Misconceptions about determinism, illustrated

Over at the website Evolving Perspectives, reader Pliny the in between has a new cartoon called “Nuts and bolts of crime and punishment“. It illustrates one of the many misconceptions people have about science-based determinism and its rejection of libertarian free will: that under determinism is useless to try to change anything since everything is preordained by the laws of nature. Well, the last part of that is pretty much correct—save for fundamental indeterminacy due to quantum mechanics—but within that paradigm lies the fact that people’s arguments constitute environmental factors that affect how others behave.

My own example is that you can alter the behavior of a dog by kicking it when it does something you don’t like. (I am NOT recommending this!). After a while the dog, whose onboard computer gets reprogrammed to anticipate pain, will no longer engage in the unwanted behavior.

Well, Pliny also used the kicking example, but on humans rather than dogs (click to enlarge). I thought the guy was a real person, but Pliny told me this:

It’s generic henchman # 7 (first used here).  Some might think that he is based on a Fox News hack, but that can’t possibly be true. I only used him here because that expression worked so well for the aftermath of Venn’s aversion therapy😉

The cartoon, as usual, encapsulates what I try to say, but in many fewer words, and in graphic (and painful) imagery:



  1. Vaal
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    The problem is we don’t want to go around kicking each other as the method for influencing behavior. We want to use reason, and be open to changing our behavior, and in particular, we want behavior to change, ours and others, for GOOD reasons.

    But every time we will make a recommendation, give reasons for taking a particular action, we will appeal explicitly or implicitly to the possibility of being able to choose an alternative.

    So the challenge is, in the context of a fully causal system, how do we give each other good reasons – reasons that rest on truth – to change our behavior?

    It still seems to me we need a way of talking about alternatives being possible – really possible, not fingers-crossed-behind-our-back “possible” – in such a context. Because as soon as someone sees you are using the concept with your finger’s crossed, they understand “oh, you weren’t being truthful about possibilities…then it turns out it doesn’t make sense for me to listen to your recommendation.”

    • Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      It seems odd to me to believe that you have the power to change the behavior of others but not yourself.

      • Peter
        Posted August 8, 2016 at 8:08 am | Permalink

        I agree with you in that determinism means that we can’t really change anyone else’s behaviour because it is already determined. But, I keep hearing this line of reasoning that we can change other people’s behaviour. So, maybe I’m missing something here?

        If everything is already determined then how can anything be changed?

        • Posted August 9, 2016 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

          If every event is causally determined then changes are caused too. And obviously, things change. Water freezes in winter, and melts in spring. Where’s the problem?

          But you didn’t mean that nothing changes. You meant that nothing changes to something *different than it was determined to be*. True, but this overlooks a crucial point – that one of the determiners is *you*. You make your dog behave well or badly. And likewise, you can make yourself behave well or badly. You aren’t just an epiphenomenon in the causal network (you aren’t just an effect that doesn’t cause anything further). You’re an agent of change.

          None of this is to disagree with darwinwins or with Vaal.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      I think you’re making the distinction between negative and positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement works better on humans AND dogs. I know this personally from growing up in the 70s. Children were often yelled at or slapped or worse to correct unwanted behaviours. Now spanking is bad and parents (and teachers) praise good behaviours more often. Same with dog training. It used to be you yelled at, hit and pulled on the leash harshly to train your dog; now you still correct gently but you mostly reward good behaviour with dog treats.

      I’ve found that you achieve your goal much faster when you reward vs. punish with dogs. You still need to dissuade the dog from thing using something they don’t like, but you don’t have to be cruel. Often, if you think kicking your dog will make him stop doing something, the dog will also not trust you and become difficult to train. In worst case scenarios, the dog, depending on its personality, may become vicious through fear of being kicked.

      • Vaal
        Posted July 31, 2016 at 3:00 pm | Permalink


        I’m with you on the power of positive reinforcement. But the point I was making applies to any persuasion that uses reasoning. How do you give reasons to someone for choosing one action, that do not explicitly or implicitly appeal to alternative actions being possible? Isn’t a powerful tool for persuasion to be able to say “IF you take X route this is likely to happen, and IF you take Y route, the consequences are likely to be bad for you.”
        This is, after all, how we routinely seek to influence other people’s choices and behavior (and it works). But we need to be speaking truthfully and coherently when presenting our case, I would assume you agree. That’s the problem with simultaneously trying to give good reasons to influence someone’s actions while claiming “we can’t *really* do otherwise.”
        That’s the “crossing fingers behind the back” version of persuasion and all it takes is someone noticing you have your fingers crossed to say “hey, you aren’t making sense.” Or “you first argued I should do X instead of Y, but then when I made my choice you turned around and said I never *really* had the choice you implied. I have no reason to trust your recommendation next time.”

        This actually pertains to any attempt to influence someone’s behavior, even kicking them in the groin as in the cartoon. To kick someone the action is taken on the assumption it CAN alter someone’s course of action – and hence this implicitly assumes different possibilities – the one where you don’t kick them, which you don’t want, and the one where you kick them, which is to choose that path.

        It’s like looking at religious “reasons” to
        do good actions. We may notice that the religious reasons do in fact influence the behavior of people who accept those reasons, but we atheists can’t help but notice the reasons are bad ones, incoherent, and we want to do better than that. We want to be able to talk truthfully about choice when arguing what to do.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted July 31, 2016 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

          Yes, I realized your point, but thought I’d mention the different inputs we can choose to use to influence others.

          One thing I have come to learn, however, is that not all people are influenced by rational arguments. You can spend all day showing graphs and charts and data but those people just won’t be influenced because they rely solely on intuition and what feels right. Sadly, they are also influenced by fear since it’s a “feel”. It is very tricky to get these people to change and the only method I’ve found is getting them to “try it” and to trust you. I had to ask someone who was more of a “feels” person for advice to come up with this approach since I’m the exact opposite of a “feels” person.

        • rickflick
          Posted July 31, 2016 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

          It’s clear that the macro-level behavior and language of social persuasion is an emergent property of lower level physical laws. Emergent levels are legitimate levels of reality. If you tell someone: “The plate is hot. Don’t touch it”, you are making a responsible effort to persuade. Just because your persuasion and the recipients reaction are not actually free at the level of atoms, they can be “free” in a practical sense to carry on business in the macro world.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted August 1, 2016 at 3:00 am | Permalink

        If I’m recalling my long-ago class in Skinnerian operant conditioning correctly, there’s a distinction between negative reinforcement and punishment. The former involves the removal of an unpleasant stimulus to reward desired behavior. The latter involves the imposition of a noxious stimulus in response to the behavior that is desired to be extinguished.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 1, 2016 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

          Then the 70s was all about punishment!

    • Posted July 31, 2016 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      Nope, you’re just feeding information into someone’s onboard computer telling them what the results will be if you do X, and letting them run that program to see if it hits some “adaptive to do this” threshhold. If it does, they do it; if not, they don’t.

      Since you’re a determinist, why do you insist that we talk about alternatives REALLY being possible when you know they aren’t? Or are you a dualist? If not, then it’s dishonest for you to pretend that people can really choose differently in exactly the same situation, or use words to that effect. I really would like to know: is it possible for people to choose differently when the exact same situation obtains?

      Reason is no different from a kick: it’s words that people can take on board to see if doing what the words say gives a result that’s adaptive–that they like. For some reason you think that a kick (which tells a dog what to expect if you do X) is somehow different from a “reason” (which tells people what you think will happen if they do X).

      Are you deceiving a chess-playing computer when you program it to respond to a move X by weighing alternative moves and seeing what the outcome of those moves are? The computer has no choice, of course, but it does use “reasons”.

      • Vaal
        Posted July 31, 2016 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

        “Nope, you’re just feeding information into someone’s onboard computer telling them what the results will be if you do X, and letting them run that program to see if it hits some “adaptive to do this” threshhold. If it does, they do it; if not, they don’t.”

        But that simply skips over the point: it doesn’t tell us whether the “information” you are feeding is reasonable, true or coherent.

        Deepak Chopra, or Donald Trump or Ray Comfort can feed their nutty reasons into
        someone’s “onboard computer” and influence people’s choices. But don’t we care whether the reasons we are using are good ones rather than bad ones? And to be good reasons, they have to reference truth and be coherent.

        As soon as you move from the descriptive passages like you gave above to actually giving the reasons to someone to influence his behavior, you will make no sense unless you explicitly appeal to possibilities, or assume them implicitly in what you say and do.

        After all, what sense would it make for you to try to influence someone’s behavior in the first place if you didn’t think you “could” influence their behavior. That is to assume it is *possible* to change their behavior, which also assumes the alternate possibility of not being successful. You just can’t escape the assumption of alternate possibilities in order to make sense.

        What if you caught a driver drag-racing through a heavily populated family street?
        You tell him the street is full of kids and “you could have killed a child, while driving far too fast to stop in time.”
        The driver replies “Huh? It’s a fact no one got killed. This talk of yours about what ‘could’ happen is just fantasy.”

        Who is right? I presume you agree it isn’t the driver! The driver is failing to understand that you really are conveying something true about the way the world works.

        What you mean is “it may not have happened this time, but it COULD end in tragedy IF you continue that behavior.” That’s a reference to possibilities, and…that’s true, isn’t it? Without appeal to magic.

        Otherwise, the driver would be right, we’d be talking nonsense and this shouldn’t influence his behavior.

        The way we normally talk about possibilities is our way of understanding the range of “things we can do” given certain situations we find ourselves in. Without it, we couldn’t apprehend truths about ourselves acting in the world and make rational decisions.

        • Pliny the in Between
          Posted July 31, 2016 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

          Actions can be deterministic without the same having to be true of consequences. Your example is perfect for that. The action of driving recklessly can be determined to be a bad thing because a high percentage of possible consequences result in a bad outcome but sometimes you get away with it.

          A determinist might argue that the set of neuropathways, plastic changes, long term potentiation and repeated associations (absent pharma interventions) within a given brain will likely be associated with a particular action given a common set of input stimuli even strengthening with time. This process may not be altered even in a situation where the consequences are dire unless those consequences somehow are incorporated into the inputs, associations or plastic changes affecting future decisions or the consequences lead to removal of the individual from situations where such actions are likely.

          Determinists believe in a whole host of mechanisms (such as the ones mentioned above)that can be used to alter actions in biochemically based brains. What we don’t believe is that there is a separate moral compass overlayed onto this process so appeals to that are meaningless. But that does not mean that mechanisms and arguments can’t be used to modify the inputs, promote plastic changes, and develop associations that might create a terminal decision mode that produces a very different action in the future. Minds can be changed – anatomically and physiologically at least.

          • Vaal
            Posted July 31, 2016 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

            Pliny the in Between,

            “Your example is perfect for that.”

            It seems so, as it brought out exactly the implicit assumption of “possibilities” I was talking about. Examples from your post:

            The action of driving recklessly can be determined

            …repeated associations (absent pharma interventions) within a given brain will likely be associated with a particular action

            This process may not be altered even in a situation…

            where such actions are likely.

            Determinists believe in a whole host of mechanisms (such as the ones mentioned above)that can be used to alter actions…

            See how in every instance your language assumes what is “possible” not what “is.”
            One only says a process “may” be altered if
            it’s also possible it “may not” be altered.
            And surely implicit in all the things you write there is some form of “IF/THEN” reasoning: IF you do this THEN outcome X is likely to happen. But then, this sense of “possibility” is exactly the sense of “possibility” I’ve been describing as compatible with determinism, without appeal to the idea one could do otherwise in exactly the SAME causal situation. You are naturally using the very logic I’ve been describing. 🙂

            Minds can be changed – anatomically and physiologically at least.

            Yes, of course, we agree on that. The question concerns examining what it is we are using to change someone’s mind. Are the things we are saying to the person true and coherent…are we giving GOOD reasons for them to change their mind? We’d better be giving coherent arguments, and if we assume or imply alternate possibilities in giving someone reason to change her behavior, and on the other hand we want to deny the truth of our actually having alternatives…then we are engaging in contradictory, incoherent
            philosophy and aren’t supplying “good reasons” for altering someone’s behavior.

          • Posted August 1, 2016 at 12:11 am | Permalink


            I still don’t agree with you. Our brain and genes are adapted to take in information from the environment and process it so that the output, our behavior, is good for us, either in terms of reproduction of other cues for reproduction that were effective in the past. “Good” reasons are those that are processed by the brain to yield an outcome that is consonant with what we’re evolved to want and do. To me they don’t imply any kind of free will, but merely the notion that the likely outcome of behavior X is A and of behavior Y iz B. That is true based on past observation it is not an implication that you can “choose” beahaviors GIVEN THE SAME INFORMATION. ONce you give the possibilities as noted above, then the individual is in a new situation, with new information, and he or she will choose the possibility that is determined by genes and environment.

            Really, I don’t know what you’re saying, and I’ve struggled hard to understand. You still have not answered the question of whether you’re a determinist or a dualist; I’ve asked you that several times and you haven’t answered. If you’re a determinist, then you’d agree that at any point you can do only one thing. But what you do depends on the information you receive from the environment.

            So, can you be clear about this please? Are you a determinist? Yes or no? Can people at any moment in time, given all the information they have and the molecular configuration of their brain, “choose” in a libertarian way to do more than one thing? If not, why are you arguing at such great length?

            Perhaps you are saying that we sometimes use the language of dualism. Yes, that is true, for we all FEEL like we’re agents that have free will, but that doesn’t mean we do.

            So you’re either arguing that we do have free will because we talk like we do, which is not a good argument, or that we are hypocrites because we’re determinists but talk like we’re not. In that case, we should fix our language. OR, you’re saying we should use language that is deceptive for the Little People, because we need to not disturb their view that they are free agents?

            This is the clarification I’ve asked from you, and which you have not provided. Basically, are you a determinist about human behavior? If so, what do we do about it in our use of language? If you’re not a determinist but a dualist, then this conversation is useless because there is not a whit of evidence that human brains can comeehow overturn the laws of physics.

          • Vaal
            Posted August 1, 2016 at 11:53 am | Permalink


            So “am I a determinist?” Yes, insofar as I will happily accept any scientific account of unbroken causal chains…just like you will. And compatibilism is the claim free will is consistent with an unbroken causal chain, with all present states of affairs being determined by preceding states of affairs. Why is this even being raised as a question again at this point, given that’s what compatibilism is, and it’s what I’ve argued continually here?

            As far as I can diagnose it, I think your confusion is coming from the fact compatibilism, as I’m arguing for it, isn’t simply a distinct or idiosyncratic account of free will within determinism, but it actually accounts for the feelings of “could have done otherwise” that “regular people” associate with free choices. Since it’s your position that people are thinking dualistically/magically about their choices, you think if I’m trying to preserve the “realness” of those choices, I must also be trying to preserve some form of the dualism.

            But that is exactly where I believe your inference would be incorrect. I think your diagnosis about how people think about their choices isn’t accurate: People don’t normally think dualistically when making choices; our choice-making is compatible with determinism. Thus to preserve “how people normally think about their choices” is not to preserve dualism, because they aren’t thinking in that manner to begin with.

            ‘“Good” reasons are those that are processed by the brain to yield an outcome that is consonant with what we’re evolved to want and do.”

            But, as I indicated before, when you write that you are in the mode of simply being descriptive. Ray Comfort could rightly point out, as a descriptive matter of fact, that the reasons he gives for Christianity can affect other people’s behavior. But when we say “let’s see those reasons” then we see the incoherence in his reasoning. What I’m pointing to is what happens when you leave the descriptive mode above, and get prescriptive – when you actually start giving reasons to someone to change his behavior. That’s when the inconsistencies come out IMO.

            If you had a son who you found speeding through a busy family street, what will you sound like when you actually given him reason to change his behavior? Just go through what you will say, and notice it will be assuming alternative possibilities at every turn to make any sense. “You could have injured someone” or “You could injure someone driving that way” it’s best to drive the speed limit (rather than the alternative!) IF you want to avoid crashing into someone…” etc. All presume alternative paths of behavior are possible. And then once you do that, you are stuck with this incompatibility between your philosophical stance “we can not do otherwise” and the the fact you are now presenting reasons “to do otherwise.”

            Whether your words affect someone isn’t the concern: the concern is the internally contradictory nature of your own position.

            If we want to talk about choices and reasons to change behavior given determinism, we need a consistent sense of “could do otherwise” WITHIN the context of determinism, that scales from the descriptive/abstract level down to the way we reason with one another to prescribe or influence behavior. Right now, I do not believe you have this consistency.

          • Vaal
            Posted August 1, 2016 at 11:59 am | Permalink

            This is the crux of the matter:

            Usually between the incompatibilist and the compatiblists, we will get to the point were the incompatibilist will say something like: “Ok, if we take YOUR account of choice and ‘could do otherwise’ that is compatible with determinism.…BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT REGULAR PEOPLE MEAN BY IT…and so you aren’t really talking about how people think of their choices, and the real free will.”

            But that is exactly what I want to deny. The incompatibilist makes the leap from “when making choices people feel they could do otherwise” to “therefore people are engaged in an illusion – they are thinking in magical/dualistic/contra-causal/illusory ways about their ability to choose alternatives” And I think that is an incorrect assessment of what goes on in people’s minds.

            That’s why I have continually appealed to examples of how we actually think when we have a decision to make, and examined the assumptions we have when doing so.

            When deciding between the plane or driving the car to New York, we are not considering actions within the context of precisely the same physical state of affairs, we are thinking in variations, of state of affairs, using If/Then reasoning…”IF I want to drive I do have a car, I have the capability of driving and it WOULD likely take longer, but it also WOULD allow me to stop off at some of the places I’d like to on the way.” Our choice-making involves a survey of our desires, and If/Then probabilistic thinking of which action WOULD get us what we want IF we were to take that action. It is not based on some strange dualistic commitment to “what I could or would do if I only had one specific desire and every single element being the same in each case.” That would make nonsense of our thinking and wouldn’t even explain how we manage to operate in the world. People don’t think that way during decisions.

            So the fact we “feel” it is “true” we could do otherwise when making a decision is accounted for by the fact we ARE contemplating truths about our capabilities and likely outcomes, given the mode we are reasoning within. We justifiably get the same feeling of truth to think “I could drive to New York IF I wanted to” as we do from thinking “IF I put the water in the freezer, it will freeze solid” because both those are ways of apprehending truths, even given determinism.

            Now you will most likely want to say “But you know very well many people think their freedom to choose requires Libertarian free will or dualism. That’s what they mean by free will.”

            And that is also what I take to be a mistaken assessment of the issue. I think you are mistaking an explanation, people come up with for why it feels they have a choice, with the FACT of what they are trying to explain, the feeling “I really can choose either option.” Dualism is not the explanation for how we make decisions, and the feeling of “could do otherwise.” It rests upon the same empirical thinking about ourselves as we apply to everything else.

            And this is why I prefer compatibilism: it allows for for a top-down more coherent disabuse of the things that don’t exist (magic/dualism) while not confusing people into throwing out what really does exist (we really can “do otherwise” in the important ways we normally apprehend, and in a ways important for giving reasons for changing behaviour).

      • Vaal
        Posted July 31, 2016 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

        Just to put I hope a finer point on the “could have” example of the speeding driver…

        We have different ways of apprehending and conveying truths about the world. We can talk about what “did” happen, where we can reference the exact causal state of the world and what followed – “Ted’s house burned down.” And we can talk about what “could” happen as a way of understanding the nature of things: Ted’s house *could* have been saved from burning down, IF Ted had employed smoke alarms in his house.

        The second mode of thinking in particular is our way of understanding the world through time, of processing facts and using them to predict future outcomes and decide future behaviors.

        It’s the same for telling the speeding driver he “could” have hit a child. By that we mean “IF” some child had perhaps ran into the street – in other words, we are not appealing to precisely the same causal state of affairs that resulted in the driver being lucky, but describing a situation similar enough to the one faced by the driver, to convey real truths about things that *can* happen in the world.

        If that is NOT the implicit logic behind telling the driver he “could have” killed a child, then what could be the logic we are using, in that case and in most other cases of describing possibilities? Surely the driver must be getting it wrong to dismiss our warning as bereft of truth because we could ONLY be referencing what actually DID happen, and hey…no one got hurt…so what’s the point?

        This, as I said, makes sense of our speaking in terms of possibilities, could, should, would have, might have, choice etc, without
        contradicting causality…and it’s the way we normally think anyway, it doesn’t therefore require re-definition of our language, where it seems that is what incompatibilists are stuck doing.

        • Posted July 31, 2016 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

          I think you have to view future possibilities as open because I can always (deterministically) let my act be determined by a random event. Yes, yes, I know random outcomes do not grant me contra-causal free will, but it does mean the future state is open.

          • Posted July 31, 2016 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

            I mean this comment to mean that it is perfectly okay to believe the future is not determined. At least on this thread in the many worlds universe.

    • Kevin
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      “Fact that you don’t even know makes it fully legit” 311

      Choices or not, the fact remains we do not know what will happen tomorrow or next week or the following year. Anyone who claims to know the future has always been shown to be a fraud.

      Unfortunately not knowing the future is an equivalent basis for either determinists of compatibilists, but it allows the issue of choice to be not important.

      You might as well try, you have nothing to lose.

    • reasonshark
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

      But every time we will make a recommendation, give reasons for taking a particular action, we will appeal explicitly or implicitly to the possibility of being able to choose an alternative.

      But at bottom, that attempt to cause people to behave in certain ways can be honestly described as what it is: a cause-and-effect system that is in the same causality club as the hydrological cycle, the evolution of stars, and the workings of our most complex metal supercomputers. The possibility you speak of is part of the computation your recipient goes through as they simulate multiple futures and whittle it down, however messily, to one future that is then executed.

      There are caveats: for instance, some decision-makers dither so much that the rest of the universe basically makes the decision for them. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the problem is not that people are seeing the fixed cosmic movie for the scripted event that it is (metaphorically speaking). The problem is that people are landing on the arbitrary idea that knowledge of the existence of the script somehow equates to having read the entire script.

      • Vaal
        Posted July 31, 2016 at 6:32 pm | Permalink



        We employ the same logic of “could be” and “possibilities” to our own actions as we do to talking about any other real thing in the empirical world. That is why we aren’t, or needn’t be, referring to magic or illusion
        in either case.

        To describe how a rocket *could* get to mars you use IF/Then concepts which are compatible with determinism, and convey real information. To influence someone’s behavior, you talk of possibilities in terms of IF/Then concepts, and this becomes part of their own IF/THEN “computing” which helps decide which action to take. Yes it’s all causal, but the point is whether or not people are thinking in true ways about “possibilities” within that causal machinery, and to the extent we are using If/then reasoning…we are! We don’t have to say “we really don’t have alternatives” because that depends on presuming a “precisely the same causal situation” that is useless to us, and that we aren’t presuming in the first place.

  2. Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Let the B.F. Skinner contra-dance commence.

  3. P. Mann
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    “My own example is that you can alter the behavior of a dog by kicking it when it does something you don’t like.”

    No you can’t. Under determinism you can’t “alter” anything, you can only follow what you’re programmed to do. You can’t decide whether or not to kick the dog (or anything else for that matter). And the dog does not “alter” its behavior, it simply reacts to your preordained actions with its own preordained actions. In the cartoon, the woman’s kick to the groin doesn’t “change” the man’s behavior, it simply reflects the two of them carrying out preprogrammed events which were set in motion at the Big Bang.

    The way so-called determinists constantly speak in the language of free will is the ultimate equivocation. You can’t “accept” or “reject” this argument. You can’t be convinced by it. You can’t be deterred by anything anyone does, ever. You can only carry out the actions that are predetermined for you.

    Please consider being honest about the implications of your beliefs.

    • Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      Please give me a break. The dog behaved badly before, it had an environmental intervention, it behaved better afterwards. That is an alteration, even if what you do is programmed, AS I’VE NOTED BEFORE. Yes, its determinism all the way down. But that doesn’t stop me from saying that a specific environmental alteration has a specific result. That is a reaction to the claim (which of course is determined to be made by some people) that “your doing that will not change the dog’s behavior from what it was before.” “If you kicked the dog, you will see no change in how it behaved before.” Frankly, I don’t think you know what you’re talking about. I didn’t say anything that implied that someone could have chosen otherwise, so there’s no free will language here.

      Please consider posting elsewhere (you actually have no choice now), since you seem determined by the laws of physics to be snarky here (“please consider being dishonest”) and I’m determined by the laws of physics to not want rude people like you posting on your website. You could have made exactly the same argument without the snark, but since you are one of those folks who automatically becomes rude on the internet (did you read the Roolz?), you couldn’t help yourself. And I can’t help saying goodbye.

      • Posted August 1, 2016 at 2:57 am | Permalink

        Sorry, but I have been confused on this issue ever since I became aware of it on this site and by reading Harris’s excellent little (in size) book about it.

        If you kick the dog and the dog does something, then you can consider that the kick and the reaction were determined (pre- or not) by the laws of physics. (And please, let’s once and for all forget quantum randomness on this level, at least until Penrose and Hameroff come up witn something more substantial…) Saying that an environmental alteration brought about the reaction is, as Sean Carroll would point out, a useful way of talking about it on that level. Dog, environment, kick and altered behavior are all in an emergent level. But all those little particles are still buzzing about, obeying the laws of physics.

        This sounds like I am telling you something, but I am not, I am explaining my current, rather confused understanding.

    • Vaal
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      P. Mann,

      Just as Jerry has said, your reasoning about determinism and altering behavior just doesn’t make sense. If you examined it more closely, you should be able to see that.

      Grant for sake of argument that determinism is true. Does it follow that language like “alters behavior” no longer makes sense? Of course not. We still have real things to describe, and those are fitting words to use.

      If a god is barking until you give it a kick, all of that is true even if it’s all part of an unbroken causal chain. The dog WAS barking, you DID kick the dog, this DID cause the dog to change it’s behavior and stop barking. In a deterministic system, woulds like “change” and “alter” would be just as useful, and applied just the same way we do everyday. To argue otherwise, you’d have to show that determinism entails those phenomena wouldn’t actually exist to require a description, and good luck with that!

      • Vaal
        Posted July 31, 2016 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

        ^^^whoops, typo: “If a dog is barking…”

        Though if certain Gods existed, I wish I could give God a swift kick sometimes.

        • keith cook ±
          Posted July 31, 2016 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

          I gave a god a kick once, didn’t change a thing except me🙂

          • Posted July 31, 2016 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

            I gave god the boot and it changed my life.

  4. GBJames
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 3:03 pm | Permalink


  5. Posted July 31, 2016 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    The cartoon seems to illustrate one of the major compatibilist ideas, that the morally relevant sense of “free will” is “uncoerced” or free from overt manipulation by other agents. Conditioned behavior through repeated painful stimuli is hardly the same thing as an autonomous choice.

  6. Posted July 31, 2016 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    “It illustrates one of the many misconceptions people have about science-based determinism and its rejection of libertarian free will: that under determinism is useless to try to change anything since everything is preordained by the laws of nature”– I know from reading your other writing that by “try”, you are not sneaking in a free will option there. I do think, that when many people use words like “try”, “should”, etc, the free will concept slips in with it for them and that is where they get hung up.

    Really (as you’ve said), whether or not we are going to try to change the behavior of others is also determined. And even thought it doesn’t exactly make sense to debate over whether we “should” (in a choice sense) “try” to change other people, we will or or won’t debate over it, depending on what has happened to influence our choice to debate. As determinists, we can mean “should” as a description of what actions would have to happen to determine other actions. But a non-determinist is probably not going to read the word that way.

    I have had better luck explaining myself to non-determinists by skipping the try/should type language. For instance, if I say “if it happens that I do not share belongings with my friend until she returns whatever she borrowed last time, she will be more likely to return my things to me” instead of “I should teach my friend to return my things by not lending more stuff until she does”, they can understand the first statement as being determinist. The second one flummoxes them. But… it’s sort of awkward and unwieldy to speak that way. So will I perceive myself to be trying to avoid free-will-ish words, or won’t I? Guess I’ll find out!

    • Vaal
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

      “And even thought it doesn’t exactly make sense to debate over whether we “should” (in a choice sense) “try” to change other people,”

      But it only doesn’t make sense if you have started off the wrong foot with some assumptions that make such talk nonsensical.

      Just re-evaluate where you are making the mistake and fix it. Let’s take a garden variety case of talking about “should.”

      You are somewhere in wild Africa on a safari and are in need of water. You ask the locals where to get your water and they point to one body of water “You should go to that one for water” pointing to another body of water they say “you should not go to that one, there are many crocodiles there.”

      Well…what are they conveying in that “should” talk? They are assuming you want water, but don’t want to get eaten by a crocodile. In other words, it means “IF you don’t want to possibly be attacked by a crocodile, you should avoid that water and take it from the other one.”

      Is anyone pointing to something illusory, that doesn’t exist given determinism? No.
      You really do have a goal, a desire for water. You really do have a desire NOT to be eaten while getting your water. It really IS the case that one action will put you at higher risk of being attacked.
      So IF you want to be safe you SHOULD avoid the water with the crocodiles is perfectly reasonable and true. It’s true within the context of determinism, and this is typically how we employ “should” recommendations in everyday use.

      Why then, would you come to a conclusion that it “doesn’t exactly make sense” to debate courses of action and “should” since we’d be appealing to such compatible reasoning to do so?

      • Posted August 1, 2016 at 6:52 am | Permalink

        Sorry I didn’t convey my meaning well– what I meant is, that to a non-determinist, that argument will come across as an intrusion of free will, even if we know what we mean. They will not understand why we would debate something if we can’t use free will to proceed with the choice of whether or not to change course. But using words without that whiff (for them) of free choice is one way to communicate so they understand what a determinist is saying.

        I have seen debates over “should we or should we not accept the determinist science, considering possible effects on our mood and behavior”– and non-determinists think we are talking about a free choice to accept or not accept the science. When really, we are not freely choosing to debate that question and are not freely choosing whether to accept it. We are talking about what the effects will be, not whether we get to freely choose one way or another. We are witnessing what our minds have already decided to do, since awareness of the choice apparently comes after it has been made (slightly separate topic from determinism but relevant– we could theoretically be consciously aware of the decision and still have it be determinist, but that doesn’t seem to be how it works).

        A determinist understands those conversations, but to make it clear to a non-determinist, I’ve personally found that changing my language is necessary. Did I freely choose to change it? No, of course not, so even that sentence will mess up a non-determinist’s grasp. If I say “I’ve personally observed that when I change my language, a non-determinist tends to understand me better, but I’m just witnessing that effect, not freely choosing it”, they get my meaning.

        • Posted August 1, 2016 at 7:02 am | Permalink

          And, for me– when I remember people aren’t freely choosing their positions, it has the effect of making me feel more forgiving and compassionate towards them, and less angry. I am not freely choosing that whole thing, just describing what seems to happen with my attitudes towards others, especially the fundamentalist types. I wind up feeling sorry for them. I wind up, with criminals, wanting to prevent them from doing further damage without exacting some sort of revenge. For instance, I want violent criminals to be humanely treated while incarcerated. That isn’t based on a rational analysis of cause-effect of punishment– it’s just my affective response after remembering none of us are freely choosing anything, but still choosing nevertheless.

          In daily life, though, I tend to forget all about the free choice science and proceed under the illusion that I am making decisions. It seems to be a pretty sticky illusion.

        • Vaal
          Posted August 1, 2016 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

          We are witnessing what our minds have already decided to do, since awareness of the choice apparently comes after it has been made (slightly separate topic from determinism but relevant– we could theoretically be consciously aware of the decision and still have it be determinist, but that doesn’t seem to be how it works).

          But even if we granted that (and that is not actually a well established explanation for ALL of our thinking)….the question remains whether what we “witness” our minds doing is something reasonable and coherent – that is supplying good reasons – or whether we are witnessing bad arguments.

          Some people’s minds produce the argument “The bible is true because the Bible says it is true.”

          Other people’s minds produce the argument “That type of viciously circular reasoning is very problematic as a way to justify that belief.”

          We need to still be able to point out which of those two positions are actually more coherent and make sense, right?

          Therefore it’s still valid to critique an incompatibilist for combining contradictory or incoherent ideas in his arguments about free will, while proposing arguments that are better and more coherent about choice-making in a determinist framework.

          What if we drill down into the premises you are juggling, what you are writing, and what you will give as reasons for someone to alter his behavior, turns out to be incoherent. (As it seems to be IMO). “We can’t REALLY reason…and here are the REASONS for that claim…”That should force you to realize you’ve made a mistake somewhere. It’s like saying

          • Vaal
            Posted August 1, 2016 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

            Sorry, should have been “the problem in how some incompatibiilist speak on this matter is similar to the incoherence of saying: “We can’t REALLY reason…and here are the REASONS I’ll give for that claim…”

            When one is reduced to incoherence, that is a reason to suspect one has made a mistake somewhere…

  7. Posted July 31, 2016 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think there’s any scientific justification for saying everything is preordained by the laws of nature. Everything is logically implied, or determined, but there’s no “pre” involved. Any set of laws of nature are only true if they apply to the present and future, as well as the past, so the laws are not “pre”. The laws aren’t timestamped at all, really, unless you count “all of history”.

    • Posted August 1, 2016 at 5:54 am | Permalink

      Except we can test whether some physical laws (speed of light, gravity) have varied over time and space, and the answer is NO. Therefore, the logical conclusion is that everything obeys the same fixed laws of physics, and, except for perturbations caused by quantum mechanical indeterminacy, IS in principle predictable (I don’t use “preordained” because “ordained” implies an “ordainer”.

      • Posted August 1, 2016 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

        It’s good to get away from theological language like “ordained”. But now that the subject has turned to prediction, I’m going to point out that prediction is no threat to free will. My friends can usually predict what I’ll do in a situation. This doesn’t mean they control me, or that I don’t have a choice. The agent is the cause of the action; the predictor is at best making a faithful image of the agent (and environment) to get a faithful image of the action.

  8. Dimitris Klaras
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 4:28 am | Permalink

    When people have the perception that have multiple choices then express something that it is true. I described before: Any choice we make is final because it is already in the past but creates a new condition and so the next moment (with whatever come with it) happens frequently to change this choice even to reverse it. Before acting on, after starting acting on or after the completion of the action. This scenario fits and can explain the multiple choice perception.

    But what preordain means? The example of the dog is not up to the real point. Everyone is fully aware that such changes happen. No big deal! But is not familiar with the fact that are preordained! This is the real point. So many preordained changes make a preordained human history? For example get a random year in the future, 2080, and ask yourself: At this year human civilization will completely collapse or not? What will happen will be preordained! No “multiple choices”. Either will collapse or will not collapse. Lets say that it is preordained to collapse. It doesn’t matter what people will do, it will collapse because people actions is preordained to be inadequate to save civilization.

    So in this light what people have to do? What actions to take? Those that are preordained to make. Together with the whole universe!

  9. swordfish
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    “A properly defined free will is an established scientific fact.” A critique of the argument by Hossenfelder you quoted a while back:


  10. peepuk
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Compatibalism is the false believe that determinism has no consequences for freewill.

    I think it’s nicely demonstrated with this little story:

    “So imagine a man in court accused of a crime. The judge says “you could have done what you should have done”. The accused says “can you be clear about what that means for the jury”. The judge says ” yes, what it means is you could have done otherwise by virtue of the fact that if circumstances you did not choose had been appropriately different you would have done”.”

    from http://breakingthefreewillillusion.com/real-otherwise/#more-3280

    • Vaal
      Posted August 1, 2016 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

      That example simply ignores the role of the person’s choice in the causal chain. It begs the question to say someone did not “choose” what happened.

      Question: If the defendant says “Judge, you have no choice but to find me innocent; you can not do otherwise.”

      How would the judge respond?

      Also: How do you think we can learn from past mistakes, without assuming past mistakes can “give us reasons to do otherwise?”

  11. Shep
    Posted August 3, 2016 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    But weren’t you always going to kick the dog anyway? And wasn’t the dog going to ‘change’ its behaviour anyway?

    The problem with arguing that we can influence behaviour is that, if reality is deterministic, you were always going to do whatever it is that you think is influencing the behaviour of another being, and that being was always going to respond the way they responded.

    Influencing behaviour = free will. You cannot have it both ways, which is what this sounds like to me.

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