Another word on free will: does compulsion eliminate it?

In my post on the Annual Edge Question the other day, which gave a link to my short piece on “determinism” on the Edge website, reader Coel made this comment:

A hope for the new year is that some commenters here might persuade PCC-E that many compatibilists do not see compatibilist notions of “free will” and “choice” as carny tricks or as evasion, nor as being what we tell the little people, but that we see them as useful and indeed necessary concepts for understanding human interactions. [JAC: In fact, I have several quotes from people like Dennett that we can’t spread the view of determinism in society lest there be dire social consequences; these quotes are explicitly “little people” quotes.]

To that end, I shall ask a question:

Is there a meaningful sense in which one can say that wearing a hijab is a “choice” in America but not a choice in Iran or Saudi Arabia?

Any determinist who answers “Yes” has then adopted the essentials of the compatibilist perspective (even if they then want to re-write the language).

[And I presume that no determinist will answer “no”, and say that in neither country is there any meaningful “choice” in the matter, since whether one wears a hijab is just determined by the laws of physics, are they?]

I responded with this:

What I would say, to be accurate, is this: “The government compels its citizens to wear the hijab in Iran, but doesn’t in the U.S.”

I do use the word “choice,” but I always realize that its dualistic connotation is illusory. And, as I’ve already said (but don’t want to argue this again), I frankly don’t care about the semantic machinations of compatibilists. You and I both know that the laws of physics underlie whether one wears a hijab or not, and where. What is important to me is to grasp PHYSICAL DETERMINISM and work out its consequences. It’s a semantic trick to do compatibilism because it undercuts what virtually everyone sees as “free will”: a dualistic free will. It’s as if you’re saying we can redefine “religious” to mean “full of awe” because there are similarities between religious people and Carl Sagan.

Now let me expand on that brief comment.

It’s a common notion of compatibilist “free will” that we have that sort of will when we experience no external compulsion that forces us to do something. So a hijabi in Iran is under legal compulsion to veil her head, while a hijabi in, say, New York is not; therefore the later has a “free choice.” That, say compatibilists, is a meaningful sort of free will. My contention is that there is no meaningful difference here.

While I agree that the forms of environmental constraint that make one wear a hijab in Iran may differ from those affecting hijabis in the U.S., I think it’s important to recognize that “compulsion”, whether it comes from the government or from your parents, is a.) still mediated through your neurons to result in a given behavior; b.) still a compulsion that cannot be resisted; and c.) still dictated, at bottom, by the laws of physics.

In my response I avoided using the word “choice” because I think you can express the same idea without the confusion of “choice.” But I still use that word in my daily life, yet when I think about it I always realize that it’s an ostensible or illusory choice. And in writing about free will I do try to avoid it because of its common connotations, which might confuse the reader. Or I might put quotes around it: “choice.”

Regardless, though, is there a meaningful difference between a government decree on the one hand, or one’s parents and one’s peers whose influence makes you wear the hijab on the other? Both are part of the environment that affects one’s brain, resulting in the donning of a headscarf.

But that’s not all. Your brain, though the working of the environment (both developmental and social) on your evolved neural equipment, is always the source of compulsion. If you believe, as most readers do, that at any time there is only one possible action you can take, and that is determined by your genes and environment, then you are being compelled to act by your brain. Is there a substantive difference between the government acting on your brain, making you wear a hijab because you’ll be punished if you don’t, your parents and peers working on your brain, making you wear a hijab because you’ll get social opprobrium if you don’t, or other influences working on your brain, compelling you to wear a hijab because you want to feel more “Muslim,” or you like the way it looks?

In none of those cases could you have behaved otherwise. The only distinction was which environmental circumstances dictated your actions.

That is why I think there is no meaningful difference between doing something because you’re being “forced” to or because you ostensibly “choose to.” In all cases you are being forced; the only thing that differs are the relevant forces. At what point, then, do we say that an American hijabi has exercised a compatibilist form of “free will”? If her parents pressure her? If her peers pressure her mildly? And remember that, in a social creature, external societal pressures nearly always help dictate what you do.

As I’ve always said, I don’t care so much if you want to define the absence of government compulsion—or other issues like “humans have a very complex evolved brain”—as factors giving us “compatiabilist free will”. The issue for me has always been determinism of behavior, a determinism that rests on the laws of physics. To me that’s important not only because it dispels the dualistic tenets of religion, but also can give us more empathy toward the downtrodden and the malefactors, and well as mitigating the regret we might feel for not having done different things.

Compulsion is compulsion, and it’s always enacted through your neurons, whether those neurons be conditioned by the Iranian government, the views of your parents, or your need to feel more “Muslim”.

21855086-human-brain-with-arms-and-legs-police-cop-and-gun-on-hand-security-concepts-stock-photo

211 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted January 2, 2017 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    sub

    I was compelled to type that.

  2. YF
    Posted January 2, 2017 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    While we must reject dualism in any case (all of our choices are determined by the laws of physics), there is still a meaningful difference between choosing voluntarily (choosing/doing what we want, i.e., “freely choosing”) and choosing under coercion (with a gun to the head, or in the case of a reflex or spasm). This important distinction is captured by compatibilism, but is lost under incompatibilism.

    • Chris G
      Posted January 2, 2017 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      I’m not convinced there is an ‘important distinction’ here, just different types/degrees of compulsion as Jerry argues.

      • Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:27 am | Permalink

        I’m not convinced there is an ‘important distinction’ here, just different types/degrees of compulsion as Jerry argues.

        Why do you regard different types and degrees of compulsion as unimportant? Surely such issues are exactly what a lot of social discourse is about?

        Are you really suggesting that, say, espousing Catholicism because your brain finds it convincing is no different in any important way from espousing Catholicism because if you don’t the government will burn you at the stake?

        • Chris G
          Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

          Hi Coel,
          I think you may have misunderstood my objection.
          The ‘distinction’ YF outlined in his/her comment above was between “choosing voluntarily” and “choosing under coercion” i.e. no acknowledgement that both of these are compulsions.
          With regard to your question about belief in Catholicism, yes I think there is an important difference: brain-belief can be changed by environment/education/ideas/conversation. Nothing I can say to the believer will change the government’s threat to burn them at the stake,
          Chris G.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted January 2, 2017 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

        Chess players recognize an important difference between choosing moves in pursuit of your own strategy, and being forced into a series of moves dictated by your opponent’s strategy. The fact that both sets of moves are “compelled” by physics is irrelevant to the question of whose agenda is being advanced.

        Similar considerations apply to a wide variety of social situations.

        • Helen Hollis
          Posted January 2, 2017 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

          I am going to put this into my scrapbook of things I am leaving for my child to look at when I am gone. I agree with every single word here. Thank you for this, I read it several times over and I wish someone had told me this very thing decades ago.

        • reasonshark
          Posted January 3, 2017 at 10:07 am | Permalink

          Chess players recognize an important difference between choosing moves in pursuit of your own strategy, and being forced into a series of moves dictated by your opponent’s strategy.

          Yes, but “free will” doesn’t add anything to the concept. If one player wants to win, then they are instantly bound according to the logical moves that would result in a checkmate. That includes the logic that accounts for worse-case scenarios, such as getting pieces cornered by the opponent.

          The only time a player would “want” to play any move other than the best one would be if at least two are equally the best. In other words, as soon as they have any kind of real option, it doesn’t actually have any real consequence anyway and collapses into arbitrariness. They have no use for the freedom of “free will”; they want to know what’ll make them win.

          Besides, in chess virtually every move they make is contingent on what their opponent does (e.g. “if I play my rook here, I can check her king so long as she doesn’t block with that knight”). The most salient difference between your hypotheticals is this: In the former scenario, they are getting what they want. In the latter, their desire to win is being thwarted and replaced by another, which is not to lose too badly. That’s based on information about the game and the opponent, and what lawful action to take next.

          The asymmetry of tactical advantages is salient, not the presence or absence of “choice” or “free will”. Again, it adds nothing that couldn’t be made clearer in other ways.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted January 3, 2017 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

            And yet “choice” and “free will” are the words that people ordinarily use to describe that sort of salient asymmetry. If we accept that words get their meanings from actual usage, then that’s what those words mean. And if what people usually mean when they say “choice” and “free will” encompasses something real and salient, then it’s inaccurate to say that “choice” and “free will” don’t exist.

            • Vaal
              Posted January 3, 2017 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

              ^^Yup 🙂

    • GBJames
      Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      I agree with Chris G. here. Nobody argues that all forms of compulsion are the same. One might imagine all manner of ways to classify the variety of ways compulsion happens. With-or-without-gun-to-head is only one way. Attaching the word “choice” to it doesn’t really contribute much, IMO.

      • YF
        Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:34 am | Permalink

        In everyday life (and in law) we often use the term ‘free’ to indicate ‘voluntary’ or ‘not under coercion’. To freely choose means that we are not forced to choose or act ‘against our will’. It does not necessarily mean that our choices are made by a dualistic soul operating outside the laws of physics. Choosing freely simply means ‘choosing/doing what we (our brains) want’.

        Choosing is a very real physical process in the brain, and there are mountains of behavioral and neuroscientific studies on ‘choice’ in animals and humans. It would be a mistake to remove the term ‘choice’ from our vocabulary.

        • Posted January 2, 2017 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

          Umm. . I suspect that a woman who wears a hijab in Iran is “doing want her brains want”, because she doesn’t want the alternative, which is punishment.

          • YF
            Posted January 2, 2017 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

            But she is still being coerced by the threat of punishment. Perhaps if she were allowed to choose according to her desires she would not wear one.

            Giving money to charity voluntarily is very different from giving money to a thief at gunpoint. The former is done ‘freely’ (in accordance with ones desires), whereas the latter is not.

            • GBJames
              Posted January 2, 2017 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

              You’re just ignoring the fact that “one’s desires” includes not getting shot by a thief.

              • Posted January 2, 2017 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

                “You’re just ignoring the fact that “one’s desires” includes not getting shot by a thief.”

                Yeah I agree. The only time we can truly say something is against your desire would be if you were physically constrained from acting. Like allowing someone to drown because you’re tied up.

              • YF
                Posted January 2, 2017 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

                Come on now. Yeah, you don’t want to get shot, but you don’t want to give away your money either! If you could state your preference it would be to not give your money to the thief and instead go on your merry way.

              • Posted January 2, 2017 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

                “Come on now. Yeah, you don’t want to get shot, but you don’t want to give away your money either! If you could state your preference it would be to not give your money to the thief and instead go on your merry way.”

                If I weren’t coerced by my mother into believing being charitable was a good thing, I could state my preference, and not give money to charity, so how is the gun to my head any more coercive?

      • Posted January 2, 2017 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

        Gun-to-the-head vs. personal desire strikes me as an extremely important distinction. Most laws are predicated on exactly this distinction. I can’t imagine that anyone, including incompatibilists, really believe there’s no meaningful distinction between rape and consensual sex.

        • Helen Hollis
          Posted January 2, 2017 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

          There was an armed robbery at my workplace recently. No one had a gun to their head, but you better believe seeing a gun in the hands of a man who is demanding things from you is an event you will not forget.

        • GBJames
          Posted January 3, 2017 at 7:15 am | Permalink

          Is “gun-to-the-head” compulsion but “gun-in-the-coat-pocket” not? What if the gun is just implied? What if the thief just says “Give me your money or else.”? Is it not compulsion if the thief has no weapon but is large and burly? How much bigger and burlier does the thief need to be to qualify the situation as “compulsory”?

          Where is the magic line where the motivations qualify as “compulsory”?

          • Posted January 3, 2017 at 9:24 am | Permalink

            Criminal lawyers would most definitely have an answer for you.

            We chop up continua all the time, and for good reasons. Can you point to the one second at which a teen becomes an adult? No. But there are very good reasons for having separate categories “teen” and “adult”.

            Rape is compulsory; consensual sex is not, and I’m very glad the courts don’t throw up their hands and say “case dismissed, we can’t find the magic line between compulsory and not”.

            • GBJames
              Posted January 3, 2017 at 9:30 am | Permalink

              Consensual sex is also compulsory. The participant is compelled by a desire to do it. And consequently people sometimes regret their actions the next morning.

              Since we are not can a court of law I’m willing to entertain an serious answer from you to my question. In the case of the range of motivations from “gun-at-the-head” to “feel-sorry-for-panhandler”, where is the magic dividing line that demarcates compulsion?

              • Posted January 3, 2017 at 10:02 am | Permalink

                I’m not saying desires can’t be thought of as a form of compulsion. I’m saying there *is* a meaningful distinction between different forms of compulsion, contra Jerry in the OP.

                In the gun-to-the-head example I’d say the dividing line is whether or not there’s a person there actually holding a gun to your head. There may indeed be scenarios that are harder to parse, but that doesn’t mean there’s no meaningful difference between armed robbery and charitable donation. We don’t always have to know where a “line” is; indeed there often isn’t. But that doesn’t mean two points far apart on the continuum aren’t different. How much money, to the cent, makes one rich? I don’t know. But I can certainly identify poor people and rich people.

              • GBJames
                Posted January 3, 2017 at 10:13 am | Permalink

                There are always differences between any two non-identical things. The question is whether the difference here is the presence/absence of compulsion or whether the difference is the particular varieties of compulsion at play. I think that PCC[e] would maintain that the latter is what is going on, not the former and I would maintain that is the case.

              • Posted January 3, 2017 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

                None of us compatibilist commenters have argued for the absence of compulsion. We are arguing that it doesn’t make sense to subsume all forms of compulsion into one homogenous reduction, ie, the laws of physics. Jerry wrote explicitly that he doesn’t see a meaningful difference between various forms of compulsion.

                We compatibilists simply think 1) there are indeed different forms of compulsion 2) acknowledging these differences is important.

              • GBJames
                Posted January 3, 2017 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

                “We compatibilists simply think 1) there are indeed different forms of compulsion 2) acknowledging these differences is important.”

                I don’t think there is anyone here who would dispute these two statements. Nor do I see how these statements shed any light on whether arbitrarily applying the phrase “free choice” to some human actions while denying it to others is valuable.

              • Posted January 3, 2017 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

                Musical beef writes:

                I’m not saying desires can’t be thought of as a form of compulsion.

                Well I am. “I did it because I felt like it” is not typically a tale of compulsion; quite the opposite.

              • Posted January 3, 2017 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

                @GBJames:

                I think there are people here disputing those two statements. I referred to Jerry’s stance in the immediately preceding sentence.

                @Paul Torek:

                Yes, it’s an unorthodox and rather poetic use of the word “compulsion”, I agree. We typically use “compulsion” to distinguish between things you do because you want to and things you are forced to do despite not wanting to. But I can see the point the incompatibilists are making by saying desires are a kind of compulsion.

        • YF
          Posted January 3, 2017 at 11:48 am | Permalink

          Thanks for the excellent example of rape to support my point.

          I suspect that this discussion is going nowhere because the compatibilists and incompatibilists are talking past each other.

          No one here is disputing that all actions/choices are ‘coerced’ in the sense that they are determined by the brain, which operates in accordance with the laws of physics.

          The point is that some actions are done happily- willingly- in accordance with ones desires, while others are done unhappily- against our will- in opposition to what we would prefer, even though we are still compelled by the laws of physics to do them.

          This crucial distinction, recognized by the compatibilists, is what most people have in mind when they say that they did something ‘freely’ vs ‘against their will’.

          • Posted January 3, 2017 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

            Agreed. And I think it’s a very good thing the law also agrees with this.

    • reasonshark
      Posted January 3, 2017 at 8:30 am | Permalink

      Not really. Between perception (what people think, see, understand, theorize, etc.) and action (what people actually say and do), the fundamental aspects of human interaction – heck, the fundamental sensorimotor aspects of the nervous system and the basic input-output aspects of computational systems in general – are captured.

      Surely the pertinent point is that punishing somebody for doing something harmless is a needless cause of distress and harm (and arguably an example of ethical stupidity) that therefore needs eradicating. Even the threat of punishment is a needless and unpleasant experience. That’s sufficient without invoking loss of free will as the crime in question.

  3. Posted January 2, 2017 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    “To me that’s important not only because it dispels the dualistic tenets of religion, but also can give us more empathy toward the downtrodden and the malefactors etc ”

    These of course are argument from consequences which one would hope to avoid in a debate on the properties of physical law. However, as consequences have already been brought up let me put forward what I feel are the negative consequences of convincing everyone that they have no free will. First there is the “little people” argument…. that people who are led to believe that everything that they do is “not their fault” will have them use this as an excuse to go ahead and do the bad things that tempt them. Certainly there is some experimental studies that endorse this worry. But I would argue that there are even worse consequences… these are consequences of how we value the individual formed human personality. If there is no free will then people are mere robots. If people are robots with a “bad program” what is wrong with using ANY measures to reprogram them? The world becomes a Clockwork Orange world indeed. If punishment is only meant to deter behaviour, from a game theoretic point of view, isn’t it far better to INCREASE punishment to deter crime, not lessen punishment. (Saudi Arabia after all has a very much lower crime rate than that in Europe) And if humans are robots, what matter if we punish them.

    • Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      I would add that all the benefits that accrue from adopting a more compassionate treatment of criminal behaviours are entirely possible to achieve from the compatibilist view of free will, with none of the potential downsides listed above.

    • Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      The experimental sources that suggest the “little people argument” (Vos and Schooler’s paper, I believe) have not been replicated in two separate experiments. So, I believe, the “experimental studies that endorse this worry” are not scientifically accepted.

      And I find the “little people argument” patronizing and condescending.

      I think we need to trust the fact that people can handle the truth. First tell them what it is, and then we can deal with the consequences. I can’t believe you’re suggesting (as Dennett and others have) that we DOWNPLAY determinism because it’s bad for society. That’s reminiscent of the Bishop of Worcester’s wife’s statement (probably aprocryphal() about evolution:

      “Descended from the apes? Dear me, let us hope it is not true. But if it is true, let us hope it does not become widely known.”

      Sophisiticated theologians say the same thing about atheism.

      • Sastra
        Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:36 am | Permalink

        I think Daniel Dennett might say that it’s not a question of honesty, but a matter of how we talk about something. There might be ways of explaining evolution, for example, which would be understood one way by an expert, but interpreted another way by the general public. If it’s going to lead to mass confusion, then find the vocabulary which won’t. That’s especially true if this confusion will be eagerly promoted and exploited by the anti-science side.

        A free will which evolves — and only works and is understandable in light of this fact — is an entirely different animal than libertarian free will dangling from a sky hook.

        • Posted January 3, 2017 at 5:16 am | Permalink

          Very well put Sastra. It is very important how a deterministic explanation of free will is put to the public, so as not to have it completely misunderstood and misinterpreted. And first, it is important that we OURSELVES understand just what sort of debate we are having when we endlessly debate free will.. both here at WEIT and elsewhere. Is the free will debate a scientific debate? I say not, if it were, where are the experimental proofs and the physical measurements? (Libit as a “proof” is a joke) Free will is a philosophical debate only including a few points referenced from cognitive science. It is a debate on definition, on constructs of human nature, and of moral responsibility. This is not of the world of science. We here at WEIT, all of us keen followers of science and adherents to scientific method, can not even agree on whether the concept even exists. We exhibit MAJOR disagreement. What chance then of presenting a cogent explanation to society at large. Is philosophical debate ever resolved – NO. Let’s stop pretending that we will ever resolve this question, even among ourselves, here and now.

          • darrelle
            Posted January 3, 2017 at 7:45 am | Permalink

            I’d agree that the freewill debates that occur here, and similar ones elsewhere, in which it is mostly compatiblists and incompatiblists arguing, is a philosophical debate. But, in general terms science is as significant an aspect of the freewill debate as philosophy. It is just that incompatiblists and compatiblists happen to agree virtually 100% on the science. All the heated arguments are about semantics and what the ramifications of the mutually accepted characteristics of reality revealed by science are and should be.

            • Posted January 4, 2017 at 8:05 am | Permalink

              Indeed, both incompatibilists and compatibilists do agree about determinism, the impossibility of dualistic explanations in the nature of mind, and the value of using the scientific method in addressing real world issues. However, their PHILOSOPHICAL differences on the subject of what free will are still fundamental, and bear a major influence on how we are to perceive ourselves and how we function in human society. And as we both agree this really is only a philosophical debate, neither side should wrap its particular stance in a way that claims to manifest any scientific certainty.

        • Posted January 3, 2017 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

          That’s how I understood it too. I doubt that Dennett has ever given the deceit-promoting version of “the little people” argument that’s being attributed to him.

    • Chris G
      Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      You appear to be arguing from the pov that whether free-will exists or not, we NEED to believe it does. (Others seem to argue that certain elites can know the truth, but the little people need to be hoodwinked).
      Ironically, this is one of the main arguments for religion: the argument from utility.
      It is not incompatible (excuse the pun) to argue the non-existence of free-will whilst also supporting jail-terms for criminal behaviour. In that context, as with the caveats around using the word ‘choice’, we use the word ‘responsible’ in a meaningful way without accepting free-will. The individual did the criminal act, despite ultimately having no choice, could not have done otherwise.
      But recognising the lack of free-will means we don’t focus on punishment/retribution, rather containment, deterrence, and rehabilitation.
      The reason we don’t want to go to extremes in seeing people as robots that need reprogramming, is because that would make for a horrible society to live in, one of permanent threat and anxiety – and who would we trust to dictate the rules/characteristics of the software upgrade?

      • Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:58 am | Permalink

        “The reason we don’t want to go to extremes in seeing people as robots that need reprogramming, is because that would make for a horrible society to live in”

        A horrible society for whom exactly? For robots? Surely a society of robots deserves no concern for what the robots are “feeling”? And if they are “feeling” something unpleasant then surly with our advancing cognitive modifying technologies we will be able to program them “happy” robots. Certainly in a robot society the “good” is societal efficiency – not any individual sense of well being, and absolutely not for individual “rights” for that matter. Let ant society be our model.
        I contend that morality, value of the individual, responsibility, and the free will concept itself are essential human constructs.. and we need all of them together to allow for humans to be responsible moral agents. AND to make a society that will not be “horrible” by your own definition…

        • Posted January 2, 2017 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

          Surely a society of robots deserves no concern for what the robots are “feeling”?

          Since the robots are us, and since we care about how we feel and how happy we are, we want to organise society such that we are happy.

          • Posted January 2, 2017 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

            Well Coel, science as it is progressing will soon be able to engineer the feeling of happiness into any structure of society. The question then is what is the worth of the formed individual personality (where the self is instrumental in that formation) or in the individual if the individual is engineered to be a good robot? For a society interested in the former you need to value the construct of human free-will.

        • Chris G
          Posted January 2, 2017 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

          Hey howiekornstein,
          A horrible society for whom exactly? For all of us – all individual humans.
          I’m not sure why you equate the stance against free-will with the view that ‘societal efficiency’ be the main objective, and the individual sense of well being suppressed/denied.
          Morality based on human flourishing and the eradication of suffering seems perfectly compatible with determinism to me. Because ideas, education, environment can make all the difference,
          Chris G.

          • Posted January 2, 2017 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

            The view of the value of the individual person makes all the difference in the way you treat the individual. There is a difference if you consider the individual as a “person” or the individual a “robot”.

            A thought experiment:
            Your computer based dishwasher is functioning erratically – its not doing its job. You find out that if you replace it’s controller card it will then work effectively. As you move to replace the control card a message comes out on the dishwasher status panel – “if you replace my controller card you will make me very unhappy”
            Now – what do you do?
            Of course you go ahead and replace the card – after all it’s just a robot.
            NOW.. in a similar fashion, there is a difference if we consider an individual a “person” or as a “robot”. It’s ok to replace the card in a robot.
            Read “Clockwork Orange”. Why is it abhorrent to “brainwash” Alex to not be a rapist? Why instead would it be ok to let Alex, of his “own conscious will” learn that rape is wrong. The difference – we infer Alex has FREE WILL exercised when he decides to change his behaviour. We treat that free-willed individual with respect.

    • Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      … people who are led to believe that everything that they do is “not their fault” will have them use this as an excuse to go ahead and do the bad things that tempt them.

      First, I doubt if they would, to any significant degree.

      But, more importantly, determinism does not remove fault! A car not starting can be the “fault” of a defective spark plug.

      If people are robots with a “bad program” what is wrong with using ANY measures to reprogram them?

      People would be less happy in Clockwork Orange societies, or in societies with harsh punishments. That’s what’s wrong with it!

      • Posted January 2, 2017 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

        People would be less happy in Clockwork Orange societies, or in societies with harsh punishments. That’s what’s wrong with it!

        They wouldn’t be less happy in societies where, for instance, doing a good deed would release oxytocin from an implant.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted January 2, 2017 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      The evidence is that increasing the punishment level does not reduce crime. Punishment is an “ambulance at the bottom of the cliff” approach.

      The wearing of a niqab or burka us supposed to improve the way women are treated. We know it does not. What improves the way women are treated the most is the attitudes we instill in children from their earliest days – the “fence at the top of the cliff” approach.

      For some people, the lack of a fence in their minds means they have to be kept incarcerated for the protection of the rest of society. For most, rehabilitation is possible – the building of a fence where none existed or was a bit rickety. It may never be as strong as a fence established in childhood with some, but it’s a better long-term measure than punishment alone.

      • Craw
        Posted January 2, 2017 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

        Are you arguing that punishment for not wearing a hijab does not deter the crime of not wearing a hijab in Saudi Arabia?

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted January 2, 2017 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

          No. I’m saying increasing punishment for crime is not a long-term solution to stopping crime.

          If the only way to make Saudi women wear the Saudi version of hijab is punishment, there’s something wrong in their society. Effective governments make people follow the law for positive reasons, not negative ones.

          In the US, hijabi women are often doing it for positive reasons even to the extent that some claim it as a feminist statement.

          Another example is theft. Giving people a reliable source of adequate income is a much more effective way of stopping them stealing than the knowledge that they’ll go to jail if they get caught. If they need to eat and there’s no other way to get the money they will steal. Knowledge of the potential consequences, whether a week in prison, a year in prison, or losing a hand won’t change that. They will take the risk.

        • Posted January 2, 2017 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

          I think both you and Heather have points.

          Punishments do not do much in the way of deterring crimes of passion. The perpetrator is not considering punishment.

          Punishment can be an effective way of keeping people from committing more mundane “crimes”, like not wearing a hijab. Potential “perpetrators” are much more likely to consider punishment before acting.

  4. Sastra
    Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    If you believe, as most readers do, that at any time there is only one possible action you can take, and that is determined by your genes and environment, then you are being compelled to act by your brain.

    You’re importing dualism. I AM my brain, my genes, my environment. I am never “compelled to act” by any of them in that sense.

    In Compatibilism, the term “choice” is a description of what happens, not a theory explaining how it happens. Conceding the term to the religious then is not like redefining “religion” or “God” or even “spirituality” in order to keep a religious concept around to sneak in supernatural assumptions. It’s more like agreeing that atheists’ life can have no “meaning” or “morals” because those can only come from God. It’s too much of a concession.

    I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind on this. I think it’s similar to arguing with atheists who staunchly refuse to admit that they believe anything because “belief” is faith, and they don’t have faith in anything so they don’t believe anything, either. When other atheists say they “believe” this or that, they’re importing religious ideas into their vocabulary and thereby giving hope and comfort to the Enemy!

    Such semantic debates are about tactics, ultimately. And if someone defines a word a certain way because they insist the religious birthed it and surreptitiously harbor it closely to their breasts, then the argument drifts to how sneaky religion is — and the Compatibilists will never think it’s sneaky enough.

    • Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      Yes, I agree that we are our brains; I wasn’t importing dualism but didn’t want to get into that. Perhaps I should have.

      • Sastra
        Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:20 am | Permalink

        I know you do. I think though that when we look at the aspects of nature which constitute us as simultaneously controlling us, then there’s an implied dualism smuggled into the Big Picture. I am never “compelled” by the laws of physics if the laws of physics are ultimately what describe me.

        • reasonshark
          Posted January 3, 2017 at 10:44 am | Permalink

          To the extent that cause-and-effect are deterministic, an effect or set of effects is bound by a cause or set of causes, but they’re not mutually exclusive categories. I cause the future just as much as the past causes me. Both puppet and puppeteer. If we divide up the “me” in any case, a single person is a network of causes and effects, but on an immense scale. Since you are your brains, your genes, your environment, you have to accept everything that entails.

          If we’re not following the logic of that causality to its conclusion – up to and including acknowledging that every aspect about ourselves is caused by every detail of the past – then our worldview is compromised and our methods half-blind at best.

          • Sastra
            Posted January 3, 2017 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

            Agree. And if we fail to make distinctions among the causal chain, then no particular can ever be said to cause any other particular, or result from it either. Greedy reductionism on a massive scale, perhaps.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted January 2, 2017 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

        I agree with Sastra’s argument with the caveat that there is some ambiguity as to where the exact boundaries of the ‘self’ really are- what really is me, and what is other.

        Dennett & Doug Hofstadter edited a good anthology on this entitled “The Mind’s I”.

        For a determinist, it may make quite a difference when we ask through what channel the LoPs have actually caused something to happen. A decision that the LoPs mediate through the sense of self (even if that sense is a construct) may still be qualitatively different than one that is not re the hijab.

        This raises the question of whether it makes a difference if a malefactor seems to have been born that way or seems to have become that way after some weird experiences.

        Compare two child rapists local to the Bay Area. Richard Allen Davis, who raped and murdered Polly Klaas, gave much evidence of being a fairly terrible person as young as 13, when he was playing cruel pranks on animals. By contrast, various folk testify that Phil Garrido (kidnapper of Jaycee Dugard) was a fairly normal person until first having a motorcycle accident -with brain injury- and then getting hooked on hallucinogens. If we take this at face value, is there no substantive difference between the case of these two guys, even in a determinist POV??

        =-=-=

        It’s obviously wrong to call Carl Sagan religious; Sagan clearly saw religion as mainly a source of rigid and restricted thinking, even if he has a character in his novel “Contact” say the Andromeda Galaxy is more numinous than the Resurrection (a sentiment repeated on at least 3 occasions by Christopher Hitchens.)

        The question remains how many elements of religion need to be present to qualify for that label.

        Einstein distinguished three elements of religion: fear, social morality, and a cosmic religious feeling, and went on to state he was religious only in the third sense, but then went on to say he could think of no better term than ‘religious’ to describe the third feeling. Perhaps others can.

        • Posted January 2, 2017 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

          No better term? Why aren’t “awe”, “reverence”, “wonder”, or any of a myriad other words beside “religious” sufficient?

    • Posted January 2, 2017 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      You’re importing dualism. I AM my brain, my genes, my environment. I am never “compelled to act” by any of them in that sense.

      This is why I find the usual interpretation of Libet’s experiments incoherent: ‘Hah! You didn’t make that decision – your brain did!’

      Well, duh! That’s like saying you don’t walk, your legs do.

      • Posted January 2, 2017 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

        No, the usual interpretation of Libet’s experiments is that brain activity can predict a binary decision several seconds before the subject (or brain, if you will) is CONSCIOUS of having made a decision.

        • Ralph
          Posted January 2, 2017 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

          Add it seems to me that the Libet experiments are orthogonal to the question of free will.

          But Libet certainly does show that if we cannot trust our incredibly strong internal illusion that our decisions are “consciously” made, we also cannot trust our equally strong internal illusion that our decisions are “freely” made.

          • Posted January 3, 2017 at 5:53 am | Permalink

            An appreciation of computer technology is really useful in analysing the Libit experiments. The mind is exactly like a hierarchical multicomputer system. As such, it has “executive” processes and “co-processes” triggered and set up by the executive. The executive is “responsible” for what is occurring in the co-processors… after all it triggered their action, it set up the data parameters, it programmed the function. The timing of the execution of a coprocess and the notification/recognition of completion to the executive are ALWAYS occurring at different times. It is absolutely NO BIG DEAL!

    • Posted January 3, 2017 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

      This. “My brain made me do it” is just a slightly long-winded way of saying “I did it.” What’s missing is the compulsion.

  5. Marc Aresteanu
    Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    We can choose (or be forced) to use the word “choice” as its meant to be used, decision making between different courses of action.

    If we include our own physical body in our conception of self, we do seem to make decisions. If we see ourselves just as the phenomenological observer, the story teller, then sure, WE don’t make decisions. We simply notice something/our-body has made some decision for us. So let’s assume WE are JUST the observer, the thing that tells others “what it’s like”, Descartes’ self.

    Sure, from a god’s eye view, there are no decision points or choices… just determined events with determined human behaviours incorporating information about one’s behavior (including perception and conceptualization here) which then influences deterministically forthcoming behavior. And we just observe…

    But “choices” are a relevant category to include in one’s conceptualization of one’s own behavior and its consequences on oneself. So, choices in that sense are not just real, since they happen… but must be assumed to be real in order to make better decisions in the future, whether it’s YOU or just your body making these decisions. If YOU are both you and your body, you make decisions in the same way you make steps… it was going to happen no matter what, but the bulk of the explanation as to why it happened will inevitably be found in the structure of the organism doing the stepping or the decision making.

    Sorry for the rant… had to put in my 2 cents quickly. I’m in a rush. Will inevitably come back to argue later… cause you know, no choice.

  6. Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    I’m honoured by a whole WEIT thread on my comment! 🙂

    First, let’s remind ourselves that compatibilists agree entirely that our decision making is determined by the prior state of the brain and the environmental influences on the brain.

    From there, as a compatibilist sees it, concepts such as “choice” and “compulsion” are constructed to be *useful* in understanding human social interactions. The concepts are thus not about determinism — on determinism we agree with the incompatibilists.

    At what point, then, do we say that an American hijabi has exercised a compatibilist form of “free will”? If her parents pressure her? If her peers pressure her mildly?

    If a 13-yr-old is pressured by her parents we would say she “has no choice” since it would be unreasonable for a 13-yr-old to defy her parents on the issue. If she were a 30-yr-old then we *would* say she has a choice over wearing the hijab, since we would expect a 30-yr-old to be able to reject parental pressure or peer pressure. This illustrates how the concept is social constructed.

    Again, the concept — as compatibilists see it — is not about determinism and not about physics; incompatibilists disagree with compatibilists because they interpret the words as being about those things, even though that is not the intention of the compatibilist.

    If you believe, as most readers do, that at any time there is only one possible action you can take, and that is determined by your genes and environment, then you are being compelled to act by your brain.

    Compatibilists don’t like this distinguishing between the “you” and “your brain”. As we see it, you *are* your brain. That is the thing making (= “computing”) the choice. That is the thing deciding what it wants to do (given the circumstances) and then doing it (and yes, in any given exactly-the-same situation, there will only ever be one choice arrived at).

    Compulsion is compulsion, and it’s always enacted through your neurons, whether those neurons be conditioned by the Iranian government, the views of your parents, or your need to feel more “Muslim”.

    Since “compulsion” in this context is socially constructed, the different sorts of compulsion do matter, since indeed that is precisely what the term is about. If an American kid decides to read Das Kapital out of interest, that is very different from a Soviet school kid being required to read it and write an essay on it. The fact that both of those result from deterministic decision making, and that both are inevitable consequences of the prior state of the system, is irrelevant to the term “compulsion” because that is not what the concept is about, it is instead about social pressure from other humans.

    Thus, people say that “women in Iran are compelled to wear a hijab” but it would be weird to say that “women in Iran are compelled to breath air” (though that is even more true) because the latter is not about social pressure.

    We do need these concepts about social pressure (as demonstrated by PCC-E’s use of them in posts about the hijab), and if the incompatibilists succeeded in removing words such as “choice” from the language they’d then need to invent new words for the socially constructed concepts of “choice”, “freedom” and “compulsion” that are not at all about determinism or physics.

    To sum up the disagreement: incompatibilists want to continually emphasize the deterministic nature of decision making. Compatibilists entirely agree with that. But then they want to point out that in a deterministic world it is useful and indeed necessary to have words and concepts about social interactions among humans, since those concepts are used all the time (including by the incompatibilists!).

    We are never going to remove the word “choice” from the English language, it is simply too useful. So isn’t it better to interpret it in a deterministic way (as compatibilists do), and to treat it as much like the word “compute” (so that we “make a choice” in much the same way that a computer “computes an output state”)?

    Isn’t that better than to muddle along using the concept “choice” but at the same maintaining that there is no such thing? If “choice” is entirely illusory then why is the concept so useful? If it is so useful, then let’s narrow down and elucidate what — in a deterministic world — the concept is actually about.

    Longer version of this comment: Compatibilism for incompatibilists: free will in five steps.

    • Chris G
      Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      From my limited reading of compatibilist views, I’m not convinced there is a general acceptance that they ‘entirely agree with the deterministic nature of decision making’ – if Sean Carroll is following this thread, I’d be interested to hear his take on this.
      ‘Choice’ clearly still makes sense to incompatibilists: it’s the acknowledgement that there are multiple possible outcomes in a person’s actions when responding to a specific situation – the issue is whether the outcome/choice could have been different.

      • Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:48 am | Permalink

        I’m not convinced there is a general acceptance that they ‘entirely agree with the deterministic nature of decision making’

        Compatibilism *means* compatible with a fully deterministic world. If someone does not accept “the deterministic nature of decision making” then they are not a compatibilist.

        [And I’m fairly sure that Sean Carroll does fully accept determinism in decision making; indeed his view on quantum mechanics even rejects quantum indeterminacy.]

        the issue is whether the outcome/choice could have been different.

        This is the problem. Any time compatibilists argue their case, they always get interpreted as arguing against determinism. It doesn’t matter how many time that they explain that they are determinists!

        • Chris G
          Posted January 2, 2017 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

          Coel, I’ve not read/thought enough about the topic of free-will, defo on my 2017 to-do list.
          So forgive me if my understanding of the different positions is a little underdeveloped.
          But a couple of questions for you: in what way is Jerry’s ‘deterministic’ view NOT compatibilist?
          And what precisely are you claiming IS compatible with determinism?
          Chris G.

          • Posted January 2, 2017 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

            And what precisely are you claiming IS compatible with determinism?

            The notions of “choice”, “freedom”, “will”, and so on that we compatibilists use.

            [E.g. we see “Tom choose strawberry” in the same way as “the chess computer chose to Ng4”, and thus “Tom chose” means the same as “computed an output state”.]

            in what way is Jerry’s ‘deterministic’ view NOT compatibilist?

            Jerry’s incompatibilism — I think, I’m open to correction — rejects the idea that there are sensible meanings of “choose”, etc, that are compatible with determinism. He thus regards the notion of “choice” as illusory.

            Thus he sees terms such as “free will” and “choice” as necessarily dualistic, and so rejects them.

            [And yes, the difference here is indeed mostly semantics; it is not about physics and not about the reality of determinism.]

            • Chris G
              Posted January 2, 2017 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

              OK, correct me where I’ve got this wrong:
              – You talk about ‘choice’, ‘freedom’, and ‘will’ as if they’re ‘real’ but actually, with your deterministic hat on, you don’t think they are
              – You do NOT think that choice is illusory
              – You believe Tom chose strawberry because he’s programmed to do so just as the chess-playing computer is programmed to make the next move
              A further question: dualists believe that people choose to be (for want of a less sensational word) evil and should be fully punished for evil acts. Incompatibilists believe they ultimately have no choice and retributive punishment should not be the focus. What do compatibilists think, and what action should we take towards these individuals?

              • Posted January 2, 2017 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

                You talk about ‘choice’, ‘freedom’, and ‘will’ as if they’re ‘real’ but actually, with your deterministic hat on, you don’t think they are

                Not at all, they are entirely real. We make a “choice” in the same way that a computer “computes” an output state. They’re the same concept (we just tend to use “choose” for biological devices and “compute” for silicon devices). There is nothing not-real about a computer computing an output state.

                What do compatibilists think, and what action should we take towards these individuals?

                As compatibilists see it, criminal justice is pragmatic. We punish to deter and to remove likely offenders from society. It’s purely about influencing and adjusting behaviour to try to optimise society to our liking.

              • Chris G
                Posted January 2, 2017 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

                In the same way that a computer does not ‘consciously’ choose the next move, much of what humans think/do/’choose’ is not conscious e.g. I don’t know what thought I’m going to think next until I think it; I don’t know why I lost my temper that time and shouted out; I don’t know why I chose strawberry over chocolate; when asked to name an actor, I don’t know why I said Jack Lemmon (actually, that’s weird: where the hell did Jack Lemmon come from!?)
                Yes ‘I’ take responsibility for all these ‘choices’, it was me … but not the conscious me.
                Where’s the harm in acknowledging that I (the conscious ‘I’ we care most about) didn’t make any of these choices?
                P.S. you didn’t answer my question about evil people: do they choose to be evil?

              • Posted January 2, 2017 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

                Where’s the harm in acknowledging that I (the conscious ‘I’ we care most about) didn’t make any of these choices?

                Personally I don’t think that “the consciousness” makes choices. I think that choices are made by lower-level neural-network machinery and are reported to the consciousness.

                P.S. you didn’t answer my question about evil people: do they choose to be evil?

                Presuming that “evil” means “something that humans dislike a lot”, then yes, people do decide to be evil. That’s in the compatibilist sense of “decide” in the same way that a chess computer decides what move to make.

              • Chris G
                Posted January 2, 2017 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

                Hmm, as you said earlier Coel, “the difference here is indeed mostly semantics” and we’ve gone full circle.
                You insist on using the word ‘choose’ but acknowledge that consciousness does NOT make choices; you fully accept the deterministic nature of human decisions/actions; you accept that we behave like programmed chess-playing computers.
                Not sure I’ve learnt a lot here.

              • Posted January 2, 2017 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

                Not sure I’ve learnt a lot here.

                I bet you use the words “choose” or “decide” a lot in everyday life.

                I’m trying to explain what I think they actually mean.

                What do you think they mean?

              • Chris G
                Posted January 2, 2017 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

                Yes you’re right I do use, perfectly comfortably, the terms ‘choose’ and ‘decide’.
                But as Sastra says above: “In Compatibilism, the term “choice” is a description of what happens, not a theory explaining how it happens.”
                I agree with you that these are useful social concepts – despite the fact that they do not mean what the vast majority of people believe they mean.
                I think they would continue to be useful terms even if everyone were incompatibilist. And I think ultimately we would be better-off all being incompatibilist, because that’s the reality we live with – at the moment, it seems to me that arguing for the ‘usefulness’ of maintaining an illusion is not at all helpful in the long run.

              • Posted January 2, 2017 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

                it seems to me that arguing for the ‘usefulness’ of maintaining an illusion is not at all helpful in the long run.

                I’m not arguing for maintaining any illusions at all. I’m arguing for explaining concepts such as “choice” in deterministic terms.

              • Posted January 2, 2017 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

                @ Chris G 1:59pm

                It’s not illusory.

                A computer computes. Nothing illusory about that.

                A brain chooses. Nothing illusory about that. It doesn’t matter if the choice doesn’t occur consciously. Brains can make choices. Rocks cannot. What shall we call this difference? “Free will” pretty much does the job.

              • Chris G
                Posted January 3, 2017 at 3:57 am | Permalink

                As I’ve confessed in my earlier comments, I’ve yet to fully immerse myself in studying the topic of free-will and fully educate myself on the various angels, positions, arguments.
                But it’s pretty clear from my initial forays that some of you play fast-and-loose with definitions – in part, I presume this is the ‘semantics’ that Coel refers to.
                We’re all agreed I’m sure that “a brain chooses”. A rock does not, because it doesn’t have a brain. It’s not ‘alive’ in any sense.
                Yes, a computer ‘computes’, but it doesn’t choose – given a set of inputs and an algorithm, it couldn’t have done otherwise.
                It appears that compatibilists are desperate to find some way to preserve the idea of free-choice, but it’s not at all clear (to me) why.
                I would bet that the vast majority of people equate free-will with conscious CONTROL of our actions, behaviours, and thoughts; but determinism clearly shows that to be an illusion.
                Compatibilists claim to accept determinism, yet argue that human individuals still choose.
                It’s still not making a lot of sense.
                I wonder if Steven Pinker’s Edge essay may shed some light on all this: “Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind […] Yet most discussions of poverty consist of arguments about whom to blame for it.”
                Are compatibilists ultimately worried about ‘responsibility’ and ‘blame’? And think individuals are ultimately ‘to blame’ for everything, but only if they have ‘free-will’?
                Chris G.

              • Posted January 3, 2017 at 5:27 am | Permalink

                We’re all agreed I’m sure that “a brain chooses”. […] Yes, a computer ‘computes’, but it doesn’t choose – given a set of inputs and an algorithm, it couldn’t have done otherwise.

                Ditto for the brain! Both are deterministic! “Choosing” and “computing” mean the same thing!

                It appears that compatibilists are desperate to find some way to preserve the idea of free-choice, but it’s not at all clear (to me) why.

                We are trying to understand the world. We are trying to understand why we use the concept “choice” and what we mean by it.

                Compatibilists claim to accept determinism, yet argue that human individuals still choose.
                It’s still not making a lot of sense.

                To use “choose” means “compute”! It *does* make sense, you just have to listen to what we say.

                If *you* think that “choose” only applies to libertarian-FW then you need to stop using the word completely! Sure you want to do that?

                Are compatibilists ultimately worried about ‘responsibility’ and ‘blame’?

                Nope, not in the slightest! We’re simply trying to understand what “choose” means in a deterministic world!

              • Chris G
                Posted January 3, 2017 at 5:46 am | Permalink

                Coel – this all seems to be a difference without a distinction. Both compatibilists and incompatibilists use the terms ‘choose’ and ‘decide’, but if we really want to get picky, both have to offer a caveat every time: we don’t mean libertarian free-will (no soul/spirit/non-material mind) and we don’t mean conscious-control (yes the brain did it, but not consciously).
                Maybe it would help if you answer (succinctly) the question you posed: what does “choose” means in a deterministic world?
                Chris G.

              • darrelle
                Posted January 3, 2017 at 8:39 am | Permalink

                Chris G,

                I wouldn’t presume to correct Coel since I no from past experience that he knows what he is talking about, but his explanation of the differences between IC and C positions can perhaps be simplified a bit.

                The very terms Compatiblism and Incompatiblism were coined to denote the basic position, with respect to freewill and determinism, of their adherents right there in the label.

                Compatiblism = the position that freewill is compatible with determinism.

                Incompatiblism = the position that freewill is not compatible with determinism.

                It is as simple as that. The details that Coel describes all derive from that simple difference. With one other vital point. The two camps are talking about two different conceptions of freewill. And both camps are fully aware of that.

                When Incompatiblists talk about freewill they mean contracausal, dualistic conceptions (magical if you will) of freewill, such as what is typical of religious believers in religious contexts. This type of freewill is obviously not compatible with determinism.

                Compatiblists fully accept that the magical conceptions of freewill are indeed not compatible with determinism. But, the conception of freewill that Compatiblists mean is of the legal, ethical “do you agree to this of your own free will” type. This type of freewill obviously is compatible with determinism.

                Incompatiblists generally fully accept that the Compatiblists’ conception of freewill is indeed compatible with determinism. What the two really disagree on is whether or not it would be best to get rid of the term freewill or to retain the term and clarify that only a certain category of freewill conceptions are valid (non-dualistic ones).

                Incompatiblists think that the term freewill carries too much magical thinking baggage to be worth the effort to salvage. Compatiblists think that the term is worth salvaging, even that it is important that it be salvaged. Both agree nearly 100% on the real phenomena, determinism, brain function, etc., that are relevant to the debate. The debate between the two comes down almost entirely to the label “freewill” and what the downstream implications and affects should/could/would be for discarding vs retaining the term “freewill.”

              • Chris G
                Posted January 3, 2017 at 10:47 am | Permalink

                Hi Darrelle – thanks very much for taking the time to summarise, I’ve found this really helpful (along with Coel’s comments which I’ve gone back and re-read).
                It would now be immensely helpful if Jerry (or another member of the incompatibilist camp) chimed in to confirm (or otherwise) your take on how the two sides differ.
                With regard to the bit where you say: “The conception of freewill that Compatiblists mean is of the legal, ethical “do you agree to this of your own free will” type. This type of freewill obviously is compatible with determinism,” I think there is still some confusion – because dualists would argue that the type of ‘free will’ referred to here also fits with what they mean.
                What’s more, it brings us back to the central issue of ‘compulsion’, because it can be argued that this legal phrase ‘did you agree by your own free will’ could just be interpreted as: please confirm you were not bullied/cajoled/blackmailed/forced by some other person/party into agreeing.
                And finally, although you’ve provided an example of a meaningful use of the term ‘free will’, it’s still not clear whether the compatibilist definition excludes other types of human choosing/decision-making i.e. meanings/contexts where dualists use ‘free will’ that compatabilists would reject?
                Thanks again, Chris G.

              • Posted January 3, 2017 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

                Coel wrote,

                Personally I don’t think that “the consciousness” makes choices. I think that choices are made by lower-level neural-network machinery and are reported to the consciousness.

                This looks like a false dilemma. Consciousness is entirely composed out of low-level neural-network machinery. So of course, everything consciousness does must at the same time be carried out by such machinery. So when we find low-level machinery doing some work, we cannot conclude that consciousness didn’t do that.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      But then they want to point out that in a deterministic world it is useful and indeed necessary to have words and concepts about social interactions among humans, since those concepts are used all the time (including by the incompatibilists!)

      On the other hand a useful fiction is still a fiction and humans are very prone to reifying fictions. The post is about “choice” but could easily have been about “love” or “beauty” or “money” or “law”.

      In another Edge article (Social Identity) Ziyad Marar makes the point that we are ultra-social animals and yet have a consistent blind spot about how truly social we are.

      This matters because when we see ourselves purely as rational, individual actors we miss the fact that the social is not just providing the context in which we act. It is deeply constitutive of who we are.

      So I would argue that using fictions ‘because they are useful and socially understood’ changes the way each of us engages with the world. If we are not aware of the tint on the glasses we look through how can we be rational? Should we be rational?

      • Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:50 am | Permalink

        The post is about “choice” but could easily have been about “love” or “beauty” or “money” or “law”.

        None of those are “fictions”, they are all constructs that do actually pertain to the real world!

        • DiscoveredJoys
          Posted January 2, 2017 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

          Constructs.

        • peepuk
          Posted January 4, 2017 at 6:53 am | Permalink

          That’s what dualism is all about; acting as if fictional things really exist.

          With money we perceive value that doesn’t exist. What we have in our purse is a piece of paper or some metal, our bank-account are some bits and bytes in a computer. The perceived value is some fiction generated in our brain.

          Likewise the countries and nationalities we perceive don’t really exist and are pure fiction. Our passport is just paper or plastic but we act as if nationality exists.

          Love and hate are produced by some chemicals in our brains; most would agree, the chemicals are not love.

          These things are very meaningful and important for us but that doesn’t mean they exist in the objective observable world.

      • Posted January 2, 2017 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

        Coel isn’t arguing for a “useful fiction”. He’s trying very hard to convey that “choice”, and particularly “non-coerced choice”, is a very real phenomenon, even in a deterministic context.

    • Ralph
      Posted January 2, 2017 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      You said:
      “Compatibilists don’t like this distinguishing between the “you” and “your brain”. As we see it, you *are* your brain. That is the thing making (= “computing”) the choice.”

      Are you suggesting that incompatibilists believe something else? If so, you are mistaken.

      In any event, it’s clear as you say in the earlier part of your comment that enlightened compatibilists such as yourself and Dan Dennett don’t ultimately disagree with no-free-will incompatibilists about what “choice” is, about what happens in our brains, about what “we” are. The dispute is one of clarity of semantics and emphasis of philosophical principles.

      Despite repeated assertions otherwise, the basic compatibilist thesis is simply this: all sensible people agree that contra-causal free will doesn’t exist, so let’s move on to a more enlightened and sophisticated discussion about what socially useful ideas we can attach to the now redundant term “free will”.

      The reason I (and I think Jerry) tend to draw a hard line of resistance against this kind of compatibilisim is that in truth only a tiny fraction of the general population understands and accepts that contra-causal free will does not exist. Much of religion and our entire criminal justice system is built upon this mistaken idea, after all. And compatibilists are actively obfuscating the issue, adding confusion to already messy semantics, and hampering the principal process of enlightenment.

      I see compatibilism as a direct parallel to the criticism of Dawkins’ “God Delusion”: that’s it’s a straw man, that no serious sophisticated person believes in this kind of a God, so we should move on to a more nuanced discussion. Yet clearly a vast number do have these simplistic and mistaken beliefs, sometimes with devastating social consequences.

      Dan Dennett seems to worry that a widespread acceptance that contra-causal free will does not exist would be dangerous for society. On the contrary, I think it is an important part of our progress, and a more enlightened and civilized society will emerge when it is widely accepted.

      • Posted January 2, 2017 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

        … about what socially useful ideas we can attach to the now redundant term “free will”.

        Though as we point out: (1) the *compatibilist* interpretation of “free will” is just as old; and (2) the commonest everyday usage (“did you sign this contract of your own free will or were you coerced”) is *not* redundant given determinism; and (3) the term “free” does *not* generally mean “ignoring physics” (e.g. “free speech”, “free fall”).

        But, having said that, fine, replace the phrase “free will” in the language if you wish. I’m not wedded to it and use it rarely, so I’m not fussed.

        *BUT* the concept *choice* is needed and necessary, and however hard you try you’re not going to rid the language of *that* word.

        So isn’t it better to interpret it deterministically, where “choose” means much the same as “compute”?

        Much of religion and our entire criminal justice system is built upon this mistaken idea, after all.

        Religion yes, Criminal justice system? No. The criminal justice system is pragmatic at root. Commentary about the justice system is dualistic, but the justice system itself is not.

        And compatibilists are actively obfuscating the issue … hampering the principal process of enlightenment.

        But parts of Europe that are a lot less religious and have better justice systems than the US have *not* gone that way owing to a debate about dualism and “free will”!

        And no-one has shown that converting people to a deterministic notion of “choice” is harder than getting them to abandon the notion of choice entirely (fat chance of the latter!).

        I see compatibilism as a direct parallel to …

        I see it is comparable to the situation when we realised that vitalism was false, and that life was purely material.

        The incompatibilists would say: we’ve shown that the notion of “life” is false, so let’s abandon the concept of life and explain that there is no difference between living and dead stuff; anything else will just confuse people.

        The compatibilists would say: no, a better option is just to retain the word “life” and interpret “life” as material. Afterall, there are interesting differences between living and non-living things.

        • Ralph
          Posted January 2, 2017 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

          “Though as we point out: (1) the *compatibilist* interpretation of “free will” is just as old; and (2) the commonest everyday usage (“did you sign this contract of your own free will or were you coerced”) is *not* redundant given determinism; and (3) the term “free” does *not* generally mean “ignoring physics” (e.g. “free speech”, “free fall”).”

          Honestly, I find this pretty disingenuous, and this is the kind of stuff that makes me feel that compatibilists are just obfuscating. Of course “coercion” is socially important, but who on earth thinks there’s any philosophical profundity in the notion of coercion?

          Quite obviously, the “free will” that’s really important is the mistaken but universally strong intuition that we “could have done otherwise in precisely identical circumstances”.

          “But, having said that, fine, replace the phrase “free will” in the language if you wish. I’m not wedded to it and use it rarely, so I’m not fussed.”

          Ok, if all compatibilists would agree with you on this, I would have no beef with them. We could present a consistent picture to the world: our incredibly strong intuition that we could have done otherwise is an illusion. Free will does not exist.

          “*BUT* the concept *choice* is needed and necessary, and however hard you try you’re not going to rid the language of *that* word.”

          I agree with you on this. As I’ve said in another comment, I feel that we should retain the word “choice”, defined as “deterministic computation”. I think it’s MORE confusing to try to eliminate this word, because it gives the mistaken impression that we may be denying the existence of the phenomenon of data processing and output that clearly does exist.

          • Posted January 2, 2017 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

            Quite obviously, the “free will” that’s really important is the mistaken but universally strong intuition that we “could have done otherwise in precisely identical circumstances”.

            And quite obviously that sort of free will does not exist.

            And, by the way, I don’t agree that such an intuition is “universally strong”. I, for example, don’t share it.

            • Posted January 2, 2017 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

              I’ve never heard this opinion expressed by a proponent of free will; it’s almost always a straw man argument proposed by those who deny free will.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted January 2, 2017 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

            It’s not obvious to me that our “universally strong intuition” about agency necessarily entails any reference to “precisely identical circumstances”.

            On the contrary, I suspect that (outside of philosophical debates) “could have done otherwise” is almost always a claim about behavioral competence (“I had the knowhow and the wherewithal to do otherwise”) and not about microphysical causation.

            • Ralph
              Posted January 2, 2017 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

              I disagree. The vast majority of people believe that, given a particular set of circumstances (prior brain configuration and data input), “they” are still in some poorly defined sense “free” too choose. Our brains have evolved gives us a very strong illusion that this is the case, perhaps because it yields better computational results. This is the entire issue, the notion of contra-causal free will. Most people do NOT accept that their choices are nothing more than deterministic computation. Most people feel intuitively that precisely the same input to their brain can (in principle) result in a different output.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted January 2, 2017 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

                If the nonexistence of contra-causal free will were the entire issue, there’d be no debate, since compatibilists and incompatibilists agree on that point.

                I’d like to see some evidence that, without prompting, most people invoke some concept of “precisely the same input” or “precisely identical circumstances” in explaining their sense of volition.

                With prompting, sure, I grant that you can get people to agree to propositions of that sort. But how they answer multiple-choice questions on philosophy quizzes doesn’t necessarily reflect their everyday intuitions about how they make decisions.

              • Ralph
                Posted January 2, 2017 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

                Would you agree that the vast majority of people feel intuitively that they possess some kind of “free agency” that can “rise above” deterministic cause and effect in choosing? And that people would feel that the nature of their perceived freedom to choose is such that a neuroscientists could not (even in principle) predict their choices?

                I agree that it takes some prompting, but pretty much everyone that I’ve discussed this with will acknowledges that this is logically equivalent to saying that they believe they “could do otherwise in precisely the same circumstances”, even if that’s not the way they would initially formulate it.

                Do you disagree that this is the standard formulation of contra-causal free will? Or do you disagree that almost everyone in the general public believes in contra-causal free will?

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted January 2, 2017 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

                “Almost everyone” is overstating it, I think. My guess is that a substantial fraction of the general public goes their whole lives without ever considering the question of whether their sense of free will “rises above” physical causality.

                There have been surveys by Eddie Nahmias and others that suggest that whether people endorse libertarian or compatibilist notions of free will depends on how you ask the questions.

                As Coel and others have said here, most of the time when people use the words “free will” and “choice” in everyday discourse, they’re talking in terms of pragmatics, not metaphysics. Am I being coerced? Are my actions advancing my agenda, or someone else’s? Is or was it within my range of available behaviors to do that instead of this? Contra-causality is irrelevant to such considerations, and only comes up when you press people for deeper explanations.

              • darrelle
                Posted January 3, 2017 at 8:59 am | Permalink

                Gregory Kusnick,

                Do you know off hand if in the surveys you mention there was any data that suggested people favored a compatiblist conception of freewill instead of a dualistic conception of freewill? It seems possible, even likely, that many people believe in both categories of freewill. As you and Coel (and others) have accurately pointed out on many occasions both notions of freewill are old and common, and they are not necessarily contradictory.

              • Posted January 3, 2017 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

                darrelle,
                Here is a survey question that elicits responses favorable to a compatibilist idea of free will:

                Nahmias and his team told 278 participants a story of a future neuroimaging technology that allows perfect prediction of decisions based on a person’s brain activity, recorded by a special skull cap. In this future world, a woman called Jill is fitted with a skull cap that allows scientists to predict everything she’ll do with 100 per cent accuracy, including how she’ll vote in upcoming elections. Contrary to expectations, 92 per cent of participants said that Jill’s voting decision was of her own free will.

                Source.

              • Vaal
                Posted January 3, 2017 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

                “Our brains have evolved gives us a very strong illusion that this is the case, perhaps because it yields better computational results. “

                I think you should be able to see where you are going wrong just by looking at this statement you made.

                If we are computing about how to make our way through reality, why would an “illusion” yield “better computational results” vs using truths? (Some will surely be tempted to point out that some calculations seem to be based on useful fictions – e.g. assuming solidity when solidity is an “illusion” or assuming flat planes when they are not “really” flat. But it turns out the only way the calculations work are because they are actually describing something true about how to achieve what one needs at the scale one is operating on – hence it’s not really fiction).

                IF we allow causation/determinism at the macro level our brains operate within, then it only makes sense we evolved a way to think truths about the world. How? We have a memory to recall past experience, and use induction to reason from past experience to future likelihoods. All this year I was capable of running marathons, nothing I’m aware of has changed in my physical abilities, so it’s reasonable to project that I am capable of running the marathon this weekend. IF I want to. But IF I choose not to enter the marathon THEN I can take my wife on a trip this weekend. I infer I’m capable of doing that action, from previous experience. This is how we deliberate: we infer (truths) about our competency and powers, and employ IF/THEN thinking to explore various likely outcomes. The fact they are hypothetical at the time does not make them false or delusions. I know I can’t do BOTH: run the marathon AND take my wife on a trip, so I’m not involved in some self-delusion. Rather, I’m thinking reasonably about what capabilities I have under each circumstance, and in doing so seeing what outcome invokes the strongest desire. Nothing magical at all in the process, and no illusion employed or required. Apprehending truth about ourselves in the world is pretty much how a brain would HAVE to think to make choices in a determined world.

              • Vaal
                Posted January 3, 2017 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

                ^^er..”flat plains”…of course…

        • Posted January 2, 2017 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

          +1

      • Posted January 2, 2017 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

        I dispute that the justice system is founded on an assumption of contra-causal free will. All sorts of mitigating factors are taken into account: various congenital cognitive defects, acquired cognitive defects, temporary cognitive defects, past experience, coercion by a third party, etc. The justice system recognizes all those as well as more as causes.

      • Posted January 2, 2017 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

        Gah! No! Compatibilists are not like critics of The God Delusion. It’s about recognizing as real things that are real, and not reducing them out of existence.

    • rom
      Posted January 2, 2017 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

      Coel
      How do you distinguish between:
      freedom of will
      and
      freedom of action?

      • Posted January 2, 2017 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

        How do you distinguish between:
        freedom of will
        and
        freedom of action?

        The classic statement of compatibilism is attributed to Schopenhauer:

        “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills”

        Our will is the deterministic product of the prior state of the system.

        One of the things that goes into that computation is the presence of social constraints. It is the presence or absence of those social constraints that the phrase (compatibilist) “free will” is about, in the same way that that’s what the phrase “free speech” is about.

        • rom
          Posted January 2, 2017 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

          So what you are arguing for is freedom of action … as described here:

          http://www.informationphilosopher.com/freedom/freedom_of_action.html
          ?

        • Posted January 4, 2017 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

          If he can do what he wills, but cannot will what he wants, then his will is not free to fulfil his wants (not that his wants are free). So it’s not that he CAN do what he wills, but MUST do what he wills, barring other external inhibitors that prevent his caused will causing him to act. Neither his will nor his action are free from the constraints of physics.

          And another point of contention, why do compatibilists reject the idea that free will is illusory? Note it’s not the feeling of having free will that’s illusory, but the feeling is an illusion of a freedom that we don’t have.

          I agree that free will is useful, but it is only a model. Like many models it doesn’t necessarily match reality – it’s not how the world is.

      • Posted January 2, 2017 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

        Do you dispute that a human, or a dog, or a computer, has more freedom of action than a rock? This is an important distinction.

        • rom
          Posted January 3, 2017 at 1:08 am | Permalink

          That would require some discussion.

          A rock can interact with its environment for centuries. So my answer would be … not sure.

          • Posted January 3, 2017 at 1:13 am | Permalink

            Interact? You mean the way a rock might “interact” with my foot if I decide to kick it?

            You don’t see utility in making a categorical distinction between conscious agents and inanimate matter?

            • rom
              Posted January 3, 2017 at 11:26 am | Permalink

              I see the utility … I am not convinced of the accuracy.

              Somewhere in this blog I recall that that you asked proof of someone’s consciousness. Can I ask the same of you?

              Human existence involves a complex feedback interaction of “chemicals/energy” not just in the brain, but also throughout our nervous system, our bodies in general and the environment (including the odd rock on occasion).

              There is a duality being introduced when I say in some form another “I am my brain”. In reality I am an extension of my greater environment.

              • rom
                Posted January 3, 2017 at 11:34 am | Permalink

                Sorry musical beef … it was Speaker to Animals that questioned consciousness not you. My bad.

              • Posted January 3, 2017 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

                Hmm. I don’t think I asked for proof of consciousness.

              • rom
                Posted January 3, 2017 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

                see above

  7. Fernando
    Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Free will:
    When did its first ocurrence in the world happen? One individual mutation? In one individual homo sapiens? Did neanderthals have free will? Other species? Can I choose to eat or sleep but a chimp can’t? Would the Pope answer these questions honestly and rationally?

    • Ralph
      Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      I’m not sure that your parody here is a good way to approach the debate, because it seems to concede that contra-causal free will (the Christian kind) is something that is coherently defined, and that could, in principle, have been introduced at some point in evolutionary history.

      But contra-causal free will is beyond even the “things that could exist but are preposterous” category. It is an incoherent concept, in the “not even wrong” category. I think the better approach to the debate with those who still haven’t got over that basic hurdle is to pick apart the “could have done otherwise” attempt at a definition.

    • Marc Aresteanu
      Posted January 2, 2017 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      I’d say there’s different levels of freewill. In fact, degrees of freedom in engineering is a nice way of mapping the levels of freewill.

      There is no FREEWILL floating above the mechanical functions of a robot/organism in a deterministic universe. Freewill just corresponds to its ability to adapt on the fly, whether or not these adaptations are predictable.

      What WE seem to choose to do are simply the doings we do which sometimes turn out differently. A reflex doesn’t seem to grant us freewill because the input seems to always give the same output. But something like buying chocolate or not can seem like freewill because sometimes the inputs which seem to be the same (but are not ever the same) lead to different outputs, and so we blame ourSELVES for that difference in outcome.

      This is a compatabilist type argument where the freewill we’re talking about isn’t ever FREEWILL of the sort which defies determinism. That type of freewill isn’t really worth talking about since it is IMO impossible to ideally conceive (as opposed to prima facie conceivability).

  8. Ralph
    Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Setting aside compatibilism for a moment, in the primary argument against contra-causal free will, it seems to me that it’s important to retain the use of the word “choice”, but simply to define it clearly as deterministic computation. In the simplest sense, choice is just a label for an everyday phenomenon that clearly DOES exist, in which people’s brains generate output. I have repeatedly encountered situations where people unfamiliar with the no-free-will argument misunderstand it or misrepresent it as a preposterous straw man that no computation occurs, and that output is refractory to change in input.

    And with “choice” defined as deterministic computation, it seems to me that the distinction in choice between hijab-wearing in Saudia Arabia vs the U.S. is not a profound or difficult matter in the least.

    • Posted January 2, 2017 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      One interface that captures this important point is the psychological. For example, in recovering from learned helplessness, the client is guided towards recognising the past experiences which shaped this response as stimuli no longer in the present. The client internalises this input as their own so they can counter their programmed response of not acting differently despite the fact that they can as the impediment to action is no longer in the present. I champion the use of the word, ‘mindfulness’ rather than choice or perhaps mindful choice is even better. Deterministic computation, though very clever and accurate, would be identical to pouring cold water on the client. Language affects mental states and interpersonal connection.

      • Posted January 2, 2017 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

        I’ve worked with ex-offenders and getting them to accept responsibility for their past actions and to take responsibility for their future is a vital part of rehabilitation.

        I get the feeling much of this debate is conducted by people who view other people as objects rather than subjects.

        • rom
          Posted January 2, 2017 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

          When you say responsibility do you mean some sort of moral obligation or a recognition of being [the] proximate cause?

          • Posted January 2, 2017 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

            Both.

            • rom
              Posted January 2, 2017 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

              Interesting that you find some arrangements of molecules immoral?

              I think many of us do. But we can only explain this in our consciousness. But apparently we can’t definitively demonstrate we have a consciousness.

              • Posted January 2, 2017 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

                When I sleep, I am unconscious. When I am awake, I am conscious. There is an empirically demonstrable difference between those two states, and that is what those words were invented for. Extending that terminology we can now start arguing whether a beetle is conscious to the degree that we would find it useful to use that word, but saying that we can’t demonstrate consciousness seems a bit much. I am typing coherent sentences, that demonstrates that I am conscious. Done.

              • darrelle
                Posted January 3, 2017 at 9:08 am | Permalink

                I don’t think that is correct. We may not be able to precisely describe consciousness and we sure as hell have not yet figured out how to explain it, how it occurs. It may very well be quite different than what we suppose at present. But I think there is plenty of good evidence to be able to claim that the phenomena is real. There is a good deal of data from observations and experiments that strongly support this.

  9. Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Free will? No free will? I can’t seem to make a choice.

  10. rom
    Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    I disagree wholeheartedly with Coel. Do I do it freely, is my choice free? In one sense it is free, in that there is no gun to my head and someone is not trying to force me to agree.

    But that is not the question under review. I cannot agree with Coel any more than he can, for the next five minutes, be a hard (incompatibilist) determinist. Coel can’t do this no matter how much free will he thinks he has.

    I find when discussing this with people they are somehow stuck in some pattern of thought. Just because they can see past and future alternatives it somehow means they could have done or could do otherwise. The problem is in the now … I for one can’t do otherwise.

    • Posted January 2, 2017 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

      That’s because “free will” describes the ability to act on your desires, not the ability to create contradictory desires.

      • rom
        Posted January 3, 2017 at 11:32 am | Permalink

        Only if you take a compatibilist definition.

        Either way we need to answer the question “can I do otherwise”, not “can I envisage doing otherwise.”

        This is what the philosophical discussion is about.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted January 3, 2017 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

          “Can I do otherwise?” is answerable on several levels, depending on what we take the question to mean.

          If it means “Can identical physical microstates yield different successor states?” (which is how incompatibilists tend to frame it), then quantum mechanics says Yes. (But of course quantum indeterminism is not free will.)

          If we take the question to mean “Can I come to different decisions in different microstates that are macroscopically indistinguishable?” then the answer is still Yes, in rare cases when the decision is so close that imperceptible factors can tip the balance.

          If it means “Is it within my behavioral competence to do otherwise?” (which I suspect is the most common meaning in ordinary usage) then the answer is clearly Yes in most cases.

          We can get to an unequivocal No in all cases by framing the question tautologically: “Can anything happen other than what happens?” But this doesn’t seem to shed much light (and we must still remember that in Everettian QM, “what happens” is not a single outcome, but an ensemble of possible outcomes).

          “Can I choose to do something other than what my brain decides?” is either just the same tautology rephrased, or an unwitting appeal to dualism.

          All of which suggests to me that “Can I do otherwise?” is the wrong question to ask if what you really want to talk about is the fact that decisions are the result of physical processes in the brain.

          Personally, I don’t think the case for penal reform depends on getting a No answer to “Can I do otherwise?” But if it does, then it’s on shaky foundations in my opinion.

          • rom
            Posted January 3, 2017 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

            Penal reform is irrelevant to how we define free will.

            So quantum fluctuations/phenomena are not free will. Here I am agreed.

            But we both agree are not responsible for the chemistry that is ongoing in my brain. At least I hope we are.

            A lot of discussion revolves around choice and especially conscious choice. I could argue if we are talking about simply choice a river on a plain will choose its path based on topology, geology, metrology etc. So in this simple sense it has free will. Similarly for computers making choices especially really sophisticated ones.

            But I think we are talking about supposedly conscious choice. You will have to show me how this different from an unconscious choice.

            We tend to ascribe magical properties to conscious choice.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted January 3, 2017 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

              As far as I’m concerned, you can define free will however you like. But Jerry’s purpose in evangelizing its nonexistence is explicitly about penal reform.

              In fact we alter our own brain chemistry all the time, with caffeine, alcohol, LSD, or what have you. The disagreement is in whether or not there’s a meaningful sense in which we are thereby responsible for those alterations. Drunk driving laws say that we are.

              Conscious choice is when we explicitly engage our consciousness in evaluating alternatives. A high school senior, in choosing between Harvard and Stanford, might spend days or weeks studying course catalogs and reading online student evaluations, paying close attention to the information available and mentally tabulating pros and cons. Even if the final decision bubbles up from the subconscious, it’s difficult to argue that there’s no role for consciousness in the decision process.

              Unpremeditated, spur-of-the-moment impulses (as in Libet-style finger-twitch experiments) are what I would classify as unconscious choice.

              • rom
                Posted January 4, 2017 at 11:45 am | Permalink

                ” A high school senior, in choosing between Harvard and Stanford, might spend days or weeks studying course catalogs and reading online student evaluations, paying close attention to the information available and mentally tabulating pros and cons. Even if the final decision bubbles up from the subconscious, it’s difficult to argue that there’s no role for consciousness in the decision process.”

                The initial choices of Stanford and Harvard have been primed have they not? The conscious study and evaluation of the prospectuses are all of the result chemical reactions, ion transport, and perhaps the probabilistic quantum phenomena. The choice is determined by the inputs, structure of the brain and the various mechanisms that go into making the choice. Calling this a free choice I think is misleading. But I will also happily concede the term free will to compatibilsts. Having said that ramifications of the reality of conscious choice being a product of inputs, structure of the “computer” and the mechanism don’t go away.

                I can’t help thinking we are throwing away the baby with the bathwater when we insist equating conscious choice with free will.

  11. Kevin
    Posted January 2, 2017 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    The hijab wearer has no more predictive power than the greatest super computer on the planet.

    A deterministic universe appears to be independent of our epistemological understanding of what happens. If a Saudi hijab wearer were hypothetically removed from her society in her teens and placed in America to live, who on this planet would predict she will still wear the hijab in her eighties? Compulsion is semantically interesting, but secondary to predicting outcomes…for which we are wholly inadequate.

    At this point, I will remind people who think that humans are good at prediction to consider if they predicted what will happen on on 170120 at any point prior to 161108. As a corollary, there are many people today who still either think or hope that 170120 will not happen as it might.

  12. Heather Hastie
    Posted January 2, 2017 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    At any point we can only make one decision. Does that mean there is only one universe? So where do those things come from that seem to point to other universes? Do we need a new explanation? (Please forgive the language of this non-scientist.)

    • Posted January 2, 2017 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

      Parallel worlds are a separate issue. If there are an infinite number of worlds in which you took an infinite number of different choices that still wouldn’t matter as the decisions you took in each universe could still be deterministic.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted January 2, 2017 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

        I accept that. I’m just saying that you can’t create a separate world with each choice if there’s only one choice you could make. I’m just exploring a hypothetical. I fully accept determinism. I’m just wondering about its consequences for theories/hypotheses re parallel worlds.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted January 2, 2017 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

          You’re putting the cart before the horse by asking what determinism tells us about physics. The correct question is what does physics tell us about determinism?

          Notably, physics (at least in most interpretations) does not tell us there can be only one outcome to any given situation. The determinism of quantum mechanics relates to the spectrum of possibilities at a given time. That spectrum evolves deterministically, i.e. rewinding the clock will always yield the same range of possibilities, but in general does not yield the same unique outcome.

          In Carroll’s view (and mine), these possibilities aren’t just theoretical; they’re all equally real, and that’s where the notion of parallel universes comes from.

          But again, all of this logically precedes any discussion of free will. You have to get the physics right before you can say anything about its implications for human choice.

          • Heather Hastie
            Posted January 2, 2017 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

            Thanks! 🙂

  13. leonkrier
    Posted January 2, 2017 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Following Sean Carroll & The Big Picture and the question “why do giraffes have long necks?”, there are 4 possible explanations but #2 and #4 are the best answers. #4 is true but not useful even though it is most consistent with fundamental ontology; #2 is an emergent phenomenon explanation and is the most useful. Following this perspective, “hard determinism” is most consistent with fundamental ontology but it is not the most useful explanation when applied to cultural/social issues such as health care and poverty. The explanations of emergent phenomena such as psychology, sociology and the like are more useful. I am beginning to view “hard determinism” as an emergent phenomenon explanation just like evolution or neuroscience. In a word, Carroll’s analysis is a “must read” on these issues and others have alluded to his analysis. I also like the perspectives of Coel’s and Sastra’s viewpoints that I AM my brain, my genes, my environment. I am never “compelled to act” by any of them in that sense.

    • Kevin
      Posted January 2, 2017 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

      But you are constrained. Your brain, genes, and environment will not let you fly off the planet into orbit and not perish without a cosmonaut outfit.

      At some point, determinism defines compelled: it is to be physically constrained. The problem exists, though, that we do not know precisely what level constraints (hard determinism) actually compels actions, or that it is meaningful.

      • Posted January 3, 2017 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

        Help, I’ve been taken hostage by … my brain? My brain is usurping my would-be decisions? But then who is this “me” who is usurped?

        I think you’re sneaking dualism, or at least a longing for dualism, in the back door. If you fully accept that you *are* this mass of cells, with special importance of the brain, these kind of “oppositions” between me “versus” my brain, can’t get started.

  14. peepuk
    Posted January 2, 2017 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    A lot of people have a deep feeling of the existence of a personal God that is meaningful and maybe useful to them.

    Also most people have a feeling that they have freewill that’s meaningful and perhaps useful to them.

    In spite of the fact that humans perceive some things, this doesn’t mean these things exist. Feelings are not evidence.

    When f.i. Sean Carrol talks about the “emergent property Free Will” he is talking about “the perception that we have freewill”; he isn’t talking about “freewill” at all.

    Only (empirical) science can tell us what exists and what not. If we let our feelings decide, the result will be wishful thinking.

    I don’t deny that the believe in freewill can sometimes be useful but the claim that the world would fall apart if we people didn’t believe in freewill anymore is a false argument because even the most hardened determinist cannot escape the freewill illusion most of the time.

    • Posted January 2, 2017 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      Belief in free will isn’t the same as belief in God; it’s more like belief in consciousness.

      Are you conscious? Can you prove it empirically?

      • reasonshark
        Posted January 2, 2017 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

        If consciousness had no empirical connection to reality, how could we even discuss it in the first place? Our speech acts involving it would be mere gibberish unless they were caused by the existence of the phenomenon, or at least a misinterpretation of some similar phenomenon.

        It’s not even an academic question: whether or not twisting a cat’s leg off – or, for that matter, twisting another human being’s leg off – causes it to feel pain is a matter of what empirical data can be mustered to support or refute the idea that it has any such feelings at all. If nothing empirical can sway the matter either way, then the whole exercise is meaningless and no one has any cogent counterargument for when you do it. It would exactly be like believing in a god.

      • Kevin
        Posted January 2, 2017 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

        I am conscious (just like Descarte or Dennett). I exist, therefore I have proved it.

        Consciousness does not prove a soul or a mind or immaterial ghosts, just an emergent property we are able to perceive (recursive perception).

      • peepuk
        Posted January 3, 2017 at 11:47 am | Permalink

        “Belief in free will isn’t the same as belief in God”

        No, but you can dismiss it for the same reason.

        “Are you conscious? Can you prove it empirically?”

        Yes, we can study our perception and we can prove that we perceive things. But some objects our perception foists on us don’t exist (external and internal objects). We call them illusions.

  15. Fernando
    Posted January 2, 2017 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    People that believe in free will don’t believe we are born with it, but that the first ocurrence of choice occurs at some precise point in our life unless we die before reaching that point. Then, a test to disprove that there is free will should include adults, infants, and animals.

    • Kevin
      Posted January 2, 2017 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

      Why not electrons? Why don’t they have a choice? It’s not like they care.

      They have but one choice: follow the rules. But even within physics there are ‘rules’ that develop allowable, spontaneous course or energy adjustments such that the electron itself interacts with itself to provide a random, but probabilistic, outcome. You could define that as free will that existed long before and long after any human.

  16. benjdm
    Posted January 2, 2017 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    “It’s a semantic trick to do compatibilism because it undercuts what virtually everyone sees as “free will”: a dualistic free will.”

    As I recall, depending on how you ask the questions, people will give contradictory answers on this question. You can find many examples of people describing computers as choosing their outputs or answers.

    I’m really not sure what is meant by ‘dualistic free will’. I know what is meant by libertarian free will – but libertarian free will is self-contradictory. It is self-contradictory under both monism and dualism.

    The reason one cannot have libertarian free will has nothing to do with dualism being false. Add in as many souls as you like – you will still not have libertarian free will.

    Given a particular set of circumstances of EVERYTHING (including all souls if there were such things), libertarianism would simultaneously claim:

    1. An agent (a subset of the circumstances) could determine the choice of A or B and is therefore responsible for making that choice
    2. The choice of A or B is not determined by the totality of the circumstances – both choices are still legitimately possible

    There is no point to having a phrase to describe such a concept. You might as well invent a word to describe the shape of a four sided triangle.

    Dualism doesn’t matter. You have the same free will with a soul as you have without one.

    “That is why I think there is no meaningful difference between doing something because you’re being “forced” to or because you ostensibly “choose to.””

    So Shane Travers should have gone to jail for robbing his bank? Not even charging him was wrong?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_Bank_of_Ireland_robbery

  17. garthdaisy
    Posted January 2, 2017 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    The idea that people have “free will” causes hatred, resentment, shame, retribution, revenge, etc. Acceptance of determinism is the antidote to these issues. And no it does not cause people to be bad because “fuck it, I am determined anyway so might as well do the bad selfish thing.”

    Why must compatibilists ruin this great revelation? “Moral responsibility” is a scourge not a necessity.

    BTW spellcheck still does not recognize “compatibilism.” Spellcheck knows what time it is.

    • Posted January 2, 2017 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      Acceptance of determinism is the antidote to these issues

      How so, if you believe your hatred, resentment, shame, retribution and revenge are determined?

      • garthdaisy
        Posted January 3, 2017 at 12:13 am | Permalink

        Any feelings I have of hatred, resentment, shame, retribution and revenge have been greatly mitigated if not eliminated altogether my knowledge of determinism . That is what is determined it seems. Because that is what is.

        • Posted January 3, 2017 at 12:44 am | Permalink

          If you hadn’t learned about determinism you’d be a much more poorly behaved person? That’s a little people argument, which Jerry claims determinists are supposed to be against.

          • garthdaisy
            Posted January 3, 2017 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

            No, the little people argument is the exact reverse of what I am saying. The little people argument refers to people not being able to handle the news of determinism without turning bad. I’m saying they can indeed handle it and may also have feelings of hate, revenge, spite, retribution etc mitigated or even reduced by understanding determinism. This is the exact opposite of the little people argument.

            • Posted January 3, 2017 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

              Perhaps I’m misunderstanding, but it seemed to me you were saying that adopting incompatibilism is what mitigates your potential bad behavior. The implication is that people who don’t deny free-will will have a hard time behaving themselves. This is how I think you’re making a little people argument.

              • garthdaisy
                Posted January 3, 2017 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

                You seem to misunderstand what the “little people” argument means.

                Again, the “little people” argument is that the average person can not handle the revelation of determinism without it causing them to lose their morality. My argument is the exact reverse. I’m saying the average person CAN INDED understand and handle the revelation of determinism without losing their morality. It’s the exact opposite of the “little people” argument. The “little people” argument is that people need compatibilism because without it, they will not be able to handle the news of determinism.

                And I am adding that not only will they not lose their morality but it might actually improve because hate and revenge become irrational when you realize that people could not have done otherwise. This is not a “little person” argument. “Little person” does not refer to someone who is uneducated about something but to someone who can not handle a particular piece of knowledge.

                You seem to think that if someone is uneducated about some facts, and then becomes educated about those facts, and it makes them feel and behave better then that is a little person argument. It’s not. You simply have that wrong. Uneducated people are not “little.” They are just as big as you and I.

              • Posted January 3, 2017 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

                Ok. I do understand that I was widening the boundaries a bit with respect to what is usually described as a little people argument. Perhaps what you’re saying is not best characterized as a little people argument. I would still make the objection that any compatibilist or even libertarian can navigate the moral maze just as well as any incompatibilist. I don’t think denying free will suddenly shines a whole lot of light on murky ethical matters.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted January 3, 2017 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

                To inject a bit of empiricism into it, polls show that support for the death penalty is eroding among Catholics and evangelicals. Presumably that’s not because they’ve suddenly awakened to the truth of naturalism and determinism.

              • garthdaisy
                Posted January 3, 2017 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

                So there is no moral advantage to being compatibilist, incompatibilist, or libertarian? Take your pick they all lead to the same level of morality? Is that your position? Or is one of those options superior in your opinion?

                I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that position just wondering if I read you right?

                My position remains that incompatibilism would lead to better morality because it gives good reason to eschew feelings of hate and revenge and shame etc. And I don;t see a down-side that comes with that up-side.

              • Posted January 3, 2017 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

                Well, no, I’m not sure any of those views confer a moral advantage. I argue for compatibilism because I think it best describes reality.

                There are many ways to think oneself out of hate, revenge, etc. I’m not convinced incompatibilism would reliably do so. In any case, isn’t that an argument from consequences?

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted January 3, 2017 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

                I’ll suggest (again, with apologies to Jerry) a possible downside to incompatibilism, which is that by denying the possibility of self-control, it removes an important tool from the lexicon of rehab counselors and parole officers. It’s not clear what incompatibilists propose to put in its place, or how their program of penal reform can get off the ground without an adequate replacement.

              • garthdaisy
                Posted January 4, 2017 at 12:19 am | Permalink

                I think determinism best describes reality. Compatibilism is an obfuscation on that reality meant to solve the problem of what the “little people” might do if they find out that they are, in reality, determined. They might lose their moral responsibility, so the fear goes. But there is no evidence that they lose their morality. So compatibilism is not necessary. Compatibilism comes from the unfounded fear that knowledge of determinism will be unsettling to human morality.

              • garthdaisy
                Posted January 4, 2017 at 12:31 am | Permalink

                Gregory,

                If people had self control they wouldn’t be in rehab or jail, so I’m not sure how some counsellor telling them that they do have self control will help, or has ever helped. I’m guessing it jut makes them feel like horrible people that they supposedly have a self control that they can’t control.

                Show me data on the success of rehab counsellors using the “you have self control” technique before you tell me to worry about incompatibilism ruining this successful method. I see no evidence that it works and plenty that it doesn’t. Because it’s not true. We are determined. Self control does not exist. The self does not even exist. Addicts and criminals were determined to be in their situation. Telling they could have done otherwise is cruel, because they could not have.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted January 4, 2017 at 11:01 am | Permalink

                There’s a substantial literature suggesting that self-control not only exists, but is quantifiable and has predictive value with respect to recidivism.

              • garthdaisy
                Posted January 4, 2017 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

                So people who become addicts and criminals have self control they just opt not to use it because they are jerks? Lazy? What made them that way? Personal choice?

                As Sam Harris says, it’s tumours all the way down. We are determined beings. But I guess some are determined to tell others that they are not determined, but rather they are just choosing to be jerks.

              • Posted January 4, 2017 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

                First, compatibilists accept determinism. That’s why it’s called “compatibilism”; free will is compatible with determinism. It is compatible in that conscious agents make choices out of a range of possibilities, even if that choice is determined. Determinism doesn’t contradict the fact that a choice was made. When a brain makes a choice it is doing something very different from what a rock does, even if it’s a matter of degree. Differences in degree can be very important and I think it’s perfectly legitimate to acknowledge this difference as “free will”.

                Second, human behavior is not all-or-nothing. Why can’t we have self-control but sometimes slip up?

              • garthdaisy
                Posted January 5, 2017 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

                Yes I am well aware that compatibilists think that free will is compatible with determinism. But it’s not. A rock is atoms in motion. So is a brain. So is a conscious being. A rock is not doing the same thing as a tree. Does that mean the tree has free will? No. The fact that 2 things are different doesn’t give one of them free will.

                It certainly feels like we have free will. But we don’t. Your conscious choices do not change the motion of atoms. The motion of atoms dictate your conscious choices. It doesn’t feel like that’s the case but it is. Accepting that does nothing bad to a person’s psyche and makes some things better. Studies have demonstrated this.

                http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00020/abstract

              • Posted January 5, 2017 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

                I still don’t think you’re getting what it is that compatibilists refer to as free will. Choices are things that happen, even in a deterministic context. There is a difference between choosing vanilla out of an available 32 flavors and choosing vanilla because the ice cream joint is out of everything else. And there’s an infinitely greater difference between either of those and doing absolutely nothing and having no desires because you’re a rock. This isn’t just any arbitrary difference, it’s a salient difference. Emergent differences matter, as we all acknowledge when we describe things as “wet” or “dry”. “Wetness” isn’t a property at the level of the laws of physics, yet imaging asking your question thus: “A rock is not doing the same thing as water. Does that mean water is wet? No. The fact that two things are different doesn’t give one of them wetness.”

                Compatibilists simply call the brute fact that brains make choices “free will”.

              • garthdaisy
                Posted January 5, 2017 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

                “There is a difference between choosing vanilla out of an available 32 flavors and choosing vanilla because the ice cream joint is out of everything else.”

                Yes there is a difference. But in both cases, you are coerced by the motion of atoms following the laws of physics in exactly the same way. When choosing from 32 flavors, atoms following the laws of physics since the big bang dictate the choice. When there is only one flavor, atoms following the laws of physics since the big bang dictate the situation of there being only one option, as well as the decision you make to take the one and only option as opposed to having none. It is all dictated by atoms in motion. Your brain is more complicated than a rock but it is still a collection of atoms following the laws of physics in exactly the same way as the atoms in a rock.

                “This isn’t just any arbitrary difference, it’s a salient difference.”

                So say the compatibilists but I disagree. It’s all atoms in motion. There is no salient difference. It just seems that way.

                “The fact that two things are different doesn’t give one of them wetness.”

                Correct. And the fact that two things are different doesn’t give one of them choice.

                “Compatibilists simply call the brute fact that brains make choices “free will”.”

                I know, but why? What is free about a brain following the laws of physics? It’s not that I don’t get what compatibilists are calling “free will.” I just don’t hear a good reason as to why they are doing so. Why?

              • Posted January 5, 2017 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

                At the risk of posting too many comments, I’ll offer one more brief answer to your final question: because being able to act on our desires is what free will is. It’s what it can be even in a deterministic context and it’s what it has been historically. The idea of free will is meant to differentiate the ability of some matter to act on desires from other types of matter that can’t or that don’t even have desires in the first place. It doesn’t matter if out desires are determined. That distinction is real, and we all acknowledge it in daily life.

              • garthdaisy
                Posted January 7, 2017 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

                A rock has no desires to act on. You do. You did not choose to have those desires and how you act on them, if you do at all, is entirely determined by the laws physics. For every action to do, you could not have done otherwise. If you want to call that free will it’s just to make you feel good, not because you have any actual freedom.

                It actually makes me feel better knowing that I and others do not make these choices but are determined as though we are one with the universe.

    • Craw
      Posted January 2, 2017 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

      Moral responsibility is the difference between pushing someone in front of a bus because you dislike him and being pushed into someone, forcing him in front of a bus. The distinction is not a scourge, and it is vital for properly setting up incentives against bad behavior, ie punishments. Only in the former case can a punishment be effective.

      • garthdaisy
        Posted January 3, 2017 at 12:17 am | Permalink

        I don’t shove people in front of a bus because I don’t want to. Fortunately most people don’t want to push people in front of busses. Just the psychopaths. And they don’t adhere to moral responsibility.

        Looking at morality as a “responsibility” is a category error in my opinion.

  18. Posted January 2, 2017 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    When I claim that I have free will, or volition which is my preferred word, I simply mean that I have the capacity to make choices among alternatives potentially available to me based on my ability to simulate the world around me, including the effects of my choices, in order to achieve purposes important to me or people I care about. This is true even when it involves handing over my wallet to someone pointing a gun at me. I accept that this cognitive process operates consistent with the laws of nature.

    Part of simulating the effects of my choices is due consideration to any harmful impacts they might have on my fellow beings, and I hold myself, not others, responsible for those impacts. In this sense, I am a moral being.

    Perhaps this is too simplistic.

  19. reasonshark
    Posted January 2, 2017 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Why do we need to invoke free will at all? The phenomenon we want to describe boils down to net inclination, even if only for a fraction of a second. That inclination coordinates the motor neurons of our nervous system, generating behaviour and physiological change, however complex they are.

    Net inclination in itself is simply which of many competing desires in one nervous system wins long enough to cause behaviour. It’s guided by beliefs and by other desires – in feedback – across the individual’s life history. Emotions, urges, duties, etc. are manifestations of different desires.

    There is no freedom in any of this. Both belief and desire align with the sensorimotor nature of the nervous system, with belief roughly corresponding to sensory data, and desire roughly corresponding to motor impulses. Which one (or which set) wins is a matter of historical contingency, of which set of desires and beliefs happen to be activated at any particular time or place.

    Every inclination, including our ability to reason, is contingent on our life histories and on multiple complex causes predating our very existence. In short, it’s really ignorance about predicting the future, due to practical limitations. The game was set before we even existed to play it.

    If that’s freedom, it’s the freedom of a puppet with a thousand puppeteers. We don’t “choose” our actions or beliefs any more than computers “choose” chess moves or operational axioms; they and we are utter slaves to the contingency of context and the contingency of our own programming. It’s simply luck if it doesn’t screw us over.

  20. Posted January 2, 2017 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Coming late again, I can only second pretty much everything Coel writes here.

    Subtracting the usual misunderstandings, the disagreement remains over whether terms like free will or choice carry dualist baggage and, if so, whether it would be preferable to kick them out or to do the same to them as we did to “life” once it was discovered that there was no elan vital: continue using them because they were invented to describe a real, demonstrable difference even as we correct our misconceptions about the explanation for that difference, or not.

    Jerry Coyne writes that the word choice has a “dualistic connotation”. Personally, I do not see that it has any whatsoever; on the other hand, I believe that a sentence like “you are being compelled by your brain” does not only have dualistic connotations but is dualistic, full stop. It only makes sense if “your brain” is seen as an entity distinct from the “you”, which is dualism, otherwise it becomes meaningless. To me it appears to create precisely the kind of conceptual confusion that is, according to determinists, supposedly created by saying “I freely chose to study biology”.

    And right here I don’t see how the discussion can ever go anywhere except in a circle unless one finds agreement about how to empirically test the meaning or connotations of terms and, perhaps more importantly, derive the ought for that is (how should we use that word). There does not seem to be any way of settling this.

    Finally, DiscoveredJoys argues upthread that not only free will but also love, beauty, money, and law are “fictions”. I would assume that most incompatibilists here would find that a bit much; surely we can meaningfully say that I love my wife but that I do not, for example, love my keyboard? Surely that is a distinction that exists and needs a term, even given the laws of physics?

    But DiscoveredJoys is right at least in one sense: yes, this is exactly the same as with choice or freedom. Our ancestors did not invent these terms because they wanted to push dualist philosophy or something like that. They observed a difference, like one person being able to act on their preferences while another was blackmailed into doing something they’d rather not, or Joe being very fond of Mary but not so fond of Anne, and invented terms like free will and love, respectively, to be able to describe those differences. And this situation remains entirely unchanged even after the discovery that there are no immaterial souls: we still require terms to describe those empirically demonstrable differences.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted January 3, 2017 at 5:10 am | Permalink

      Surely that is a distinction that exists and needs a term, even given the laws of physics?

      The key issue to me is whether or not the ‘terms’ indicate an underlying reality or are merely socially agreed labels we paint on observed behaviours.

      I guess it is just the philosophical debate about the existence of relative or absolute morals (or choice, love, beauty, money, laws). Different societies, and individuals, have different views about these labels. There are different ‘standards’ of beauty, different attitudes to ‘fate’, different ways of expressing love and so on. Which suggests to me that these labels are ‘stories we agree to live by in our local society’.

      My concern is that people often end up asserting that their particular set of labels are ‘more true’ than reality. Often this doesn’t matter (because we are all situated in the same physical reality) but sometimes the labels become elaborated into something harmful. So ‘people are evil when they don’t choose to do the right thing’ is quite different from ‘we should protect ourselves from people who behave badly because of their circumstances’.

      • Posted January 3, 2017 at 6:07 am | Permalink

        There is a huge gulf between the insight that different languages describe reality in slightly different ways or that tastes can differ on the one side and the claim that money, love, laws or choices are “fictions” on the other. That word is generally understood to mean that something does not have any existence outside of one’s imagination, and that is clearly not the case for any of these.

        • DiscoveredJoys
          Posted January 3, 2017 at 8:01 am | Permalink

          Your own words:

          …we still require terms to describe those empirically demonstrable differences.

          I’m merely pointing out that the terms themselves are not real – they are terms or labels. My wider argument is that people tend to elaborate these terms, sometimes in ways which are contrary to naturalism. We are arguably metaphorical thinkers and the metaphors can cloud our empirical observations and our reasoned conclusions.

          • Posted January 3, 2017 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

            We appear to be talking past each other. The background is that some people here say we should not use words like “choice” or “free will” because the concepts they describe have no empirical reality. Then you comment what can only be read as “yes, just like money!” That the term money is a term is so obvious that it does not need mentioning, but the stuff we use that term for still has an empirical reality (just like the events we call choice-making, etc.).

  21. Posted January 2, 2017 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    PCC-E:

    “That is why I think there is no meaningful difference between doing something because you’re being “forced” to or because you ostensibly “choose to.””

    I think there is a meaningful difference and I think the law recognizes it. Consider rape and consensual sex. There’s a meaningful difference between those two, no?

    • Posted January 2, 2017 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

      (Jerry’s quote should’ve been a blockquote. Must’ve messed up the tags.)

      • Helen Hollis
        Posted January 2, 2017 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

        Please help me understand this, I agree there is a difference in your example and reading all of your prior posts I see what you are saying. If you would help me to understand why this seems overcomplicated to me with some taking a black and white stand (if I am correct) and some who seem to make the waters muddy. You seem to explain things well and I am hoping you can clarify this for me as I am really confused about this.

        • Posted January 2, 2017 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

          I’m not sure what to say other than what I or Coel or Gregory Kusnick have already said.

          Choices are things that happen in the brains or nervous systems of creatures that have them. Rocks don’t make choices. The cognitive difference between humans (or other agents) and rocks is perfectly well described as free will.

    • Posted January 3, 2017 at 1:18 am | Permalink

      Let’s say that in the case you describe, one of the individuals involved says it was “rape” and the other says it was “consensual sex”. This happens. The court has to decide between two opposite representations of what happened.
      The court wasn’t there. The language used by the two individuals to describe the event, how it is interpreted by themselves and others will determine the outcome. Language is tricky and meaning, if it is going to happen, is consensual. What goes on in the brain is “real”. How it is conveyed verbally and emotionally is always a matter of diverse perceptions and interpretations.

      • Posted January 3, 2017 at 9:29 am | Permalink

        That’s irrelevant to my point. My point is not about the reliability of evidence.

        It’s a god’s-eye-view rhetorical question. Is there really no meaningful difference between external compulsion and the compulsion of our own desires? The law currently says otherwise, thank goodness.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted January 3, 2017 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

        I might add that the reason we get “he said/she said” disagreements in rape cases is precisely because both parties recognize a difference. If there were no meaningful difference, consent or lack of it would be of no consequence to either party, and there’d be nothing to disagree about.

  22. mfdempsey1946
    Posted January 2, 2017 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

    Having grown up steeped in the concept of free will via an extensive Catholic education…

    At the same time having little ability to understand the higher realms of science very well…

    Yet finding extremely and disturbingly compelling the arguments against the reality of the “ghost in the machine” version of free will…

    And, finally, in full knowledge that, though I’m working on it, my understanding of this entire matter is undoubtedly a long way from adequate…

    I keep recalling an exchange in “Lawrence of Arabia” between the film’s version of T.E. Lawrence and a journalist:

    The journalist tells Lawrence, more or less, “A man can do what he wants.

    Lawrence replies, “Yes, but a man can’t want what he wants.”

    Maybe this bit of dialogue sheds a faint glimmer of light on this contentious and complicated subject.

    Or maybe it doesn’t. I’m really far from sure either way.

    But I feel compelled (by the laws of physics, etc., it seems) to cite it for whatever value, however slight, it may possess in this context.

  23. Posted January 2, 2017 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    Upon further consideration I notice that the “little people argument” is getting a lot of negative attention in this discussion, i.e. the idea that the hoi polloi are so silly that they will behave poorly if they learn that determinism is true. And I agree, that argument is condescending and patronising.

    But I am wondering, is the argument that we shouldn’t use words like choice because the hoi polloi are so silly that they will take it to mean that immaterial souls exist not also a little people argument?

    • Posted January 2, 2017 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I think it is.

      I think expecting people to be able to handle a compatibilist conception of free will is LESS of a “little people” view. Incompatibilists claim it’s a lost cause: people will only be able to conceive of free will as contra-causal.

  24. Marou
    Posted January 3, 2017 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Constant reiteration of the term ‘The Laws of Physics’ doesn’t make it meaningful. The certainty that the Universe can be construed according to ‘Laws’ is a human delusion. The Universe is as it is. Our attempts to understand it are constrained by our human limitations so we make the best of it by devising an approximation which best serves our purposes, a process ineluctably tethered to the human brain.

  25. Vaal
    Posted January 3, 2017 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    Glad I didn’t see this thread earlier. I wouldn’t have gotten my work done 🙂

    As I’ve argued, “choice” in the sense of how the word is normally used, does not connote dualism. Nor does dualism typically play any role in our thinking when making choices.
    If you simply pay attention to the actual type of conscious thoughts that go through your head when deliberating on a choice, you are very unlikely to see things like “I am a free floating contra-causal agent” or “I’m a dualist” or “I could make either choice with the universe in exactly the same state.”
    Those are the types of thoughts that happen upon reflection when thinking about issues like free will. It’s when people start trying to theorize about their choices after the fact, wondering how they make sense given all else seems to proceed from previous causal states. Contra-causality/dualism are post hoc analysis to EXPLAIN the phenomenon of choice-making – they are not “choice-making” itself. That’s why choice making and freedom do not just go away as “illusions” when a bad theory like dualism is dispelled, just like morality or life don’t go away when magic explanations are replaced with non-magical explanations.

    The sense that we “could have done otherwise” is explicable on the grounds that, in the sense we were actually thinking at the time we COULD have done otherwise. Because our deliberations aren’t based on contra-causal magic powers: they are based on inferences over time about what we have been capable of, and will likely be capable of in terms of future actions. And we employ if/then reasoning about our choices “if I do A then I’m likely to obtain B but IF I do C then I can obtain D…”
    All of which produces true lines of reasoning in a determined world. We aren’t engaged in the illusion of dualism when making choices, and hence that is not dispelled when we explain what making choices involves. The only thing dispelled is the later after the fact bad theory of dualism/contra-causality for how we can make choices, or for why we think we can “do otherwise” when making those choices.

    Wait…I’m getting deja vu…

    • Posted January 4, 2017 at 8:59 am | Permalink

      It’s a good point you are making Vall but there is even more to it. The incompatibilist stance infers that causality in human agency exists as a causal continuum – that there is no real autonomy or evitability in the “choice” being made (the action of the agent at the time of choice or in a post hoc sense). This means that there is really no “self” as such. This is a fundamental denial. The self, consciousness, free will, moral responsibility, and agency itself are interdependent entities. Denying the free will element makes the whole system totally incoherent.

  26. peepuk
    Posted January 4, 2017 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    I, for my part, would change my mind if science would say that freewill exists. The same for the existence of a personal God.

    As Cristopher Hitchens once said: What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

    Its remarkable how many people say they embrace physicalism and in the next sentence defend some kind of dualism.

    Referring to personal feelings to prove a point, proves only subjectivity.

  27. garthdaisy
    Posted January 5, 2017 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    “There is a difference between choosing vanilla out of an available 32 flavors and choosing vanilla because the ice cream joint is out of everything else.”

    Yes there is a difference. But in both cases, you are coerced by the motion of atoms following the laws of physics in exactly the same way. When choosing from 32 flavors, atoms following the laws of physics since the big bang dictate the choice. When there is only one flavor, atoms following the laws of physics since the big bang dictate the situation of there being only one option, as well as the decision you make to take the one and only option as opposed to having none. It is all dictated by atoms in motion. Your brain is more complicated than a rock but it is still a collection of atoms following the laws of physics in exactly the same way as the atoms in a rock.

    “This isn’t just any arbitrary difference, it’s a salient difference.”

    So say the compatibilists but I disagree. It’s all atoms in motion. There is no salient difference. It just seems that way.

    “The fact that two things are different doesn’t give one of them wetness.”

    Correct. And the fact that two things are different doesn’t give one of them choice.

    “Compatibilists simply call the brute fact that brains make choices “free will”.”

    I know, but why? What is free about a brain following the laws of physics? It’s not that I don’t get what compatibilists are calling “free will.” I just don’t hear a good reason as to why they are doing so. Why?

    • Vaal
      Posted January 5, 2017 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

      Yes there is a difference.

      So you acknowledge there is a difference.

      But then in the next moment you go on to claim there really isn’t any difference, by saying “It’s all atoms in motion.”

      You aren’t really making sense 🙂

      What’s happening is you are falling into a type of reductionism that, in any other context, you’d recognize as being fallacious or unreasonable.

      Yes it’s all (in a sense) “atoms in motion” but the reductionist mistake is to think that pointing to a fundamental quality things share that this makes other differences “not REALLY matter.”

      But of course they matter.

      Say you need to know how to work your TV and ask me to hand you the manual. I hand you a copy of War and Peace. You ask what the hell I’m doing and I point out “What? Both that book and your TV manual are ‘just’ printed words on paper, so there’s no REAL difference for you to complain about.”

      You’d know I was being daft. Sure, both share the trait of being printed words on paper, but that hardly obviates the relevant differences between them, that one will tell me you how to use your TV, the other won’t.

      People and rocks can both be said to be “atoms in motion” but if we want to understand why we would regard or treat one differently than the other, it’s the DIFFERENCES that matter (e.g. living being, complex nervous systems capable of pain, fear, love, reason, socializing, moralizing, etc), not the fact they are made of the same stuff.

      If you say “Oh, I acknowledge there’s a difference between humans and rocks…but ultimately there isn’t a REAL difference because they are reducible to atoms in motion” then you are leaping away from the actual relevant differences we need to care about, between humans and rocks. You’d jumped out of the conversation into a non-sequitur.

      So when you acknowledge there are differences in choices, but then jump back to the fact you can mention it’s all atoms in motion, you are just leaping away from examining the relevant differences in choices, and in choice-making systems.

      The way compatibilists use the term “freedom” (of choice) follows essentially from the way the way “free” is typically used
      in everyday situations. That is, to describe true differences, relevant to how we should treat one person or situation differently than another. In the icecream scenario, in one situation there are many flavors to choose from, and I am capable of choosing/eating any of those flavors, and in that sense I have the freedom to choose between them. If there is only one flavor in stock, the range of freedom to choose other flavors is clearly reduced. These are the types of differences “freedom” typically describes.

      If a tree branch falls on to my car it would be silly to admonish it not to do that.

      But if my neighbor throws a branch over his fence and it lands on my car, it WILL make sense to admonish my neighbor.

      To say that both my neighbor and my tree are both “just atoms in motion” will be a non-sequitur, because their RELEVANT differences make ALL the difference in how one should be treated. The tree is not a “choice-making” entity, with a far wider range of relevant actions it can perform. It can not apprehend reasons, deliberate rationally between possible courses of actions and their likely outcome, etc.
      This is the sense in which my neighbor “has a choice” to not throw branches on my car, and the tree does not. That’s why recommendations to “do otherwise” for people MAKE SENSE for atoms in the form of people, but not atoms in the form of rocks or trees.
      It’s why the notion of “choice” and “ranges of freedom” (that is ranges of possible actions, given various circumstances) MAKE SENSE when describing people’s actions, and not other entities made of atoms.

      It’s why when I say I am “free for lunch” that actually tells you something you can expect to happen. It’s not a claim that I’m free from being a physical object: it’s just a true description of the state of physical affairs – a low work load – and my general powers – ability to get to lunch – which conveys real information about whether I’m likely to show up to lunch or not.

      So…the compatibilist notion of “freedom” is essentially the type of freedom most of us actually describe in using the word everyday. We are “more free” than rocks because of the range of actions we are capable of taking. We are “free” to take an action insofar as there isn’t a constraint on our taking that action. We did something
      of our “free will” insofar as we willed to do something and were not constrained from doing what we wanted, and had the capacity to have “done otherwise.” Not “done otherwise” in the sense of being magical non-physical agents, but in the sense of a realistic appraisal of our capabilities in
      similar-enough situations to be relevant to the specific situation being described.
      (That is, if I chose cereal A over B this morning, to say I “could have done otherwise” is to mean in relevantly similar situations, e.g. yesterday when I had breakfast, tomorrow when I have breakfast, or if you put the boxes in front of me right now, I am capable of choosing the other cereal to eat).

      If we ACTUALLY stuck with understanding “freedom of choice” within the context of “could I have done differently in precisely the same physical state of the universe” then learning from the past would be incoherent, and recommendations for future choices – “faced with choice A or B you should choose B” – would become nonsense. Fortunately, that’s not the case 🙂

      • Posted January 5, 2017 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

        Excellent, as usual.

        • Posted January 6, 2017 at 3:52 am | Permalink

          Yes… an excellent post indeed. Reading a post like Vaal has done here, posts which clearly analyses an issue of debate so succinctly, make it a real pleasure to follow the comments section on WEIT.

      • Posted January 7, 2017 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

        If you’re of a mind to respond, garthdaisy has replied to my reply to the same comment above. I’ve said my piece on this thread.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted January 5, 2017 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

      Even at the level of “atoms in motion”, one of the salient differences between brains and rocks is that the atoms in brains have fewer constraints on their motion (more “degrees of freedom” in physics jargon) than the atoms in rocks. It’s the organized motion of atoms that enables brains to process information, an ability that rocks lack precisely because their atoms lack the right sort of motion.

      (Replace “atoms” with “electrons” and the same argument applies to computers v. rocks.)

      • Vaal
        Posted January 5, 2017 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

        In conversations between compatibilists and incompatibilists about free will, we always have to end up separating two questions:

        1. In the context of determinism, does it make sense to talk of “choice” and “freedom?”

        and if so…

        2. Whether such freedom amounts to “free will.” That is: does the freedom compatible with determinism capture enough of what people mean, or care about under the term “free will” to be talking about the same thing?

        It seems we always have to start off with the first conversation, because we so often encounter incompatibilists saying things like “choice is an illusion” or “it only feels like we have a choice but we don’t REALLY have a choice” or “my freedom to choose was an illusion.”

        THEN we have to engage in this discussion of whether “choice” and “freedom” necessarily entail meanings incompatible with determinism. The pattern seems we can drag the determinist along the path to finally acknowledging that, yes, in one sense – the sense proposed by compatibilists using examples from every day language use – words like choice and freedom are compatible with determinism. But then the next breath is to leap to #2: But THAT’s not what people MEAN by “free will.”

        And there’s certainly nothing wrong with moving on to that important question (#2). But the weird thing is that there seems to be a sort of re-set button. After all the discussion of how everyday uses of choice and freedom don’t violate determinism, we see the incompatibilist referring to choice and freedom as “illusions” again.

        And then the whole conversation establishing
        #1 begins yet again to get us right back to where we were.

        It’s puzzling.

        • Posted January 6, 2017 at 6:58 am | Permalink

          Yes, these debates things inevitably move into the “definition game”. The “little people” think of free will in dualist terms – WRONG. We compatibilist redefine free will into terms of deterministic causation, but because of what the little people think this “must be” wholly wrong say incompatibilists. But actually, concepts that little people have like “choice”, “done otherwise” and “moral responsibility” are not so far removed from what we compatibilists say. Misconceptions between what leads to phenomenon that exists between lay-persons and scientists abound… and the definition of mechanisms involved often diverge. To little people “gravity” is a force of attraction between matter – a field of force. What it actually is, is a distortion of space-time by matter. If we followed the incompatibilists line of argument we should stop using the incorrect term gravity as it is commonly understood. At best we should “change terms” maybe now use STEDOM (stedom being Space-Time Effective Distortion Of Mass) But the fall of an apple is still the same. The little people understand that the apple will fall, and I would say that’s quite enough for all practical purposes.

          • Posted January 6, 2017 at 8:45 am | Permalink

            Another excellent comment. Nice analogy with gravity.

            Oops! I mean STEDOM.

            • Vaal
              Posted January 6, 2017 at 10:09 am | Permalink

              Agreed, good analogy with gravity.

              • Posted January 8, 2017 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

                I am happy to have checked this old discussion again, these late additions are great.


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