Another unconvincing redefinition of free will

I can’t remember whether a reader or someone else recommended that, since I’m interested in free will, I should read Michael Gazzaniga’s book Who’s in Charge? Gazzaniga, a well known neuroscientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, gave the prestigious Gifford Lectures (an annual series of endowed lectures in Scotland that have been going since 1898) in 2009 and 2010.

All Gifford lectures deal with the intersection of science and religion, but aren’t Templeton-esque since they’ve included explicit critics of religion like Steve Pinker and Carl Sagan. They’ve also included religionists, of course, including William James, Terry Eagleton, Rowan Williams, and Alfred North Whitehead. Traditionally, the Gifford Lectures are turned into a book, the most famous of which was James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. And Gazzaniga’s book represents his writing-up of the lectures. Sagan’s lectures were, after his death, edited by Ann Druyan into the lovely book The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God (recommended by Professor Ceiling Cat). Those who see Sagan as a “kinder Old Atheist” should have a look at that book.

Gazzaniga’s thesis is that, although determinism reigns at the brain level, so that our actions are determined in advance (though not 100% predictable), humans nevertheless still have free will and moral responsibility. In other words, he’s a compatibilist.  Compatibilism is, of course, the notion that “free will” can still exist despite physical determinism of our behaviors, including “choice”.  It contrasts with libertarian free will (the notion that we can make free and undetermined choices—that we could have “done otherwise” at any time), which almost always rests on a form of dualism: that the mind is somehow separate from the brain and can control it. It’s also opposed to incompatibilism, which holds that free will (one must define it, of course), is incompatible with physical determinism. Since my definition of “free will” is the traditional one, held by religionists and many laypeople alike, I’m an incompatibilist. Here’s my definition, taken from biologist Anthony Cashmore:

[F]ree will is. . . defined as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature.

That’s explicitly dualistic. Of course, compatibilists define it differently, as they must if they’re to harmonize free will and determinism, but I think the above definition comports with the common (and certainly the religious) notion of free will. It is the one, for instance, held by many scientists I have met.

As an incompatibilist, I reject the notion that humans have moral responsibility for their actions, since the concept of “moral responsibility” involves “ability to choose otherwise.” I do, however, think that people are responsible for their actions; that is, they must be held accountable for what they do for the good of society. But I’ve written about that on this site before; just search for “free will.”

There are dozens of different (and sometimes incompatible!) ways to define “free will” to make it compatible with determinism, which leads me to suspect that compatibilists are like theologians, who redefine God so it always remains compatible with the latest findings of science (ergo, we now have a “Ground-of-Being” God, compatible with all possible findings.  Some types of compatibilism give free will to animals and computers, others to primates, still others to our species alone. That means that none of them can be “right” in any meaningful sense.

Gazzaniga defines free will as a function of human social interaction. The meat of his book is summarized in these two paragraphs in the penultimate section of his book, “Social interactions make us free to choose” (p. 215, my emphasis):

My contention is that ultimately responsibility is a contract between two people rather than a property of a brain, and determinism has no meaning in this context. Human nature remains constant, but out in the social world behavior can change. Brakes can be put on unconscious intentions. I won’t throw my fork at you because you took a bite of my biscuit.  The behavior of one person can affect another person’s behavior. I see the highway patrolman coming down the onramp and I check my speedometer and slow down. As I said in the last chapter, the point is that we now understand that we have to look at the whole picture, a brain in the midst of and interacting with other brains, not just one brain in isolation.

No matter what their condition, however, most humans can follow rules. Criminals can follow the rules. They don’t commit their crimes in front of policemen. They are able to inhibit their intentions when the cop walks by. They have made a choice based on their experience. This is what makes us responsible agents, or not. 

I have read this several times, and I don’t see it offering much scope for free will, even defined broadly. What Gazzaniga defines as “choice” is not a “free” choice, but a choice that has been determined by the individual’s experience—in the case of behaving well in front of a policeman, by the experience of knowing what happens when people misbehave and of seeing what happens to convicted criminals. So, somewhat like Dan Dennett, Gazzaniga sees “free will” simply as a computer program in the brain, but a complicated one that can be modified by the social environment (in this case, the presence of the police).

But even diehard incompatibilists like myself, and all scientists, agree that interaction with the environment, and that includes other people, can modify the brain and hence one’s behavior. That’s not news!  The “contract” that modifies our own brains to give us free will is simply the set of rules that social groups of humans generally live by, whether those rules be coded in our genes, the result of experience, or an interaction between these two factors. Those rules don’t differ in principle between the rules that many animals obey, or even chess-playing computers, which learn to modify their moves based on whether previous moves have brought them victory or defeat.  There is a “contract” between two squirrels (or so I have noticed) that when they are competing for a pile of seeds, the smaller one gives way to the larger. That’s a result of either genes or learning, but it’s a contract nonetheless, and is there to prevent harm to squirrels. Do squirrels then have free will and moral responsibility?

So in the end, Gazzaniga sees human free will in the behaviors we possess that resulted from our evolution and participation in social groups. We change our behavior based on our experiences, and that learning, of course, is a result of adaptive evolution itself: we modify what we do based on what we see, and in a way that preserves our well being. (I’ve written a bit on Gazzaniga’s views before, but haven’t read his book until now.)

Gazzaniga’s whole thesis is undercut by this misguided statement: “My contention is that ultimately responsibility is a contract between two people rather than a property of a brain, and determinism has no meaning in this context.” Well, if the contract is itself determined by our genes and our environment, which I believe it is, then why is determinism irrelevant to responsibility, much less moral responsibility? Why does a contract suddenly give us more responsibility than if we were solitary animals like orangutans, but could kill or injure, or steal from other orangutans? And what is “free” about the contract? Of course determinism is relevant to social contracts.

Gazzaniga’s book is worth reading, as it has a lot of fascinating information about neuroscience, how the brain works, and how split-brain patients behave when their separated hemispheres receive conflicting information. But it fails as a synthesis of neuroscience and philosophy, for there is no obvious connection to me between social “contracts” and free will. Such contracts are just another way of saying that an animal’s environment can modify its behavior.

In the end, I still hold that the philosophical exercise of finding ways to make free will compatible with determinism is unproductive: a waste of time motivated in part by philosophers’ views that, without thinking that we can “choose otherwise,” society would degenerate into a pack of wastrels, nihilists, and people who won’t get out of bed. What on earth has compatibilism accomplished? It is akin, as I said, to theology, and in many ways (one of which is the view that without belief in free will, like without belief in God, society will degenerate).

One of the most obvious resemblances of theology to compatibilism is the continual redefinition of “free will” so that (like God) it’s always preserved despite scientific advances. When Libet and Soon et al. showed that they could predict a person’s behavior several seconds in advance of that person’s conscious decision, the compatibilists rushed to save their definition, declaring that these experiments are completely irrelevant to the notion of free will. They’re not. For if free will means anything, it means that our choices are coincident with our consciousness of making them (to libertarians, our consciousness makes those choices, and we could have chosen otherwise). There is no scientific experiment, no finding from neuroscience, that will make the compatibilists give up their efforts, for they will simply continue to redefine free will in a way that humans will always have it. That resistance to evidence is another way compatibilism resembles Sophisticated Theology.™

And let me say this one more time: philosophers who are truly concerned with changing society based on reason wouldn’t be engaged in compatibilism, they’d be engaged in working out the consequences of determinism, especially its implications for how we reward and punish people.

~

 

 

 

 

189 Comments

  1. Nicholas
    Posted November 20, 2014 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Subscribe.

    • Filippo
      Posted November 20, 2014 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

      sub

  2. Posted November 20, 2014 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    What do you think about definitions of free will that don’t entail ultimate moral responsibility or self authorship? I linked one here a week or so ago: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/a-question-for-compatibilists/#comment-1090687).

  3. eric
    Posted November 20, 2014 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    There is a “contract” between two squirrels (or so I have noticed) that when they are competing for a pile of seeds, the smaller one gives way to the larger. That’s a result of either genes or learning, but it’s a contract nonetheless, and is there to prevent harm to squirrels. Do squirrels then have free will and moral responsibility?

    Indeed. There are many other animal examples (the recent hermit crab video springs to mind), but even if you discount many of these as genetically determined behavior that only looks like a social contract, it would be very hard to dismiss chimp, baboon, and a lot of (other) monkey social behavior that way. Chimps recognize when you cheat on a deal.

    What’s more, they recognize when humans are cheating them.* IOW humans can make social contracts with these other species. So I don’t see how Gazzaniga’s concept of free will couldn’t apply to such animals. And if it applies to such animals, then we must either treat them as moral agents, or confront the problem that ‘having free will’ the way Gazzaniga defines it no longer has much to do with sentience and self-awareness, nor moral responsibility and culpability.

    • darrelle
      Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      Yes. It seems clear to me, and therefore I think it should certainly seem clear to any experts by this time, that all aspects of human cognition occur to one degree or another in other animals. We have many well evidenced & formally studied examples by now of many cognitive features that we have, and that used to be considered as unique to us, occuring in other animals. Exactly as you would expect if evolution were true.

      Gazzaniga’s musings here smack of a belief in, or perhaps merely a residual yearning for human specialness. Like a Human Specialness of the Gaps argument. Science has shot down most of the old ideas of human specialness, but there’s room to squeeze it in here because science hasn’t shed light on it yet.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted November 20, 2014 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

        Indeed, it’s not by accident that rat brains are used to understand human brains….well some of it is ethics but our brain anatomy is quite similar.

  4. Gordon Hill
    Posted November 20, 2014 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    I plead guilty to recommending Who’s in Charge? as another view. The challenge of free will is primarily its characterization. As a non-scientist, I seek generally agreed definitions and find none for free will, although I find many who believe one exists. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy characterization of free will at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freewill/ is instructive.

    As I recall, Gazzanniga’s premise is that the idea of free will has passed, that it does not exist; however, the issue at hand is whether we are responsible for our behavior and accountable for actions.

    The concept of determinism is interesting, but as Wheelis wondered, “determinism is fine unless it voids determination.” (as recalled)

    The new question is whether we have a capacity to make decisions for which we are to be held accountable… If so, what do we call that? Will works for me.

    • Posted November 20, 2014 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      I find Sam Harris’s example from his book, Free Will helpful when it comes to responsibility:

      If, after weeks of deliberation, library research, and debate with your friends, you still decide to kill the king—well, then killing the king reflects the sort of person you really are. The point is not that you are the ultimate and independent cause of your actions; the point is that, for whatever reason, you have the mind of a regicide.

      • Gordon Hill
        Posted November 20, 2014 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

        My dilemma with the definition of free will is the same as with that of what characterizes a species. As I recall, in the beginning of Speciation by Coyne & Orr two definitions of what constitutes a species were given and the authors noted which they were using… with no comments on the veracity of the other. It is with this in mind I wonder at the contention over free will, especially w.r.t. Gazzaniga’s view as he offers considerable evidence as to his view.

        The idea of free will, taken at its conventional meaning, “unrestricted ability to choose”, has outlived its significance… or so it seems to me.

        For me, the ability to decide seems a given, but each of us is both endowed and limited, leading me to see the subject as one of havine “bounded will.”

        • BillyJoe
          Posted November 22, 2014 at 5:13 am | Permalink

          …except that it is completely bounded.
          Leaving no room for the FREE expression of WILL.

      • Scientifik
        Posted November 21, 2014 at 6:46 am | Permalink

        So much for equating will with free will. Good quote.

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted November 20, 2014 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      As I recall, Gazzanniga’s premise is that the idea of free will has passed, that it does not exist; however, the issue at hand is whether we are responsible for our behavior and accountable for actions.

      That’s a bit disappointing. It’s basically another version of “You can’t be good without god”, only with an added “It may be that you can’t…”.

      Or in other words: A case of good ol’ appeal to consequences.

    • eric
      Posted November 20, 2014 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      As a non-scientist, I seek generally agreed definitions and find none for free will, although I find many who believe one exists.

      My exasperation with compatibilists is somewhat similar to Jerry’s and his analogy to theology: if your audience is understanding the term differently than the way you’re using it, and you know this, then the honest thing to do is explain that you’re not actually supporting the notion they think you are. It is your responsibility as a speaker to actively communicate the difference between their God/free will and your God/free will. It is not the audience’s responsibility to go try and figure out what you mean by the term.

      To be fair, in books both theologians and free will compatibilists will do this: they will descibe what they mean when they use the relevant term. But in my opinion the responsibility doesn’t stop there: if you go around giving interviews and lectures, then every single time, you should point out that you’re using a non-theistic ground of being definition of God, or a social-interaction definition of free will. Because explaining that nonstandard use is critical information the audience needs to understand the point you’re making.

      Unless of course your goal is to become a popular defender of the common understanding of these terms without actually defending them in academia. If that’s what you’re trying to do (many theologians – j’accuse!), then obfuscation of which definition your using is going to be your strategy of choice. So if someone’s obfuscating, IMO that’s pretty good evidence that the speaker fully understands the game they are playing, and they’re being intentionally deceptive for fame and profit.

      • Gordon Hill
        Posted November 20, 2014 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

        My response is based on my reading of Gazzaniga’s book and his view of free will being a meaningless term (my interpretation of his writing). That’s all. I believe the idea of free will has passed as as a valid topic of conversation, the Gazzaniga’s point of our being responsible for our behavior and and accountable for our actions is the key.

        The question is, “If not will, what do we call this ability to make decisions?” While limited, it seems to be will.”

        • eric
          Posted November 21, 2014 at 7:05 am | Permalink

          Will, sentience, consciousness, self-reflection, cognition…we have tons of words that refer to what humans do inside their heads. I see no good reason to (and lots of very bad communication mishaps that could result from) taking the specific and particular phrase “free will” and trying to make it synonymous with human forebrain cognition.

  5. Posted November 20, 2014 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    The Varieties of Scientific Experience is one of my favorite books.

    Sagan was one of the first science writers I ever read; and I love his NF books (I’ve never read the fiction).

    The Dragons of Eden was a great spark to me searching out more science books.

    If I were a science teacher (of kids), I would be providing each class a bibliography of great science writing (and, of course, it would include WEIT).

    • Posted November 20, 2014 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      Contact is worth reading (Sagan fiction), but not worth watching. The movie did not do the book justice.

      • Posted November 20, 2014 at 9:59 am | Permalink

        Really?! Because I love that movie (despite its Hollywood excesses).

        I’ll definitely check out the book.

        • Posted November 20, 2014 at 10:11 am | Permalink

          For me it was the opposite; I liked the movie more than the book.

      • DrDroid
        Posted November 20, 2014 at 10:43 am | Permalink

        Contact is my favorite sci-fi movie. It has a great plot that keeps the suspense going, far superior to the execrable Interstellar. It’s not perfect nor a faithful attempt to portray Carl Sagan’s views. For instance there are scenes in which Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) is challenged by the Reverend Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) regarding her lack of belief in God and she seemingly has no answer; I’m pretty sure Sagan would have an answer! Be that as it may it’s an engrossing movie that is extremely well acted and directed by Robert Zemeckis. I’ve always wondered why it didn’t receive more awards.

        • Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:07 am | Permalink

          I agree on everything you wrote. Contact is arguably the best science fiction movie. Most people would name 2001 as the best Sci-Fi flick though, and I’ve never completely understood why. Contact surpassed 2001 in terms of acting, plot, colorful characters, suspense, intriguing ending and story/ideas based on the works of respected scientist like Carl Sagan and Kip Thorne.

          • darrelle
            Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:28 am | Permalink

            To echo Princess Irulan, “to understand you must first place 2001 in its proper time.”

            • Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:36 am | Permalink

              Agreed. I like 2001 (saw it when it was new, dating myself here — though I was QUITE YOUNG 🙂 ) and own a Bluray copy of it (excellent IQ!)

              But I prefer Contact.

              There it is.

              • darrelle
                Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:50 am | Permalink

                Me Too. To be honest, when it gets right down to it, 2001 is rather boring. There are lots of things to like about it, but that is definitely a negative.

                I really like Contact. My only serious complaint about it is the same thing DrDroid related above.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted November 20, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

            I did enjoy how Arroway kept getting screwed over for stuff – not because I’m sadistic but you can completely identify with that aspect of her character. The talkers get all the good jobs & Arroway, a smart, dedicated person, gets shoved aside because she isn’t being slick.

          • DrDroid
            Posted November 20, 2014 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

            2001 was a phenomenon for its time: it was the first realistic depiction of space travel and for that it is deservedly famous.

        • Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:35 am | Permalink

          I hated both Contact (book and movie) and 2001. All of them contaminated hard sci-fi with “spiritual” crap.

          • Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:41 am | Permalink

            I think all the best SciFi is thus contaminated. Or perhaps one should say “deeper human themes”.

            I like the sparring (in Contact) between atheist Arroway and Palmer Joss and the Selection Panel and the later Review Panel. (These are the basic conflicts we face.) I doubt there will ever be a full-on atheist protagonist untempered with sops to the faithful in any major film in my lifetime. Not at least without portraying the atheist as some kind of freak.

            The ending (in Contact) was disappointing to me and provided too much sop for the believers; but I still liked the nerve they had to explore these issues (in a non-cartoon way).

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted November 20, 2014 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

              I think it would have been more powerful if they hadn’t wrapped it up – that there was no evidence that there was more time experienced on the craft than on earth & that it was somehow hushed up. That way, the audience decides for themselves what they want to believe.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted November 20, 2014 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

              The movie, Contact, made me realize how much religion is a big part of American politics. When I saw it, I was a naive Canadian & I remember saying, “why the hell would a religious guy be on this panel?” Oh silly me.

          • Kevin
            Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:45 am | Permalink

            Indeed, McConaughey’s character was nauseating; but I liked the movie, if only, that it indirectly inspires the idea that humanity is insignificant and people who understand this should correctly abandon the provincialism of religion.

            • darrelle
              Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:54 am | Permalink

              I would say that if he was able to engender such a reaction then he did a good job!

              • Kevin
                Posted November 20, 2014 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

                McConaughey did a great job! It was the sliminess of spirituality that oozed from him and how government officials embraced him not as a pariah, but a sage….bleachhh. A movie well done!

              • darrelle
                Posted November 21, 2014 at 6:58 am | Permalink

                Yep. The Tom Skerritt character was also nausea inducing. Even more so for me!

            • Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:55 am | Permalink

              Yes, he’s nauseating (and probably in conformity with McConaughey’s actual beliefs) but he plays that role really well, to the hilt. He’s infuriating — and meant to be.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted November 20, 2014 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

                When I watched in Interstellar, I thought about how different a character he was playing from his Contact character. He does seem to really be able to act as I suspect he is more like the Contact guy too. Same goes for his acting in True Detectives, though that character is so out there he’s almost a caricature.

              • Posted November 20, 2014 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

                I hope this aligns as a reply to Dian’s comment on McConaughey’s acting …

                I agree Diana, I think he’s an excellent actor. In addition to that film, I think he really shows it in Lincoln Lawyer and of course Dallas Buyers Club which is a superb movie, IMO.

                For a long while there, got type-cast as the pretty, silly boy. And you can’t blame him for taking those $10M paychecks for all those lightweight movies.

          • Pliny the in Between
            Posted November 20, 2014 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

            I’ve always looked at 2001: a Space Odyssey as having more in common with Fantasia than with classical science fiction. It was an experimental work that explored themes through music, sound and visual imagery rather than traditional narrative. I found it less spiritual than intended to create a sense of wonder – with a ’60’s vibe, of course.

            • darrelle
              Posted November 21, 2014 at 7:00 am | Permalink

              I’ve never experienced it myself in this way, but I’ve heard many, many times from people of a certain generation that to be fully appreciated you should watch 2001 while stoned.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted November 21, 2014 at 7:09 am | Permalink

                Challenge accepted.

              • darrelle
                Posted November 21, 2014 at 7:58 am | Permalink

                Ha! By the way, I’ve been meaning to say “Good to see you around here again.”

                It seems you had left for a while, but maybe I’ve just been unobservant.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted November 21, 2014 at 8:42 am | Permalink

                Thanks and right back at you. 🙂

                Iv’e been in internet lurk mode for a few months basically just reading a lot.

                I sometimes find it refreshing to take a break from commenting on all sites I follow including facebook and whatnot……..sort of absorbing a lot of people’s opinions and just observing these strange creature’s behaviour in the wild.

                It’s bloody fascinating. 🙂

        • Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:43 am | Permalink

          “I’ve always wondered why it didn’t receive more awards”

          Too long. Too deep. Too controversial of issues explored.

          • Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:57 am | Permalink

            And: It’s SciFi, full stop.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted November 20, 2014 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, I said elsewhere that the way atheists are treated was annoying.

          I did like interstellar though as I liked the message – humans had to save their asses, not aliens. It may be reflective of how we see things right now, which, if true, is great!

          I also liked how young Murph is portrayed as the character was originally written as a boy. Later, they changed only the gender without changing the story. I didn’t know this until I read about it after I saw the movie & during the movie I was impressed with how they wrote her. Her father lets her change gears while driving the car, she is smart & figures things out using science, she gets in a fist fight for arguing with kids who deny the Apollo moon missions, her dad shows her how to control a drone they find. You normally don’t see girls written this way, even though in real life, I know many dads who treat their daughters like this.

          The way they adults were written wasn’t so good though & the sound track mixing was atrocious! I thought it was the theatre but it was the mixing. I can’t even blame Hans Zimmer – it was just mixed really badly. At one point, I wondered if I was just getting old.

          • DrDroid
            Posted November 20, 2014 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

            “…the sound track mixing was atrocious! I thought it was the theatre but it was the mixing. I can’t even blame Hans Zimmer – it was just mixed really badly.”

            The director says it was intentional. Google

            “Couldn’t Hear ‘Interstellar’s’ Dialogue? Christopher Nolan Says That’s Intentional”

            I’m with you; I hated the sound track.

            • Posted November 20, 2014 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

              I think I read somewhere that it was intentional but it was sucky and I think a lot of people thought that too. I could accept not hearing some dialogue very well because of special effects as this would convey the surrounding environment to the audience. But to blast the music over the sound effects AND the dialogue? That’s silly. It’s true Hans Zimmer’s sound tracks are a separate character in the movie; in this one that character is a loud, burping slovenly guy thst appears all around you!

      • Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:16 am | Permalink

        Weird. Maybe I’m alone on this one. For those who loved the movie, though, did you read the book first? Maybe that’s why I was disappointed.

        • Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:34 am | Permalink

          Obviously i did not read it (Contact) first. However, I’ve never been in the “Loved the book, hated the movie” mood/mode/whatever.

          I look at them as two completely different things and try to enjoy both for what they are.

          It may have much to do with whichever you experience first (and are strongly moved by) is then better than what you experience afterwards, for most people, most of the time.

          I saw the films Dr. Zhivago and The English Patient each before reading the corresponding book (and the same is true for Lawrence of Arabia and Seven Pillars of Wisdom for that matter; I enjoyed both of those immensely) and enjoyed the film more in each case (though both were excellent books too of course).

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted November 20, 2014 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

          I watched the movie first. So perhaps that influenced me. In both, I was a little annoyed with how atheists were treated. In te book, they described Arroway as agnostic so “not completely closed off” as if she were close minded. Then the way at the end in the movie (can’t remember if the book was like this) when Palmer said he “believed” Arroway and there was all this faith talk.

          I remember saying, after the movie, “Aww, the moral is the atheist always gets the shit end of the stick!”

          • Posted November 20, 2014 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

            Yes, but I like how (little, tiny (Jodie Foster is a tiny person)) Ellie stands her ground, every time, shaking her fist at them, telling them to (fuck off and) pay attention.

            She is a really strong woman character (and girl earlier in the movie — when she tells off the priest at her Dad’s memorial, it warms my heart every time).

            Foster holds up our side in dashing fashion IMO. Good on her!

            But yes, as in real life, the atheist gets the shit.

          • Posted November 20, 2014 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

            It was a while ago, but I think I remember the movie being significantly more “faith friendly” than the book – and that is one of the reasons I didn’t like it that much.

        • DrDroid
          Posted November 20, 2014 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

          The movie was rather different than the book. As I recall the novel had a multinational team of astronauts aboard the wormhole capsule. It also had an interesting discussion of something that might make a scientist wonder if there was a “creator of the universe”. As I recall it had something to do with a search into the far out digits of pi, where two large prime numbers and a raster pattern depicting a circle were discovered. So the book was neat, but so was the movie. The movie was ambiguous regarding the religion vs. atheism/science conflict. If this was intentional on the part of the scriptwriters, it succeeded and gave the movie a chameleon-like quality. I know people who are religious who also love that movie, presumably because they find the questions Rev Palmer Joss posed to Ellie Arroway to be slam-dunk unanswerable defenses of religious faith.

      • Explorer
        Posted November 20, 2014 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

        I can understand why they edited certain things out to get a manageable movie script, but the coda in the novel was beautiful as an example of what good evidence could look like.

        I’m always intrigued when someone says that strong evidence for their faith will never be available, or just isn’t possible. To me, that means they personally don’t believe that such evidence will surface, a strange denial of their claimed faith.

  6. Posted November 20, 2014 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Excellent post. Very well stated. I can’t wait for the compatibilists to show up and start equivocating.

  7. Michael Garner
    Posted November 20, 2014 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Whenever I’m exposed to the ideas of compatibilists, I can’t help but wonder if they actually believe what they’re saying, or if they’re just trying to piss me off.

    • Posted November 20, 2014 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      As a compatibilist, yes we really do believe what we’re saying.

      And yes, we agree with you entirely that dualist free will does not exist, and nor are we hankering after it.

      From there, the disagreement is almost entirely semantics.

      • Posted November 20, 2014 at 10:27 am | Permalink

        Just out of curiosity, what do you think about moral responsibility, retribution and the intuition that some people (like child murderers/rapists/etc.) ‘deserve’ to suffer (beyond what might be justified strictly with respect to future consequences like deterrence) punished for their actions or states of being?

        Different compatibilists seem to have different answers for this type of question and it’s a topic that seems to be obscured by the philosophy surrounding compatibilism.

        • Posted November 20, 2014 at 10:55 am | Permalink

          Morals are feelings that evolution has programmed into us as a social glue. We have feelings about how humans treat each other because such feelings will influence how we act and (thus) how others act.

          “Moral responsibility” means responsibility that is susceptible to social opprobrium and thus can be influenced by what others think. (In contast to, say, the results of a brain tumour.)

          Thus the view of “morals” as a social contract between humans is correct. Seeing “free will” in that context makes sense.

          Everything I’ve just said is intended to be interpreted in an entirely deterministic way.

          By the way, I don’t think it’s true that there are lots of different compatbilist conceptions of “free will” and lots of different compatibilist answers. I think they’re all essentially saying the same thing, but are just phrasing things a bit differently.

          I also think that the compatibilists and incompatibilists agree on the substance of all this. The only disagreement is over what words to use for it.

          • Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:14 am | Permalink

            But which social constructs will actually objectively make sense is not well established by our intuitions. Our intuitions are very often incorrect, as history has shown pretty clearly. So what I’m asking is what you think about the specific intuition that makes us feel that certain bad actors ‘deserve’ to suffer for their actions (many people try to adjust the definition of the term ‘deserve’ here and justify it purely by reference to future consequences but that isn’t the type of ‘deserve’ our intuitions support; the type of ‘deserve’ our intuitions support is a retributive, emotional one).

            This is an important question as it seems to be the main reason why non compatibilists like Sam Harris, for instance, are hesitant to redefine the term free-will. If it’s shown that our intuitions regarding people’s culpability are flawed and that our justice systems and social constructs are better served by rejecting our intuitions surrounding retribution and ‘just deserts,’ and instead focusing on what is best supported by projected future consequences, then there is a danger inherent to feeding ideas that people are ultimately culpable for their behavior and intrinsic states. Our emotional desires for retribution do a ton of work toward increasing suffering in this reality and if they’re unfounded and fallacious, as I think they are, then that’s an important fact that shouldn’t be shrouded in manufactured complexity. Redefining free-will just isn’t worth that imo.

            • Posted November 20, 2014 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

              So what I’m asking is what you think about the specific intuition that makes us feel that certain bad actors ‘deserve’ to suffer for their actions …

              That sort of moral-realist intuition, that there is an objective sense in which acts are right and wrong and punishment is deserved, is, in my opinion, totally false.

      • eric
        Posted November 20, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

        I get that the disagreement is almost entirely semantics.

        I don’t get why you want to semantically retain the term ‘free will’ to mean something the common populace now and historically have never taken it to mean.

        Look, we Americans may have the bad taste to call football ‘soccer,’ but at least we don’t run around insisting the rest of the world call it soccer. Why are you insisting the rest of the world call determinism ‘free’?

        • Posted November 20, 2014 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

          … retain the term ‘free will’ to mean something the common populace now and historically have never taken it to mean.

          Partly because we don’t accept that that is what the populace mean by it. We think that the populace actually have a confused mish-mash conception of it, and that in most practical situations they default to the compatibilist meaning.

          (There may also be a difference here between more-religious America and less-religious Europe.)

          Why are you insisting the rest of the world call determinism ‘free’.

          Partly because every other usage of “free” in the English language is compatible with determinism. E.g.:

          Free speech; free press; freedom of religion; free style; free load; free radical; freed from jail; free lunch; free fall; free agent; free to leave; freed from slavery; free man; set the birds free; kick your legs free; free form.

          None of those imply violation of physical laws or non-compliance with determinism.

          Indeed the dictionary defines “free” as: “Able to act or be done as one wishes; not under the control of another”.

          It is the single usage “free will” that is out of line with all the others. All one has to do is interpret it, in line with the others, as being free to act on one’s will, and that’s the compatibilist meaning.

          • eric
            Posted November 21, 2014 at 7:24 am | Permalink

            Partly because we don’t accept that that is what the populace mean by it. We think that the populace actually have a confused mish-mash conception of it, and that in most practical situations they default to the compatibilist meaning.

            Empirically, you’re wrong. Or at least you’re making an argument very similar to the one made by sophisticated theologians, when they imply that their ‘ground of being’ God conception is really the conception of God most people have.

            About 76% of the American population self-identify as Christian. 40% say they regularly go to church, where they will speak some variant of the Nicene creed, which is a statement of belief in a form of theistic dualism. Gallup polls show about 85% of Americans believe in heaven. The massive 2008 PEW survey gave 74% for belief in heaven and hell (Gallup asked about them separately; PEW didn’t). There is simply no way to honestly interpret this data any other way: the majority of the American public are theistic dualists. They believe in spirits, in an afterlife, and that they have some non-material part of them which is going to go to said afterlife after they die.

            Now, you can go the sophisticated theologian route and imply that they’re all lying. In church they lie when they say things like the Nicene creed and when they ‘look for the life of the world to come.’ That they lie when they talk about souls. That they lie to Gallup and PEW and every other survey, and they’re all secret determinists. But personally I think such a defense of your position isn’t very good.

            • Posted November 21, 2014 at 7:33 am | Permalink

              First, America isn’t typical of the Western world these days. But, yes, you’re right, if most people are asked about “free will” they report a dualistic intuition.

              But, as I said, most people’s views on this are a confused mish-mash, and if you watch how they use concepts such as “choice” and “will” in everyday, practical situations, they are just as much compatibilists as dualists.

              In other words, dualism is a *commentary* that people have constructed about themselves, but the actual concepts they use in everyday life are more complex than that.

      • Posted November 21, 2014 at 7:48 am | Permalink

        Is it really all semantics?

        As Vaal wrote elsewhere in this thread, I think there is at least one more substantive conceptual difference, and, importantly, one that doesn’t hinge on defining “free will” at all. Incompatibilists are engaged in greedy reductionism. I think it’s entirely legitimate to acknowledge that, although we (and other animals, complex computer programs, etc.) are ultimately driven by innumerable inputs, as those inputs increase in number and their relationships become more complex, we can say that “choice” is a real thing that emerges. I don’t think it’s a good model of reality to try to lump house bricks (as you often write) into the same category as humans. There’s a difference there that needs to be appreciated.

        • Posted November 21, 2014 at 7:59 am | Permalink

          First of all “greedy” is pejorative and adds nothing to this debate. It’s also unfair. Also,what makes you think that a deterministic program with deterministic outputs results in any kind of “free” choice? How is it free. How is it even “real,” except in the trivial sense that there is a single “decision”? And emergent properties in science are always consistent with, and result from, underlying dynamics. They may be “emergent” but that doesn’t say much of anything.

          Choice is “emergent” in the same way that which nut a squirrel prefers is emergent. I.e. it’s an illusion. So what’s the difference between squirrels and humans, except that we have more complex decision-making modules?

          • Vaal
            Posted November 21, 2014 at 8:42 am | Permalink

            Just a note: while I did suggest the differences between Incompatibilists and Compatibiists were not just semantic, but conceptual, I did speak of “greedy reductionism” in doing so.

            🙂

            Cheers,

            • Vaal
              Posted November 21, 2014 at 8:44 am | Permalink

              egads!

              I meant to write:

              “….I did NOT speak of “greedy reductionism” in doing so.”

            • Posted November 21, 2014 at 9:03 am | Permalink

              Yes, I should’ve included a note that I was bringing up *yet another* non-semantic difference. Wasn’t my intention to get you caught in the crossfire. 🙂

          • Posted November 21, 2014 at 9:01 am | Permalink

            I only used the term “greedy reductionism” because it already exists and refers to the kind of reductionism I had in mind. I suppose the inclusion of the modifier “greedy” is indeed meant to give the term a pejorative tint, but only in the sense that there is something wrong with that kind of reductionism, not in an ad hom sense.

            Where I’ve started to disagree with the incompatibilist position is precisely in reducing “choice” to an illusion. I think it’s a useful characteristic we can use to differentiate entities of varying complexity. I also think it’s not an illusion in the same sense that the difference between cars and bikes is not an illusion, even though they are comprised of the same constituent materials: plastic, metal, etc. Animals simply are different from rocks, and I think a large part of that difference is that they have desires and are able to act on them, and I also think that difference remains appreciable even if those actions are 100% determined.

            • Posted November 21, 2014 at 9:05 am | Permalink

              Nobody think the differences between cars and bikes are illusory. “Choice” is an illusion in the real sense: it’s not what it seems, or what it feels like. While it feels like we really do make a decision and could have “chosen” otherwise, that’s just a feeling we have. The reality is that we could have pursued only one course of action. An illusion is not something that’s phony, it’s something that is different from what it seems like.

              • Vaal
                Posted November 21, 2014 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

                Jerry,

                As I’ve said before, I find I disagree with the stance that our choice-making, and what we are thinking and feeling during that choice-making, is false or an illusion.

                That’s not to say there isn’t *anything* illusory about how our minds are operating.
                But I think it’s a big grab bag of ideas, assumptions, methods of reasoning, that is going on while we make our choices and it’s not so easily dismissed as illusory.

                If I’m deciding whether to ride my bike to work or drive my car, right off the bat I am not thinking I could choose both courses of action. They are mutually exclusive. I know I can only take one action, so the question is which one will I take?
                This automatically puts me into If/then modes of thinking: IF I desire the benefits of exercise today over getting to work faster, then IF I ride the bike it’s more likely to fulfill that desire. Same reasoning for if I more strongly desire to get to work faster, THEN I will take the car.
                And this is against the background of my beliefs about what I’m physically capable of doing: e.g. I’m physically capable of riding the bike, or driving the car.

                So I have the beliefs “I’m capable of riding a bike” (True), and “I’m capable of driving a car” (True) and I’m using IF/Then reasoning “If I ride the bike it will better support my fitness goals” (True) or “IF I drive the car, it will more likely fulfill the desire to get to work quickest” (True).

                This is how I think, how I feel, when making a decision and it seems my decision can, and generally is, made on adjudicating between such various TRUE beliefs. So where is the illusion in this choice-making?

                Sure…IF I was actually thinking “I could make either decision given any frozen moment in the universe” that would be illusory, but I don’t recognize that thinking entering into the logic of my deliberations at all.
                They wouldn’t make sense of my deliberations, and they don’t seem to make sense of anyone else’s as far as I can see.

                I’ve brought up many examples in the past, one being my son playing sports with me, say Golf or Basketball. If he misses a shot he’ll often say he “could have made that shot.” And when I tease him that he couldn’t have, what does he do? Takes the ball back to where he missed the shot, and shoots again to demonstrate he “could have” made it. If his thinking that he “could have” made the shot were based on a claim related ONLY to that specific point in time and causation, as if his claim had to do with magic contra-causality, then his effort to prove his claim by repeating the shot at a later time would make no sense.
                What makes sense of his attempt to support his claim is that when he’s thinking “I could have made that shot” he’s doing so on the basis of “what kind of abilities I have in this sport, given a similar situation,” which is why he feels repeating a similar-enough situation proves his claim to be true.

                If we start asking people about their theories of free will, then yes we start to see appeals to some libertarian and dualistic notions from many people. But this is, I think, due to a failure of reasoning when trying to put all the pieces of their beliefs together. When they can’t fit some, they start taking “outs” like appealing to magic (not everyone, but certainly some portion). These lapses in reasoning and appeal to magic happen to many when you ask them how they have “meaning, purpose and morality” as well, but a failure to *explain* their experiences coherently doesn’t amount to *what they seek to explain doesn’t exist.*

                So, IMO, asking someone about the subject of “Free Will” is not the same as looking at how we are *actually* thinking during our acts of deliberation. And I do not see how it can be so readily dismissed as “illusion,” especially without causing incoherence elsewhere in our reasoning.

                This is another reason why I’m not so quick to call the differences between some compatibilists and incompatibilists as merely “semantic.” Even though we end up agreeing on many things, it’s often getting there that we have to traverse all sorts of conceptual territory, and my impression is that incompatibilism seems to trample roughshod over some of this terrain. Dismissing the experience of choice making as “illusion” seems an instance of this problem.
                🙂

                ‘course, if I didn’t think that, I’d likely be in the incompatibilist camp.

              • Diane G.
                Posted November 21, 2014 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

                FWIW, MB (and as much as I hate to disagree with PCC!), you have been expressing the clearest & most succinct summation of my view on the subject.

                It’s more or less always been my view, and I was shocked to learn, several years ago on a yahoo atheist list-serv, that it was automatically equated to dualism by many. But so it goes.

    • Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      I agree, Michael. Though I’m sure they really believe it, sometimes a discussion with compatibilists makes me feel like they are just trolling for the lolz. It often boils down to a compatibilist saying, “I agree with you completely, and I call that free will.”

      • Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:46 am | Permalink

        It often boils down to a compatibilist saying, “I agree with you completely, and I call that free will.”

        The INcompatibilists are just as bad. It often boils down to them saying: “I agree with you completely, but I don’t call that free will”.

        • darrelle
          Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:58 am | Permalink

          These two comments neatly compact the entire argument to a convenient ergonomic size fit for a nutshell.

        • eric
          Posted November 20, 2014 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

          Its not just as bad because incompatibilists have historical usage on their side. Free will historically referred to a dualistic type of concept. Why take the verbiage and use it to refer to a non-dualistic concept?

          If I start referring to cats using the term “dog,” you and I may agree completely on what a “dog” is, but we are not “just as bad” in terms of our arbitrary syntax: I am clearly behaving in a more arbitrary and uncommunicative manner, because of the historical usage of the terms “dog” and “cat.”

          • Posted November 20, 2014 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

            Its not just as bad because incompatibilists have historical usage on their side.

            So do the compatibilists. The compatibilist meaning goes back at least as far as the Ancient Greeks (e.g. Stoic philosophers), and has a millenia-long history since then (e.g. Hume, Schopenhauer, Spinoza, etc).

  8. Posted November 20, 2014 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    The idea that libertarian free will is the one people intuitively hold has been contradicted by empirical studies.
    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn26242-free-will-persists-even-if-your-brain-made-you-do-it.html#.VG4aCovF98H

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/05/140527101237.htm

    And as Gazzaniga covers in his book, strict determinism isn’t a slam dunk conclusion. (Not that quantum indeterminancy or chaos theory rescues libertarianism.)

    This is indeed an area where views seem impervious to evidence (or lack thereof), but that exists on both sides of the debate.

    • Posted November 20, 2014 at 10:58 am | Permalink

      I still think the burden of proof is on the compatibalists because the incompatibalist hypothesis better fits the facts: after the fact, the only events that happen, and “choices” that are made, are the ones that happen and are made. After the fact, everything is determinant – and furthermore, after the fact, given enough intelligence, time and resources, the naturalistic processes that gave rise to the event or “choice” could be reverse-engineered.

      Determined events result in determined events on and on, at least that is what the evidence tells us, after the fact. So it is on the compatibalists to falsify determinism.

      And they are not doing it! I am not all that smart or educated of a person, believe me, but I have watched compatibalist strawmen collapse due to the fuzziest of thinking. I’ve seen free will shot down and then picked back up by the shooter because they wanted to believe in free will, I’ve see free will confused with multiverses, quantum weirdness and unpredictability, and now I’ve just read someone conflating other people’s influence with individual free will. But I don’t think I’ve seen anyone try to falsify determinism.

      I realize I haven’t actually falsified free will but I don’t have to: incompatibalists have 14-odd billion years of natural cause-and-effect to point to. I submit that to falsify determinism it’s not enough to assert a person could have chosen differently: the compatibalist has to prove that a person did choose differently than they did. And not in another universe, in this one right here.

      Sorry for going on – I had no choice!

      • Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:12 am | Permalink

        So it is on the compatibalists to falsify determinism.

        If you want to argue against compatibilism, the first thing you need to do is understand what it is.

        Compatiblists are NOT trying to falsify determinism. The first step of compatibilism is to accept determinism, completely and totally.

        Thus it is not true that “the incompatibilist hypothesis better fits the facts”. Compatibilism is just as deterministic as incompatibilism, and thus fits the facts exactly as well.

        • Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:51 am | Permalink

          I see my error. Thanks for that.

          Still: if they accept determinism, completely and totally, then where is the falsification of the incompatibalist hypothesis?

          They certainly have no proof that a person *could have* chosen differently that they did.

          So this accepting of determinism, completely and totally … it just happens that the human brain is the only product of nature with a real choice?

          • Posted November 20, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

            There is no falsification of the incompatibilist hypothesis. Compatibilists agree that if that exact person is in that exact situation then the choice is determined and no other choice is possible.

            Thus, compatibilists have a different conception of “choice”. They’re not disputing that if everything is exactly the same then the outcome is exactly the same, they’re asking about the likely range of outcomes given the likely range of humans in the likely range of circumstances.

            Thus, if you offer a class of kids an ice cream you could say “the most popular choice was chocolate flavour”. That (to a compatibilist) is not saying that the kids are acting outside the laws of physics. It is instead saying something about the different natures of the kids and the range of outcomes given that range of natures.

            Afterall, if you’re tasked with having sufficient of each flavour available, then that is what you need to know. (For that purpose, you’re not interested in whether laws of physics are being violated.)

            … it just happens that the human brain is the only product of nature with a real choice?

            As I see it, all information-processing devices that process information as a means to selecting an option to attain a goal, are making “choices” (in the above, compatibilist sense). That includes all mammals and indeed all animals with neural networks and chess-playing computers and aircraft autopilots.

      • Posted November 20, 2014 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

        Coel’s second reply, I can fully endorse.

        I’d just note that, although I’m not a libertarian dualist, I’m also not convinced that strict determinism is true. It may be true, depending on which interpretation of quantum physics eventually pans out (assuming any of them do), but anyone who claims certitude on this simply isn’t arguing from a position of evidence, but of metaphysical assumptions.

        But even if strict determinism if false, that provides no comfort to libertarian free will, because it provides no real freedom.

        I’m a compatibilist because, despite this, I think terms like “free will”, “choice”, and “responsibility” remain pragmatically useful, for the reasons Coel outlines.

  9. jay
    Posted November 20, 2014 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    Ultimately probably free will is a necessary illusion, because our conscious mind must make sense of (and also modify) our behavior (or exercise the ‘social contract’). The truth is that the interaction between genetics, current state, current environment and pseudo random factors comes down to making it totally immaterial whether ‘free will’ exists or not.

    Not directly connected, but I found this article interesting: An analysis of capabilities the human from the perspective of a mathematician. Certain leaps of comprehension and insight appear (I was skeptical at first, but he does make some solid points) to step outside what is possible from a Turing machine (and a neural net is mathematically still a Turing machine, as are currently experimental ‘quantum effect’ computers). His suggestion is that there is more going on here, beyond our current understanding of the physics of both brains and computers. If he’s right, true AI is still a long way off.

    http://www.science20.com/robert_inventor/why_computer_programs_cant_understand_truth_and_ethics_of_artificial_intelligence_babies-148791

    • BillyJoe
      Posted November 22, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      You now need to think of this in terms of a possible mechanism by which “certain leaps of comprehension and insight can step outside of what is possible for a Turing Machine”. Of course there can be no mechanism, otherwise you would not be “stepping outside what is possible for a Turing Machine”. So then how can it exist. The only other possibility is random chance like a Geiger counter going off. But that clearly is not freewill, otherwise a Geiger counter has it.

      In other words, this type of free will is incoherent.

      Buy the way, I’ve found a way to differentiate compatibilist free will from incompatibilist freewill. So let’s now kill the semantic argument because it’s so damn annoying.

  10. david
    Posted November 20, 2014 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    I think libertarian free will is bogus, but I also don’t think that is how most people choose to think about “free will.” As I sit here on my couch, I feel the freedom to get up and move about my domicile as I choose. Although the molecules in my brain actually do determine whether I continue to sit here or whether I get up to get a beer, I feel generally free to act in accordance with my decisions.

    To me, that is a better definition of free will: the ability to act in accordance with one’s decisions. I think if pressed, most people–including laymen–would reject the notion of libertarian free will. But we still need some phrase to stand in for our ability to act in accordance with our desires, if only to set us apart from people who do not have conscious control over their actions.

    • jay
      Posted November 20, 2014 at 10:35 am | Permalink

      I suspect this kind of ‘free will’ exists in many animals, they choose what they’re going to do at the moment, where they’re going to go, etc. Without it they (like us) would be paralyzed in indecision.

      Many animals learn to modify their behavior. When a dog learns that certain behaviors like jumping on the couch result in a scold, this becomes part of their evaluation process, no different from humans confronted with ‘moral’ or legal choices when tempted to do something that would invoke moral approbation or legal punishment. The ‘wrong’ choices have a cost, and this cost gets weighed into (but does not completely override) the will of the moment.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted November 22, 2014 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      In my post above, I suggested “free will” for the compatibilist definition and “freewill” for the incompatibilists definition. What do you think?

  11. Posted November 20, 2014 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Ratliff Reblogs.

  12. Kevin
    Posted November 20, 2014 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Gazzaniga is so far off target it is almost not worth dismantling his case.

    First, he is routinely (though subtly) positing a dualistic view of nature for which he gives no evidence (because there is none).

    Second, he ignores the relation of physical law to free will. And yes, physical laws do not possibly describe stochastic events…they explicitly arrive at predictions which verify observations of stochastic dynamics.

    Gazzaniga needs to do some physics homework.

  13. Posted November 20, 2014 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    They have made a choice based on their experience. This is what makes us responsible agents, or not.

    Yawn. I’ve written computer programs that do the same thing. What a silly argument.

  14. DrDroid
    Posted November 20, 2014 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Years ago I read Dan Dennett’s book “Breaking The Spell”. I still think it is an excellent book revealing a depth of thinking worthy of a first-rate philosopher. In his book Dan spends a lot of time analyzing the possibility that “belief in belief” is important and that tearing it down might be dangerous to society. He ultimately comes to the conclusion that truth is more important than “belief in belief”, but he did wrestle with an issue that I had not seen addressed elsewhere. To get to the point of my comment: It seems that Dan may have engaged in a similar internal debate on the subject of free will, and in that case concluded that the concept of free will is too valuable and precious to dispense with.

  15. Posted November 20, 2014 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    We have moral responsibility because we learn.

    Part of the determination of our behavior is feedback. From the point of view of society and the law, moral responsibility boils down to what can be done to discourage some behaviors and encourage others.

    The philosophy of it is irrelevant.

    I would say, from my personal perspective, societies do a piss poor job of it. Punishment is among the least effective ways of managing people.

    • Scientifik
      Posted November 20, 2014 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

      “We have moral responsibility because we learn.”

      Our ability to learn doesn’t have anything to do with either moral responsibility or free will.

  16. George
    Posted November 20, 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Free will debates make my head hurt. It is all semantic – defining what you mean. In the broadest sense, free will implies a universe that is not deterministic so no free will.

    But limiting the discussion to free will is the bigger problem. Homo sapiens want to incorporate meaning, purpose, causation, etc into everything. We are unwilling to accept that the universe does not revolve around us. The more likely explanation is that we are simply an artifact of an ongoing deterministic process. I think it is amazing that I have this thing called consciousness and I can observe in some small manner what is happening. That is if this all is not some simulation and I am an observation portal into it. But that view is not acceptable to the vast majority of all the humans who have ever existed so we make up things like religion and try to impart other human inventions like meaning and purpose into all that we observe.

    Free will is just a small part of this process of elevating the place of a a short lived species living on one rocky planet orbiting one ordinary star in an ordinary spiral galaxy in a group of galaxies that is part of a cluster of galaxies that is part of a supercluster of galaxies in what we call the observable universe. Pretty arrogant of us.

  17. Sastra
    Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    Do you think your life has meaning?

    If so, then you’re implicitly acknowledging the supernatural, because the entire concept of life having any “meaning” is teleological. Therefore, atheists are committed to denying that their life or anyone else’s has any meaning, purpose, or value.

    If you try to argue otherwise and explain that there is an important distinction between humans giving meaning and value to their lives and Life itself having an intrinsic meaning or value then you’re just redefining religious concepts in order to keep them. Let them go. They’re not worth keeping.

    One of the most obvious resemblances of theology to compatibilism is the continual redefinition of “free will” so that (like God) it’s always preserved despite scientific advances.

    No, “free will” is a deepity. It has a true but trivial interpretation (compatibilistic free will) and an extraordinary but false interpretation (libertarian free will ie. Jerry’s definition.)

    I think incompatibilism resembles theology’s attempt to co-opt perfectly reasonable aspects of human experience and make them “spooky” and supernatural. Choice, love, beauty, consciousness, meaning, value, goodness. You can insist that these things ARE supernatural — they just are, by definition, because they are not material, physical, concrete things — or you can be reasonable, analytical, and anchor them all in nature and human nature.

    Compatibilism doesn’t resemble theology; incompatibilism does. Imo.

    • Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      Sastra, as usual for you, this is a perceptive and incisive comment, thanks.

    • Scientifik
      Posted November 20, 2014 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      “Do you think your life has meaning?

      Sastra, do you think that the life of, say, a mosquito has “meaning”?

      • Sastra
        Posted November 20, 2014 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

        Probably not because the level of brain development isn’t complex enough for them to have values. (If we’re talking our values and what we care about when it comes to mosquitoes, then that’s a different question, I think.)

        I’d say that a cat or dog’s life has meaning to them, though (if not to us.) They experience pleasure and pain and seem to have a sense of self and others. Meaning, like freedom, evolves. So we’re dealing with continuous degrees and like everything else in evolution line-drawing gets tricky.

        • Scientifik
          Posted November 20, 2014 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

          “I’d say that a cat or dog’s life has meaning to them, though (if not to us.) ”

          And yet you claim, that ‘the entire concept of life having any “meaning” is teleological’. Do you therefore think that dogs and cats are capable of forming any theological concepts? 🙂

          It seems to me that all theologians did was hijack the concept of meaning in life, similarly to what they did with morality.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted November 20, 2014 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

            I think Sastra is just trying to point out that there is no external meaning, floating out there for us to grasp. The meaning comes from ourselves as thinking beings. Probably my dog doesn’t think too deeply about the meaning of life, but she probably likes to be happy & that’s about as far as it goes.

            • Posted November 20, 2014 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

              I think Sastra’s confused. She(?) says that dogs and cats lives probably have meaning to them. So based on the earlier statements about meaning, does this mean that dogs and cats are “implicitly acknowledging the supernatural,” or “redefining religious concepts in order to keep them?”

              • Posted November 20, 2014 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

                Sastra’s comment was somewhat subtle, and it’s easy to mis-read its intent.

              • Sastra
                Posted November 20, 2014 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

                I wasn’t clear enough: the argument that life having meaning is ‘supernatural’ was supposed to be a parody of a theist argument designed to provoke your disagreement. If you would argue with the theist for a different definition of “meaning,” then why is it wrong to argue with a theist for a different, better meaning of “free will?”

                In other words, I don’t think there’s any implicit acceptance of supernatural assumptions or sly redefinition of religious terms when a humanist says life has meaning and people have worth because we ground these things in ourselves, our lives, and our experiences — not in spite of it. Humanists are compatibilists on this issue.

          • Sastra
            Posted November 20, 2014 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

            And yet you claim, that ‘the entire concept of life having any “meaning” is teleological’.

            That whole first section was supposed to be the “part” of a theist. I of course agree with you.

            The point though was to make an analogy between “meaning” and “free will.” Just because people traditionally have insisted that they’re supernatural doesn’t mean they’re ‘really’ supernatural concepts.

            • Scientifik
              Posted November 20, 2014 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

              Personally I don’t care in the least what theists think about “free will” or “meaning of life”.

              To them the meaning or purpose of life is to “get resurrected”, “get eternal life”, and “get laid with 72 virgins”. It seems that they are unable to find their own purpose in life, and therefore fill this void with a fictional/supernatural one.

              As for free will, for all I know, it’s an illusion. But if you have any proof of the existence of free will, do let me know. I’ll be happy to evaluate it. 🙂

    • darrelle
      Posted November 20, 2014 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      “I think incompatibilism resembles theology’s attempt to co-opt perfectly reasonable aspects of human experience and make them “spooky” and supernatural.”

      I don’t follow this at all. I have heard similar from Cs in these discussions before, and I could never make sense of it. It does not jibe with my understanding of IC arguments, which I think I understand pretty well. It seems to me that either I don’t, or that you don’t. I don’t see any co-opting in, for example, Jerry’s IC arguments. I see denial of claims of supernatural sources for “reasonable aspects of human experience,” but not of the existence of those experiences. I see an argument for why certain labels for some of those human experiences should be dropped.

      The IC argument is not that supernatural concepts of free will are valid. The IC argument does not co-opt any definition of free-will. It specifically assumes the oldest and most common category of free will concepts, supernatural / contracausal ones. And specifically argues against them, not for them.

      The argument is that supernatural concepts of free will are invalid. Precisely as Cs argue. The further argument, the one that causes all the trouble, is that ICs say don’t just discard the concept, discard the label too.

      The only way I can make sense of your quoted statement is in a context of something like “if you tell people that the concept of free will is just bunk, period, then they are also going to believe that the perfectly reasonable aspects of human experience that the label “free will” was being used to designate don’t exist either.” That is starting to sound a lot like a little people argument to me.

      • Sastra
        Posted November 20, 2014 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

        “if you tell people that the concept of free will is just bunk, period, then they are also going to believe that the perfectly reasonable aspects of human experience that the label “free will” was being used to designate don’t exist either.”

        Why, yes. Yes they do. Not Little People, but highly intelligent ones, sometimes with degrees in theology. Only they don’t take this and become nihilists (usually (never say ‘never.’)) They take this and use it as an argument against atheism. It’s a reason to believe in God.

        Their reasoning goes:

        “If atheism is true, then there is no free will and thus we are all a bunch of mindless robots helplessly shoved in meaningless directions by the laws of physics with no more agency or morals than falling rocks. But that’s not true (and it’s also horrible.) Therefore, atheism must be wrong. God exists.”

        It’s logically valid: modus tollens. If a, then b. Not b; not a.

        But I would attack that argument by going after the way they couple agency and choice (free will) to the supernatural by presenting how the significant meaning of free will is grounded in determinism — just as I would attack an argument that “if atheism is true then life has no meaning” by grounding the important meaning of “meaning” in human beliefs and behaviors. I would unravel the deepities and insist on their not trivial true-but-trivial interpretations.

        • darrelle
          Posted November 20, 2014 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

          “Why, yes. Yes they do.”

          I suppose I was unclear. I agree that they do, no doubts at all. What I disagree with is the claim that because they do then ICs arguments “resemble theologies attempt to co-opt perfectly reasonable aspects of human experience and make them “spooky” and supernatural.”

          The “little people” are context dependent. The examples you give are the little people in this context. You are arguing that they are incapable of understanding IC arguments.

          Your argument can be applied exactly equally to the C argument for clarifying / redefining the term free will. The people you refer to in your argument will either miss / ignore your concept of free will and believe you are agreeing with them, or reject your concept and interpret your position as denying free will.

          RE your last paragraph, I understand you. But I’d like to point out that the realities of cognition are not in the same category as the meaning of the term “meaning.”

          I think my position on this C / IC debate is solidifying, and your comment here has helped with that. It comes down to a difference in preference for one tactic over the other. I don’t find either sides arguments in support of their preferred tactic convincing to the exclusion of the other. Historically there are plenty of examples of both, terms being dropped from use when disproved, and the definition of the term changing to match the newer understanding. I am not convinced that this debate over which is better is important. I have no problem saying Free will is bunk, or, OK if that is what you mean I agree. And explaining all the terms and arguing the invalid assumptions that will surely occur. That can’t be anymore difficult than the C or IC preferences. I predict all three approaches would be nearly indistinguishable.

          • Sastra
            Posted November 20, 2014 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

            I think we are mostly in agreement. Semantic arguments often do come down to what amounts to a preference in tactics. I think “free will” is a deepity and compatibilism is clearer — but maybe that’s just because of how I approach concepts. Some commenters have said they’d have no problem with “will” instead of “free will.” I suspect most people, including dualists, would consider the terms interchangeable.

            Personally, I don’t think determinism vs. libertarian free will really makes any difference in how we interpret morality and implement rewards and punishments. Libertarian Free Will advocates are perfectly capable of taking a criminal’s entire background — their childhood, environment, situation, genetics, physical health, intelligence, peer group, finances, etc — into account and tempering their judgment accordingly. They often do, and see no contradiction, just as incompatibilists see no contradiction in praise and blame.

            The “Free Will” conundrum may be one of those few issues which really and truly fit into the metaphysical category of “the world would look and behave exactly the same whether this is true or false.”

            • harpo
              Posted November 21, 2014 at 2:20 am | Permalink

              You’re probably correct in a general sense about the world looking the same regardless of one’s views. But this puzzles me, and I suspect it’s a function of not fully working through the practical consequences of a philosophical position.

              When I stopped believing in God the world looked different. When I stopped believing in free will the world looked different again. For me, just as praying, reading the Bible for moral guidance etc. no longer made sense, treating people, including myself, as if they could have done otherwise no longer made sense.

              More than this, it would in fact be hypocritical of me to hold people morally responsible for their actions. So, I try as best as I can not to praise or blame in the moral sense, i.e. I endeavor not to behave as if I or others could have done or been otherwise.

              In so far as this has been a success, people are no longer objects of immoderate love or hate. Praise and blame have been replaced with something more akin to aesthetic feelings, as is proper to natural objects that could not fail to do what they have done and be who they are.

              The problem with compatibilism (at least the versions I’m familiar with), as I see it, is that it doesn’t altogether do away with the notion of “could have done otherwise”. (Which under determinism should actually be understood as “would’ve done otherwise” since there is only ever actually one possibility.) To that extent I see compatibilism as failing to treat the behavior of humans as a fully natural phenomenon. If determinism is true we are no more able to do and be otherwise than are other natural objects such as leaves and rocks.

              How is it relevant or meaningful to the actual way in which the rock fell to say that the rock would’ve done otherwise if it was falling from a different ledge, and was of a different size, weight and shape, and the wind was blowing in a different direction, … ?

              In the same way it makes no sense to me to hold someone morally responsible for what they did because if they were a different person in different circumstances they would’ve done (i.e. “fallen”) otherwise.

              Still, on the whole incompatibilists are more likely imperiled by the potential hypocrisy of their day to day behavior, as they no longer believe in free will and can no longer justifiably morally praise and blame in the way compatibilists can, albeit at the cost of (in my opinion) not fully embracing naturalism.

              • Sastra
                Posted November 21, 2014 at 11:05 am | Permalink

                In compatibilism someone could have done otherwise if they had wanted to — but we and our desires are a part of the deterministic stream. So what?

                I’m having trouble seeing how withholding praise and blame and treating people as if they were beautiful (or ugly) falling rocks is either called for or useful — or particularly wise as a general rule, for that matter. Blunted emotions and a proclivity for classifying people as objects is as likely to tend towards sociopathy as it is a benevolent detached acceptance. I would think one can be less “judgmental” of others simply by considering their background without having to extend that range all the way out to encompass the laws of physics. That framework seems both too broad and too reductionist for me.

            • darrelle
              Posted November 21, 2014 at 7:40 am | Permalink

              Agreed. Particularly your second paragraph.

        • Vaal
          Posted November 20, 2014 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

          Exactly Sastra!

          As I and others keep repeating, the compatibilist stance tends to be that there is much more wrapped up in what people associated with “free will,” and that *some* of what some people think about free will is false (e.g. dualism/contra-causality) but some of what people think concerning free will is true (e.g. they really do have a “choice,” they really do have “free actions” in the sense that word is used in pretty much every normal empirical manner, and they are responsible in the only way that would make sense, etc). So when incompatibilists talk about “free will” and “choice” being an “illusion” they are the ones confusing all the issues together.

          Essentially, to the degree some portion of humanity is wrong about Free Will, they are not wrong by some “definition” they have of free will; they have a wrong *theory* of free will.

          In just the way so many religious people have a wrong *theory* about “meaning” and “purpose.” Both theist and atheist use such words, and typically to describe the same things in life. But when it comes to asking someone their *theory* of meaning and purpose, which is essentially what theists start digging at when they consider a theistic world vs an atheist world, THEN they start thinking “Well, meaning and purpose ultimately is only REAL if there is a Supernatural God GIVING it to us, otherwise it’s an ILLUSION.” (I get this all the time from theists).

          But we atheists point out that, no, all the talk we normally have about meaning and purpose – this picture having great *meaning* to you, or my purpose in going to the gym – all still exists, and makes sense and doesn’t go away when you realize God isn’t there. Because that is simply a wrong theory about the nature of meaning and purpose, a misattribution concerning some of it’s nature, about what is necessary for it to make sense.

          As I believe you have been getting at, this is essentially the way in which incompatibilists seem to be falling in line with theism; they are willing to swallow the same erroneous theory, with the same erroneous conclusion: Saying “IF our choices aren’t magically free, then they aren’t REALLY free” is like giving in to the theistic idea that “If meaning and purpose isn’t magically given to us, then meaning and purpose doesn’t really exist.” Why the heck would you do that when there are good reasons, better theories, that explain how meaning and purpose are real properties that arise from human thinking. And similarly, there are better theories of our “freedom” and “choice” that ground such concepts in a way coherent with the rest of our empirical thinking.

          But, alas, given the amount of “I doubt compatibilists mean or believe whet they say” stuff going on in this thread, if it’s really down to that type of analysis, I despair of further conversation on the subject.

          • Sastra
            Posted November 20, 2014 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

            Well put. I do not consider “free will” a theological term, as you say it’s a description of common experience. If it’s an “illusion” that doesn’t mean it isn’t real — it only means that it’s not what it appears to be on the surface. In other words, it’s not a skyhook: it’s cranes.

            On another blog some atheist once again brought up the argument that “marriage” was like “baptism” so atheists shouldn’t or can’t get married; let’s just have civil unions instead. It’s frustrating.

            I haven’t read every comment on every free will post (gawd forbid) but it seems to me that some people are confusing free will compatibilists with people who say that our choices MAY be free because of quantum indeterminacy (which is I think just a variation of libertarian free will-ism.) Thus the accusation that we are sneaky dualists, or whatever. Maybe. Or at least some of the time.

            • Sastra
              Posted November 20, 2014 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

              I just reread that and don’t like the way I threw in those last fragments. I don’t mean that compatibilists may be sneaky dualists; I meant to say that some critics may be confusing us with the quantum magic folks.

            • Vaal
              Posted November 20, 2014 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

              Indeedy. I haven’t been one of those who say the differences between the incompatibilist and compatibilist is “just semantics” because I think it’s more: I believe it’s a conceptual difference.

              To my mind, incompatibilists and compatibilists tend to talk past one another because incompatibilists treat free will in a “definitional” framework, whereas compatibilist treat free will as a “theory.”

              In other words, the incomopatibilists will take what they hold to be a common description of free will – e.g. a contra-causal description – and take that as The Definition of Free Will. And hence if THAT doesn’t hold up to reality, then Free Will “doesn’t exist.”

              Whereas the compabitibilis says, no, there’s just a lot more wrapped up into the subject, in terms of what people are concerned about and what is often described as being under the umbrella of concern called “free will.”
              Thus free will is more a Theory about the nature of human choice making, the universe, personal responsibility etc. And one theory being wrong does not mean that what you are trying to describe via the theory “doesn’t exist.” When you understand it as a theory, you see that alternate theories are possible.

              To the extent you just grant for sake of argument that many people would talk of a Libertarian or contra-causal idea of free will, ask yourself: What *reason* do people have to believe, or even want to believe, their choices are excepted from the chain of causation? It very clearly comes from both the clash of their strong intuition that they DO have the “freedom to choose” and that this is also *necessary* to their sense of identity, responsibility, meaning, etc…al sorts of things are tied up in it.

              You take the impression that when you helped that old lady across the street you *really did have a choice in the sense you could have done otherwise.* But then you ask the same person “but, you also think everything must have a cause, right?” They answer “yes” because that is another of their strong intuitions. But when they try to put the two together, “I really had the freedom to choose” and “everything has a cause, which must mean my choice was caused” THEN they start worrying and trying to COME UP WITH A THEORY, an explanation, to keep both intuitions. “Ok, everything does require a cause, but the only way it makes sense my choices would be free is if they are excepted from this system. Since I can’t let go of the belief I really do have certain freedoms to choose, the explanation must be my choices are an exception from how everything else is caused.” Viola, magic dualism, free will can be called a magic “gift from God.”

              But notice that what gets the person there isn’t some intrinsic “need to be magical” or intrinsic “need to be contra-causal.” They are driven to this theory by the WORRYING the are doing about how losing their sense of “having the freedom to choose,” being the cause and director of their choices, differentiated from the rock that has ‘no choice’ but to roll down the hill, etc

              It’s their THEORY about how freedom would work, in an otherwise deterministic system.

              The fact that people end up with flimsy theories about difficult subjects is hardly surprising as it happens all the time.

              Which is why we keep pointing that there are many bad theories about “morality,” “purpose,” “meaning” and even incompatibilists tend to recognize them for what they are: attributing those things to a God is a bad theory, it’s not their “definition” and you replace bad theories with good theories.

              (And I suspect an incompatibilist reading that last part will want to shout “but you only want to replace a theory to explain something that exists in the first place! If something doesn’t exist in the first place, like Free Will, then it’s a pointless distraction to bother with a new theory for why it exists!”

              Which, would be an instance of exactly the talking-past one another I just described.
              The compatibilist will try to explain “no, we are only talking about things that exist, desires, states of affairs where we can fulfill our desires or not, our physical capabilities given different states of affairs, the application of rationality, of if/then reasoning, etc, all the abilities and considerations people actually employ when decision-making…)

              But, again, my main point is that I see a conceptual difference between treating free will as a “thing” as a “definition” vs treating it as a theory concerning human choice, freedom and causation, responsibility, etc. In which case, you don’t get rid of what you are trying to explain by one theory, just because that particular theory is incoherent.

              • darrelle
                Posted November 21, 2014 at 7:38 am | Permalink

                I think you are making too much of this. It is much simpler. ICs (with exception I’m sure) are fully aware of and understand the various conceptions of free will. They argue that the term should be dropped all together simply because of all the baggage of supernatural / contracausal free will concepts attached to it. It is not a hang up about definitions vs “theories.”

                In the context of arguing free will in general, the context that both Cs and ICs intend their arguments to apply to, the opponenet is precisely those who maintain supernatural / contracausal concepts of free will. Not those people that maintain concepts of free will that agree with naturalism.

                ICs don’t demand that those concepts of free will are the only valid ones. They are simply of the opinion that it just isn’t worth trying to rescue the label. That really is it. You think the label can and should be reformed, ICs think it is too tainted to be worth the trouble. It is all about the label. Cs & ICs agree about the concepts, at least as much as they agree with their fellows. The disagreement, very simply, comes down to the label.

                Caveat. As I mentioned up above, my current position is that this debate is not important and that neither ICs or Cs arguments are convincing to me to the exclusion of the other.

              • Sastra
                Posted November 21, 2014 at 8:42 am | Permalink

                Vaal wrote:

                To my mind, incompatibilists and compatibilists tend to talk past one another because incompatibilists treat free will in a “definitional” framework, whereas compatibilist treat free will as a “theory.”

                I agree with your following description of this but not I think with this description. It seems to me that incompatibilists are treating free will as a “theory” and compatibilists are treating it as an “experience,” a fact in need of explanation for which there are several theories. We are therefore, as darrelle suggests, arguing over the definition.

                It’s not a pointless argument. Just like allowing the supernaturalists to just co-opt meaning, values, love, or marriage as “religious/spiritual concepts which make no sense under naturalism,” it is not a wise idea to allow them to take their libertarian skyhook theory of free will and make that be the definition. It’s partly then a matter of tactics as well as an issue which involves analyzing what people really mean by the deepity term “free will” and separating the true interpretation from the false.

                Incompatibilists, on the other hand, are treating the term “free will” like many of us treat the term “spiritual.” Yes, that too is a deepity with a true and secular interpretation and a false, supernatural one. But the entire concept is so steeped in religious origin and baggage that it’s not really useful to try to use the term and show that humanism is “spiritual” too because we love nature and each other. The religious will just keep reading supernaturalism into it and it will end up confusing things instead of clarifying them.

                I think “free will” is more like “meaning of life” (making MORE sense under naturalism)– but I can understand what the other side is saying because I, too, gave up on secularizing “spiritual.”

        • Scientifik
          Posted November 20, 2014 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

          “If atheism is true, then there is no free will and thus we are all a bunch of mindless robots helplessly shoved in meaningless directions by the laws of physics with no more agency or morals than falling rocks. But that’s not true (and it’s also horrible.) Therefore, atheism must be wrong. God exists.”

          It’s logically valid: modus tollens. If a, then b. Not b; not a.

          ^^Going by this “logic” one would have to say that if there’s no free will (and all evidence points to this very conclusion), God doesn’t exist.

          • Vaal
            Posted November 20, 2014 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

            Scientifik,

            Out of curiosity: Forget for a moment Free WILL.

            Let’s just talk of “Freedom.”

            Do you think that all evidence points to the conclusion that “Freedom” doesn’t exist?

            • Scientifik
              Posted November 21, 2014 at 5:34 am | Permalink

              What freedom? Freedom from laws of physics? Freedom from our genetic programing? Freedom from the nature of chemical and neurological process? Freedom from the environment and its effects on our evolution and behavior? Freedom from subconscious thoughts? Freedom from the pseudo random events, people we meet, books we read, etc that shape us? I don’t see evidence for the existence of such “freedom”.

              • Vaal
                Posted November 21, 2014 at 6:32 am | Permalink

                Scientifik,

                I mean “freedom” in ANY way, in any sense.

                Do you think “freedom” can remain a valid concept in a deterministic world. E.g.

                “I’m free for lunch today.”

                “My dad gave me freedom to choose which restaurant he’d take me to for my birthday.”

                “Freedom of the press.”

                “Free persons vs those held as political prisoners”

                “She was free of her chains”

                “She had the freedom to write on whatever topic she wished ”

                “The ball broke free of the rope.”

                “The lions were set free; now had their freedom”

                “As opposed to North Korea, we live in a free society”

                And of course the list could go on and on concerning uses of the concept/terms “free,” “being free” “freedom” etc.

                Do you think ths scientific evidence should force us to abandon as invalid every use of the word free, that we can only be referencing an untrue illusion in employing the word?

                Or does “freedom” still have a valid conceptual place in a deterministic world?

              • Scientifik
                Posted November 21, 2014 at 6:55 am | Permalink

                “My dad gave me freedom to choose which restaurant he’d take me to for my birthday.”

                You are free to choose the restaurant you like best. But can you choose what you like best? And can you choose the restaurants that you very much like but didn’t come to your mind at the moment of making the decision?

              • Scientifik
                Posted November 21, 2014 at 7:13 am | Permalink

                “Do you think ths scientific evidence should force us to abandon as invalid every use of the word free, that we can only be referencing an untrue illusion in employing the word?”

                First of all, I could say that you are ‘free to think what you want’ about the subject, but you’re not.

                And no, I don’t think determinism forces us to abandon the use of the word freedom to describe social concepts like freedom of speech (i.e. freedom to express what we think). It’s just that what we think isn’t “free”.

              • Vaal
                Posted November 21, 2014 at 8:15 am | Permalink

                Scientifik,

                And no, I don’t think determinism forces us to abandon the use of the word freedom to describe social concepts like freedom of speech (i.e. freedom to express what we think). It’s just that what we think isn’t “free”.

                But if all our thoughts and actions involved in those social concepts are not “free” and are determined, how does it makes sense to employ the term “free” or “freedom” in those cases?

                I’m trying to get you to be more explicit about your rational for thinking that, in a deterministic world, the concept of “freedom” still is valid, referring to reality.

                Thanks.

              • Scientifik
                Posted November 21, 2014 at 8:42 am | Permalink

                “I’m trying to get you to be more explicit about your rational for thinking that, in a deterministic world, the concept of “freedom” still is valid, referring to reality.”

                Like I said, just because you give someone freedom to express his or her thoughts, it doesn’t mean that this person’s thoughts are “free”. In the first context the use of the word freedom is perfectly warranted and doesn’t have anything to do with the underlying nature of determinism.

              • Vaal
                Posted November 21, 2014 at 9:01 am | Permalink

                Scientifik,

                You are simply re-stating the problem I’m asking you to examine. That is, how you are using the term “freedom” within a deterministic system. You want to refute it’s use when applied to one particular deterministic state of affairs – our thoughts – but then go ahead and use “freedom” to describe another set of deterministic affairs – our “social freedom.”

                How are you doing this, consistantly?

                You say ” that what we think isn’t “free”.

                But on what basis? Apparently this is because you don’t see any way we could have “thought otherwise” or “done otherwise.”

                But then the same problem would apply to the “social freedoms” you seem to accept.

                When you write: “just because you give someone freedom to express his or her thoughts,”

                What “freedom” are you talking about? Because I’m not “free” to choose or determine my thoughts either way, right?
                So how can you grant me this “freedom?”

                You just start getting there with this:

                “In the first context the use of the word freedom is perfectly warranted and doesn’t have anything to do with the underlying nature of determinism.”

                Ok, WHY doesn’t your use of freedom in that first context have “anything to do” with the nature of determinism?

                How is your use of the term “free”…compatible!…with determinism?

                😉

              • Scientifik
                Posted November 21, 2014 at 9:22 am | Permalink

                “When you write: “just because you give someone freedom to express his or her thoughts,”

                What “freedom” are you talking about? Because I’m not “free” to choose or determine my thoughts either way, right?
                So how can you grant me this “freedom?”

                It’s simple. I can grant you freedom to express your thoughts that are not free.

              • Vaal
                Posted November 21, 2014 at 10:20 am | Permalink

                “It’s simple. I can grant you freedom to express your thoughts that are not free.”

                Sorry, but where is the “freedom” in there again?

                Ah well, I think I’ll have to throw in the towel on this one. Thanks.

    • Posted November 21, 2014 at 4:33 am | Permalink

      Sastra,

      Pity I can’t like or upvote your comment!

  18. JH
    Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    “Gazzaniga’s whole thesis is undercut by this misguided statement: “My contention is that ultimately responsibility is a contract between two people rather than a property of a brain, and determinism has no meaning in this context.” Well, if the contract is itself determined by our genes and our environment, which I believe it is, then why is determinism irrelevant to responsibility, much less moral responsibility?”

    I couldn’t agree more with the above, but I would also go further. I think what Gazzaniga is actually trying to do is “sneak in” an embarrassing hidden premise which he has already denied (I have read theologians’ works that do the same thing). In this case, I believe what Gazzaniga is hiding, is a belief in dualism. “Of course there is no homunculus in the human brain able to override the electrochemical processes occurring there, but ideas, they are outside of the physical world, ideas create the dualistic nature of free will.” Sorry, I’m not buying it until someone can show me ideas that weren’t created in and communicated through a material brain.

    Based on Jerry’s definition (the only one I’ve come across that I consider consistent with observations of the world), I would call myself a thorough going incompatabilist. However, I have seen two other definitions of free will, that if someone is operating under, I could understand their compatabilist position. 1) The sentient being was under no force of coercion when they made the decision in question. 2) Another sentient being, under the same set have circumstances, could have done differently. I think valid arguments could be made for those two definitions (although I would contend that they are not what comes to most people’s minds when the words “free will” are used). However, I honestly think that Gazzaniga is merely trying to move the ghost of dualism from the brain to the ethosphere by slight of hand.

  19. Cowhead
    Posted November 20, 2014 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand why people talk about determinism when they talk about free will. Determinism is irrelevant to free will. We could live in a totally mechanistic, Newtonian deterministic universe, wherein a super-computer endowed with all the inertial masses and velocities of every particle would know everything that ever will happen.

    But we apparently don’t live in that universe. Our universe is stochastic, and not just because WE cannot be certain what is going to happen, but because the universe itself cannot predict its own actions. Heisenberg did not delimit some weakness of humans or other observers, he delimited an actual property of the the universe; it is inherently stochastic. So what?

    Whether particles are bouncing about in a totally deterministic way or simply surfing probability waves, this doesn’t make two dingles difference for free will.

    Deterministic or stochastic, we cannot control it. It controls us. We act before we are conscious of out actions. Consciousness is just a way of justifying those actions after the fact. It’s an after-thought which is occasionally stored in the brain so it may assist in future decisions that the brain, and thus those stochastic particles, will make. Determinism has absolutely nothing to do with it. Stop conflating these concepts!

    • JH
      Posted November 20, 2014 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      I think that is an excellent point Cowhead (I know that’s your nom de plume, but still difficult to type without feeling that I’m insulting someone). I have come across several articles stating, “statistically probabilistic quantum events make free will a totally defensible position.” I agree with you, unless my humunculus decides when that uranium atom decays, which releases the beta particle, that eventually interacts with the neurons in my brain and causes a change in behavior that would have happened otherwise; It still isn’t FREE.

      BTW, Vic Stenger did a back of the envelope calculation showing that the mass-energy of the human brain was to great to be significantly affected by quantum properties. I’ll try to track it down and post a link.

      • JH
        Posted November 20, 2014 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

        Found it!

        http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger/Folly/QuantumBrain.htm

        • Cowhead
          Posted November 21, 2014 at 10:08 am | Permalink

          Dear JH,

          “Cowhead” was the name of my cat. May I post her picture in these comments? Mere ‘words’ alone cannot adequately explain.

          Thanks for the link! Can ANY macroscopic system, even if it is a complex dynamic system, be truly stochastic? Even just a little bit? Could quantum uncertainty really manifest itself at any macroscopic level? Stenger implies that he thinks that it could, even though he dismisses quantum uncertainty in the migration of synaptic messengers as being trivially too small. But he doesn’t multiply that uncertainty by the number of synapses (trillions), nor the number of synaptic messengers, which must be a thousand fold more. Presumably he assumes that such massive, resulting uncertainties just average themselves out. I can dig that.

          However, Stenger seems to accept that “The warm quantum effects that are reported in photosynthesis involve photons, which are quantum objects.”

          Yet, the brain works largely through electromagnetic phenomena. Why should that NOT be subject to quantum uncertainty when he freely grants that the visible EM (a photon) is clearly quantum? Why shouldn’t the photon’s uncertainty also average out? It seems a bit arbitrary.

          So let me refocus the question: Is there any evidence that ANY quantum uncertainty can manifest itself at macroscopic levels without averaging itself out?

          Pragmatically, I suspect that it perhaps doesn’t really matter; predicting with 100 percent certainty the next state of any complex dynamic system would probably require more brains working in parallel than there are atoms in the universe.

          Good luck with that, Google!

          • Diane G.
            Posted November 21, 2014 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

            ““Cowhead” was the name of my cat. May I post her picture in these comments?”

            Well, now you’ve at least whetted my curiosity!

            (I can’t speak for PCC, of course, but if anything could slip under the radar here I should think it’d be cat pics. He might prefer that you send in the pic to him separately–“Readers Cats” is an off-and-on regular feature here.)

            • Filippo
              Posted November 24, 2014 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

              ““Cowhead” was the name of my cat. May I post her picture in these comments?”

              In the Southern Appalachian, they make “cathead” biscuits.

              • Diane G.
                Posted November 24, 2014 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

                Relax, y’all. I’ve done your googling for you, and the biscuits are named for their large size, not their ingredients.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted November 24, 2014 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

                Germans eat cat paws but they are only made of liquorice. I’ve had them & they are good, but sometimes I wonder what’s up with eating pretend pet pieces.

              • Diane G.
                Posted November 25, 2014 at 12:50 am | Permalink

                “Liquor”-ice, eh? Isn’t that, hair of the dog? 😀

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted November 25, 2014 at 7:20 am | Permalink

                I thought that too but I an never spell that word & my auto-correct gave me that as one of the choices. I don’t know if it’s the right one, but it had “liquor” in it so how bad can it be?

              • Diane G.
                Posted November 26, 2014 at 1:16 am | Permalink

                Well, I learn something new everyday. I’ve only ever seen “licorice,” but Wikipedia not only gives both spellings, it uses “liquorice” first.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted November 26, 2014 at 5:46 am | Permalink

                I try to spell it the other way too but my autocorrect fixes it. Weird.

    • Posted November 20, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

      I think most of us here understand that when Jerry writes “deterministic” he means “mostly deterministic, but also including quantum uncertainty which has bearing on the discussion at hand for all the reasons you mention in your comment.” That would be a pain to write and annoying to read over and over again, so “deterministic” is the shorthand.

      • Posted November 20, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

        **no bearing**

      • Posted November 20, 2014 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

        Yep, that’s right, thanks. Further, quantum uncertainties have no bearing on anyone’s notion of free will even if they do operate at a discernible level in making decisions.

      • JH
        Posted November 20, 2014 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

        “I think most of us here understand that when Jerry writes “deterministic” he means “mostly deterministic, but also including quantum uncertainty which has bearing on the discussion at hand for all the reasons you mention in your comment.”

        I would most certainly agree that most of the commenters here understand what Dr. Coyne means when he says “deterministically.” However, that definition gets murky in the literature. I think cowhead makes an important point in how the word can be interpreted in different ways in different discussions.
        I think this may be another case where the author is forced to categorically define the word before using it.

    • Vaal
      Posted November 20, 2014 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

      Cowhead,

      I’m afraid I can’t make sense of what you are saying, so perhaps you can help out.

      “Consciousness is just a way of justifying those actions after the fact.”

      If consciousness “justifies” anything, then that entails reasoning…but it seems to me you want to impute reasoning to the unconscious (or non-Conscious), so what are you saying? That there are two brain states doing reasoning, non-Conscious and Conscious?

      And if I have arrived at “conscious” reasoning, then wouldn’t those reasons inform my unconscious reasoning? For instance if my “conscious rationalizing” of an action results in the conclusion “I chose vanilla ice cream because I didn’t like that store’s other ice cream selections” does THAT rationalized conclusion float somewhere inert, or would it inform subsequent reasoning, for instance “I’m not going to that store if I want anything other than vanilla, because I didn’t like it’s other ice cream selections?”

      I’m also puzzled by how you would describe the relationship of consciousness in the following example:

      I had to see behind some equipment racks, but I found it impossible to do my work while using a flashlight at the same time.
      I imagined possible solutions, and remembered you can buy lights attached to headbands for a hands-free light source.
      I rationalized that this would solve my problem. It certainly seemed to me that I was doing the rationalizing and thinking through of the problem.

      So my following action was to go to Home Depot and buy a head-strap flashlight.

      If you ask me “why” I did what I did, how to explain my behavior, I will talk about what I had access to via my consciousness: apprehending my dilemma, recalling possible solutions, selecting the one that seemed best, and then acting on that selection.

      Now if as you say whatever I have related about my conscious understanding of my actions is ONLY an after-the-fact rationalization…what would you appeal to that WOULD make sense, better sense, of my behavior?

      If whatever part of my brain was “reasoning” to this solution wasn’t doing so on the basis reported in my consciousness, WHAT OTHER basis would make sense of my behavior?

      Note that my question doesn’t even have to assume that my conscious thoughts are what are driving my choice/behavior. But you seem to be painting the contents of consciousness as somehow rationally distinct and disconnected from the reasoning actually employed by whatever non-conscious part is doing the reasoning, and this seems very problematic.

      (BTW, I’m aware of experiments showing that we CAN be unaware of the reasons we make a choice, unaware of what actually influenced our choice, and that we can come up with different rationalizations about why we made a choice. But it would be exceedingly incautious to leverage such tests to declare that ALL conscious understanding of our choices are false or inaccurate representations of the *actual* reasons for our actions. Someone wanting to make that grand a claim will have quite a massive task ahead to explain much more in terms of the relationship between our conscious report of our deliberations as being wholly untrustworthy. It would make pretty much all our discourse and interactions untenable, not to mention it would seem to make actual scientific declarations on the subject in the first place to be incoherent).

      • Cowhead
        Posted November 21, 2014 at 12:16 am | Permalink

        >>And if I have arrived at “conscious” reasoning, then wouldn’t those reasons inform my unconscious reasoning? For instance if my “conscious rationalizing” of an action results in the conclusion “I chose vanilla ice cream because I didn’t like that store’s other ice cream selections” does THAT rationalized conclusion float somewhere inert, or would it inform subsequent reasoning, for instance “I’m not going to that store if I want anything other than vanilla, because I didn’t like it’s other ice cream selections?” <<

        I think the rationalization floats for a while as varied oscillations of neuronal firing patterns, and then, depending on the state of your hippocampus, it gets stored chemically in the brain (new dendritic spines grow or receptors are altered to become more or less receptive and probably a host of other physio-chemical changes we haven't discovered yet).

        Once this happens, it is now available to guide your future actions, prior to you becoming 'conscious' of them.

        Why (or how) did consciousness evolve? It makes sense to me that it evolved to help categorize and thus catalog, store and easily retrieve the good actions from the bad actions in a complex environment.

        The rat that runs toward the cat and survives (provided it's not infected with toxoplasma) will do much better if it has a way to easily catalog and retrieve that misbehavior in the future. It will now avoid the cat, just as you avoid that store.

        Eventually, if the brain gets larger and able to store more and more complexities of the environment and complex consequences of actions in that environment, it may take something like "consciousness" to handle the cataloging and timely retrieval of all that complex information.

        To me, that is the most parsimonious idea of what consciousness is and how it evolved. And I don't see any room for free will in there.

        • Tess
          Posted November 21, 2014 at 5:27 am | Permalink

          What consciousness is and how it works is at the root of questions about free will.

          • Cowhead
            Posted November 21, 2014 at 8:22 am | Permalink

            To Vaal and Tess,

            I think I understand, Vaal, what you are saying, but please indulge me for a moment.

            Let’s call a “thought” an at least fleetingly stable oscillation of neuronal firings.
            Which of those oscillations get stored physiochemically in the brain? I think we would both agree that free will plays no part in that decision. If so, we wouldn’t have PTSD and that horrible pop-song or commercial jingle would not get encoded. Yet, you have no choice as you cannot control your hippocampus. So the encoding of new memories is clearly outside the realm of free will.

            How about retrieval? You cannot control that either. The smell of her perfume evokes her memory, whether you want it to or not. And the things we really want to retrieve are often not retrievable; otherwise we would never forget the name of that movie actor. Our hippocampus has clearly encoded it for long term storage, yet, we are so often unable to retrieve it, despite our overwhelming will to do so.

            So, neither storage nor retrieval of oscillations is amenable to free will. What does that leave us with? Working memory. And if I understand you correctly, I think you are saying that free will operates in working memory and since most decisions are made in working memory, free will is involved in most decisions. I think that is a totally legitimate argument.

            However, a counter argument is that one oscillation tends to give rise to certain other oscillations because your brain trained itself to do it that way. And much of that training occurred when you were crawling about as a baby and perhaps not yet a conscious being. So, if all goes well and because of this extensive training, certain oscillations will tend to give rise to specific other oscillations, influenced by chemically encoded oscillations and current sensory input, as well as the 7 plus or minus 2 oscillations that can be held in working memory, and that is what you call rational thought. If that process breaks down and one oscillation gives rise to a seemingly random subsequent oscillation, we say that person is irrational. And we do not hold that person morally responsible for their actions. Presumably they have lost their free will (rational thought being a condition precedent of free will?).

            However, it’s a complex dynamic system that is constantly receiving new inputs so completely novel oscillation patterns can certainly still arise. But you cannot control that process (as, indeed, you ARE that process) any more than you can control your hippocampus or the storage and retrieval of specific oscillation patterns. Again, this seems to me to be the most parsimonious conception and, to poorly paraphrase Stephen Hawking, there doesn’t seem to be anything left for free will (or a god) to do.

            • Tess
              Posted November 21, 2014 at 11:12 am | Permalink

              Cowhead, just want to thank you for your remarks. Very helpful for me.

            • Vaal
              Posted November 21, 2014 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

              Cowhead,

              I read that more recent post. It’s certainly interesting, but I would disagree with a fair portion. I don’t have the time to be more detailed right now, but wanted to acknowledge your reply, thanks!

        • Vaal
          Posted November 21, 2014 at 8:39 am | Permalink

          Cowhead,

          “I think the rationalization floats for a while as varied oscillations of neuronal firing patterns, and then, depending on the state of your hippocampus,…”

          But I don’t see how that answers the questions I posed. One issue isn’t what happens to the rationalizations formed by our consciousness; it’s how our consciousness “rationalizes” at all in the first place, which seems implied in your model. If I understand you right, you’d hold that there is some non-conscious/unconscious process of reasoning, and then a conscious process of reasoning. But I would wonder what keeps these separate, how they interact, and what part of the brain is doing either.

          And I wonder about your term “rationalization.” That term is typically used in sort of a pejorative, to mean coming up with new reasons for something you actually did for OTHER reasons. And if you are using this sense of our consciousness merely “rationalizing” our actions, it raises the issues I mentioned. How in touch would our consciousness be with the *real reasons* we chose and action, and how ignorant and detached? Because if our consciousness did not have access to the real reasons we do anything, if we are so detached from our own rationality and do nothing but afterward create fictitious, false attributions for our behavior, how would this even work? How would it even be a viable model for a useful cognitive system, how could it even explain how we communicate with one another or ever make advances in “knowledge.”

          Take all the deliberations that led to the space probe Philae landing on the comet. This involved countless deliberations among many people, all representing to each other what their consciousness reported as their reasoning on the project. If the “conscious” reasons did not represent, closely enough, the “actual reasoning” going on in their minds, how could one explain the project at all, let alone it’s success?

          People who write things as you did like “We act before we are conscious of out actions. Consciousness is just a way of justifying those actions after the fact.”

          Tend to minimize the role of consciousness, often I find to a degree that doesn’t seem to make sense. Which is why I’ve had the questions for you, and how much of it turns on what you’d mean by “rationalizations” by our consciousness. But on reading what you wrote further:

          “Once this happens, it is now available to guide your future actions, prior to you becoming ‘conscious’ of them.”

          And perhaps I’ve simply got you wrong on the subject. It sounds like, however you think it works, consciousness plays a role in our reasoning and you don’t minimize it the way it originally seemed you did.

  20. Explorer
    Posted November 20, 2014 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Moving the goal posts always makes me feel that someone doesn’t have a strong argument or evidence for their viewpoint.

    Nice review.

  21. Robert Gray
    Posted November 20, 2014 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, it was listening to your views on incompatibilism in the Moving Naturalism Forward YouTube series that drew me to this site. Im also an incompatibilist and I don’t quite get the compatibilist view. If one believes in determinism, still believing in free will seems contradictory even if it’s redefined.

  22. Posted November 20, 2014 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    Hmmmm… here we go again…. so let me try to form an argument that is different from my other (very excellent) compatibilist arguments which I’ve previously stated… and one which will play off Gazzaniga’s theme of “interactions”.
    Let’s get philosophical! If there is no free-will then surely there is no such thing as Agency. And if there is no Agency there is no “self”. Of course Sam Harris would totally agree to both these points. Now if there is no self and also since the “entire system” is deterministic there is certainly no demarcation between so called “individuals” within the system – we have a continuum of causation. Now let us move onto the subject of MORALITY… where I would argue that if there is no absolute demarcation between “individual agents” and only a continuum there is NO possibility for morality to exist at all.

    • Posted November 20, 2014 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

      You forgot to define “morality” so I can’t tell if what you wrote makes any sense.

      • Posted November 20, 2014 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

        Aha… it’s the definition game then..

        Well, I would define morality as being rules of behaviour for the individual entities in the system toward one another, that for some reason, should be applied to these separate entities….. that sort of thing.
        Now, leaving aside what exactly should be that “reason”, there are actually no such separate entities (agents and selfs) in this overall incompatibilist causal-continuum; so therefore I can’t see that there can be any morality either.

        • Posted November 21, 2014 at 8:53 am | Permalink

          So where does that morality come from? How does one know what “the rules” are?

          • Posted November 21, 2014 at 11:17 am | Permalink

            “So where does that morality come from?”

            You are making my argument for me pacoicopiedra. Morality arises from the individuals in the system itself and for their own particular “reasons”. As there really are no such individual agents/selfs in the incompatibilist world, therefore there can be no morality.

            “How does one know what “the rules” are?”

            Well, there is no “one” in existence at all…. so the issue really doesn’t matter.

  23. Pliny the in Between
    Posted November 20, 2014 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    I have a question for the panel, should they find it interesting enough to consider (FYI, I’m neither a compatibilist nor an advocate for libertarian free will): If free will is an illusion, what is the point of democracy?

    • BillyJoe
      Posted November 22, 2014 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      No point at all. It’s just the outcome od deterministic and quantum probability acting on and within large populations of human beings.

  24. Diane G.
    Posted November 20, 2014 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    “When Libet and Soon et al. showed that they could predict a person’s behavior several seconds in advance of that person’s conscious decision…”

    I didn’t have time to read the comments so if someone’s already pointed this out, forgive me.

    It was my understanding that it was a fraction of a second, not several seconds. To me this is an important difference.

    • Posted November 20, 2014 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

      No, the latest studies can predict (not with 100% accuracy) 7 to 10 seconds in advance. And that’s one way that a world with true free will would differ from one that’s deterministic: in the former, you would find predictive brain activity coincident with self-reporting of a conscious decision.

      • Posted November 21, 2014 at 8:48 am | Permalink

        “And that’s one way that a world with true free will would differ from one that’s deterministic: in the former, you would find predictive brain activity coincident with self-reporting of a conscious decision.”

        I’m afraid the time delay proves absolutely nothing Jerry. The brain is analogous to a multi computer system with numerous specialised co-processing units. “Consciousness” however rests in one general “supervisory system” which allocates tasks and data parameters to the sub-units and can also modify their processing. In turn it receives processed results from these co-processor units. The WHOLE system is one computing entity however – in our case this whole system is “the mind”. Just because the Supervisor does not immediately “notice” that subprocessor has produced results is inherent in ALL such systems. A time delay is actually EXPECTED for such systems. Even 10 or 20 seconds is no big deal in a “biological computer system”.

        • BillyJoe
          Posted November 22, 2014 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

          You have just made our argument for us. The brain is just a deterministic computer and one piece of the evidence for that is that time delay.

          • Diane G.
            Posted November 22, 2014 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

            Are there any other hard data?

          • Posted November 22, 2014 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

            “The brain is just a deterministic computer and one piece of the evidence for that is that time delay.”
            A very valid point if there was not the possibility that the computer might “program itself” and might be partly freed from total causality by any number of randomising effects which always exist in such a complex system. Compatibilists like myself hardly claim that the universe is NOT deterministic

    • Posted November 20, 2014 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

      In addition to what Jerry said, check this Wired article, which explains how scientists built in the Libet experiments to observe several seconds of readiness potential (ie, your conscious mind being left out the loop by the rest of that scheming brain. 🙂

      • Diane G.
        Posted November 20, 2014 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

        Thanks Jerry and Diana. I should have done my own research before posting!

        • Posted November 20, 2014 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

          And I meant built on not built in. Probably my brain snuck that past my consciousness as some sort of joke for the rest of the brain I can’t access with my consciousness. Probably it’s the stomach. I think it’s in cahoots.

          • Diane G.
            Posted November 20, 2014 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

            They were in hysterics.

      • Diane G.
        Posted November 20, 2014 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

        Great article, Diana!

    • darrelle
      Posted November 21, 2014 at 7:51 am | Permalink

      I have never thought of the Libet and Soon et al. results to be particularly supportive of the IC position. It is supportive of both C and IC positions. It is evidence against contracausal and supernatural concepts of free will.

  25. DrDroid
    Posted November 20, 2014 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    For all the argument over free will I rather imagine that Dan Dennett and Jerry would agree that it is important/necessary to hold people responsible for their actions, and that the proper purpose of criminal punishment is protection of society rather than revenge or retribution.

  26. Posted November 21, 2014 at 4:27 am | Permalink

    I have recently read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation’s Edge, from the 1980ies. In it, somebody is asked which of three factions should win power over the galaxy: (1) a science-promiting Federation with democratically elected government, (2) a benevolent but paternalistic secret cabal pulling the strings from behind the scenes, or (3) a Borg-like hive mind*.

    When the three parties summarise their offers in one phrase each, the first one says “free will”; and supernatural or religious beliefs being considered obviously ludicrous by the Federation, what they mean is clearly self-determination as opposed to manipulation. To Asimov at least, there was apparently nothing supernatural about it.

    Just saying.

    To me likewise it simply means being able to do what you want to do, without any coercion or manipulation by another person. So yes, Libet et al really are irrelevant, because even if I have made a decision a few seconds before I am aware of it, I have still made the decision; because I am not just my consciousness, I am also the rest of my brain. And the rest of my body, for that matter.

    Saying that Libet settles the issue in favour of incompatibilism is only correct if the correctness of the incompatibilist definition of free will is already presupposed – begging the question.

    *) Interestingly, Asimov seems to think that the reader should root for the Borg, but that is a puzzle for another time.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted November 22, 2014 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

      This is how a materialist would have phrased that:

      The brain made the decision a few seconds before allowing “you” to become aware of its decision. That same brain also produces consciousness and it also produces “you” – “you” being the illusion that there is something over and above the brain that is in control of that brain. “You” are not synonymous with that brain, “you” are a subroutine of that brain.

      • Posted November 22, 2014 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

        No, sorry, materialism is the view that I am my body, nothing more and nothing less. The idea that I am something over and above the brain that is in control of that brain, or even that I am a subroutine of part of my body, is what is known as dualism. That is why it is often called “mind-body dualism”.

        That is a particularly odd aspect of this discussion: at least some incompatibilists insist on a definition of the self that makes no sense under materialism and monism – and then they react offended when somebody says that they are stealth dualists.

  27. tomas
    Posted November 21, 2014 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    //Jerry Coyne: :the traditional one, held by religionists and many laypeople alike, I’m an incompatibilist. Here’s my definition, taken from biologist Anthony Cashmore:

    [F]ree will is. . . defined as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature.”//

    This wouldn’t be a traditional definition of freewill. Any sort of definition of free will that attempts to define it or reconcile it with biology and genetics, will all be modern definitions, but not one’s prior to modernity which wouldn’t have had to deal with such questions, though God’s supposed omnipotence & omniscience posed similar challenges, perhaps even more so than biology does.

    Or in essence all attempts to define free-will in reference to our biology are by their very nature “redefinitions.”

    If you’re looking for the traditional view, one would have to deal with how it was understood by someone such as Aquinas, who believed in a sort of determinism (predestination) as well as free-will. And it becomes clear that the picture doesn’t reveal an open and shut case, in fact I have hard time see anything wrong with Aquinas’s views here. And the arguments against it appear to be semantical, rather than substantive. Such as Coyne’s view that people can be held responsible, but not “morally responsible”. The makeup of what makes them responsible, is often what was referred to as a choice, a conscious decision, a consenting of some sort. Mr. Coyne might choose to use a different set of words to define the makeup of responsibility, but the difference would just be semantics.

    • tomas
      Posted November 21, 2014 at 9:00 am | Permalink

      Or in other words there’s no challenge to choice, posed by the deterministic qualities of our biology and our environment, that weren’t already posed by the deterministic qualities of an all powerful God, in fact this imposed a greater challenge than any dreamed up now based on science.

      In fact it was out of the very challenge posed by the idea of an all powerful God, that the idea of free-will arose.

  28. BillyJoe
    Posted November 22, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    How to kill the semantic argument:

    Dualistic free will
    Deterministic freewill

    So, when determinists who are compatibilists are talking about freewill, they are talking about something entirely different from when determinists who are incompatibilists are talking about free will.

    What do you think?

  29. Seth
    Posted November 23, 2014 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    Wow.

    Okay, so apparently this man has never delved into causation at all. How hard is it to imagine that all human decisions are governed by a swath of prior causes? How difficult is it to imagine that maybe, just maybe, the very notion of “free will” is hopelessly illogical, contradictory, and ill-defined?

    People will cling, against all opposition, to a notion that brings them solace. Such a pity, as accepting determinism is an ironically freeing experience!


One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] All Gifford lectures deal with the intersection of science and religion, but aren’t Templeton-esque since they’ve included explicit critics of religion like Steve Pinker and Carl Sagan. [Read more] […]

%d bloggers like this: