Bucky Catt, “free won’t,” free will, Dan Dennett, and Templeton

The concept of “free won’t” was, I recall, floated by researcher Benjamin Libet, the first person to show that our brain can make simple but predictable “decisions” that can be detected and predicted by researchers (using brain scans) before the subject is conscious of having made a decision.  Although, said Libet, we may not be able to exercise “free will,” we can somehow override the “decisions” made by our brain in an exercise of dualism called “free won’t.” That, of course, is completely bogus: if your actions are determined by the laws of physics, then “overriding a perceived decision” is also determined by the laws of physics. If there can be no libertarian free will, then there can be no libertarian free won’t.

Here, in Darby Conley’s Get Fuzzy, Bucky Catt and Satchel engage in a muddled discussion of the issue. Still, it’s pretty philosophical for a comic strip!

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While I’m on the topic, Dan Dennett has published a review of a new book that, he says, refutes simplistic notions of free will (i.e., the book defends “compatibilism”, the notion that we can still have free will even though our decisions are determined). The book is Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will, by philosopher Alfred Mele, and Dennett’s review, “Are we free?: Neuroscience gives the wrong answer”  is on the Prospect Magazine website.

Dennett, as usual, defends his compatibilist view that despite the reign of determinism, we can still have free will and be morally responsible. Dennett’s view of “free will” is simply that the human brain is a complicated device, and must take in many inputs before it reaches the “output” of a decision. (That requirement for multiple inputs is presumably evolved.) Yes, that output could be predicted given perfect knowledge and the assumption that quantum mechanics doesn’t apply in the brain (even if it did, that doesn’t give us any “freedom”), but it’s still complicated.  My own refutation of this notion is to admit that the wiring and operation of human brains (sometimes called “rumination” when it is accessible to consciousness) is complicated, but that there’s still no freedom in the output, just as there’s no freedom in the output of any complex computer program. So although the lab experiments showing pre-conscious decisions are simple ones, I have little doubt that, with refinement of brain-imaging techniques, we’ll be able to predict with appreciable accuracy even more complex decisions. In the end, any kind of dualistic free will is ruled out by naturalism, and any kind of compatibilism is just a sop foisted on the public to let them continue believing that they can “choose otherwise.”

Seriously, I don’t know why philosophers occupy themselves with this arcane and diverse exercise in compatibilism, which resembles theology more than philosophy (it’s motivated, as Dan has admitted for himself, because some philosophers think society would disintegrate if we thought our decisions were all predetermined by naturalism). To me it seems far more important that philosophers impress on the average person that determinism reigns, something that philosophers seem reluctant to do.  After all, it’s determinism, not compatibilism, that carries the important lessons about how we should change our views of responsibility, punishment, and reward.

And, at any rate, Dennett, I, and nearly all philosophers agree that for any decision, we could not have decided otherwise.  So there is no real “freedom.” The rest is semantics and commentary.

I’ve amply aired my disagreements with Dan on free will in previous posts on this site, so I won’t dissect his piece further except to say that he repeatedly makes statements that appear to give us some kind of “autonomy,” which of course can mean only that the entity who makes a decision is identifiable as a named human (my emphasis below):

. . . people can be manipulated into doing things they know better than to do; people’s introspective access to their own thought processes is far from foolproof, and you shouldn’t play poker if you can’t maintain a relatively inscrutable poker face. People who don’t know these home truths are perhaps too benighted, too naïve, to be granted full responsibility for their actions, but the rest of us, wise to these weaknesses in our own control systems, can take steps to protect our autonomy and be held responsible for doing just that.

Science may someday come up with some further line of investigation that does indeed show we are deluded about our capacity to make responsible choices, but to date, the cases made are unimpressive, and that is all that Mele modestly attempts to show.

Certainly we must be held responsible for our choices: to protect society if we make bad ones (showing our brains have “faulty” wiring), to deter others from thinking they can get away with antisocial behavior, and to help rehabilitate those who engage in such behavior.  But I deny that this responsibility for is a “moral” responsibility. What does the word “moral” add to that? And if we don’t have a choice in how to act, what is “moral” except the label that predetermined actions comport with social norms? Imputing “moral” responsibility is no different from saying “this person did that thing for reasons we can’t completely understand.”

But I do agree with Dan’s piece in one respect: he says that we must worry a bit about Mele’s conclusions because they comport with the goals of the organization that funded them: the Templeton Foundation. I quote Dan in full here:

This review could similarly end on the mild, modest verdict that Mele has done his job and done it well. But there is a larger context worth considering. Suppose you were reviewing a scientific report that drew the conclusion that a diet without fat was in fact unhealthy, and that butter and cream and even bacon in moderation were good for you, and suppose further that the science was impeccable, carefully conducted and rigorously argued. Good news! Yes, but the author acknowledges in fine print that the research was financed by a million dollar grant from the Foundation for the Advancement of Bacon. We would be entitled—obliged—to keep that fact in the limelight. The science may be of the highest quality, honestly and sincerely reported, but do remember that the message delivered was the message hoped for by the funder. This is not reporting a finding contrary to the goals of the fact-seekers.

So it is important to note that Mele’s research, as he scrupulously announces, and not in fine print, is supported by the Templeton Foundation. In fact, Mele is the director of a $4.4m project, “Free Will: Empirical and Philosophical Investigations,” funded by the Templeton Foundation, almost certainly the most munificent funding of any philosopher in history. The Templeton Foundation has a stated aim of asking and answering the “Big Questions,” and its programmes include both science and theology. In fact, yoking its support of science with its support of theology (and “individual freedom and free markets”) is the very core of its strategy. The Templeton Foundation supports, with no strings attached, a great deal of excellent science that is otherwise hard to fund. The Foundation supports theological and ideological explorations as well, and it uses the prestige it garners from its even-handed and generous support of non-ideological science to bolster the prestige of its ideological forays. It could easily divide itself into two (or three) foundations, with different names, and fund the same research—I know, because I challenged a Templeton director on this score and was told that they could indeed, but would not, do this.

Alfred Mele is in an unenviable position, and there is really nothing he can do about it. Was his decision to stay strictly neutral on the compatibilism issue a wise philosophical tactic, permitting him to tackle a more modest project, demonstrating the weakness of the scientific argument to date, or was it a case of simply postponing the more difficult issue: if, as science seems to show, our decision-making is not accomplished with the help of any quantum magic, do we still have a variety of free will that can support morality and responsibility? The Templeton Foundation insists that it is not anti-science, and demonstrates this with the bulk of its largesse, but it also has an invested interest in keeping science from subverting some of its ideological aspirations, and it just happens that Mele’s work fits handsomely with that goal. And that, as I persist in telling my friends in science whenever they raise the issue, is why I advise them not to get too close to Templeton.

h/t: jsp

239 Comments

  1. Posted November 3, 2014 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    Hi Jerry,

    But I deny that this responsibility for is a “moral” responsibility. What does the word “moral” add to that?

    “Moral” responsibility means “susceptible to deterrence through social opprobrium” responsibility. As oppose to, say, an act caused by a brain tumour that no amount of social disapproval would have deterred. (In both cases the concept is fully deterministic.)

    • Posted November 3, 2014 at 7:20 am | Permalink

      What about if your deterrence is caused by social opprobrium but you still don’t think it’s wrong, but don’t want to lose your friends. Is that a “moral” decision?

      And what is gained by putting “moral” on the label given that both acts are deterministic. Why not just say (“susceptible to social alteration”). Besides, as you must surely realize, many people who don’t have brain tumors still do bad things but would appear non-patholgoical, and aren’t susceptible to social influence. “Don’t rob that bank!” “Too bad, I need the money, and besides, white collar criminals do the same every day.” Is that person, not subject to deterrence, acting imorally?

      Face it: the concept of a “moral” act implies free choice, and you’re just defining “morality” so that people can think that it’s something different from determinism.

      • Posted November 3, 2014 at 7:33 am | Permalink

        Few people would go ahead with the bank robbery if they thought they’d have a very high probability of getting caught and jailed, so that form of social approbrium is a (partially) effective deterrent.

        You’re right that the language of morality is dualistic, but that is an *interpretation* of morality, not the reason why we have such feelings in the first place. We have moral feelings because evolution has programmed us with them as a social glue. That concept works just as well in a deterministic world. Only the *interpretation* needs changing.

        Is that a “moral” decision?

        It is certainly a decision *about* morals, made after consideration of how humans think and feel, so in that sense “yes”.

        If you’re asking whether it is a “right” or “wrong” decision, that harks after moral realism. I presume you’d reject moral realism as much as I do?

        One can readily have a *descriptive* account of human moral sentiments (= feelings that humans have about how they treat each other) without having to adopt moral realism.

  2. Posted November 3, 2014 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    Alfred Mele is in an unenviable position, and there is really nothing he can do about it.

    So…he had no choice in the matter? No alternatives? No, one might even suggest, free will?

    Hmmm. Fancy that….

    b&

  3. Cooperator
    Posted November 3, 2014 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    I still see two reasons that Dennett-style compatibilism may be right.

    1) It might not be possible – even in principle – to predict actions too far in the future or too close to a “toss up” for reasons analogous to the uncertainty principle in physics. In other words, by trying to find out what will happen, you change it.

    2) We could pass a “Turing test” for free will. If there really were beings with the “magical” kind of free will, and we were asked to try to fool a panel into thinking we were one of them, we could probably pass the test.

    • Posted November 3, 2014 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      Before one can get to your hurdles, you’re first faced with the challenge of defining what, exactly, it would be demonstrated in your hypothetical tests…and that’s where everything spectacularly breaks down.

      “Free will” is an oxymoron, an inherently contradictory and incoherent concept. It’s much the same story with the word, “god.” Either can make sense in literary contexts, but never as an actual phenomenon.

      And it’s in that breakdown when attempting to apply fiction to the real world where we see things come apart. People insist that objections don’t apply to what they’re imagining, even if they apply to what they’re saying. It’s no different from insisting that a bachelor really could be married, but, of course, not if we conceive of “marriage” and “bachelorhood” in the common ways those concepts are understood. When pressed for how we’re supposed to understand the terms, it’s at first instantly obvious that they have nothing whatsoever to do with how anybody else understands them. When that’s pointed out, we’re again told that the traditional definitions apply…and when we point out that that just brings back the contradictions, it’s back to some other non-standard definition. And then lather, rinse, and repeat, of course.

      Gets tiresome, to be honest….

      b&

      • Cooperator
        Posted November 3, 2014 at 10:43 am | Permalink

        I agree that the term “free will” is unfortunate. But we are capable of doing certain things (like behaving unpredictably) that need some sort of label. You didn’t respond to my points. Am I wrong that our behavior is inherently unpredictable (by a third party), even if it is totally consistent with the laws of physics? That seems to me to be an important point.

        • Posted November 3, 2014 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

          Unpredictability is irrelevant. You can’t predict the final locations of every billiard ball after a break, but that neither means that there’s anything random about the process nor especially that the balls themselves somehow choose their final resting positions.

          The only thing humans add to the mix is that we have internal models of the external world that let us simulate possible outcomes, and the results of the analysis of those simulations feeds into the actions we take. But it’s still ultimately a Rube Goldberg contraption, only much more complex (and, thus, that much more difficult to predict).

          b&

      • Kevin
        Posted November 3, 2014 at 11:05 am | Permalink

        I think what makes free will interesting to some people is that there is an attraction to try to prove what could distinguish a universe with free will from one without.

        Holding the view that the universe is deterministic and simultaneously allows humans to have free will is a logical contradiction. Any attempt to rectify the two rests upon limited predictive knowledge, not logic.

    • Posted November 3, 2014 at 11:01 am | Permalink

      Don’t confuse predictability with determinism – one is epistemic, the other ontological.

      Anyway, the whole point for many *is the ethical consequences*. So the questions are “are we self-made?” (Kane) and “are we morally responsible?” (others)

      • Kevin
        Posted November 3, 2014 at 11:53 am | Permalink

        There are scientists who believe in God and free will but think the universe is deterministic. They may or may not be confused about epistemological and ontological claims, but this is how they live. Telling them that they are confused has, in my experience, had little effect on changing their beliefs. But the distinction you make is important:

        prediction is epistemological

        determinism is ontological

        • Ian Kosher
          Posted November 4, 2014 at 1:42 am | Permalink

          Perhaps we can all take a deep breath and wait for further gene research to inform us about our coded propensity to act – violent acts with ‘violence genes’, as new data suggests, for example.

  4. Sastra
    Posted November 3, 2014 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    In the end, any kind of dualistic free will is ruled out by naturalism, and any kind of compatibilism is just a sop foisted on the public to let them continue believing that they can “choose otherwise.”

    I think that in the end, dualistic free will is ruled out by naturalism, and compatibilism is simply the reasonable explanation for why this doesn’t mean that human beings are all robotic psychopaths and everything is going to hell in a handcart. Denying the merit of compatibilism is a sop thrown to the religious, just as denying that life can have any meaning in the absence of God also a sop tossed to the religious. It’s playing the game by their rules and arriving where they want to go.

    But if several hours in a car with Dan Dennett won’t change Jerry’s mind, I’m not going to imagine anything I can say will. The Marshall McLuhan Moment failed to impress. I got nuttin’.

    • Jeffery
      Posted November 3, 2014 at 8:27 am | Permalink

      I dunno- I look at the news today and it DOES seem like everything’s “going to Hell in a handcart!”

      • Kevin
        Posted November 3, 2014 at 10:42 am | Permalink

        I stopped looking at news over twelve years ago and I can say the effect has been extremely beneficial: it makes music, art, and science, and one’s family the most important things in life. Turn the news off and go for a walk, much more happiness will come to you.

    • John Justice
      Posted November 3, 2014 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      Sastra is right. The freedom-from-causation sort of free will would be a completely ignored impossibility, except for the fact that theists–at least as far back as Augustine–needed it to justify the punishment of creatures by their omnipotent creator.
      Why Jerry can’t shake free of this bizarre notion, even with Dennett’s help, is a puzzle. Has he gotten a religious virus?

      • Posted November 3, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

        Do you want to apologize for this semi-rude comment. I don’t appreciate readers wondering why I can’t bring myself to agree with them, and suggesting (even in jest) that I’ve found God.

        • John Justice
          Posted November 3, 2014 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

          Sorry, Jerry, this was not intended as an insult. I suspect that for many thinkers the crucial theistic concept (freedom from causation) has become the “right” or “only” concept. I do think that this is the success of a sort of theistic mental virus.
          If no one had ever worried about a creator’s righteous eternal punishment, no one would ever have given serious thought to such an otherwise pointless concept.
          By the way, your parenthetical comment,”it’s motivated, as Dan has admitted for himself, because some philosophers think society would disintegrate if we thought our decisions were all predetermined by naturalism” is, at best, misleading. Dennett may have admitted that some philosophers are so motivated, but Dennett himself is an honest and earnest compatibilist. He is not a Grand Inquisitor trying to manipulate a naive society.

          • Posted November 3, 2014 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

            Ummm. . . . See the two quotes by Dennett I put in this thread. DO you still think that I mischaracterized his motivations?

            • John Justice
              Posted November 3, 2014 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

              I don’t see anything quoted from Dennett that suggests that we should not let people know that free will doesn’t really exist (or that real free will doesn’t exist).
              Dennett’s criticism of Mele is that taking Templeton money seemed to keep him from openly asserting compatibilism. The religious Templeton foundation would agree with your analysis of free will, because not even an omnipotent creator controls a creature whose will is free of causes.

              • darrelle
                Posted November 4, 2014 at 6:16 am | Permalink

                Jerry was not referring to the OP but quotes of Dennett he placed in a comment down thread.

                And, no, the Templeton Foundation does not agree with Jerry’s ideas about free will.

    • Vaal
      Posted November 3, 2014 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      Yeah, reading the comments, the same issues that have been debated to death here occur over and over. It’s hard to find anything to respond to that wouldn’t involve just repeating stuff.

      That is not, btw, to simply assume compatibilism, or my personal defense of it, is correct. Only that I don’t see anything raising new problems or questions.

      With one exception IMO: Jerry’s questioning of the concept of “moral responsibility.” I think it does get into some deep territory. Jerry seems to share with some other hard determinists the idea that moral responsibility is incoherent, or an unnecessary concept.

      I’m of two minds about it: on one hand I think a practical concept of “moral responsibility” can be defended, given determinism.

      On the other hand, it does not strike me as immediately incoherent to say that we can have a concept of “morality” (in terms of “right” and “wrong” – prescriptions for how to treat one another) while rejecting “moral responsibility” (given a particular deep sense of “moral blamewortiness”).
      It’s the sense of “blame” that gets quite tricky here. Sam Harris, and others, make good points about how much “credit” we ought to take for, essentially, who we are.

      • Sastra
        Posted November 3, 2014 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

        It has always seemed to me that the sort of ‘moral responsibility’ which makes no sense under determinism is the god’s-eye-view version where you sit back and deliberately consider everything which went into a particular action, starting from the Big Bang and focusing on the laws of physics. In this broad perspective, it makes no sense to “blame” a creationist for quote-mining. Moral responsibility becomes incoherent: where do the environmental causes stop and the agent begin? It’s all an inter-connected blur of causal chain, agent and not-agent.

        But we don’t really live on that level. And determinists — hard determinists or compatibilists — look strange invoking a divine perspective.

        It would be interesting to do a point-by-point comparison of free will compatibilism and what I’ll call meaning-of-life compatibilism being put forth in opposition to supernaturalism. “Meaning-of-life Compatibilism would be the argument that just because life (or the universe) itself has no purpose doesn’t mean that human individuals have no worth or purpose, to ourselves. I can imagine a dialogue where the religious questioner keeps insisting that no, that’s not REAL free will, that’s not REAL meaning as the atheist philosopher tries to reduce free will and meaning to a sensible size and apply it to how we actually use those concepts.

        • Vaal
          Posted November 3, 2014 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

          Oh, I generally agree!

          That’s why a generally-covering-most-moral-conversations version of “moral responsibility” seems defensible to me.

          But there some sort of deeper level discussions of merit and blameworthiness that seem to get pretty sticky.

          I think it’s moral that I condemn slavery.
          But how much “moral credit” should I allow myself for my view? Surely if I were born 300 hears ago I’d be a racist and potential slave owner. Slavery is just as wrong now as back then, but should I be just as harsh in judging the *people* who grew up in such a milieu? I may be in one sense a “better person” than the slave owner. But where to place the credit? To myself in some sort of detached-from-the-causal-chain manner? No.
          But then, I have to start appealing to the conditions of “luck” in which I was born, having grown up in a society which instills an anti-slavery ethos in me (or at least makes it much easier to arrive at and hold to an anti-slavery ethos).

          If there’s a large element of luck in how I hold my moral beliefs, doesn’t this seem to argue in some way against the merit, the responsibility, I assign myself for holding the beliefs? And then, this line of questioning wouldn’t go only for people of the past; it arises in any inquiry into human responsibility: how much moral “luck” is involved in my behavior and attitudes vs someone born with different genes in a different environment?

          I don’t think that line of argument is necessarily a cut and dried argument against moral responsibility either. But it does seem to raise real questions to consider.

    • Posted November 3, 2014 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

      I am coming around to the compatibilist view.

      It seems to me, after reading and watching Dennett, and reading arguments here from Coel and Vaal, that one of the things compatibilism is about is acknowledging the appreciable difference between inert matter and conscious creatures. It doesn’t deny determinism or assert any ghosts in any machines, but it recognizes that, at a certain level, rocks and humans really don’t belong in the same causal category. It facilitates talking about various kinds of proximate causes.

      Its utility is a semantic one, but, I now think, a useful (necessary?) one.

      • BillyJoe
        Posted November 3, 2014 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

        Of course not. Rocks are in the category, simplistically causal; humans are in the category, complexly causal.
        And I’m glad you’ve come round to redefining Freewill in order to agree with Dan Dennett.

        • Posted November 4, 2014 at 6:43 am | Permalink

          Actually, what I’m doing is reforming my opinion (I have the guys to admit that at I’m talking about opinions at this point) based on what seems compelling. That has changed over time. So sue me.

          And as I wrote elsewhere, I think we could have this argument without uttering the words “free will” at all. The thing I’m starting to appreciate about the compatibilist view is that it says it’s ok to admit emergent levels of causation. The ultimate difference between me and a rock may be one of degree, but that doesn’t mean the extra complexity in me doesn’t earn me a spot in a different causal category.

  5. Alain Van Hout
    Posted November 3, 2014 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    Certainly we must be held responsible for our choices: to protect society if we make bad ones (showing our brains have “faulty” wiring)

    When I plant seeds in my garden, I’ve given myself the responsibility to water them regularly, at least for a couple of weeks. That’s also a matter of ‘responsibility’, but it isn’t necessarily what is conventionally seen as ‘moral responsibility’. Doesn’t the term ‘moral’ here simply refer to the fact that we’re talking about responsibility within a social context?

    • Posted November 3, 2014 at 7:38 am | Permalink

      Yeah, you’re on the money, I think, but the problem as I see it is that the idea of “moral” responsibility is weightier than just “normal” responsibility, demanding some special actions or special opprobrium.

      • Alain Van Hout
        Posted November 3, 2014 at 7:54 am | Permalink

        My reply to my own comments seems to have been unnecessary. That’s what I get for writing slower than a herd of turtles stampeding through peanut butter :).

        I would think (but this is mostly just a gut feeling at this point) that if we were to call it e.g. ‘social responsibility’ (but without the healthcare connotations that the term has in our society), then it would amount to the same thing: the weight of my responsibilities in relation to how I interact with my fellow (human) beings is larger than that of my responsibilities in relation to e.g. my garden.

        Traditionally the term ‘moral’ is used in this context (although obviously with some religious connotations), but striking it from the record would not change the context of the responsibility or the weight attached to it. At least that’s my current impression of the matter.

        • Posted November 3, 2014 at 9:47 am | Permalink

          I would think (but this is mostly just a gut feeling at this point) that if we were to call it e.g. ‘social responsibility’ (but without the healthcare connotations that the term has in our society)

          I don’t think it’s necessary to fear the religious right “socialism” boogeyman, but, if you really do, you could go with something like, “community responsibility.” Until they convince you that that’s too close to communism, of course….

          b&

          • Alain Van Hout
            Posted November 3, 2014 at 11:23 am | Permalink

            Not a problem, I simply wanted to avoid any confusion regarding the typical use of the term ‘social responsibility’ compared to the meaning I wanted to convey with the term.

            Not that it’s very relevant to the discussion, but to avoid wrong impressions: my sociopolitical viewpoint would be considered leftist here in Belgium, which would probably be considered extreme left / communism in the US :).

            • Posted November 3, 2014 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

              As a registered member of the Green Party living in Arizona, let me reassure you: you wouldn’t be considered a communist.

              No, you’d merely be considered the spawn of Satan, one of Hell’s own minions, part of the Legion of Doom. Folks like us are seen as transcending mere mortal labels such as “Communist” or “Nazi” or “Fascist” or “Socialist” or “Imperialist” or any of those other indistinguishable un-American ideologies. No, we’re evil incarnate, and that’s the end of that.

              b&

              • Alain Van Hout
                Posted November 3, 2014 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

                “you’d merely be considered the spawn of Satan”

                Yeah, I suppose that to be the span of Cthulhu I’d have to go over to ‘that other website’ :). To bad that Bastet/Sekhmet had a lousy PR agent :p.

                And to make you (possibly) envious, my municipality/town is governed by our Green Party 😉 (although it’s the only one that is).

              • Posted November 3, 2014 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

                Yes, I do envy you. But I also console myself with the fact that my current Congressional Representative, Krysten Sinema, is the closest thing the entire Federal government has to an out atheist, and she was earlier affiliated with the Green Party (though she’s drifted towards the center / right). She might also be the only out bisexual member of Congress, and she’s certainly the only one to ever complete an Ironman Triathlon.

                But, yes, I’d much rather have the whole city be Green….

                b&

              • Alain Van Hout
                Posted November 3, 2014 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

                “But I also console myself with the fact that my current Congressional Representative, Krysten Sinema, is the closest thing the entire Federal government has to an out atheist”

                I count my blessings (so to speak) that in the 20 years or so since I was old enough to even care about politics, the closest things to religious topics I’ve heard in politics is whether islamic animal sacrifices should be allowed without sedation (since recently, the answer is no), and whether the catholic church should be prosecuted for withholding evidence (sadly, no results yet in that department).

                And this despite one of our major political parties’ name in full translating to “christian-democratic and Flemish”, although I cannot even remember them ever saying anything that would identify them as inherently christian.

                But I’ll stop now, because we’re (or at least I am) kind of getting off topic, and I’m being uncharacteristically non-cynical for a Belgian wrt politics :).

    • Alain Van Hout
      Posted November 3, 2014 at 7:42 am | Permalink

      On rereading it occurred to me that perhaps I should also have added (since Jerry already touches on the above): I meant to say that the fact that adding ‘moral’ as a qualifier specifies that we’re talking about responsibility specifically in a social context, and that this is exactly what makes it a less than useless addition to ‘responsibility’ tout court (even though it may already be implied by the context itself).

  6. eric
    Posted November 3, 2014 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    One of Mele’s critiques (of the timing experiments) is that they only deal with trivial and simple decisions. So (he says), this tells us nothing about whether humans have conscious control over their major or important decisions. What malarky.

    First of all, the results are incredibly surprising and the fact that we are not in control of some decisions we think we’re making should cause us to question whether we are in control of other decisions we think we’re making.

    Second, Mele seems to be beating a creationist-like “no transitional fossil” retreat. As such experiments tackle more complicated decisions and more varied decision-making circumstances, I’m sure Mele will continue to protest that the decisions tested just aren’t complicated enough. Because for some free will proponents, I’m sure no experiment will ever be enough.

    Lastly, Mele’s poisition strikes me as not much more than armchair quarterbacking. If you don’t think neurologists are doing meaningful experiments, help them design and carry out better ones. But if you won’t do that, then your thougths on Benjamin Libet’s experimental designs are about as valuable as my thoughts on Peyton Manning’s play calling.

    • darrelle
      Posted November 3, 2014 at 8:35 am | Permalink

      Just one little nitpick. I would clarify that Libet’s timing experiments don’t indicate that we are not in control. Whatever our decision making processes are, it is us making them, consciously or not. Whether the process is conscious or unconscious does not seem to me to be dependent on, or indicative of, the process being deterministic.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted November 3, 2014 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      I disagree that it’s “incredibly surprising” that impulsive decisions originate in the unconscious mind before we become consciously aware of them. That’s why they’re called impulsive.

      Nor would I consider it especially surprising to learn that all decision-making has an unconscious component. Again, our language recognizes this with such unremarkable idioms as “Let me sleep on it.”

      The question is whether conscious deliberation plays any causal role in decision making. In Libet-type experiments where the choice is to twitch your left finger or your right finger, there’s not a lot of room for deliberation, and indeed subjects are explicitly instructed to act without thinking. But deciding whether to get a job or go on to graduate school is clearly a different case, and consciously weighing the alternatives and imagining various outcomes certainly plays a role, even if the ultimate decision turns out to be detectable by fMRI five seconds before we’re consciously aware of it.

      To argue that that five-second gap means “we” are not in control seems to me to be a semantic quibble. The fact is that whatever brain event the fMRI detected would not have happened the way it did without the hours or days of conscious deliberation that preceded it. So Mele are Dennett are right to point out that experiments that explicitly exclude conscious deliberation are missing the whole point of compatibilist volition.

      • eric
        Posted November 3, 2014 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

        To argue that that five-second gap means “we” are not in control seems to me to be a semantic quibble. The fact is that whatever brain event the fMRI detected would not have happened the way it did without the hours or days of conscious deliberation that preceded it.

        I disagree. Or maybe I think what Dennet et al. are doing is yet another retreat to a newer, more defensible definition of free will.

        A standard vernacular use of the term ‘free will’ denotes the ability to consciously make a decision, consciously make a choice. It is your sentience doing it. ‘Free will’ as it’s normally thought of does not include responses such as the knee jerk you make when the doctor taps your knee. Now if you want to include unconscious and subconscious workings of the brain, I guess you can do that. You have now defended the concept of ‘free will’ against Libet-type experiments…but at the cost of including in ‘free will’ choices a whole bunch of things nobody really considers to be free will choices, like involuntary muscle movements.

        • Posted November 4, 2014 at 10:47 am | Permalink

          Notice that Dennett’s points about the timing apply *even* if the Libet experiments hold. *Where* is something represented? All over – there’s no one *you* that reacts to things. Dennett’s point (in the FW stuff) seems to be that this doesn’t matter, the “yous” are all capable (sometimes) of moral appraisal. (I don’t think he answers Kane on self-origination at all, though.)

  7. Peter Beattie
    Posted November 3, 2014 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    Jerry, what is most conspicuous in all of your book reviews is that you are scrupulously fair to the people you criticize and quote them at length in order to get across their points of view as they actually hold them. What I find baffling is that you don’t do that when it comes to “free will”. What you write about Dan Dennett’s views is, lamentably, only a caricature of what he really says. Let me give you three examples.

    Dennett, I, and nearly all philosophers agree that for any decision, we could not have decided otherwise. So there is no real “freedom.”

    There, you insist, as you always do, that “freedom” may not mean anything else than what you think it means, which you correctly point out is incoherent: spooky free will. Of course that’s not what we have, and Dan goes to considerable lenghts to explain that that isn’t, in fact, what we mean when we talk about “free will”. Indeed, it’s one of Dan’s main points to say that we need to take back the term from those dualistic free willers who hijacked it—and then you come along and hijack it right back.

    And this idea of taking back a useful term from people who insisted that only an incoherent interpretation of it is allowed is analogous to what happened to the term “species”. As I have repeatedly said, if so far to little avail, the fact that most people thought “species” must mean ‘something separately created’ obviously does not imply that, after learning about how things have evolved, we can’t educate people about how to understand the term properly and what that new interpretation’s limitations are.

    To me it seems far more important that philosophers impress on the average person that determinism reigns

    I think it would have been fair to point out that Dennett does exactly that, and at length. (In fact, he explicitly says that any coherent notion of “free will” could only work in a universe that was not indeterministic, i.e. non-random.) It’s just that Dennett doesn’t equate determinism with ‘so we don’t have free will’—but those are logically distinct statements, and it would be fair to acknowledge not just that but, more importantly, the fact that Dennett uses that distinction to give “free will” a coherent meaning that is independent of determinism.

    In the end, any kind of dualistic free will is ruled out by naturalism, and any kind of compatibilism is just a sop foisted on the public to let them continue believing that they can “choose otherwise.”

    Again, grossly unfair. The implication that compatibilism tries to make naturalism compatible with dualism would be to misunderstand the very first thing about compatibilism. And Dennett very patiently explains what we can and cannot profitably mean by “could have done otherwise”.

    If anyone is interested, all this is lucidly explained in Dennett’s Freedom Evolves.

    • Posted November 3, 2014 at 7:58 am | Permalink

      I deny that I have been unfair to Dan’s characterization, for, as you surely know, I’ve discussed these criticisms as much greater length in other posts, and must here perforce give ony a precis.

      Freedom is redefined by Dennett so he can use “free will”. The classic and still most common conception of free will is that it is dualistic, and we could have chosen otherwise.

      Dennett has explicitly says that a realization of determinism–that people are in effect meat robots–would be dangerous for society. He said this twice in his Erasmus lecture. And I haven’t seen him emphasize this to nearly the degree that I think he should. This, and not compatiblism, is the real message of science.

      I stand by what I said. Readers who want greater depth can look at the many posts I’ve put up on this site about free will, compatibilism, and Dennett’s views. If you pressed me, I’d probably aver that nearly all the work on compatibilism has been a waste of time, resembling theology in both its intent and in its uselessness in helping us think about social reform.

      • Peter Beattie
        Posted November 3, 2014 at 8:39 am | Permalink

        I deny that I have been unfair to Dan’s characterization, for, as you surely know, I’ve discussed these criticisms as much greater length in other posts, and must here perforce give ony a precis.

        And all my criticisms apply to those other posts as well—as I have explicitly said and linked to. For example, not even in your post on Freedom Evolves did you quote Dennett’s interpretation of ‘could have done otherwise’—which is central for any understanding of his concept of ‘free will’.

        And in your comment, you just restated your case but addressed none of my arguments.

        You raise one more interesting point, though: the one about ‘meat robots’. It echoes what you wrote in your post:

        Certainly we must be held responsible for our choices: … to deter others from thinking they can get away with antisocial behavior

        This is, I would claim, all that you need to grant for Dan’s point of view to make complete sense: you can influence people’s behaviour, including your own. I would bet you a sumptuous dinner for whenever you’re next in Berlin (;>) that Dan would agree that this is the pivotal point. I would happily submit to his adjudication of the matter if you could get him to email you a short comment. 🙂

    • eric
      Posted November 3, 2014 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      Dan goes to considerable lenghts to explain that that isn’t, in fact, what we mean when we talk about “free will”. Indeed, it’s one of Dan’s main points to say that we need to take back the term from those dualistic free willers who hijacked it—and then you come along and hijack it right back.

      I think that, historically, you’re getting things bass ackwards. I expect that the historically original meaning of ‘free will’ was dualistic. Some modern philosophers and theologians have ‘hijacked’ the term from its original meaning in order to try and salvage the concept from the scientific failure of dualism.

  8. darrelle
    Posted November 3, 2014 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    I understand Jerry’s distaste for adding “moral” to responsibility. “Moral” is massively freighted with extraordinary connotations. I also understand the point of view that “moral” is a perfectly good word to describe a more specific case of responsibility, as Alain Van Hout mentioned above, so why give up using it merely because many people currently can’t separate out those extraordinary connotations.

    Basically, work on introducing a new term, or work on clarifying the definition of an existing term.

    I am not sure at present which I think is the better course. I am sure, however, that this dialogue between compatabilists and nons is a good thing. Taking Dan Dennett as an example, early in his defense of “we do have the only kind of free will worth having,” I think he was being a bit deceptive, very much like what we see from religious accommodationists. Arguments from Jerry, and similar, seem to have influenced him to be more clear about his motivations and intents, and that he agrees that classic free will is bogus and his “the only type of free will worth having,” is nothing like it.

    • eric
      Posted November 3, 2014 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      Taking Dan Dennett as an example, early in his defense of “we do have the only kind of free will worth having,”

      I think Dennett in this case is clearly making lemonade out of lemons. Or making a sour grapes comment (pick your fruit metaphor!). If science had evidence for an immaterial, immortal soul that influenced brain activity, I think the vast, vast majority of people would say that that was a form of free will worth having. But science has no such evidence, dualism is scientifically an abject failure, and so folk like Dennett who want to defend the notion of free will seem compelled to give a “well, we didn’t want that sort of free will anyway” argument.

      • darrelle
        Posted November 3, 2014 at 11:04 am | Permalink

        Yeah. By his own admission his . . . hmmm . . . rationalizations(?) about compatibilist free will are motivated by a perceived need to make the bitter pill of there being no such thing as classical free will easier to swallow for the masses. So that society won’t fall into a nihilism of despair.

        I don’t have any serious issues with Dennett’s ideas about how our decision making processes seem to work. I don’t agree with him on why he thinks it is important to continue to call it free will, but different (better even!). Not only is it the “little people argument,” I also think that what he fears is unlikely to be a serious problem. If you were to remove that fear that he has stated is his motivation for his position on free will, I don’t think he and Jerry, for example, would have much to argue about.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted November 3, 2014 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

          I don’t think Dennett is making a Little People argument, and both you and Jerry do him a disservice by framing it that way.

          Here’s how I understand his position: if you’re going to tell people they don’t have free will, you’d better be sure that what you mean by “free will” is the same as what they mean by “free will”. In everyday speech (Dennett argues), “free will” has an essentially compatibilist meaning: that conscious deliberation has real causal power over future decisions. Telling people they don’t have that sort of free will is bad because it’s not true; that’s the sort of free will they do have.

          Dennett’s mission, in other words, is not to protect people from the truth, but to protect them from overzealous distortions of the truth.

          • darrelle
            Posted November 3, 2014 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

            I can’t speak for Jerry, but I certainly am not intent on denigrating Dennett in the slightest. But I disagree with you. Dennett has clearly stated that he is afraid of what will happen to society if the essentially dualist notion of free will is taken away from the many people that believe in it.

            From the OP –

            “(it’s motivated, as Dan has admitted for himself, because some philosophers think society would disintegrate if we thought our decisions were all predetermined by naturalism)”

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted November 3, 2014 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

              That’s not Dennett clearly stating anything; that’s Jerry saying what he thinks Dennett said. As I explained above, I think Jerry has it wrong.

              Do you have a quote from Dennett himself expressing a belief that the Little People need their comforting dualism?

              • darrelle
                Posted November 3, 2014 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

                Perhaps Jerry will comment on that. My recollection is that that quote from the OP is an accurate summation of comments made by Dennett to Jerry (and perhaps a wider audience) at a meeting they attended together. Jerry wrote extensively about that meeting at the time. Don’t have time at the moment to look it up. Perhaps later.

                I think you may be mischaracterizing Jerry’s interpretation of what Dennett has said on this.

          • Posted November 3, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

            Okay, Mr. Kusnick, I see that you don’t believe me. So here are two of Dennett’s quotes from the Erasmus prize essay. Thanks for making me type them in rather than reading the piece yourself:

            There is – and has always been – an arms race between persuaders and their targets or intended victims, and folklore is full of tales of innocents being taken in by the blandishments of sharp talkers·. This folklore is part of the defense we pass on to our children, so that they will become adept at guarding against it. We don’t want our children to become puppets! If neuroscientists are saying that it is no use – we are all already puppets, controlled by the environment, they are making a big, and potentially harmful, mistake.

            and this

            These similarities are telling, and somewhat uncomfortable for me, as I shall explain, but they pale beside the deep conviction Erasmus and I share: we both believe that the doctrine that free will is an illusion is likely to have profoundly unfortunate social consequences if not rebutted forcefully.

            Now you have two choices here: admit that Dennett is making the Little People argument, as he clearly is, or play theologian and claim that he really meant something else.

            At any rate, it ticks me off when I’ve already mentioned what Dennett said, and mentioned the source, and yet folks like you imply that I’m lying.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted November 3, 2014 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

              I didn’t mean to imply that you’re lying, and I’m sorry if it came across that way. I’m aware of Dennett’s Erasmus speech, and think that you’re mistaken in your reading of it, and that’s what I meant to say.

              I think the two quotes you posted are consistent with my interpretation. In Dennett’s view, telling people they’re puppets is a mistake not just because it may have bad social consequences, but because it’s factually wrong. He has elsewhere (in Freedom Evolves as well as in his critique of Sam Harris’ Free Will) argued forcefully that we are not puppets, and that if the word “control” means anything at all then we have it (at least to some degree) over our own behavior.

              Clearly you disagree with Dennett and me on the puppet question. But it does not follow that Dennett is dishonestly trying to shield people from the truth; he’s trying to promote the truth as he sees it, and he thinks people are big enough to grasp that truth.

              I regret that I’ve angered you. But I can’t agree with your view that compatibilism is inherently dishonest and that any defense of it must therefore be a Little People argument. If that makes me a theologian in your book, then so be it.

              I’ll withdraw now and leave it to others to carry on the argument.

              • Vaal
                Posted November 3, 2014 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

                I agree Gregory Kusnick.

                I didn’t see your post as insinuating Jerry was lying at all. Only that Jerry had gotten Dennett’s position wrong as to why Dennett argues against free will.

                Here we argue against religious belief quite a lot. Not just because we think it’s factually incorrect – all sorts of of beliefs are factually incorrect but we don’t spend nearly as much time on them. No, it’s that it’s incorrect and we are concerned with the consequences that arise from that mistaken conclusions of religion! We don’t want to be re-enforcing that mistake; we want to shed light on it.

                Dennett takes the same stance on free will.
                He thinks, rightly or wrongly, that it’s a *consequential mistake* to deny it exists, and a *consequential mistake* to associate it ONLY with a Libertarian concept of free will. He’s not giving a little people argument in which he says “we have to allow them their delusion – we can handle determinism, they can’t.” No, he does his best to produce popular level expositions of his view, shedding light on the mistakes (as he sees them) concerning free will for all sides. That’s why he writes popular books on free will, vs keeping the discussion to the realm of academics.

                One can argue Dennett is wrong, but as to motivation, it is essentially no different than the motivation Jerry or any of us have in wishing to publicly expose fallacies in religious thought.

              • darrelle
                Posted November 3, 2014 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

                I concede that your interpretation of Dan’s comment regarding meat puppets could be more accurate than mine.

                But regarding this comment,

                “: we both believe that the doctrine that free will is an illusion is likely to have profoundly unfortunate social consequences if not rebutted forcefully.”

                . . . your interpretation does not seem accurate to me. I don’t see how any of your arguments address it. The only concept of free will that is applicable in that statement is a classical dualist free will. If Dan means some other notion of free will then I think he is being cagey. Classical dualist free will is certainly what just about anybody else would mean making that statement, and assume upon hearing or reading that statement.

                Given that, it just doesn’t make sense to say that the claim, “classical dualist free will is an illusion,” is factually wrong. I am sure Dennett does not think that, though of course I could be mistaken.

              • darrelle
                Posted November 3, 2014 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

                Vaal,

                I find your comment persuasive. I’m still not completely convinced though. In any case I admire and respect Dan and don’t think that he has been the slightest bit lacking in integrity of any kind. And, in my opinion the Little People argument is not necessarily always inapplicable, but always suspicious. After all, in some cases the Little People argument can be correct, at least in context.

              • eric
                Posted November 4, 2014 at 8:14 am | Permalink

                Vaal (and Gregory), Jerry got Dennett’s position substantially correct and Gregory got it substantially wrong on the “little people” argument. Dennett is clearly making that argument. Jerry’s last quote shows that, clearly and directly.

                Now, Dennett may be making other argumnets too, but he is making that one. He thinks that if we told people they had no free will, bad social consequences would result. There’s no way to gloss over that or interpret it charitably: it’s the ‘little people’ argument.

          • eric
            Posted November 3, 2014 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

            If that’s Dennet’s argument, then IMO its a hypocritical one. About 75% of the population is Christian, believes they have a soul, and have a dualistic notion of free will. So Dennett is doing what he’s telling others not to do – he’s telling the public they have “free will” without checking to see that what he means by it is wha they mean by it.

  9. Amy
    Posted November 3, 2014 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    If the input variables are changed, then the output will be different. If a person’s view of the world is changed, then his input variables might also be changed.

  10. Posted November 3, 2014 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    I still think there’s an important piece missing from this discussion, and that’s why it even occurs to us in the first place that we might have something as fundamentally incoherent as “free will.”

    Jerry, your “rewind the tape” example is a perfect description of what the decision-making process feels like. You have some decision before you. You imagine what would happen if you took the one path. You mentally rewind the tape and now imagine what would happen if you took the other path. Save for the fact that this is all happening in your imagination, this is exactly your characterization of dualist free will.

    But, of course, as you’ll instantly point out: all this imagining proceeds according to the laws of physics. So, you don’t have any choice in which path you’ll actually take outside of your imagination — and, indeed, you don’t have any choice about imagining anything in the first place.

    The decision-making process can’t in any honest way be considered “free will,” and not for the least because “free will” is a self-contained oxymoron. Is your will free from itself? Is your freedom at all constrained by your own will? Just makes no sense.

    But, by realizing that, when people — and I think even (especially?) Dan falls into this trap — point to what they say is their “free will” they’re really pointing to the familiar deterministic decision-making process…well, I think that realization could help get the compatabilists past their blindness.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 3, 2014 at 8:39 am | Permalink

      Yes and the only thing that could cause you to behave differently if you rewind the tape is something introduced through chaos.

      I’m not sure why people are so hung up on free will anyway but perhaps I went through my existential crisis early so I don’t really care that the self is an illusion & that we are not conscious of our decisions. Our brain edits out a lot of the information before it even gets to our consciousness so who knows what that organ is up to!

    • Posted November 3, 2014 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      Hi Ben,

      But, by realizing that, when people […] point to what they say is their “free will” they’re really pointing to the familiar deterministic decision-making process…well, I think that realization could help get the compatabilists past their blindness.

      Do you really think that compatibilists don’t fully realise that they are pointing to a deterministic process?

      • Posted November 3, 2014 at 10:03 am | Permalink

        Do you really think that compatibilists don’t fully realise that they are pointing to a deterministic process?

        Honestly?

        Yes, I do.

        Either that, or they’re so confused that they don’t understand what the words they’re saying and typing mean.

        The two-word phrase, “free will,” only is coherent within the legal profession where its definition is well defined and has to do with gun-to-the-head types of coercion.

        But, outside of that, if a decision is free, it cannot be constrained by the will; if a decision is willful, it cannot be unmoored and free. For a choice to mean anything, it must follow from some set of principles from the will — else you’re just flailing about. But if you’re following the rules in the playbook, you’re obviously sticking to the script and in no sense free.

        That brings us back to the decision-making process, where we imagine the choices and their consequences, and the whole thing can feel like a random flitting about hither, thither, and yon without constraint, but the ultimate choice is one that comes from a determined evaluation of the observations of this imagined landscape.

        The libertarians would have us believe that all that really is really real and it happens not (only) in the imagination, but in the real world as well. That’s clearly bullshit.

        The compatibilists would have us believe that said process, though entirely the result of clockwork physical activity, is somehow freely free and we should feel free to freely apply the label, “free,” to the Rube Goldberg contraption. Again, clearly bullshit.

        The only honest answer I see is to acknowledge that people are pointing to the imaginative decision-making process when they say they’re exercising their free will, but that said process has nothing whatsoever to do with the incoherent notion of free will as defined by the theologians and other forms of philosophers.

        Any argument that we should retain the notion of “free will” for any reason is going to apply equally well to an argument that we should retain the notion of gods. Come to think of it, that may well be the line of attack I use in future responses….

        b&

        • Posted November 3, 2014 at 10:31 am | Permalink

          Hi Ben, you’re essentially saying that the compatibilists either have not thought it through or are kidding themselves.

          My suggestion is the opposite, that compatibilists have thought it through and are thoroughly embracing determinism. It’s clear that you don’t believe that, but I really think that’s a false assessment.

          Note that the *majority* of uses of the word “free” in English are compatible with determinism. E.g.:

          Free speech; freed from jail; set the bird free; kicked his legs free; free fall; free entropy; free radical; free to leave; freed from slavery; free press; free style; free with her money; a free hand; a free ride; a free country; make free with; land of the free; free of obstruction.

          The theme underlying all of these is the absence of some *external* constraints that allows action in accordance with (determined) internal desires. None of these usages imply dualistic contra-causal action. They are all just as meaningful under determinism.

          Thus your insistence that “free” as applied to “choice” can only refer to dualism, rather than to a compatibilist absence of *external* constraints, is inconsistent with all the other uses of “free” in the English language.

          Can I invite you to consider that (1) we compatibilists really have thought it through, that (2) we compatibilists really have embraced determinism thoroughly and wholeheartedly — yes, really!, and that (3) we compatibilists see a lot of merit in the compatibilist conception of these concepts.

          That merit is not hankering after dualism, and is not (at least in many cases) a fear of how the populace might react if they abandon dualism (my opinion is that it’ll make near-zero difference).

          All of your counter-arguments do nothing to persuade me out of compatibilism — because you are not even attempting to argue against compatibilism. All you are doing is arguing against dualism while suspecting us of hankering after dualism.

          • Posted November 3, 2014 at 10:47 am | Permalink

            Note that the *majority* of uses of the word “free” in English are compatible with determinism.

            But that’s irrelevant, because the term under discussion isn’t freedom, but free will.

            I could play the exact same dictionary games to declare Heaven to be real because I had some heavenly ice cream after lunch yesterday, or to declare Hell to be real because we all know that war is hell, and so on.

            It’s a bait-and-switch game at best. And, if it really is the game you’re playing…then, no. You really haven’t thought it through, and any merit you think you see in the compatibilist conception is overwhelmed by the confusion (at best) and dishonesty (at worst) engendered by the position. I would, in that case, grant you that you’ve embraced determinism…but I’m sure you can see how uncharitable this alternative is why I granted you the other as an “out.”

            Perhaps you could explain how this compatibilism you’re offering up is different from the “think of the little people” arguments from accommodationists who don’t themselves need gods (or dualistic free will), but fear what the masses will do if they loose faith in their gods (or dualistic free will)? Or, if there’s no difference, why either form of accommodationism is defensible…?

            b&

            • Posted November 3, 2014 at 11:23 am | Permalink

              Hi Ben,

              … but fear what the masses will do if they loose faith in their gods (or dualistic free will)?

              I don’t fear people losing faith in dualistic free will at all (and I may differ from Dennett in this). I see zero merit in dualistic free-will notions and I think it would be a very good idea if everyone thoroughly embraced determinism.

            • Alain Van Hout
              Posted November 3, 2014 at 11:33 am | Permalink

              It’s a bait-and-switch game at best. And, if it really is the game you’re playing…then, no. You really haven’t thought it through, and any merit you think you see in the compatibilist conception is overwhelmed by the confusion (at best) and dishonesty (at worst) engendered by the position.

              Based on my own observations, I’d say that compatibilists very often display a mental shortcut, where any unwanted spitting out of the details of ‘free will’ simply makes them revert back to the low-level, personal-experience based gut feeling that it’s ‘obvious’ that free will must be truly free, despite any reasonable and specific definition of free will disputing that notion.

              This is of course based on online discussions with philosophy enthusiasts (and some actual philosophy students), but from my own reading on the subject, as well as what Jerry has presented at item, professional philosophers who espouse compatibilism tend to fall in the same trap, albeit using longer words.

              • Vaal
                Posted November 3, 2014 at 11:56 am | Permalink

                Alain Van Hout

                “Based on my own observations, I’d say that compatibilists very often display a mental shortcut, where any unwanted spitting out of the details of ‘free will’ simply makes them revert back to the low-level, personal-experience based gut feeling that it’s ‘obvious’ that free will must be truly free, despite any reasonable and specific definition of free will disputing that notion.”

                Well, this is an example of why we should remain skeptical of one side characterizing the other side’s arguments.

                I sure don’t recognize anyone defending compatibilism here in that description. Nor, for that matter, anyone defending compatibilism I can remember. (Not that they don’t exist, but you’d have to actually show me examples).

                As for “reasonable definitions” those who have defended compatibilism here have argued why they are using the words in “free will’
                in ways that are well established by normal, everyday use – ways that do not contradict determinism at all. I myself have gone into great detail, with all sorts of real-world examples, for how the concept of “could have done otherwise” is compatible with determinism, consistent with how the same language is used in all other empirical descriptions that do not contradict determinism. (I’ve brought up how our very notion of the identity of anything is necessarily abstracted and generalized about that thing-over-time. Which is one reason that this this incompatibilist notion that free will involves assumptions about our abilities at single-time-state of the universe makes little sense).

                None of this is argued simply on “gut feeling” as you declare.

                When you write “any reasonable and specific definition of free will disputing that notion.”

                What “reasonable and specific definition would you have in mind? Is it the contra-causal concept of free will that pretty much everyone here as agreed is incoherent?

                And THAT is the “reasonable” definition?

                If not..what is it?

              • Posted November 3, 2014 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

                When you write “any reasonable and specific definition of free will disputing that notion.”

                What “reasonable and specific definition would you have in mind? Is it the contra-causal concept of free will that pretty much everyone here as agreed is incoherent?

                And THAT is the “reasonable” definition?

                If not..what is it?

                But that’s exactly the problem.

                The definitions commonly recognizable as “free will” aren’t coherent. The definitions that are coherent aren’t recognizable as “free will.”

                It’s not our problem that “free will” is incoherent, and it’s no more our responsibility to salvage what’s essentially a theological retributive excuse for secular reasons, especially when “free will” can’t even in principle add anything.

                Just as I’d hope we’d drop the notions of divine grace and original sin and holy redemption and all the other theological babbling that surrounds matters of morality, I’d think that we should be able to do without “free will” as well.

                Even if cats are graceful and some canines have redeeming qualities and so on.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Alain Van Hout
                Posted November 3, 2014 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

                Vaal

                Well I suppose that means that you’ve had better experiences than I’ve had, or perhaps (in addition to your suggestion) one should also be skeptical about the quality of your own side’s arguments, or at least how it is perceived? With any luck, that might be resolved in the future.

                Regarding definitions, contrary to compatibilist definitions of free will that I’ve come across, I would consider dualistic definition of free will to be reasonable; they just happen to be in conflict with the available evidence.

                As to compatibilism, I can honestly say that I have yet to come across any definition of free will that would apply to actual rather than merely apparent free will (without invoking dualism and/or ‘quantum’ that is). Perhaps in the future I’ll encounter one here in the comments. It would be a welcome change.

                With regard to what you’ve said in the past, I have not seen or read any of that. So there’s no reason to take what I said as personally as you seem to be doing (if that’s not the case, I apologize for misinterpreting the tone of your comment).

            • Alain Van Hout
              Posted November 3, 2014 at 11:33 am | Permalink

              It’s a bait-and-switch game at best. And, if it really is the game you’re playing…then, no. You really haven’t thought it through, and any merit you think you see in the compatibilist conception is overwhelmed by the confusion (at best) and dishonesty (at worst) engendered by the position.

              Based on my own observations, I’d say that compatibilists very often display a mental shortcut, where any unwanted spitting out of the details of ‘free will’ simply makes them revert back to the low-level, personal-experience based gut feeling that it’s ‘obvious’ that free will must be truly free, despite any reasonable and specific definition of free will disputing that notion.

              This is of course based on online discussions with philosophy enthusiasts (and some actual philosophy students), but from my own reading on the subject, as well as what Jerry has presented at item, professional philosophers who espouse compatibilism tend to fall in the same trap, albeit using longer words.

              • Alain Van Hout
                Posted November 3, 2014 at 11:35 am | Permalink

                The first paragraph is a quote from Ben’s comment – I forgot or misapplied the styling.

            • Danbite
              Posted November 3, 2014 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

              Which came first, the idea of free will or the idea of dualism?

              I would think that free will has been in the vocabulary long before people thought the world was made up of two kinds of stuff. All it takes is for one person to want to do something and another person to prevent him from doing it, and you get an argument abouy free will.

          • eric
            Posted November 3, 2014 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

            Coel compatibilism *can’t* just mean the lack of external constraints. It has to mean some lack of internal constraints too. Otherwise most computer programs would qualify as having compatibilist free will, as the vast majority of their function is a result of internal program constraints, not external constraints.

            • Posted November 3, 2014 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

              Coel compatibilism *can’t* just mean the lack of external constraints.

              Yes it can!

              It has to mean some lack of internal constraints too.

              No it doesn’t!

              Otherwise most computer programs would qualify as having compatibilist free will, …

              Bingo! Exactly. Compatibilist free will is not some weird esoteric notion, it is just the way the world actually is.

              • eric
                Posted November 3, 2014 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

                So when you say we have free will, you mean we have free will the same way a computer program has free will?

                I would argue that you are now defending a notion so far afield from the standard, vernacular meaning of the term, that you are doing a disservice by using that term. This is such a nonstandard meaning of ‘free will’ that it borders on intentionally deceptive.

              • Posted November 3, 2014 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

                Hi eric, what is your mind other than a somewhat more complex computer programme running on somewhat more complex hardware?

              • Posted November 3, 2014 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

                Compatibilist free will is not some weird esoteric notion, it is just the way the world actually is.

                Nobody here is disagreeing with you that this is the way that the world works.

                We’re trying to get it through to you that the term, “free will,” in the context of philosophy and theology, is explicitly defined so as to contrast with the natural explanation.

                You’re claiming that, because money and power are real and the most important thing to some people, we should say that gods are real.

                You’re claiming that, because lost loved ones linger in our memories after death and we sometimes imagine (or hallucinate) interacting with them, ghosts are real.

                You’re claiming that, because not everybody knows what everything they see in the sky really is, UFOs are real.

                Come in here and tell us that gods, ghosts, and UFOs are real, and we’ll all tell you you’re barking mad. Tell us that, no, it’s okay, you’re not barking mad, because you really mean money and power, and the memories of lost loved ones, and Venus and weather balloons, and we’ll still tell you you’re barking mad, only for different reasons.

                That’s what’s going on with this debate here. Nobody disputes that the phenomena you’re describing are real, any more than we’d dispute that money and power or the memories of lost loved ones or Venus and weather balloons are real. We’re objecting to your use of the terms, “gods,” “ghosts,” and, “UFOs”…and, “free will,” to refer to these phenomena.

                And so, too, not in the least would theologians, spiritualists, and UFOlogists. They’d be every bit as upset at you for attempting to usurp these words as we are.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Posted November 3, 2014 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

                Hi Ben,

                the term, “free will,” in the context of philosophy and theology, is explicitly defined so as to contrast with the natural explanation.

                That’s not true about philosophy, where the compatibilist meaning has a very long history.

                You’re right about theology, but since when do we care about them or let them dictate how we use the language? Would you do that over the concept of morality?

              • eric
                Posted November 3, 2014 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

                what is your mind other than a somewhat more complex computer programme

                Well that’s the prevailing model but historically we’ve changed our models of the brain every time we invent some new more complex bit of machinery. It used to be a clockwork, now it’s a computer…tomorrow who knows what metaphor we’ll use. 🙂

                But you didn’t really respond to my point at all. Why do you feel the need to use a completely nonstandard and confusing definition of the term ‘free will’ rather tahn just use a different term? The only thing holding onto the term ‘free will’ does is confuse the public and make them think you are defending a notion you are not actually defending. Like sophisticated theologians do. They should not be the compatibilist movement’s communications role model.

            • Danbite
              Posted November 3, 2014 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

              I think the critical requirement is constraint from/by another will-capable agent. Doesnt matter if it’s internal or external. The computer has its internal constraints put there by the programmer. Of course first of all is the computer even capable of having wills?

    • Posted November 3, 2014 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

      I am starting to think this argument could be argued more effectively from both sides if the term “free will” was left out of it.

      Sam Harris can say “you do not choose what you choose; your choices are the result of the mindless expression of physical laws by physical particles; really, there are no choices” and Dennett could reply “whatever action you take, it’s you that is taking it, and there are processes available to you that get you to that action which are not available to other kinds of matter like rocks.”

      I think the argument is much more about whether we should acknowledge different levels of causation, and what gets to count as a cause. Focusing on the silliness of the term “free will” doesn’t advance either side, imco. (in my current opinion)

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted November 4, 2014 at 6:08 am | Permalink

        +1

      • Posted November 4, 2014 at 10:51 am | Permalink

        And that’s sort of one way to interpret Kane – he tells you why he *wants* traditional free will. (Self origination, in his case.) One should perhaps deal with that instead – he does, though in my view with little success. That’s why I was disappointed with Dennett’s _Freedom Evolves_ – it doesn’t engage Kane enough.

      • Posted November 5, 2014 at 7:26 am | Permalink

        I am starting to think this argument could be argued more effectively from both sides if the term “free will” was left out of it.

        As I’ve still yet to encounter a coherent definition of the term, I’d agree with that.

        I try to keep pointing out that we have a very real decision-making process (that’s a purely mechanical phenomenon of the brain) that subjectively feels like Jerry’s tape-rewinding, that people point to when they say they’re exercising their free will, but that that process is explicitly not what people actually mean by the term. The logical conclusion is that it’s like any other religious phenomenon; just because Aphrodite isn’t real doesn’t mean you don’t actually love anybody, even if you say that it’s by Aphrodite’s grace that you do. Just because you have no immortal soul doesn’t mean you’re heartless. Just because Santa is Mom and Dad doesn’t mean it’s okay to be naughty rather than nice.

        Honestly, I think the biggest part of the problem is with the accommodationists not wanting to let go of the term. You don’t need to refer to “free will” to discuss the decision-making process, and the consequences of the decisions you make are irrelevant of the deterministic physics that governs them. Red herrings flock to the term, “free will,” like geese.

        b&

  11. Posted November 3, 2014 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    Free will as well as free won’t are in the arguments of philosophy and therefore subjective. Science is subject to objectivity. Therefore free will is based on faith and subject to the usual Arguments. The bottom line for me is science always requires objectivity and always getting the same objective result. The rest is opinion depending on your individual point of view. Dr dan Sent from my iPhone

    >

    • darrelle
      Posted November 3, 2014 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      Applying the methods of science to subjective problems can yield useful objective data, and useful models. That is done all the time. But, humans being humans, those types of problems do seem more difficult to determine useful information about than, say, physics problems.

  12. Jeffery
    Posted November 3, 2014 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    The term, “moral” seems to carry the definition of “pertaining to matters which might eventually affect ME directly”- most cultures allow individuals a fairly wide range of actions before they enter the territory of decisions and actions that a “consensus” of the members of that culture have deemed to not produce a “gain”, or actually inflict a “loss” on that society’s expectations of how one person should treat another (“immoral”).

    The fact that it’s a entirely subjective term means that it can’t be used as an “absolute”: many Chinese think it’s perfectly OK to beat a dog before butchering it in the belief that it makes the meat more tender; many Muslims and Hindus feel that it’s perfectly moral, indeed, admirable, to kill a daughter who has offended the family’s “honor”; suicide bomber’s mothers are often proud of their sons, and what they did, etc.

    That the societal concept of “morality” originates in the individual’s attempt to seek gain and avoid loss is evidenced by the fact that few, if any, burglars would wish themselves to be burglarized; few rapists are OK with the idea of they themselves being raped, few, if any, murderers comfortable with the idea of they themselves being murdered. The concept of morality is a “tool” used by the individual to express what it is they wouldn’t like seeing done to themselves and, when “mirrored” and amplified by numerous other individuals in that society, becomes the “norm” (there is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with seeking to define a set of societal rules that produce the most good for the most people).

    The funny thing is that, even if we were to have “free” will, we wouldn’t be able to count on it to produce reliable “gains” in our lives as we simply do not (and never will have) the information necessary to know the exact results of our actions- the eating of the “fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” was supposedly a “free-willed” decision by Eve; you’d think that all Christians would be earnestly praying that it be removed from them!

  13. Posted November 3, 2014 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Jerry touches on this again in this piece, but I still think this whole debate is simply one of semantics once we dismiss the ghost in the machine notion of free will.

    Many of the arguments I read from compatibilists seem to acknowledge some fear that denying any definition of free will and saying that everything is determined will lead to worse societal behavior (and there have been some small studies indicating this may be the case). Regarding moral responsibility versus responsibility, I don’t really have a problem with the word moral if it is being used to distinguish social responsibility from other sorts of responsibility, as other posters have noted.

    In everyday language, it makes sense to say a person was responsible and should have behaved differently without getting into the rewind-the-tape scenario that in those exact circumstances, they would have behaved the same way. We don’t speak like this when it comes to other topics; there’s no reason why we should when it comes to human behavior. Perhaps, for more than any other reason, we don’t do this because the antecedent causes quickly grow exponentially.

    When a red light malfunctions and a collision occurs, we peg the “root cause” as the red light malfunctioning. We don’t walk it back further and say, “Well the first driver wouldn’t have been there because he forgot his keys and had to walk back in the house to get them, thus he was 20 seconds later than he otherwise would have been.” Likewise, we don’t then investigate the fact that he misplaced his keys due to a fight he had with his wife and the fight he had with his wife was due to him flirting with the cleaning lady and this happened because the husband is having a bit of a midlife crisis due to losing his hair and this is because of the genetics inherited from his parents, who only happened to procreate because of a chance meeting in a New York nightclub in 1968, which only happened…

    In a similar vein, if an accident happens because a driver was drunk, we say the drunk driver caused the accident and he is responsible despite the series of preceding causes and societal factors that lead to it. The most important thing we can learn from determinism is that there are predictable ways to cause individuals to change their behavior in desirable ways. In my view, the free will debate misses the mark in the way that it is usually framed. The same exact point could be made by framing it in terms of reinforcement and punishment and showing how these cause people to react differently to environmental stimuli. And, in this context, I don’t see anything wrong with saying people made a choice.

  14. JimV
    Posted November 3, 2014 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    a)It is technical possible (I did it on an Apple II computer over 30 years ago, as did many others before and since) to program a computer to make decisions which are completely unpredictable.

    b) The reason this was beneficial in computer games is similar to why evolution is effective: randomness can find solutions which deterministic algorithms can not, and unpredictability can be a virtue in some situations.

    c) Therefore I expect evolution will have programmed our brains and nervous systems with this same capability (to be exercised when there seems to be no clear choice among options – and perhaps very rarely even when there is). Why would creatures developed by evolution not use the same successful tricks that evolution uses?

    I suppose one could argue that the past is fixed and therefore once a decision is made it could not have been made differently, but that premise is not a scientifically determined fact and opinions on it differ depending on one’s interpretation of quantum mechanics.

    Note: I am not saying that neuroscience experiments will not be able to learn what the decision is before the conscious mind does. Obviously there will be some delay between when neurons and synapses compute a decision and that decision is implemented consciously, just as there is a (very small) delay between when Excel calculates a spreadsheet cell and Windows displays the result on a screen.

    • JimV
      Posted November 3, 2014 at 9:33 am | Permalink

      Dang, type in the first sentence: technical should be technically. Probably there will be others, although I did proof-read for ten minutes.

  15. Posted November 3, 2014 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    It’s been a few years since Skinner’s “Beyond Freedom and Dignity.” Perhaps time for a revisit.

    The fact of determinism does not mean that parents and society are helpless and must wallow in misery.

    Diseases are determined also, but we find ways to prevent them, cure them, or ameliorate them.

    Discussions of morality boil down to questions of how we can reduce the frequency of bad behavior and make life more pleasant. It’s not really difficult to list the things that cause pain and trouble. It’s somewhat difficult to change behavior. But it is worth looking for things that work.

  16. Kevin
    Posted November 3, 2014 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    We are incapable, as a species, to know the outcome of events as simple as a basketball game or when two people may or may not decide to marry, raise children and grow old together.

    We do not have the theoretical understanding or technology to assess future states, which could wholly refute the possibility of free will. It is impossible, according to the laws of physics, as we know them now, to permit factual claims about the nature of free will. This is the primary reason why people take compatibilism seriously. I do not see how compatibilism, from this scientific perspective, perjures any of the important lessons determinists support about “how we should change our views of responsibility, punishment, and reward.”

    • Posted November 3, 2014 at 10:37 am | Permalink

      Permit me to use you as my first victim of a new way of framing this that I though of earlier.

      We are incapable, as a species, to predict the outcomes of various events and lack the theoretical understanding or technology to assess future states…which could wholly refute the possibility of gods who dictate our fates. It is impossible, according to the laws of physics as now known, to permit factual claims about the nature of the gods — or, indeed, the afterlife and its heavens and hells. Should this not therefore be the primary reason why people should take theology and accommodationism seriously? From this scientific perspective, it’s hard to see how accommodationism perjures any of the important lessons atheists support about “how we should change our views of responsibility, punishment, and reward.”

      Now, I challenge you to craft a defense of compatibilism that’s immune from such analogies. I don’t think it’s possible, but it’s pretty much what it’d take to convince me (and, I suspect, Jerry) of the validity of compatibilism.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Kevin
        Posted November 3, 2014 at 11:24 am | Permalink

        There is no defense that I can think of to defend compatibilism from such analogies.

        However, the universe appears to be indistinguishable from one that could permit free will (god). I do not believe in free will (god) but I only know of one way to defend determinism (atheism) against the people’s beliefs in free will (god) and that is that comppatibilism is a logical paradox, in the same way that Francis Collins and Templeton hounds perjure their own lives.

    • eric
      Posted November 3, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      We do not have the theoretical understanding or technology to assess future states, which could wholly refute the possibility of free will. It is impossible, according to the laws of physics, as we know them now, to permit factual claims about the nature of free will.

      Huh? I think it’s very possible. The whole reason dualistic free will has been abandoned as a concept is because our observations of the laws of physics etc. give no evidence of souls, and lots of evidence that human decision-making is entirely a result of brain activity. We can make many factual claims about human decision making and brain activity.

      IOW, science has already refuted one variant of the hypothesis that you say is irrefutable. It seems perfectly reasonable to me to say that science could, in the future, refute (or confirm) other testable ‘free will’ claims. Sure, if compatibilists fashion an untestable variant of the free will hypothesis, then science won’t be able to say anything about it. But that will be a pyrrhic victory for compatiblists, at best.

      • Kevin
        Posted November 3, 2014 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

        The strongest claim for determinism will ultimately rest on prediction; this is the most convincing case that humans would empirically accept.

        Person A: “You do not have free will”.
        Person B: “How do you know?”
        Person A: “I know everything that will ever happen.”

        If this were to be shown then it refutes the possibility of free will not just for that person, but obviously for all objects that exist. Science, however is incapable of providing a definitive proof.

        Determinists who wish to refute free will are left with the same rational arguments as those against a supernatural being: it is incredibly unlikely free will exists…as unlikely as if a god existed.

        • Posted November 3, 2014 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

          Science, however is incapable of providing a definitive proof.

          Of course not.

          But science is capable of demonstrating statistical confidence of truly overwhelming degrees.

          Specifically, we have (by now) well over five sigma confidence that the Standard Model is complete at anything and everything approaching human scales. And, since the Standard Model is entirely Turing-computable, that means that the Church-Turing Thesis holds at all domains for which the Standard Model is complete…which is a roundabout way of stating that there’s less than a 1:3500000 chance that your mind is something other than the product of a meat computer. And all forms of “free will” and dualism and the rest are all crammed into that remaining fraction of a fraction of a millionth of a percent of a possibility, so picking any one of them (as opposed to just invalidating the Standard Model) is even more foolhardy.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Kevin
            Posted November 4, 2014 at 5:46 am | Permalink

            Physic limits what is possible, including limiting its own capacity for proof. It is in many ways the ultimately purveyor of truth.

            Neutron EDM measurements show that we will soon quaranteened limits to Standard Model to nearly 1 part in 10^28. See the history section of:

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

            And anamolous electron magnetic moment measurements (1/10^12) simultaneously probe ~TeV energy scales of interaction with direct comparison to the theory of QED (the anchor, if you will, of the Standard Model).

            • Posted November 5, 2014 at 7:40 am | Permalink

              Thanks for the reference. Amazing that I should just happen to live in the time when all of this is gelling….

              b&

        • eric
          Posted November 4, 2014 at 8:24 am | Permalink

          I don’t see how your argument is relevant, because we don’t require the most convincing case before rejecting free will. Like any other part of science, when it comes to how human cognition works the theory we go with should be the current theory best supported by the available evidence. And if the best support doesn’t meet some arbitrary bar that compatibilists have set, too bad so sad for them: we’re still going with the best supported theory.

          In some ways you’re making an argument analogous to creationist arguments against evolution. They too, attempt to force a rejection of the best available theory by saying it’s got too many holes (i.e., it doesn’t meet some arbitrary standard of solidness or goodness).

          So saying “science, however is incapable of providing a definitive proof” is irrelevant. We don’t use that standard in any other part of science when making theory selection, decisions, why should we use it here?

  17. Posted November 3, 2014 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Jerry, we obviously disagree on these issues, and I won’t bother arguing here (again) that most people are not as committed to incompatibilist or dualist conceptions of free will as you presume (I’m sure you’d be unconvinced by my recent paper in Cognition showing that most people think free will is consistent with perfect prediction of decisions based on prior brain activity with the conclusion that this possibility shows that mental activity just *is* brain activity.)

    Instead, I’d like to ask you and your readers a question about the history of concepts. As you know, the notion of life and living organism was once tied to a dualistic notion of elan vital. Once we developed a naturalistic understanding of life, we eliminated elan vital but we did not say that “life is an illusion” or “*living* organisms don’t really exist.” It might have gone the other way, and we could have used some other word to replace “life” since the history of the term was so bound up with dualistic theories. But we didn’t, in part perhaps because not much was lost regarding living organisms once we understood them naturalistically.

    Now, the question is why “free will” should be treated differently. I agree with you that we should be naturalists about the human mind and consciousness. I’m pretty confident that eventually we’ll come up with naturalistic theories to explain the more complicated features of mind (like consciousness and imagining various future options, and rational deliberation). At that point, I suspect we’ll come to believe that not much will have been lost regarding the mind or free will (just as not much was lost about life). Just as elan vital didn’t really explain anything about life, but was more of a placeholder for the complicated stuff (like regeneration, reproduction, metabolism, self-propulsion), the notion of a non-physical mind doesn’t really explain anything about the complicated stuff like consciousness, imagination, and representation. It’s a placeholder we can replace.

    So, perhaps we can should get rid of the term “free will” or perhaps instead we can get rid of terms like “causa sui” or “immaterial soul” and hold onto “free will” to do the useful work it does in differentiating those who control their actions (in distinctively well-developed ways in humans) such that they can be responsible from those who do not. Ordinary people tend not to have complicated theories of elan vital, nor do they have such theories about causa sui. But they are pretty good at distinguishing free acts from unfree ones, and with more science of the mind, we can refine this understanding to make the contours more precise (it will turn out we have less free will than we tend to think).

    (Of course, you and I will differ on whether naturalism or determinism is inconsistent with a plausible notion of moral responsibility and deserving blame and credit for our actions. But I promise, there’s a lot of interesting philosophy on these issues that is not just what you would call “theology”.)

    • Posted November 3, 2014 at 11:06 am | Permalink

      All I can say about your last sentence is that I’ve read a ton of compatibilist philosophy (and I had no strong opinions about the issue when I began such readings), and I haven’t seen anything substantive in it. The substantive results come from ignoring the semantics of “free will” and seeing what the implications of determinism are for how we live our lives and reward and punish our confrères.

    • eric
      Posted November 3, 2014 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      Now, the question is why “free will” should be treated differently.

      Clarity for your audience, is why. 75% of the US is Christian. They think they have a soul, and probably most of them immediately think “soul” when you say the words “free will.” When compatiblists come out with defenses of free will, they are (unintentionally for the most part) riding on this misunderstanding. They are reinforcing the notion that dualistic free will exists by not explaining the difference between what they mean by free will and what the American public probably thinks of as free will.

      An analogy would be to sophisticated theologians. They defend a non-anthromorphic deistic notion of God in formal, academic talk. But the lay audience sees them making comments defending God, and that audience naturally assumes that the defense applies to their God, the anthormorphic personal one. What do we want to say to such people? That they really ought not to call the subject of their defense “God” if it has little or none of the attributes their audience thinks are important to associate with “God.” The same goes for free will compatibilists: you ought not call your concept “free will” if it has little or none of the dualistic nature that the majority of the American public will associate with ‘free will.’

  18. Posted November 3, 2014 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    If you are going to drop the idea of free will and moral responsibility, what happens to the atheist claim that it is possible for atheists to live morally good lives without God? And if you drop the adjective “morally” from “morally good lives”, what does it mean to live a “good life”? And if determinism does in fact reign, then what does it mean to say that anyone is responsible at all for their lives, good or bad? Indeed, from any reasonable point of view, that means that life simply happens, and that speaking of goodness or badness, let alone responsibility is incoherent.

    I do not think it is possible to make sense of these ideas if you simply drop talk of morality and freedom. Indeed, such a move would make speaking about social life a confusion, if not a delusion. Dennett’s compatibilism is not simply a subterfuge; taking physical determinism for granted, it is a logically necessary condition for the existence of morality, goodness and responsibility. I also think that it is a necessary condition for the appearance of meaning, and the ability to detect and understand the significance of causation. What is being missed here, in my view, is the fact that science is only possible for beings that are capable of creating intelligible sounds or symbols. Science itself is achieved by abstracting mind from the observed world, and discovering regularities. To reduce mind to that state would be to subvert the scientific project itself. Indeed, what those who are denying freedom are doing is illegitimately reducing mind to a physical process, thus subverting science itself.

    As for Libet’s experiments, what justification is there for claiming that a decision was made before the mind became aware of it? A decision is a conscious act, and not a brain state. If there are brain states that precede the making of simple decisions like raising an arm, these cannot constitute decisions, but are merely preparatory to making decisions. They may indicate to the experimenter that such and such a decision will be made, but not that the decision has been made before the subject becomes aware of it. More complex decisions, like my decision to go into town tomorrow, and doing whatever is necessary to carry out that decision, can scarcely be reduced to single brain states, and does not preclude my changing my mind should circumstances change in such a way as to make my trip into town inconvenient or unnecessary.

    The reason philosophers spend time with these questions is because it is not clear that brain states and consciousness are identical, or that in fact determinism does in fact reign. On the face of it, there seems to be no reason why it should be thought that the idea of free will is incoherent. After all, neither neurologists nor biologists cannot tell us what consciousness is. Nor can they tell us whether consciousness can have physical consequences. When and if this has been demonstrated, then we may have to live with the consequences, if possible. However, if, in fact, determinism does reign, then it seems that the arguments like this have no meaning, another concept that neither neurology nor biology has been able to explain.

    There is more faith in the claim that determinism reigns than there is in the claim that God exists, for there is actually no evidence that determinism does reign in the domain of conscious, rational beings. That is a faith statement if there ever was one.

    • darrelle
      Posted November 3, 2014 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      “. . . for there is actually no evidence that determinism does reign in the domain of conscious, rational beings.”

      I have to admit that I am surprised by that statment. That is simply not true.

    • Posted November 3, 2014 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      If you are going to drop the idea of free will and moral responsibility, what happens to the atheist claim that it is possible for atheists to live morally good lives without God?

      “Free will” is incoherent, a married bachelor. There’s no choice but to drop it, no matter where you’re coming from.

      “Moral responsibility,” I’ll get back to in a moment.

      And Euthyphro demonstrated the utter irrelevance of the gods to morality centuries before the invention of Christianity.

      That last one I would hope needs no further discussion, so permit me to ignore it further and focus on the other two.

      Even in the dualist worldview, “free will” makes no sense. For a will to be willful, it must follow naturally from the nature of the one doing the willing. If it is unconstrained by that nature, it is not willful; it’s mere random flailing. But, if it is so constrained, it’s clearly not free; it must strictly adhere to the internal-to-the-entity rules that define the nature of the one doing the willing. But, again, if we free things up, it’s no longer willful.

      That the rules that the entities we’re familiar with (ourselves) follow can be traced through multiple layers to the universal laws of physics…well, that’s an humbling and powerful observation, but the end result for the question of the freely married willful bachelor is the same. Either a decision is willful and thus not free, or it is free and thus not willful. Even — nay, especially — if the entity did happen to be a Christian soul as classically theologically formulated. After all, the Christian soul is supposed to be somehow immune even to the influence of dain brammage.

      And “moral responsibility” is completely tangential. Morality can only coherently be understood as an individual strategy (in the sense used by game theory) for optimal success in a cooperative society. There’s the potential for a constant tug-of-war with the parasitism of crime and other forms of misanthropy, but you load the dice in your personal favor when you help to build society rather than tear it down, and a society loads the dice in its favor when it does everything possible to empower and assist its members in following their dreams. Simple application of (non-social) Darwinism ensures that this should be so: individuals that fight society are putting more resources into the fight than into their own success, but societies that are constantly fighting their members are unable to follow through on the “big ideas” like agriculture and technology that enable success for everybody. Healthy societies thus, statistically on average, thrive and outcompete degenerate ones — and, again, with all the same caveats that apply to individuals. No guarantees; only chances to (perhaps even only slightly) load the dice one way or the other.

      Hope that helps….

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted November 3, 2014 at 11:59 am | Permalink

        Hi Ben,

        “Free will” is incoherent, a married bachelor. There’s no choice but to drop it, no matter where you’re coming from.

        You yourself have accepted that there is a meaning of it that is “coherent” and “well-defined” and “has to do with gun-to-the-head types of coercion”.

        The only real difference between us is that you consider this meaning to be confined to the legal profession, whereas I think it is useful more broadly.

        • Alain Van Hout
          Posted November 3, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

          Would this not require a much larger leap in the meaning of ‘free will’ (in relation to how most people think of the term) compared to for example the change in meaning of ‘moral’ to ‘social’ rather (implicitly) religious?

          I myself am not against changing the meaning of words when necessary, but I’d ask whether (with the changed meaning) the term would still have any specific usefulness given that the new meaning would be opposite to the traditional meaning.

          • Posted November 3, 2014 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

            Popular conceptions of “free will” are actually an inconsistent mix of both dualist and compatibilist concepts. Thus it is not really true that there is a “correct” meaning of the term, and that moving to a compatibilist one will be difficult.

            • Posted November 3, 2014 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

              Again, how is this different from the gods themselves?

              The gods are said to be ultimately powerful agents, and they’re said to be ground-up beings, and they’re said to watch over every sparrow, and they’re said to judge us without interfering in our lives, and they’re said to help us find our keys, and so on. And some of those conceptions are simply flat-out nonsensical, and others merely implausible and unevidenced.

              Your free will is, frankly, indistinguishable from any other sprite from the realm of religion: given some definitions, it can’t be disproven — though, even then, it still lacks evidence where we’d really expect evidence to be found. Given most popular definitions, it not only can’t exist, you can’t even say what it would actually mean for it to exist.

              What are you crusading to preserve “free will” as an useful term if you don’t think “god” is equally salvageable?

              b&

              • Posted November 3, 2014 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

                Your free will […] still lacks evidence where we’d really expect evidence to be found. … you can’t even say what it would actually mean for it to exist.

                Of course I can say what it would mean for it to exist! And of course I can provide evidence for it!

                Every chess-playing computer has compatibilist free-will. Every aircraft autopilot has compatibilist free will.

                What are you crusading to preserve “free will” as an useful term if you don’t think “god” is equally salvageable?

                For the same reason that I think the concept “life” is a valuable one in a deterministic and naturalistic universe.

              • Posted November 3, 2014 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

                Every chess-playing computer has compatibilist free-will. Every aircraft autopilot has compatibilist free will.

                You’re really going out of your way to prove my point.

                Those are the two textbook examples of what the man on the street would use of what doesn’t constitute free will.

                So your free will, as real a phenomenon as it may well be, is the very antithesis of what everybody else thinks of as free will.

                …and you wonder why everybody is hurling imprecations your way…?

                b&

            • Alain Van Hout
              Posted November 3, 2014 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

              I’d argue that popular conceptions of “free will” are indeed an inconsistent mix of both dualist and compatibilist concepts, but also that this notion is fairly ingrained. As such, it is commonplace enough to be considered a ‘correct’ meaning (in the sense of being common parlance), even though it is not coherent.

              In some ways this mirrors the fact that although most (if not all) notions of a creator god are internally inconsistent, this doesn’t subsequently mean that this makes it easy to switch everyone over to a ‘ground of being’ god. (as I see it, this analogy goes even further given that this theological ‘ground of being’ god isn’t in fact the same as what most people consider a/the creator god to be)

        • Posted November 3, 2014 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

          That’s a bait-and-switch. The legal definition of, “free will,” is explicitly contrasted with the theological / philosophical one, and it’s the later this debate is about. Might as well go full Chopra and start interchanging perfectly useful definitions from physics with ones from Hinduism.

          b&

          • Posted November 3, 2014 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

            But the man-in-the-street conception of “free will” is just as much about the legal definition as the theological one.

            Thinking in compatibilist ways does actually come easily to people, as in the list of usages of “free” that I gave. No-one thinks that a “free press” is a theological or dualist concept.

            • Posted November 3, 2014 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

              The man on the street only thinks of the legal definition if you add “of your own” in front of, “free will.” But just those two words by themselves means spooky spiritual woo-woo.

              Similarly, the man on the street would agree with you if you said, for example, “Money and power are the gods of Wall Street and Washington.” Does that prove the existence of gods? But the same man on the street would vehemently disagree that “God” (singular and presumably capitalized) is reasonably defined as, “money and power.”

              Really, what do you hope to gain with these word games?

              b&

              • Posted November 3, 2014 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

                I think that the man in the street uses the compatibilist notion more often than you suggest.

                I see adopting a compatibilist notion of free-will as more akin to retaining the concept “life” when ditching vitalism, than as retaining a concept of “gods”.

                Presumably you’d have been equally against taking a naturalist interpretation of “life”?

              • Posted November 3, 2014 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

                I think that the man in the street uses the compatibilist notion more often than you suggest.

                Perhaps, but not in the context of theology / philosophy.

                I’m certain that the man in the street uses the word, “grace,” in the sense of what cats and dancers have far more than he uses it in the sense of Jesus’s salvific redemption — but so what? The fact that cats are graceful is utterly irrelevant to whether or not Jesus grants his blessings upon the undeserved, and it’s the latter we’re discussing in this context.

                Again, all you’re offering is a bait-and-switch. “Since nobody is holding a gun to your head to force you to sign this contract, therefore you are the master of your own fate and physics be damned!” No, of course you don’t mean to make the claim of the latter half of that sentence, but that’s what your words say regardless.

                b&

              • Posted November 3, 2014 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

                On your last sentence, I don’t agree that the language is owned by a conspiracy of dualists and incompatibilists.

                Compatibilist language has a long tradition and is in the dictionary. E.g. The online free dictionary defines “free will” as “2. The power of making free choices that are unconstrained by external circumstances …”.

                Indeed, both definitions 1 and 2 are compatibilist, given the example used: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/free+will

              • Alain Van Hout
                Posted November 3, 2014 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

                Would it not be fair to say that the man in the street would consider a human being, but not, say, a cat or (further down the line) a dog (I kid of course) to have free will? If not, which street are we talking about?

              • Posted November 3, 2014 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

                Yes — and precisely because “free will” is an intrinsic property of the soul, which the man on the street would generally insist that only humans possess. Those that would tell you that cats and dogs have free will will also tell you that they have souls.

                b&

              • Alain Van Hout
                Posted November 3, 2014 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

                Compatibilist language has a long tradition and is in the dictionary. E.g. The online free dictionary defines “free will” as “2. The power of making free choices that are unconstrained by external circumstances …”.

                The full version being:
                1. The ability or discretion to choose; free choice: chose to remain behind of my own free will.
                2. The power of making free choices that are unconstrained by external circumstances or by an agency such as fate or divine will.

                The first obviously refers to the legal notion of free will, as evidenced by the words ‘of my own’. The second specifically refers to supernatural agencies restricting choice. This is also corroborated as not a pure accidental example by the definitions offered by Merriam-Webster:

                “freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention”

                This definition even specifically mentions prior causes, i.e. physical causality.

                And yet another one, from Dictionary.com:

                “Philosophy. the doctrine that the conduct of human beings expresses personal choice and is not simply determined by physical or divine forces.”

      • Vaal
        Posted November 3, 2014 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

        Ben,

        “Free will” is incoherent, a married bachelor. There’s no choice but to drop it, no matter where you’re coming from.

        Ben, it appears so..if you beg the question. Your arguments against compatibilism tend to take on a No True Scotsman approach:

        Ben: “Free Will is incoherent.”

        Response: “I disagree, here is a concept of free will that is incoherent.”

        Ben: “But that’s not really free will. REAL free will is incoherent.”

        It’s a heads I win, tails you lose argument.

        “Either a decision is willful and thus not free, or it is free and thus not willful.”

        I see that you’ve made that comment in the context of dualism, but I believe it echoes your criticisms of compatibilism as well.

        In which case…

        To coherently apply the term “free” to “will,” it is not necessary that a human will must have somehow “formed itself…freely.” In this sense “free will” doesn’t have to mean “the WILL formed freely – of all former causes or something weird like that.”

        It is only necessary that a human HAVE a “will.” By which I would essentially mean having desires and the means to rationalize how to fulfill those desires.”

        If you reject the proposal that we have desires, and rationality, you will quickly make your own posts incoherent, and I’m sure you don’t go that far.

        From here, we can talk about different situations in which people are constrained from acting on their will, being able to get what they want, vs when they are not constrained (and everything in between).

        I don’t think you can actually show any incoherence there at all. There’s no supernatural or god-like woo-woo in there. And if the reply amounts to “but that’s NOT REAL FREE WILL,” see the problem of begging the question/No True Scotsman fallacy mentioned above.

        • Vaal
          Posted November 3, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

          gha! Should have read:

          Ben: “Free Will is incoherent.”

          Response: “I disagree, here is a concept of free will that is COHERENT.”

          Ben: “But that’s not really free will. REAL free will is incoherent.”

          • Alain Van Hout
            Posted November 3, 2014 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

            or …

            Ben: “Chocolate ice cream melts at room temperature”

            Response: “I disagree, chocolate mousse doesn’t melt at room temperature.”

            Ben: “But that’s not really chocolate ice cream. REAL chocolate ice cream melts at room temperature.”

            This in no way proves Ben’s point to be valid … but then it only meant to show that your characterization of the conversation isn’t necessarily representative.

            • Vaal
              Posted November 3, 2014 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

              Alain Van Hout,

              The concept of Free Will I had just described is not inherently contradictory or incoherent. (Unless you or Ben can show it is).

              This quote from Ben further up the thread is pretty typical of his stance:

              “Free will” is an oxymoron, an inherently contradictory and incoherent concept.

              If you have decided that free will is “inherently contradictory,” then when presented with a concept of free will that is not “inherently contradictory” the next move will be a version of “then THAT’s not REAL FREE WILL.”

              This is pretty much how these conversations have played out, and do at least become susceptible to the charges of question-begging/scotsman fallacy I brought up.

              I’d be happy to see that this characterization turns out to be wrong.

        • Posted November 3, 2014 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

          Ben, it appears so..if you beg the question. Your arguments against compatibilism tend to take on a No True Scotsman approach:

          Ben: “Free Will is incoherent.”

          Response: “I disagree, here is a concept of free will that is incoherent.”

          Ben: “But that’s not really free will. REAL free will is incoherent.”

          It’s a heads I win, tails you lose argument.

          No; you’re trying to claim that anybody who wears a kilt is Scottish.

          There’s a very specific definition of the term, “free will,” which is used in contexts such as these and is agreed upon by all but the compatibilists. The compatibilists agree that that definition is incoherent. But, rather than admit that it’s incoherent, they wish to salvage the term (for whatever reason) and instead insist that something that nobody else recognizes as “free will” is what “free will” really is.

          Call up the local diocese and ask for the priest, and ask him to settle an argument for you by telling you what “free will” is. Also ask him if your definition is one that he’d recognize. Do the same at a bar, at a bus station, at the library, and at anywhere else you can think of.

          Not a single person you ask is going to spontaneously offer your definition, and few if any will agree with yours.

          You are, of course, free to abuse the language however you like. If you’re wise, though, you won’t, and you also won’t be surprised when people misunderstand or disagree with you when you insist on doing so anyway.

          After all, I could just as easily declare “free will” to be an ham sandwich, and wonder what all the upset is about.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Vaal
            Posted November 3, 2014 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

            Ben,

            There’s a very specific definition of the term, “free will,” which is used in contexts such as these and is agreed upon by all but the compatibilists.

            The very concept of Free Will itself is under debate, so you can’t simply declare your favored interpretation as the correct one:

            http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freewill/

            “Free Will” is a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives. Which sort is the free will sort is what all the fuss is about.”

            Wikipedia:

            “Free will is the ability of agents to make choices unimpeded by certain prevailing factors. Such prevailing factors which have been studied in the past have included metaphysical constraints (such as logical, nomological, or theological determinism),[1] physical constraints (such as chains or imprisonment), social constraints (such as threat of punishment or censure), and mental constraints (such as compulsions or phobias, neurological disorders, or genetic predispositions).”

            Another link showing it is nothing like the settled concept you depict:

            http://www.iep.utm.edu/freewill/

            As to a popular conception of free will, as you should be aware, attempts to study people’s notions of free will – some of which have been discussed on this web site – are thus far inconsistent in results, with both compatibilist and libertarian free will being indicated. So it still falls into a conversation as to whether a concept of free will being put forth captures enough of what people man or “want” when thinking of their free will, to be be useful.

            But it’s all been done before here. I have to unplug from the net to get work done.

        • Peter Beattie
          Posted November 4, 2014 at 3:40 am | Permalink

          » Ben Goren:
          “Free will” is incoherent, a married bachelor.
          » Vaal:
          Ben, it appears so..if you beg the question.

          Exactly. If you presuppose, and only ever accept, the one interpretation of a term that guarantees the outcome you want, you’re not playing fair.

          • Posted November 5, 2014 at 7:38 am | Permalink

            ‘Tain’t me whose doing the presupposition. Look at that sampling of dictionary definitions somebody else quoted in this thread, all of which defined “free will” as “the ability to make choices free from external constraints, especially those imposed by natural or divine influences.”

            You could just as easily argue that the latest teen heartthrob is a god, and therefore gods are real. Would I be begging the question if I insisted that that was a bait-and-switch trick?

            b&

    • Kevin
      Posted November 3, 2014 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      It is very reasonable point of view to think that life “simply happens, and that speaking of goodness or badness, let alone responsibility is incoherent.” Spoken like a true physicist.

      Of course, because we are human, most of us do wish to minimize unnecessary suffering, if only, to make most of our time in this short life more pleasant than if we did the reverse. Adopt this strategy:

      “do not do unto others that which would be repugnant were it done unto you”

      http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2014/10/some-thoughts-on-turning-50.html

    • eric
      Posted November 3, 2014 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      If you are going to drop the idea of free will and moral responsibility, what happens to the atheist claim that it is possible for atheists to live morally good lives without God?

      Its still observed to be true, so…nothing happens to it.

      Theory doesn’t trump evidence. If you have a theory that dropping the concept of moral responsiblity will cause mass bad behavior, but lots of evidence to the contrary, your theory is wrong. Modify it or ditch it. Why its wrong may be an interesting question you want to look into, but you should accept that its wrong based on the evidence.

      And if you drop the adjective “morally” from “morally good lives”, what does it mean to live a “good life”?

      It means a life lived in accordance with precepts we, the human community, have defined as “good.” Is that subjective? Yes. But the argument that morality is subjective has gone mostly hand in hand with atheism already, so the ‘no free will’ angle doesn’t really change anything.

      And if determinism does in fact reign, then what does it mean to say that anyone is responsible at all for their lives, good or bad?

      That is a better question, as I think our vernacular use of ‘responsible for’ is somewhat bound up in our notion of us as free willed, choosing entities. Its why we don’t hold animals “responsible for” their actions. We might kill them or restrict them based on safety issues, but we don’t really blame them the way we blame humans.

      I’m not sure how we answer this question. I’m tempted to say if the concept is legally useful for resolving disputes, but fundamentally wrong, we should still use it. I know that Newtonian mechanics is fundamentally incorrect, but I nevertheless use it to guide my rocket. If I know that moral culpability or responsibility is a wrong model of humans, well, I can nevertheless use it to help guide my criminal justice system. As an added plus for the atheist/determinist, when the concept stops being useful or when it’s less useful than some other model of criminal justice adjudication, they won’t have any problem abandoning it because they understood it was wrong in the first place. 🙂

      • Posted November 3, 2014 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

        Every one of those who have responded negatively to my comment: Did you decide that I am wrong? How did you make this decision? On what basis was the decision made? Who made it? Every one of you simply assumes freedom to, for example, “live in accordance with with precepts we, the human community, have defined as “good.”” But this is to live freely, to make decisions. You can’t live in accordance with something unless you can make the decision to do so and carry it though. The argument that we are not free is simply incoherent. It cannot be expressed in an argument aimed to convince another person, for the other person cannot do other than answer as he is determined to answer. The whole business of truth, meaning, significance, argument, proof, and so on, is simply thrown out the window. I find the whole thing unintelligible.

        • Posted November 3, 2014 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

          Eric, you’re conflating “free will” (which is incoherent) with “decision making” (which is all that computational engines of any form do).

          “Free will” is an incoherent religious concept inextricable from the soul. Neither make any sense even in their own contexts, let alone the real world.

          But, just as you don’t need Aphrodite to be capable of love, you don’t need a soul with free will to make decisions.

          b&

        • eric
          Posted November 4, 2014 at 8:48 am | Permalink

          Did you decide that I am wrong? How did you make this decision?

          output behavior = f(inputs, pre-existing brain structure, brain activity, maybe a few other things).

          Do you propose it works some other way? If so, what other way?

          The argument that we are not free is simply incoherent. It cannot be expressed in an argument aimed to convince another person, for the other person cannot do other than answer as he is determined to answer.

          Yes, if Jerry is right then all our argument is predetermined and words like “convince” refer to something which is at least partially illusory. This post may be an input into your decision-making, and in that way it is meaningfull to say it is “convincing” and “changes your mind.” But it is no longer meaningful to think of ‘convince’ as referring to some choice you had in whether to accept my argument or reject it. And it is no longer meaningful to say that I had any choice in writing it.

          I don’t see anything incoherent in this. Difficult to grasp and maybe psychologically disturbing, yes. But there is nothing incoherent in saying the “decisions” you think you are making are really lock-step results of your brain working on inputs.

          I’d also refer you back to my NM analogy. Accepting determininsm does not mean we are required to whole-hog abandon language that parses concepts in terms of choice or legal or social structures that refer to free will choice. As long as these things are useful approximations to the truth, they may be valuable to determinist ethicists and legal scholars just as NM is valuable to physicists. Accepting determinism should make us stop and assess whether and where the ‘humans have free will’ approxmiation is useful – because under some conditions it may not be, and in those cases we should abandon it – but it doesn’t mean rejecting that approximation as never useful.

          And yes, all my text above is written as if we have a choice as to what theories we accept or reject, and under the determinist model this choice is illusory. Again, this does not make the concept incoherent. It’s perfectly coherent, it’s just difficult to accept.

  19. Robert Bottemiller
    Posted November 3, 2014 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    About the experiment where a “pre-conscious” measurement correlates with a later decision of which the subject is aware:
    1. The implication is the decision is not a result of free will since there was no conscious thought process preceding it.
    2. But is it not reasonable that the not-free-will decision is one conditioned, at least partly, on past, conscious decisions about the world, about morality, etc.

    So, one view could be that decision making, especially on clearly-defined questions, is partly a response trained by earlier thoughtful reflection. This is crudely analogous to “muscle memory” or motor learning in physiology where training or practice with a goal in mind leads to a skilled, unconscious response.

  20. Posted November 3, 2014 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    It quite astonishes me that incompatibilists make such a terrifically big thing over measured delays in the brain activity during decisional processes and such a big deal about in the inability of the conscious mind to sense some of the more detailed processing of any decisions taken. The refutation of this entire line of argument is so easily achieved if one makes an effort to understand the dynamics of standard computer architectures. There are great analogies found between such a multi -processor computer structures and that of the brain. In both systems there is found the partitioning of functionality into specialised subunits. In such hierarchical multi-processor systems we have the Executive subsystem, which supervises and allocates work (including processing tasks/decisions) and many other specialised “co-processors”. The Executive passes both data and process parameters over to these subprocessors AND it can also modify any subprogram itself. This again is analogous to the human brain. When a subtask is passed over to a co-processor a time delay exists from the time the subprocessor produces an answer and the Executive recognises it. Just like the human brain. The Executive does not “sense the details” of sub-processing…these are relegated functions – just like the human brain. As the executive also “programes itself” over time and also modifies actions of subprocessors (and as “causality is broken” with respect to input) we have the essence of what will become in the hyper- sophisticated structure of a brain becomes a definable “free will” -with exactly the characteristics that critics say argues against such a thing.

  21. Posted November 3, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Dear Jerry and everyone opposed to compatibilism:

    You have a new thread, a moving one, about Brittany Maynard, who “decided to take a fatal overdose of barbiturates because she was terminally ill with brain cancer”.

    I share the respect for her, and hope that laws allowing such acts become ubiquitous. I share, also, the abhorrence of the Catholic attitude that suffering is a good.

    But, I also notice that the post talks about the fact that she “decided to take” the barbiturates, and that Jerry states that we can donate “to help expand the choices available to people …”.

    She herself is quoted as saying: “Today is the day I have chosen to pass away …”. This choice is described as “moral”.

    Commenters say: “I totally support the choice to die with dignity, …” and “I commend Brittany for bravely choosing …”. Et cetera.

    Doesn’t this post show why, as just one example, we need concepts of “choice” and “moral” acts that are compatible with the fact that our thoughts and acts are (most likely) physically determined?

    Lots of people reject compatibilism on threads such as this, then, as soon as they leave the thread, they go ahead and act like compatibilists.

    Ben, read that thread to see why I think these concepts are useful and valuable (or rather, entirely necessary in every-day life).

    • Posted November 3, 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      Coel, just because “free will” is incoherent doesn’t mean that “choice” and “decide” are also incoherent. To use your own examples, chess computers and autopilots make choices and decisions.

      What’s important is to recognize that the decisions humans make are similar in principle to the ones computers do — though with the big caveat that we run internal virtual reality simulations to assist us in making better decisions.

      By claiming that computers have “free will,” you’re (effectively, even if unintentionally) declaring them to have spiritual ghosts in their works making their decisions for them.

      But by acknowledging that the concept of “free will” doesn’t even make sense in the first place, we’re thereby free to recognize that our decisions come from the same place as all those other non-spirit-world decisions. I’d think that’s the point you’d want to get to, rather than muddy the waters with some sort of false pseudo-spiritual essence that pervades every thinking machine.

      b&

      • Posted November 3, 2014 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        just because “free will” is incoherent doesn’t mean that “choice” and “decide” are also incoherent.

        Ah ha, a split in the ranks! Jerry has previously rejected the concept “choice” and has talked about appearance of choice”. Sorry Ben, but you’re halfway to compatibilism in accepting the compatibilist concept of “choice”!

      • Posted November 3, 2014 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

        Chess computers do not make decisions. This is bordering on the ridiculous. You cannot coherently speak of decisions and determinism. Nor can you speak of meaning, significance, argument, proof or truth. This is nonsense talk. I cannot understand it, and I do not think you can either. Besides, you have not a shred of empirical evidence to show for it. Scientism is a dead end. In this respect Tom Nagel is right. If you seek to dehumanise humans as much as you do, don’t look for a large following. It is dehumanising, and here religion is superior to scientistic atheism. But I do not think you can make sense of language, and the various things that can be done with language, including metaphor, simile and other figurative uses of language with your information processing conception of input-output. I wrote my comment precisely with this kind of response in mind. Got what I expected, and now take my leave. And yet you claim that this can still make sense of the humanities, and that you can appreciate music, art, architecture and other achievements of the human mind, including science. I think you’re kidding yourself. Once you have reduced mind to physics, humanity is finished. What you have are robots. You be the robot. I’ll go on with greater evidence, I believe, considering myself a human being.

        • Kevin
          Posted November 3, 2014 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

          My consciousness is completely mechanistic. Everything about my thought processes, my sentience, my experiences feels like I am no different than a wave crashing on the shore.

          This is how I perceive my humanity: a complex machine sorting out existence based on the limitations of the matter I contain and how that matter interacts with the universe.

          So, yes, computers do make decisions, in the same way that electrons are forced to move in an electric field, neurons are stimulated by their environment, intestines digest food, a heart pumps blood, and a cat takes a nap.

        • Posted November 3, 2014 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

          Chess computers do not make decisions. This is bordering on the ridiculous. You cannot coherently speak of decisions and determinism. Nor can you

          ORLY?

          You sit down in front of a computer to play a game of chess. You let the computer play white. What causes it to open with, say, e4 rather than d4 if not a decision? How are any of the other moves it makes not the result of a decision?

          Think carefully before you answer, because, unless you’re at least a ranked master player, that computer is going to clean your clock in the game. If you’re making decisions and the computer isn’t, but the computer still wins…what does that say about decision-making?

          And the fact of the matter is that what the computer actually does is exactly the same (in principle) as when you yourself exercise what you call your “free will.” The computer plays out each and every possible move to however many it can handle, and it dwells longer and goes deeper in ones its analysis says gives it a better chance. And good programs do this even while it’s waiting for you to make your move, and then revises its analysis based on the moves you actually make and probes those possibilities even further. The best computers even study their opponents and tailor their games specifically towards their opponents’s weaknesses and strengths — exactly as humans do.

          …and there isn’t an human alive today who can even come close to beating the best chess computers, and damned few who can even hope to beat GNU Chess when run uncrippled on a modern PC.

          b&

          • Posted November 4, 2014 at 12:48 am | Permalink

            What you fail to appreciate Ben, is that advanced chess playing programs LEARN. In the more advanced of these learning algorithms the algorithms are themselves tuned by the computer. This forms a complex feedback LOOP within the system, where the computer iteratively (and endlessly) refines its own strategy. (You could usefully read Hofsstadter on this) As causality is broken at various levels in the much more sophisticated version of this processing architecture in the “biological computer” that represents ourselves, we produce in effect what we can term “free will”. Chess computers are still not sophisticated enough (YET) to have the generalist level of processing complexity that would allow us to claim gives them “free will” now (they are still “problem specific”), but they do exhibit the basic hardware/software architecture that lets US achieve this property.

            • Posted November 5, 2014 at 7:34 am | Permalink

              Sorry; I thought I had mentioned that, but I probably could have made it more clear.

              And they’re not problem specific; Watson is essentially the newest version of Deep Blue.

              I would argue that consciousness is a model of the world that recursively includes itself in the model. I do not think that any of the well-known heavy-hitting computers do such a thing, and thus would not (yet) be considered conscious. If “free will” (and I still have no clue what that’s supposed to be) is a property of consciousness, then none of today’s computers have it (whatever it is). However, that’s simply an implementation of a particular type of algorithm, and one that’s not at all necessary for an entity to make all kinds of very significant decisions.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Posted November 5, 2014 at 11:11 am | Permalink

                Well, we are agreeing on everything- but up to a point yet to be decided. That point is exactly what are the IMPLICATIONS of such a software/hardware architecture. And although I agree with you that no present computer system has been designed (to my knowledge) to deal with itself as an object (e.g. the objects of a chess computer being, for example, the properties of various chess pieces) this omission we can agree could be eliminated in an advanced design…. thus producing a primitive of what we both agree is consciousness. NOW as the new model will have both the “self altering/programming/learning capabilities of the chess computer architecture previously described COMBINED with this primitive consciousness of its “self” as an object, that computer must by default also exhibit the primitives of the attribute of free-will. (especially because the causal links to input based determinism alone are also broken). If you accept this architecture is possible, you must also accept that free will is also possible.

              • Posted November 5, 2014 at 11:52 am | Permalink

                Erm…we’re in agreement right up to the end.

                “Free will” remains opaque to me, a married bachelor. We don’t have it, and no computer will ever have it.

                But I’d also strongly argue that there is nothing in principle preventing a silicon-based design from attaining consciousness and volition comparable to that of humans — though, of course, we seem to be no small distance from implementing such a design.

                Or, alternatively, if you have some real human phenomenon in mind that you’re applying the most confusing term, “free will,” to, then, yes, computers likely don’t have it today but likely will at some point in the future — but I do wish you’d stop using meaningless religious philosophical babble words to describe reality.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Posted November 5, 2014 at 11:24 am | Permalink

                I have to jump into this a bit late. Regarding what consciousness is specifically, it’s just speculation at this point. What isn’t speculation is the incredibly high probability that it is a property of matter and energy interacting that can be described by the Standard Model and there’s no magic going on inside of our brains. Are computers conscious in a way that humans could relate to and subjectively understand? I don’t know, but I would have to suspect it’s possible, with the distinction being to what degree we are conscious. As humans we already can communicate levels of consciousness efficiently even with ambiguous terms such as, “fully alert,” “groggy,” “semi-conscious,” “in a dreamlike state,”, “out cold,” etc. And, we don’t really have a problem subjectively understanding that our consciousness level is on a continuum from “out cold” (0) to “fully alert” (1). We also don’t have a problem understanding that infants are not conscious in remotely the same way healthy adults are and there is a continuous rise to a level to self-awareness achieved when a child is a handful of years old. In principle, there’s nothing ruling out that advanced computers are not already somewhere on this scale, albeit much closer to 0 than to 1.

                As far as self-programming computers, a sufficiently advanced computer or network of computers would be indistinguishable from a conscious human to an external observer. I’d argue that in the limited scope of chess or trivia, computers such as Watson have already gone beyond this point and there’s definitely an illusion of free choice; at least until you parse what that means.

                In a strict sense, “choice free from external constraints” is absolutely incoherent unless you’re applying the phrase to Carl Sagan’s sense of the Cosmos, “all there is, was or ever will be,” i.e. the full set of everything. So, what it really comes down to is degrees of freedom in our models that represent reality. Sean Carroll said we can “believe in free will, if what we mean by that is that there is a level of description that is useful in certain contexts…”

                I agree with him on this point, so in this sense I might be called a compatibilist if that means that there’s a definition of free will that is useful as a language construct; e.g. a man walks up to an ice cream stand and has a free choice to order vanilla or chocolate. There are only a few defined parameters here with countless degrees of freedom from other inputs and nobody has a problem acknowledging that “a man” can choose whichever flavor he wants and in fact may choose a different flavor on a different day even though most of the inputs we’d consider relevant to the situation are the same. It doesn’t have to mean that if we could rewind the Universe, anything different would happen. We do need to do away with concepts as free from external constraints because that just doesn’t apply to anything at levels we care about, but now we’re really back to what I’ve always thought of this debate; it is one of semantics once dualism is dismissed.

              • Posted November 5, 2014 at 11:45 am | Permalink

                it is one of semantics once dualism is dismissed.

                Indeed, it is.

                And an huge question regards the desirability of using the thoroughly religion- and philosophy-soaked incoherent self-contradictory term, “free will,” to describe something that the term is generally used to distinguish itself from.

                Most here would agree that a piece of halibut that’s good enough for Jehovah could reasonably be described as heavenly, but to then go on to suggest that that means that Heaven is for realz (even though you don’t mean “Heaven” in the Pearly Gates sense) would be highly confusing and downright misleading. Such is also the case for “free will.” To attempt to reappropriate the term against itself isn’t good nor wise nor, frankly, honest rhetoric.

                Heaven is a fantasy. Free will is an intrinsic part of that same fantasy. That doesn’t mean that nothing good exists or that we aren’t decision-making engines or anything else, any more than the fact that Aphrodite is imaginary means that love also is. But it does mean that free will and Heaven and all the rest really are fantasies, and we do great disservice to confuse the subject with attestations to the contrary.

                b&

              • Posted November 5, 2014 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

                Okay, so now I think we can get somewhere. It is semantics and free will of the “ghost in the machine” sort, which is but one of the dictionary definitions is incoherent. Do you propose getting rid of words like “heavenly” as you just mentioned or is there a context where such descriptions are useful? I think if we’re going to end the free will debate, we need an equally succinct phrase to convey the meaning that given the degrees of freedom in our input model, the outputs are not predictable. The variation in the outputs (human actions) can be deemed choices.

                It also seems if we were to do away with free will as a phrase (personally, I could live with Jerry’s proposal of just will), we also need to get rid of words like decision and choice since when it comes down to it, the output could not have been any other way. I’d think you agree these words are still useful in describing our inability to predict outcomes in complex systems. Despite the poor wording of the definition that includes “free from external constraints,” it would be an exceedingly rare exception for even the most religious of believers to say that there are zero constraints on our actions from our surrounding environment and genetics. Perhaps the could claim anything we will is possible with divine intervention, but then that’s not their free will acting, it’s the deity’s.

              • Posted November 5, 2014 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

                No, it’s just “free will” I have a problem with — at least, in this discussion. In the legal context, it’s fine; they have their own jargon and definitions. Or a lawyer who offers pro bono estate planning services, for example.

                It’s perfectly reasonable to state that an autopilot, though it doesn’t choose what course to follow, it does decide which controls to manipulate and when and how. Similarly, a general doesn’t decide whether or not to go to war, but, once that decision’s been made, he’s the one who chooses which battalions to deploy to which locations.

                That those choices all follow according to the clockwork Rube Goldberg logic of the respective silicon chips or brains is irrelevant.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Posted November 6, 2014 at 6:10 am | Permalink

                “Erm…we’re in agreement right up to the end.”

                Hmmm… we’re back to the difficulties of an agreed definition of free will again it seems. Let’s see if we can progress our little thought experiment on our chess computer (let’s call him Fred). We agree that Fred has the following properties; he was created with certain innate properties that allowed Fred to play simple and crude games of chess. But Fred was architected to be able to learn and adapt his chess playing algorithms and modify his “decision criteria” that helps him select moves – i.e. his strategies. Higher level executive software supervises his chess playing progress (e.g. time spent in learning, “housekeeping”, playing chess against himself, playing chess against standard historic games- e.g. Kasparov vs Topalov ,reviewing standard openings etc etc). Computational and input variations introduce a bit of randomness for Fred during the time his chess playing strategies develop. After many thousands of iterations and much time passage of time Fred’s playing style, his decision process and criteria “evolve”. Fred becomes a unique chess playing entity, no other chess playing computer is quite like Fred. And he is self aware we agree – a primitive consciousness of what he is and what he is doing (playing chess).
                Now:
                1) There is a significant difference between what Fred WAS when he was “put together” as a chess computer and the chess computer that he IS today
                2) He is a “better player” today than he was when first “assembled”. This improvement was CAUSED by actions HE ALONE TOOK. Fred is the main causal agent in his chess playing nature (built of course on some innate “needs” to play chess)
                3) In any new game Fred can make a bad move, average move, good move or outstanding move.
                4) FRED DECIDES THE MOVE TO MAKE BASED ON “HIS OWN NATURE”. The move is his responsibility.
                5) The IMPROVEMENT in his chess playing is caused by his own efforts. These improvements, Dennett would say, are certainly WORTH HAVING
                6)
                Now substitute for the term “chess playing” the term “moral behaviour”

                Now I claim that what Fred exhibits could, be in the common vernacular, termed “Free Will. Don’t you think so too Ben?

              • Posted November 6, 2014 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

                Now I claim that what Fred exhibits could, be in the common vernacular, termed “Free Will. Don’t you think so too Ben?

                Nope.

                In the common vernacular, “free will” is a property of the immortal soul that grants it autonomy from physics and the gods both.

                Now, of course, when people point to what they’re doing when they say they’re exercising their “free will,” what they’re really pointing to is a process not unlike what you laid out.

                But that’s no more free will than prestidigitation is magic, or than schizophrenia is a demon that possesses its victims, or than a nuclear power plant is the Philosopher’s Stone.

                b&

              • Posted November 7, 2014 at 1:54 am | Permalink

                “Now, of course, when people point to what they’re doing when they say they’re exercising their “free will,” what they’re really pointing to is a process not unlike what you laid out. But that’s no more free will than prestidigitation is magic..”

                A very florid response Ben, but where is there any counterargument to my specific points?
                Speaking of vernaculars Ben, in the vernacular of the boxing profession what you are doing in your answers here is known as “ducking and diving”.

              • Posted November 7, 2014 at 11:04 am | Permalink

                Howie, I’m agreeing with you that you’re providing a pretty good description of the cognitive decision-making process. I’m disagreeing with you that said process is in any way relevant to the theological / philosophical construct known as, “free will.”

                You are aware, are you not, that “free will” is considered the single most important answer to criticisms of both theodicy and the hiddenness of the gods? And that that’s the very first answer you’d get from “the man on the street” in response to why bad things happen to good people?

                Perhaps you can therefore explain what cognition has to do with the inability of Jesus to call 9-1-1 in case of emergency. Not that “the man on the street” is capable of explaining how, exactly, “free will” is supposed to excuse Jesus in such situations, but your insistence that this “free will” is actually garden-variety cognition…just doesn’t scan.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Peter Beattie
                Posted November 7, 2014 at 1:40 am | Permalink

                » Ben Goren:
                In the common vernacular, “free will” is a property of the immortal soul that grants it autonomy from physics and the gods both.

                As I have said before (a couple of times, in fact): nobody thinks they can free will themselves to be a robot, unless they be mental patients. And since you (and Jerry, by the way) have never deigned to give any viable evidence for that claim, I’ll say it’s bullshit.

                Not even pointing at a dictionary really helps you, since many of them contain exactly the definition that you claim the vernacular doesn’t allow for: “the ability to act at one’s own discretion” (OED). No spooky or goddy notions necessary.

                And this whole “free must mean aboslutely free of any conceivable constraints” idea of course makes no sense on its own, either. Otherwise, there wouldn’t even be such a thing as “degrees of freedom”—an obviously useful concept that nobody really has trouble understanding. And plainly what we mean, in the vernacular, when we say we are “free to choose”, for example, from a range of ice-cream flavours is that our mind can make that decision, as opposed to another mind. The concept of free choice in that context is not vitiated just because they don’t have watermelon-and-cookie-dough.

              • Posted November 7, 2014 at 10:48 am | Permalink

                As I have said before (a couple of times, in fact): nobody thinks they can free will themselves to be a robot, unless they be mental patients.

                Those same people are similarly unimpressed with challenges to the gods that they must make rocks so heavy even they themselves can’t lift them.

                The concept is incoherent as your “free will yourself to be a robot” example once again demonstrates. But that doesn’t stop people from believing in it, any more than people stop believing in all-powerful gods whose hands are tied by such a trivial thing as — wait for it! — the free will of humans.

                Remind me: how often is it that we hear “free will” parroted as the excuse for “the problem of evil”? Is it several times an hour, or dozens? I can’t keep track….

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Peter Beattie
                Posted November 7, 2014 at 11:00 am | Permalink

                I’m honestly curious, Ben: are you really unaware that you completely ignored my arguments with respect to a) whether people actually believe in a free will untethered from physics and gods and b) the fact that we talk about freedom within constraints all the time (and hence that your, and Jerry’s, insistence that ‘free’ may only ever mean ‘absolutely free without any and all imaginable contraints whatsoever’ is quite extraordinary)?

              • Posted November 7, 2014 at 11:22 am | Permalink

                Peter, the problem remains that “free will” is so fundamentally incoherent, just like all the other theological concepts with which it is inextricably entwined.

                Ask somebody if the gods are all-powerful, and, of course, they’ll instantly agree that they must be. But then ask why they permit evil, and they then insist that the gods are powerless in the face of free will. So, which is it: that the gods themselves are beyond even the laws of nature, or that they’re even more constrained than humans?

                And if “free will” can stop a god dead in its tracks, what difference does it make if “free will” itself is subject to other degrees of freedom? The gods, themselves, after all, are, ostensibly, in your words, “absolutely free without any and all imaginable contraints whatsoever.” Except, of course, as necessary elsewhere in the conversation.

                Again, it ain’t my problem that “free will” is so incoherent, any more than it’s my problem that the gods themselves are. I’m under no obligation whatsoever to grant proponents of the incoherent a pass on their incoherence.

                You want me to convince me that “free will” is a concept worth preserving, you’ll have to convince me how it has the power to defy the gods.

                Else, you’ll have to convince me that it’s worth re-appropriating this term from the theists — and in a way that’s consistent with equivalent proposals to re-appropriate other similar terms such as, “soul,” “immortal,” “god,” “afterlife,” and the rest.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Posted November 14, 2014 at 4:09 am | Permalink

                “Else, you’ll have to convince me that it’s worth re-appropriating this term from the theists — and in a way that’s consistent with equivalent proposals to re-appropriate other similar terms such as, “soul,” “immortal,” “god,” “afterlife,” and the rest”

                I think you also forgot to include the term “gravity” in the above list Ben. Theists had in the past used this word to describe the attractive force arising between physical objects. Although Newton and later Einstein later used this term in other varying ways we should NOT allow this perversion of terminology to come into our discussion, especially when we have totally run out of any sensible argument over the use of the term. Therefore gravity does not exist.

              • Peter Beattie
                Posted November 14, 2014 at 9:30 am | Permalink

                » howiekornstein:
                Therefore gravity does not exist.

                You’re right on the money. Should I hold my breath, though, to see whether anyone will engage with this argument—as so many have done with its previous incarnation referencing the term ‘species’?

          • Posted November 8, 2014 at 5:45 am | Permalink

            “Else, you’ll have to convince me that it’s worth re-appropriating this term from the theists — and in a way that’s consistent with equivalent proposals to re-appropriate other similar terms such as, “soul,” “immortal,” “god,” “afterlife,” and the rest.”

            It seems Chris you’ve painted poor Ben into a small corner, in which he now only has a straw man to protect himself from also being coloured totally wrong.

            • Posted November 8, 2014 at 8:10 am | Permalink

              If you’re sincere in your accusation, then that means that you reject the notion that “free will” is the most common explanation given for the existence of evil.

              Therefore, either you’re insincere, or ignorant or in denial of the primary function of “free will” in the common vernacular.

              There’s plenty of straw flying around here, but it’s not coming from me.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Posted November 10, 2014 at 2:38 am | Permalink

                “f you’re sincere in your accusation, then that means that you reject the notion that “free will” is the most common explanation given for the existence of evil.”
                And exactly what has your comment to do with the price of fish?

              • Posted November 11, 2014 at 10:03 am | Permalink

                To “the man on the street,” “free will” is nothing if it’s not integral to “the problem of evil.” Your reformulation of “free will” has nothing to do with “the problem of evil,” and therefore is nothing.

                Again, a lawyer offering pro bono estate planning can reasonably be said to have “free wills,” but that’s clearly got nothing to do with the subject under discussion. Your “free will” is similarly irrelevant.

                b&

    • Alain Van Hout
      Posted November 3, 2014 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      I also notice that the post talks about the fact that she “decided to take” the barbiturates, and that Jerry states that we can donate “to help expand the choices available to people …”.

      Lots of people reject compatibilism on threads such as this, then, as soon as they leave the thread, they go ahead and act like compatibilists.

      ‘Deciding’ in this context means absorbing information, processing it, and forming a conclusion based on the information. How is that in any way a matter of acting like a compatibilist?

      ‘Choices’ in this context are even more irrelevant, since it pertains to actions that can legally be taken, rather than relating to volition.

      This really does look a lot like a bait-and-switch game, as Ben mentioned.

      • Vaal
        Posted November 3, 2014 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

        Alain Van Hout,

        So are you going to agree with someone when she says “I could have chosen otherwise?”

        If so, you will be speaking compatibilism.*

        If you disagree, if you are retaining the word “choice’ but devoid of the common association “entails I could have chosen otherwise” then it would be you who is guilty of “re-defining” words as they are commonly understood, to suit your stance.

        *(Where compatibilists outline in more detail how it is coherent to say we could have chosen otherwise, given determinism)

        • Alain Van Hout
          Posted November 3, 2014 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

          So are you going to agree with someone when she says “I could have chosen otherwise?”

          If so, you will be speaking compatibilism.

          If you disagree, if you are retaining the word “choice’ but devoid of the common association “entails I could have chosen otherwise” then it would be you who is guilty of “re-defining” words as they are commonly understood, to suit your stance.

          Disregarding for a minute that above we were talking about legal choice, that’s still a false dichotomy. Being able to choose in that regard relates to what I wrote about deciding: absorbing information, processing it, and forming a conclusion based on the information (where choice also involves acting on that decision). That you can choose does not mean that you could have chosen otherwise, given the set of physical parameters that lead to your choice.

          I didn’t pull this out of my backside to server my own stance. To illustrate that, here are the definitions for ‘choosing’ and ‘deciding’ that google offers me (upfront, no selecting a website and no specific quoting of the part that best suits me).

          Choose:
          – pick out (someone or something) as being the best or most appropriate of two or more alternatives.
          – decide on a course of action.

          Decide:
          – come or bring to a resolution in the mind as a result of consideration.
          – make a choice from a number of alternatives.
          – give a judgement concerning a matter or legal case.

          As to ‘choosing otherwise’, that statement is a different beast that ‘choosing’ itself and, importantly, it in itself presupposes free will.

          • Vaal
            Posted November 3, 2014 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

            Alain Van Hout,

            First, note that the very way you are trying to support your use of the word “choice” runs along the very same lines that, when compatibilits do it, gets called out as semantic smoke screens!

            Remember we are relating “choice” as it pertains to it’s relevance to the discussion of “free will.”

            As for the “common man” question, and the assumptions normally associated with “having a choice,’ you know very well that normal use implies “could have chosen otherwise.”
            If your stance is to say that, in any TRUE sense: “I could not have chosen otherwise” then people will generally not recognize that as the “choice” they mean when saying we have a “choice.”

            To say “I have a choice between A and B” in normal parlance takes it to be TRUE that you COULD choose either A or B, or that you COULD HAVE chosen either A or B. Once you deny that, you can talk about “choice” as merely mechanical input/output computing, but you aren’t talking about the typical understanding of choice. And you will be guilty of re-defining “choice” to retain it within your deterministic viewpoint.

            And yet compatibilists are (incorrectly) accused of this all the time.

            You either go down the route of compatibilism by making “choice” have the substantial content it normally does, or you become guilty of re-defining choice to suit your needs.

            (And compatibilists will argue that it is entirely coherent to say it is true “I could have chosen otherwise” GIVEN determinism, and hence the compatibilist notion of “choice’ doesn’t to violence to how the word is used normally).

      • Posted November 3, 2014 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

        ‘Deciding’ in this context means absorbing information, processing it, and forming a conclusion based on the information. How is that in any way a matter of acting like a compatibilist?

        It’s acting like a compatibilist because your first sentence is a description of the compatibilist concept of “choice”.

        ‘Choices’ in this context are even more irrelevant, since it pertains to actions that can legally be taken, rather than relating to volition.

        Not so. Here is a comment from the other thread. How do you interpret this as being about anything other than volition?”

        “We euthanize our pets because we recognize and empathize with their suffering; it seems like we should extend that to ourselves as well, as long as it’s the individual’s choice, of course.”

        • Alain Van Hout
          Posted November 3, 2014 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

          It’s acting like a compatibilist because your first sentence is a description of the compatibilist concept of “choice”.

          Keeping in mind that that first sentence mentioned “absorbing information, processing it, and forming a conclusion based on the information”, and supposing you’re talking about the compatibilist’s concept of ‘free will’, an abacus or for that matter falling rock could also be said to have free will.

          As to choice versus free will, compatibilism, in its simplest definition says that free will exists, can we agree on that? Free will involves the possibility that the choice could have been different. As such, compatibilism inherently says nothing about choice itself.

          Not so. Here is a comment from the other thread. How do you interpret this as being about anything other than volition?”

          “We euthanize our pets because we recognize and empathize with their suffering; it seems like we should extend that to ourselves as well, as long as it’s the individual’s choice, of course.”

          Are you talking about “as long as it’s the individual’s choice”? As opposed to having it mandated to be the same for everyone? How is that not a matter of using ‘choice’ as a reference to legally available options?

          As to making use of those options, that’s a matter of making a choice (sensu above, not sensu free will) about which option you want to make use of.

          • Posted November 3, 2014 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

            Hi Alain

            As to choice versus free will, compatibilism, in its simplest definition says that free will exists, can we agree on that?

            No, not really. Here is how I see it. Compatibilism starts:

            (1) We live in a deterministic universe.

            (2) Then, what do we mean by “choosing” under determinism. It means: “absorbing information, processing it, and forming a conclusion based on the information” (to use your phrase).

            The choice is then determined by the physical state of the brain, plus the information fed into it.

            (3) What, then, do we mean by a “desire” or a “will”? We mean that the brain has made its choice, and it now trying to act on it.

            Over a “normal” range of environmental conditions, most likely it could act on it.

            (4) What, then, do we mean by “free” or not free? By “free” to act on that “will” we mean that the environment is within the normal range that allows the act to proceed.

            By “not free” we really mean a rather abnormal environmental condition, say a gun being held to the head, or the person being locked in jail, or a leg being trapped by fallen masonry in a burning building.

            • Posted November 3, 2014 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

              By “not free” we really mean a rather abnormal environmental condition, say a gun being held to the head, or the person being locked in jail, or a leg being trapped by fallen masonry in a burning building.

              That’s what you mean when you say, “free will.” But everybody else means, “beholden to neither the gods nor the laws of physics.”

              You want to tilt at that windmill, go for it. But you’re pretty evidently not free to convince me or Jerry or the rest of us, despite your evident will to do so.

              b&

              • Vaal
                Posted November 3, 2014 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

                “That’s what you mean when you say, “free will.” But everybody else means, “beholden to neither the gods nor the laws of physics.”

                And yet plenty of real world examples belie that claim.

                Show a range of people, secular and theistic, a story of someone being held captive. For instance, the Ariel Castro kidnappings and captivity of 3 women over many years. Then ask everyone:

                Were the women living in that house of their own free will?

                What do you think the answers will be?
                (One hint will be all the headlines and stories describing the women being held against their will…)

                And why? Do you think the answers it will have anything to do with their physical captivity, threats and coercion?

                Or when they say “I live in my house of my own free will, but those women did not…” do you think they are *really* refering to a weird metaphysical/physical claim like “Those women were beholden to gods or physics, whereas I am not.”

                ?

              • Posted November 3, 2014 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

                Were the women living in that house of their own free will?

                But there you go again, with the bait and switch. “Of your own free will” is explicitly the legal formulation, not the philosophical one. Ask those same people if, despite being held against their will by their captors, if they still possessed free will, and the reply will be, “of course,” from all who believe in souls. They might not be able to do much with said free will, but they still possess it — incoherent as such language is to you and to me.

                But, yes, ask them again if any contracts they might have signed during that period are valid, and everybody will replay that they’re not because they didn’t sign them of their own free will.

                Look. It’s not my fault that the language is so confusing. But it’s the language we have, and it really is quite dishonest to conflate the two very different concepts that unfortunately happen to share the same name. Indeed, it’s the exact same form of dishonesty as the religious use with words like, “faith.” You have faith in your spouse, no? So therefore you believe in the gods, since belief in gods is faith and we’ve already established that you have faith.

                Why all y’all can’t understand how very annoying, if not insulting, this all is is quite beyond me.

                b&

              • Peter Beattie
                Posted November 4, 2014 at 6:25 am | Permalink

                » Ben Goren:
                But everybody else means, “beholden to neither the gods nor the laws of physics.”

                If only you would give any evidence at all or an argument why that should be true, one might be more inclined to agree with you. As it stands, however, it seems manifestly wrong. See this comment, where somebody said, “If you really had free will, you could willingly become a robot”. My reply:

                And that is exactly what nobody thinks—apart from a handful of people in mental institutions, on whom, I take it, your case does not rest. So what you have done is to give strong evidence against your own assertion.

                Meanings are in principle changeable, even to some extent negotiable. And that is what compatibilists are largely saying: let’s come up with a sensible definition of free will that preserves some of our intuitions about the phenomenon thus designated as well as educates people about the very relevant limitations to our freedom that we should recognise in order not to fool ourselves.

                you’re pretty evidently not free to convince me or Jerry or the rest of us

                Speak for yourself, by all means. But “the rest of us” really are fine speaking for ourselves, unless otherwise indicated.

            • irritable
              Posted November 3, 2014 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

              That’s a useful analysis, but there’s a problem with the expression “normal range”…

              Always, for any particular individual, the ability to act in accordance with a deliberated choice is substantially unconstrained as to some decisions, but not unconstrained as to others, depending on the surrounding circumstances, genetic makeup, life experiences of the individual and the type of choice made. Everybody has constraints affecting some sorts of decisions and not just in “abnormal” situations of obvious duress, or substantial deprivation of autonomy. Some people consistently fail to resist lying about their attainments, eating an extra cookie, staying up another 30 minutes, having sex with the neighbour’s spouse etc.

              But naive determinism is not a very useful position. It may be trivially true that each decision to act is entirely governed by genetic makeup, life shaping experiences and surrounding conditions and so, in a sense, (certainly with hindsight) the outcome of deliberation is “pre-determined” or “inevitable”. But that has very limited explanatory power. The processes and interactions which produce the decision are intractably complex. The outcome is not reliably predictable. Determinism “explains” even the most unexpected behaviour, but only retrospectively.

              Theologians reject determinism and support a naive concept of “free will” because they need to explain the apparent cruelties of God by asserting that somehow we all can and should make perfectly wonderful decisions all the time, but fail to do so, thus earning punishments, like contracting cancer or drowning in tsunamis.

              The only significant practical role of the concept of “free will” seems to be in the area of crime and punishment. An abstract “person with normal self-control” is the place-holder for the concept of free will. When somebody breaks the the criminal law and cannot prove that there were specific and substantial constraints on his or her ability to avoid doing the illegal act, then a guilty verdict can ensue.

              • irritable
                Posted November 3, 2014 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

                I intended – “That’s a useful analysis by Coel”.

            • Danbite
              Posted November 4, 2014 at 9:09 am | Permalink

              “a leg being trapped by fallen masonry in a burning building.”

              I dont think this counts as an abridgement of free will. If the constraint is not caused intentionally by someone else, why would it be a free will issue? That would just be an accident, not someone constraining you against your will.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 3, 2014 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      Free will is an illusion and it’s an illusion for all humans despite what they know to be true. Further, our language is stepped in dualism. It would be rather cumbersome to write:

      I am glad the inputs into Brittany’s brain led to a decision to end her life rather than allow her body to experience pain.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted November 3, 2014 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

        stepped = steeped.

    • darrelle
      Posted November 3, 2014 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      Coel,

      I don’t even claim to be in one camp or the other. But, that comment does not do the compatibilist position any good. It just makes it seem like you are not listening to what incompatibilists are saying. And really that comment just seems condescending and in bad taste. Perhaps I am misinterpreting your tone or intent or something.

  22. Alain Van Hout
    Posted November 3, 2014 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Am I alone in having the impression that we’re no longer discussing whether the traditional, man-in-street concept of free will exists, but rather, whether the thing that we perceive as free choice can still be referred to as (compatibilist) free will?

  23. romanticrationalist
    Posted November 3, 2014 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    I may live to rue this, but here it goes…

    I do not give a hoot about the “free will” hamster wheel, my interest is in how the human mind/brain works. One aspect of my fascination is the question of what evolutionary trajectory our ancestors took to bequeath to us a brain that has the capability to contemplate not only our own existence, but that of the universe as a whole. The converse of the first question is, given what we know about the evolved capacities of the human brain, what is happening when things go terribly wrong with our thinking and behavior and whether or not we can, individually and collectively, do better.

    In my own ruminations on these topics, I have found the concept, popularized by Steven Pinker, that Homo sapiens has evolved to fill a “cognitive niche” very helpful. We are the species that has become proficient at “figuring stuff out”‒from how to make fire on demand to how to get to the moon and back. In order to do this we have to be able to plan, strategize, learn from our mistakes (or those of others), improvise to overcome obstacles, and change direction when we find that what we were doing it is not working.

    Free will is an illusion, but it is an illusion that is constructed, and actively maintained, by our brains using structures and algorithms designed and honed by the trial and error process that is natural selection throughout our evolutionary history. And oh by the way, the fact that free will is an illusion is irrelevant to whether or not one can stop smoking or biting their nails.

  24. Posted November 3, 2014 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    I can across Get Fuzzy when I was checking this list of top 100 web comics! Honestly, it is pretty weird for a web comic to have such philosophical bend of mind. But then I think moral teachings should be more subtle than direct. otherwise, they loose there relevance 🙂

  25. TJR
    Posted November 4, 2014 at 3:33 am | Permalink

    As noted in a few places above, there seems to be no disagreement about the state of nature.

    It all seems to boil down to compatibilists thinking that

    “No-one was holding a gun to my head, I did it of my own free will”

    is a valid usage of the term “free will”, and incompatibilists thinking that it is not.

  26. Posted November 4, 2014 at 3:55 am | Permalink

    Hi Ben,

    “Of your own free will” is explicitly the legal formulation, not the philosophical one.

    When you claim that the philosophical formulation of “free will” is libertarian-dualistic, are you aware that the majority of philosophers are compatibilists?

    A survey of 931 philosophers had 56% opting for compatibilism, with only 14% for libertarianism and only 12% for “no free will”.

    http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl

    Thus, your insistence that “free will” only has your meaning is dubious.

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted November 4, 2014 at 7:03 am | Permalink

      Oh dear, actual evidence. The kind of thing Ben and Jerry should have themselves looked for before confidently announcing that their view was of course shared by some majority of people.

      So, thanks for digging that up, Coel.

    • Posted November 5, 2014 at 7:39 am | Permalink

      Sorry, but I’ve got damned little respect for philosophers. And when you can only get a slim majority of philosophers agreeing on what free will is…remind me again why anybody takes these clowns seriously…?

      Might as well insist that Jesus is ground-up being because that’s the “consensus” of a plurality of theologians.

      b&

      • Posted November 5, 2014 at 8:19 am | Permalink

        Hi Ben,
        Well, you were the one who talked about the “philosophical” conception of free will. Surely how philosophers conceive of free will is relevant to that?

        • Peter Beattie
          Posted November 5, 2014 at 8:43 am | Permalink

          Not when your standards for evidence are only ever retroactively formulated on an ad-hoc basis. That way, you never run the risk of any actual evidence refuting any of your arguments. Sure, that’s also the most basic definition of unscientific thinking, but what do you expect when not even a textbook case of begging the question rings any alarm bells?

        • Posted November 5, 2014 at 8:54 am | Permalink

          Philosophers are as relevant to philosophy as theologians are to religion. If you want to know if Christians think that Jesus bodily arose from the grave, are you going ask Karen Armstrong to wax poetic for you?

          b&

          • Posted November 5, 2014 at 9:32 am | Permalink

            Hi Ben,

            At the risk of over-doing the pedantry:

            We’re discussing how a term is defined. In particular I’m replying to your comment:

            “We’re trying to get it through to you that the term, “free will,” in the context of philosophy and theology, is explicitly defined so as to contrast with the natural explanation.”

            I don’t see how you can maintain that the term is defined that way “in the context of philosophy” if the majority of philosophers do not define it that way.

            • Posted November 5, 2014 at 9:49 am | Permalink

              I don’t see how you can maintain that the term is defined that way “in the context of philosophy” if the majority of philosophers do not define it that way.

              If you’re cool with that then you must also be cool with Hell as an absence of Jesus, and Jesus as ground-up being rather than a flesh-and-blood savior.

              Just as you don’t need theologians to tell you what the gods are, you don’t need philosophers to tell you what philosophy is. Indeed, in either case, you’d be foolish to do so, for all either ever offer up is obfuscation and bluster. Their very paychecks depend on as much….

              b&

        • Posted November 6, 2014 at 6:26 am | Permalink

          For someone who does his best to do philosophy, and come off second best, it’s not surprising that you have little respect for philosophers. But that’s what you’re doing. If you have no respect for those who do this professionally, your lack of respect is telling. Of course, if you’re simply forced by the character of the bag of molecules that you are to regard philosophers in this way, that’s one thing, but if you do it deliberately (that is, freely), then you owe us an explanation of your behaviour. Is it to be philosophy done well, or your amateur variety of philosophy which consists of typing the words that somehow come out of nowhere, unpremeditated and unexpected. It must be interesting being you, whether what you say has or does not have meaning, and does or does not lead to logically coherent conclusions. How could you possibly tell?

          • Posted November 6, 2014 at 6:28 am | Permalink

            Sorry, this was addressed to Ben, but, of course, that will make little difference, because all Ben can do is parrot the next idea that comes into his head. He has no choice, after all. It’s just a matter of algorithms churning out output.

          • Posted November 6, 2014 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

            Eric, I feel sorry for you.

            You must despair that a rainbow isn’t actually a sign from the gods and is instead simply the dispersion of different wavelengths of light according to a simple formula. That falling stars are not angels come to earth but rather small specks of dust heated to incandescence through friction as they’re slowed to terminal velocity must cause you no end of anguish. And that life itself is but the functioning of chemistry and the result of billions of years of Darwinian evolution? The hopelessness that must pervade your very soul knowing that can only deprive your own life of even the faintest hope of meaning.

            Knowing the truth about each of those examples thrills me personally to no end, and one of the most important purposes in my life is to unweave as many rainbows as possible. That we actually seem to be tugging on the ends of the threads of consciousness itself is indescribably exciting to me. How anybody — and you of all people — can fear and despise such discovery is utterly beyond me.

            b&

            • Posted November 6, 2014 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

              Typical ad hominem nonsense, Ben. And all of it not true. However, the truth obviously is of small consequence to you, who can so cavalierly claim to know the truth about things you do not know. Boghossian calls it faith. Nice to know.

              • Posted November 6, 2014 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

                Eric, if you’re going to deny that a rainbow is the dispersion of different wavelengths of light as Newton so famously demonstrated centuries ago, then all I can suggest is that you’ve gone completely off the deep end.

                As for the nature of human cognition…well, again, there are two choices. The team at CERN has demonstrated with overwhelming statistical confidence that the Standard Model is the complete explanation for human-scale phenomenon, with no room for any additions nor deletions. Either they’re right and cognition arises through the interactions of (for human scales) electrons and photons (with insignificant nods to quarks and gravitons), or you’re right. But if you’re right, then, one way or another, the most incomprehensible imaginable conspiracy reigns and we literally haven’t the faintest hint of a clue about how the Universe works.

                Considering we know enough about the Universe to build the computer network the two of us are communicating with, my money’s on CERN.

                But, again…your note seems to reject not merely modern physics, but Newton as well. And, if that’s the case…I ain’t got nothin’ for ya’, man. Helping somebody come to grips with Newton is waaaaay above my pay grade.

                Cheers,

                b&

            • Posted November 6, 2014 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

              Typical ad hominem nonsense, Ben. And all of it not true. However, the truth obviously is of small consequence to you, who can so cavalierly claim to know the truth about things you do not know. Boghossian calls it faith. Nice to know.

      • Peter Beattie
        Posted November 8, 2014 at 5:28 am | Permalink

        » Ben Goren:
        Sorry, but I’ve got damned little respect for philosophers. And when you can only get a slim majority of philosophers agreeing on what free will is…remind me again why anybody takes these clowns seriously…?

        Then you should also have damn little respect for physicists. When you not even have a slim majority but only a plurality of physicists agreeing on an interpretation of quantum mechanics (see here), you should equally ask yourself why you take those clowns seriously. Or not, because the logic of arbitrarily picking an issue, pointing to differences of opinion, and on that basis declaring the whole field bankrupt is bonkers. Or clownish (whichever you prefer).

        And before you say, ‘But quantum mechanics has only been around as a problem for 80 years’, I could just as well have picked ‘time’—about whose definition there is no consensus among physicists either. Which also doesn’t imply that all physicists are clowns and the whole field can be dismissed without ever thinking seriously about it.

        Long story short: your biases are enormous. You don’t even notice when you use the most egregiously invalid logic. Your whole approach is completely unscientific: the only thing you’re looking for is confirmation; you only ever assess evidence with hindsight and make up ad-hoc standards for it (i.e. your goalposts are waltzing all over the place); and you shield your position from potential criticism right from the start by using a definition that stacks the deck in your favour and then dogmatically refusing to even consider alternatives.

        • Posted November 8, 2014 at 7:56 am | Permalink

          Then you should also have damn little respect for physicists. When you not even have a slim majority but only a plurality of physicists agreeing on an interpretation of quantum mechanics (see here), you should equally ask yourself why you take those clowns seriously.

          Respectfully, you haven’t a clue what you’re typing about.

          You’ll not find a single physicist who disputes the reality of Quantum Mechanics, who rejects any of the predictions it makes, and so on. Indeed, you’ll not even find a physicist who’ll tell you anything other than that Quantum Mechanics is the most spectacularly successful theory in the history of physics, if not all of humanity.

          Yes, there’s lots of disagreement over what we’ll find past Quantum Mechanics — what new theory will explain the phenomena that Quantum Mechanics is currently unable to explain. But these same physicists who express such overwhelming certainty in Quantum Mechanics itself will hedge even their most favored pet theories with all sorts of language about, “the most likely winner given the best evidence we have to date I personally think is ____, but that could easily change if we discover ____.”

          That’s not at all the language of a “clown,” as you so insultingly dismiss them. That’s the language of a scientist.

          Philosophers, on the other hand, are notorious for expressing the exact same sorts of unwarranted confidence in their conclusions as their brothers-in-arms, the theologians. Worse, the philosophers are unafraid to express confidence in “theories” that have long since been utterly demolished by experimental results — again as do the theologians.

          So, please. Stop tarring honest seekers of truth with the insults best reserved for the real clowns in the room: the theologians and the philosophers.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Peter Beattie
            Posted November 8, 2014 at 8:28 am | Permalink

            You are being so uncritical as to not even realize that “the interpretation of quantum meachnics” is not the same as “the reality of quantum mechanics”. No wonder you again and again fail to engage with a single real argument that is actually relevant to the problem.

            You even laughably chide me for using an insult you yourself introduced into the discussion. Even more laughably, you present yourself as a “seeker of truth” in this matter, when, in addition to ignoring arguments and never giving relevant evidence, you just declare by fiat that yours is the only correct interpretation.

            Unless you start to honestly assume that you might be wrong and the other guy right, no fruitful discussion is to be had.

            • Posted November 8, 2014 at 8:46 am | Permalink

              You are being so uncritical as to not even realize that “the interpretation of quantum meachnics” is not the same as “the reality of quantum mechanics”.

              I’m sorry, but that was the whole point of my post: contrasting how the one is solid, unanimously-agreed-upon, evidence-backed science, and the other is the best guess of how to fit it into larger contexts for which we have a dearth of evidence.

              Your attempt to justify philosophy, which is nothing but a series of guessing games, by pointing to the areas past where science has yet to trod…well, it’s not something deserving of further comment, frankly.

              b&

  27. Posted November 6, 2014 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    “Philosophers are as relevant to philosophy as theologians are to religion.”
    Yes….and Philosophers are as relevant to philosophy as Quantum Physicists are to quantum physics. And just because a whole bunch of quantum physicists who’ve studied their field for a lifetime say that entangled particles can decohere faster than information can travel between them I still say they don’t know what they’re talking about.

    • Posted November 6, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      It may surprise you, but I could possibly agree with much of what you’ve written.

      Of course, there’s also the small matter that quantum physics makes predictions of astonishing precision and utility, whereas philosophers can’t even agree on whether or not they should throw the fat man in front of the train when the pretty girl isn’t looking — just like theologians have yet to figure out if Jesus wants you for a sunbeam or if his enemies, those who would not that he should reign over them, should be killed at his feet.

      You see, physicists “own” physics because they have the experimental evidence to back their unanimous agreement. But philosophers and theologians have no better claim to their fantasies than anybody else, since they lack not only evidence but even consensus.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted November 6, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

        Well Ben, even though Philosophy is certainly not an exact science I can’t really help but respect the opinions of recognised philosophers who have wholly dedicated themselves to the long and arduous study of their craft – especially when I try myself to form an opinion in some specific topic of philosophy. Now the four living philosophers I most admire all are all dedicated compatibilists, and I must point out that I became a “follower” of their philosophical works long BEFORE I ever knew of their views on the topic of free will. I only admired them for their quality of mind and their depth of subject knowledge. So therefore I can’t help but think that my own independently developed conclusions on the subject of free will must have some merit. And I must say, that if any of these individuals were incompatibilists I would question MY judgement, not theirs.

        • Posted November 6, 2014 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

          Well Ben, even though Philosophy is certainly not an exact science I can’t really help but respect the opinions of recognised philosophers who have wholly dedicated themselves to the long and arduous study of their craft – especially when I try myself to form an opinion in some specific topic of philosophy.

          Substitute “philosophy” with “theology,” and that sentence is equally valid…yet I do not think you would express similar deference to theologians.

          b&

          • Posted November 7, 2014 at 1:28 am | Permalink

            “Substitute “philosophy” with “theology,” and that sentence is equally valid…”

            As we both consider the subject of theology nonsense aren’t you just using a straw man argument here Ben? Or do you really consider that the conclusions of experts or authorities on ANY complex subject are not worth serious consideration versus your own musings on the topic?

            • Posted November 7, 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

              The problem isn’t so much the “experts” as the field in which they have their expertise.

              In both theology and philosophy, there’s not merely a lack of consensus, there isn’t even a consensus on how to achieve consensus!

              Take just that survey that Coel linked to earlier:

              http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl

              In it, you’ll find that philosophers can’t even muster a plurality in favor of empiricism, with “other ways of knowing” beating out both empiricism and rationalism!

              So, when somebody claims that a slim majority of philosophers (59%) agree on one particular definition of “free will,” but none can agree on how they’d actually figure out if they’re right or worng…well, you can be absolutely certain that they’ve pulled their “expert opinion” right out of the same place as the theologians get their own “expert opinions”: their fundaments.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Posted November 8, 2014 at 4:22 am | Permalink

                “well, you can be absolutely certain that they’ve pulled their “expert opinion” right out of the same place as the theologians get their own “expert opinions”: their fundaments.”

                I just wonder Ben, if you would be saying the same sorts of thing if the survey had shown that such a majority of philosophers were confirmed incompatibilists.

              • Posted November 8, 2014 at 7:48 am | Permalink

                I’m surprised you’re not aware of my long-standing contempt of philosophy. But, nevertheless, I’m unaware of any significant consensus amongst philosophers, so the question is moot.

                b&

              • Posted November 10, 2014 at 3:14 am | Permalink

                “I’m surprised you’re not aware of my long-standing contempt of philosophy.”

                This makes me even more curious why you spend so much time yourself indulging in the practise?

                “I’m unaware of any significant consensus amongst philosophers….”

                Which again makes me wonder why you, as a total amateur in the practise of philosophy, think that YOU have come up with the right answers, when professionals who have spent a lifetime’s study in the subject are unable to form valid conclusions?

              • Posted November 11, 2014 at 10:10 am | Permalink

                “I’m surprised you’re not aware of my long-standing contempt of philosophy.”

                This makes me even more curious why you spend so much time yourself indulging in the practise?

                Sorry, but by your logic, you yourself are practicing Christian theology because all knowledge of Creation is for the greater glory of Jesus. And astronomers are really doing astrology, nuclear power plant operators are doing alchemy, and so on.

                Yes, science evolved from philosophy. But science is nothing without empiricism, and, empirically, empiricism is utterly irrelevant to philosophy.

                You’ll note that that’s the basic difference between our two approaches here. I’m examining what the dictionary and common usage says “free will” is, and discovering it to be incoherent at best. That’s the scientific approach, and the same basic idea of how we know that, no matter how enticing the Luminiferous Aether might be, it’s just not real.

                In contrast, you’ve decided that you like the sound of the words but don’t like the meaning, so you’ve made up something that has a meaning you like that has little, if anything, to do with what everybody else (save for other philosophers) understands the term to apply to. That’s philosophy, though and through. It’s great if you’re into PoMo interpretive creative writing, but it doesn’t actually have anything to do with reality.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Peter Beattie
                Posted November 8, 2014 at 4:45 am | Permalink

                » howiekornstein:
                I just wonder…

                +1

      • Posted November 6, 2014 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

        But physicists, notoriously, do not have a consensus (upon string theory, for instance). Much of physics is done now by means of deducing consequences from theorems that are not empirically confirmable. Since you obviously know nothing about philosophy, your remarks about it have no standing whatever. Learn some philosophy (that’s quite a long apprenticeship ahead of you), and then come back and try to say the things you do, with some cogency. Serious sick, Ben, I’m afraid. Ad hominem all the way, without a bit of evidence to stand on. Just hot air blowing freely, without a shred of what you think is necessary for knowledge. No wonder new atheism is considered by most rational people an extremist position, not worth while addressing.

        • Posted November 6, 2014 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

          But physicists, notoriously, do not have a consensus (upon string theory, for instance).

          That’s true, but misleading.

          Physicists are unanimous that Newton reigns supreme at human scales, and that you have to work hard to put yourself in a situation where his physics doesn’t apply.

          They’re also unanimous that the Standard Model of Physics, which includes Quantum Mechanics and Relativity, is just as complete. Quarks and electrons and photons, and gravitational lensing and time dilation and the universal speed limit…those are all really real and no more subject to question than that the Earth is an oblate spheroid.

          Beyond that? Sure, there’s lots we don’t know — and that’s where all the excitement is at. SUSY? MOND? Multiverses and Many-Worlds? The physicists will make bets on those, but not even think to express certainty.

          But, here’s the thing: those are all irrelevant to human-scale phenomenon. The consequences of string theory demonstrated or disproven will relate to what new particles we’ll be able to create at CERN and give us new insight into what happened just over a baker’s dozen billion years ago, and we’re all eager to figure that all out. But we already know that none of those particles exist in your body, and it should be bleedin’ obvious that what happened a baker’s dozen billion years ago is utterly irrelevant to how your mind functions today.

          Much of physics is done now by means of deducing consequences from theorems that are not empirically confirmable.

          And, on that, you couldn’t be more wornger. CERN is the gold standard in empirical confirmation — five sigma confidence as of 2012 July 4 of at least one Higgs at a mass of ~125 GeV, and similar confidence of all other particles up to and at least somewhat past that mass completely accounted for. Indeed, we’re now more confident about the existence of the Higgs than Rutherford ever had any right to be about the existence of the proton.

          You’re of course welcome to doubt the Standard Model, but beware: doing so puts you in the same realm of quackery as the Flat Earthers.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Posted November 7, 2014 at 6:23 am | Permalink

            Well, of course, Ben, I don’t deny the accuracy of the standard model. My point is that there are disagreements amongst physics as to how (for example) to unify relativity with quantum mechanics, and that much cosmological theory is nowadays based upon mathematical deductions from existing theories.

            But of course the same holds within philosophy, and despite your ignorant dismissal of philosophy, there is a great deal of agreement within philosophy, even though there is still room for disagreement regarding some issues — for example, mind, where scientific theories of mind are under serious scrutiny, and are still deeply contentious. However, you seem to know so little of this philosophy, and your willingness to spout certainties where there are none equally puts you amongst the flat earthers and the creationists.

            If you want to do philosophy, and much of your cavalier attitude towards philosophy is demonstrated in your attempt to do philosophy, but doing it poorly, then you should at least learn some, instead of repeating like a mantra, that philosophy is but theology writ large. This shows your ignorance, indeed, but very little more.

            But, of course, there will continue to be disagreements in philosophy, because philosophy is always working at the conceptual edge. Clarifying concepts, and discerning what is possible to say intelligibly (which you certainly have not learned) will inevitably lead to disagreements. But there is more consensus in philosophy than you assume, and even where there are disagreements, at least the terms of the disagreements are clear. Before pontificating, however, it would best to learn some philosophy. You might even learn something (though, based on your ill constructed straw men, it is only reasonable to doubt whether you are capable of learning in this area).

            • Posted November 7, 2014 at 11:11 am | Permalink

              Well, of course, Ben, I don’t deny the accuracy of the standard model.

              Except that you do.

              The Standard Model says that human minds are ultimately made of brains, which are meat computers whose components interact virtually exclusively through electromagnetism. Yet this is what you most vociferously and repeatedly reject.

              My point is that there are disagreements amongst physics as to how (for example) to unify relativity with quantum mechanics, and that much cosmological theory is nowadays based upon mathematical deductions from existing theories.

              Oh, of that there’s no doubt.

              But what you’re missing is that there’s absolutely no potential whatsoever (to degrees of confidence akin to those that the Sun will rise in the East tomorrow) that any new developments in physics will change the fact that minds are what brains do, and brains are meat computers.

              But, of course, there will continue to be disagreements in philosophy, because philosophy is always working at the conceptual edge.

              No, the problem with philosophy is that there’s no standard by which to evaluate claims. In science, it’s easy: check your claims against observations of reality. Barely a third of philosophers even agree that that’s a good idea, with more of them relying on “other ways of knowing” or some other form of bullshit.

              Sorry, but I can’t respect a discipline which claims to study reality but in which reality is so irrelevant.

              b&

              • Posted November 7, 2014 at 11:43 am | Permalink

                Ben, there is no evidence that minds and brains being identical is part of the standard model of physics. None whatsoever. That minds and brains are closely related in unquestionable, but there is no evidence either than the brain is a digital computer. None whatever. It’s a research model, but it has yet to be convincing at the empirical level. Philosophers have made much of it in their endeavour to reduce minds to brains, but have so far had no research evidence to prove it. That is a dogma of some scientists, and certainly not of all physicists. Reality is not only revealed by science. That is the problem with your philosophy, not your science, and it is a problem which is in fact self-subverting. You cannot say it in terms which do not assume the claim being made. That is in fact how little you know about philosophy.

              • Posted November 7, 2014 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

                Ben, there is no evidence that minds and brains being identical is part of the standard model of physics.

                Eric, the whole point of the completeness of the Standard Model is that it’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The reason why minds must be what brains do is because we’ve ruled out all other possibilities for there to be anything else.

                Either minds are what brains do, or minds are what brains do plus something else. But if there were a “plus something else,” then the Standard Model would be incomplete — except that we know that it’s not, that it’s complete.

                A claim that the Standard Model is unable to account for cognition is equivalent to a claim that there exists an as-yet-unidentified particle with a mass less than that of the Higgs, for reasons that we’ve tried to explain to you at length repeatedly in the past. But we know that no such particle exists, which means that minds are a function of the brain, period, full stop, end of story.

                b&

              • Posted November 8, 2014 at 5:38 am | Permalink

                As a philosophical neophyte, Ben, you’ve got the patter all down, and, like an auctioneer’s patter, it distracts one from paying attention. The claim that the Standard Model (of physics) does not (or at least so far has not) accounted for cognition, is not a claim about particles at all; but it is a claim that, regardless of its being verifiable (or not) by particle analysis, cognition (consciousness) is still a part of what is real.

              • Posted November 8, 2014 at 8:08 am | Permalink

                Eric, if anybody’s being a neophyte here, it’s you with respect to physics.

                I’ll try once more.

                You’re claiming that cognition is not the result of mechanical computation performed in the human brain, that it’s something else.

                That cognition is what enables you to type intelligently. That typing consists of manipulating the matter of your keyboard. Your keyboard we know is made of quarks and electrons (and, irrelevant to our discussion, gluons and other mostly hidden particles).

                There are only so many ways that you can move quarks and electrons, all accounted for by the Standard Model. Indeed, electromagnetism and gravity are basically it, with some more irrelevant footnotes.

                When your consciousness tells your brain to tell your fingers to type, either that chain of events is the result of electromagnetism and a bit of gravity, or else your consciousness is using some other unknown force to move the electrons and quarks in your keyboard. And every force has a magnitude and distance associated with it, as well as a particle directly related to said magnitude and distance. (It’s generally better to discuss these things in terms of fields, but that’s an extra layer of complexity not necessary right this moment.)

                But here’s the catch. If it were necessary to resort to something other than electromagnetism (and a bit of gravity) to explain how your consciousness permits you to type on the keyboard, we’d be able to create and detect the particle associated with the force that does the moving of the <whatever /> at wherever it is in the chain of events. But we detect no such particle, and therefore your claim is invalidated.

                We therefore know that cognition is something that’s, in practical terms, “merely” a complex arrangement of electromagnetic interactions (since gravity doesn’t play a significant role in the brain).

                You’re obviously more than skeptical that mere electromagnetism is capable of producing an effect as complex as cognition, but, frankly, that’s your problem — every bit as much as it’s the Flat Earther’s problem that she can’t believe that the Earth is round. This is basic, literally elementary, science, science that’s been known for decades and confirmed with practically-absolute certainty with the discovery of the Higgs.

                The debate is no longer over what consciousness is made of. It’s now entirely over what the particular arrangement of electromagnetic interactions is that produces it.

                Cheers,

                b&

  28. Posted November 7, 2014 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Scientism is the curse of the new atheism. It is also the reason that the new atheism is not validly considered a humanism.

    • Posted November 8, 2014 at 4:15 am | Permalink

      Come off it Eric. New Atheism is just an Old Atheism that is now unwilling to swallow all the endless bullshit that religion constantly throws out without “answering back”. And “Scientism” is just a pejorative word that certain people use when they hate the conclusions that Science makes them have to face up to. You certainly must realise that almost all Humanists are “new Atheists” these days.

      • Posted November 8, 2014 at 5:35 am | Permalink

        Nonsense, Howie, scientism is a metaphysical position (not very well argued for) in which the only things that are allowed to constitute reality are the deliverances of science. The metaphysical position itself cannot be established by science; that is, it is not an empirical position; and therefore, it is self-subverting, since it claims at least one item of knowledge that cannot be empirically established: namely, that everything that constitutes reality can be established by scientific forms of cognition.

        • Posted November 8, 2014 at 6:01 am | Permalink

          Let us define what “NON-Scientism” is then Eric. Non-Scientism is the philosophical approach for the process of explaining reality, being and the world in general without any necessary reference to any observable fact.

          • Posted November 8, 2014 at 7:49 am | Permalink

            Nonsense. There is no such thing as non-scientism as an intellectual point of view. Scientism is a well-known phenomenon. It is dogmatic, self-subverting and inconsistent with many things that are known, which would include, for example, were it true, the claim that only the empirically verifiable constitutes knowledge. A person who does not buy into scientism, does not explain reality without any reference to observable fact, since much of our knowledge is constituted this way, but a non-scientistic world view does not hold that the only knowledge accessible to us is empirical. There is, for example, logic and mathematics which, pace Ben Goren, is not substantiated empirically, though empirical examples can be given illustrating the truth of at least some simple equations or logical entailments. There are forms of knowing how that do not include propositional attitudes at all. There is self-knowledge which cannot be simply reduced to observable facts. And (in that context)there are then reasonable claims of knowledge of the mind which cannot be reduced to knowledge of observable facts.

            • Posted November 8, 2014 at 8:19 am | Permalink

              It is dogmatic, self-subverting and inconsistent with many things that are known, which would include, for example, were it true, the claim that only the empirically verifiable constitutes knowledge.

              You’ve trotted out this dead horse before, Eric.

              Give us but one single example of something which you justifiably know is true that lacks empirical verification.

              We’re still waiting, as we have been sine the last time…and the time before…and the time before that….

              b&

              • Posted November 9, 2014 at 3:39 am | Permalink

                Just out of curiosity Eric, are you proud of the fact that you endorse a system of thought that completely justifies Scientology, Astrology and the Mormon Church?

        • Posted November 8, 2014 at 8:17 am | Permalink

          Eric, it all comes down to what you’re going to use as your gold standard of measurement.

          Science uses observations of reality itself to figure out how well its ideas comport with reality.

          Theology and philosophy…are cases of, “anything goes.” Sure, some like to pretend to check their results against reality, but various appeals to aesthetics and revelation and other variations on pulling shit out your ass are all fair game.

          As such, philosophy and theology are great ways to align your beliefs to your own profundity, but only science can even hope to tell you how close a match you’ve found to reality itself.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Posted November 8, 2014 at 9:18 am | Permalink

            Theology and philosophy…are cases of, “anything goes.”

            As I said, a neophyte in philosophy, clearly not in rompers yet. Science itself can’t give an account of itself without philosophy — for example, claims as to what constitutes a scientifically valid statement, something which itself cannot be scientifically verified. And it’s not a dead horse at all, if you took a moment or two to think about it. The self-defeating nature of scientism is as clear as the self-defeating nature of verificationism. The claim that scientific knowledge alone counts as knowledge cannot itself be scientifically verified. Besides it’s false, unless you want to redefine science, for mathematical knowledge, despite your illustrations of simple equations, is not empirically verifiable. The simple fact that there are alternative logics and geometries should confirm that for you, and if it doesn’t, perhaps you really do need to look again at philosophy and the claim that anything goes therein. For one thing that doesn’t go in philosophy is the claim that all knowledge is empirical.

            It’s interesting Ben, you make Jerry’s website (to give it it’s upper class title) nearly pointless to read or make comments upon, because you respond to almost everything that is said, agree puppy-like to everything that Jerry says, wagging your tail, and seem to know so little, and understand less. This is my last comment on whyeveolutionistrue.com. It is becoming so idiotic repeating the same simple little bits of philosophy only to be told, Hawking like, that philosophy is dead — itself a questionable philosophical statement.

            • Posted November 8, 2014 at 10:14 am | Permalink

              Science itself can’t give an account of itself without philosophy — for example, claims as to what constitutes a scientifically valid statement, something which itself cannot be scientifically verified.

              Eric, it’s only the philosophers who insist that science needs to look to philosophy for validation — and that validation is no different from the theological validation that theologian insist they’re required to bestow upon science in turn.

              Richard Dawkins has very famously quoted XKCD on this: “Science. It works, bitches.” That’s ultimately the only validation science needs — and it’s that exact same test which philosophy fails on so spectacularly. Philosophers are still debating the nature of existence and meaning and the good life and all the rest, without even coming close to an answer, after multiple millennia; scientists have discovered the Standard Model and the Big Bang and information theory and patient outcome surveys and all the rest, mostly just in the last century or so. It was Eratosthenes who used science to finally settle the question of where the Sun went at night, a problem that had vexed philosophers since the dawn of mankind; had he and the other pre-Socratics won out over the philosophers (especially Platonists) and theologians (emphatically Christians), we well could have had these answers over a millennium ago.

              I’m sorry that you don’t “get it” that the way to know if your answers align with reality is by comparing your answers to reality. It really seems to me like it should be blindingly obvious why that should be the way to go, and why anything else is utterly hopeless and doomed to failure. You obviously find some form of comfort in pretending that you can know about reality by ignoring it, presumably by creating your own imaginary reality that you prefer over the real one. But that sort of trap, though it may be initially enticing, is especially hard to escape from…and it only gets more and more painful with time.

              b&

  29. Posted November 9, 2014 at 4:49 am | Permalink

    “The claim that scientific knowledge alone counts as knowledge cannot itself be scientifically verified. Besides it’s false, unless you want to redefine science, for mathematical knowledge, despite your illustrations of simple equations, is not empirically verifiable.”

    Just for the record, Eric’s assertions here are totally irrelevant as his argument is essentially that “scientism” must violate Gödel’s second incompleteness theorem, which of course is totally impossible. In other words Eric’s specific “telling point” on scientism is really totally non-specific in nature and is thereby no big deal at all.


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