Dan Dennett: misguided about free will, accurate about Templeton

I was originally going to write in the title that philosopher Dan Dennett was “wrong” about free will, but whether or not humans have “free will” seems to be a matter not of right or wrong, but of semantics—how we define the term. “Compatibilists” like Dennett, who see free will as perfectly consonant with a world in which all human actions and choices are predetermined by the laws of physics, conceive of the term differently from “incompatibilists” like myself, who see free will as incompatible with determinism.

While both camps largely agree on determinism, they differ in how they conceive of moral responsibility. Many incompatibilists, including me, find the notion of “moral responsibility” meaningless in a world where one can’t choose to behave one way versus another. I do consider people responsible for their actions, for, after all, they do commit them, and something should be done about that. And I also think that punishing people for actions harmful to society is necessary to deter others, to help rehabilitate miscreants, and to preserve society from further harm until (or if) such people can be rehabilitated. But that doesn’t mean that criminals are “immoral” in the sense that they could have chosen to behave “morally.” My notion of “moral action” is simply “an action that helps society function harmoniously or increases well-being.” Whether or not you act “morally” is not something you can freely decide. If the notion of “moral responsibility” means anything, it means that in a given situation you could have decided to behave either morally or not.

But let’s put that aside, since many readers have already expressed their agreement or disagreement with compatibilism. Today I want to call your attention to a recent mini-essay by Dan Dennett in Prospect Magazine: “Are we free?”  Here’s the header that includes the subtitle:

Picture 1

When I saw that subtitle and read the article, I realized that what many compatibilists feel is this: science has nothing to say about free will.  I think this is because their argument is basically semantic, involving various definitions of “free will”; and sometimes, like Dennett in this article, they don’t even bother to define it. I don’t think they realize that their denigration of scientific studies of free will comes from their feeling that the issue is one that can be resolved only through philosophy. And so they are committed to criticizing every scientific study that undermines traditional notions of free will. Why bother? As I’ll show below, this is one of many ways that compatibilism resembles Sophisticated Theology™: both areas denigrate science as being incapable of resolving the Big Question.

My own definition of free will is a traditional notion, one expressed by molecular biologist Anthony Cashmore:

Free 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 is what is commonly called “dualistic” or “contracausal” free will, in which people can somehow, by processes that bypass physical strictures, change their behaviors and choices. In contrast, nearly every compatibilist has a different reason why we have free will, implicitly reflecting a different definition of “free will.” (I think the failure of many compatibilists to give explicit definitions of the term is that so doing would would expose the intellectual vacuity of their arguments. You’ll look in vain in Dennett’s piece for his definition of free will.) At any rate, the diverse and sometimes discordant ways that compatibilists explain why we really do have free will makes me think that the issue is by no means settled, even among philosophers.

Dennett’s article is really a review of a new book by Alfred Mele, a philosopher at the Florida State University. As Dennett notes, “Mele is the director of a $4.4m project, “Free Will: Empirical and Philosophical Investigations,” funded by the Templeton Foundation. (More on Templeton later.) Mele’s book is Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will, which came out in October. I haven’t read it yet, but Dennett gives a good precis, and, more important, his essay is more a reiteration of Dennett’s own views than a review of Mele’s, which is fine.

I’ll try to be brief. Dennett first criticizes and discounts (as does Mele) the scientific experiments attacking traditional notions of free will: Libet’s experiments as well as others showing that brain scans can predict decisions before the “decider” is conscious of having made them; studies showing that you can manipulate people’s sense of agency by psychological trickery, either by making them think they have agency when they don’t (as in people with various brain lesions) or by making them think they don’t have agency when they really do (Ouija boards); and, finally, studies showing, as Dennett says, that:

. . . there is the unrecognised influence on subjects’ decisions of contextual factors that shouldn’t be decisive, growing out of Stanley Milgram’s and Philip Zimbardo’s notorious experiments into authority and obedience with college students back in the 1960s and 70s.

The last point puzzles me; I don’t see why contextual factors should be ruled out a priori as “not decisive”. When an authority figure in a white coat stands over you and tells you to apply more voltage to a passive victim supposedly connected to a battery, why shouldn’t that affect your behavior? Nobody denies that environmental and social pressures can change how you behave.

But never mind. What all this shows (and Dennett admits that some of those experiments have not been discredited) is that no scientific finding can refute the compatibilists’ claim that we have free will.  Even if, in the future, we could predict people’s actions and future decisions with perfect accuracy using very complex brain-monitoring and knowledge of neurology, compatibilists would continue to claim that we have free will. That’s because their notion of “free will” is a philosophical one, impervious to scientific refutation. So why bother going after the science?

So where does Dennett find free will? As he always has, he finds it in the notion that we are evolved, complex beings who reason: that is, we feel that we mull things over before coming to decisions about complex issues, and that this process of reasoning, which is an evolved part of our brain (supplemented with the environmental inputs of learning the consequences of actions), gives us free will. According to Dennett, it is this reasoning that makes us free, as opposed to decisions made when we’re constrained by other factors, like a person holding a gun to our head at the ATM and saying, “Take out $1000 and give it to me.” Without the gun, we would probably withdraw less money. The decision made at gunpoint, according to Dennett, is not “free.”

In other words, for Dennett free will lies in the ability to make reasoned as opposed to coerced choices.  This is supported by the two books he’s written on free will, and by statements that he makes in the Prospect article, like these (my emphasis):

It is a fact that when faced with actually tough decisions—about whether to intervene in somebody else’s crisis, for instance, or to go along with the crowd on some morally dubious adventure—we often disappoint ourselves and others with our craven behaviour. This sobering fact has been experimentally demonstrated in the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments and a host of milder, less traumatic experiments, but far from showing that we are always overwhelmed by context, these experiments invariably exhibit the capacity of a stalwart few to resist the enormous pressures arrayed against them. Is there a heroic minority of folks, then, with genuine free will, capable of being moved by good reasons even under duress? It’s better than that: you can learn—or be trained—to be on the alert for these pressures, and to resist them readily.

In other words, some people can make “responsible” choices, and those are the folks with free will. The others, well, they’ve been coerced. And there’s this:

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

I think this line of argument is bogus. There is no difference, I think, in being coerced by threats or social pressure, and being coerced by our neurons, which are in effect billions of tiny guns pointed at our head. You don’t have the ability to decide to “take steps to protect your autonomy”, for some people can reason in a way that makes them do that while others can’t. It’s not a free decision.

Further, I think that members of some other species, like crows, elephants, and nonhuman primates, can reason and make “decisions” after some cogitation, even if their reasoning isn’t as complex as ours. Does that, then, make them “morally responsible”? If a dog attacks a human, mistakenly thinking that the human is a threat to the dog’s owner, do we hold that dog morally responsible? If not, why not?

In most cases people will indeed behave “responsibly,” for, after all, responsible behavior is behavior that endears you to society and enhances your well being. That’s precisely what our brains have evolved to do, as well as to process environmental information that is part of the evolved program. All we are doing when we make a decision is run a fixed computer program in our brain that has lots of different inputs, all of which yield a single output: the “choice.”

Some people’s decisions are better than others, and we say that those people are acting more “morally.” Others are “immoral”, perhaps because the reasoning process is faulty or because the reasoning process is sound but neglects important information. But in every case we’re running computer programs that have only a single possible output. How does that make us “morally” responsible? And where is the “freedom” in that? Whether it be guns, social pressure, or “reasoning” that feeds into our decisions, everything is constrained. We need to recognize that neurons and past experiences are just as coercive as guns. It’s just that their coercive properties aren’t as obvious as a Glock pointed at your skull.

We also need to accept that “reasoning” is just an evolved computer program run by the neuronal connections in your brain, modified by inputs called “experience.” In most cases reasoning gives a good outcome, for that’s why reasoning evolved. But sometimes reasoning doesn’t give a good or “responsible” outcome. We have no choice about that, or about how we reason.

As Michael Stipe said, “I’ve said enough.” Let me now give my thoughts on this last issue:

Why free-will compatibilism resembles Sophisticated Theology™:

  • Both redefine old notions (Biblical literalism or contracausal free will) and claim nobody believes in them any more. Like scripture is for Sophisticated Theologians™, so is free will for compatibilists: both have become metaphors for more recent notions.
  • The definitions of free will, like that of Sophisticated Gods, are concocted post facto, after compatibilists have decided in advance that their task is not to find the truth, but to buttress a conclusion they want to reach (i.e., we have free will)
  • Both set humans aside as special—different from other animals (souls or free will)
  • In both cases academic doyens (theologians or philosophers) feel that it’s dangerous for the public to know the truth (about God or about determinism).
  • Both groups need some sense of free will to “sustain our sense of moral responsibility”
  • There are as many versions of compatibilism as there are conceptions of God (and no general agreement on them), so advocates can always say to critics, “you’re not attacking the best argument.”
  • Both dismiss science as either irrelevant or inferior to philosophy for solving the Big Question at hand (free will or the existence of God).

Cute, eh? The parallels, however, reflect something more than coincidence. They reflect, I think, the fact that compatibilists set out, like Sophisticated Theologians™, not to follow the truth where it leads, but to buttress a preconceived notion—”we must have free will at all costs”.  To get there, both camps simply redefine terms, so that both “God” and “free will” become notions that don’t correspond at all to how they’ve been understood through history. Compatibilists will say this is okay, but to me it’s like saying, “Jerry Coyne loves dogs—if you redefine dogs as ‘members of the Felidae’.”

But let me give Dan kudos for the ending of his piece, in which he calls attention to the fact that Mele, and the collaborators on his “Free Will” initiative, are somewhat compromised by being funded by Templeton:

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

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

Now that’s good advice!

h/t: Barry

243 Comments

  1. Posted January 13, 2015 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    I interpret moral responsibility to mean that we learn form consequences. I do not believe punishment is a particularly effective teaching method, but that’s a utilitarian argument, not a moral argument.

    • Kevin
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      Indeed, and the recent events of Charlie Hebdo should be an important lesson. If we want to engineer a society where these types of events do not occur, or are, at least mitigated we can do it.

      “This is the society that we want, that we ourselves have built. We built it the way we did because we want power more than peace. If we don’t like it, only we can fix it.” (*)

      Determinism may be authoritative, but we are the ones who structurally design our societies the way want and we can design them to be more peaceful. Our choices may be determined, but they are still choices to make.

      (*) http://barefootbum.blogspot.com/2015/01/charlie-hebdo.html

    • BillyJoe
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

      So you don’t kill people only because you might end up in jail?

      Locking up murderers protects the public, prevents the murderer from murdering again, prevents others from committing murder (unless you think that murders would not increase if there was no legal penalty), and in consequence punishes the murderer (presumably he doesn’t want to be locked up).

      The difference is that, if there is no freewill, then the punishment is collateral damage, not the purpose (retribution) of your incarceration of murderers.

  2. GBJames
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    sub

    • Mike Paps
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      sub

  3. eric
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    So Mele takes $4.4 million to do empirical and philosophical investigations into free will, and one of the first things he does is publish a philosophical book claiming empirical investigations of it are impossible or not worth doing?

    I think if I were a Templeton grantor, I would take a pretty dim view of a big grantee using the money to explain to the world why he’s not going to do half of what I gave him the grant money to do.

  4. Captain
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    One thing I would like to mention that it seems to me not to be noticed: the evidence that suggests we make decisions before consciously reasoning about them should be just as surprising to incompatibilists as to compatibilists.

    After all, what they differ on is, as you’ve said, whether what we experience in our daily life is the same thing that we associate with free will. If it were to turn out that what we experience in our daily life (e.g. what seems to be informed, conscious decision-making) is in fact some kind of illusion, and decisions are made pseudo-arbitrarily and rationalized post facto, well, that says a great deal more than “the decisions of humans are predetermined by physical laws” -it says it’s also unrelated to conscious thought! This is not, as I understand it, a conventional claim of incompatibilists, and it is certainly not a necessary one.

    • Shea B
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      I agree–the delay between the decision and the conscious experience of that decision seems particularly fascinating. Alex Rosenberg’s book THE ATHEIST’S GUIDE TO REALITY riffs on that exact point. He says that the Libet experiments are interesting not because they demolish free will per se, but because they help us see how misguided our conscious introspection is about how the mind actually works.

      • Captain
        Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

        However, just because there’s a delay between the decision being made and our being consciously aware of it, it doesn’t follow that the decisions aren’t being made thoughtfully, deliberately, or rationally. After all, reason and introspection itself could also be occurring “behind the curtain” and be played back to us on exactly the same delay as our final decision.

        Indeed, I have always thought the likelihood that we could simply accidentally make incrementally good decisions was pretty low, though perhaps I am misunderstanding the ramifications of the experiment.

        • Wayne Robinson
          Posted January 13, 2015 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

          I think that for ‘free will’ to have any meaning, it must involve the ability to make conscious uncaused decisions. However, most decisions are made unconsciously (the mind rationalises the reasons for it afterwards) and caused, based on the person’s genetic makeup and previous experiences.

          One has ‘free won’t’ but not ‘free will’. The ability to veto unconscious decisions.

          Whenever one is forced to weigh up alternatives to action, it’s because unconsciously more than one decision has been made, with conflicting causes. And usually the mind makes a choice based on the underlying causes of which it’s unaware..

          Actually, I find the argument about ‘free will’ boring. Theists want ‘free will’ because they think it provides a reason for suffering in the world. God could have created a perfect world with no suffering, but because he gave humans free will, suffering is inevitable because humans have to be able to make bad as well as good decisions (such as not living in a tsunami vulnerable coast?).

          I think that atheists should note that free will is not an excuse for natural suffering, of which the world has plenty.

          • Captain
            Posted January 13, 2015 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

            Although personally I am a compatibilist (although I have become convinced from this discussion that compatibilists and incompatibilists think the same thing and are using the wrong terms), that’s not the argument I was making. I was simply saying that the presence of a delay between a decision’s being made our being conscious of the decision does not necessarily, as I said above it might, contradict our daily experience – that is to say, the finding that our decisions are delayed may only find that consciousness is delayed, and it might not say anything at all about the decision-making process.

            • BillyJoe
              Posted January 13, 2015 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

              So you believe in subconscious freewill???

            • rickflick
              Posted January 13, 2015 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

              I think there is potential for confusion because we are paying too much attention to the subconscious/conscious boundary. If you are asked if you’d like strawberry jam or marmalade on your toast, your brain goes searching for relevant memories. As it retrieves them into some kind of collection zone, lets say, it weighs the significance of each one (determines what the composite value is based on all emotional strengths – favorable or unfavorable, and we say: “marmalade please”. The point where we become conscious of what to say is the payoff in consciousness space. If we had been distracted before proceeding to consciousness, the inner workings would be the same weighing process, which we call making a choice. Consciousness is just the final afterthought.

  5. eric
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    I would also rephrase your last bullet or possibly add an additional bullet (if you think the point is sufficiently different) to your comparison list. I will say up front that, in fairness, this bullet may only apply to some compatibilists who agree with Dennett:

    Both groups view untestability and unfalsifiability of their hypothesis as a feature, rather than the bug it is.

  6. Posted January 13, 2015 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Another “free will” opportunity to disagree with our esteemed host!

    … whether or not humans have “free will” seems to be a matter not of right or wrong, but of semantics …

    Agreed!

    Many incompatibilists, including me, find the notion of “moral responsibility” meaningless …

    Why not define it exactly as you then go on to do, in terms of “action[s] that helps society function harmoniously or increases well-being” along with the need to encourage such acts and deter bad ones?

    Again, we’re differing only in semantics.

    Why can’t we treat “free will” as meaning what “free” does when we say “free speech”?

    There is no difference, I think, in being coerced by threats or social pressure, and being coerced by our neurons, …

    Really? Would you also say that there is no difference between wanting to publish a CharlieHebdo cartoon, for deciding not to for fear of being shot, versus not wanting to publish the cartoon?

    Notions such as “free will” are all about how humans interact with each other in society, and notions such as “freedom” of speech or freedom to act on ones own will really are important to us.

    My take on this: Compatibilism for incompatibilists: free will in five steps.

    • eric
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      Why can’t we treat “free will” as meaning what “free” does when we say “free speech”?

      Because its confusing and will end up deceiving a lot of laymen about what you are supporting and what you are claiming we have. (Specifically: they will think you are defending some form of non-determinism consistent with their belief in a soul, when you aren’t)

      Let’s turn the question around: why can’t compatibilists use a term for your compatibilism that doesn’t already have a different and distinct meaning to most people? What’s the problem with not calling it free will? How about ‘deterministic agency’ or something?

      • Posted January 13, 2015 at 11:18 am | Permalink

        Well we could use another term, and since this really is mostly about semantics I personally would be happy to.

        But, the commonest actual usage of the term “free will” is in terms of things like: “Did you sign this contract of your own free will or were you coerced”.

        Is there any actual evidence that the dualist masses are more easily persuaded to ditch dualism and the notion of a soul by an incompatibilist account, rather than a compatibilist account?

        Perhaps a compatibilist account would make more sense to them and more readily persuade them? I’m not claiming to know that it would be, but I’d be interested in actual evidence.

        The younger generation are so familiar with computers that IMO we should just talk about (deterministic) computers making choices and having a will, and approach it from that angle.

        • eric
          Posted January 13, 2015 at 11:53 am | Permalink

          Is there any actual evidence that the dualist masses are more easily persuaded to ditch dualism and the notion of a soul by an incompatibilist account, rather than a compatibilist account?

          I’m not making the ‘different term’ argument because I want to persuade people to ditch dualism. I’m making it because I see using a term that has a different meaning to your likely audience is intentionally or unintentionally deceptive. It is exactly like a theologian claiming to a naive audience that he has an argument for the existence of God, where he is thinking ‘I’ve got a prime mover argument’ and they take it to mean ‘he’s got an argument for Jesus.’ That theologian is being deceptive, either intentionally or unintentionally. At a bare minimum, even if we find nothing inherently wrong in his word choice, we can say that he should’ve known better: he should’ve known to clarify his meaning because he should’ve known that this particular discussion is one in which semantic confusion between speaker and audience happens a lot.

          And while I would agree with you that there are many contexts in which the term ‘free will’ is used to contrast with coercion (like your example), when someone asks the question “do humans have free will” then pretty much everyone is going to understand that the context has shifted from a question abotu physical coercion to a question of determinism vs. indeterminism, souls, ghosts in the machine, etc. So when you answer “yes” to that question and you’re a compatibilist, you are confusing or deceiving others about your beliefs. Likewise, when people are discussing the existence of free will and you say you have an argument that yes they do, then you are behaving like that theologian. Its deceptive, or at the very least, you should know that an immediate clarification is in order because the odds of a semantic mismatch between you and your audience is high.

          • BillyJoe
            Posted January 13, 2015 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

            Great argument against the “did you sign this document of your own freewill” argument for retaining the compatibilists definition of freewill.

      • Sergio Graziosi
        Posted January 13, 2015 at 11:27 am | Permalink

        Eric, your turned question makes sense. Why not just “agency”?
        I guess some resist this approach because people will then say “Yes, but this ‘agency’ is just an illusion: in the end it’s just atoms bouncing around, so there is no ‘objective’ agency”.

        And, in some sense, there isn’t: if you acknowledge the existence of separate subjects, you acknowledge the existence of “subjectivity” by definition. Thus you can either accept that this view doesn’t sit well in a 100% objective account (as I do) or try to include subjectivity inside an objective account (and good luck with that, you’ll have to crack the hard and ‘easy’ problems of consciousness first).

        • eric
          Posted January 13, 2015 at 11:59 am | Permalink

          I guess some resist this approach because people will then say “Yes, but this ‘agency’ is just an illusion: in the end it’s just atoms bouncing around, so there is no ‘objective’ agency”.

          Bing bing bing, that is exactly the point: if compatibilists used a different, clearer term, its possible that many more people would reject the compatiblist notion of free will. That is not a good reason to use the term ‘free will,’ its pretty much the opposite: if you suspect that people’s acceptance of your idea of FW hinges on them confusing your notion of FW with their notion of FW, then you should probably not use the term ‘free will’ for your idea.

          • Sergio Graziosi
            Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

            🙂
            We probably agree on this. I’m not sure, but I think we do: I am not using the term “free will”, after all!
            (got to go now!)

      • mental reservation
        Posted January 13, 2015 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

        I agree fully. I bought Dennett’s “Freedom Evolves” because I wanted to challenge my opinion that we don’t have free will and I knew Dennett was a very clear and profound arguing guy who claimed to defend free will.

        Throughout the book he claims he’s going to defend “the real thing”, and will not play tricks with definitions, and urges the reader to be patient. The book is well argued, and I agreed with most of it. I just couldn’t see how his arguments that could defend free will in any way. Close to the end of the book, he concludes that we have a subjective feeling of making our own choices, and he’s going to call this subjective feeling “free will”. I felt tricked into buying the book on false premises (even if it was worth my time).

      • peepuk
        Posted January 13, 2015 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

        self control?

        • BillyJoe
          Posted January 13, 2015 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

          How about: Free Will for “do we have Free Will?”, and free will for “did you sign this document of your own free will?”

          • StephenLawrence
            Posted January 15, 2015 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

            BillyJoe

            “How about: Free Will for “do we have Free Will?”, and free will for “did you sign this document of your own free will?””

            Yep these are the two different meanings that the term Free Will is used for.

  7. Militant Scientist
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    I agree that definitions of free will are typically slippery. I like the definition of free will in this paper that relies on a computer scientist approach. http://arxiv.org/abs/1310.3225 It looks like no free will to incompatablist and free will to comaptablist, but more importantly it removes the special role of being human. It offers an honor system test to check if an entity exhibits “free will.”

    • Kevin
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, that is a great paper.

  8. Sergio Graziosi
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    There is no difference, I think, in being coerced by threats or social pressure, and being coerced by our neurons, which in effect are billions of tiny guns pointed at our decision.

    I don’t know if Dennett would agree, but I do see an important difference. Your neurons are part of you, and their coercion is ultimately what we normally refer as your own agency. Which is yours and yours alone. You do take decisions, based on your own preferences and decision making strategies, which are encoded in your nervous system (somehow, we all assume) and are 100% determined by your genes and history.

    (1) From a third party ‘objective’ point of view, your actions are predetermined. In this view, your neurons are just a part of reality like everything else.
    (2) Nevertheless, your own agency exists: it’s encoded in your central nervous system. In this second view, we are acknowledging (a priori, or just because it’s convenient) that there is a significant difference from the atoms that make up the environment and the stuff that you are made-of. Once we make this distinction, “you” becomes a meaningful word (or vice-versa) and we can say that you have your own preferences/agency/agenda.

    The two statements don’t really contradict, they slice reality in two alternative (and apparently incompatible) ways, but that’s all.

    The second statement is what I can save of Free Will (and what I think Dennett is saving). We make decisions based on our own preferences, reasoning, biases and whatnot. We do have agency, and we also need the idea of agency to function. Whether that makes me a compatibilists, I’ll let you all decide.

    • Sergio Graziosi
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      Argh! typo, should have been: “Whether that makes me a compatibilist, I’ll let you all decide”

    • eric
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      In this second view, we are acknowledging (a priori, or just because it’s convenient) that there is a significant difference from the atoms that make up the environment and the stuff that you are made-of.

      So there’s this oxygen molecule floating around in the air. As a gaseous molecule floating 1 mm away from my lips, its deterministic impact on my behavior is external and therefore coercion. Its not contributing to my free will. I breathe in. Now it is part of my agency, and it contributes to my free will. It is no longer coercing me. I breathe out, it gets blown away, and its not part of my agency any more and not part of my free will…now its coercing me instead, again.

      Is that what you’re proposing? Seems a bit…strained. Isn’t it far better and simpler just to say that regardless of where it is located, the molecule is always impacting my behavior in basically the same way, i.e., deterministically (but with the QM uncertainty caveat)?

      • Sergio Graziosi
        Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

        Eric, your objection makes sense, but No, this is not what I’m proposing.

        When you slice reality in atoms, molecules, (collapsible) wave-functions or whatever other strictly scientific, third-party and objective way, it makes sense not to make the distinction of whether the oxygen molecule is part of me or not. You make this point better than me. However, in this view simply distinguishing me from not-me becomes impossible: it changes all too often, to start with, and if you exchange one atom of carbon with another atom of carbon in the same state (or all of them, for that matter), I’d still be me. In this view, matter is just matter, there is no distinguishable “me”.

        However, one always should look for easier ways of understanding (and thus predicting) reality, in some sense, that’s why we have chemistry, biology, psychology (and more) instead of just “physics”. We pick different abstractions (a particle, a molecule, a cell, an individual) because they allow us to generate conceptual systems (theories) that have more predictive power and/or are just easier to handle (require less calculations).
        In this way, to explain my behaviour, making the (otherwise arbitrary) distinction between me and not-me makes sense. As a consequence, the concept of “my own agency” also starts making sense.
        If I say: “I’m writing this because I hope that I have a point to make.”
        A perfect incompatibilist will have to reply “your assertion is manifestly false, you don’t hope anything, your hopes are illusions and have no causal power”. Or something like that. I object to this view by saying, “hey, yes, but in your account, I don’t really exist: the concept of ‘me’ is arbitrary – it all depends on how you slice reality”.

        So: I am OK with picking the right tools to explain the phenomena we are interested in. But I also point out that one should understand the consequences (this is the point I think I have). Whenever we pick one set of tools we automatically exclude something else. In this case, agency is easy to define in one view (my second) and almost nonsensical in the first.
        There is one reality, and a gazillion different ways of conceptualising it. The different ways are not equivalent, they differ in predictive/explanatory power and will have different degrees of utility depending on the domain of enquiry. An account of my behaviour in terms of quantum physics is theoretically possible, but certainly impractical.

        Does this make sense to you?

        • eric
          Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

          It makes some sense. I agree that it is often constructive to talk about people as collections of cells or other larger-than-molecule structures. But if you do that, you probably don’t want to talk about neurons as the basis of self. That would be moving the goalposts around. 🙂

          • Sergio Graziosi
            Posted January 14, 2015 at 3:40 am | Permalink

            Eric,
            I know I won’t have time to keep the discussion going today, forgive me for cutting this short while knowing that there will remain some open questions.

            Specifically: you have lost me on the moving goalposts metaphor. If anything, I’m saying that when you change the explanatory approach, the goalposts move as a consequence. For example, I am convinced that it will eventually be possible to produce a fully reductionist account of consciousness and agency, but trying to do so is extremely difficult, so the goalposts are really-really close to one-another.

            On the other hand, explaining one’s actions in terms of generic motivation (he bought a sandwich because he was hungry) makes it very easy to “explain” behaviour (very big goal area), but simultaneously makes it almost impossible to keep digging and build a fully reductionist account (so here the goalposts are very close).

            You can try to reconcile the two approaches, and you find the hard problem, and in this case the goalposts are so close that no one can be sure there is some room between them.
            The differences are a consequence of the explanatory lens we pick and of the problem we choose to investigate; I don’t think I am arbitrarily moving the goalposts, I am saying: hang on, if you do that, the goalposts will be different.

            See also Sastra’s discussion started in comment #13. And Edward Clint’s comment #20. Together, they are making my point in a slightly different way.

            You may also want to have a look a the interesting (although I have some reservations that I haven’t expressed in full) post from Kevin Mitchell (a proper neuroscientist) here: http://www.wiringthebrain.com/2014/11/top-down-causation-and-emergence-of.html

        • Posted January 13, 2015 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

          This is great.

          I think recognizing different levels of reduction and what can be talked about or explained at each of those levels (rather than insisting only the most reductive explanation is what counts) puts you a little closer towards compatibilism.

          • Tim Harris
            Posted January 14, 2015 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

            I am late to this, but it seems to me that the quarrel is more deeply over distinguishing between, on the one hand, agreeing to a carefully argued thesis (Darwin’s ‘Origin’, for example) after having understood it and behaving accordingly, and, on the other, an impulsive rejection of such a thesis because of one’s faith or sensibility or intelligence; or the supposed behaviour of a Sphex wasp (I say ‘supposed’ because despite the repeated claims about the wholly mechanical behaviour of the wasp, Fabre himself – who did the original experiment that is always cited – as well as other entomologists found that Sphex wasps do NOT always behave mechanically and can be quite flexible; but Fabre’s own words on this, as well as the findings of other entomologists are routinely ignored: the supposed behaviour of the Sphex wasp has the status of a myth among certain cognitive scientists and philosophers). It may well be that everything we do is ultimately determined (I think that it must be), but this does not put on the same level agreeing with something because one has been persuaded for good reasons that it is true and, let us say, slaughtering cartoonists because the ‘truth’ of one’s faith has been offended. I suspect that behind Dennett’s ‘compatibilism’ is not so much a desire to protect philosophical turf, as a desire to maintain distinctions between different modes of behaviour (something that is important for animals like us for whom culture plays so important a part) so that everything is not collapsed into a sort of determinist heap.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

      The problem is that everything in the environment that affects your behaviour is acting through the firing of your neurons as well

      • Tim Harris
        Posted January 14, 2015 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

        Well, why shouldn’t it? What conclusions may be drawn from this?

  9. ricardomenacuevas
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    We are animals.

    And reason is one of our instincts (Hume.)

    That’s our free will. All animals have it.

  10. Posted January 13, 2015 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Great stuff. I’m not familiar with the lit but if my next action is determined by my physical state and if we could determine my physical state then should we be able to (with a super duper computer) retrace my history back to fertilization? Should we be able to trace the history of any atom back to the big bang?

    • eric
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      Well there some nondeterministic processes (such as atomic decay) so I think Gould’s famous statement about the tape of life would still apply: rewind it, play it again, and the results would be different. However AFAIK almost everyone is in agreement that quantum indeterminism isn’t agency, doesn’t count as free will.

      • Posted January 13, 2015 at 11:59 am | Permalink

        Thanks Eric. This helps me understand my question. If quantum states are indeterminant would it follow that action ( in whatever form ) is specifically determined but statistical?

        • eric
          Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

          I don’t know what you mean by ‘specifically determined’ but, um…yes?

        • Posted January 13, 2015 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

          Maybe the word you are looking for is “stochastic?”

        • Posted January 13, 2015 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

          If the outcome is specifically determined, then it is not statistical whereas if one of several outcomes are possible but cannot be specified in advance, it is statistical not determined.

          • eric
            Posted January 13, 2015 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

            Okay. I believe some of my confusion also comes because you omitted a “no” in your previous response.

            It may follow that some human decisions are stochastic rather than specifically determined, but I think the question of how and how much quantum indeterminancy affects neural signaling is still up in the air. Actually I think there have been a couple of “it doesn’t, neurons are too big,” responses by various scientists, but since I can’t recall who said that, please take that with a hefty grain of salt.

            It will affect human decision-making in scenarios like this: I set up a nuclear decay experiment (or other indeterminant-process experiment). I record the time of first decay. I publish it. Other people read it. Obviously it has affect what I type, the literal figures of the page. It will affect any other actions of mine that might be changed by that charater choice. It will also affect my readers’ future actions, and so on.

  11. sketchvac
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    To be honest, I have long since just skimmed over these Free Will posts as they give me a headache — for lack of a more technical term, thinking hard about this issue gets me all discombobulated. Don’t get me wrong, I find the subject fascinating — I just lack the level of attention required I guess to try and digest these things. With that being said, I sense that I may regret wading into these waters!

    But what the heck . . .

    I should first mention that I lean to the incompatibilist approach that (I am pretty sure) our host favors. In light of that, I am having trouble digesting this statement: “And I also think that punishing people for actions harmful to society is necessary to deter others”.

    Would not an incompatibilist maintain that “deterrents” are of no value? I suspect I am missing something pretty basic here — hopefully, I will be enlightened.

    • Mike Paps
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      Would not an incompatibilist maintain that “deterrents” are of no value? I suspect I am missing something pretty basic here — hopefully, I will be enlightened.

      You’re missing something. The fact we have no free will doesn’t mean our choices are random. Knowing you will be punished for something is part of the programming that influences the output.

      • Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

        Deterrents are mostly ineffective. What they mostly deter is getting caught, You can see this in cats and dogs. What happens in a society that relies on punishment is that people learn to avoid getting caught (or, if caught, to hire lawyers).

        Much more interesting is what happens when rewards are available.

        • darrelle
          Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

          A reward is a deterrent, if the purpose of it is to prevent certain types of behavior by encouraging other certain types of behavior.

          • Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

            Well, let’s just ask a hypothetical. Do you think infants will learn better from well timed approval, or from punishment every time they don’t do what you want?

            A relate question is, what will they learn in the two scenarios.

            • darrelle
              Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

              What does that have to do with my comment? My comment was a statement about what a deterrent is, not about what kinds of deterrents are more or less affective.

            • Posted January 13, 2015 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

              I simply don’t know why you would label it a deterrent. A deterrent is something that discourages behavior. a punishment or a threat of punishment.

              The conceptual difference is that there are an unlimited number of things that a kid can do that annoy others. Destroying things, getting into the medicine cabinet, drinking bleach, torturing the cat. The list could go on forever.

              If you successfully raise a kid to be interested in things that you approve of, his time is occupied, and you do not need to punish each and every possible bad thing. This is not usually called deterrence.

              It might just be semantics, but a lot of people take the deterrence approach, and the results are generally bad.

              • Mike Paps
                Posted January 13, 2015 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

                noun
                1.
                a thing that discourages or is intended to discourage someone from doing something.

                Praise, punishment, and reward are all deterrents. That’s why darrelle labeled it as one.

            • Posted January 13, 2015 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

              I think the relevant question is: what behavior are you deterring?

              • Mike Paps
                Posted January 13, 2015 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

                If you were asking me the answer is what you said. “Destroying things, getting into the medicine cabinet, drinking bleach, torturing the cat. The list could go on forever.”

                I agree deterring that behavior by praising and rewarding your child so they engage in activities you, and society approves of can often preempt the need to use punishment, but it still doesn’t mean punishment isn’t effective.

              • Posted January 13, 2015 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

                I’m confused. If I praise my kid for playing with building blocks (assuming this actually results in his spending more time at it) he is deterred from doing annoying things?

                Isn’t he also deterred from playing with the piano or the ball or coloring book, and from other acceptable activities. I don’t understand your concept of deterrence.

                As for punishment, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to punish every punishable offence.

                Perhaps the concept we are looking for is rewarding behavior that is incompatible with nuisance behavior. Sharing is incompatible with hogging. Cooperation incompatible with fighting.

              • Mike Paps
                Posted January 13, 2015 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

                Isn’t he also deterred from playing with the piano or the ball or coloring book, and from other acceptable activities.

                I imagine he might be. Giving someone money will likely deter them from stealing, it might also make them quit their job, what’s your point?

                I don’t understand your concept of deterrence.

                I don’t understand your problem with the definition of the word.

        • Mike Paps
          Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

          I can assure you there were times in my life where I was in such dire straights financially that the fear of consequences was the only thing that kept me from stealing. I doubt my case was an anomaly.
          Whether some steal anyway, and deterrents cause them to steal more efficiently seems to me to be mostly unrelated.

        • Posted January 13, 2015 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

          I disagree. Can you support your assertion that deterrents are mostly ineffective? I think, for example, that without the deterrent of getting a speeding ticket, there would be far more speeding on highways. And before you say that people still speed they just try to devise ways of not getting caught – I counter that regardless of people trying to cheat, there is far less speeding and to a far lesser degree than there would be without that deterrent.

        • Posted January 13, 2015 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

          Ummm. . . have you read Steve Pinker’s account of what happens when a deterrent is removed: the police strike in Montreal when he was younger? The town went into a riot of crime. It’s absolutely ludicrous to claim that deterrents are mostly ineffective.

          • peepuk
            Posted January 14, 2015 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

            Yes I did read Steven Pinkers “Better angels”, a very good and important book.

            Well, I’m not claiming that we should abandon policing. Policing is very effective.
            And yes, you are right, this is a form of deterrence that can work.

            I think there is certainly evidence that punishing works as a deterrent when it’s both highly likely to be caught and swift. But our legal systems are most of the time too slow for that (for good reasons). This diminishes the effectiveness of deterrence.

            When we see that severe crimes in Western societies declines for many years, whether they where tough or soft(-er) on crime, suggests to me that deterrence on its own is not that important.

            And when I may quote wikipedia:

            “There is an ongoing debate about deterrence correlation with capital punishment. Today, there is no conclusive evidence supporting either theory.”

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deterrence_%28psychology%29

            Here we have almost max deterrence and no clear positive effect as far as I know.

      • Michael Garner
        Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

        Exactly right. I think of possibility of incurring externally imposed consequences as part of the landscape we take into account as we “make” our decisions.

      • eric
        Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

        Yes exactly; it (punishment) is still an input into the machine that could lead to a specific output. Determinists are still going to be concerned with the ‘does it work’ question.

        One problem with the full-on determinism is that it appears (to me) to lead to a pretty strong utilitarianism, with all of that ethical system’s attendant problems. While determinists would no longer punish people “because morally they deserved it,” the flip side of that coin is that morally, nobody “deserves” good treatment either, so we are under no moral or ethical obligation to give it to them. Thus determinism can easily be used to justify “yes, kill the innocent” answers to things like the old ‘trolly gone wild’ scenario. Under determinism, the only valid reason to treat people nicely or equally is operative, i.e., you think it works to bring about your desired outcome. Any time it doesn’t work, you have no philosophical or ethical reason to do it, because your subject has no moral rights, because you’ve already abandoned the idea that they make decisions/have moral agency.

        • Posted January 13, 2015 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

          There’s no perfectly rational and coherent way to catalog every behavior as moral or immoral, and no magic way to justify the distinctions.

          We judge actions to be good or bad because we are made that way. Either by evolution or by upbringing, or both. What philosophy, religion and law do is attempt to map our built in judgments to the nearly endless possibilities. Mostly by attempting to anticipate consequences.

    • Posted January 13, 2015 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      What brains do is attempt to predict the future. At the simplest reflexive level, that could mean: twitch this muscle and the aversive stimulus will go away. Or it could be a simple tropism.

      More complex brains may not make more complex decisions, but they coordinate more complex kinds of movement.

      At some point in evolution, brains started rewiring themselves to cope with changing conditions.

      None of this is counter-deterministic, but it is emergent. It is not billiard ball determinism. Learning machines are unpredictable. Just as the future course of evolution is unpredictable, and for the same reason.

      • Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

        I find this a very insightful comment. The complexity of an emergent system does not in and of itself dispel predetermination. There are events we perceive as random.

        And there are future events, to your point, to which we can apply probabilities: an event with extremely low probability happens, or one with an extremely high probability does not, and our brains react very strongly with delight, fear, astonishment, what have you. Some people see a miracle, some people see a meaningless coincidence, and so on.

        Back to the emergent system: if we are uncertain about a future outcome, that means we don’t have all of the affecting data. Given unlimited time and computing resources, one could completely rewind a past event – the flip of a coin or roll of dice – and if every force acting on the bodies could be resolved, the outcome could be reproduced. But we don’t have unlimited time and resources, and the universe is unknowably vast and complex (as may be our brains), so we can model neither the past nor the future perfectly.

        So this is why I say future probability gives us the illusion that a past event “could have happened another way.” If it were possible for a past event to have gone another way, then we would have examples of past events which did happen in a way other than they did – and of course that is impossible. “If only x hadn’t done y then z would not have occurred.” Well, x did do y, so z had to occur.

        My point is not that this line of thinking proves incompatible determinism, but I do think it is an idea that has to be falsified by compatibalists, if not by libertarian free will people. It may be a case of a disprovable negative, but then that is exactly the point: all observable, measurable, repeatable phenomena – including biological ones – are consistent with predetermination, so where is the evidence for an invisible “free will” sauce?

    • darrelle
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      No reason deterrents should not be affective. Deterrents are an “environmental factor,” an input if you will, affecting the output of the agent. Just like all other environmental factors.

      Of course, that is speaking very generally. To find out what specific types of deterrents are reasonably affective in various contexts can only be reasonably determined by trial and error, i.e. something resembling the scientific process. And even once that is determined you have to decide (heh) whether the deterrent you’ve found to be affective meets whatever ethical standards you have.

      • Posted January 13, 2015 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

        ok, that’s twice, so I will gently correct you. The word you want there is “effective,” not “affective” (which I don’t think is a word).

        • darrelle
          Posted January 13, 2015 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

          You mean I invented a new word? Wait till I tell my wife!

          • darrelle
            Posted January 13, 2015 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

            Damn. I didn’t. You are correct that I egregiously used the wrong word, but affective is indeed already a word.

            • Posted January 13, 2015 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

              Actually, I knew that (eg. Seasonal Affective Disorder), but I was led astray by a squiggly red line that appears underneath the word each time I type it. Some should tell Spell Checker.

              • BillyJoe
                Posted January 13, 2015 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

                The correcter stands corrected 🙂

  12. Posted January 13, 2015 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    http://anti-theism.co.uk/determinism.html My view on the matter is somewere in the middle, though, like you said, most of the time the rift is in the semantic definition of ‘free will’ – though – the same could be said for Sam Harris’s take on ‘morality’.

  13. Sastra
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    That’s because their notion of “free will” is a philosophical one, impervious to scientific refutation. So why bother going after the science?

    My compatibilist definition of ‘free will’ is a description of what we do within a deterministic framework. Compatibilism can indeed be scientifically falsified — if libertarian contra-causal dualism were scientifically demonstrated.

    There is no difference, I think, in being coerced by threats or social pressure, and being coerced by our neurons, which in effect are billions of tiny guns pointed at our decision.

    So “we” are being coerced by our neurons? This sure sounds like implicit dualism. The ghost in the machine: “It’s not my fault, it was my brain! It was my brain and body and background and genes and situation! Not me!”

    I remember a quote I read somewhere: “Tell me — where does the universe end and you begin?”

    If that can’t be answered in dualistic terms then why are you using dualistic language and assumptions here? I don’t think the compatibilists are acting like theologians.

    Of course there is a difference in those two situations above, in degree if not kind. And that distinction makes a difference to us.

    Incompatibilism is like agreeing that life can have no meaning without God. It allows the enemy to define what counts as “real.”

    • Posted January 13, 2015 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      I’m not sure the argument is necessarily over what is “real,” but over the definition and implications of “fault.”

      “It was my brain and body and background and genes and situation!” is a credible statement of a person’s state; “Not me!” is, I think you are saying, a dualistic dodge, and I agree. What are we but our brain, body, background, genes, and situation? That is the definition of me!

      But if we boil away the notion of freedom to choose otherwise, we may be left with a more effective way of designing and applying consequences and rewards focused on changing whether a person will continue to act a certain way, and on signalling to others that acting and behaving a certain way will result in those consequences and rewards.

      I understand how it might feel like letting miscreants off the hook to accept their lack of free will, but then I also don’t see the point of treating people as if they have free will – and telling them they have it – when the evidence says otherwise.

      • Sastra
        Posted January 13, 2015 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

        I still don’t see that getting rid of indeterministic notions of contracausal free will would really make any significant difference in how we humans play out concepts like praise or blame. There are plenty of supernatural dualists who recognize and understand that a person’s brain, body, background, genes, and situation all come into play when deciding consequences and rewards. There are always mitigating circumstances and shades of gray in every situation, regardless of whether a person believes in libertarian free will, or compatibilism/determinism. Any pragmatic discussion which focused on the facts in this world — which is what pragmatic discussions do — would remain the same, I think.

        Dualism is not just wrong, its practical value appears empty to me.

    • Posted January 13, 2015 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

      “Compatibilism can indeed be scientifically falsified — if libertarian contra-causal dualism were scientifically demonstrated.”

      Well played. The way to disprove compatibilist free will is by proving libertarian free will. Heads I win; tails you lose! Free will is real either way, sucker!

      I don’t think that is a very effective way to counter Jerry’s argument that compatibilism is similar to Sophisticated Theology. Maybe if we just rename it Sophisticated Free Will (as opposed to Common or Naive or Generic Free Will), we can all finally agree.

      • Sastra
        Posted January 13, 2015 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

        What is the distinction between free will and plain old ‘will?’ Do the hard determinists insist that we don’t have any, we make no choices, there is no distinction whatsoever between human beings and rocks? If so then they’re playing right into the hands of the theologians, who are smacking their lips with joy to see the straw man come to life.

        Compatibilism would only be similar to Sophisticated Theology if the theologians we’re talking about have thought their way into full-blown atheism and admit that “God” means “nature” and nothing but. But even then there’s a flaw in the analogy: the word “God” came out of religion.

        What we mean by “free will” (or “will”) did not. It comes out of experience. “Free will” (or “will”) is the experience of choice. Determinism is the explanation which allows us to understand it better, not explain it away.

        Consider this analogy: do you believe in love? Do you think that there’s something called ‘love’ which human beings feel and express towards one another? Does love exist?

        The supernaturalists say atheists can’t believe in love because Love is a magical spiritual essence. Or maybe it’s an energy, or a mysterious force, or something else Beyond the Natural World.

        The incompatibilists would agree that there is no such thing as love, it’s all only chemicals and we atheists ought to stop caring about things right now if we’re going to be consistent. The theologians are absolutely right. Let’s disillusion ourselves and throw out the concept along with the tainted word. Let’s give them what they want.

        The compatibilists agree that yes, it of course all ultimately reduces down to chemicals — but let’s be precise here. Love exists, sure, but it’s complicated. Dualism is simple and wrong.

        Asking “what would it take to convince you love isn’t real?” is a question which hasn’t paid attention to the claim.

        • Posted January 13, 2015 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

          So again I guess we’re just down to semantics. “Love” is a word we use to describe a particular kind (or actually set) of emotions. If love were defined as something magical, it would not be real. But it isn’t, so it is. Free will is defined as something magical by everyone except the compatibilists.

          “The incompatibilists would agree that there is no such thing as love, it’s all only chemicals and we atheists ought to stop caring about things right now if we’re going to be consistent.”

          Speak for yourself. We (incompatibilists) would not agree to that; if fact, I can’t make any sense out that statement at all. You sound like a religious person arguing that atheism necessarily implies nihilism.

          • Posted January 13, 2015 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

            OK, rereading I get your point about love and incompatibilists, but I don’t agree with it. I think most incompatibilists would say, “of course love exists, AND it is all just chemicals in the brain.” Your reply I guess would be to say something like, “So why can’t free will exist AND be all just chemicals in the brain?” The answer, as always, is semantics. It is commonly understood that love is an emotion, and emotions are caused by chemicals in the brain. It is commonly understood that free will implies a ghost in the machine doing magic. That’s where your analogy breaks down.

            • strongforce
              Posted January 13, 2015 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

              pacopicopiedra

              Two excellent and thoughtful responses to Sastra and compatibilists in general. I have yet to read/hear an adequate response to the points you made that other incompatibilists similarly make.

            • Sastra
              Posted January 14, 2015 at 10:24 am | Permalink

              I was trying to compare an incompatibilist position in regard to “free will” with a different incompatiblist position in regard to “love.” I’m sorry if I implied that someone who held one position would naturally hold the other. I am instead pointing out that they probably wouldn’t — and yet they are analogous.

              It is commonly understood that love is an emotion, and emotions are caused by chemicals in the brain. It is commonly understood that free will implies a ghost in the machine doing magic. That’s where your analogy breaks down.

              On the contrary, I think that both “love” and “free will” are deepities with a reasonable interpretation consistent with naturalism — and a spooky supernatural intuition. The “common understanding” of each goes in both directions.

              I think you are much too optimistic regarding how the average person (or the average religious person) categorizes “love” — or any other emotion which has been picked out as special or important and on a “higher” level. For many people (if not most) Love is intuitively considered to be a spiritual essence, a supernatural force which can’t ever be reduced to or understood as “chemicals in the brain.” Love = magic.

              Seriously. When believers say “God is Love” do you think they’re announcing they’re atheists? No. They’re connecting one essential Being to another essential being. They’re reaffirming the spiritual nature of both.

              Both love and free will are normal experiences which have supernatural explanations which contradict natural explanations. They also have natural explanations which contradict what people get from being guided by their instincts. Unlike terms like “spiritual” or “sacred,” they were not specifically created as religious concepts.

              The religious stole them, co-opted them into their spiritual mindset.

              I think the argument isn’t so much about semantics, but categories. Is “free will” more like “love” and “mind” — or is it more like “spiritual” and “sacred?”

        • Posted January 13, 2015 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

          I would argue — and I think you would agree with me — that, when people say they are exercising their “free will,” they are pointing to the decision-making process that involves the imagining of the outcomes of various choices and making the decision based on an analysis of what’s imagined. It even subjectively feels like Jerry’s “rewind the tape” definition.

          But the problem is twofold.

          First, nearly everybody would reject a suggestion that that decision-making process belongs as one of the definitions in the dictionary under the heading, “free will.” Yes, some here think it does belong and argue that the term should be “taken back,” but they’re a vanishingly small minority, not enough to get the attention of the usage panel for any dictionary.

          Second, all the definitions we do find in the dictionary and that people agree upon…well, they’re some combination of fantastic and incoherent.

          As such, my own position is that “free will” is meaningless, a married bachelor who lives death in Spartan luxury north of the North Pole. Whatever it is, whatever it’s supposed to be, whatever you think you want others to want it to be, it’s not.

          And, with that out of the way and disposed of, we can circle back to reality and address the questions of how people make decisions and what we can do to help people make better decisions. Because, really, that’s what it ultimately comes down to. Why inject magic soul faeries into the decision-making process? Why invent reasons people should want to make better decisions? Why not just let reality be what it actually is?

          b&

    • BillyJoe
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

      Our language is inherently dualist. Every time we use a pronoun (like I’ve just done three times in this short sentence), we are using dualist language. That same paragraph could have been phrased in non-dualist language, but it would have been twice as long and half as comprehensible.

  14. Posted January 13, 2015 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Let me address some of your claims:

    Many incompatibilists, including me, find the notion of “moral responsibility” meaningless in a world where one can’t choose to behave one way versus another.

    And many compatibilists are also compatibilists about power, and hold that even if determinism is true, one can choose to behave in that way, not the other.

    My notion of “moral action” is simply “an action that helps society function harmoniously or increases well-being.”

    But is “harmoniously” not a moral term?
    In any case, that raises the issue of relativism:
    For example, Badawi was given 50 lashes. Let’s say someone in Saudi Arabia claims for his immoral actions, he deserved the punishment. They also say that the actions of those who punish him are morally good.
    Would you say that all of those claims are mistaken?
    If so, do you think that when they say “immoral”, or “morally good” (if they’re speaking in English, or whatever words they use in Arabic that are usually translated as “immoral” or “morally good”), they mean the same you mean by those words (if anything).

    Both redefine old notions (Biblical literalism or contracausal free will) and claim nobody believes in them any more. Like scripture is for Sophisticated Theologians™, so is free will for compatibilists: both have become metaphors for more recent notions.

    Do you have any evidence that compatibilist philosophers make such claims?

    One of the common disagreements between compatibilists and incompatibilists is about the meaning of the expression “free will”, in its colloquial sense. But compatibilists do not usually claim that no one believes in contra-causal free will, but rather, that the meaning of the common expression “free will” – the one that matters in the context of moral responsibility (though some philosophers argue that there can be moral responsibility even without free will) – does not commit us to contra-causal free will.

    The definitions of free will, like that of Sophisticated Gods, are concocted post facto, after compatibilists have decided in advance that their task is not to find the truth, but to buttress a conclusion they want to reach (i.e., we have free will)

    So you claim. But many incompatibilists, like me, disagree. In fact, many of us do not give a definition of “free will”, but rather, claim that the expression, as used colloquially in the relevant contexts, does not commit the person who uses it to claim free will (e.g., I write this post of my own free will) to the existence of any contra-causal stuff.
    Most philosophers actually agree with that.

    In fact, you make a claim about the psychology of compatibilists that is both unwarranted and false, namely that “compatibilists have decided in advance that their task is not to find the truth, but to buttress a conclusion they want to reach”. That’s simply not true, and you have no good reason to impute such intentions to us.

    Both set humans aside as special—different from other animals (soul or free will)

    That is not true. There are no souls, and as for free will, I hold it’s a matter of degree. Change was gradual. It’s not that one day, a Homo Erectus woke up and behold, she had free will but no other entity had had it before.

    In both cases academic doyens (theologians or philosophers) feel that it’s dangerous for the public to know the truth (about God or about determinism).

    Do you have any evidence that all compatibilist philosophers believe that?
    Do you have any evidence that most compatibilist philosophers believe that?
    Do you have any evidence that anything by a minuscule proportion of compatibilist philosophers believe that?
    Can you at least provide one example of a compatibilist philosopher who believe that?

    Incidentally, do you believe determinism is true?

    Both groups need some sense of free will to “sustain our sense of moral responsibility”

    Well, as long as free will is required for moral responsibility (by the usual meaning of the terms), then it’s needed.

    There are as many versions of compatibilism as there are conceptions of God (and no general agreement on them), so advocates can always say to critics, “you’re not attacking the best argument.”

    I don’t know about the numbers (could you provide evidence about the number of versions), but someone might as well say the same with regard to theories that claim there is no free will.
    Do you have evidence that the number of versions of compatibilism is greater than the number of versions of theories that deny free will?

    Both dismiss science as either irrelevant or inferior to philosophy for solving the Big Question at hand (free will or the existence of God).

    When it comes to the ontological commitments of the expression “free will” (e.g., whether it demands contracausal stuff) conceptual analysis is required; an empirical approach is more difficult perhaps, though some experimental philosophers are working on it. If that does not count as science but philosophy, then philosophy is the relevant tool, not science. If it counts as science (at least, the empirical approach), then science can help too. But in any case, it’s an empirical approach to figuring out what people mean by the words, not neuroscience.

    Still, neuroscience might pose a challenge if they find that some conditions for free will (indeterminism is not one such condition, according to us compatibilists) are not met. But conceptual analysis is required to figure out what the conditions are.

    • darrelle
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      “Can you at least provide one example of a compatibilist philosopher who believe that?”

      It is not my intent to engage your arguments, but I thought I would just provide some requested information.

      Dan Dennett is one such compatibilist philospher who has explicitly stated just that. I don’t know if his view on that has changed, or not.

      • Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

        Okay, thanks.

        That would be one. It would still not justify a general claim against compatibilist philosophers.

        Do you have a reference, so that I can assess Dennett’s claim?

        • darrelle
          Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

          A couple of quotes from this article.

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

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

          Copied from a comment by Jerry in an older post where he provided the reference. In other words, Jerry did all the work.

          • Posted January 13, 2015 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

            Dennett is not saying that if it’s dangerous for the public to know the truth about determinism (whatever that might be), but rather, that there will be negative consequences if the the false doctrine that free will is an illusion spreads.

            • darrelle
              Posted January 13, 2015 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

              I am not sure where you are going with that, but not being able to deal with determinism being true, and not being able to deal with not having Free Will are exactly the same thing. Determinism being true means that Free Will is invalid. And as has been pointed out endlessly, Free Will here means the dualistic contra-causal Free Will that is so important to religion.

              And Dennett knows that. And one of his motivations for spending his time on the question of Free Will, and for formulating his concept of “the only kind of Free Will worth having” is that he fears what may happen to society if large numbers of people have their belief in Free Will taken from them. He has said just that more than once, very clearly.

              Your statement that Free Will is a false doctrine kind of spoils the whole argument doesn’t it? If you have decided not to accept the concept of Free Will the various people being quoted are referring to in the statements they have made, then what is the point?

              • darrelle
                Posted January 13, 2015 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

                Pardon, that last paragraph was supposed to read as follows.

                Your statement that the doctrine “Free Will is an illusion” is false kind of spoils the whole argument doesn’t it? If you have decided not to accept the concept of Free Will the various people being quoted are referring to in the statements they have made, then what is the point?

              • Posted January 13, 2015 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

                Sorry, I hadn’t seen this clarification before I posted, but in any case, that does not help your case, because I never said or suggested that free will is an illusion – just the opposite. (see my previous reply to you for details).

              • Posted January 13, 2015 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

                I will leave aside the fact that there seems to be no sufficient reason to believe determinism is true aside for now, and focus on your other claims.

                I am not sure where you are going with that, but not being able to deal with determinism being true, and not being able to deal with not having Free Will are exactly the same thing.

                So you claim, and so clams Jerry. Dennett denies that, and so do I.

                Determinism being true means that Free Will is invalid.

                Again, so you claim. Dennett denies it, and so do I.

                And as has been pointed out endlessly, Free Will here means the dualistic contra-causal Free Will that is so important to religion.

                No, it does not mean that.
                In the context of the accusation that Dennett believes that it’s dangerous for the public to know the truth about determinism, what matters is what Dennett means by his words, since we’re talking about Dennett’s beliefs.

                If you mean contra-causal free will, then your accusation against Dennett is false.
                Indeed, Dennett does not believe nor claim nor suggest that it’s dangerous for the public to know that there is no contra-causal free will. In fact, as the link I posted shows (but you can find many other sources, if you so choose and have the time), Dennett rejects such views, and in fact, he publicly argues that such contra-causal free will neither exists nor would it be any sort of freedom worth having.

                And Dennett knows that. And one of his motivations for spending his time on the question of Free Will, and for formulating his concept of “the only kind of Free Will worth having” is that he fears what may happen to society if large numbers of people have their belief in Free Will taken from them. He has said just that more than once, very clearly.

                No, he has not. You are misrepresenting Dennett’s words.

                He is convinced that if people believed there is no free will in the relevant sense of the words, which is the one that matters in the context of moral responsibility, then that would be a problem for society, and he has indicated so. But he clearly claims and argues that the relevant sense of the words is not the contracausal sense.

                Your statement that Free Will is a false doctrine kind of spoils the whole argument doesn’t it? If you have decided not to accept the concept of Free Will the various people being quoted are referring to in the statements they have made, then what is the point?

                Now you are misrepresenting my words too. Please, read my statements (and Dennett’s) more carefully.

                I neither capitalized the expression “free will”, nor stated that free will is a false doctrine.
                Instead, I said that the doctrine that free will is an illusion is a false doctrine, while making it clear that I’m a compatibilist, that we do act of our own free will, that we do have free will in the morally relevant sense of the term, etc.

              • darrelle
                Posted January 13, 2015 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

                Apparently, you misunderstand what Dennett means. If you don’t accept determinism, then you don’t understand or accept Dennett’s thoughts on this issue, or compatibilism, or incompatibilism. Given that Jerry has discussed these issues in person face to face with Dennett, at length, I’m going to favor his understanding of Dennett on this over yours. Not to mention my personal experience with listening to the man speak numerous times on these issues, and reading much of what he has written on these issues, and discussing with many other people that have done similar, many times.

                You seem to be getting upset, and I am sorry about that, but it is not warranted.

              • Posted January 13, 2015 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

                No, you misunderstood what Dennett’s means – which I already explained -, and whether I agree with all of Dennett’s points is immaterial.
                As for your argument from authority, I’m sorry, but Jerry is no authority on this matter – I already posted a reply to his post earlier -, and in any case, it should be obvious by now that my interpretation of Dennett’s relevant points is correct – he’s pretty clear about that.

                That said, I’ve explained my points on the matter clearly enough, so I guess we’ll just disagree.

              • Vaal
                Posted January 13, 2015 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

                darrelle,

                angramainyu2014 is right, you are getting Dennet completely wrong here.

                Jerry’s quote implicated compatibilists philosophers as thinking it dangerous that the public know the truth about DETERMINISM.

                The quote you provided has Dennett expressing concern about people adopting a doctrine of FREE WILL being an illusion.

                Given the WHOLE CONTEXT of compatibilism, and everything Dennett argues for, it could not be more erroneous to argue as that “the truth about determinism” and “free will” are EQUIVALENT in Dennett’s argument! That is getting things precisely backward.

                He spends books arguing against the claim you make that “Determinism being true means that Free Will is invalid.” If you disagree with the compatibilist arguments, it’s still no matter to the charge you are trying to support. YOU may see determinism as equivalent to “No Free Will” but Dennett does not, and he writes whole books giving his reasons why determinism does not negate free will, hence they are not equivalent in his view. He’s not worrying about, as Jerry put it, “the truth about determinism” because Dennett thinks the truth about determinism not only doesn’t negate free will – it’s actually NECESSARY for “the type of free will worth caring about.” (And by “the type of free will worth caring about” he’s not just making up some new things to care about – he’s talking about the ACTUAL ISSUES people care about, and worry about when thinking of free will).

                Yes Dennett thinks that telling everyone we have no free will has some liabilities we ought to worry about. But it isn’t a remotely fair reading of Dennett to say THAT is why he argues that free will exists. That’s as unfair and shallow a take on Dennett as when theists say of Hitchens “Hitchens clearly thinks promulgating religion has bad effects in society – so THAT must be why he rejects Christianity.”
                No, against such silly charges Hitchens continually said (paraphrasing): “My objections to Christianity are twofold: it’s false, and also BELIEF in that error poses deep liabilities for societies and moral reasoning.”

                Same with Dennett. He thinks it’s false that determinism negates free will, but also that perpetuating the ERROR that it does has liabilities.

                It would be unfair to Dennett to keep on with the false inferences about his motivations as it would be to Hitchens about his.

                I’m frankly amazed this has to be pointed out yet again, and it’s dismaying to see Dennett’s motivations so continually misrepresented.

              • darrelle
                Posted January 13, 2015 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

                Vaal,

                I don’t know if you have misread or misinterpreted me or if you are being deliberately disingenuous. As you so often do you are playing fast and loose with which concept of free will you are talking about at any given moment, and ignoring the relevant ones as if they don’t exist. It really is time you got the various concepts of free will straight, especially when people have taken care numerous times to clarify.

                Of course Dan Dennett thinks determinism doesn’t mean free will is invalid, if the particular concept of free will in question is the one that he favors. I made that abundantly clear. Go read what I have written again.

                I have also said that Dan Dennett is fully aware that his concept of free will specifically contradicts the concept of free will that the very people he is worried about losing their way, hold dear, dualistic, contracausal free will.

                I have also said that Dennett has clearly stated that one of his reasons for holding his compatibilist position is that he is worried about what might happen to our society if people who believe in dualistic free will become convinced that it (dualistic free will) doesn’t exsist.

                All of that is accurate. And, by the way, what are you banging on about what I may “see” regarding determinism and free will? Have you not read anything I’ve written? Do you think it is valid to misrepresent people like that to support your rants?

                Frankly I am amazed that you continue to make the same charges against those who you disagree with on these issues even though the same explanations and clarifications of how you have misconstrued key points have been made to you countless times.

              • Vaal
                Posted January 14, 2015 at 12:33 am | Permalink

                darrelle,

                To recap, Jerry wrote about philosophers promoting compatibilism: In both cases academic doyens (theologians or philosophers) feel that it’s dangerous for the public to know the truth (about God or ABOUT DETERMINISM).

                angramainyu2014, rightly recognizing that claim doesn’t make sense given the very concept of compatibilism, asked for an example of a compatibilist philosopher who believes that it’s dangerous for the public to know the truth about determinism.

                You replied:

                “Dan Dennett is one such compatibilist philospher who has explicitly stated just that.”

                And then you supplied a quote from Dan that did not, in fact, state that it was “dangerous for the public to know the truth about determinism.

                Not explicitly nor implicitly.

                This can not make any sense, given we know Dennett believes that the “truth about determinism” is that it doesn’t negate the type of free will that he thinks people actually find most important! And he has personally promulgated “the truth (as he sees it) about determinism” publicly, in his books on free will!

                So it’s simply the case, for all the reasons angramainyu2014 was pointing out to you (and I’ve re-enforced) that the quote is anything but in support of Jerry’s quoted description – at least as Jerry wrote it.

                When the error was pointed out, you then equated the “free will” you were talking bout to the magical contra-causal free will. But THAT version of free will is not the “compatibilist” free will under discussion here, and it’s not the version of free will Dennett was talking about in the very quote you gave!
                Clearly Dennett holds that it is dangerous to throw out the “free will” that he thinks actually exists and is of importance, NOT the magic version. So I’m sorry, you seem to be the one being less careful in switching between the two concepts.

                And this doesn’t help:

                “I have also said that Dennett has clearly stated that one of his reasons for holding his compatibilist position is that he is worried about what might happen to our society if people who believe in dualistic free will become convinced that it (dualistic free will) doesn’t exsist.”

                It’s not contra-causal free will he’s worried about dispelling. Obviously not, as Dennett has written books for the public dispelling just that type of free will! Rather, he’s worried about throwing away the “free will that exists” – he thinks that the subject of “free will” embodies concerns wider than mere contra-causality – and that this is true EVEN of people who think dualistically – and therefore saying “free will was an illusion” can cause people who haven’t thought about it carefully enough (e.g. much of the public) to think REAL choices and powers they have are untrue.

                Further, to be more precise about Dennett’s professed reasoning: Dennett’s reasons for “holding” the compabiliist position is that he thinks it’s “true” (or the most reasonable position to hold). His reason for *promulgating* compabilists theories of free will is both that it is true, and to counter the possible harms that might arise from incompitibilist theories taking hold.

                I, and angramainyu2014 , have just been pointing out the fact that the quote you posted didn’t support Jerry’s words, nor your own claim that Dennet explicitly supported Jerry’s words. That’s all.
                I’ve meant to deal only with what you wrote in reply to angramainyu2014 and did not try to represent whatever you wrote elsewhere.

                But since you are on to dismissing my replies as “rants” I suppose you are to receptive to these points, so I’ll just leave this post to (hopefully) clarify the issue for others.

              • darrelle
                Posted January 14, 2015 at 9:06 am | Permalink

                Vaal,

                I will try to briefly make a few points.

                1) You suggest that I “then say I was talking about cc free will.” As if I am changing the goal posts. That is incorrect. Go read what I’ve said again. Unlike you in all of these discussions I acknowledge the term free will to mean what the relevant person or people that are the subject at the given moment mean by it, not what I think free will actually is. I was clear, and unchanging, from the beginning what concept of free will was meant each time I used it. You routinely ignore that kind of thing in all of these conversations.

                2)

                “This can not make any sense, given we know Dennett believes that the “truth about determinism” is that it doesn’t negate the type of free will that he thinks people actually find most important!

                This, to my mind, is a key difference between us. I don’t agree with your interpretation. What we know about Dan’s views on this is that he thinks determinism doesn’t negate the type of free will that actually exists. You continually argue that nearly everybody (as in the average person) is thinking of the mundane “I signed the contract of my own free will” type of free will almost exclusively and that belief in cc free will is so rare that it is not relevant to these issue. And that is clearly a bogus claim when the subject is specifically people who do believe in cc free will.

                Clearly, when Dan says “we have the only kind of free will worth having,” it is implicit that he understands and believes that there are people who don’t believe in deterministic free will, and that he is directly referring to those people. And it is pretty darn clear that those are the same people he is referring to when he expresses concern about the ramifications of telling people that the free will they believe in doesn’t exist. That would be cc free will.

                Jerry’s comment that started all this is clear and accurate. Dan clearly has expressed concern that if the public understands what determinism implies about the cc free will that they believe in that bad things could happen, and therefore instead of explaining how their concept of free will is bogus we should instead try to convince them of what we actually seem to have, and to continue to call that free will. (Which, contrary to what you seem to think my views are, I am fine with as long as all the terms are clearly stated, and it is acknowledged that we are talking about different labels for the same phenomenon / concepts. Which I have stated several times.) I am somewhat baffled at how hard some people try to rationalize that away.

                “It’s not contra-causal free will he’s worried about dispelling. Obviously not, as Dennett has written books for the public dispelling just that type of free will! Rather, he’s worried about throwing away the “free will that exists” – he thinks that the subject of “free will” embodies concerns wider than mere contra-causality – and that this is true EVEN of people who think dualistically – and therefore saying “free will was an illusion” can cause people who haven’t thought about it carefully enough (e.g. much of the public) to think REAL choices and powers they have are untrue.”

                This is a distinction without a difference, and in any case does not refute or otherwise affect what I have said. With the exception of the first two sentences it is merely a rephrasing of what I have said. And, obviously yes. That is one of the reasons he wrote that book, to convince people that it is OK to give up their notions of magical free will and accept what we actually seem to have.

                Well, that was not very short. I’m out for this round. Trying to keep da roolz in mind. Be well.

            • StephenLawrence
              Posted January 17, 2015 at 4:56 am | Permalink

              “that there will be negative consequences if the the false doctrine that free will is an illusion spreads.”

              There is a free will illusion which comes from the combination of CHDO in the actual situation and the choice being “up to us”. It is positive for people to disbelieve in that, Dennett agrees on that point.

              He sees the best way to deal with that is to get people to see what the free will they actually sometimes have is.

              I think we need people denying the illusory version too.

      • Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

        I’ve not been able to find a quote.

        On the other hand, what I know about Dennett goes in the opposite direction. For example, you can take a look at the following interview: http://reason.com/archives/2003/05/01/pulling-our-own-strings/4

        He clearly rejects some suggestions that it would be dangerous if the general public believed what he does. That’s only one example.

        The evidence I have so far is strongly against your claim about Dennett, but you can always post a link (quoting Dennett) in support of it, if there is one.

        At any rate, it does not have to be Dennett. Do you have any evidence of a single compatibilist philosopher who holds that it’s dangerous for the public to know the truth?

        • darrelle
          Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

          Yes, yes I do.

        • peepuk
          Posted January 13, 2015 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

          “If nobody is responsible, not really, then not only should the prisons be emptied, but no contract is valid, mortgages should be abolished, and we can never hold anybody to account for anything they do. Preserving “law and order” without a concept of real responsibility is a daunting task.”

          From :
          http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/reflections-on-free-will

          • Posted January 13, 2015 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

            If you read the full paragraph you quoted, you can tell that he’s arguing that the doctrine that free will is an illusion would have some negative consequences, if spread. But that’s a false doctrine – that is what Dennett holds, and so do I.

            So, he’s not saying that there would be negative consequences if the public found out the truth about determinism (whatever that truth might be), but rather, that there would be negative consequences if many people believed the false doctrine that free will is an illusion.

            • darrelle
              Posted January 13, 2015 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

              You don’t understand Dennett on this. Dennett clearly and explicity agrees and understands that the concepts of free will that incompatibilist’s say are an illusion are those concepts that include dualism and contracausal free will, and Dennett agrees that those concepts of free will are invalid.

              He wrote an entire book, and many essays and articles, to explain a different concept of free will that is explicitly based on determinism.

              His position is that rather than tell people who believe in those dualistic and contracausal concepts of free will that it doesn’t exist, period, that instead they should be told about his (not exclusive to him of course) concept of free will which just happens to explicitly refute theirs. Because he is worried what the little people will do if you take their special magicalness away from them.

              • BillyJoe
                Posted January 13, 2015 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

                You are absolutely correct, Darelle. Dennett fears the result of public coming to believe that there is no freewill, so he has come up with a version that does exist. Unfortuntely, as you say, that is not exactly what the public mean by freewill (in the sense of “do you have freewill”, not “did you sign this document of your own freewill”).

        • Posted January 13, 2015 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

          I have already put up two quotes from Dennett in which he says that it’s dangerous for people to believe that they are biochemical puppets. Go here for the quotes and link. Frankly, I’m offended when you claim that I’m just making stuff up. I expect that you will now admit you were wrong when you said that “I can always posting a link, “if there is one.”

          That’s just plain rude.

    • eric
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      In fact, many of us do not give a definition of “free will”, but rather, claim that the expression, as used colloquially in the relevant contexts, does not commit the person who uses it to claim free will (e.g., I write this post of my own free will) to the existence of any contra-causal stuff.
      Most philosophers actually agree with that.

      Well, but “as used colloquially in the relevant contexts” is really key, isn’t it? If someone asks you if you wrote your post of your own free will, feel free to respond yes. We will all know what you meant. But if someone asks you “do you believe humans have free will,” then in that context a “yes” answer is probably going to be interpreted as a commitment to some contra-causal stuff. So for the sake of clear communication and not deceiving your audience, the compatibilist should say “no” in that context. Do you agree? If not, why not?

      Its sort of like taking a survey, and coming across some question which is not parsed the way you would like to to be parsed and therefore allows no answer that perfectly fits your true response. If you want to communicate what you think (as opposed to giving a ‘protest the survey’ response), you deal with that situation by giving the answer that best reflects your position; that is the closest to your true response. Example: I don’t “believe” in evolution, I know it to be true, but okay yeah, for the sake of a survey I’ll answer yes to ‘do I believe evolution’ because the surveyors are trying to distinguish people who accept it from those who don’t. The same thing is going on with the “do you believe humans have free will” question. Neither a yes or no may fit the compatibilist belief. But in terms of colloquial use and relevant context, a “no” is far closer to your actual belief than a “yes.”

      • Posted January 13, 2015 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

        Well, but “as used colloquially in the relevant contexts” is really key, isn’t it? If someone asks you if you wrote your post of your own free will, feel free to respond yes. We will all know what you meant. But if someone asks you “do you believe humans have free will,” then in that context a “yes” answer is probably going to be interpreted as a commitment to some contra-causal stuff. So for the sake of clear communication and not deceiving your audience, the compatibilist should say “no” in that context. Do you agree? If not, why not?

        No, I disagree, because I don’t agree it will be interpreted in that way. Some people will interpret it in that way. Some people won’t.
        A more clear reply – which might or might not be required, depending on context – would be: “Yes, I believe in free will. For example, I’m here, answering your questions of my own free will. I don’t believe in any sort of contra-causal stuff, or anything like it. Free will is compatible with determinism. Libertarians are mistaken about the meaning of ‘free will'”.

        But the context in which the matter is being discussed is that which is relevant to morality (see Jerry’s denial of moral responsibility, or that there is immoral behavior). According to such view, Islamic State members who attack a village, murder the men and boys and some women, kidnap the rest, rape them, etc., do not behave immorally. But they acted of their own free will, they behaved horribly immorally, and they deserve to be punished (even if most won’t be). The view espoused by some scientists – and opposed by Dennett and others – denies those moral assessments.

        • eric
          Posted January 13, 2015 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

          No, I disagree, because I don’t agree it will be interpreted in that way. Some people will interpret it in that way. Some people won’t.

          The PEW survey of religious belief of 2008 covered this quite extensively. About three quarters of the US population believes in an afterlife. Gallup data, although its older, confirms this; about 70-80% of people believe in heaven and/or hell, and about three quarters of of the population believing in at least one supernatural thing (like OBEs and ghosts).

          Now look, if you know that 3/4 of your audience is thinking dualistic free will and souls when you use the term ‘free will,’ then its incumbent on you to clarify what you mean by it. It is not incumbent on the majority to accept your idiosyncratic definition of the term.

          But the context in which the matter is being discussed is that which is relevant to morality (see Jerry’s denial of moral responsibility, or that there is immoral behavior). According to such view, Islamic State members who attack a village, murder the men and boys and some women, kidnap the rest, rape them, etc., do not behave immorally. But they acted of their own free will, they behaved horribly immorally, and they deserve to be punished (even if most won’t be).

          The above is a pretty good example of why compatibilist usage of the term ‘free will’ can be confusing and muddy the waters. As a compatibilist, and as I understand the compatibilist position you do not believe that people make moral choices either, because you agree with the full-on determinists that people don’t make any sort of free choice in the first place. Right? But by using the term ‘free will’ to describe your position, you seem to either have confused yourself about this, or you’re using the term to try and sneak moral choice back into your fully deterministic framework.

          • Posted January 13, 2015 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

            The PEW survey of religious belief of 2008 covered this quite extensively. About three quarters of the US population believes in an afterlife. Gallup data, although its older, confirms this; about 70-80% of people believe in heaven and/or hell, and about three quarters of of the population believing in at least one supernatural thing (like OBEs and ghosts).

            Now look, if you know that 3/4 of your audience is thinking dualistic free will and souls when you use the term ‘free will,’ then its incumbent on you to clarify what you mean by it. It is not incumbent on the majority to accept your idiosyncratic definition of the term.

            No, the fact that the majority of people believe in an afterlife does not imply or provide evidence that their use of the term “free will” in the expressions that are relevant (namely, whether we can act of our own free will) requires any contra-causal stuff.

            For that matter, most people in the US believe that Yahweh exists and gives us commands, but that’s not a good reason to suspect that their belief about Yahweh enter the meaning of the words when they say “moral obligation”, and most people in the US may well believe that Yahweh is somehow the origin of reason (!), but they don’t include claims about Yahweh in the meaning of the word “reason”, and so on.

            The above is a pretty good example of why compatibilist usage of the term ‘free will’ can be confusing and muddy the waters. As a compatibilist, and as I understand the compatibilist position you do not believe that people make moral choices either, because you agree with the full-on determinists that people don’t make any sort of free choice in the first place. Right?

            No, completely wrong.
            While I take no stance on whether determinism is true, I do take a stance that we don’t need indeterminism to make choices. In fact, the word “choice” in its usual sense (and, indeed, in the sense that is relevant for morality) does not contain any implications regarding determinism or indeterminism.
            I do believe people make choices, and that includes morally relevant choices. The members of IS make horribly immoral choices all the time, regardless of whether the universe is deterministic.

            But by using the term ‘free will’ to describe your position, you seem to either have confused yourself about this, or you’re using the term to try and sneak moral choice back into your fully deterministic framework.

            I’m not a determinist, or an indeterminist (I take no stance on that), but that’s not the point. I hold that we make choices regardless of whether determinism is true. That is the view of many, actually most compatibilists if not all.

            By the way, it’s clear you are not familiar with the views of compatibilist philosophers (I’m not a philosopher, but I am reasonably familiar with that). I would suggest you take a look at what they say before criticizing, because otherwise you end up misrepresenting other people’s views.

        • darrelle
          Posted January 13, 2015 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

          In addition to what Eric said, I am not sure you quite understand the typical incompatibilist position. Regarding your example scenario, compatibilists and incompatibilists would agree not only that the decisions made by those IS members where fully deterministic, i.e. they could not have chosen other than they did, they would also agree that they should be held responsible for their actions.

          The only difference is that the compatibilists would likely prefer to use the term “morally responsible” and would contend that the concept is of benefit, while incompatibilist would say that the concept of moral responsibility is unwarranted, perhaps inhumane, unnecessary, and that responsibility by itself is sufficient.

          The two positions are both concerned with and motivated to figuring out the pragmatically best ways to go about creating societies that encourage the best outcomes possible for the most people possible, given our best understanding of the best evidence available.

          • Posted January 13, 2015 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

            In addition to what Eric said, I am not sure you quite understand the typical incompatibilist position. Regarding your example scenario, compatibilists and incompatibilists would agree not only that the decisions made by those IS members where fully deterministic, i.e. they could not have chosen other than they did, they would also agree that they should be held responsible for their actions.

            No, that’s not true.
            Compatibilists may or may not believe in determinism. I, for example, do not believe that determinism is true, and do not believe it’s false, either. I take no stance. I’m not a philosopher, but many compatibilist philosophers take no stance, either.

            Moreover, several compatibilists philosophers (and me too) are also compatibilists about choices and the relevant sense of “could”, and hold that IS members could have chosen other than they did, even if determinism is true.

            On the other hand, incompatibilists may or may not believe that there is free will and/or that there is moral responsibility. Different philosophers hold different views.

            <blockquote<
            The only difference is that the compatibilists would likely prefer to use the term “morally responsible” and would contend that the concept is of benefit, while incompatibilist would say that the concept of moral responsibility is unwarranted, perhaps inhumane, unnecessary, and that responsibility by itself is sufficient.
            No, you seem to be conflating “incompatibilist” with some specific form of free will denialism.
            By the way, is “inhumane” morally wrong?

            The two positions are both concerned with and motivated to figuring out the pragmatically best ways to go about creating societies that encourage the best outcomes possible for the most people possible, given our best understanding of the best evidence available.

            Motivations depend on the person. One motivation is to prevent false doctrines from spreading, or to figure out the truth.

            But that aside, one of Dennett’s claims is that once people give up on immorality, moral obligation, moral responsibility, free will, blame, etc., chances are bad things will happen. At least, clearly some bad things will happen.

            • darrelle
              Posted January 13, 2015 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

              “No, that’s not true.
              Compatibilists may or may not believe in determinism.

              Actually it is. I am pretty sure this won’t get through but I’ll give it a shot.

              Compatibilism is the lable for the position that free will is compatible with determinism.

              Incompatibilism is the lable for the position that free will is not compatible with determinism.

              I did not make those definitions up. They are not my interpretation of what people claiming those positions have said about free will. Those are the purposefully chosen lables created and used by the disciplines, namely philosophers, that do formal work on these issues. Those are the definitions that all the people claiming to be one or the other in this conversation know and accept. They are the definitions that Dan Dennett knows and accepts. That is not authority, that is convention.

              • Daniel
                Posted January 13, 2015 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

                Sorry angramainyu2014, but I’m pretty sure that darrelle has you bang to rights on that one.

                The sense in which darrelle is using the terms is the sense in which I have always understood and used them.

                I’m no expert myself, just a single data-point. Still, take that for whatever it’s worth to you.

              • Posted January 13, 2015 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

                Actually it is. I am pretty sure this won’t get through but I’ll give it a shot.

                Actually, I know compatibilism is the position that free will is compatible with determinism. It does not entail that determinism is true. There are compatibilists who do not take a stance on whether determinism is true. You earlier claimed that

                I also know that incompatibilism is the position that free will is incompatible with determinism. It does not take a stance on whether determinism is true. There are incompatibilists who believe determinism is true, and deny that there is free will. There are incompatibilists who believe that determinism is false, and assert that there is free will. There are other alternatives.

                Now, the post of mine you’re now replying to is a reply to your earlier post, in which you claimed:

                Regarding your example scenario, compatibilists and incompatibilists would agree not only that the decisions made by those IS members where fully deterministic, i.e. they could not have chosen other than they did, they would also agree that they should be held responsible for their actions.

                However, you made a number of false claims in that paragraph:

                a. It is not true that all compatibilists would agree that the decisions were fully deterministic. Some would agree, some would not.
                b. It is not true that all incompatibilists would agree that the decisions were fully deterministic. Some would agree, some would not. Most probably would not.
                c. It is not true that all compatibilists would agree that IS members could not have chosen otherwise. Some would agree, some would not. Most probably would not.
                d. It is not true that all incompatibilists would agree that IS members could not have chosen otherwise. Some would agree, some would not. Most probably would not.

                I recommend to take a look at the blog “Flickers of Freedom”, where you can find philosophers who defend different views. Also, recently, a scientist – Peter Tsé – posted over there. He is an incompatibilist who assert that determinism is false, and that there is free will.

                Even better, you might want to read a few papers of these matters.

                I did not make those definitions up. They are not my interpretation of what people claiming those positions have said about free will. Those are the purposefully chosen lables created and used by the disciplines, namely philosophers, that do formal work on these issues. Those are the definitions that all the people claiming to be one or the other in this conversation know and accept. They are the definitions that Dan Dennett knows and accepts. That is not authority, that is convention.

                Yes, I know all of that. It’s not an objection to anything I said, though I get it’s an objection to something you mistakenly believe I said.

                Your authority claim was the one about choosing Jerry’s interpretation of Dennett (whatever that is) over mine (which is correct, as it should be clear by now).

              • darrelle
                Posted January 13, 2015 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

                Well, in your own mind. Carry on.

              • Posted January 13, 2015 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

                As a starting point, I would recommend reading the SEP article on compatibilism (
                http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/index.html ), where you will find further links.

            • eric
              Posted January 13, 2015 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

              I will keep this short: I agree with Darelle practically across the board. It is clear to me that you are right about one thing, which is that people who call themselves compatibilists are not all determinists, because you call yourself one and don’t believe determinism to be true. Outside of that, I think you are trying to take a position that makes no rational sense. You think free will is compatible with determinism, but don’t think determinism is right. Huh? You think determinism is fully consistent with the description of people as ‘making moral choices.’ Huh? Those views might technically not be contradictory, but they don’t make any sort of sense to me, and I doubt very much that they describe the views of Coel and Sastra and the many other compatiblists who defend it here, because AIUI they are determinists.

              • eric
                Posted January 13, 2015 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

                And I forgot perhaps the biggest strange belief you have: you don’t think that people who believe they have a soul, and will go to an afterlife, where they will be judged by their choices, are dualists. You think they are all (most?) using the term “free will” in the way you use it.
                That seems to me, frankly, to be self-delusional in a way very similar to the way in which sophisticated theologians seem to think that everyone else agrees with their highly academic and near-deist conception of God. I doubt you can find a single other
                compatibilist poster here who uses the term the way you use it, to say nothing of a theist who believes in a soul, an afterlife, etc.

            • StephenLawrence
              Posted January 16, 2015 at 12:50 am | Permalink

              Angramainy,

              “Moreover, several compatibilists philosophers (and me too) are also compatibilists about choices and the relevant sense of “could”, and hold that IS members could have chosen other than they did, even if determinism is true.”

              That isn’t telling us what the relevant sense of “could” is and I think that does need clarifying in the light of your views on deserved punishment.

              The relevant sense of “could” is “could by virtue of the fact we “would have if..”. Fill in the relevant “if” here, often it’s “would have if we’d decided to”, or “would have if we’d wanted to”.

              What this boils down to is “would have if circumstances beyond our control had been appropriately different”.

              And if we assume determinism and follow it through to it’s logical conclusion, “would have if the big bang had banged slightly and appropriately differently”.

        • StephenLawrence
          Posted January 16, 2015 at 12:34 am | Permalink

          Angraimany,

          “But they acted of their own free will, they behaved horribly immorally, and they deserve to be punished (even if most won’t be).”

          What is the word “deserve” doing here?

          It looks very much like you think people can deserve to suffer.

          But that is based on Libertarian Free Will.

          They would have done otherwise if circumstances not of their choosing had been appropriately different. But unfortunately for them they weren’t.

          You would have done otherwise if circumstances not of your choosing had been appropriately different, you would have committed terrible acts. Fortunately for you they weren’t.

          Deserving to suffer does not fit with the fact that who gets to make which choices is a lottery.

      • BillyJoe
        Posted January 13, 2015 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

        I think you misunderstand the meaning of the word “believe”.
        You can believe in the truth of something based on the evidence in support it.
        You can believe in something based on the what you consider the inerant word of the bible.

  15. Posted January 13, 2015 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Philosopher Bruce Waller’s latest book, The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility (MIT Press), takes on the compatibilists very effectively, in particular Dennett. Like many skeptics about moral responsibility, Waller thinks it’s simply unfair to credit or blame people for their character, capacities and resultant behavior, given that they couldn’t have done otherwise in actual situations.

    However, like the compatibilists, Waller espouses a naturalized definition of free will. He just doesn’t think it justifies moral responsibility, which has considerable ramifications for beliefs, attitudes and policy in criminal and social justice.

  16. Diana MacPherson
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    I trepidatiously sub 😨

  17. Richard
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Interesting as always. I think Jerry along with Alex Rosenberg in his book “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality” and Sabine Hossenfelder in her entries on free will on her blog Backreaction have clinching arguments on the absence of free will. If you haven’t read the latter two they’re well worth reading.

  18. TJR
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    What We All Agree On:

    1. There is no evidence for dualist free will

    2. The rest is semantics, but not necessarily “mere” semantics

  19. Scientifik
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant article.

    What I would like to add to it is the often overlooked aspect of the role emotions play in our decision making process, as it affects both what we do and say.

    Consider this example. You’re are engaged in a conversion with your friend. You’re both exchanging your arguments, and everything goes apparently smoothly until your friend cites a certain study, and in your view completely misinterprets its findings. You act defensively and (since the best defense is offense 😉 as the old soccer saying goes ) you insult your friend for making such an obvious mistake.

    Some few hours later you find yourself reexamining the conversion, and find there in fact is something of value to the argument your friend put forward, and conclude that you SHOULDN’T HAVE USED those offensive words.

    It’s typical to think this way, as few people realize that you didn’t have a choice to say anything other at the time. You had to say what you said, given your character, your emotional involvement in the topic at hand, etc.

    That’s just one example of how emotions interfere with our decisions, but we must remember that emotions play a role in a whole host of our everyday decisions.

    PS I’ve heard somewhere that there was one patient who suffered an injury to his brain in the region responsible for emotions, and as an unexpected consequence of this accident his ability to make choices was greatly impaired, as he would from now on overanalyze every decision for hours.

    • eric
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      Your point ties in nicely with the Libet studies. To put it succintly, our decisions are coming from multiple parts of our brains, not just the forebrain where our consciousness (or the pattern of neural activity which makes up our consciousness) likely resides.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

      On the other hand, I have met people who get very emotional about their inability to make a decision.

  20. Edward Clint
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    I think the sticking point is not philosophers who dismiss science, but rather the intrinsic “folk” or lay nature of the topic.

    The true nature of our world often confounds our intuitions about it because we’ve evolved to understand the scale we live at, and our intuitions evolved because they are useful in the sense of producing valid inferences, not because they are correct and exhaustive descriptions of reality. To wit:

    We think of many objects as solid, things you can touch. But this is nonsense, all matter is 99+% empty space, and you can’t touch anything, you really just interact with the repulsive electromagnetic force.

    We intuit that there are mechanistic, inviolable rules about stuff in the universe like gravity pulls things together, time flows at a constant rate, physical dimensions of objects are constant. But this is all wrong. The “rules” appear to be probabilistic, a single particle with just one path can somehow interfere with itself, lengths contract and time (apparently) slows as you approach lightspeed.

    We believe and act as if many things are coherently defined, but almost nothing actually is. What exactly is a gene? How many base pairs are required? Does it have to be functional? If so, what makes it functional? Does it have to make an important protein/enzyme, or is “stop codon” sufficient? Exactly what is a species? I will not drone on further, but all of the classical definitions break down in the face of real examples that defy them.

    So it is, in my opinion, with free will. “Solid” objects, constant time flow, mechanistic newtonian physics, and things like genes existing are all quite real things that humans are damn good (in general) at reasoning about because our minds are evolved to do that. When we turn up the magnification of our investigative lens, we find out atoms are not “solid”. But this finding changes nothing about what “solid” means to us, save that we can understand in finer detail how and why objects have the physical features we pin the description “solid” to. It does not mean upon discovering the truth that we can walk through walls.

    Free will is like that. Science is telling us that when you turn up the magnification on the investigative lens, it isn’t there, just like “solid” matter isn’t there. But what is there, is the elements that give the universe the causal connections our intuitions about free will are based on. Namely, that humans are agents producing behavior based on durable cognitive features that are internal to that individual. Our intuition calls the will “free” because the internal cognitive features would be unobservable (directly) and probably too complicated to sort out, thus our conception of minds is partly that they are stochastic agents “free” because we (our ancestors) could not possibly sort out the causal connections.

    But as we get closer to being able to do that, our intuitive sense of what free will is collapses. Or, when we look at cognitively simpler and simpler animals, such as insects or the nematode C. Elegans, whose entire nervous system has been mapped, we know most or all of the important physical causal connections. However, it is not reasonable to define something as real or not real based purely on how elusive or obvious its nature seems to us.

    So solid objects exist at one scale, but not another. Free will exists at one scale, but not another.

    • Shea B
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      Very nice points! On the scale of lived human experience, the “illusion of free will” clearly goes part and parcel with our evolved brains (much like the illusion of the self or our tendency to give pattern/meaning/agency to EVERYTHING).

      • BillyJoe
        Posted January 13, 2015 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

        But that’s not what he said. He didn’t conclude that freewill is an illusion (as we both thought he would based on his arguments), he said freewill exists.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      Excellent point. As has been said, if something is 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.

      What it appears to be on the surface, however, may be the level we’re dealing with.

      • peepuk
        Posted January 13, 2015 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

        Distortions of reality are also reality?
        Reality consists of non physical things?
        How could that possibly work without being an illusion.

        • Sastra
          Posted January 14, 2015 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

          No, that’s not what I’m saying. You’re still putting free will at odds with determinism. Free will is real: the belief that it obviously involves some spooky supernatural elements is the illusion.

          “Mind” as a ghost in the machine is an illusion. That doesn’t mean that minds aren’t real.

          • peepuk
            Posted January 14, 2015 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

            Ok that’s understandable.

            This I don’t:
            “if something is an illusion that doesn’t mean it isn’t real”

            I use the term “illusion” only as a “an error in perception” or “a distortion of our senses”. So it means always something that isn’t part of reality. Correct me if I’m wrong.

            And indeed, I admit, I’m a hard determinist 🙂

            • Sastra
              Posted January 14, 2015 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

              Example: You’re driving along a long road on a hot day and see what looks like a large puddle ahead of you. As you get closer, though, it disappears.

              It was an illusion.

              Does that mean that you only imagined you saw something that looked like water? Maybe you fell asleep and dreamed it? Nothing was there at all, nothing happened.

              No. What you saw was real. It wasn’t imagination or fiction, you weren’t lying or pretending to yourself that something was there. It wasn’t a glimpse into the spiritual realm. It was physical.

              But it wasn’t water, it was light reflecting off a hot surface under a certain set of circumstances. It wasn’t what it appeared to be at first glance: it turns out to be something else when you examine it. Concluding “water” was the illusion. “Light” is the reality.

              Free will is real, but it only looks like indeterminist spooky dualist magic coming from nowhere if you don’t look too hard. That’s the illusion. When you analyze and examine it seriously, it turns out to be physical and deterministic.

              That’s what I’m trying to say.

              • peepuk
                Posted January 15, 2015 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

                Ok, I belief I know what you +/- mean.

                “Concluding water was the illusion. Light is the reality.”

                No problem with that.

                “When you analyze and examine it seriously, it turns out to be physical and deterministic”

                You likely will find mechanisms for self control/self regulation, the same you find in a dog, maybe a bit more complex. When you call that free will then it’s just semantics, also no problem with that.

                Thanks for clearing this up.

      • BillyJoe
        Posted January 13, 2015 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

        Excellent point?
        Freewill is still not real.
        The illusion of freewill is what is real

    • Posted January 13, 2015 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      Excellent points. I especially like the analogy to “solid” being solid at one level, but almost entirely empty space at another level. Here’s my more specific analogy. When used in situations such as “he’s here of his own free will; she was not free to choose because…” it is the *macro* solid level of understanding. When used in discussions such as “do human beings have free will?” It is the *micro* or in depth level of understanding. So just as something can *appear* to be solid and *act as if* it is solid in our everyday experience, we actually know that if we look more closely, it is not solid. We can shoot gamma rays through it like it wasn’t even there. Solid means different things in different contexts, and so does free will. Compatibilists seem to be saying something like, it’s solid even if it is empty space. Solid is defined as “has no holes in it; can’t get through it without breaking it.” When confronted with the fact that a “solid” object is mostly empty space and there are things that can get through without breaking it, they respond that it’s still solid. It’s still solid, even though, it is actually, demonstrably, the opposite of solid, when you look carefully.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

      Your arguments don’t lead to the conclusion that you think they lead to. They lead to the conclusion that the idea that “objects are solid”, “length and time do not depend on what speed at which you are travelling”, “gravity is as puling together force” are all illusions or misperceptions.

      Einstein may not be the last word, but Relativity is closer to the truth than Newtonian physics which cannot, for example, explain the precession of the perihelion of murcury, or the need to correct for the effects of gravity on GPS satellites, or the fact muons can indeed reach the Earth’s surface.

      Freewill is an illusion was what I thought you were going to conclude but you did a u-turn!

      • Posted January 13, 2015 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

        His conclusion was, “Free will exists at one scale, but not another.” I think pretty much all of us incompatibilists agree with this. Free will exists on the scale of everyday usage – knowing that “I signed it of my own free will” means “I was not coerced into signing it.” Free will does not exist on the scale of Deep Thoughts – Do humans have Free Will? No.

        Perhaps the distinction should be: capital FW, Free Will vs. lowercase fw, free will.

  21. Shea B
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    I, for one, was looking forward to this post after it was hinted at in yesterday’s Winfield, Alabama post. It did not disappoint!

    The list of similarities to Sophisticated Theology is great fun. The issue of humans (with our “magical” reasoning) vs. other animals seems particularly interesting. Have any compatibibilists written on the “free will” of non-human animals? Where exactly in the course of evolution does “free will” enter the picture?

    For me, the bottom line is that (as Sam Harris has repeatedly said) if you pay careful attention to your own thought processes, you realize that everything you experience first-hand in consciousness emerges out of a murky realm of unconscious and/or random causes. Take even a voluntary and “reasoned” decision-making process, such as going through a pro/con comparison in your head before making a choice–how can you possibly account for the exact list of elements that comes into your head, the order in which they appear, the relative strength and weakness of each element in the final pro/con balance, etc., let alone the exact reason that you reached one final decision rather than another?

  22. Explorer
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    I’m hearing the following:

    If one can make a perfect prediction of a decision, based on the nearly infinite factors in spacetime which led to it, then the decision was not made freely.

    And when I hear that conclusion, it seems unwarranted.

    Being able to make a prediction about a decision doesn’t seem to mean the ability to make that decision was stripped away.

    Fooling someone’s sense of agency also doesn’t seem to bear on whether someone made a choice, whether it’s for the reasons they thought or not.

    In this case, I’m going to wait until those embracing the “perfect prediction equals no free will” group to pony up like the religionists, with some serious predictions of a year’s worth of world events (and election and sport results, and those involving cosmic discoveries would be part of those theoretical perfect predictions), in support of their extraordinary claims.

    • eric
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      What is your hypothesized biological mechanism for choice-making?

      • Daniel
        Posted January 13, 2015 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

        I like to consider a game of chess for this. 🙂

        When an agent (computer or person, doesn’t matter) considers a chess board on their turn, they need to select from one of the pieces of their own color that is capable of at least one legal move, and then perform one of their moves.

        If the person or computer selects randomly, this is typically not going to be considered a ‘decision’ by most people.

        What most people (and most non-neural-network computers) will do at this point is use some kind of heuristic to assign a value to the available moves, and then select from the highly-valued moves.

        In this scenario, the option that the player will inevitably select may very well be deterministic.

        However, that doesn’t change the fact that the player is still computing some kind of mental model of the board, computing future states of the board, computing likely moves by their opponent, and assigning values to the possible pieces and moves available right now based on all of the above, and then selecting from among the available legal moves so as to make a decision.

        If we suppose that ‘true randomness’ could exist in our universe in a way that can contradict determinism, then it could follow that a ‘truly random’ player’s game of chess cannot be predicted deterministically.

        However, if the decision-making of the players in a universe capable of ‘true randomness’ is predictably non-random, then it follows that even in a universe that allows for non-deterministic randomness, the fact of deterministic decision making would itself lead to a deterministic outcome.

        Which is why, in my view, decisions and determinism are entirely compatible.

        Whether or not we call these decisions ‘free-will’ or not does seem to me to ultimately boil down to a question of semantics.

        • eric
          Posted January 13, 2015 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

          I don’t see any choice in that model.

          But if you want to say that in your compatibilist view, humans have free will in the same way chess-playing computers have free will, I will agree with you. I will think you are using an idiosyncratic and semantically confusing definition of free will, but I will agree that we have the property you claim we have.

          That would also mean that you accept that larger mammals (i.e., things with similar brain structures to us) also have free will, right? Because they are going to use heuristics etc. to convert inputs into outputs.

          • Daniel
            Posted January 13, 2015 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

            I don’t see any choice in that model.

            Then I guess we just have a different intuition about what ‘choice’ is.

            If I make a computer system that will ‘choose’ from among a set of products based on a heuristic that takes into account unit price, shipping cost, shipping time, quality, etc… Then that to me is a kind of choice.

            To me, choice is taking place any time we start with a set of options, apply some kind of nonrandom method, and a sub-set of those options are then selected.

            If there’s a magical extra part of what choice is *supposed* to be, then that’s simply not a part of how I view the world.

            I will think you are using an idiosyncratic and semantically confusing definition of free will, but I will agree that we have the property you claim we have.

            My view very well could be idiosyncratic and semantically confusing. It wouldn’t be the first time.

            But for the record, this is the view that occurs to me naturally, just from how I see the world. I’m not contorting myself into mental gymnastics to construct this view so I can thumb my nose at the free-will naysayers and feel smug about myself or anything like that.

            The view of free will that I represent here is just how the world seems to me, and correlates exactly to what I mean when I talk about these subjects.

            When I see a definition such as this one:

            Free 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.

            When I see that, I instantly think that of course that kind of free will doesn’t exist. But we’ve got the term in use, and it makes little sense to use a term in such a way that it cannot possibly exist. So therefore (I instinctively conclude before my executive reasoning has even kicked in) when we talk about ‘free will’ we must need something else entirely that fills the semantic role of the terminology while also being something that could feasably exist.

            And thus, we get compatibilism. Or at least, that’s how I get to my particular version of it.

            So from where I’m sitting, it’s both the people who are believing in the silly impossible magical-fairy-dust free will in the first place who are using a suspicious definition, and Jerry and the rest of you that accept that definition uncritically and then run with it are making the mistake of encouraging the misconception. 😉

            That would also mean that you accept that larger mammals (i.e., things with similar brain structures to us) also have free will, right? Because they are going to use heuristics etc. to convert inputs into outputs.

            I don’t see free will as an on/off thing, but more of a gradient. As both the understanding of all the options available AND the heuristics involved in evaluating those options get more and more sophisticated, the agent therefore gets more and more capable of manifesting its will in line with its intended outcomes.

            So not only am I happy with the idea of a large mammal having some kind of free will – qualitatively similar to but quantitatively different from our own – in the same way I am also comfortable with the idea of artificial free will.

            If a Google car ‘decides’ to turn left instead of right to get to its destination, then I’m comfortable with that being an expression of the free will of the car. However, that ‘free will’ is still very limited, because the car is extremely constrained in what it could decide to do in any given moment.

            A Google car only knows how to drive from point A to point B. An actual cab driver could decide at any point to get out the car and go have a sandwich or listen to music or something. The cab driver has more options from which to choose from in any and all situations, and in that sense his will is less constrained and more free than that of a Google car.

            Again: I get that you probably think I’m being esoteric or idiosyncratic. But all of this strikes me as being the natural and intuitive way to think about these concepts.

            • eric
              Posted January 14, 2015 at 10:23 am | Permalink

              So you didn’t answer the key question: are you claiming that humans have free will in the same way that chess-playing computers have free will?

              When I see that, I instantly think that of course that kind of free will doesn’t exist. But we’ve got the term in use, and it makes little sense to use a term in such a way that it cannot possibly exist.

              It makes a lot of sense, because language is about communicating with other people and that means typically using the connotation and denotation of words that others understand the word to have, regardless of whether the thing denoted really exists or not.

              Look, I don’t think unicorns exist. But I’m not going to claim the word “unicorn” must really mean “horse” because unicorns don’t exist. This seems to me exactly what you are doing. And that makes no sense. OTOH, the opposite approach that you disagree with – acknowledging that when people say ‘unicorn’ they typically mean the mythical beast that doesn’t exist – makes perfect sense.

              • Daniel
                Posted January 14, 2015 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

                So you didn’t answer the key question: are you claiming that humans have free will in the same way that chess-playing computers have free will?

                All due respect, I think I did answer the question.

                So not only am I happy with the idea of a large mammal having some kind of free will – qualitatively similar to but quantitatively different from our own – in the same way I am also comfortable with the idea of artificial free will.

                If a Google car ‘decides’ to turn left instead of right to get to its destination, then I’m comfortable with that being an expression of the free will of the car. However, that ‘free will’ is still very limited, because the car is extremely constrained in what it could decide to do in any given moment.

                A Google car only knows how to drive from point A to point B. An actual cab driver could decide at any point to get out the car and go have a sandwich or listen to music or something. The cab driver has more options from which to choose from in any and all situations, and in that sense his will is less constrained and more free than that of a Google car.

                How does this fail to answer your question?

                Within the confines of just playing chess, I’m comfortable with the notion that my will and that of a computer are equally free. If anything, the computer’s will is more free than my own simply because I am likely to neglect some of the moves available to me from consideration due to inattentiveness (I am not a particularly strong chess player).

                In reality I remain more free, because I can decide to think about where I’m going to take my girlfriend to dinner tomorrow night instead of the game, or I can flip the board over and do backflips, or whatever. So I have far more options at any given moment than the computer program does.

                It’s as if you’re asking me: Do you think that adults have ‘height’ the way that children have ‘height’.

                The answer is: Yes and no. An adult will be taller than a child… Usually… Except in certain novel situations.

                It’s the same quality (height, freedom to choose from available options), but a different quantity (how high, how many options to choose from).

                Look, I don’t think unicorns exist. But I’m not going to claim the word “unicorn” must really mean “horse” because unicorns don’t exist.

                If I ride up to the office on a motorcycle, and tell you that I rode to work on my unicorn today, you can infer from context that by ‘unicorn’ I am in fact referring to my motorcycle.

                You can quibble with me after the fact over whether or not I am using the word ‘unicorn’ correctly (in this context, I would agree that is a flatly incorrect usage). But you can still infer from context what I meant when I said ‘unicorn’.

                Similarly, people do actually do things ‘of their own free will’. My difference of opinion is with what people think that means (the bad definition, what you rode to work on was not a unicorn) with what it actually plausibly could mean (the good definition, it was actually a motorcycle).

                So in that sense, I think that the utterance of ‘free will’ is correct. I disagree about which common usage of that utterance should be the default on grounds of which one can plausibly exist.

                I understand the confusion here. To be clear: I don’t think you and Jerry are wrong to define the term according to the impossible usage.

                It’s rather that I instinctively default to the usages that are relevant and useful. I think that system is better, but that’s largely a question of preference, not a question of ‘truth’.

                And yes, this does get me into trouble in conversation a lot. I know full well that I’m in a relative minority on this one. Unintentional miscommunication is a daily hazard for me. Thing is, I can’t help it. That’s just how I’m wired. 😀

              • Posted January 14, 2015 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

                Could you please make your comments shorter? You’ve posted many long responses, and I want comments, not disquisitions. Thanks.

              • Daniel
                Posted January 14, 2015 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

                @whyevolutionistrue

                Could you please make your comments shorter? You’ve posted many long responses, and I want comments, not disquisitions. Thanks.

                I’ll try to bring down the length and/or frequency where I can, Jerry. No worries.

    • Posted January 13, 2015 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      Well, if not unwarranted at least perfect understanding of all the forces and particles involved is impossible – and so no perfect prediction of the future is possible.

      But that’s not the test. Incompatibalists have as evidence billions of years of existence where every particle and force occurred in exactly one way at precise points in time. Since incompatibalists posit nothing more than particles and forces, in the space and time they occur, we’re done.

      The test then is this: where is the “free will” which exists outside of that physical system and changes pre-determined outcomes? or, if “free will” is a property of the physical system, how do we distinguish between automatic chain reactions inside a human brain and some kind of independent “choice” made by that brain? and, having made that distinction, how do we distinguish between “choice” has being an independent action (of a “mind” or whatever) versus an illusion of “choice” produced as a consequence of automatic brain responses?

      In short, determinism with no free will is the default observable state of the physical universe which includes our brains. The burden of proof is on compatibalists and anti-determinists who posit forces (or whatever) which can’t be measured and observed – and which bear an uncanny resemblance to received, antique models of body-soul duality.

      • Sastra
        Posted January 13, 2015 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

        You don’t lump compatibilists with anti-determinists who believe in something outside the natural system. Compatibilism is determinism.

        Compatibilism is determinism with precision.

        • Posted January 13, 2015 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, thanks. I get my wires crossed on that one a lot.

          • eric
            Posted January 13, 2015 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

            So do they. See for instance my last posted response to #14. Its determinism with precision, except when you want to hold terrorists morally culpable for their acts. Then it means something other than determinism. At least to some (I do not accuse Sastra or anyone else of doing this)

            • Daniel
              Posted January 13, 2015 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

              You’re right that some people do make this error. But it’s important to remember that not everyone does. 🙂

              I think that where a lot of people go wrong in how they think about free will is because they embrace and want to justify their punitive instincts, as follows:

              If you do something bad, then I will want very badly to do something bad to you! My instincts tell me I am justified in this! But I can’t think of a good path of logic to justify that… So I’ll just offer the non-explanation that doing something bad to you to punish you for doing something bad isn’t hypocritical of me on grounds that you are morally responsible for your immoral actions on account of your free will! And given there’s a powerful social narrative that treats this fallacious line of reasoning as totally valid, I must therefore defend that line of reasoning against all nay-sayers, because otherwise I might have to critically examine my instincts to do harm to people as retribution for their actions and maybe realize that I’m not as good a person as I’d like to believe, and that would be bad.

              For me, we can decry someones actions as immoral, and we can prescribe and enforce a punishment.

              However, the idea that people deserve to have something bad happen to them, to the point that doing bad things to them could even be interpreted as a moral good, seems wildly illogical and morally reprehensible too me. It’s a total failure of ethical reasoning.

              To my mind the only way punishment can be justified is as a deterrent. The threat of punishment can be a deterrent to people who might be inclined to perform an undesired action, and actually imprisoning someone can restrain them from committing further crimes. (So could killing them, but I’m instinctively opposed to the death penalty, though I do remain persuadable).

              But it often goes unremarked how the credible threat of punishment can also be a deterrent to the rest of us who might otherwise be inclined to enforce some vigilante mob-style ‘justice’ against the person who performed the immoral action. Typically that style of mob justice will mete out far greater evils than the actual immoral action originally performed, which essentially amounts to otherwise good people performing evil deeds.

              So to me, the only way to think about punishment is not that it is good because the bad people deserve it, but rather that it is the regretfully necessary lesser evil when contrasted against inaction.

              Punishing the wicked is one of the few mindsets available that allows people to simultaneously indulge the desire to commit cruelty to other humans AND their desire to view themselves as good and righteous. I hold that to be a very *very* dangerous mixture.

              So while I think that someone who commits a great crime (such as a terrorist act) should therefore be punished, I also think that we should take no joy or satisfaction from the prospect.

              I think that this view of punishment is entirely consistent with compatibilism.

              • Sergio Graziosi
                Posted January 14, 2015 at 7:30 am | Permalink

                Long Applause.

              • eric
                Posted January 14, 2015 at 10:31 am | Permalink

                Well, I am still not sure in what sense an action can be considered moral or immoral unders determinism. But that aside, I tentatively agree that what you describe is the way you think criminal justice would work under a compatibilist or determinist philosophy.

                I would only caution that that approach is also not without its problems. See my post at the bottom of point #11 for that. In short: its a strong form of utilitarianism.

              • Daniel
                Posted January 14, 2015 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

                @eric

                Well, I am still not sure in what sense an action can be considered moral or immoral unders determinism.

                For the record: I’m not committed to determinism or indeterminism. For what it’s worth, I think that it’s largely a meaningless distinction, I don’t see what’s actually at stake in a deterministic vs. an indeterministic world. The answer to that question wouldn’t change anything in my worldview.

                My tentative and non-expert belief is that the universe is indeterministic at the level of the uncertainty principle and at the level of ‘true random’ events such as proton decay. But that at every scale above this the universe is deterministic in principle. That includes the level of the human brain, which in my view also encompasses the human mind.

                However, my stance on determinism could easily be shown to be wrong. Or it could be strongly confirmed as correct. But either way it wouldn’t impact much on how I view the world.

                I think that the dualism vs. monism is important, and on that I come down very heavily on the monist side of that debate.

                Well, I am still not sure in what sense an action can be considered moral or immoral unders determinism.

                Again, this is another one where I struggle to see the confusion. 🙂

                I know that for many people the assumption that indeterministic dualism informs how they think of morality. But I think that was always wrong.

                So for your case, maybe getting rid of the word ‘morality’ might be helpful.

                Essentially, we’re stuck here on this ball of rock hurtling through space together. We can go around killing one another for resources and all life shitty lives. Or we can work together and try and build and respect mutually comfortable lives.

                There are better and worse ways to live together.

                As we understand the ways that are better, we can start to codify them. The people that live up to those codes can be encouraged through social reinforcement and positive consequences (I am good to my friends, and my friends are in turn good to me). The people that fail to live up to them can be discouraged either at the social/moral level (if someone is bad to me, they will not become one of my friends) or at the legal level (if someone attacks me with violence, I can call the police, and they will protect me by arresting that person and taking them away, and they will punish them as deterrent so that the situation hopefully won’t arise in the first place).

                And hey presto. We just arrived at a moral/legal system that works and that is entirely consistent with determinism. No magical fairy dust required.

                Sometimes that means utilitarianism, but not always*. I think of morality as more an art than a science. Which does annoy some people. There seems to be this desire to reduce morality down to a single set of axioms that rules everything, as if it were a kind of physics. But we’re not discovering a fundamental property of the universe when we engage in ethical reasoning. We’re just trying to sort out the messy business of how to live well with one another. So morality should be expected to be a messy set of conflicting values and ideas that rarely survives its first encounter with a boundary condition. And from where I’m sitting, that’s exactly what we’ve got whenever we try to engage in ethical discourse. ^_^

                I would only caution that that approach is also not without its problems. See my post at the bottom of point #11 for that. In short: its a strong form of utilitarianism.

                As I say above: I don’t expect that there will ever be a moral system that we devise that doesn’t have problems somewhere.

                I don’t expect morality to be clean and precise in the first place. It’s always going to have messy boundary conditions no matter how well we slice it.

                ————–
                * Sometimes different moral frameworks will compete in a given context, and it can be tricky working out which one to give priority too. Some moral scenarios have no easy answers.

                Even so, to my way of thinking many of the alleged exceptions to utilitarianism have a way of resolving back to utilitarianism if you think about them in the right way. For example: In a society where any individual can be made a slave for ‘the good of the majority’, then that means that everyone can be made a slave at any time. That’s bad for everyone. So enshrining individual rights as sacrosanct over the good of the majority always struck me as an expression of utilitarianism rather than an exception to it. But I always seem to be a bit lonely in that position. Most people seem to think that it’s cheating somehow – having my cake and eating it too. 😉

      • Explorer
        Posted January 13, 2015 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

        I’m going to define the human mind as what the human brain does. I’m not going for woo, and don’t subscribe to it in real life either.

        It seems like you’re just restating that if you know the starting positions of a decision tree perfectly, and understand that decision tree perfectly, then there is no decision.

        Predicting the outcome of a decision mechanism is not the same as the decision mechanism not having functioned.

        Things get even more complicated when the decision mechanism can alter itself, like a dog learning that it will be scolded for taking food from a person’s plate and seeking to avoid a scolding.

        —-

        By the way, one of my coworkers today again commented that she doesn’t like me flipping coins or rolling the die on my desk to decide on where to go to lunch. That adds just one more wrinkle to the issue of choice.

        Anyway, let me know when the “perfect prediction of free will” thing leaves the realm of philosophical questions, like God making a rock so large he/she can’t lift it, and that you can perfectly predict what that person will roll on a pair of dice for 500 rolls. You might even win the Million Dollar Challenge with such a paranormal feat.

        • Posted January 13, 2015 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

          I will (or I would, if I thought that served any purpose at all)!

          And you let me know when you have evidence that “decision making” is anything other than the rote result of a predetermined chain of events and processes.

          • Explorer
            Posted January 13, 2015 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

            Actually, predicting the results of putting a pair of dice through a randomizing dice chute 500 times would be powerful evidence, and would be a small step towards predicting the actions of all the neurons in a human brain.

            I’m still wondering though if you’re asserting that if you can predict the outcome of a decision process, there is no decision process. That seems like a silly assertion, and an unsupported jump.

  23. Mike Paps
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    After decades of trying to make sense of compatibilism I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s impossible.

    • Mike Paps
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      Impossible to make sense of that is.

      • BillyJoe
        Posted January 13, 2015 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

        Too easy: just re-define freewill.

        • Posted January 14, 2015 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

          The Compatibilist definition of Free Will:

          “Free Will is the thing that we have that causes the illusion that we have Free Will.”

          • Daniel
            Posted January 14, 2015 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

            Just had a thought.

            What if compatibilists such as myself don’t experience the illusion of free will in the same way as the rest of you.

            That could just be a bit of a cop out. But it might also explain some of the mutual confusion going on. 🙂

  24. Posted January 13, 2015 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    “Libet’s experiments as well as others showing that brain scans can predict decisions before the “decider” is conscious of having made them…”

    I have a question, do Libet’s experiments, or any others, factor in “defiance?”

    As in, if I realize you’ve tricked me, and I choose to defy you and change my mind/choose a different course of action/defy you just for spite etc…

    Do these experiments cover that ground? If not, will that ever be explored/or does it need to be?

    I ask because I could possibly see defiance, “acting in spite of,” etc… as a logical expression of free will.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

      Nah, defiance is just an emotion feeding into and contributing, in a determined way, to your outputs

  25. Posted January 13, 2015 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    My exhaustive guide to compatibilism: “compatibilist free will” simply means “will” as “compatibilist” is just an euphemism for “not really”.

    • strongforce
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

      +1

  26. Posted January 13, 2015 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Oy! Not all that late, and yet already at least 70 comments. Not sure I’m gonna get caught up on this one, or all the Charlie Hebdo ones, either.

    When somebody so persistently avoids offering or defending an explicit and specific definition of something controversial in a case like this, it’s invariably because of one or more of a very limited set possibilities. It could be that the person’s understanding of whatever-it-is is so fuzzy that, though the person is sure there’s just gotta be something there, what that something is and where it’s supposed to be just isn’t all that clear. It could be because the person’s definition is non-standard, and clearly specifying the definition will cause confusion in others. Or it could be because, once clearly defined, it becomes plain that the object of the definition simply doesn’t exist.

    None of those possibilities paint a particularly rosy picture of the one avoiding the definition. In Dan’s case, I think we can attribute it to a sincere belief on his part of the “little people” argument. He really does think the world is a better place when people cling to “free will,” never mind that the very notion is incoherent even if we grant dualism for the sake of argument. (Does the soul make decisions in accordance with its own nature? If so, it is not free; it is beholden to itself and cannot do other than what it does. If not, it is not willful; it is subject to whim and could wind up doing anything.) Dan would rather live in a world with people incorrectly believing in free will than in one in which people understand that it’s just another primitive superstition.

    Me?

    I’d rather live in a world without superstition. And I think the consequences of widespread belief in free will are far more detrimental to society than Dan realizes, and also that he fails to realize the benefits of the rejection of this particular superstition.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • darrelle
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      I largely agree. I do agree with Dan, mostly, when he says that “we have the only kind of free will worth having.” By which he means that while what we have isn’t that dualistic, contracausal free will you thought it was, you wouldn’t want that anyway because it doesn’t add anything meaningful and isn’t coherent. Much like you are describing here, and have before.

      But I disagree with him that what we do have must be continued to be labeled “free will” or else society will fall into a pit of despair. I see no need or advantage in retaining the label.

      • eric
        Posted January 13, 2015 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

        Does a dog have the only kind of free will worth having? How about a less intelligent animal?

        If our consciousness is an add-on that merely is aware of decisions made by the brain, rather than making decisions, then pretty much all animals with similarly complex brains have similar free will. I don’t mention this to refute or oppose you, I mention it because it’s interesting to think about. Would DD say they have the only kind of will worth having? Would he believe it?

        • darrelle
          Posted January 13, 2015 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

          Definitely an interesting question. It seems to me that other animals surely do have the same cognitive features that add up to “the only kind of free will worth having.” To varying degrees. That seems to be the case for many cognitive features that in the past we were sure were unique to humans, but now have discovered ample evidence of in other animals. Also, given the process of biological evolution, that would seem to be exactly what you would expect to be the case.

    • Posted January 13, 2015 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      Yup. Having lived it myself for a large portion of my life, I could write a book on that perspective, which would be titled simply As If – and which concept I think comes from a Freud essay, possibly The Future of an Illusion.

      So the audience is believers in the process of deconversion and agnostics or other rational types who have attachment of some kind to religion: you can live “as if” the bible were true without believing it for reals, and “as if” the parts you don’t like aren’t there. You want to go sing the songs and read the stories and serve the soup to the poor? Whatever, dude! You don’t have to believe in god to go do that, any more than you have to believe in Harry and Voldemort to do Hogwarts cosplay.

      You know science is real and god is not, so get over it. Most of the people you think are believers are really acting “as if” themselves.

      And I think you’re right, that’s making common cause with cosmic dualists and it’s not productive.

      Still, I don’t think acting “as if” we have free will is a choice, though. We make what we call “choices” every day, all day, and I don’t know how a person could stop acting “as if” they are making choices. Ask me soup or salad, I pick salad, I feel “as if” it was a free choice but I think it was not, on it goes. Even Jerry had to express “deciding” in his no-thanks to Patheos! Which readers promptly pointed out and he acknowledged!

  27. Posted January 13, 2015 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    I recall Jerry had a spirited debate about free will during a long car ride with Daniel Dennett, 2 or 3 years ago (or maybe more).

    I often wonder whether that car ride had any influence on DD; whether it sharpened his arguments or disabused him of any opinions he might have previously held.

    This is the part of debate I am always curious about and which I see as lacking in so many of the contra-WEIT, if you will, issues that are discussed: how well, if at all, does the proponent of a given idea deal with the strongest arguments against the idea, if at all? The “group selection” posts over the past few months surfaced examples of glossing-over or ignoring disconfirming evidence, or at least failing to acknowledge evidence equally supports a contrary view – and with group selection that has been disconcerting, because the theory supposedly overturns the established consensus on kin selection and inclusive fitness.

    Not that I am likely to be persuaded, but is there a “best” argument for compatibalism that both offers convincing evidence for AND makes a plausible argument against the ACTUAL claims of incompatibalists?

  28. eliz20108
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand the concept of “free will”. So I don’t understand Jerry’s arguments against.

    I wish Jerry would write a blog about what the notion of free will is supposed to be.

    • Wayne Robinson
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      I like the definition that free will involves making conscious uncaused decisions. A person makes decisions and they could have been different. Most decisions are unconscious (the mind rationalises them afterwards) and caused (there’s a cause for everything) even if we’re not aware of the causes.

      I think that encompasses the idea that there’s no ‘free will’.

    • eric
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      He did! And he reiterated in his post above…didn’t you read the entire thing?
      For your edification, I will repeat his definition of free will (which is not his…I will leave it up to you do figure out whose it is, that’s quite simple):

      Free 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.

    • StephenLawrence
      Posted January 17, 2015 at 4:00 am | Permalink

      Eliz,

      “I don’t understand the concept of “free will”. So I don’t understand Jerry’s arguments against.

      I wish Jerry would write a blog about what the notion of free will is supposed to be.”

      The starting point is “could have done otherwise” What might it mean?

      1) Just could

      So all else just as it was your arms and legs simply moving around differently. That’s just the possibility of things behaving differently without any explanation why.

      2) Could have by by virtue of the fact that you “would have if..”. So if certain causal conditions had been appropriately different you would have behaved differently. So would have if you’d wanted to, for instance.

      I’ll get to 3) after a little explanation.

      Neither of the first two ways capture the way we imagine we “could a have done otherwise” before reflection. I think this is to do with how we are wired up, so I would be surprised if this is different for you, but people do claim not to experience the feeling they have the illusory version of Free Will.

      The illusion comes from how we think about “the circumstances”. We jump to the wrong conclusion that we are thinking about the actual circumstances. We aren’t really and we can check and see. Take a coin toss, we know it can land on either heads or tails and we can test to see by simply tossing it a few times. So we can set up quite different experiments to do this because we are not talking about in a specific actual situation, we are talking much more broadly about general circumstances in which coins are tossed. So when we look back on a choice we make we think we could have in the actual situation.

      Now the next step is to combine that with the choice being “up to us”. By combining “could have done otherwise in the actual situation” with the choice being “up to us” we get the impression the choice was entirely up to us because we leave out circumstances not of our choosing which would have had to be different to have made a different choice.

      So 3) is: Could have done otherwise without the need for circumstances not of our choosing to have been different to have done so.

      I do think this is what is being referred to as Libertarian Free Will or Contra-Causal Free Will. Jerry might have something else in mind and perhaps he’ll comment but I think this is it, this is what is supposed to get us ultimate moral responsibility and why people feel we would have needed to be able to have done otherwise in the actual situation to have Free Will. Why else?

      So why not try looking back on a choice and see if you experience the illusion before reflection?

  29. Posted January 13, 2015 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    As a compatibilist, I would say that science has a lot to say about Compatibilist Free Will. If one could demonstrate, for example, that we have the same decision making capabilities as a rock then we would not have CFW, and if we had only the decision making capabilities of a ladybeetle we would have very little CFW.

    Apart from that, consider again the example of Life: after it became clear that it wasn’t a magical spark breathed into stuff by a creator god, and it was (unconsciously perhaps) decided to continue using that word for a biochemical process instead of eradicating its use, would you have charged the Life Compatibilists with ignoring science, with promoting an unfalsifiable idea?

    • BillyJoe
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

      When you talk about living v non-living things, not many people are confused what you mean. They might pause at prions and viruses, but pretty well everything else will be put into either the jar of living things or the jar of non-living things.

      After reading all these coments, do you really think that applies to freewill?

  30. mental reservation
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    In both cases academic doyens (theologians or philosophers) feel that it’s dangerous for the public to know the truth (about God or about determinism)

    I can imagine another explanation: Dan Dennett might try to convince people who believe in free will that they are wrong. Those will rather buy books that affirm than deny the existence of free will on their cover. So he argues for a free will that really is none. Ever since Spinoza defined god as nature and went on to praise god for his perfection (while at the same time making him completely impotent) this has been a favorite tactic of underground philosophers.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for impugning the motives of Daniel Dennett.

      • mental reservation
        Posted January 14, 2015 at 4:23 am | Permalink

        It felt that way when reading the book: Most of it explains why and how our behavior is determined, then calls the subjective feeling of agency we have “free will”. I was immediately reminded of Spinoza calling the laws of nature “god’s providence”.

        But after reading Prof. Coyne’s reply to post 14, I’ll admit I’m almost certainly wrong.

  31. peepuk
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    I think I agree completely with Jerry, except with the right or wrong thing.

    A bit of Philosophy (by Sophisticated Theologians™ ?) shouldn’t be enough to get compatibilism of the hook.

    The problem is that compatibilism has very bad consequences for people who have just a bit of bad luck.

    If it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t care much how people redefine responsibility or/and free will.

  32. Posted January 13, 2015 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    …”what many compatibilists feel is it this: science has nothing to say about free will.”

    Not at all. Instead I believe it is incompatibilists that ignore explanations that arise from both Computer Science (and Mathematics) that explain scientifically measured effects documented by Libets et al. Moreover I would contend that incompatibilists themselves rely on far too simplistic a model of causation… where system behaviour is absolutely repeatable and NEVER exhibits randomness, effects of noise, measurement imprecision, computational complexity or chaotic variation – effects which in essence break or influence absolute causality – and introduce the possibility of a very complex self-programming agents decisions exhibiting degrees of “freedom” that we can call free-will.

    Let me, for example, deal with the “irrefutable scientific conclusions” that incompatibilists draw from Libets studies. The brain is structured along the lines of an incredibly complex multiprocessor system, under the general command of a supervisory or executive system (which we indirectly sense as a “conscious mind”) and a multitude of specialised parallel co-processors. It is a learning system – but more than just being a vast complex of state-machines –it is one that to a significant degree “self-programmes.” Specialised co-processors handle delegated elements of decisional processes and just as in any multiprocessor system there is a computational delay in their being recognised by the Executive. If we would insert some measuring system (eg an oscilloscope) on a co-processor in such a hierarchical system we would sense a decision before it is “recognised”. It’s really no big deal at all.
    Philosophers who are compatibilists do not just deal with definition. They often deal with explanatory cognitive models – just as scientists do. Robert Kane does this extensively and much of Dennetts arguments model themselves on Kane’s ideas. The definitions follow.

    • eric
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      Moreover I would contend that incompatibilists themselves rely on far too simplistic a model of causation… where system behaviour is absolutely repeatable and NEVER exhibits randomness, effects of noise, measurement imprecision, computational complexity or chaotic variation – effects which in essence break or influence absolute causality

      Sigh. Again?? Jerry has covered this many times. The incompatibilist position admits and accepts there are nondeterministic process which will change outcomes. Nuclear decay is my standard example.

      The point they make about these process and which you have ignored in your post is that those processes also do not count as free will the way most people think about it. A computer which uses a random number generator to decide what to do does not have any more free will than a computer that doesn’t, because random number generators aren’t will – free or otherwise – the way most people consider it.

      • Posted January 14, 2015 at 6:48 am | Permalink

        Well, we ALL go over the same arguments in one of these free-will debates, don’t we?

        But incompatibilists and compatibilists do BOTH agree on one thing – that free will is not merely having a presence of indeterminism. Incompatibilists however dismiss and oversimplify the IMPLICATIONS of these indeterminacy factors- factors which do break an overall causal chains in the real world. The compatibilist only argues that such factors can lead to the POSSIBILITY of a degree of causal independence which in very very complex self-programmed systems leads to a situation where the “self” is independent enough and “self-formed” and becomes a major factor in determining its own actions. Free-will is an emergent property of such an extremely complex system.

        The self, consciousness, mind, agency and free-will are all strongly interdependent concepts. I do admire the fact that Sam Harris dismisses BOTH free-will and the self – at least he is being logically consistent in his own model of reality. But he then fails to follow this train of thought to its logical conclusion, which includes dismissing consciousness, agency and even mind itself…. and of course any possibility of any ensuing moral action.

        This whole discussion is made very clear if we take a computational view of things. In a vast chain of interconnected causes, which form any overall causal chain, we can look to see if there are any elements that we can possibly define as “semi-independent state machines”. The incompatibilist effectively says that we can’t. In his world causality becomes just a continuum. Just because a human being is a PHYSICAL entity does not mean that he/she necessarily must also be a COMPUTATIONAL entity- for there is no independence – no processing demarcation in this assumed overall causal array which allows the human mind to even be considered a computational entity. It follows then that it is impossible to define moral action in such a causal continuum, for in such a system morality becomes essentially “non-computable”. This is what Dennett argues. He argues however that evolution has given us evitability, which is at its root is computability – and the foundation of an emergent capability of evolving a free-will.

        • Posted January 14, 2015 at 7:05 am | Permalink

          “….those processes also do not count as free will the way most people think about it”

          Gravity is not “the way most people think about it” … not an attractive force between two masses as they think, but an effect of a distortion of space-time caused by mass. But regardless of this we can still fall down.

        • eric
          Posted January 14, 2015 at 10:40 am | Permalink

          The compatibilist only argues that such factors can lead to the POSSIBILITY of a degree of causal independence which in very very complex self-programmed systems leads to a situation where the “self” is independent enough and “self-formed” and becomes a major factor in determining its own actions.

          That’s not a very strong argument. I don’t take the mere philosophical possiblity of god existing as a good enough reason to believe he does; why would I take the mere philosophical possibility of free will existing as a good enough reason to believe it does?

          In both cases I’m going to demand something stronger before I accept the claim. In the case of free will, for example, I’d want to know the general mechanism you posit that turns nondeterministic events such as nuclear decays into freedom of choice. There’s a nontrivial number of C-14 molecules in my brain. They decay. This decay triggers minute changes in my brain. One the event happens, how are the effects any less deterministic than any other physical interaction that goes on in my brain? Where’s the agency in that decay? Where’s the choice of how to act?

          • Posted January 14, 2015 at 11:29 am | Permalink

            In particular, howiekornstein needs to answer the problems with Kane’s approach (which he seemingly endorses) in (for example) my paper on the view. I believe Paul Russell has written about this in print, if it matters (he certainly was going to at the time I took the class, years ago).

            • Posted January 14, 2015 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

              That’s a very good question eric, and one that goes to the heart of the matter. Let us simplify the model quite a bit. Let’s accept that the mind is very similar to that computer architecture I have previously described and which is also subject somewhat to the influences of any number of sources of indeterminacy. The computer has inputs, produces outputs, contains memory, and reflecting the sophistication I have also described, it has the capability of programming itself to a degree. Now suppose some input state X now occurs – our computer (as a state machine) produces output Y. If input X occurs many times it still produces output Y. The overall system is deterministic after all (I agree). Now if YOU were asked what most influences the “decision” of the computer to produce output Y you would say “The output Y was directly determined (caused) by Input X”. But our system is not exactly that simple, it is exposed to indeterminacy. Absolute causality has been broken. Now let us think what will occur when our system is exposed to input X many many many times – sometimes it WILL NOT produce output Y. More than this it will “see” the effect of producing a different output than Y… it will “explore a solution space”. And it can remember. And it can self-programme. And it has some innate goals that it may incidentally be seeking. Many thousands of input states (not JUST X) are also “explored” by the system. Even the original innate goals themselves are modifiable. It is “self –forming” as Kane would say.
              Now Input X occurs another time after a huge amount of such processing. The computer now produces output M. If X occurs again at some time M is output again. If you are asked the question NOW “what most influences the “decision” of the computer to produce Output M?” you must answer “the computer”. The computer is RESPONSIBLE for output M.

              You might ask yourself why we do not consider a child as a fully morally responsible agent until late in its teens? The simple answer – the child (as with the early state of the computer) has not had the processing time to fully “self-form” yet.

              • Posted January 15, 2015 at 11:22 am | Permalink

                But the *self forming actions* are now subject to a roulette wheel. THis is the same as at the moment of choice (as some folks think); randomness doesn’t help. Kane’s proposal at least in the original presentation also includes an “amplifier”, but that doesn’t help here either.

              • Posted January 16, 2015 at 3:21 am | Permalink

                “..This is the same as at the moment of choice (as some folks think); randomness doesn’t help”
                You are using exactly the same argument that Creationists use to say that random mutation can never lead to the evolution of complexity. The reality however, is that in mathematical terms randomness forms the basis for SEARCH – the exploration of a possible solution space against criteria. Random variation in both evolution and in “self forming” searches against a backdrop of such innate criteria. In the case of self-forming these include our most primitive innate moral instincts. This mechanism is an endless ITERATIVE process, a process which harnesses randomness to refine and in essence to OPTIMISE. Dennett’s brilliant insight (“Freedom Evolves”) is that free-will arises from such Evolutionary mechanisms – mechanisms that exploit and harness randomness.

  33. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    There is no difference, I think, in being coerced by threats or social pressure, and being coerced by our neurons, which in effect are billions of tiny guns pointed at our decision. You don’t have the ability to decide to “take steps to protect your autonomy”, for some people can reason in a way that makes them do that while others can’t. It’s not a free decision.

    I think (hope) you have backed yourself into a corner here, Jerry, and can find a graceful way out. I haven’t read all the comments, but there seem to be alot of other people who have reacted to this passage in the same way I have.

    I know a young woman who has converted to Islam, and while I don’t know many of the circumstances involved in her doing so, it was a decision she made when she married a man who is also a convert – both are Americans – not that it matters much. Let us suppose she changes her mind and decides to leave the religion. Further, let us suppose she is in Saudi Arabia (a place I choose because she has actually visited Dubai and she might well decide to visit Mecca) when she comes to her decision. If she expresses her wish to leave the faith, and some Imam decides to convince her not to leave the faith, I would think it to be of paramount importance that we not countenance an argument from the Imam ‘that it makes no difference whether he puts a gun to her head or she is coerced by her neurons, which in effect are billions of tiny guns pointed at her decision.’

  34. Posted January 13, 2015 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    When I read articles on free will I am never certain what is meant by “free”. Is it meant as free from biological substrate, which incorporates genes and environment? If so, where does this decision maker exist? If there is a decision maker, then does this decision maker have free will as well? If so, then there must be another decision maker and so on and so forth.

    If it (free will – decider – decision maker, what have you) is embedded in the biological substrate (which it certainly has to be), then in what sense is it ‘free’? Free from the input-output circuits of the brain? But it must interact with the inputs and outputs of the brain – so then it becomes indistinguishable from the input-output circuits

    • Jeffery
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

      The dictionary definition of, “free” that I go by is, “Not affected by any outside condition or circumstance”.

      Have you ever made a decision that you can truthfully say was not affected so?

      I might add, as well, that the very phenomenon of us consciously choosing (or simply finding ourselves choosing) to make a decision is due to the fact that we are reacting to either a new situation (one of those, “outside circumstances”) or a change in a familiar one.

  35. Daniel
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    There is no difference, I think, in being coerced by threats or social pressure, and being coerced by our neurons, which are in effect billions of tiny guns pointed at our head.

    That criticism seems to be a bit unfair.

    I have had a lot of problems regulating my caffeine intake, particularly when stressed out over work. Historically I would get stressed about a project, then start skipping sleep to work late on it. Then I would increase my caffeine intake to compensate for tiredness. Things would eventually return to normal, but the caffeine level would remain the same as I would have been normalized to it by that stage. Then the next time I got stressed, I would skip sleep and up the caffeine levels again. Eventually this would build to ridiculous levels where I’d have bouts of tachycardia. That would typically scare me into dropping down my intake, and then I’d have to struggle through the withdrawal for a couple of days.

    At first I just resolved to drink less coffee. However, I also consistently failed in enforcing this decision. It turns out that I find it too hard to resist the siren song of a good cup of coffee when I’m stressed out about stuff if the coffee is just sitting right there on my kitchen bench.

    So a while back I made the decision to switch to decaf and remove fully caffeinated coffee from my house by giving it away. So far it seems that the lower levels of caffeine in decaf coffee (and briefly brewed tea) are at a level I can handle without getting out of control.

    However, I could have just made the decision that quitting caffeine was therefore too hard, and just accepted the addiction as it was without trying anything new.

    I think that there is a meaningful difference between accepting my addiction on the one hand as a behavior that I couldn’t control, as opposed to searching for an alternate method to resolve my addiction on the other.

    As far as moral responsibility is concerned, the way I think about it is this: Feeling good about myself for kicking the negative habit reinforces the behaviour with the positive outcomes. Therefore, feeling good about the outcome is justified.

    But alternatively, had I failed? Feeling bad about myself for failing probably wouldn’t have helped me in terms of finding another alternative method to try to resolve the addiction. So in that sense, feeling bad about myself wouldn’t have been justified.

    That justification could be wrapped up in the language of free will or moral responsibility, or it could be left open and explained solely in terms of neurons, brain chemistry, psychology and motivation.

    I don’t think either interpretation is necessarily wrong. The non-free-will explanation is in my view more accurate. But it’s also a pain in the ass to talk about. In the interest of simplicity, I think that the free will and moral responsibility route is justified for day-to-day speech, so long as we recognize that the underlying mechanics of what’s going on are, well, mechanistic.

    But either way, and whatever spin we put on it, the difference is a meaningful one.

    ——————-
    Note: The interpretation that someone struggling with an addiction but fails to correct it would morally deserve to feel bad or would morally deserve punishment is an interpretation with which I would flatly disagree. It’s possible that threat-of-punishment-as-motivation could be justified, but the idea of someone deserving to have something unpleasant done to them seems inherently immoral to me no matter how we slice it.

  36. J Smith
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    Well stated. Dan Dennett is completely convoluted on free will as usual. He doesn’t take the universal acid of the true implications of science far enough, i.e. he needs to take his own advice and follow through on what the science really says about free will.

  37. BillyJoe
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    Definition of freewill?

    “Free 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”

    Freewill is not a belief. You can have a belief in freewill, but freewill itself is not a belief.
    How about:

    Free will is the component of 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.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

      Defined as such, believing in freewill makes you a dualist.

  38. Diego
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, FYI: Al Mele is at Florida State University, not University of Florida.

  39. ppnl
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    These freer will debates always seem to miss the point. The mystery is not free will but subjective experience itself. Our intuitive grasp on free will derives exactly from the fact that we experience our own thought process. Without subjective experiences there would be no free will debate.

    The experience of free will is to free will as the experience of color is to the wavelength of light.

    • Daniel
      Posted January 13, 2015 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

      I think of subjective experience as information.

      I think that a computer has a kind of subjective experience as well. Very different to our own, because it is equipped and constructed very differently. But a subjective experience all the same.

      It’s possible that the reason I find this so palatable is because I’m a software developer, so frequently have to put myself in the mindset of seeing the world from a computer’s perspective in order to work out how to architect a solution to a given problem. So I have a built-in intuition pump for how to think of a computer’s perspective on the world, and thus I find the idea of a computer having subjective experience easy to accept.

      If I’m right, then there’s no mystery really. Information is encoded into a physical medium. In our case, the medium of the mind is neurons and brain chemistry and in some cases the endocrine system, and so forth. Changes in those systems is changes in the encoding is changes in the information is changes to subjective experience.

      This way, as I see it, subjective experience can be explained entirely within the context of a monistic universe. No magical dualism needed. 🙂

      • ppnl
        Posted January 14, 2015 at 5:36 am | Permalink

        The problem is what we think isn’t relevant unless it connects to something observable. I can believe that a mouse trap is silently thinking to itself “Here mousey mousey mousey…” but unless there is something in physical law that requires it or something empirical that suggests it then my belief is empty.

        A computer program follows its programming deterministically. If it has experiences that fact can have no effect on the program. And you do not need to know if the program has experiences in order to know what it will do. This makes experiences utterly cut off from any empirical validation.

        But are experiences really cut off from any empirical validation? If they are then how can we be talking about them?

        • Daniel
          Posted January 14, 2015 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

          A computer program follows its programming deterministically.

          So are we. 🙂

          But are experiences really cut off from any empirical validation?

          Experience is subjective. So yes, it’s cut off.

          The closest we can get to experience empirically is to measure and manipulate the medium in which the information and experiences are encoded.

          This works. Manipulating the brain changes subjective experiences. Conscious attempts to alter the mental state in turn change the brain.

          Seems totally straightforward to me.

          I don’t understand why people such as yourself keep on insisting that there’s some big mystery in a system that seems totally straightforward to me.

          • ppnl
            Posted January 14, 2015 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

            But you missed the point. If experiences are cut off then how can we be talking about them? If experiences are cut off then a universe without subjective experiences would be empirically identical to a universe with subjective experiences. But would a universe without subjective experiences contain people having discussions of subjective experiences that they don’t actually have? It seems incoherent.

            I once read a science fiction book that as a minor plot point contained a strange religion. In this religion consciousness does not exist in this universe. They believed that complex patterns in this universe captured beings in another universe who experienced the events in this universe. They are our conscious minds. But the connection is only one way. So while they could experience events here they could have no control over them. They were helpless witnesses to events that they could not change. In this religion the highest act that you could perform is to commit suicide thus freeing the being in the other universe.

            But wait, if the information flow is one way and there can be no empirical evidence of the other universe then how do you explain the religion? Churches, temples and prayers are things and patterns in this universe. If they correspond to facts in the other universe then there must be some two way information flow.

            Same with subjective experiences. If we can talk about them then they cannot be empirically cut off because that very conversation is an empirical effect of their existence.

            • Daniel
              Posted January 14, 2015 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

              But you missed the point. If experiences are cut off then how can we be talking about them?

              Because the information that is the experience isn’t cut off. It’s encoded in the brain. So the information can still be accessed when we tell someone about it.

              It’s like you and I are standing on two separate locations, looking at the same mountain from two different perspectives. I can have a radio and describe to you what I can see on my side of the mountain. The information can still get to you even though you can’t see it directly.

              I think that subjective experience and information and the encoding of that information in a physical medium are three different perspectives on the same thing.

              Kind of like how a story and it’s physical encoding in the ink and paper of a book are different perspectives on the same thing.

              So we can ‘get at’ subjective experience by the roundabout methods of taking what people say about their subjective experience at face value or by establishing what modifications to the brain correlate with what changes in subjective experience.

              They actually have computer peripheral devices that scan brain activity as an input device for a computer. You can rotate objects, push and pull them, and move them up and down, all by just calibrating the device to interpret your brain accurately when you think about rotating the virtual object.

              I can never truly experience the world as you do. But I still have more than ample information available to justify the position that you very probably do have a subjective experience of your own that is in some way similar to my own.

              Basically, I deny the possibility of the philosopher’s zombie.

              But wait, if the information flow is one way and there can be no empirical evidence of the other universe then how do you explain the religion? Churches, temples and prayers are things and patterns in this universe. If they correspond to facts in the other universe then there must be some two way information flow.

              Same with subjective experiences. If we can talk about them then they cannot be empirically cut off because that very conversation is an empirical effect of their existence.

              That’s the thing: I think that subjective experience and information are the same thing. So there’s no flow from the brain to subjective experience and back again.

              It’s just a different perspective of the same mountain.

              • ppnl
                Posted January 14, 2015 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

                “Basically, I deny the possibility of the philosopher’s zombie.”

                Great, I like the idea. But as is it is driven by neither logic nor empiricism. It is a pure philosophical choice. Like a belief in an all powerful god that chooses to not be seen it really isn’t a scientific claim. It becomes meaningful only if you can ground it in empiricism.

                “I think that subjective experience and information are the same thing.”

                But again what you think isn’t the point. Without empirical grounding we can think anything we want.

                Say I take a cattle prod and slowly torture a dog to death over three days. That’s a horrific act and a serious crime in most places. But say I record the act. Am I recreating the experience of pain simply by replaying the data? Even if the recording includes detailed information about the neural states of the dog? If the information is the experience then a detailed enough movie must experience pain even if it only exists as flickers of light on a surface. It does not even have to look like a dog. The information can be displayed as a vast sequence of numbers.

                The information exists even if I do not play it back. So does the pain?

              • Daniel
                Posted January 14, 2015 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

                @ppnl

                It becomes meaningful only if you can ground it in empiricism.

                Direct measurement of subjective experience is impossible.

                You’re either open to indirect measurement (along the lines of heterophenomenology) or you are not.

                If you aren’t open to indirect measurement, then subjective experience can never be grounded in empiricism. By your own assertion, subjective experience could therefore never be meaningful. So why did you demand that we need to explain it in the first place if it can’t ever be meaningful?

                If you are open to indirect measurement of subjective experience for empirical validity, then what’s the problem?

                I could get stuck into the subject a bit more, but Jerry’s recently warned me off writing dissertations. I’ll just refer you to Consciousness Explained instead, because that book has several examples of how I think the information/consciousness thing I propose can be investigated empirically.

                Am I recreating the experience of pain simply by replaying the data?

                Movies aren’t detailed enough. You’d need a perfect simulated virtual copy of the dog for your example to work.

                I think a perfect simulation would be conscious (no zombies). Torturing the virtual dog is also immoral.

                Ian Banks explores the idea of torturing virtual consciousnesses in Surface Detail, which includes vivid descriptions of a virtual hellscape. It’s fictional but illustrates my view.

                It’s a good read in it’s own right if you like recent sci-fi. 🙂

              • ppnl
                Posted January 15, 2015 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

                “Heterophenomenology…”

                Yeah, not impressed. A philosophical zombie could go through all the same reasoning and get the same result. Thus it can’t be relevant. Don’t believe in philosophical zombies? Fine but you can’t just assume it or your whole argument becomes circular.

                I think this points at a hole in all the various behaviorists programs.

                “Movies aren’t detailed enough. ”

                I think this is wrong on many different levels.

                1)It’s a thought experiment. I can propose a movie as detailed as you want.

                2)In general it is easier to make a movie at a given level of detail than an actual simulation. Consider Conway’s game of life. Say you have a youtube video of a complex life pattern playing out beside a computer actually calculating the pattern. The patterns are the same and you could not tell them apart. The computer doing the calculations is using more computational resources making it more difficult. And since the game of life is computationally universal then you should be able to program a dogs brain being tortured in it. Is playing back the life pattern recreating the dogs pain?

                3)In a deep sense there is no difference between the movie and the program. In a sense the program is just a Kolomogorov-Chaitin compression of the movie. The extra computation needed by the program is just what is required to uncompress the information.

                4)Actual movies of the brain are what will be used to create brain programs. Three dimensional displays of neural activity are producing amazing results.

              • Daniel
                Posted January 15, 2015 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

                @ppnl

                Are you open to any form of indirect measurement of subjective experience?

                If so, what?

              • ppnl
                Posted January 16, 2015 at 11:48 am | Permalink

                “Are you open to any form of indirect measurement of subjective experience?”

                Your question puts the cart before the horse. Show me a proposed test and I will tell you if it impresses me.

                Beyond that it is hard to imagine any possible test. That is what makes the hard problem hard after all. But I am cautious. An argument to a failure of imagination isn’t really a logical argument so much as a logical fallacy. I could never have imagined how time and space could be redefined by Einstein. I could have never imagined the seeming magic of quantum computers before quantum mechanics. I could have never imagined how vastly complex biological organisms could come to be before Darwin gave us evolution.

                So open to the idea? Sure. What test? I have no clue and that is the point. One thing that I’m reasonably certain of is that the question will not be solved by philosophers playing word games.

    • Posted January 14, 2015 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      You mean: at first blush an easy map but in fact a very complicated matter?

      (Cf. _Color for Philosophers_.)

      • ppnl
        Posted January 14, 2015 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

        It isn’t complicated so much as inexplicable to the point of breaking all reason.

  40. Vaal
    Posted January 13, 2015 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    Jerry wrote: ‘I think this line of argument is bogus. There is no difference, I think, in being coerced by threats or social pressure, and being coerced by our neurons, which are in effect billions of tiny guns pointed at our head.”

    I see a number of people here have already voiced the skeptical thoughts about that line that popped into my head.
    Like others, my thoughts went immediately to the headlines inspired by Charlie Hedbo.

    The whole western world is up in arms over the issue of “freedom of speech” which it sees as threatened by the coercion of radical Islam. Would anyone for a moment accept this from one of the terrorists:

    “If anyone draws an image of or criticizes our prophet, he/she will be killed. If you think this is somehow ‘less free’ than your western ideals of ‘free speech’ then you are suffering under a delusion-of-freedom. There is no difference in being coerced by our threats of death for an action than your experience every day of being coerced by your neurons, which are in effect billions of tiny guns pointed at your head anyway. So your objections, as if there were any ‘real’ difference of worth between the ‘freedom’ you think you enjoy and the ‘lack of freedom’ we are said to threaten, are bogus.”

    No one would accept this line of reasoning, obviously, and your posts on Charlie Hedbo illustrate you are as concerned as everyone else about the difference between “free speech” as recognized by the west and the consequences of Islamic threats to that freedom.

    So this claim that depends on wiping away the notion of “freedom” because we are causally continuous with the rest of the world just doesn’t come off as consistent or sustainable.

    In the real world, people usually aren’t taken up with worrying whether they are “little contra-causal Gods in our head” – what worries people are real world differences in “freedoms of choice” of the type that is mobilizing the world right now over the Charlie Hedbo affair.

    Further, as Sastra has pointed out, there is the implied dualism often sneaking into your descriptions: “We” are being “coerced” by our neurons. But of course, as we would likely agree, there isn’t a separate “me” or “mind” for our neurons to “coerce,” – rather our minds ARE what our neurons are doing (or producing). So the very language doesn’t seem to make sense to me.

    As for the testability of free will (on the compatibilist view) I’ve suggested numerous times here that it is trivially testable. I’m a physical being. You can test to see if I have desires, and if I have powers of rationalizing actions to fulfill those desires (just as it’s done in social sciences, cognitive sciences etc every day). And if my claim is that I have the power to choose between various options, you can sit me down and test that.

    If the reply is the usual ‘but THAT’S not free will!” then the reply is:

    1. You’ve asked how compatibilist free will can be tested scientifically, not the libertarian/contra-causal version we both reject.

    2. We go back to the debate over whether compatibilism captures enough of what is important about ‘free will’ – and the current example of how important “freedom of choice” is in the compatibilist sense to everyday affairs is being written quite starkly across the world at this very moment.

    Finally:

    “compatibilists have decided in advance that their task is not to find the truth, but to buttress a conclusion they want to reach (i.e., we have free will)”

    I find that to be simply false in my case: I am not an incompatibilism (at this point) for exactly the reasons I’m not a Christian. When incompatibilists make their case, it doesn’t seem to hang together for me in a way that makes sense, and I find myself compelled toward the explanation that does seem the most consistent overall. Since I have a hard time believing I’m uniquely principled in this regard I see no reason to conclude other compatibilists, including philosophers, have a different agenda and aren’t really defending a view because they think it’s true/most reasonable.

    This dismissal of the compatibilist arguments along with honesty of their stated intentions seems no better than getting from Christians “you say you don’t believe in God but we know that’s not true – instead your rejection of God is motivated by your emotional desire to sin.”

  41. John Scanlon, FCD
    Posted January 14, 2015 at 1:45 am | Permalink

    Jerry writes: “You don’t have the ability to decide to “take steps to protect your autonomy”, for some people can reason in a way that makes them do that while others can’t. It’s not a free decision.”

    This seem to be implicitly defining ‘free will’ (like Catholic theologians?) as a universal property of humans, something that everybody must have all the time if it exists at all, while Dennett explicitly says that not everybody has it (at some particular time). Clearly you’re talking about different concepts.

    This is probably discussed above, I jumped down from the middle of the post and will now return there…

  42. Posted January 14, 2015 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    Excellent and convincing post -but then I was already a “hard” Determinist. I cannot envisage any sort of Freewill including Dennett’s.

    I have an objection to make against his idea that “reasoning” implies a non-determined freedom to choose our actions. In “Reasoning” to a “choice” we must refer, consciously or unconsciously, to knowledge held in our internal memory or use the vast external recorded memory bank of information accumulated by others present and past. This immediately imposes limits on what we can decide. We tacitly accept this by excluding responsibility in those below a certain age; also many sufferers from Alzheimer’s show plain evidence of their limits to Freewill.

    Human behaviour is either
    (1) involuntary reactions naturally-selected for survival advantage, -sometimes even giving us immediate reward or punishment, (e.g.fear, sexual climax or binge hangover.)
    (2) voluntary actions consciously expected to provide survival-advantage, either personal, communal AND/OR for our species, (e.g.love, theft or charity.)

    Both (1) and (2), result from mental activity in a unique brain. In given situations different brains will output slightly-to-completely different behaviours. This does not demonstrate freedom of action but is caused by the varying inherent ability and condition of each individual body/brain using its memories of previous experience to select its “choice”.

    Darwin’s application to join the “Beagle” expedition was his “choice” -but, being Darwin with his existing knowledge and experience, it was “determined”. Only Darwin could write “The Origin of Species”: it required his genetic make-up plus all his life-experiences and talents. So it is Darwin who richly deserves posterity’s due credit even though he “could not have done otherwise”.

    It matters little in fact whether we have Freewill or not because we must “judge” and “control” ourselves and fellow-humans since we are all such very inter-dependent but still competing members of huge complicated communal groups. I therefore do not agree with JAC, along with many scientists and philosophers, that Determinism even suggests let alone entails a sort of “Get out of jail free” whitewash and I concur with Dennett that such an interpretation could become a harmful popular “folk” conception. Denial of supernatural, omniscient foundation and enforcement does not make Morality as a concept irrational. It is a useful concept to describe the relative consequential values between actions.

  43. kelskye
    Posted January 14, 2015 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    I suppose in that sense we aren’t atomists because our conceptions of atoms are nothing like the original atomists had in mind. We aren’t heliocentrists either because the original heliocentrism didn’t take into account the elliptical nature.

    Some terms survive a better understanding of them. The notion of gravity shifted from Aristotle to Newton to Einstein, yet we still talk of gravity. There’s no “gravity is an illusion” type responses. Why can’t philosophers move forward with free will? Compatibilism has been around a lot longer than neuroscience, after all.

  44. kelskye
    Posted January 14, 2015 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    And the other difference between Sophisticated Theology™ and free will is that there’s something real we’re discussing when it comes to free will. It’s a discussion about human capacities and limitations, and they very much do exist. Trying to understand how our capacities and limitations relate to conception of choice is a lively topic to explore.

  45. Posted January 14, 2015 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    JAC:Free 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.

    But contrary to JAC,this is NOT dualistic or contra-causal freewill! It just doesn’t say what the “something more” is! It could be dualistic, or contra-causal – but it needn’t be. It could be something completely unknown, not yet found. We who think that determinism is wrong do not need to be able to explain what is right! Wejust need reasons for determinism being wrong, tho’ we may have no clue about what the right account is.

    • ppnl
      Posted January 14, 2015 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

      The problem with that is that you are making a claim about physics. There must be some physical mechanism that supports that component of biological behavior.

      But how would recognize such a physical mechanism even if you had it? You can’t ask a chemical reaction how it feels about its oxygen atoms. You can’t do a seance on a physical process to detect the inner ghost.

      And why couldn’t you program a computer to mimic the physical process thus creating philosophical zombies? And what if those philosophical zombies claimed that it was you who was really unconscious? How would you prove them wrong?

  46. Stephen T. Crye
    Posted January 14, 2015 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, thus article is both encouraging and dissapointing . I was pleased to learn that you, like I are in Cashmore’s camp, and that you don’t want to fall into the trap starting with the assumption of free will and searching for reasons sans scientific method to support that assumption.

    I was somewhat desperately hoping you could offer something beyond “quantum magic” to escape the determinism paradox. Perhaps you have addressed this in another post?

    Sincerely, a fan and felineophile,
    Steve

    • Stephen T. Crye
      Posted January 15, 2015 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      If I correctly understand this pingback:

      ” […] Coyne argues that there is no free will. That there cannot be free will… […]”

      Then I am sad, Jerry. If your position is that you have no free will, then I have been following, and enjoying the tweets of, a biological automaton. That would make me sad, and probably result in me exercising my actual non-automated free will to unfollow that automaton.

      Steve

      • Posted January 15, 2015 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

        You’ve expressed the real problem with determinism! Automatons can’t reason cogently about anything!

        • ppnl
          Posted January 16, 2015 at 1:23 am | Permalink

          Depends on your definitions. They can beat you at chess.

  47. StephenLawrence
    Posted January 15, 2015 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    It is not a question of Free Will either is or isn’t compatible with determinism. That way of thinking leads to this constant impasse. Clearly the term is used both in a way incompatible with determinism and compatible with determinism, depending upon the context.

    What compatibilists do tend to do is play down the fact that almost everybody believes in Libertarian Free Will and the difference between it and the compatibilist version with regard to moral responsibility.

    And it’s this difference we all should be trying to get at because it’s where the benefit of not believing in Libertarian Free Will lies.

    There is a Free Will illusion and it takes an effort to overcome it. In fact probably none of us quite can, except on reflection, not always immediately. The illusion is that when we look back on what we could have done, it seems like we are thinking about could have in the actual circumstances. That is because we leave out the other differences that would have had to be in place for the different action to have occurred.

    So we get the impression we were entirely to blame, as if we could have done otherwise without the need for anything out of our control to have been different, rather than circumstances not of our choosing would have had to be different for us to have done otherwise and we were merely unfortunate that they weren’t.

    • Posted January 16, 2015 at 4:28 am | Permalink

      Gosh Stephen, I wish I could be an incompatibilist like you are so I’d realize that I needn’t feel so guilty about the shabby way I treated some of my old girlfriends.

      • Posted January 16, 2015 at 9:36 am | Permalink

        howiekornstein “Gosh Stephen, …”

        I think this is exactly what Dennett has in mind: conception of a reduced sense of responsibility that may be misconstrued from Determinism! Equally Darwin would not be entitled to esteem for his seminal work.

      • StephenLawrence
        Posted January 16, 2015 at 10:56 am | Permalink

        “Gosh Stephen, I wish I could be an incompatibilist like you are so I’d realize that I needn’t feel so guilty about the shabby way I treated some of my old girlfriends.”

        If you are a compatibilist you disbelieve in Libertarian Free will, like me. You believe, like me, that circumstances beyond your control would have had to be different for you to have treated some of your old girlfriends better and you were unfortunate that they weren’t.

  48. Jake
    Posted January 15, 2015 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Thank goodness for this article, I thought it was just me!

    I can’t for the life of me understand compatiblism despite having bought Dennett’s book on it. I also can’t agree with his ideas about consciousness.

    He’s smart enough that I feel like I’m missing something, and it’s not like he doesn’t know about the common views on these subjects either. But then he says we’re all misguided because we’re not philosophers.

    • ppnl
      Posted January 16, 2015 at 1:33 am | Permalink

      Don’t worry about it. It’s mostly just a word game. I would say that until you agree on a physical and testable definition of free will it makes no sense to argue about it.

      I’m reminded on the argument over whether Pluto is a planet or not. Total crap. Just decide what baggage you want your definition to carry and choose a definition to fit. Stop pretending that there is any issue of fact in doubt. It’s a pointless word game.


One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] least as far as philosophy goes!) post and running subscriber commentary on Free Will  at his site Why Evolution is True. Coyne argues that there is no free will. That there cannot be free will. That since we are […]

%d bloggers like this: