‘decide’ that he really wants to quit smoking and yet be surprised to find a lit cigarette in his hand, which he might rationalize as a choice his ‘self’ made, thus ‘proving’ that his brain is not robotically picking the most logical choice and thus is “demonstrating free will”.

    The second is that we tend to downplay the importance of time when we make decisions that we repeat. If my last ice cream cone was strawberry, and the one before that was rocky road, and the one before that was peach, it SEEMS as if I am performing the exact same operation and coming to different conclusions, but in fact each instance is performed under different initial conditions, including the possibility that I remember what I chose the previous times.

  37. Vaal
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    Prof. Coyne,

    I don’t wish to re-hash arguments for compatibilism here. But I find myself very open to what seems to be your main contention, in terms of the consequence you see of rejecting free will: the problem of moral responsibility, or moral “blame.”

    I still have the same problems with dismissing free will as incompatible with determinism, and contest the way incompatibilists tend to think of “could have done otherwise.”

    Free Will still makes sense to me given determinism. As does morality. And I can also, I think, make a case for terms like “morally responsible.”

    BUT…I find it more of an open question as to the question of moral responsibility…in the sense I think you and others want to discount. That is, the notion of someone being “morally blameworthy” or “deserving of blame” for his actions. Though I haven’t figured it all out, I believe I can see how
    we could still have ‘morality’ without the specific sense of ‘moral blameworthiness’ some want to do without. (The “morally responsibility” I mentioned earlier, could possibly mean a slightly different sense than the one you want to do away with).

    That is why I’m interested to read Bruce Waller’s book, to see if he can make sense of this to me.

    Thanks,

    Vaal

    • pacopicopiedra
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

      Oh sure, just act like you didn’t even see it (comment 19). Take the high road and all that…scaredy cat!

    • Posted January 16, 2014 at 4:21 am | Permalink

      Hi, The problem is that there are a gazillion forms of compatibilism, all different. Are they ALL right, or only one?

      And none of them make sense to me, because our actions are still determined.

      Do read the Waller book and let me know what you think. He is a compatibilist with–surprise!–yet ANOTHER way to reconcile determinism and free will, but it’s a very lame form of compatibilism.

      His argument for lack of moral responsibility is much better, although it is repetitive, probably because he anticipated a lot of pushback. Note, though, that Waller still maintains we can have responsibility AND morality, just not moral responsibility. I think it’s a good and important book, though I wish he’d gone further into the changes we need to make in light of his views.

      But he does mention some, one of them being that we need structural changes in society that give rise to bad behavior, not just the locking up of criminals for long periods.

      Anyway, I do recommend the book highly.

      • Diane G.
        Posted January 16, 2014 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

        “Note, though, that Waller still maintains we can have responsibility AND morality, just not moral responsibility. ”

        That is helpfully clarifying.

      • Diane G.
        Posted January 16, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

        And because there’s no room left under your subsequent comment about Waller:

        “You need to read Waller’s book, for he takes on your premise that “ought” is dead under determinism. In his view, you are wrong.””

        I’m liking this guy more & more.

  38. strongforce
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    Frank Wilczek is of similar mind.

    http://www.edge.org/response-detail/25285

  39. Jimbo
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    I get the free will argument but someone please explain “deterrence” and “rehabilitation” to me. Example: Bob is a habitual shoplifter who has no choice but to steal in this way. How could introducing Bob to the shopkeeper from whom he stole (and thereby change Bob’s actions through empathy) rehabilitate him? Before, he had no choice, his brain was wired to steal. How did he “choose otherwise” based on new information? How would seeing another shoplifter publicly flogged deter him in the future? Again, he has no choice.

    • Steve Gerrard
      Posted January 15, 2014 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

      Easy.

      Before witnessing the flogging, Bob weighed the pros and cons of shoplifting, and ineluctably came to the conclusion that he should do it.

      After witnessing the flogging, Bob weighed the pros and cons of shoplifting, and equally ineluctably came to the conclusion that he should not.

      Add additional input data, and the computed result changes.

      • Posted January 16, 2014 at 11:25 am | Permalink

        Why doesn’t taking in new information and recomputing the costs and benefits of a behavior count as Bob exercising his free will?

        What else would compatilibilist free will consist of?

  40. Posted January 16, 2014 at 1:39 am | Permalink

    I have to repeat my earlier assertion that I feel that the Free Will argument will be stalled for many years to come upon the fact that both sides of the argument amount to Social Constructions, in absence of any coherent theory of the human brain. We may even find, in generations to come, that Free Will was, after all, a temporary understanding, like theological assertions of the past such as ‘sin’ and ‘grace’. The contention, for and against, will fade with time as the workings of the brain are better known.
    But to a greater point. Did anybody read through some of the contributions to the Edge Question? Apart from JAC’s contribution, I found many of them disappointingly bad. And some were downright terrible! The comparison of the computer and the brain was rich in misunderstanding; the attacks upon the Planck observation upon scientific theory moving along upon the death of its opponents, was, itself, feebly argued upon dodgy precepts. I would give the work of the contributors 29%, and register that, clearly, asking experts is no better than asking schoolchildren.
    It is possible that we live in an age of information-blockage. I think that if Darwin were to present his work to publishers today, he would be repeatedly rejected, and his ideas marginalised. The overwhelming hold that religion had upon the brightest minds a century and a half ago are still with us today. The dire work of the Discovery Institute where semi-religious ideas are forced upon the public by way of pseudoscience, is the model for all academic work outside the sciences. Once the enemy to science was only religion, and now it is the Social Sciences that have taken large parts of academia with a mass of provably false understandings.
    The problem is this, when a new idea comes along, it must be supported with evidence, or is is readily misunderstood and therefore dismissed. That is because the truths of the world still to be discovered are feeble compared to the mighty power of the cults and ideologies maintained by academics. My own baby is Human Sub-Set Theory, which, as you know, runs to 2200 pages of evidence. Because of the many diagrams and photos, it is unstably large, cannot be easily shared. And yet it explains so much about human belief and behaviour; yes even religion and the social sciences. Complex theories cannot be reduced to a few paragraphs. Imagine a taxi-driver asking, ‘Well, Darwin, what’s it all about?” On being told that we descended from an early kind of ape, he would snort, “Well, I don’t believe that!” In the same way I cannot précis Human Sub-Set Theory in any simple way without getting the taxi-driver response. But what if, please gods, I am right? What if the major problems of understanding humanity have already been solved, but nobody cares to look into it?

    • natalielaberlinoise
      Posted January 16, 2014 at 4:26 am | Permalink

      Reply to you posted as comment 41. (This keeps happening to me although I think I clicked on the reply button. Odd…)

    • Posted January 16, 2014 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      “My own baby is Human Sub-Set Theory, which, as you know, runs to 2200 pages of evidence.”

      So where is it? I’d like to see the evidence. Can you post a link?

  41. natalielaberlinoise
    Posted January 16, 2014 at 4:23 am | Permalink

    “… It is possible that we live in an age of information-blockage. …”

    Nowadays, anyone with access to a computer and a little bit of time on their hands has the opportunity to put their ideas into the www, readily available to all of humanity online. I’d say, it’s easier than ever to share ideas.

    “… But what if, please gods, I am right? What if the major problems of understanding humanity have already been solved, but nobody cares to look into it?”

    I sympathise with your worry as I am thinking of a different field that is, to my opinion, not receiving enough critical attention.

    If you have come up with thoughts/ ideas that you believe are relevant to mankind, then it is YOUR task to work on those thoughts and make them available to others. Rework your explanations constantly, using others’ criticism, to make them increasingly shorter and precise. If you don’t do that, there is no chance of anyone else ever “getting it”.

    You may spend a lifetime working on something, only to find out at some point that “oh, I was mistaken. I barked up the wrong tree”. There is no shame in that and I don’t even think it’s a life waisted.

    Or you might do very important work which will only be grasped in its significance when you’re dead – an incertitude that is part of our life conditions.

  42. Andrew Platt
    Posted January 16, 2014 at 5:46 am | Permalink

    “…my choices are in principle predictable by the laws of physics, excepting any quantum indeterminacy that acts in my neurons.”

    That is a pretty large exception, given that it is quantum indeterminacy that rescues free will in the opinion of many.

    A recent science programme on television dealt with the topic of multiple universes, a concept much loved by science fiction but now considered science fact by most physicists. The essay by Seth Lloyd touches on this. The programme actually made the point that a quantum fluctuation in Hitler’s brain at a critical moment could have led to him making a different decision, resulting in Germany winning the Second World War.

    Expanding on this, we are told that in alternative universes Germany did indeed win. We are told that every time we make a decision – tea or coffee, left or right – the universe splits itself in two and both alternatives are played out.

    If determinism is correct and everything from the Big Bang onwards works with clockwork predictability then there are no decision points at which the universe could split and we are back to having only one universe. That may be how reality is but most physicists appear to believe otherwise – unless the ones that make TV programmes are simply a noisy minority. This appears to contradict claims that “virtually all scientists” accept determinism and reject the notion of free will.

    Determinism relies on cause and effect. The essay by W. Daniel Hillis gives a physicist’s perspective on this. He believes it falls apart not just at the quantum level but also in complex dynamical systems, his example being “the biochemical pathways of a living organism”.

    Where does this leave free will? Very much alive and well if Hillis is correct. He may not be, of course, but it is clear that there are plenty of eminent scientists who take this view. Anyone who states with certainty that free will does not exist can therefore only be expressing a personal opinion, not a scientifically accepted fact nor an inescapable conclusion.

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted January 16, 2014 at 5:55 am | Permalink

      What is your definition of free will and how does indeterminacy at the quantum level add to your control of your free will?

      If the multiverse hypothesis is true then there is an infinte number of universes where free will is absent, unless you claim free will to be the only constant.

      How do you know that we’re not inhabiting a universe where free will is an illusion?

      • Andrew Platt
        Posted January 16, 2014 at 8:56 am | Permalink

        By free will I mean I could have done otherwise in a given situation. Faced with a choice between turning left or right, if I have free will then no-one can predict with complete certainty which way I will turn even if they are given the value of all the variables involved and a full understanding of the laws of physics.

        It is a somewhat leading question to ask about “my control of free will”, as it implies a ghost in the machine. What is meant by “me” in this context?

        My brain makes decisions and also generates a sense of self, which is almost certainly an illusion. These are two separate functions. Even if there is a connection between them, which there may well be, it is not relevant to the issue of free will. All that matters is whether the decision making process is deterministic, not whether my sense of self has any influence on that process.

        I mentioned multiverses because, if I understand correctly, they are created each time two or more possibilities exist; for example if I have to decide whether to turn right or left, or if a photon has to “decide” which of two slits to pass through. In a deterministic universe there are no such branching points so only one universe would exist.

        This contradicts current theories in physics and demonstrates that there are many scientists – particularly in the realm of physics – that presumably would not subscribe to Professor Coyne’s views on free will. W. Daniel Hillis’s essay eloquently puts paid to cause and effect, so essential for determinism, and is a much better way of expressing what I pointed out some time ago: that on no scale is Newtonian physics correct, it is only ever at best a very good approximation.

        I cannot be sure we are not living in a universe where free will is an illusion. My main point is that no-one really knows, so there is no reason to be dogmatic.

        I do know we are not living in a deterministic universe, however, and once that is accepted I can see no reason for thinking free will is an illusion.

        • gbjames
          Posted January 16, 2014 at 9:14 am | Permalink

          “I do know we are not living in a deterministic universe”

          How do you know that?

          • Andrew Platt
            Posted January 16, 2014 at 11:07 am | Permalink

            Because quantum mechanics is just as true as evolution.

            • Jesper Both Pedersen
              Posted January 16, 2014 at 11:17 am | Permalink

              Alright, I’m sorry to but in here, but how the deuce do you conclude that quantum mechanics invalidates evolution?

              It seems to me you are doing the exact same thing as believers when pressed about the whereabouts of there god.

              Indeterminacy on the quantum level does not suddenly mean that there’s no causality and that our universe is indeterminant.

              Newtonian physics are not disqualified simply because we cannot as of yet ( if ever ) tie it together with quantum mechanics.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted January 16, 2014 at 11:23 am | Permalink

                *their, not there….:-)

              • Andrew Platt
                Posted January 17, 2014 at 3:29 am | Permalink

                Evolution? I thought we were arguing about free will?

                Quantum mechanics does NOT invalidate evolution. Why would anyone think it might?

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted January 17, 2014 at 4:01 am | Permalink

                This is a bit silly, Andrew. You brought up evolution and compared it to QM as if that somehow supports your claims of indeterminacy and I responded.

                I take it you’re still under the impression that we inhabit an indeterministic universe and thus your free will exists.

                I’ll leave you to it and call this one a day.

                Happy trails, mate.:-)

            • gbjames
              Posted January 16, 2014 at 11:36 am | Permalink

              Well, Andrew Platt, I think you’ve demonstrated that you understand neither Evolution nor Quantum Mechanics.

              • Andrew Platt
                Posted January 17, 2014 at 3:30 am | Permalink

                No-one understands quantum mechanics! 😉

        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted January 16, 2014 at 9:42 am | Permalink

          I mentioned multiverses because, if I understand correctly, they are created each time two or more possibilities exist; for example if I have to decide whether to turn right or left, or if a photon has to “decide” which of two slits to pass through. In a deterministic universe there are no such branching points so only one universe would exist.

          This contradicts current theories in physics and demonstrates that there are many scientists – particularly in the realm of physics – that presumably would not subscribe to Professor Coyne’s views on free will. W. Daniel Hillis’s essay eloquently puts paid to cause and effect, so essential for determinism, and is a much better way of expressing what I pointed out some time ago: that on no scale is Newtonian physics correct, it is only ever at best a very good approximation.

          It completely depends on what model of a multiverse you choose to work with, but if you try to hide free will in a double-slit experiment and in the wave-particle duality, then I’m forced to ask you how this constitutes the basis for free will and how it demonstrates the proposed indeterminacy of our universe?

          In other words: What experiment could show that you, given the exact same conditions would make a different choice?

          A real experiment, not a philosophical argument.

          • Andrew Platt
            Posted January 16, 2014 at 11:15 am | Permalink

            There is no real experiment that could be done to demonstrate I have free will but neither is there an experiment that could be done to demonstrate that I don’t have it. Unless you can suggest one.

            Just who is the onus on?

            The argument against free will as stated here relies on cause and effect and determinism. Einstein may have been unable to accept that God plays dice but the rest of the physics community accepted it decades ago.

            • Jesper Both Pedersen
              Posted January 16, 2014 at 11:22 am | Permalink

              The onus is on those making the positive claim just as is usually the case.

              You claim free will exists yet you cannot demonstrate it simply because the outcome is what it is. There’s no way (as of yet;-) to actually test your claim and until such an experiment can be devised I see no reason to accept the notion of free will.

              Free from what, and will over what?

              • Andrew Platt
                Posted January 16, 2014 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

                Nice try, but both sides are making positive claims depending on which way round the question is phrased.

                Neither side can provide experimental evidence for their position and that which cannot be tested falls outside the remit of science.

                Where a theory relies on something which has been disproved, that is usually considered fatal to the theory. Determinism is not true – unless generations of quantum physicists have been wasting their time.

                There may be other reasons why free will does not exist which is why I hesitate to be dogmatic. We just don’t know enough about the brain.

                Free from what? Well, free from determinism. I can decide whether to throw a brick through a window and I believe no-one can predict with 100% certainty whether I will throw it or not. Once thrown, the trajectory of the brick can be predicted with 100% certainty. Newton’s laws of motion, which are an approximation, are good enough for bricks but may not be good enough for neurons in the brain.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted January 16, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

                Well, there’s experiments indicating that what you call choice is actually your brain making decisions for you that you never contemplated in your mind.

                Take a look at the link gbjames gave you a few comments back.

                Where a theory relies on something which has been disproved, that is usually considered fatal to the theory. Determinism is not true – unless generations of quantum physicists have been wasting their time.

                Rubbish. Quantum physicists are not under the impression that quantum physics absolves cause and effect on different scales.

                In fact we don’t yet know that quantum events are uncaused and random. They could just as well be caused by an underlying determining mechanism that we have yet to discover.

                Making a choice is not invalidated because there is no free will.

                No free will is simply recognising that our choices are constrained by several factors that are beyond our control.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted January 16, 2014 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

                *dissolves cause and effect, not absolves. Stupid english. 🙂

              • gbjames
                Posted January 16, 2014 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

                “Neither side can provide experimental evidence for their position and that which cannot be tested falls outside the remit of science.”

                Simply re-asserting this over and over does not make it true.

            • gbjames
              Posted January 16, 2014 at 11:35 am | Permalink

              Experimental tests of free will have been done.

              Let’s not wander down the rabbit hole of what a “real” experiment is and why it can’t be done.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted January 16, 2014 at 11:40 am | Permalink

                That’s the trouble with free will. You have to suit every experiment to the particular individual and dispel it one mind at a time because there are as many definitions as there are free will’s.

                Screw it, I’m having a smoke and a cup of joe’s and letting this one go.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 16, 2014 at 11:42 am | Permalink

                Dude. Quit smoking.

                (Just doing my bit to add minor environmental influence to your world. 😉 )

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted January 16, 2014 at 11:53 am | Permalink

                Hehe, thanks, but for the time being I’m enjoying it too much I’m afraid.

                Hopefully it’s just a phase. 😉

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted January 16, 2014 at 11:55 am | Permalink

          no-one can predict with complete certainty which way I will turn even if they are given the value of all the variables involved and a full understanding of the laws of physics.

          I think you’re conflating predictability with determinism. Just because something cannot currently be predicted, does not rule out determinism. If you look at the fMRI experiments Jerry references in this post, those results show that decisions can indeed be predicted.

          Also, I think you are thinking of multi-world theory not multi-verses. Those are two different things.

          • Andrew Platt
            Posted January 16, 2014 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

            I am not familiar with the details of the experiments Professor Coyne refers to, but judging by the summary I have read here they demonstrate nothing about free will. Maybe something important has been lost in the summary.

            A delay is to be expected between one part of the brain making a decision and that decision being communicated to the part which consciously registers it. It is therefore no surprise that an external observer monitoring this process in a scanner will be aware of the decision before the decision-maker themselves is aware of it.

            Determinism has nothing to do with mankind’s ability to predict. It is fundamental. Quantum mechanics tells us that the universe is indeterminate. Please read W. Daniel Hillis’s essay and tell me either a) why you disagree with him, or b) how a universe in which cause and effect are an illusion can be deterministic.

            • gbjames
              Posted January 16, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

              “I am not familiar with the details of the experiments Professor Coyne refers to”

              Then it would be sensible not to assert that such experiments are impossible.

              • Andrew Platt
                Posted January 17, 2014 at 3:47 am | Permalink

                What is the matter with people here? First I’m accused of saying quantum mechanics invalidates evolution when I said no such thing, and now I’m accused of saying an experiment is impossible, which I did not say.

                I said the experiment appeared to say nothing about free will. It is becoming clear to me now that the free will many are talking about here is very different to the free will I am talking about. I can see the experiment demonstrates that decisions are taken outside what we might refer to as “the mind” but to me that does not invalidate free will if the decision is not deterministic, because in that case a different decision could have been taken.

                If a condition for free will is that the decision must be taken inside the conscious mind then I might even agree that free will does not exist. But who cares where in the brain the decision is made as long as it could have been made differently? Every human on the planet that isn’t me simply sees someone choosing tea rather than coffee, and if I could have chosen coffee instead in the exact same situation that is enough for me to say free will is in action.

                Perhaps there is no dispute after all.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 17, 2014 at 5:34 am | Permalink

                Actually, I think what you said was that quantum mechanics invalidates determinism. I’ not sure why you introduced evolution into that question.

                You said:

                “There is no real experiment that could be done to demonstrate I have free will but neither is there an experiment that could be done to demonstrate that I don’t have it. “

                Which I read as a pretty strong assertion that relevant experiments not only have not been done nor have a possibility to be done.

                So I’m not sure what is the matter with people here except that they respond to what others write.

            • Jesper Both Pedersen
              Posted January 16, 2014 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

              Quantum mechanics tells us that the universe is indeterminate….

              For the last time, no.

              It tells us that quantum events may be random, but it has nothing to do with cause and effect/determinism and we do not have observations or measurements indicating that quantum mechanics is where the buck stops, so to speak.

              That is simply speculation on your part.

              • Posted January 16, 2014 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

                In fact it is proven science that there is no deterministic reality underlying quantum mechanics. This is proven by experimental verification of Bell’s inequalities.

                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell_test_experiments

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted January 16, 2014 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

                My bad. Determinism above the quantum level to be precise.

                Bell’s expirement does not indicate or dissolve cause and effect and determinism on bigger scales afaik. For example we still don’t know what role gravity plays at those scales, again if any, but we do not doubt that gravity is a very real force in classical physics. Quantum Mechanics does not dissolve gravity, just like quantum events does not dissolve cause and effect on bigger scales.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted January 16, 2014 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

              I am not familiar with the details of the experiments Professor Coyne refers to

              You need to familiarize yourself with them. The experiment does not show a delay between someone thinking something and then someone doing something; it shows that someone does something before he thinks it. The experiments have become sophisticated enough (even though they are still very unsophisticated as Jerry points out) that the experimenters can predict what the person is going to do before they think it.

              No one said cause and effect is an illusion. Again, you have misunderstood these experiments. The illusion is that you have made the conscious choice when in actuality the choice was made without you knowing it.

              • Andrew Platt
                Posted January 17, 2014 at 4:08 am | Permalink

                Please see my post above that answers the points about the experiment. I agree they show free will does not exist if free will is restricted to decisions taken in the conscious mind but that is not the definition is am working with.

                To correct you, someone did say cause and effect is an illusion. The last sentence of the essay I referred you to by, by W. Daniel Hillis, is: “We will come to appreciate that causes and effects do not exist in nature, that they are just convenient creations of our own minds.”

                Let me be clear what I am arguing against. Some seem to believe the universe is deterministic: that an unbroken chain of cause and effect stretches from the Big Bang through the present to the end of time; our brains, being part of the universe, are part of that chain and therefore it was inevitable once the Big Bang occurred that I would type these words now.

                Everything I have been taught tells me that is wrong. The universe is full of events that happen without a cause and which therefore are fundamentally immune to prediction. The Big Bang did not make my existence inevitable, nor mankind’s, nor the earth’s, nor the milky way’s. If such events occur in the brain – and Hillis believes they do as he specifically mentions the mind and biochemical pathways in living organisms – then nothing is predetermined and “we” can make our decisions as we go along. To me this is free will.

                Those that demand a role for the conscious mind in free will are right to declare it does not exist, but as long as the decisions coming out of the meat computer are not predetermined by prior events then who cares where the decisions are taken? The key point I have picked up on in discussions here is the belief that decisions are a consequence of prior events through a chain of cause and effect and could, in principle if not in practice, be predicted. That is what I reject.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 17, 2014 at 6:29 am | Permalink

                I just don’t buy the cause and effect are illusions that W. Daniel Hillis talks about in his essay. First, it appears that he takes the quantum world and then tries to fit the very different laws of that world on the classical world. The examples he gives of economics and so forth do not illustrate that there is no cause and effect, just that the systems themselves are complex and that cause and effect are therefore difficult to map.

                I see no evidence that cause and effect is an illusion in the classical world since the laws of physics predict cause and effect quite nicely (though complex systems are difficult to predict). The quantum world runs differently and uses quantum mechanics to predict how things work there. That is a different story altogether.

              • Andrew Platt
                Posted January 17, 2014 at 9:52 am | Permalink

                But Diana, the classical world of which you speak does not exist. It is a convenient approximation that works well enough for us to build bridges or put a man on the moon. That’s all.

                Set that aside though. Even if we only accept the indeterminacy of the quantum world, who here knows for sure whether quantum processes are a significant part of processing in the brain? If they are then the chain of cause and effect is broken in our brains and we become free to “choose” – by which I mean, free to compute a decision influenced but not constrained by past events.

                It becomes much easier to imagine a brain governed by quantum mechanics achieving high levels of cognition, creativity and consciousness than one governed by clockwork!

                If this is even admitted as a possibility then there can be no reason to state dogmatically that free will (to the extent I have defined it) does not exist.

                Stating that free will does not exist with the same certainty that we use for the truth of evolution seems to me, frankly, irresponsible. We just don’t know, and it is misleading to pretend we do. It is even dangerous when calls for a change in the justice system are made on pure speculation.

                And for those that struggle to read English: yes, I have mentioned evolution again, but no, I don’t think it is invalidated by quantum mechanics (or anything else we have discovered for that matter).

                Have a good weekend.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted January 17, 2014 at 11:41 am | Permalink

                What evidence is there that the classical world does not exist? The laws of physics do well in predicting such a world so I fail to see how it doesn’t exist.

                Moreover the brain works according to the laws of classical physics. Take a look at this paper by Christof Koch (who BTW believes in Libertarian Freewill – I suspect because of his religious upbringing). In the introduction, he puts it this way:

                Neurobiologists and most physicists believe that on the cellular level, the interaction of neurons is governed by classical physics. A small minority, however, maintains that quantum mechanics is important for understanding higher brain functions, e.g. for the generation of voluntary movements (free will), for high-level perception and for consciousness. Arguments from biophysics and computational neuroscience make this unlikely.

              • gbjames
                Posted January 17, 2014 at 10:07 am | Permalink

                “And for those that struggle to read English”

                Are you compelled to insult your fellow commenters or do you do it of your own free will?

  43. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted January 16, 2014 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    For those still struggling with this, I heartily recommend theoretical physicist Sabine “Bee” Hossenfelder’s cogent dismantling of misconceptions about free will here: http://backreaction.blogspot.ca/2014/01/10-misconceptions-about-free-will.html

    Here is her list of 10 misconceptions, each quite thoroughly debunked:

    1. If you do not have free will you cannot or do not have to make decisions.

    2. If you do not have free will you have no responsibility for your actions.

    3. People should not be told they don’t have free will because that would undermine the rules of morally just societies.

    4. If you do not have free will your actions can be predicted.

    5. If you do not have free will the future is determined by the past.

    6. If we do not have free will we can derive human morals.

    7. Free will is impossible.

    8. You need to be a neuroscientist to talk about free will.

    9. You need to be a philosopher to be allowed to talk about free will.

    10. If we do not have free will we cannot do science.

    • Darkwhite
      Posted January 16, 2014 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

      7. Free will is impossible.

      Free will actually -is- impossible, in the sense that, even if it existed, it would be literally impossible to observe empirically.

  44. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 2:50 am | Permalink

    Very clear!

  45. Andrew Platt
    Posted January 17, 2014 at 4:27 am | Permalink

    What’s silly is that you didn’t read my post properly. I said quantum mechanics is as true as evolution to make it clear I am not some religious, superstitious nutter immune to science and evidence: I am coming at this from a scientific perspective and have never doubted the truth of evolution for a moment.

    I sometimes doubt some of the truths of quantum mechanics and then remind myself that they have been established by careful experiment and that the human mind evolved to understand things directly relevant to our survival on the African Savannah, which does not include such things as the behaviour of electrons!

    I expected people here to have enough sense and education to read posts carefully rather than firing off knee-jerk responses. Please try to be more careful in future.

    • Andrew Platt
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 4:30 am | Permalink

      This was a response to Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 4:01, which has not ended up in the right place! Sorry.

    • Posted January 17, 2014 at 4:31 am | Permalink

      Do not diss the other commenters here or you will be banned.

      • Andrew Platt
        Posted January 17, 2014 at 10:17 am | Permalink

        Just hold on a second please. If you read what has been written I have twice been seriously misrepresented and also insulted. I responded with humour to the insult and robustness to the misrepresentations, which I would hope I have a right to do. Misrepresentation is a completely different matter than simple disagreement.

        Just below your post Jesper has responded to me with a “no hard feelings” post and I share his sentiments. I gladly offer him a metaphorical handshake.

        Gbjames has been less stoical and I could challenge him to explain how what I wrote could possibly be interpreted in the way that he did, but things get said in internet debate and I hold no grievance against him either. I extend my hand if he is willing to take it.

        Of course the blog owner is the final arbiter but I really see no need for intervention here. If you want me to leave, that’s fine.

        • gbjames
          Posted January 17, 2014 at 10:31 am | Permalink

          For my part, Andrew, my objection is to suggestions that people who “misread” you are illiterate or insensible, in your words: “I expected people here to have enough sense and education”. If you are misread it very might be due to how you expressed yourself.

          Metaphorical handshakes are fine but recognizing that you are among reasonably well educated and rather sensible people is more important. At least to me.

          • Andrew Platt
            Posted January 20, 2014 at 11:12 am | Permalink

            It is disappointing this continues to rumble on as I have decided to leave and I would not wish anyone to think it was as a result of any acrimony.

            Genuine misunderstandings sometimes happen but try as I might I cannot see how that could explain how these words of mine:

            “Because quantum mechanics is just as true as evolution”

            could possibly be interpreted thus:

            “how the deuce do you conclude that quantum mechanics invalidates evolution?”

            It is this gross misrepresentation that caused the trouble in the first place and led to my sarcastic comment.

            Two wrongs do not make a right and my sarcasm was heavy handed. I regret that and apologise for it. The fact that I am leaving anyway hopefully proves the apology is genuine rather than something I have been forced into.

            To be clear it is the sarcasm I regret, not the rebuke, which was necessary given that the moderators missed the original transgression. The rebuke was extremely polite – it even contained the word “please” – and as the contributor on the receiving end quickly posted a “no hard feelings” message I can only assume it was read in the same spirit in which it was written.

            I have no hard feelings towards anyone here, and that is the truth.

            Perhaps my instinctive deployment of sarcasm stems from years of arguing with Peter Hitchens, where it is standard practice. As a parting shot I cannot resist comparing this blog to PH’s. Are things more civilised here? In some respects yes, in others, disappointingly, no!

            For example, those quoting Richard Dawkins on PH’s site, where he is afforded precious little respect, are usually met with scorn. Professor Dawkins is sometimes shamefully referred to as “Dork-ins” by some contributors. Yet when I quoted Michio Kaku here I was met with similar scorn and the professor was dismissed as a “media whore”. Marginally less childish perhaps, but this is hardly what one would expect on a scientific debating site. How is such behaviour different to that exhibited by the evolution-deniers who follow PH? It is hardly a model of scientific open-mindedness. The moderators may wish to reflect on that.

            I approached the subject of free will with a genuinely open mind. I was astounded that so many people were convinced beyond doubt it was an illusion and I wanted to see what crucial piece of evidence I was missing. I was genuinely ready to change my mind had that evidence been present. That is why I engaged with the debate.

            I have learned a great deal so it was worth my while. I came believing free will existed but suspecting no-one knew for sure; I leave with my belief intact but with a much greater certainty that no-one really knows. A large number of scientists and philosophers express agnosticism on this issue, including Professor Dawkins, so while I might be out of step with many here I feel I am in good company and on solid ground.

            I came here looking for science and atheism. I found them but unfortunately they came bundled with a large slice of politics, the flavour of which I rarely felt at home with. This is my reason for leaving.

            Strident attacks on the institution of the monarchy from those living in a republic – who do not have a horse in the race and therefore might have been expected to show disinterest – were the first sign of the revolutionary credentials of this site. Since then it has been a diet of predictable left wing dogma culminating in the attempt to bring scientific credibility to the dangerous idea we should absolve criminals of responsibility for their actions. In the past we were invited to absolve them on the basis of their poor upbringing and lack of opportunity alone. This new development on the same old theme indicates the ideology may be defining the evidence rather than the other way around.

            I am equally at odds with much on PH’s right wing site. How odd that religious belief always seems to produce the predictable views expressed there, and atheism often leads to what we see on WEIT. Must it be that way? Whatever happened to independent thought? Maybe the universe is deterministic after all! 😉

            Cherry-picking the best from both right and left has its benefits. The downside is that derision comes in equal measure from both sides of the divide. I expect the proof of that will quickly follow. Such is life!

            Many thanks, WEIT, for the education and entertainment I have found in my short time here. So long, and thanks for all the fish! 🙂

            • Jesper Both Pedersen
              Posted January 20, 2014 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

              Genuine misunderstandings sometimes happen but try as I might I cannot see how that could explain how these words of mine:

              “Because quantum mechanics is just as true as evolution”

              could possibly be interpreted thus:

              “how the deuce do you conclude that quantum mechanics invalidates evolution?”

              Well, the response was prompted by your apparent comparison of the indeterminacy in QM to evolution ( I assume you mean by natural selection ), and that it somehow was supposed to show that evolution was indeterminant.

              At the very small and at the very large indeteminacy and randomness may be how nature turns out to be.

              But in between there’s whole load of processes and mechanics that are predictable and deterministic in their behaviour, and classical physics is very much as relevant as QM.

              But, as stated earlier, this is water under the bridge and our disagreement may be more semantical than substantial.

              Take care and thanks for stopping by our leftist and dogmatic fellowship of the ring.

              I’m sorry I couldn’t lend you my axe, but sometimes a traveller must be left to his own merry ways.

              I hope the road treats you well.

              Yours truly.

              Comrade Pedersen.

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 4:34 am | Permalink

      That’s fine, Andrew.

      Let’s just agree to disagree and leave it at that, no hard feelings.

      Have a good one.

      • Andrew Platt
        Posted January 17, 2014 at 10:15 am | Permalink

        Actually I’m not sure there is as much disagreement as we first thought.

        No hard feelings on my part either. All the best.

    • gbjames
      Posted January 17, 2014 at 6:10 am | Permalink

      Andrew…

      Consider the possibility that “misreading” your comments is not a function of illiterate and insensible readers. Might it be that the construction is unclear enough to reasonably produce the responses you’ve seen?

      Respectfully, you might direct your last sentence at the mirror.

  46. Posted January 17, 2014 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    The irony of the argument that if determinism is true then society will fall apart is that it still contains the presumption of free will. Because if determinism really is true, then society CAN’T fall apart in any way that it wasn’t going to already!

  47. Tim Beardsley
    Posted February 4, 2014 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    Agreed, we don’t have contra-causal free will, but I don’t think many people seriously believe we do, so I wonder what you’ve accomplished. What’s more, most people know that they are subject to subconscious influences and so cannot be entirely free: that you’re likely to spend a lot of money if you go food shopping while hungry is folk wisdom. One of the determinist Spinoza’s insights was that the unwise act as they do because they cannot help themselves, but the wise understand why they must act as they do (and note that what the wise do may be different).

    I think you give short shrift to the importance of deliberation and learning for the kind of freedom people care about. Learning and deliberation affect how the brain develops and how we respond, including when we react too quickly for conscious control. Musicians can’t think fast enough to move their fingers consciously, but play they do. I guess that other activities (philosophizing?) might also stimulate specific developments in the brain and predispose one to particular ways of thinking quickly. On a more basic level, I learned in kindergarten not to hit when affronted and am making progress toward recognizing and forestalling anger. These achievements make it easier for me to deliberate and diminish the immediate influence of external agents. Perhaps not for a second or two; but in most situations that don’t involve a trigger, that second or two will allow my reflective self to start evaluating options.

    You might reply that I learned as I did because of a nurturing early environment and genes that came to me for reasons beyond my control; further, that my subsequent choices to learn derive ultimately from that lucky start. On that basis perhaps you’ll argue that I don’t really have any of what you consider free will, even though I’ve learned to reflect on my interests and respond accordingly better than I could in kindergarten.

    Agreed, my draw in genes and environment made my development possible, and nothing about it is fair, but how could a physical being, even a continually changing one, not be affected by its physical origin? That’s a straw man. The choices I make now I make because of choices I made previously and from which I learned, and so on backwards; but pragmatically, I as a whole, reflective, adult am now their originator. This is Dennett’s intentional stance. It seems to me that the sort of freedom that most people care about is to be able to think about and make choices likely to bring them happiness. Those choices might include ones that afford more self-awareness and ability to reflect, and such choices can diminish the relative explanatory power of luck in genes and nurturing. Some of that sort of freedom, the only sort of free will I think it’s sensible to want or that most people would care about, is through effort available to a reflective person who’s not in dire straits. I can curtail my food purchases even if hungry. Of course it’s not absolute freedom, but what could absolute freedom mean? What basis would an absolutely free entity have for having any preference and making any choice? The notion seems absurd.

    That said, Heidi Ravven, in her book “The Self Beyond Itself” is persuasive that most people, most of the time, do not in fact manifest what we might hope of free will, and that they are hugely influenced by subtle social cues about what sort of behavior is appropriate. She, like you, concludes that free will is an illusion. I say that some people, at their best, can reduce the explanatory power of external influences and exercise a modicum of what we call reasonably call freedom of the will; it’s freedom in the sense that the behavior is not predicable or practically explicable from a knowledge of external, antecedent conditions. It’s also the sort of freedom Spinoza had in mind in titling the last part of The Ethics “On Human Freedom.”

    • paxton
      Posted February 5, 2014 at 7:22 am | Permalink

      Thank you Tim. Well said. The whole free will discussion has an air of unreality about it. So what if our behavior is in some ultimate sense determined, if it is impossible to know all the determinants. Choose we must, and act we will. That’s enough free will for me.

  48. Tim Beardsley
    Posted February 6, 2014 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Paxton but I can refine. In the end it’s a matter of English usage, like many disagreements, but I do think Jerry’s essay missed something important about humans and that recognizing it something provides an argument for keeping “free will” as a useful concept. Absolute freedom seems almost incoherent in a physical system, but the Edge essay sought slightly more modestly to do away with free will as “a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature.”
    That sentence covers possible influences pretty comprehensively, but the human brain’s vast complexity and its capacity to manipulate symbolic representations and integrate influences over a lifetime in and outside consciousness allow it, I suggest, to become a “something more” in that sentence, even though it’s a product of inherited materials (don’t forget those egg proteins!) and environmental history.
    How can it do that, since it is a meat computer? I think details of its activity on the finest scale may be beyond the capacity of any material system to trace to a distinct originating cause; maybe it was the unpredictable decay of a potassium atom that cleaved a base pair in a passing RNA molecule than happened to be editing a membrane pore protein gene and messed it up so there was a bit of excessive depolarization and bingo. The brain can amplify those random starts as ideas grow and perhaps compete in an unfathomably complicated and changing brain environment to excite larger patterns that can direct extremely complex, structured, behavior that feeds back into sensory…well, you get the point. You couldn’t observe this without changing it because you and your instruments are made of massive atoms and your photons and magnetic fields would upset the careening applecart.
    Unfortunately I’m busy this evening so I can’t give a comprehensive account of the human intellect here. OK, I can’t, period. But neither can anyone else, and that’s the point. I don’t believe we’ll ever be able to predict the details of a human deliberating (rather as we know a lot about how evolution works but can’t predict it in detail in the real world—except that we know less about how the brain works). A pity, you might say, but I’m not so sure. I can believe we’ll soon be able to predict the behavior of many non-human animals quite well. Simpler ones we can already. And I believe we can often predict the behavior of humans already, when they’re not thinking hard. But not all the time. A healthy, deliberating person will always be able to surprise us sometimes and make a choice that reflects his or her interests but that we observers could not have predicted. Jerry seems to think that without a (not sure what,some special adjective) influence intervening, a choice can’t be “real,” but it seems real enough to me just the way it is; it’s a product of the system, and that system is the person. That deliberation is what’s commonly meant by exercising “free will,” and it seems to me a useful term to keep to distinguish such deliberative human behavior from, say, a compulsive behavior driven by trichotillomania, or whatever, or the salivating of one of Pavlov’s dogs.


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