Two guys walk into a bar. . . and discuss free will

Yes, that happened. During the TED Summit in Banff, Canada, Sam Harris managed to waylay Dan Dennett into a recorded discussion of their differences about free will. As you might recall, Sam published a short book on free will, with the eponymous title, and Dan went after Sam in a rather ascerbic way. (Dan is a “compatibilist,” who believes that although all human acts are determined by the laws of physics, we can still concoct some version of “free will” that is useful and, indeed, necessary. Sam, like me, sees little merit in that endeavor.)  Sam was both blindsided and hurt, but he did write a response (see my post on the kerfuffle, which has all relevant links).

I was saddened that there was bad blood between two of my friends, but, characteristically, Sam tried to resolve the issue and restore civil discourse by interviewing Dan on free will—in a Banff bar, and for an hour and forty minutes. Though they didn’t resolve their differences, at least they managed to restore their friendship, which is great.

The interview podcast was put on Sam’s site, and I’ve placed the link below in a screenshot (just click on it). The real discussion starts at 9:10.

If you’ve read Sam’s book, Dan’s two books on the subject, and their exchange, you might not learn much, but what I enjoyed about this discussion was the chance to hear two really smart and articulate guys go at it, brains humming furiously. Neither changes the other’s mind—nor did Dan change my mind and make me favor compatibilism—but it’s fun to watch the exchange of artillery on this intellectual Western Front.

In the end, they were really talking past each other, I think.  Sam’s point is that people really feel that they’re the agents of their own actions, and that compatibilism somehow avoids this, eliding the problems that people encounter when they realize that science deep-sixes that cherished idea. (Believe me, I’ve encountered many times the confusion and even anger people experience when they hear that their actions are determined by the laws of physics.) Sam notes that realizing the absence of dualism does “undermine people’s sense of their own personhood”, for people feel that they could have made choices other than the ones they did. It’s important that they know that they couldn’t.

Dan freely admits that determinism reigns; he even says, for the first time, I think, that yes, for most people free will is dualistic, a “ghost in the machine.” And the data show that. But Dan doesn’t seem to grasp that determinism has profound implications for how we run society—and our system of punishment and reward. (Yes, I know some readers will disagree.) Rather, Dan thinks that accepting the kind of compatibilist free will that, he says, “is worth wanting” (I don’t want it!) is important in keeping the social contract in force, and in preserving the crucial notion of moral responsibility.

The crux of the discussion is just that notion: that people must be held morally responsible for what they do; and there’s where Sam and Dan really did go hammer and tongs at each other. I agree with Sam, for I feel that people should surely be held responsible for their actions, for they are the entities that perform those acts and should be rewarded or punished depending on whether society wants to quash or promote future acts. So there’s no argument there. But Dan somehow wants to add more: the notion of morality.  And I see no need for that.

For when you tack the word “moral” onto the word “responsibility,” you’re adding the notion that the agent had a choice in what he or she did.  And most people agree with that idea. The one study I know of addressing the issue showed that, in four countries, people thought that in a deterministic world—a world, by the way, that most people thought we don’t live in—people would not be morally responsible for their actions. Dan explicitly states that he wants to push people toward accepting that moral responsibility.

As Dan has said before, abjuring specifically moral overtones to acts might erode society, making people act immorally. I don’t think that’s the case. As determinists we can maintain and justify the idea of personal responsibility on consequential grounds, but there’s nothing to be gained—and a lot to lose—by saying that the responsibility is a moral one. You can hear this discussion at about 47 minutes into the podcast.

As you’ll see, at the end of the discussion neither guy seems to have budged a millimeter in his views, but at least they’ve agreed on areas where they feel the same way. As for me, I continue to claim that philosophers should be spending their time working out the legal, behavioral, and psychological consequences of the determinism they accept, and not waste their time promoting compatibilist versions of free will that largely ignore determinism. Determinism has enormous practical implications; compatibilism has very few.

We can all accept determinism, at least those of us who accept science. Once we do that, do we really need to busy ourselves like mother birds, trying to regurgitate a palatable version of free will?

After Sam’s introduction and background, the two guys begin talking at 9:10. I think you’ll enjoy the intellectual combat, perfect for hearing on a lazy Sunday.

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  1. Diana MacPherson
    Posted July 10, 2016 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    I finished listening to this conversation Friday and I still couldn’t entirely understand Dan’s position. I think the fact that Dan and Sam agree on most things when it comes to determinism highlights the fact that the time spent arguing about free will isn’t as important as convincing the world about determinism.

    • Posted July 10, 2016 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      Agreed, but compatibilists rarely spend any time highlighting the consequences of determinism, which are, as I said, profound.

      • Posted July 10, 2016 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

        Determinism has enormous practical implications; compatibilism has very few.

        One could say that compatiblism *is* the “working out the legal, behavioral, and psychological consequences of the determinism they accept”.

        Afterall, compatibilism *is* determinism, just with different semantics.

        • rickflick
          Posted July 10, 2016 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

          I agree. After listening to the discussion, I find the two positions are actually the same, just in slightly different language and with slightly different emphasis.

        • Posted July 10, 2016 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

          Yes. We have noticed there are entities in the world that act, and entities that don’t. When we set about figuring out how to deal with, and perhaps more to the point, talk about, actors and their actions we are effectively espousing compatibilism.

  2. Posted July 10, 2016 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    When a neurotransmitter floats across a synapse to attach to a receptor on the surface of a postsynaptic neuron, I’d be fooling myself to think that I was truly sailing the boat.

    • Posted July 10, 2016 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      Given that you *are* that neurotransmitter and synpase and neuron, you *are* truly sailing the boat.

      • Posted July 10, 2016 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

        *I* suppose *I* also determine the action potential of my presynaptic neuron? Where is the location of the *I* that represents the licensed mariner steering my neurochemistry and how is that mechanism free? After all, if I am the neurotransmitter, synapse, and neuron, I might as well be the amino acids and hydrocarbons. But why stop there?

        • Somite
          Posted July 10, 2016 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

          You are the code run by the hardware known as brains.

          • Posted July 10, 2016 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

            Stochasticism degrades volition in the same way that monoamine oxidase degrades norepinephrine.

            • Somite
              Posted July 10, 2016 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

              This is not consistent with what we know about the neurophysiology of the brain. Lots of energy is spent to keep signals specific and non-arbitrary.

              • Posted July 11, 2016 at 8:17 am | Permalink

                Unless I take a MAO inhibitor, I’m not summoning this regulation of neurotransmitter activity. If I am, then I remain completely unaware.

        • Posted July 10, 2016 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

          You are your body, including your brain. You do indeed sail the boat, in exactly the same way that an aircraft autopilot really does pilot an aircraft.

          Of course both you and the autopilot are the way you are owing to prior causes. Nothing about that statement contradicts the previous one.

          • Posted July 10, 2016 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

            Given our non-elective corporality and the spectrum of its ability to function that’s contingent on additional non-elective factors, where’s all this unmitigated freedom coming from? Maybe the same place as the wind? I’ll go so far as to concede a mitigated range of agency, but the parameters of that range is not up to me.

            • Posted July 10, 2016 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

              where’s all this unmitigated freedom coming from?

              We do not have *unmitigated* freedom, we simply have “freedom”.

              The term “freedom” does not mean “acts contrary to the laws of physics”. For example, an object in “free fall” is still acting in accord with physics. Someone freed from jail or freed from slavery also does not have “unmitigated” freedom to violate the laws of physics.

              In the context of “free will”, the term “free” is about the presence or absence of social constraints. (Cf. “did you sign this contract of your own free will or were you coerced?”).

              • Posted July 10, 2016 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

                Of course, the presence or absence of social constraints was not anything that you were free to chose. Once you allow for mitigation, there is no limit to the constraints on your proposed freedom … and the goalpost can be invariably shifted.

              • Posted July 10, 2016 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

                Of course, the presence or absence of social constraints was not anything that you were free to chose.

                Agreed. Unmitigated freedom, in the sense that you refer to, simply doesn’t exist.

              • Posted July 10, 2016 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

                This is starting to sound like freedom of the gaps.

              • Posted July 10, 2016 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

                It’s not “freedom of the gaps”. The word “free” doesn’t mean and never has meant unmitigated freedom to do anything regardless of physics.

                Here are some usages of the word. Which of these do you interpret as meaning “acting contrary to physics”?

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

              • Vaal
                Posted July 10, 2016 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

                “It’s not “freedom of the gaps”. The word “free” doesn’t mean and never has meant unmitigated freedom to do anything regardless of physics. “

                (snip of list)

                Indeedy. It’s always fascinating that compatibilists are misunderstood to be changing terms, when compatibilists point out we appealing to the use of “free” as it is normally applied.

              • Posted July 10, 2016 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

                Everyone responds to internal and external stimuli based on causal necessity. Freedom is the word we “choose” to use when describing our inevitable responses. Whatever degree of “titrated” or stipulated freedom you permit via semantics is arbitrary. We can make our volition compatible with determinism in practice, but that doesn’t mean that it is in principle.

          • Scott Draper
            Posted July 10, 2016 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

            “You are your body, including your brain. ”

            That is a philosophical claim.

            I would offer another one: “You” is (are?) your subjective experience and only that. All of your desires and actions are things done to you, not by you.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted July 10, 2016 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

              We know it can’t be that simple. Subjective experience must be integrated bi-directionally with brain function, or we wouldn’t be able to talk about it.

              • Scott Draper
                Posted July 10, 2016 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

                You discuss it as if it were an empirical fact to be determined. It’s not. It’s philosophical point.

              • Posted July 10, 2016 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

                Being the evolved recipient of a *me* sensation does not imply integration since there was no freedom in engineering the foundation. For example, having a neurotypical experience of consciousness is just as much of an accident as being afflicted with Alzheimer’s.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted July 10, 2016 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

                John, I’m not following you. Whether or not we can be considered architects of our own minds seems an entirely separate question from that of whether subjective experience can affect (as opposed to merely being passively affected by) behavior — i.e. whether the information flow is unidirectional or bidirectional.

              • Posted July 10, 2016 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

                Yes, subjective experience is pragmatically operational in the bi-directional way you suggest. I’m just taking into consideration every variable that’s affecting the subjectivity itself (the vagaries of circumstance and chance).

            • Posted July 10, 2016 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

              “You” is (are?) your subjective experience and only that. All of your desires and actions are things done to you, not by you.

              And thus Cartesian body-soul dualism survives among people who think they are materialists.

              • Scott Draper
                Posted July 10, 2016 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

                Not at all. No one denies the existence of a subjective experience.

              • Posted July 10, 2016 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

                Determinism and the epiphenomenalism of consciousness is not a form of body-soul dualism.

              • Posted July 10, 2016 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

                It comes out to the same thing really: to make a difference between the material body which is alien to the self and the immaterial True Self that merely inhabits the body, like some kind of vehicle.

                The main difference is that the dualist free-willer thinks that the immaterial passenger can (somehow) override cause-and-effect from outside, while the dualist incompatibilist visualises the immaterial passenger as a powerless captive who has to watch as the body it is imprisoned in shambles around blindly following case-and-effect. But the dualism is precisely the same, and comparable to claiming that processing activity is the True Computer.

                I, at least, do not see myself as a little thing riding in a body. I am my body; I am not helplessly watching cause-and-effect, I am part of the chain. If you swing your fist towards me I am not going to say “hey, why did you hit the body I happen to inhabit?” I am going to say “hey, why did you hit me?”

              • Posted July 10, 2016 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

                “I, at least, do not see myself as a little thing riding in a body. I am my body; I am not helplessly watching cause-and-effect, I am part of the chain.”

                Neither do I. If I was felt that helpless, I’d never pay my property taxes at the end of the year. I suppose we’re creating two parodies of each other’s position. Forgive me. To put it another way, human volition is a powerful sensation subject to chemical processes rather than a fundamental or reliable default mechanism of consciousness. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the reality of the sensation and exert my “will” with relative confidence, but remain mindful of it’s stochastic underpinnings. I guess you could say I’m a functional compatibilist whenever I make a bank deposit, but I’m a fundamental determinist mindful of the emergent and fluctuating framework of empirical restraints generating my thoughts and behaviors when I’m driving in traffic.

              • Posted July 10, 2016 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

                Sorry also from my side if we have been talking past each other. That seems to happen a lot in these discussions…

          • Posted July 10, 2016 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

            I guess I would say that being the beneficiary of freedom with the inexorable stipulations of determinism, isn’t a compatibilism “worth having.” But call me old-fashioned.

          • Posted July 10, 2016 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

            No. I’m referring to the unmitigated freedom to decide what the *I* is, or where it can be neuro-anatomically located. What heuristic makes this determination? Without a core self, which there doesn’t appear to be one, discussions about what is “willed” are like striking a wet match.

  3. Posted July 10, 2016 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for your clear, succinct account of the differences between Harris and Dennett.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted July 10, 2016 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      Same here. The Dan Dennett form is very confusing for the average person. Sometimes seems like being a little bit pregnant. Harris is likely bending over backward not to cause another event between them but it leaves one scratching the head. Thanks for helping with that.

  4. Somite
    Posted July 10, 2016 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    i think I can summarize Dan’s positions and please correct me if I’m wrong.

    1. Physics and determinism are not that relevant when discussing free will because brains are computational devices that can deterministic or undeterministic outputs depending on the computation. Pinker illustrates this by comparing the output of a knee-jerk reflex with output that engages the frontal cortex.

    2. Even if some of the computation is done unconsciously, your brain is still you, and you aré responsible for your brain’s output. I think everyone agrees with this but disagree on the interpretation of whether this is free will or not.

    • Posted July 10, 2016 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      I think you are right on 2 but not on 1. The compatibilist position does not appeal to non-determinism at all.

      • Posted July 10, 2016 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

        I think you mis-read what Somite said in point 1. Somite’s Dennett is saying that it’s the computational properties that matter. Since many algorithms can be implemented satisfactorily with either deterministic or indeterministic approaches, determinism doesn’t matter, only the algorithm matters.

        • Somite
          Posted July 10, 2016 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

          Right. Physics or determinism are the wrong levels when discussing brains and their activity. A neurophysiologist has as much use of physics as a software engineer. Very little if any at all.

    • Kevin
      Posted July 10, 2016 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

      Humans need not be involved. An electron obeys the laws of physics; it’s dynamics are fully deterministic. Yet we can not precisely predict it’s future. It’s existence is compatible with free will, only inthe sense that we cannot distinguish a universe where the electron has free will from a universe where it does not.

      • Posted July 11, 2016 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

        I disagree. Since an electron has no memories, beliefs, or desires, it has no will, never mind a free one. A certain level of computational complexity is required before a system becomes an agent with a will.

  5. Posted July 10, 2016 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    One’s being “responsible” instead of being “morally responsible” seems to sacrifice a word that has strong honorific connotations but an unclear denotation. Doesn’t that sacrifice resemble the currently popular one of a person’s giving up “righteously obeying God’s commandments” for being “Good without God”?

    • Posted July 10, 2016 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. We don’t accept the theists who say that “morality” is about obeying God, and we assert that morality is nothing to do with theism.

      Similarly, we should not accept those who say that morality is about dualistic contra-causal free will.

      There is no difference between that PCC calls “the idea of personal responsibility on consequential grounds” and what a compatibilist calls “moral responsibility”.

      You *could* re-write the language to remove the word “moral”, but the practical difference would be none.

      Incompatibilist: a determinist who agrees with a compatibilist, but wants a wholesale re-writing of the language.

      Compatibilist: a determinist who agrees with an incompatibilist, but who prefers to interpret language deterministically rather than re-write it.

      • rickflick
        Posted July 10, 2016 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

        It’s an interesting question: How do you deal with concepts without involving language and meanings, which can be confusing and lead to miscommunication? The key, I think, is to check definitions initially, and come to an agreement. So, what is your definition of “moral” in the term “moral responsibility”? My observation is the differences here are pretty small once you get through the language issues.

      • GBJames
        Posted July 11, 2016 at 6:56 am | Permalink

        Dropping the word “moral” from “moral responsibility” is wholesale re-writing language?

        It seems to me, then, that all arguments would be wholesale re-writes of language.

  6. James Morgan
    Posted July 10, 2016 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Look…. bottom line…. Dan hasn’t a clue. He’s stuck in his head. He thinks it is possible to control ‘your’ thoughts. Which is just hilarious. But then. So do most people.

    • Richard
      Posted July 10, 2016 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      I agree. He pays lip service to determinism, but on an emotional level he seems to think that we really do possess the libertarian free will that physics says is impossible.

    • Vaal
      Posted July 10, 2016 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

      James Morgan,

      Have you read Dan’s “Consciousness Explained?” Your post suggests a closer look at Dan’s arguments would be beneficial. (For instance, it’s the standard, felt sense of control that in some ways his book is meant to dispel).

      But in the end, we STILL have phenomena to describe about our deliberations and actions, and being in “more control” in some situations and “less control” in others is still a fruitful, even necessary, way to understand ourselves.

      What is the difference between someone who very much wants to eat desert and won’t wait until everyone else is served before diving in, and someone who also has that strong urge, but can wait for everyone else to be served first? It’s pretty much the types of differences we see between young children and adults, and being able to think more carefully about our actions, consider which desires are better to follow to get what we want, is exhibiting more control.

      Blanket ideas like “no one controls his thoughts” are unhelpful, if not outright false in this way, IMO.

      • Posted July 10, 2016 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

        Incompatibilists seem to want to ignore a whole range of relevant, *important* phenomena. Reduce, reduce, reduce!

  7. Richard
    Posted July 10, 2016 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Dan was civil enough in this exchange, but his intellectual and philosophical performance cost him some of my respect for him (not that he would have reason to care, of course).

    Sam must have stung him a bit when he said that Dan’s views on free will “smell of theology,” but in my view that is an accurate analysis. In his insistence on the necessity of compatibilism, Dan is like those 19th century atheist intellectuals who rejected god for themselves but who insisted that religion was noble and necessary for the common man and for the preservation of moral order.

    Dan has remarked that there “is no polite way” to tell someone that their life of religion has been a waste, but he insists on that same impossible politeness when his own cherished beliefs are attacked. This, I think, is why I am having trouble respecting Dan as much as I used to: In the final analysis, he cannot take what he is willing to dish out.

    • Eric Grobler
      Posted July 10, 2016 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      ” Dan is like those 19th century atheist intellectuals who rejected god for themselves…”

      What is wrong with the notion? Humans are not natural atheists or determinists and many people are perhaps not intelligent enough to live without celestial supervision.

      • Richard
        Posted July 10, 2016 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

        What’s wrong is that it’s the sort of notion that Dan is famous for attacking. As one of the so-called New Atheists, Dan has led the charge against the idea that everyday people have to be protected from the truth about the nonexistence of god. So what I’m pointing out is an apparent lack of consistency on Dan’s part.

        • Eric Grobler
          Posted July 10, 2016 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

          Interesting, what is your view? Do you think humans need some sort of religion to be functional?

          Perhaps we need a secret committee of psychologists and philosophers to design a benign religion,

    • Vaal
      Posted July 10, 2016 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

      But, Richard, you are just attributing to Dan a view he does not defend, and has consistently pointed out to people that is not what he argues.

      Dan thinks it’s simply a mistake to conclude Free Will doesn’t exist. Not BECAUSE of the consequences if it didn’t exist, but because he thinks incompatibilists are just making some errors in their thinking about the subject. Just as a philosopher thinks any other viewpoint is mistaken.

      But Dan also thinks the CONSEQUENCES of saying Free Will doesn’t exist may be bad ones. Which is one reason he thins it is a compelling philosophical area of dispute, and spends time on it.

      The attitude you are expressing toward Dan’ position is sort of like when Christians say to New Atheists “If you don’t believe in God, WHY do you spend any time arguing against God? You probably know God exists but just don’t like the consequences if God exists.”

      We know this really misses the mark, right? We think it’s an error, unwarranted, to conclude “God exists” or “Christianity is true.” But the reason we spend time arguing against it is because we think that error has bad consequences as well.

      Same with Dan and Free Will. Which is why, properly understood, the charge that he’s acting like a theologian, or defending a view not on what he views as the truth, but on the consequences if it were believed, just isn’t accurate.

      • Richard
        Posted July 10, 2016 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

        It looks like you are correct. Listening to the talk, I couldn’t be sure how seriously Dan actually does hold to the idea of free will, given that he is a determinist who rejects libertarian free will. But if he does in fact believe in free will of any sort, I was mistaken to suggest that he defends an idea that he himself doesn’t believe.

        I do stand by my larger point, though, that Dan’s views do smell of theology and that even if they didn’t, Dan should not have taken offense so easily. Dan has spoken bluntly about the views of the religious, and he should be willing to take what he dishes out to others, especially from someone like Sam whose reputation for fairness and honesty is sterling. Sam was not trying to hurt Dan; he was just saying what he thought, as honestly as he could.

        But I do think that Sam is right, that Dan’s views on free will are quasi-theological. To be honest, I’m not even sure if his views on free will are entirely coherent, but to summarize them as fairly as I can, it sounds like he thinks of free will as being similar to the ranges of motion, say, of joints or levers. The lever isn’t free to move left or right, but it is free to move up or down at its leisure. Similarly, I’m not free to solve mathematical problems that are beyond my talents and intellect, but I am free to choose water or tea. Hence, free will.

        But this sort of “freedom” breaks down when scrutinized closely enough, and this is why I say that Dan’s views are incoherent. The lever may appear free to go up or down, and in common parlance we do speak and think in those terms, but at a physical level there is no freedom in the lever at all: it goes up or down when pushed or pulled, and it is held in position by friction and other forces; on a physical level, the lever is no more free to be down when in the up position than it is free to be left or right.

        And the same is true of people. If you accept—and I think that Dan does accept this—that consciousness is generated by brains that are subject utterly and completely to the laws of physics, then brains are no more free than the lever. It may feel as though I am free to choose water or tea, but in reality I am compelled to choose whatever my brain state compels me to choose. To reject the physical nature of brains and/or the generation of consciousness by brains is to suggest the sort of “ghost in the machine” thinking that Dan clearly rejects, if I’m not mistaken.

        The best analogy I can think of to describe Dan’s view of free will is that of vitalism, the idea that a “life force” exists within life and separates life from non-life. On an everyday level, there is a clear difference between life and non-life, just as with free will and physical compulsion. And on a naively intuitive level, it can seem that there is something physically special about life that makes it different in kind and not in degree from the non-living physical forces and interaction around us. But scrutinized closely enough, the boundaries between life and non-life blur, and it becomes physics all the way down. There’s no categorical difference between a rock falling to earth and a person falling in love; it’s just degrees of complexity that separate the two.

        Life really is just highly complicated physics; consciousness really is just highly complicated physics. Dan seems able to admit that life is physics, but he seems to cling to free will as intellectuals used to cling to vitalism. So maybe Dan’s belief doesn’t smell of theology, but it does smell of 19th century bad philosophy.

        • Vaal
          Posted July 10, 2016 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

          “But this sort of “freedom” breaks down when scrutinized closely enough, and this is why I say that Dan’s views are incoherent. The lever may appear free to go up or down, and in common parlance we do speak and think in those terms, but at a physical level there is no freedom in the lever at all: it goes up or down when pushed or pulled, and it is held in position by friction and other forces; on a physical level, the lever is no more free to be down when in the up position than it is free to be left or right.”

          And Dan will reply (as he has so often) that you are shifting to a level where the relevant freedom – which is a real thing – will not be seen. Exactly like someone who says that sure, we may think cherry pies are real, but IF YOU GO DOWN to the level of physics, you won’t find cherry pies anywhere: atomic particles that make up the world don’t “really” have characteristics like “being red, sweet, savory, yielding flaky crust,” etc. Therefore cherry pies “don’t really exist.” Surely the mistake there seems obvious: it’s looking for cherry pies at the wrong level of physics. Yes it’s physics all the way down, but going back “up” physics results in all sorts of entities with different characteristics and behaviors that we need to describe. Atoms in the form of a cherry pie have relevant differences to atoms doing “Photosynthesis” or “barking like a dog” things.

          It is exactly the same for degrees of freedom. The fact physics underlay every lever doesn’t mean every lever is the same, or is in the same situation relative to other physical objects. Just like “it’s all physical particles” is useless for our describing the difference between a man in Jail who has actions he is restricted from taking, with someone who isn’t imprisoned and who isn’t restricted in that way.

          Dan seems to me to be obviously correct about this. It seems far more coherent and realistic to recognize these levels of description, than to say “well, these things at higher level physical descriptions don’t really exist.” THAT latter proposition does far more damage, and results in much more incoherence, IMO.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted July 10, 2016 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

            Moreover, if you’re going to deny the reality of higher-level entities such as choices and intentions, you’d better be prepared to do the same for “genes and environment”, which are after all just collections of atoms doing what atoms must do.

            • Posted July 11, 2016 at 11:56 am | Permalink

              An exercise I did once (and should write up) is to read some of the literature on whether causality only applies at the basic levels of reality (if at all) and replace “mental” with “chemical”. I did this with Jaegwon Kim’s _Mind in a Physical World_, which was instructive. (Hint: he has to deny chemical causation, which sounds bizarre.)

              I think the problem is not getting enough insight into why exactly “causal overdetermination” is a bad thing. I *think* I’m (for once) close to Hilary Putnam on this.

          • Posted July 11, 2016 at 5:01 pm | Permalink


            You mean there are no cherry pions? Perish the thought!

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted July 10, 2016 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

          I think the analogy Dennett would endorse is that dualism is to free will as vitalism is to life. Discarding the woolly metaphysics doesn’t oblige us to deny the existence of the phenomenon it was meant to explain.

    • Posted July 10, 2016 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

      Incompatibilism is at least as much like theology as compatibilism. Consider the fatalism of “god has a plan”. Consider the relationship between pre-determinism and Calvinism.

  8. Posted July 10, 2016 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  9. Posted July 10, 2016 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Strictly speaking, it’s not true that any material system’s actions are determined by the laws of physics. You need boundary conditions in addition to laws, before you can predict the system’s behavior.

    Meanwhile, it would be accurate to turn it around and say that the laws of physics are determined by the nature of the stuff in the universe. Stuff which includes us. The laws of nature are not imposed on us from outside.

    Incompatibilism is a cognitive illusion brought about by replacing scientific notions of causality, laws, and so on with intuitive ones. But intuitive ideas of causality, when extended beyond our familiar spatial and time-scales, contain errors just as severe as intuitive dualism about the human mind. The laws of nature are not an external will, overriding your own. Your neurons are not agents of a hostile takeover of your body. Etc, etc.

  10. Posted July 10, 2016 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know why, but free will discussions always remind me of the movie Groundhog Day.

  11. Ken Kukec
    Posted July 10, 2016 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    I started listening to a recording of Sam’s podcast of this conversation while driving yesterday. Good to know that a jus in bello accord has been reached on “this intellectual Western Front,” even if no armistice is in the offing.

  12. itunic
    Posted July 10, 2016 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    i believe that there is a distinction between “responsibility” and “moral responsibility”

    both have consequential bases, but Harris’s view can have negative pragmatic implications (he claims that the implications are only positive because we are more understanding and do not seek redemption)

    if Harris’s view is adopted, i can easily see someone taking advantage of it by claiming they were not responsible for their action because they had a tumor (pay the doctor to mis-diagnose them) and get away with any action

    Dennet’s view would not allow this to happen, because the person would be held morally accountable for their action and be punished accordingly

    • rom
      Posted July 10, 2016 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think this is true at all.

      If I have a tumor that is causing aberrant behaviour it should be removed and we can see if I can function normally. I see no problem here.

      If I am trying one on, we can have an exploratory lobotomy to remove the imaginary tumor.

      Moral responsibility is a nonsense, at least in my opinion. I would sooner live in the real world and find a path in that world rather than live in some make-believe world.

      I would not want to purposefully live a lie.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted July 10, 2016 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      In one of Sam’s replies to Dan’s criticism he alleges that Dan glides from an individual’s ‘free will’ to a third person’s view of ‘free will’ without acknowledging the change in viewpoint.

      I think this is a key to unravelling the arguments. If you were marooned on an island with no hope of rescue or other human companions I’d argue that all your actions would be deterministic and they couldn’t be illegal or immoral because there is no-one to hold you to account. I guess True Believers might blame themselves if the went against their deities laws, but that’s a separate argument.

      Once you are surrounded by other people they judge your (still deterministic) actions from the ‘outside’ against the standards of behaviour expected of a ‘reasonable person’. They cannot understand your full prior states so they infer a personal contrary ‘free will’ – because a ‘reasonable person’ wouldn’t break the rules/laws/morals/gods commandments.

      So… I have no free will but a consequence of other people granting me personhood is that they project a 3rd party ‘free will’ upon me. A game I can’t help but play, unless I become a hermit.

      • rom
        Posted July 10, 2016 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

        Oh I think some might think it immoral that you eat the endangered turtle eggs just to survive.

        Morality is used as a club to get people to do what we want. Calling something immoral saves us the bother of thinking.

        Evolution has endowed us the capability to have a sense of morality. It is society [for the most part] that fills this capacity.

  13. Posted July 10, 2016 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    “As Dan has said before, abjuring specifically moral overtones to acts might erode society, making people act immorally. I don’t think that’s the case.”

    I think that would be the case in very limited instances. If you are a borderline sociopath, believing you don’t have free will might make it easier to live with yourself when committing an immoral act, and therefor make you more likely to commit one.

    • Posted July 10, 2016 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

      I may be wrong but I thought that sociopaths
      (borderline, or otherwise)do not relate to or care about other people. I seriously doubt that morality and free will crosses their minds much, if at all.

      Morality is a social construct and varies from culture to culture. There is no universal morality applicable to all people. It may be “moral” for people of certain religions to kill people of other religions as instructed by their Gods, holy books, religious leaders, cultures or whatever. We don’t all agree on what is moral.

      If we talk about neurons and other elements of the brain being “us”, let’s also talk about bacteria and viruses in our bodies that we require in order to live the symbiotic lives we live being “us” also? If they can cause us to live in ways that benefit them whether or not it benefits us,are they not to that extent in control of “us”?

      Regardless of how and whether or not this issue can be resolved by Harris and Dennett, or the rest of us, I’d prefer to learn and live what is real and provable without requiring an overlay of semi-mystical control like “morality”.

      • Posted July 10, 2016 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

        “I may be wrong but I thought that sociopaths
        (borderline, or otherwise)do not relate to or care about other people.”

        From what I understand sociopathy is a spectrum. It runs from a complete lack of empathy to a poorly developed sense of empathy.
        If you completely lack empathy, and do not care about people at all whether you believe you have free will or not is irrelevant.
        If you’re on the border, and don’t care so much about people, believing it’s not your fault, and you aren’t to blame might make it easier to express that diminished empathy.

  14. Posted July 10, 2016 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    I tend to see Dennett’s compatibilism in terms of political economy. It is a defense of the neoliberal consensus of the last 80 years against Marxism, communism, and authoritarianism. It favors the strong rewards and punishments of democratic capitalism and the broad individual liberties that such systems often entail. It values this liberty over fairness and justice.

    That is why a gun to your head is, for Dennett, a violation of “free will worth having,” while all the other deterministic components of an environment are downplayed. His is a political, not metaphysical, construction of free will, and it fears the consequences of an enlightened public policy.

    Will people make the best decisions once we soften punishments and lessen rewards? Will society function worse when deontological folk morality is replaced with consequentialism? Will even well-meaning governments curtail some of our freedoms in order to produce better environments and outcomes for the disadvantaged? Are they going to take some more of my grapes to make the wine of justice?

    That’s the best I can make of Dennett’s position, and I’ve been trying for years and years. Personally I don’t buy the argument, and continue to believe that this debate is a semantic swamp that needs to be drained, so that we can have the conversation about political values underpinning the compatibilist position.

  15. Chukar
    Posted July 10, 2016 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    In physics, the momentum of an object can be altered by environmental vector forces that impinge upon it. E.g. gravity, collision, electromagnetism.

    For any human, the major component of its environment is other humans. Thus the majority of force vectors which may alter a human’s momentum (or “behavior”) will come from other humans. E.g.: communication, opprobrium or reward, positive or negative reinforcement, physical punishment or sustenance, social or “moral” pressure, whether positive or negative.

    Morality is merely the group’s collection of social force vectors, created for and used to limit the behavior of any member of the group. For any particular individual human, most such vectors were determined long before their membership in the group began.

    The number of such social vectors and the complexity of their interactions, over potentially long periods of time, will prevent any complete vector analysis to determine why any one human does anything.

  16. Scott Draper
    Posted July 10, 2016 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    I’m baffled by this idea of “moral responsibility.” As near as I can tell, it means that your subjective experience deserves torture without regard to the resulting behavior change result.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted July 10, 2016 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      Dennett said nothing remotely like that. What he said (fairly clearly, I thought) is that people have pragmatic intuitions about justice and culpability, and if the law is radically misaligned with those intuitions, people will lose respect for it. That’s a consequentialist argument.

      • Scott Draper
        Posted July 10, 2016 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

        Why do you think I’m talking about Dennett? This is a problem with pretty much anyone who attempts to discuss this subject.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted July 10, 2016 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

          I thought Dennett’s and Harris’s notions of moral responsibility are what this thread is about. But if you’d rather attack random straw men that nobody here is defending, knock yourself out.

          • Scott Draper
            Posted July 10, 2016 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

            I haven’t attacked anything. And no, Dennett’s and Harris’ ideas of moral responsibility have never been discussed. The only thing that’s been discussed is relationship of free will to moral responsibility, which is undefined.

    • Posted July 10, 2016 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

      I am not baffled by the idea of moral responsibility. Moral means showing a decent regard to the effects of your actions on others. Responsibility means understanding the consequences of your actions. A toddler who shoots her brother with a loaded gun her father carelessly left sitting on the coffee table has no moral responsibility. Her father, assuming he is mentally capable, does. What is baffling about that?

      • Scott Draper
        Posted July 10, 2016 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

        Your definition doesn’t match how it’s used in the discussion, because otherwise the issue of free will vs no free will would be irrelevant.

  17. Vaal
    Posted July 10, 2016 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    I agree it was just fun to listen to too smart guys trying to figure paths through a complicated subject.

    Though I understood and agreed with lots of what Dan said, I think Sam came across with the more clear, concise proposals and questions. He really is a marvel of clarity.
    (Well, in most respects, sometimes I do think he can get a bit squishy).

    In contrast, Dan seemed to ramble a bit. I could see the connection between what Dan was saying in answering a question from Sam, but I too often thought Dan needed to make that connection more pointedly and clearly.
    Which means I can see why some have concluded Dan wasn’t really answering Sam’s questions.

    Also, I noted the point were Dan seemed to sort of hand Sam the ball on the idea that people “seem to experience” a Libertarian sense of free will. Dan seemed to sort of concede that to Sam at one point, as Jerry notes, and I groaned listening to it. Because Dan, if you listen to everything else he says and usually writes, doesn’t actually do that. He usually argues against the idea he is providing a totally alternative free will to that which people think they experience. So Dan to me dropped the ball there and muddied the waters.

    The conversation really brought out that it is the subjective *experience* we have during decision-making that Sam associates with the Libertarian Free Will illusion, and insofar as you grant this, then Sam wants to say “Since THAT is how people feel when making a decision, THAT is what most people think of as Free Will. And if compatibilism allows that THAT experience is illusory, then it really isn’t connecting with what most people think of as free will.”

    To get through to Sam, or answer him, one really needs to specifically challenge that.
    Which Dan didn’t do precisely enough.

    I’ve challenged this claim of Sam’s here here numerous times, from a compatibilist stance, so won’t bother going into it again.

    It was interesting to see how both of those smart minds think about the subject.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted July 10, 2016 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

      It’s been a few days since I listened to it, but I thought Dennett did address the subjectivity of conscious choice with his example of the tennis player who works long and hard at honing her reflexes and developing a repertoire of serves and returns, and during gameplay, consciously assesses her opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and plans out how best to counter or exploit them, all so that in the moment when the ball comes over the net, her body knows what to do without thinking.

      Is she wrong to think she’s the author of that hair-trigger response? Dennett says she is the author in the sense that it couldn’t have happened without years of intense, focused preparation on her part. And that’s what conscious choice is about: engaging our conscious intent over time to smooth the way for split-second decisions in the moment.

      • Vaal
        Posted July 10, 2016 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

        Yes, Gregory (and I’m going on memory too) that’s the type of thing I mean. If you listen to the rest of what Dan says, both in that conversation and in his other writing, he does address Sam’s concern about “what it is like to make decisions.” Which is why I groaned when he seemed to capitulate at one point to Sam’s claims about Libertarianism capturing the felt experience of choice making. Dennett was perhaps saying “Ok, for sake of argument, I give you that…but here’s why it still doesn’t matter..”

        But even conceding it for argument, given how central it is to the disagreement Sam has with Dan, seems to have unnecessarily conceded just the wrong thing, and muddied Dan’s point.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 10, 2016 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

      I agree with what you said about Dan’s part in the conversation. I was really looking forward to hearing him explain his views and he had some good metaphors, but I found I got confused. Maybe Dan and Sam need to write a short book together about Free Will. I’d really like to read that!

    • Posted July 11, 2016 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

      I agree with Vaal that Dan kinda dropped the ball on the first-person experience of decision making. He should have pressed Sam to explain what, precisely, the compatibilist account is supposedly missing. For example, no one personally experiences a rewinding of the universe’s history, so why should people’s opinions about that wild scenario count for much? On the other hand, people experience their decisions as causing their behavior – and in fact, yes that’s true. People think they don’t have to scientifically discover their future behavior but can just decide it – and that’s true too! When we get up close and personal to people’s experience, we find them asserting stuff that’s perfectly compatible with modern science. It’s when we get into wild philosophical or sci-fi scenarios that people’s intuitions about free will go awry. They have a false theory, and in weird cases it leads them astray. The same applies to “consciousness”, but Sam doesn’t deny consciousness exists.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted July 11, 2016 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

        My guess is that if you poll people at random about what they think free will means, the number of people who would volunteer, without prompting, some scenario about rewinding the universe would be negligible.

        Sure, if you make it a multiple-choice question with that as one of the possible answers, I daresay you could get some votes for it. But that doesn’t necessarily reflect what people really think; it tells us only what they’re willing to agree to when pressed.

  18. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted July 10, 2016 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    I taught my senior capstone class this summer, and I decided to expand the content of suggested topics that students might choose to research and talk to us about. Among the added topics was the issue of free will. As I do for each topic, i briefly summarized the issue, and I thought the students were pretty amazed and baffled that experimental evidence shows we do not have free will.

    • Vaal
      Posted July 10, 2016 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

      Possibly they were baffled because they were told the experiments establish more than they actually establish 😉

    • Posted July 10, 2016 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

      Out of curiosity, do you also teach that a free press is impossible because of determinism?

  19. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted July 10, 2016 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Its hard to find jokes about free will, but here is one.

    A young couple came into the church office to fill out a pre-marriage questionnaire form. The young man, who had never talked to a pastor before, was quite nervous and the pastor tried to put him at ease.

    When they came to the question, “Are you entering this marriage of your own free will?” there was a long pause.

    Finally, the girl looked over at the apprehensive young man and said, “Put down yes.”

    • Vaal
      Posted July 10, 2016 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

      Love it.

      The most succinct description I’ve ever heard between “before being married” and “being married” is: “you need to give a reason to ever leave the house.”

      *sound of door creaking open* *shout from other room* “where are you going??!!”

    • GBJames
      Posted July 11, 2016 at 7:13 am | Permalink


      Thanks for a morning guffaw!

  20. Joshua Thom
    Posted July 10, 2016 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    How does one not become fatalistic? I am having a problem with this. Losing the idea of free will has been much worse for me that losing religion. (my deconversion was slow and somewhat painful)

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted July 10, 2016 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

      I think the absence of individual free will means that you are required to be fatalistic about the past – what happened, happened, and it couldn’t have been any other way.

      However the future contains a great many ‘states’ that you cannot completely know in advance – so you predict those future states with any clarity and you shouldn’t be fatalistic about the future. Until after it happens.

      So you can’t say ‘I am fated to become a candlestick maker’ only ‘It was inevitable that I would become a candlestick maker’.

      • DiscoveredJoys
        Posted July 10, 2016 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

        “…so you *can’t* predict those future states with any clarity.”


      • Vaal
        Posted July 10, 2016 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

        But that doesn’t solve the problem of fatalism. IF you take the view about anything you just did that “I could not have done otherwise” this projects to any future thing you do. It’s just as “fatalistic” in that sense, and what you suggests is more a way of deciding to ignore it, rather than resolve the problem.

        If, as some incomptibilists like Jerry, you say you can console yourself with “I couldn’t have done otherwise” for any past mistake, the same can be reasoned about any present of future choice. You can say “whatever I choose, I couldn’t choose otherwise” and if one is going to forgive weaknesses of will that happened “yesterday” then you will be able to excuse the same weakness of will you are about to choose, knowing tomorrow you can rationalize away guilt with “I couldn’t really have done otherwise.”

        This is the fatalism that some incompatibilist positions can imply even while it is explicitly denied.

        • Joshua Thom
          Posted July 10, 2016 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

          Vaal, thank you for the reply.

          I found Sam Harris’s argument convincing and Daniel Dennett’s not convincing.

          I have been struggling to make changes in my life for the last several years. I am a very bad procrastinator. And it seems that no matter how hard I try to do better I always seem to fail. I don’t want to be a fatalist. I want to have control over my life. So being fatalist about the past is one thing, but then being fatalistic about the future has honestly made me want to give up. When I believed in free will I had hope for the future(and when I believed in religion for that matter but to a lesser extent). If I have no control why even try? That is the stat of mind that I find myself in now.

          So I was wondering if other people have this problem with the way they look at the future.

          • Somite
            Posted July 10, 2016 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

            People can modify their behavior through training or simply the will to do so.

            We have these discussions about free will knowing perfectly well that humans do make choices with the goals of self-preservation or improvement all the time.

            • Joshua Thom
              Posted July 10, 2016 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

              Somite “People can modify their behavior through training or simply the will to do so.”

              If we don’t have free will then how can we have the “WILL TO DO SO”?

              • Somite
                Posted July 10, 2016 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

                That would be for the incompatibilists to explain since we all feel like we make decisions all the time.

          • Vaal
            Posted July 10, 2016 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

            Well, now you’ve compelled me to try to dispel your fatalism 🙂

            First, remember that Sam doesn’t think fatalism follows at all from his view that free will doesn’t exist. On the other hand, I do think you are noting problems that Sam’s (and Jerry’s) view doesn’t resolve properly. And compatibilists, like me, argue this derives from some bad assumptions or errors when incompatibilists are thinking about what it’s like to make choices, and that includes Sam Harris.

            Ok, so if I ask you to describe yourself, how will you answer? You will start telling me things like “I like cheeseburgers, attending concerts, working these or that projects, I tend to be procrastinate, etc”

            The thing to notice is that the “you” that you are describing isn’t simply “you” frozen in one moment, but “you” through time. You aren’t doing all those things at precisely the same time, this is a notion of yourself built up of your behavior stretched over time. This is, after all, the only way you COULD come to any knowledge about yourself. And whenever you think of what “you” are capable of doing, you are doing the same thing: appealing to all the experiences of you doing X in the past that suggests you could do X right now or tomorrow.

            So think about what it’s like to make a choice. “do I want to ride my bike to work, or take the car?” Is it an “illusion” that you really have a desire to get to work? No.
            And to think “I have a choice, I could do either” is to think in the mode of evaluating what powers or skillsets you actually DO HAVE based on your experience, and applying it to this choice. You think it’s possible to drive your car because you really do own a car and know from past experience you can drive that car. The same goes for riding your bike. Because you are thinking in this mode you are thinking truths: “I COULD drive the car and I COULD ride the bike.”

            And you are figuring out which action will best suit whichever desire you want to fulfill: Do I want to get to work quicker, or is getting more exercise more important to me right now? Again, you are thinking about truths here: riding the bike REALLY WILL get you more exercise.

            And your choice won’t be “out of your control,” it will be your contemplation about what is true of your abilities, and therefore what you could or could not do, and YOUR decision based on YOUR desires and reasoning really WILL determine which you choose. It really is “up to you.”
            It feels like you have a choice, because you are thinking reasonable, true thoughts – because in a very true sense, and in the way that matters, you DO have a choice.

            And of course when we are evaluating what we can do or not, we don’t just appeal to our own isolated experience, but to the relevant experience of other people. You may never have taken a boat cruise before, but the fact you share relevant powers with other people allows you to infer, correctly, you could do that as well. We are always looking to other people to evaluate what we may or may not be capable of. And if we are in a rut, like eating poorly, or procrastinating, our next choice isn’t simply determined by our past choices, we can get new information that informs new choices – e.g. look to how others in similar ruts have found strategies to change their behavior, which may suggest we can as well, and that can change your future behavior.
            Nothing about determinism contradicts any of that whatsoever, none of it makes “being able to take a different path the next time” impossible. Just continue to do what you have always done, and everyone else does: get as much a feel for what you are capable of in different circumstances, and add knowledge that can help you change your future decision.

            And notice, fatalism fades away because it’s based on an inaccurate assessment of how we think truths about ourselves in this world, so it’s neither helpful nor relevant. It only ever *seemed* to raise it’s head if we get too sloppy about saying “I couldn’t have done otherwise” which will mistakenly deny throw out the powers we actually have in the world to alter our choices and behavior.



            • Joshua Thom
              Posted July 10, 2016 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

              Vaal. Wow, thank you for your very long and thoughtful response. I appreciate it.

              I am not so much concerned about the decision between driving to work or taking the bike. I start the day with the intention of getting my resume finished, and completing applications. At the end of the day I accomplished nothing because I was procrastinating by reading the news all day long. Somehow ten hours sliped by without me noticing. And then I repeat this every day. So I am not reffering to a choice that was made with the illusion of free will, but rather an inability to force myself to action and stay focused.

              Again thank you for your response.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted July 10, 2016 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

                As a pragmatic bit of advice, don’t tell yourself “I’ll write that resume tomorrow.”. Tell yourself “I’ll write that resume tomorrow after breakfast and before checking in at WEIT.” Much less latitude for procrastination that way.

                Once having done that successfully, you’ll see that you really do have some measure of control over your life, and that the best way to exercise it sometimes is to give your future self fewer choices.

              • Vaal
                Posted July 10, 2016 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

                Ok Joshua,

                “So I am not reffering to a choice that was made with the illusion of free will, but rather an inability to force myself to action and stay focused.”

                Ok, but I inferred from your post that Sam’s argument played some part in dispelling the “illusion” of free will had at least partially led you to thinking in a fatalistic manner.

                But as I argued, fatalism is irrelevant to the way we get through life. I don’t see the relevant connection you are making between Sam’s arguments and your feeling of fatalism about your actions. It seems to me you are just struggling normally with a habit you want to break, just like most of us do. I don’t see how the free will stuff plays in at all.

                Changing habits is certainly hard, and sometimes we can’t do it, sometimes we can. But you can look to ways others have broken procrastination as a way of possibly influencing your future behavior.

                There was a time some years ago when I’d fallen into a terrible habit of eating poorly. Almost every dingle day started out with me promising myself I would make better food choices and every day I’d fail. It really felt like “not having free will” in a sense, just being unable to do something I really wanted to do. But when things got worse it forced me to look to avenues I hadn’t considered, and when I did, new strategies arose, I tried them, and successfully kicked my habit. It’s quite possible that if I thought I really “didn’t have a choice” and never would “really” be in control, I may have become more fatalistic in attitude and not changed my ways. But I never thought like that, I just continually assessed what I might be capable of, by the lights of how others like he had beaten the problem.

  21. Jiten
    Posted July 10, 2016 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Dan couldn’t change your mind because he’s muddled about compatibilism but I know of someone who will be able to : Sean Carroll. I’ve just finished his new book The Big Picture and he knows how to make a clear case for compatibilism. If you do not change your mind after reading his book then I’ll buy you a pint of your favourite brew next time you’re in London.

    • GBJames
      Posted July 11, 2016 at 7:20 am | Permalink

      I’m in the middle of reading The Big Picture and Carroll’s discussion of “ways of thinking” about the universe at different scales keeps running through my mind as I read this page. If he’s changed my mind by the time I finish the book can I get a free pint, too?

    • Posted July 11, 2016 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      Does he address any of Kane’s or any of the libertarian arguments as to *why* they want libertarianism? (Not their arguments in favour of it obtaining, which are lousy.)

      This is where Dennett’s work was most disappointing to me, at least.

  22. Posted July 10, 2016 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    I agree with your straightforward take on justice and that the moral component is not required. I still side with Dan with Compatibilism, and have not been convinced by your or Sam’s arguments. And here is, in short, why.

    We all agree that laws of physics, determined or with a bit of randomness, make us act in a certain kind of way, and that the cascades of cause and effect wash through us, our conciouness, and chemistry at all “levels” (which is only our minds way of perceiving and organizing our perceptions into a reality, which is however shared as other humans have comparable minds thanks to evolution, and thanks to identical and consistent input from what’s “out there”). Yet we are a pattern, that can trigger and influence other patterns as those patterns influence us. So far, so clear (I hope). There is no “doing things otherwise”, because our society of mind, powered by the laws of physics, will always “decide” (i.e. compute) the same outcome given identical input.

    But, If we were really consistently incompatibilist, as you and Sam insist, and dispense of the illusion altogether, we would eliminate not just the term “free will”, but also have to get rid of any “wishing”, and “deciding” and “wanting” and all of the similar concepts.

    Supposedly, we don’t “want” to alter our language in such a drastic way. We “want” to think that people really “want” something, whether it’s going to the cinema or have sex. We want to keep notions of consent and preferences and all that in place, hence I find that the illusion of free will is very useful in a mundane kind of way. Now, maybe you say we can redefine these terms to mean “laws of physics make me do it”, but then why can’t we update the concept of “free will” in the same way?

    At the end of day, nobody can ever “joots” (“jumping out of the system”) out of the big system that is reality anyway, even when we can trick ourselves in believing we could (by such ideas as “rewind tape, deciding otherwise”) — because our frame is always our own mind that can imagine all sorts of things without ever really getting out of its own box.

    Hence, in this case, we can accept the things as they appear. The daemons of our mind compute something, we perceive it as a will, and we deal with that way. The sun also still goes up and sets, even when it “really” does no such thing. The incompatibilist need to explain how we can dispense the illusion completely, no cheating! Because if we keep vestiges of free-will-talk anyway for our convenience, they agreed (in my understanding) to the compatibilist idea.

    • Scott Draper
      Posted July 10, 2016 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

      “but also have to get rid of any “wishing”, and “deciding” and “wanting” and all of the similar concepts. ”

      Sounds like you’re an incompatiblist, if your only disagreement is that Sam and Jerry shouldn’t use the words “wish” and “want”.

      I write computer code and that code makes decisions, and I can even speak of the code “wanting” to do certain things or having preferences. It doesn’t mean that its wants and preferences aren’t 100% determined by me or the data that it acquires. Now, as far as I know, the code doesn’t have a subjective experience, but how would I know?

      • Posted July 10, 2016 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

        Incompatibilists argue, the Compatibilists would engage in “word jugglery” and maintain an illusion that way, yet it appears that Incompabilists do just the same. I otherwise believe there is plenty of “talking past each other”.

        • Scott Draper
          Posted July 10, 2016 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

          Incompatibilism is more reductive than Compatibilism, just as physics is more reductive than chemistry. Physics explains chemistry, but that doesn’t remove the usefulness of thinking about things using chemistry concepts.

          However, chemists don’t deny that everything is physics in the end, but Compatibilists don’t seem to acknowledge that that Incompatibilism encompasses their views.

          • Vaal
            Posted July 10, 2016 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

            Compatibilists say “freedom” is a description that is context dependent, as it is pretty much used in all cases. And it is relevant mostly to the macro-scale entities that we are describing – humans with brains that can make choices.

            It’s not that a compatibilist denies physics, which would be silly. It’s that the compatibilist denies that it’s silly to look to basic physical particles to find the things being described what specific collections of physical particles are doing on the macro scale.

            It would be as silly as looking for “dogs barking” at the scale of the atom. Like a scientist peering at atoms, or molecules and saying “I don’t see any damned dogs down here, let alone barking ones. Must not exist.”

            It is just as much an error, and nonsensical, to think there is nothing of relevance to denote between a person in chains and that person not being chained, just because “it’s just physics in the end.”

            • Scott Draper
              Posted July 10, 2016 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

              I’m not sure that Compatibilists say what you claim. If they did, there would be no disagreement.

              I’m sure that both Jerry and Sam would agree that higher level concepts are sometimes more useful than the reductionist concepts. After all, Biology also reduces to physics, but studying physics isn’t enough to understand Biology.

              • Posted July 11, 2016 at 2:46 am | Permalink

                “I’m not sure that Compatibilists say what you claim. If they did, there would be no disagreement.”

                I really do think that there *is* no disagreement between compatibilists and incompatibilists, other than about what words to use.

                It seems to me that incompatibilists reject compatibilism because they wrongly interpret it as a form of dualism.

                I’ve never yet read an incompatibilist that I felt really understood what compatibilism is actually about. When one tries hard to explain it (spending endless time dispelling the idea that it’s dualistic) they can arrive at a rather puzzled “Is that really all you’re trying to say?”. Yes, that really is all we’re trying to say.

              • Scott Draper
                Posted July 11, 2016 at 9:19 am | Permalink

                I agree, but I think it’s the compatibilists that don’t see that the positions are the same thing, or at least they aren’t as capable of expressing it clearly as Vaal did above.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted July 11, 2016 at 11:32 am | Permalink

                I’m going to dissent from the view that it’s all just a difference of vocabulary. It seems to me that there’s a tendency among incompatibilists, or at least among those of the school exemplified by Harris and Jerry and many commenters here, to discount the role of information processing in the brain, attributing the causes of behavior instead to chemistry, or physics, or genes and environment.

                To me this seems like playing a game of Candy Crush on a PC, a Mac, a phone, and a set-top box, and attributing the observed behavior in each case to the particular arrangement of circuits and flow of electrons in that device, while ignoring the fact that they’re all running the same software, and that indeed the architecture of each device has been designed specifically to insulate the software from the details of the hardware implementation.

                As Dennett said at one point during this podcast, physics really doesn’t have much to do with it (except in the trivial sense that everything is built from physical components that obey physical laws). What gives us our many degrees of freedom is our ability to manipulate ideas.

              • pali
                Posted July 11, 2016 at 4:47 am | Permalink

                “I really do think that there *is* no disagreement between compatibilists and incompatibilists, other than about what words to use.”

                I’ve been moving towards this position lately as well.

              • Scott Draper
                Posted July 11, 2016 at 9:15 am | Permalink

                I agree, but I think that many (most?) compatibilists think there is a difference.

          • Posted July 11, 2016 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

            Chemistry does involve emergence: for example, shape from shapelessness. I.e., boundary conditions are needed, etc.

    • darrelle
      Posted July 10, 2016 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

      My thought on terms like choose, wish, want and similar is that they are words that we use to describe real phenomena and or mental states that we experience.

      To focus on the main term of the Free Will issue, I really think it is inaccurate to argue that we have no choice or don’t make choices. It seems obvious that we do make choices. The issue is what exactly does that mean? What is the process, the chemistry that is happening when we do what we call “choose” or “decide?” We don’t really know now and certainly never have in the past though there have been plenty of SWAGs, speculation and just-so story telling attempts at explaining it. We are just now beginning to learn what actually occurs and it is quite different from most older conceptions. This is not an unusual thing. There have been plenty of things in human history that turned out to work quite differently than supposed for hundreds or thousands of years.

      I’d be willing to ditch the term Free Will, though I don’t mind if it is re-defined either, or for the compatibilists reading, clarified to exclude certain definitions of the term that are and always have been very prominent. But it seems pointless and inaccurate to me to do away with terms like choice. Not just because they are useful but because they are labels for specific types of phenomena that really do occur. That we don’t know how, but are fairly certain that there is no magic involved as per earlier explanations often suggest, isn’t really relevant.

      • DiscoveredJoys
        Posted July 11, 2016 at 3:51 am | Permalink

        …but the tricky bit, usually skipped over in debates about what we do and what we feel while doing, is do we ‘make choices’ or do we ‘experience the sensations of choosing’?

        Scientific investigations often show that our experiences do not necessarily tell us what is going on (inside us or in the world external to us). We often retrospectively rationalise why we did something which we did without conscious thought. So do we ‘choose’ or do we think we ‘chose’?

        • Posted July 11, 2016 at 6:15 am | Permalink

          You have to keep in mind that *both* positions are deterministic, and are past that particular issue. They skip over it, because both sides agree that no spook happens, whether you call it consciousness or soul.

        • darrelle
          Posted July 11, 2016 at 7:36 am | Permalink

          This is what I mean by the process of choosing perhaps not working like was thought in the past. Whatever the process may be, and it is certainly much more complicated and varied than the hypotheses and examples shared in these discussions, whether or not portions or even the whole process are unconscious or conscious it is still your brain that is doing it. Or, if you prefer, it is still happening in your brain.

          I’ve never understood why some people feel that because some experiments apparently indicate that at least some aspects of some sort of decision making occur unconsciously, therefore we don’t choose, we don’t have a choice, fatalism. And I am just not very impressed with the “you could not have chosen otherwise” argument. Perhaps for someone who strongly believes in some form of contra-causal Free Will, and strongly believes that it is vital to who they are, coming to the realization that they can not defy the laws of physics would warrant some fatalism. But for me, not being invested in magic, I just don’t see any reason for fatalism due to the way things seem to actually be.

          I also don’t understand why many incompatibilists say no, not predetermination but determinism and yet go on to talk exactly as if they were talking about predetermination. The state of your existence at any given moment was not predetermined at the beginning of the universe nor was it determined by any other entity, but it is a result of the playing out of the laws of physics in, as best we can tell, a deterministic universe.

  23. Janet
    Posted July 10, 2016 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    The biggest reason I appreciate your treatment of the Sam-Dan affair is that I am hearing-impaired and have been unable to fully appreciate Sam’s iPod publications (if anyone if Sam’s camp is reading, please make text available on request, it would be awesome!). Thank you Jerry!

  24. Scott Draper
    Posted July 10, 2016 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    I’ve only made it about 40 minutes through the podcast and I’m not sure I’ll go any further. I’ve always found Dan to be incoherent on this subject and he seems to have gotten more that way.

    I think that Sam is wrong on a number of issues, but on this one he’s totally right. To me, he seems to be chasing Dan around the room and Dan is struggling to stay just out of reach.

    As a side note, I don’t think that Dan and Sam are friends again, if they ever were. They seem to be struggling to be civil to each other. Given the things that they’ve said to each other in the past, actual goodwill seems forever out of reach.

  25. CJ
    Posted July 10, 2016 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Imagine how many subconscious experiences people would try to avoid if they only knew how they’re conscious behavior was influenced by them. Acknowledging this fact of determinism could help us learn how subconscious experiences effect our conscious lives. Compatibilism ignores this.

  26. Dean Booth
    Posted July 10, 2016 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    There is an article on Wikipedia about non-consensual sex between animals. Of course, nonhuman animals can’t consent.

    Our concept of consent seems to have free choice as a prerequisite. If we are to continue to distinguish consensual from nonconsensual sex, we need a “compatibilist” definition of consensual, and this definition requires a compatibilist version of free will.

    • darrelle
      Posted July 11, 2016 at 8:37 am | Permalink

      I don’t think so. Incompatibilists don’t deny the type of free will you are referring to. They deny, as do compatibilists, dualistic and contra-causal conceptions of free will. The difference is that incompatibilists think that the term free will is so tainted with the baggage of past magical conceptions of free will that it should just be discarded, whereas compatibilists tend to deny that those older magical conceptions of free will are still prevalent and that the term free will should be retained with the understanding that it means the type of free will that you are referring to in your comment.

      I suspect that the typical incompatibilist would be fine with using alternatives like “uncoerced” or “of your own volition” in place of the free will you refer to and that your typical compatibilist would exclaim “But that’s the same thing!”

      • Posted July 11, 2016 at 6:52 pm | Permalink


        I think you really get it. From your relatively neutral position you do a great job mediating and explaining. The State Department should send you to conflict zones to negotiate peace treaties.

        I have a minor quibble with the one statement “compatibilists tend to deny that those older magical conceptions of free will are still prevalent.” No, we mostly agree they’re still prevalent, just like vitalism was prevalent long after most biologists discarded it, and just like magical thinking about “consciousness” is still prevalent today. It’s just that the magical thinking is dispensable, a false explanation of real phenomena, just like the “soul” is a false explanation of the real phenomena of consciousness.

        • darrelle
          Posted July 12, 2016 at 7:13 am | Permalink


          Thank you, though I’m not sure I’m cut out for the role of peace negotiator. I am often wanting in the patience department.

          “I have a minor quibble . . .”

          You might be right. Being that you identify as a compatibilist I’m pretty sure you are right that your view is typical among compatibilists. I came to think that denying that the older magical conceptions of free will are still prevalent was common among compatibilists mostly from free will conversations here at WEIT where prominent compatibilist commenters such as Coel and Vaal have said as much on several occasions. Of course it is possible that they were exaggerating to make a point. If so, I’d say that is an irritating tactic :).

          But I do seem to remember some compatibilists arguing that there are studies that indicate that most peoples’ unpremeditated conception of Free Will is of the “do you agree to this of your own free will” type of free will. My own observations on this are that the two general categories, magical typically religiously inspired free will vs free will in the legal sense, are very different from each other and that it is very common for people to believe both at the same time.

          • Posted July 12, 2016 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

            I think what Coel and others have argued is only that your average person does in fact make a distinction between doing something of your own free will and being coerced by completely external forces, which is eminently appropriate.

            Based on your commentary so far, I’d sooner categorize you as a compatibilist than an incompatibilist.

            • darrelle
              Posted July 13, 2016 at 7:35 am | Permalink

              Perhaps that is all they meant to argue, but I am not sure. Either they have claimed a bit more than that or they have on occasion let tactical considerations take precedence over what they really think. Which is pretty normal in any human communication, but it does often perpetuate conflict longer than might otherwise be the case.

              Yes, I do sound more like a compatibilist than an incompatibilist. But I am sort of apathetic about it. As I’ve said I really don’t agree with the “no choice” type of arguments used by incompatibilists. I do, however, agree that if enough people come to understand that magical free will is a delusion that that could help bring about much needed, more ethical changes to our justice system.

              I also do think that many compatibilists are pushing a little people argument to one degree or another, and I am often disappointed at the response when that is pointed out. Dan Dennett, who I very much admire and respect, is a good example. Both because he has expressed a little people argument and because of other compatibilists’ responses when that is pointed out. Dan clearly did this in his recent discussion with Sam, though that isn’t the first time. Let me add that I don’t think that little people arguments are necessarily wrong simply because they are what they are. Dan could be correct. I tend to agree with Dan that a strong sense of personal responsibility is necessary for a decent society. But I disagree that telling people that their conception of magical free will is incorrect will cause grave problems.

              In any case, I’m a bit of a mixed bag but not in the middle. I really could care less if the term free will disappeared from use or if we retain it. I think it is perfectly possible to retain it and lose magical conceptions of it at the same time. It has happened countless times in the history of language. I also think that if it disappeared from use we would still have no problems whatsoever talking about things like responsibility, morality, choices, or any of the other things that compatibilists have argued require the term free will to talk sensibly about.

              This ongoing debate really does come down to one simple thing. To keep or get rid of the term free will. Well, also how far people are willing to push their analogies in support of their side. I was surprised to see Coel comment pretty much the same thing recently. That seems to be a bit of a change for him / her.

              • Posted July 13, 2016 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

                I’ve had the same thought: that most of the argument is abut whether or not to retain the term “free will”. I think another aspect of this discourse is which level of explanation one wants to focus on. It is often insightful to focus on the most reductive level, but it is just as often insightful, and necessary, to take into account higher-order or emergent phenomena. It seems incompatibilists think we could ignore the distinctions between things from which will and an ability to act on it have emerged and volitionally inert things.

                And I suppose we could, but that would put us in the ridiculous position of, as Pinker has noted, trying to talk about WWII in terms of particle physics. I think compatibilism is mostly about reminding everyone not to camp out in the basement level of reduction.

              • darrelle
                Posted July 14, 2016 at 6:37 am | Permalink

                Good point regarding levels. That was a major topic at the Moving Naturalism Forward conference that Sean Carroll hosted back in 2012 (Sean Carroll, Jerry, Dan Dennett, Massimo Pigliucci , Richard Dawkins, Steven Weinberg, Rebecca Goldstein, Janna Levin and several others). The tendencies you mention were very evident among the attendees.

  27. phil
    Posted July 11, 2016 at 3:00 am | Permalink

    “…it’s fun to watch the exchange of artillery on this intellectual Western Front.”

    Artillery adds dignity to what would otherwise be a vulgar brawl.

    The greatest and noblest pleasure which men can have in this world is to discover new truths; and the next is to shake off old prejudices.

    – Frederick II of Prussia

  28. Posted July 11, 2016 at 3:04 am | Permalink


    Have you read The Fabric of Reality by the physicist David Deutsch? He is an advocate of multiverse theory, which he says is our best understanding of quantum mechanical phenomenon. In his book he argues that free will is indeed compatible within the multiverse – where all possible outcomes actually happen.

    It’s a great book and I can’t do the theory justice in one comment, but I wanted to point out that saying free will is incompatible with physics really only applies to classical physics, which predicts that strange quantum phenomenon that is consistently observed should NOT occur and is therefore wrong.

    Note: The Fabric of Reality was published in 1997 and I know that ideas about the multiverse have changed since then, so David’s views on free will may have changed too. Any chance you could get him to weigh in on this debate?


  29. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted July 11, 2016 at 3:07 am | Permalink

    Here’s my takeaway from this exchange:

    On Dennett’s side I didn’t find much to disagree with. His points were perhaps not always articulated as clearly as they could have been, but I’m willing to cut him some slack for speaking off the cuff.

    On Harris’s side there were three main points I took issue with. The first is his fondness for the puppet metaphor, which I think is a particularly bad way of characterizing our volitional status. The problems with this metaphor have been pointed out numerous times (by Dennett among others), but Harris seems to take no notice.

    This would scarcely be worth mentioning, had Harris not started off with an introductory lamentation about how reluctant supposedly rational people are to take criticism on board and actually change their minds. So it seems like this was a golden opportunity to demonstrate his good faith by admitting that the critics were right and the puppet metaphor was ill-conceived, and publicly disavowing it. Doing so would have cost him virtually nothing; if his argument is any good then it doesn’t need the metaphor to prop it up.

    But no; Harris continues to cling to the metaphor as stubbornly as ever, and a chance to take the high road and lead by example is squandered.

    The second point has to do with the argument Dennett made about degrees of freedom and how a chess program with a crippling bug in it has fewer degrees of freedom than a properly coded competitor. This matters, said Dennett, because what we want in a responsible and trustworthy agent is sufficient degrees of freedom and adequate control over them. And Harris agreed with all of that.

    But then later, in the discussion of Charles Whitman, Harris asserted that when it comes to human agents, “it’s brain tumors all the way down”, i.e. there’s no significant difference between a properly functioning brain and one with a crippling impairment. This seems to directly contradict what he earlier agreed to with regard to chess programs. Unfortunately this turnabout came too late in the conversation for Dennett to respond in any detail, but I do think Harris should be made to answer for this inconsistency.

    The third point is Harris’s thought experiment in which he imagines pulling out a pocket-sized brain scanner that can predict in real time what Dennett is about to say, half a second before he says it. You have to admit, Harris insists, that such a demonstration would radically violate Dennett’s sense of autonomy.

    No, actually, it wouldn’t, says Dennett, and I think he’s right to say so. A neuroscientist’s ability to peer into my brain and guess what I’m thinking poses no more threat to my autonomy than, say, my spouse’s ability to anticipate my needs by reading my body language.

    Even Harris himself had admitted, early in the conversation, that he himself did not feel threatened by such considerations. But at the same time he seems to want to validate the fears of those who do feel threatened, rather than showing them why their fears are groundless (as compatibilists seek to do).

    • darrelle
      Posted July 11, 2016 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      Regarding Harris’s brain scanner thought experiment, I agree completely. In addition to your point I don’t agree that the meager data from the few Libet and similar experiments is adequate to support the notion that all of the processes involved in more complex decision making processes like taking part in a discussion and composing verbal responses based on what other discussants have said may all take place unconsciously. I think at this point it is asking a lot to concede that.

    • Posted July 11, 2016 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

      I strongly agree with most of what you say and you say it well. But I have more patience for the puppet metaphor – I mean, ultimately it is a bad metaphor, but it’s important to understand what drives that metaphor. Only then can we dispel it.

      Now in an ideal world, Sam would either explain how the metaphor makes sense, or else drop it. But since he didn’t explain it, I think we should.

      How could the early universe be like a puppet master, if it isn’t an agent? Well, one really scary aspect of being a puppet is being on the downside of a power relationship. The puppeteer has all the power, and the puppet is at its mercy. Now of course, other things being equal, it’s a lot better to be at the mercy of impersonal forces than to be at the mercy of another agent – but neither is pretty. And, on the usual intuitive understanding of causality, causality is a lopsided power relationship. The earlier events have all the power, and the later events are just along for the ride.

      I think this summarizes why so many people feel their freedom is threatened by determinism.

      The thing is, the usual intuitive understanding of causality has no place in fundamental physics. The laws of physics are bidirectional: they determine what past events must be like if you know the present situation, every bit as much as vice versa. There is no room in this picture for a lopsided power relationship. Without your being the way you are now, the universe billions of years ago could not have been exactly the way it was then – every bit as much as the reverse. Scientifically, we can start our calculations at any point. Pragmatically, there is a correct choice where to start: here now, with us. We can make any decision we like, and calculate its future – or its past! – effects.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted July 11, 2016 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

        Yes, thank you; this clarifies a point I’ve been trying to find a way to articulate, which is that invoking microphysics as the cause of macro-scale behavior is misguided, because the concept of causality doesn’t apply at the micro level.

      • Posted July 11, 2016 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

        I am no expert, but it is my understanding that wave function collapse is inherently irreversible, so you can’t run the clock backwards. The past owns the future.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted July 12, 2016 at 12:25 am | Permalink

          It’s not at all clear that there’s any such thing as wave function collapse. The Schrödinger equation, which describes wave function evolution over time, is collapse-free, fully time-symmetric, and sufficient by itself to explain our observations.

          On this view (the Everett or many-worlds view), the irreversible branching structure of the (uncollapsed) wave function is a higher-level emergent phenomenon much like the arrow of entropic time. David Wallace lays this out in great detail in The Emergent Multiverse.

          There are proposals to add an irreversible collapse term to the Schrödinger equation at a fundamental level to make the unobserved branches go away, but these are far from fully fleshed out, and frankly the theory works just fine without them, so why bother?

          • Posted July 12, 2016 at 3:23 am | Permalink

            There are just as many conceptual difficulties with Many Worlds, it is no more problem-free than the other interpretations.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted July 12, 2016 at 11:27 am | Permalink

              This is probably not the place to get into a detailed discussion of what you think those problems are. So instead I’ll suggest you have a look at Wallace’s book, which is quite thorough, and see if he leaves any of your problems unanswered. You may find that EQM doesn’t actually say any of the problematic things commonly attributed to it, and that what it does say is quite reasonable and justifiable.

          • Posted July 12, 2016 at 7:51 am | Permalink

            I used wave function collapse as short hand for decoherence entanglement wherebye information get “lost” (not destroyed) and time reversibility is not possible. See quantum arrow of time.

            • Posted July 12, 2016 at 8:13 am | Permalink

              I do have a related idea that does not involve physical time reversal. Because we can model and forecast potential future consequences of our actions, there is a form of retrocausality available to us. This can result in causa sui (self-caused causes.)

              Example. Singing causes happiness. Happiness causes singing. Anticipated happiness causes happiness. If I sing I anticipate happiness making me happy causing me to sing. Singing is causa sui, no antecedent conditions required.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted July 12, 2016 at 11:18 am | Permalink

              But again, like entropy, that’s an emergent consequence of particle interactions, not a fundamental law regulating them, and as such doesn’t refute paultorek’s statement that the interactions themselves are time-reversible.

              At the emergent level, irreversibility is statistical: theoretically possible, but astronomically unlikely.

  30. kelskye
    Posted July 11, 2016 at 4:08 am | Permalink

    I really don’t get why compatibilism is a problem – it seems to me either implicitly dualistic or contradictory to assert the physicality of being then the denial of personal agency. If we are physical beings, then how can we separate out our actions from the physical reality of being?

    • Posted July 13, 2016 at 12:24 pm | Permalink


      Non-free willism never separates anyone from their actions, only the freedom to do or not do any said action.

      Ergo – no contradiction being made.

      • kelskye
        Posted July 13, 2016 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

        So the non-free willism want human decision to be somehow magic for it to count as free?

  31. J. Quinton
    Posted July 11, 2016 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    I’m going to have to agree with Dan Dennett. Belief in free will tends to make people more optimistic, whereas deterministic beliefs tends to make people more fatalistic.

    For example, students who believe in free will do better academically. Relatedly, praising children’s effort instead of their innate ability makes them learn better. The belief in free will also determines how well you do on self-control tasks.

    I don’t think the general public is sophisticated enough to know that free will is an illusion without also becoming disillusioned about what they can accomplish in life.

    Sure, this sounds a lot like the reason a lot of atheist-butters say we should keep religion around, but religious beliefs per se aren’t necessary for all of the prosocial behavior associated with it; the social things can be reproduced without belief in the supernatural (if it couldn’t, then there wouldn’t be secular cults like Objectivists or cults of personalities).

    Belief in free will is a singular idea, not a host of ideas like religion. I think we should keep it as a necessary social glue, like money.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted July 11, 2016 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      I don’t think the general public is sophisticated enough to know that free will is an illusion without also becoming disillusioned about what they can accomplish in life.

      But note that this is not Dennett’s position. He doesn’t think it’s an illusion; he thinks the idea of free will captures a real (non-magical) phenomenon of human behavior that it’s important to recognize, for the reasons you indicated. So if you read him carefully, he’s not arguing that we should promote an illusion for the good of society; he’s arguing that society is best served by promoting a true, naturalistic understanding of free will, which he thinks people are sophisticated enough to grasp.

  32. Posted July 11, 2016 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    Philosophers “should?”

    I don’t know what the logical consequences of hard determinism would be, but it wouldn’t be the sort of large scale intellectual undertaking you’re referring to.

    I think a better response might be for everyone to sort of sit back and let their actions be driven along by whatever random subconscious flotsam and jetsam they came across. Whether it was sunny that morning, whether the person selling the used car was wearing a nice shirt, and so on.

    I was going to finish this post but a butterfly just flew past the window, bye!

    • Wayne Tyson
      Posted July 12, 2016 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

      “ln Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire hurricanes hardly ever happen.” –Pascal or Lerner?

    • Posted July 13, 2016 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

      I am not sure, but I think this post makes the case for there being no libertarian freedom to the human will. Yes?

  33. Wayne Tyson
    Posted July 12, 2016 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

    For every action there is an unequal and tangential reaction. –Tyson’s Law of cultural discourse

  34. donald klein
    Posted July 15, 2016 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    I believe my views are close to Coyne. However his statement ,” I feel that people should surely be held responsible for their actions, for they are the entities that perform those acts and should be rewarded or punished depending on whether society wants to quash or promote future acts” assumes that past actions are very good predictors of future actions. Further,the effects of reward and punishment (what degree?) are also very predictable in terms of quashing or promoting.
    Without denying determinism, these context free abstractions justify a lot of error. Promoting the difficult studies that might reduce predictive error , (psychological,physiological, who knows?, etc.) seems more useful than continuing to tangle with these too abstract abstractions.

    • Wayne Tyson
      Posted July 23, 2016 at 1:54 am | Permalink

      “. . . most people agree with that idea.” –Coyne

      This could be interpreted as a kind of “appealing to the masses.” The reason that “giant leaps” are generally attributed to one person rather than to a population is that the masses rarely, if ever, come up with an original idea.

      In a good brainstorming session, however, many individuals may come up with original ideas. It is also true that there is a tendency for the dominant-by-virtue-of-position individuals to steal ideas from “lesser beings” (in terms of publicity).

      Maslow once said that he used to worry about that when he was younger, but as he learned how badly the thieves #_<*e) up the purloined idea, he stopped worrying about it. Trouble is, it's the screwed up version that survives, and having been blessed by the "higher being," and the original version is eclipsed by the screwed up one.

      All organisms tend to operate in contexts that suit their requirements (with the exception of one). Their behavior tends to be governed by changes in those contexts. They adjust their behavior to make the best of change.

      Morals are artifacts of cultures, but behaviors can be the result of changes for better or for worse.

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