Compatibilism: a parable

I haven’t posted much on free will lately, and I’m sure that’s fine with the compatibilist readers who think my take on the issue is, as the Brits say, “badly wrong.” I stand by my views, and apparently so does Zack Weinersmith, who published “Compatibilism: a parable” on his SMBC comic site.  (Thanks to several readers who sent it to me.)

For new readers, compatibilism is the view that complete determinism of our acts by our genes and environments is still compatible with a view of humans having “free will.”

To wit (note that the purveyor of the semantic trickery about free will strongly resembles Dan Dennett, one of compatibilism’s chief exponents), a very sophisticated comic strip!:

As best I can see, and I’m prone to misinterpreting these things, the kid sees compatibilism in the second half of the strip as he saw his disappointment over the possibility of seeing “dinosaurs” in the first half: he was misled into thinking that he’d see something different from what he thought. “Free will” is the dinosaur here, and, like the bird, it turns out, under compatibilism, to be something other than what most people think.

At the Imagine No Religion meeting last weekend, Julien Musolino, in a fine talk on why we don’t have a “soul” as most people think of it, also spoke quite a bit about how we don’t have “free will” as most people think of it.

As one reader noted, if you press the red button at the bottom of the screen, you get this:

And if you hover your mouse over the second bit, you get this:


  1. GBJames
    Posted June 8, 2017 at 7:55 am | Permalink


  2. Posted June 8, 2017 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    Our free-will debates here reminds me of an old joke I once heard:
    A group of friends formed a “humour club” which met every Thursday down at the pub. Fred, who became a new member, went to his first meeting. It began when someone stood up and just said “Number 37”. The group broke down in unrestrained laughter. Another member then stood up – “Number 17”. The same reaction. This went on all evening. On the way out Fred asked what was going on. His companion replied “Their always the same jokes – we all know them so well that we’ve given them numbers to save time in telling them”. At the next meeting Fred thought that he ought to tell a joke to the membership himself, so he stood up and said “Number 17”. Not a laugh in the room. On the way out Fred asked a companion “what went wrong with my joke?” The response “It’s the way that you tell’em”

    So as we begin yet another free will debate let me just say….. “Number 42”

    • Posted June 8, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      Alternative punchline:

      ’36!’ Stoney silence, then ‘That’s racist!’

    • Mike
      Posted June 8, 2017 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

      He then says “135” and the room falls about laughing. “What happened?” His friend, through tears of laughter, says
      “We haven’t heard that one before”

  3. Vaal
    Posted June 8, 2017 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    Insert the word “choice” for “dinosaur” and the parable works just as well for incompatiblism.


    • Sastra
      Posted June 8, 2017 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      Exactly. The problem with terms like “free will,” “choice,” “purpose” and “meaning” is that the people who interpret them through a supernatural lens ALSO interpret them in the secular, ordinary sense of everyday life. Thus, if you tell such people that there’s no such thing as X, they immediately assume you’re rejecting BOTH meanings, because they’ve mentally linked them together. It’s not that they’re interpreting the term one way and you’re pulling a bait ‘n switch, as the cartoon implies. It’s that they’re not properly separating concepts/explanations. They’re using “free will” as a deepity with interchangeable meanings.

      But only one meaning is the one that matters: the one which is useful. It also happens to be true.

      A compatibilist response to the cartoon might show the parent asking “Hey, little guy — do you want to see a living descendant of the dinosaur?” — and the child then complaining “But dinosaurs can only give birth to dinosaurs, you TRICKED me!”

    • darrelle
      Posted June 8, 2017 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      Also, birds really are dinosaurs, though they obviously aren’t what the boy in the cartoon had in mind. It seems to me this cartoon could easily be interpreted in a way that is not favorable to the Incompatiblist view.

      Perhaps the cartoonist intended to express that expert consensus is that Freewill does exist (birds are dinosaurs) but it isn’t what the boy considers to be freewill (he wants to see T-Rex) so he rejects it.

      • Posted June 8, 2017 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

        That’s a good point. The analogy in the cartoon doesn’t exactly go where it was intended.

    • josh
      Posted June 8, 2017 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      Incompatibilists don’t believe choice doesn’t exist, they believe free choice doesn’t.

      • Ralph
        Posted June 8, 2017 at 11:36 am | Permalink

        Yes, but some incompatibilists (including Jerry I think?) do sometimes describe that absence of free will as having no choice, and in my experience of debating the issue that’s easily misunderstood. Unlike “free will”, the word “choice” does correspond to an observable phenomenon. We ask a child what flavor ice cream he wants, and he tells us.

        It’s ultimately just a question of vocuabulary and definitions, but I think it’s clearer to say that we do choose, but that the phenomenon of “choice” is nothing more mysterious than computation.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted June 8, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

        If you search this site you’ll find many instances where Jerry and other self-identified incompatibilists explicitly assert that choice doesn’t exist, choice is an illusion, our brains don’t make choices, etc.

        • peepuk
          Posted June 8, 2017 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

          No sane person has ever denied that we make choices.

          As a matter of fact all animals make choices.

          But hard-determinist’s claim humans don’t choose freely; so free choice cannot exist and has to be an illusion.

          Some compatibilists will agree with this, some don’t.

          • Vaal
            Posted June 8, 2017 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

            “No sane person has ever denied that we make choices. “

            But to point that out is just another red herring.

            No one is saying the debate is over whether there is some functional sense of “choice.”
            The debate is over what that concept MEANS as
            it is commonly applied and understood.

            And choice is commonly understood to be deciding between one or more possible actions. If you deny alternative possibilities, then you deny the common understanding imbued in the term “choice.”
            That’s why in his writing Jerry says things like we don’t have “real choice” – and that the claim we can make alternative choices is false.

            Comptibilists argue that stance to be a confusion of various issues that result in an incoherent or unjustified conclusion.

            • Posted June 8, 2017 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

              The problem is that “Free Will” is intended in no small part to be an essential property that distinguishes humans from animals, autopilots, sunflowers, and thermostats. Yet all make the type of mechanistic “choices” that compatibilists identify as comprising “Free Will.”

              That’s the ultimate problem with compatibilism: you’re either left inventing some fantasy that preserves “Free Will” in humans but rejects it in thermostats, or granting “Free Will” to thermostats.

              The former is indistinguishable from dualism or any other superstition; the latter is linguistically absurd. Neither is defensible.

              The sane alternative is to embrace the fact that human cognition is every bit as mechanistic as a thermostat; it’s just much more complicated. Since we already know that “Free Will” doesn’t make sense in the context of thermostats, there’s no need to worry about how to try to make it make sense in the context of humans, either. It’s just another ancient superstition, with no more bearing on reality than Platonic Idealism or Aristotelian Metaphysics…

              even if all three superstitions do superficially resemble the everyday world to a naïve approximation. We treat paper as flat and draw figures on it; your cup stops sliding across the table when you stop pushing on it; and your inability to predict your own future actions makes it feel like anything imaginable is possible (even though exactly one future, imagined or otherwise, will actually manifest).




              • reasonshark
                Posted June 8, 2017 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

                It’s the old “You can have any colour car you want, so long as it’s black” problem. You can have any flavour of free will or choice you want, so long as you do, only and exactly, what determinism tells you to do anyway.

              • Vaal
                Posted June 8, 2017 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

                But, reasonshark, that’s not a correct characterization of the debate.

                Take determinism as a given.

                The debate is whether our typical notions of “free choice,” our deliberations on those choices and thoughts of “could do otherwise” are compatible with determinism.

                And…they are. In fact, given determinism, they would have to have evolved to be compatible with determinism, in some large degree.

                One may as well complain “the only version of ice skating you can have is the one compatible with physics.”

                Well…yeah. It’s not surprising it worked out that way.

              • Posted June 8, 2017 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

                …and we again wind up with thermostats having “Free Will.” Sorry, but nobody but compatibilists (and, even then, only a subset thereof) think that “Free Will” is a plausible property of a thermostat, even in degree.




              • Posted June 8, 2017 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

                Most compatibilists I’ve read acknowledge that any sufficiently complex agent has free will, to one degree or another. Animals and autopilots included.

                It is categorization, but it’s not predicated on insisting humans must occupy their own special category.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted June 8, 2017 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

            Here’s Jerry writing in 2011:

            I regard these conceptions of free will as attempts to evade the depressing fact that we really don’t make choices

            Sounds like a denial to me.

          • reasonshark
            Posted June 8, 2017 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

            “No sane person has ever denied that we make choices”.

            Wsy to poison the well.

            In fact, I do deny that there is any such thing as a choice. Nobody alive or dead ever chose a single thing. People saw things, detected things, deduced things, reasoned things, believed things, wanted things, didn’t want things, stalled between different desires for different things, and then did things or refrained from doing things. Nowhere in there was there ever a choice.

            Complex as it is, there’s one journey there with one starting point and one destination. The possible sidepaths we imagine? They exist only in our imagination, i.e. they don’t exist. They’re predictions that are false. These contracausal fantasies lead to the bizarre concept of the “choice”, that these possibilities really do exist until we do something to realize one, whereupon they don’t. The mistake is to imbue a hypothetical with some degree of reality, but then it’s in contradiction to reality.

            Or to put it bluntly, “choice” and “free will” have the same problem of contradiction.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted June 8, 2017 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

              “Complex as it is, there’s one journey there with one starting point and one destination.”

              This is far from established even at the level of pure physics. Maybe the microphysics is ultimately deterministic, with only one possible outcome (Bohmian QM), or maybe it isn’t (Copenhagen). Maybe it’s deterministic in such a way that multiple outcomes are physically realized (Everettian QM).

              This is where I think (some) hard determinists do themselves no favors by making an a priori ideological commitment with regard to what is ultimately an empirical question.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted June 8, 2017 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

                Pardon the borked italics.

              • reasonshark
                Posted June 8, 2017 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

                The multiverse doesn’t resolve the problem one jot.

                Let’s say there is a universe in which I ask for chocolate cake, and let’s say there is another universe in which “I” ask for ice cream. I sit down and eat chocolate cake while “I” sit down and eat ice cream. How come I don’t taste ice cream, and how come “I” don’t taste chocolate cake? Even if I was toying with the idea of eating ice cream, I’m not eating it: “I” am.

                If there’s something here, you haven’t spelled it out. Please explain what, exactly, your argument is.

              • reasonshark
                Posted June 8, 2017 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

                By the way, it’s not the QM I dispute. I’m happily a strict pessimistic incompatibilist myself, meaning I regard determinism as an incomplete account of reality as a whole, but true for the vast majority of phenomena we experience in day-to-day life.

                What I dispute is the non-sequitur way you’re using it in the current discussion.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted June 8, 2017 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

                My point is that you made factual claims that are empirically unsupported and physically dubious, e.g. that one starting point leads to only one destination, and that alternative paths don’t exist. To the extent that your argument rests on these claims, it’s a flawed argument. My advice would be to restate your case (if you can) without reliance on single-outcome determinism.

                If you consider that a non sequitur, feel free to keep using the same flawed argument.

              • reasonshark
                Posted June 8, 2017 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

                “My point is that you made factual claims that are empirically unsupported and physically dubious”

                Empirically unsupported? Even allowing for multiple pathways, you’ve still got a problem. If I taste chocolate cake and not ice cream, then there is one path, and the alternative “I” eating ice cream is on another path, no more to the point than, say, a random German in a German restaurant eating a dessert of their own would be. The “I” is basically a twin. If they aren’t and they’re somehow still I, then please explain why I don’t taste ice cream.

                “e.g. that one starting point leads to only one destination, and that alternative paths don’t exist.”

                I’m not saying the universe can’t branch. I’m saying I only have one series of branches. So same query as above.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted June 8, 2017 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

                “I’m not saying the universe can’t branch.”

                You gave a very convincing impression of saying that, and it’s the sort of thing hard determinists here say fairly often. Sorry if I misinterpreted.

              • reasonshark
                Posted June 8, 2017 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

                More to the point, how would branching quantum universes have anything to do with hypotheticals that aren’t realized?

            • Posted June 8, 2017 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

              We put similar things of varying complexity in different categories all the time. There are huts and there are palaces. Both are essentially constructions designed for habitation. But there is a meaningful and useful distinction between “hut” and “palace”.

        • josh
          Posted June 8, 2017 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

          “If you search this site you’ll find many instances where Jerry and other self-identified incompatibilists explicitly assert that choice doesn’t exist…”

          Then I likewise chastise Jerry for speaking unclearly. I think it is straightforward to say that choice is a selection from multiple recognized option. That selection is made according to mechanistic rules, just as a chess program chooses its moves. Similarly, we clearly have will, i.e. a desire or intention towards specific outcomes among considered possibilities. What we don’t have is free choice and free will. The word “free” there is generally incoherent and even under compatibilist redefinitions never seems to add anything useful.

    • eric
      Posted June 8, 2017 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

      You’ll have to explain that one to me. AFAIK there are no incompatibilists walking around saying “let me show you a choice…” and then showing the subject something nobody vernacularly considers a choice.

      Rather, incompatibilists would say “i can’t show you a choice/dinosaur” and that would be it. Fully consistent, albeit disappointing to those hoping for more.

      • Posted June 10, 2017 at 11:56 am | Permalink

        I guess the idea is, incompatibilists would say “let me show you a non-choice” and then exhibit a guy in an ice cream store mulling over the flavors and then ordering one.

  4. Posted June 8, 2017 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    To me, being an incompatibilist(?) is more like being upset that even though we now know that bubonic plague is spread/caused by a bacteria and not miasma, we still continue to call it the same thing.

    The “symptoms” of free will haven’t changed, just the silly pre-scientific ideas about the underlying phenomena.

    People fixate on this weird, “could I go back in time and do something different” kind of scenario, but that never comes up. Why should time travel matter when coming up with a legal system?

    When we say “do we have free will?” what matters is what happens in our actual lives, and compatibilism doesn’t change that. The fact that people in the past looked to supernatural explanations isn’t surprising, but it’s no longer necessary and shouldn’t stop us from updating our explanation given what we know now about the world.

    • Vaal
      Posted June 8, 2017 at 8:56 am | Permalink

      Another analogy could be made to the concept of “solid.”

      It can certainly be acknowledged that we tend to have the impression that solid things – desks, rocks etc – are fully contiguous matter, as in no space whatsoever in there.

      However, we can point out that scientifically, the atoms that make up solid objects is, in a sense, “mostly empty space” – described by particle charges, quantum mechanics etc.

      In that way PART of the folk or naive impression of solidity is an “illusion.”

      But the term and concept of “solidity” that we were starting out to describe comes from our everyday experience, and it’s still completely valid in describing the everyday things the term arose to describe.

      In other words, though there is in some sense some “illusion” involved in the solidity of objects, a more specific and nuanced (scientific) understanding does not “explain away” solidity. Atoms are still in different formations that have results that need description at our level, and going down to the atomic (or molecular etc) level helps us understand solidity. Solidity remains a useful concept and instead of going away as “an illusion” we gain a deeper understanding of “what it means to be solid.”

      If I tell you the water is frozen solid, or the door or rock is solid, and you say “No it’s not REALLY solid, it’s mostly empty space at the atomic level so we really have to get people to stop thinking things are ‘solid'” my reply, like anyone else would be:

      “Yeah…but that’s not what I mean.”

      I’m not referring to the atomic level, I’m using the term as we all do to refer to differences in matter that need describing and no one is trying to describe the atomic level when they normally use that concept. Solidity as we normally apply the term really dos describe the difference between a door and water, and water and ice, etc

      That’s why when you look at the dictionary, it says:


      1. firm and stable in shape; not liquid or fluid.

      “The stream was frozen solid”

      synonyms:hard, rock-hard, rigid, firm, solidified, set, frozen, concrete
      “the ice cream was solid”

      2. Not hollow or containing spaces or gaps.
      “a sculpture made out of solid rock”

      • Posted June 12, 2017 at 5:39 am | Permalink

        Spot on Vaal!
        What you are saying in essence is that most argument against free will is far too reductionist – expressed at levels far below where the phenomenon takes place. Free will is an emergent property arising from very advanced and unique human cognitive capabilities. You can not apply the argument “a neuron has no free will, so a human mind cannot have free will”. The question actually needs to be addressed relating to the properties at the level that these capabilities emerge. These include the human constructs the human mind deals with at this level – VALUE, PRIORITY, SAFETY, BEAUTY, FAIRNESS etc. etc. The computational capabilities at this level of cognition also emerges to be much higher than function found in raw logic gates – e.g. associative memory, learning, language, abstraction etc. We must define the function of free will within this advanced level of processing and in relation to these other human constructs existing at this level. The compatibilist view of things here is not only coherent, it is absolutely appropriate in describing the human agency found.

        • Posted June 12, 2017 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

          Excellent comment, Howie! Even I could understand it and I agree wholeheartedly.

      • reasonshark
        Posted June 12, 2017 at 11:31 am | Permalink

        The trouble I have with that analogy is twofold. Firstly, there are two senses of the term “solid” being used. One indicates substantiality (i.e. a block of ice, a liquid body or even gas particles, versus a ghost or a hologram). The other actually is a recognized scientific term for a state of matter, which would exclude the liquid body and the gas particles. The former is a result of the repulsion of two atomically constructed bodies, repelling each other by the electromagnetic charges of the outer shells of the electrons. That’s why, say, chairs can’t pass through tables but neutrinos can. The latter depends on both the atomic-to-molecular structure of the object and on the heat energy present in the current system’s conditions, which is why ice melts at room temperature but iron doesn’t. Jumbling the two here confuses your point, because they both stem from different causes.

        Secondly, that the guy trying to point out the microscopic features that make the solid what it is… is actually correct. The repulsion of electrons on the outer shells of atoms IS the reason why we can’t pass through walls. Sure, we can ignore it in some circumstances as a matter of pragmatism, but when it comes time to explain the phenomenon, it absolutely has to be dragged in, because that’s what explaining means. And in a situation where people posit bizarre ideas or act upon irrational feelings – such as those surrounding the concept of ghosts – then a little knowledge on the frontline is essential to point out the problems with such concepts.

        And myself, I think people would be that bit smarter if they were generally more familiar with the findings of science, such as – in this case – physics and chemistry.

    • josh
      Posted June 8, 2017 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      “Free will” isn’t an observation in need of an explanation, it is a non-observed phenomenon, like a ghost. The fact that some people might believe in ghosts is not a good reason to insist that ghost “really” means “Old Farmer Brown with some phosphorous and a sheet”.

      • Sastra
        Posted June 8, 2017 at 11:16 am | Permalink

        If you ask someone to give an example of a “ghost,” they’ll probably either give an example from fiction (“Caspar”) or a dubious allegation of the paranormal (Anne Boleyn “haunting” a castle, or their sister seeing Grandma after Grandma died.)

        Ask someone to give an example of “free will” however and they almost always bring up something obvious and mundane: their choice on what college to go to or their decision to reject the fish special even though the waiter was really pushing it.

        So the analogy doesn’t work.

        • Ralph
          Posted June 8, 2017 at 11:40 am | Permalink

          The point is that “free will” (to anyone but a compatibilist) is the notion that we “could have chosen otherwise” in precisely identical circumstances; that our brains could compute a different output from precisely the same input. And THAT is clearly not an observed phenomenon.

          • Ralph
            Posted June 8, 2017 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

            ETA: There is clearly a very strong mental ILLUSION that we “could have done otherwise”. That illusion is the ghost, if you like, because when you reflect on it, that illusion is not backed up by any evidence whatsoever. We only experience history one time, so we cannot really know that we could have done otherwise. There is the phenomenon of choice (explained as computation), but there is no phenomenon of “free will” to explain.

            • Alric
              Posted June 8, 2017 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

              Except that many different brains, presumably with similar anatomic configuration, do make different choices all the time.

              The same brain can even make different choices for the same question. Think of what ice cream you prefer right now, as opposed to some other time.

              • Ralph
                Posted June 8, 2017 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

                Obviously I was not claiming that all brains are the same. Conventional spooky free will is the notion that a brain in the exact same internal configuration, given the exact same data input, “could have done otherwise”.

              • Posted June 8, 2017 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

                The same brain can even make different choices for the same question.

                Thing is…it’s not the same brain.

                Is your brain the same today as it was when you were an infant? Clearly not. Is it the same as it will be the day after you die? Again, no. In exactly the same way, it’s a different brain this instant from the one when you started reading this note — though the differences are trivial in comparison to the other examples.

                Yet is is those differences that are most immediately responsible for the different choices those different brains make.

                I should hasten to add: it is very useful to consider your brain a single Platonically-ideally-consistent entity across long periods of time, perhaps even from some point in gestation through the hour of cremation. Similarly, it isn’t especially useful, generally, to treat your brain at this email as different from your brain at the start of this email…except that that actually is the case, and it is useful to understand it as such in this particular context.




          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted June 8, 2017 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

            “free will” (to anyone but a compatibilist) is the notion that we “could have chosen otherwise” in precisely identical circumstances

            I’d like to see some empirical evidence for this claim. My suspicion is that most people never entertain the notion of doing otherwise “in precisely identical circumstances”. Certainly when people say things like “the exact same thing happened to me”, they’re not talking about “precisely identical circumstances”. So why should we assume that’s what they mean when they say they could have done otherwise?

            • Posted June 8, 2017 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

              I’d like to see some empirical evidence for this claim. My suspicion is that most people never entertain the notion of doing otherwise “in precisely identical circumstances”.

              Never hear of a “do-over”? Never even said to yourself, “If I had it all to do over again, I’d do something different”? Never seen a time travel movie in which somebody gives advice to a younger version of the same character? Never uttered the phrase, “I wish I hadn’t don’t that”?

              Quite the contrary to your assertion, “rewind the clock” and similar constructs are rampant in everyday conversation. It’s rather hard to imagine life without such.




              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted June 8, 2017 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

                Ben, none of your examples refutes my point.

                “If I had it all to do over again, knowing what I know now, I’d do something different.”

                The time traveler’s advice is likewise an example of introducing new information to the decision process.

                And wishing I hadn’t done that is a claim that I should have done differently (in 20/20 hindsight), not that I could have or would have done differently in the moment.

              • Posted June 8, 2017 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

                Gregory and Vaal, you’re overlooking that “do-over” also makes just as much sense without your “…if things were different” layers if you assume, as most do, a dualistic soul in control of the process. Of course you’d do better if you knew better — nobody argues that, it’s so obvious. “Free Will” is meant to convey the idea that you could have done different even without knowing better.

                Yes, it’s magic; no, it doesn’t make sense if you drill down hard enough.

                But the exact same objection applies to the divine, and yet belief in the divine probably tops belief in “Free Will.”

                Your adding the “…if things were different” layer to “Free Will” here is no different from theistic evolution. Both take something already disproved and try to paper it over with a veneer of the uncontroversial.




              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted June 8, 2017 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

                Ben, if our interpretation of “if I had it to do over again” is the obvious one, then it seems to me the burden is on you to demonstrate that what people really mean when they say that is something else.

                Even if it’s true that most people are dualists, it doesn’t follow that everything they say must be interpreted through a dualist lens when there are perfectly obvious and reasonable non-dualist interpretations available.

              • Posted June 8, 2017 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

                That burden is trivially met with the dictionary definition of the term, “free will”: “the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion.”

                That being the literal definition, “do-over” makes equally as much sense without the necessity of “…had circumstances been different.” If you require different circumstances to act otherwise, that right there is your constraint of necessity.




              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted June 8, 2017 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

                Ben, I don’t see how the dictionary helps. The question is whether “if I had it to do over again” necessarily involves any claim about free will. I don’t think it does; I think it’s like saying “If I run the program again on this new data, I’ll get a different answer.” Nothing you’ve said convinces me I’m wrong to interpret it that way.

                Have to run now; busy schedule this afternoon.

              • Vaal
                Posted June 8, 2017 at 2:39 pm | Permalink


                First, the suggestion of “doing it all over again” does not inherently mean “everything precisely the same.” It can’t – it’s always talking of some level of variable and the obvious variable would be the person’s desires and goals. They picture themselves
                being able to be in the same circumstance, but “If I had different desires.” That’s the normal implication of “could do otherwise” – I could have done X IF I wanted to.

                More important, the idea of how you seem to think we are reasoning about our choices just doesn’t hold up in explaining how, most of the time, we think about possibilities and choices.

                Take John who is a marathon runner. He has run plenty of 20K marathons. You ask John “Could you run the upcoming 20K marathon on Saturday?”

                John answers “Yes.”

                What thinking will be behind John’s answer? Obviously he will not be appealing to some single fixed time in the universe; he will be drawing on various past experiences over time (running marathons) from which to infer he is capable of running the marathon. Answering “Yes I could run that marathon” is a simple, everyday expression of his powers to do such a thing.

                If John was currently nursing a broken leg, his answer will be “no, I couldn’t run that marathon” The obvious variable there is John’s evaluation of his physical capabilities in the situation of running a marathon. It isn’t some metaphysical musings on what can be done in a single state of the universe.

                So John (when healthy) says he “could” run in the upcoming marathon. The day after the marathon this will simply switch to “I could HAVE run in the marathon.” It’s just the same expression of his capability to run marathons as his statement was before the marathon.

                That’s typically what we mean by, and how we think of “Could do X or Y” and “Could HAVE done X or Y.”

                Contrary to what you claimed, it would be impossible for us to navigate reality if our notion of choices, possibilities, “could do/done” were ruled invalid because they must be possible “in one time in one state of the universe.” It’s not just that we don’t think the way you suggest; we literally could not.

              • Vaal
                Posted June 8, 2017 at 4:19 pm | Permalink


                Once again: as Gregory brought up, we are debating the claim whether, in ordinary discourse and reasoning, people talk of possible courses of action – “could do” or “could have” – via appeal to contra-causal power. As my marathon example points out, that makes no sense. It can’t make sense.
                Your position simply can’t explain what it needs to explain.

                Since we are talking about common notions of “possibilities” whatever theory you propose has to explain and make sense of the reasoning people are using for those conclusions.

                You simply can not explain people’s notions of ‘I can choose between doing X or Y” or ” I could HAVE done X or Y’ by appealing strictly to “I’m a contra-causal agent” or “Could do so in precisely the same time/circumstances.”

                That just can’t explain the actual lines of inference anyone takes to making choices.
                If you ask someone why they chose to go to one university over the other, the answer can not be “because I’m a contra-causal being.” That doesn’t answer the question either for you, nor could it have answered the question FOR THEM when they were deliberating about that choice. They HAD to be thinking of “choice” along the lines of “I’m drawing inferences of what I’m capable of from multiple similar experiences in the past, to predict the kind of things I’m capable of in the future” and weighing their desires, with inferences of which desires they are capable of fulfilling. Our thinking is NECESSARILY along these lines, an appeal to understanding ourselves through time, NOT “what we can do in frozen states of time/causes.”

                You didn’t really answer my marathon runner example at all, to show where the reasoning is unsound.

                Again…at the moment we are discussing not exactly “what is free will” but “what do people normally mean when they think they are capable of taking different possible actions, or could have taken possible actions?”

                Getting a grip on that leads us to whether a notion of free will violates the everyday understanding of “could do otherwise” or not.

              • Posted June 8, 2017 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

                Vaal, the most charitable formulation I can possibly come up with for your form of compatibilism is that it’s a reification of ignorance.

                We already know that, given the current (or any) state of the Universe and the rules by which it operates (which have yet to be fully understood, but are nevertheless complete over the domain of human-scale phenomena), the entire past and future can be known. But there’re some glaring impracticalities with making such a determination — not the least of which involves the absurdity of recursively recreating the whole from a minuscule subset of the parts.

                So, for you, the future is unknown and unknowable; thus, it “feels like” all sorts of things you might care to imagine could realistically come to pass. But with a bit more knowledge, you could rule out some of those possibilities…and, with more and more knowledge, you can rule out more and more of those possibilities.

                It is, after all, to use the other example in the thread, just barely within the realm of credibly-imaginable possibility that I could order red-hot coals for dessert tonight, or vanilla ice cream or chocolate cake. But a good Bayesian would put negligible odds on the coals, and one with more knowledge of my dinner plans (that include the remaining third of a cantaloupe in the ‘fridge) would put barely higher odds on the ice cream and cake.

                The same applies to all events in every lifetime of every human. You might not know whom you’ll marry when you’re a child, or even if you’ll marry — yet that’s a matter of your own ignorance; that you will or won’t and to whom is as inevitable as a pebble’s final resting place at the bottom of a landslide, even though that, too, is a practical impossibility to predict.




              • Vaal
                Posted June 8, 2017 at 5:07 pm | Permalink


                Your replies just keep begging the question.
                They only make sense if you assume that talk of capabilities, possibilities etc concern one point in time. But they don’t, they are abstractions THROUGH time.

                I wish you would grapple with the type of abstractions that are built in to our thinking; abstractions that are not “errors” or “illusions” but are rather the type of cognitive tools entities like us would have to have, to understand empirical experience through time.

                As I have often pointed out, if I ask you to tell me about yourself, you will most likely, like most people, tell me different things you’ve done or like to do. You can not convey this information, or build this model of yourself, if your understanding was restricted to one experience at one time only. The only way you understand yourself is of a collection of experiences through time, and noting what you have been capable of in similar and different situations, which informs your reasoning when making the next decision.

                Once you realise this, then your objections miss the point. To say “I could run a 10K marathon or go rock climbing” is born on this conceptual reasoning of “me” over time and placing “me” in hypothetical situations to understand what I’m capable of.
                Over time…over time!

                If I say last week I ran a marathon but I could have gone rock climbing” is just a normal extrapolation of “me over time and what I’ve been capable of.”

                The past is fixed, so this “knowledge” problem you raise is already in place – we know the choices we made and for any single point in time, we could not have done otherwise. But that is NOT the type of conceptualizing that normally goes on when reasoning. It is still the case that taking all those DIFFERENT fixed experiences over time together gives a picture of “what I was capable of doing.” “I could rock climb, I could go running…”

                Could I rock climb and run a marathon AT THE EXACT SAME TIME, every cause being the same? Of course not. That’s not what I would mean, so pointing out that at any SINGLE time the outcome would be one thing – e.g. rock climbing – is utterly missing the point that
                the reference to our capabilities aren’t derived from that claim in the first place!

                Anyway, here we are in the same circles again. I think I’m outta here. Cheers!

              • Posted June 8, 2017 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

                Vaal, can we agree that Aristotelian Metaphysics is simultaneously long-abandoned primitive superstition and a not-perfectly-miserable superficial approximation of human-scale phenomena? After all, your cup only slides across the table so long as you keep pushing on it — exactly as Aristotle predicts.

                If we can agree on those two points, we should be able to similarly agree that “Free Will” has exactly as much bearing on reality as Metaphysics, and yet it’s trivial to come up with examples that superficially aren’t exactly inconsistent with the notion.

                Once you understand inertia and friction, repeated demonstrations of the cup stopping to slide are irrelevant distractions; that’s not how nature actually words. Once you understand determinism, repeated demonstrations of a personal ignorance of the future are irrelevant distractions; that’s not how nature actually works.





              • Vaal
                Posted June 8, 2017 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

                I wasn’t referencing Aristotelian metaphysics. I was describing how we conceive of ourselves through time.

                Do you think you can give an adequate description of yourself, and what anyone ought to expect you can do, by reference to one micro-section of time, all causes the same?

                Be my guest if you can.

                If you can not, then my point stands and it has the implications I say it does for how we reason through time.

          • Posted June 8, 2017 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

            If Free Will has no impact on our actual lives, then what does it matter, and why do we talk about it? Jerry has argued that the nonexistence of Free Will should lead to changes in our Justice system, so it seems like at least he disagrees with you.

            Also, I very much doubt most people would define Free Will that way.

            • Ralph
              Posted June 8, 2017 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

              That’s a non-sequitur to what I wrote. The BELIEF in this ghost of free will influences our lives, inasmuch as it’s intrinsic to many religions, it informs our intuitive moral sense and it’s a basic principle underlying our formal criminal justice system. So a realization that this belief is unfounded, that free will does not exist, certainly has strong implications for our lives.

          • Sastra
            Posted June 8, 2017 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

            My point is that what people mean by “free will” is a large and varied bundle of things, ranging from spooky action from a skyhook (“we could have chosen otherwise in precisely identical circumstances”) to choosing in accordance with one’s desires to lack of physical constraint to not being a mentally empty programed robot. The average person is hard put to distinguish what they mean by “free will” and just plain old “will” or intention.

            • Ralph
              Posted June 8, 2017 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

              No, I think this is obfuscation. Many people have not thought the issue through, but I think if you probe a little it’s perfectly clear that almost everyone means something contra-causal. Find an example of a choice that they made, and ask them if they agree that the only way that they could possibly have chosen differently would have been if they had different knowledge or information at the time of the choice.

        • josh
          Posted June 8, 2017 at 5:07 pm | Permalink


          You are confusing a choice, of which we have uncontroversial examples, with free will, which is an unobserved supposed property of those choices. As has been pointed out elsewhere, we also know that birds and machines make choices, but most people would not claim these have free will.

          • Sastra
            Posted June 8, 2017 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

            I think most people who believe in libertarian free will do confuse the explanation with the phenomenon being explained, placing both into the category they call “free will.” And most people would also say a bird has more “free will” than a machine.

            It’s like when a purpose FOR human life is mixed up with the purposes IN human life, with the result being a belief that, without God, our lives have no purpose and there’s no reason to do anything : a ‘consistent’ atheist would commit suicide. Most of us don’t respond by agreeing; we patiently tease apart those different meanings of purpose.” Just because we don’t have the supernatural one doesn’t entail that our goals aren’t goals given Naturalism. We’re Purpose Compatibilsts.

            • Posted June 8, 2017 at 10:22 pm | Permalink


            • josh
              Posted June 9, 2017 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

              “And most people would also say a bird has more “free will” than a machine.”

              I strongly disagree. People traditionally believe free will is a property specific to human choices. In fact no one (outside of compatibilist redefiners) has traditionally asked “How much free will do I have today”. It’s considered a binary question, ‘do we have free will?’.

              Moreover, the argument I’m making isn’t about natural or supernatural, it’s about coherent vs incoherent. If you want to tease apart meanings, then I’d ask you to recognize that a phrase like “did you do it of your own free will” is simply not the same question as “do we have free will”. The former is problematic
              idiom but may retain a useful kernel. The latter is the question salient to the libertarian/determinist divide.

        • eric
          Posted June 8, 2017 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

          Theists and spiritual people will bring up obvious and mundane coincidences as examples of Godly miracles (or karma, or whatever). Seems to me compatibilists are just doing the same. If Bobby’s phone call right when you were thinking of Bobby isn’t evidence of anything, then Bobby’s decision to call you isn’t evidence of anything either.

          • Sastra
            Posted June 9, 2017 at 7:56 am | Permalink

            Bobby’s “decision” is evidence of a decision. The concept of Free Will involves both the decision and its cause — with the decision being the most important aspect because it’s the one we constantly experience, the phenomenon we’re all explaining. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to tease apart cause and effect and recognize that Free Will could be based on determinism OR supernatural transcendence — and that second one makes no sense.

            I think the whole dispute between determinism and compatibilism is more or less a matter of how we group concepts, and what term we use for them. If you think “Free Will” is intrinsically supernatural in origin and meaning — like “soul,” “spirit,” “God,” or “religion” — then compatibilism will look and sound like an accommodationist strategy in which an atheist tries to make themselves more acceptable by arguing that atheism is a religion, God is nature, spirituality is awe and wonder, etc. In other words, a hopeful cheat. It confuses people.

            But if you see the concept of Free Will as meaning the experience of choice and the facts behind this, then there’s no necessary conflict between Free Will and Determinism. Determinism can explain Free Will. So could Libertarian Supernaturalism, in theory. “Free Will” is thus in the same category as “consciousness,” “mind,” “love,” ” purpose,” and “meaning.” Just because there’s a tradition of assuming that all those things are evidence of the supernatural doesn’t mean they’re supernatural concepts. No, they’re empirical facts which shouldn’t be denied in order to explain their natural foundations. Doing so is confusing.

            • GBJames
              Posted June 9, 2017 at 8:32 am | Permalink

              I don’t think anyone is denying the experience of free will. The dispute seems to be over the utility of the concept to describe something beyond illusion.

              • Sastra
                Posted June 9, 2017 at 8:51 am | Permalink

                I think the dispute comes down to “We experience Free Will — and here’s the best explanation for it ” vs. “We experience what seems like“Free Will” — but it’s not.”

                To me, it’s similar to “Our self-identity and thoughts are products of our brains” vs. “There is no “self,” “we” do not “have thoughts” — it’s all illusion created by brains.” Those sentences are basically saying the same thing (mind/brain.) They’re both naturalistic. But those who choose one way of putting it will think those who have chosen the other way of putting it have fallen into a fuzzy trap, and their vulnerability will now be exploited by the mind-is-magic Skyhook People.

  5. Aaron S.
    Posted June 8, 2017 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    On SMBC comics, make sure you click the red “votey” button at the bottom, and mouseover the comic to get extra jokes. The “votey” says, “Shame on you, stick figure Daniel Dennett.” And the mouseover says, “No, I’m just kidding. You, individual primate of planet Earth, can violate causality itself.”

  6. Posted June 8, 2017 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    I find compatibilism a worthwhile way of talking about how complex conscious agents operate, but I like the free will posts. The arguments are great. I find them very interesting to read. I don’t see any need for the arguments to be acrimonious.

    • darrelle
      Posted June 8, 2017 at 8:43 am | Permalink

      Yes, what you said.

  7. Danny Kodicek
    Posted June 8, 2017 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    What I like about compatibilism is that it treats free will not as a mystery but as a datum in need of explanation: Why does it *feel like* we have free will?

    In that respect it just seems like good science. If you want to use science to explain a phenomenon, it has to be the case that your theory doesn’t invoke the properties you’re trying to explain.

    You can’t explain colour by invoking coloured atoms. You can’t explain life by invoking life energy. And you can’t explain free will by invoking non-deterministic souls. Those kinds of explanations just kick the problem up the road. So compatibilism is exactly the kind of theory we should be looking for as a scientific approach to the free will question: free will *should* break down to non-free subcomponents, just as life breaks down to chemical subcomponents and colour breaks down to electromagnetic subcomponents.

    • Posted June 8, 2017 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      “Why does it *feel like* we have free will?”

      Can an Excel program determine which bits in the physical memory a cell’s number is located in?

      Can the conscious algorithm of the brain ‘feel’ the individual neurons firing?

      The conscious mind ‘feels’ free – free from, independent of, the phsyical processes of the brain, which is what ‘free will’ of the ‘mind’ was based on; and why ‘physiclaism’ is the notion that the ‘mind’ is caused by physical processes.

      That we can’t personally and subjectively experience the detailed physicality is why we have the illusion of the ‘mind’ being free from physical causes – thoughts and decisions do seem to appear free of such causes, we just have them, with no real prior cause apparent.

      That’s the sense in which the religious soul-mind, of the philosophical ‘mind’ are illusions.

      But compatibilists insist free will is not an illusion – because they also insist that in such discussions their definition of free will is being used, which is not the ‘spiritual’ free will.

      But they know full well that the incompatibilists are talking about the free will that we feel is free of physical causation.

      There really is a bait and switch going on with compatibilism in this specific case. Otherwise they’d say, yes, the free will that seems free of phsyical causes, the free will attrivbutable to some non-physical process, is indeed illusory … but our free will is not illusory.

      It always begs the question of what the will is then free of, if a compatibilists is still a determinist. The equivocation is switched from free will to ‘choice’ – but then what is choice in a deterministic world?

      • Danny Kodicek
        Posted June 8, 2017 at 11:17 am | Permalink

        In a deterministic world, ‘choice’ means the ability to compute possible future outcomes of different actions and act on the one that has the highest utility. A computer can absolutely make a choice in that sense – Dennett often uses the example of a chess-playing program.

        ‘Free will’ is nothing more or less than that. We’re unusually good at computing the future, so we’re better at making choices than other animals, which gives us a major advantage over them. We also use other devices like gossip and storytelling to learn from other people’s experiences, both real and fictional.

        • reasonshark
          Posted June 8, 2017 at 11:59 am | Permalink

          “In a deterministic world, ‘choice’ means the ability to compute possible future outcomes of different actions and act on the one that has the highest utility.”

          Unfortunately for this claim, in a non-theistic world, “god” means “the universe” or “love” or “consciousness” or “transcendence”. And in both cases, there’s the distinctive smell of rat in the air, especially when both “atheism” and “determinism” are often words with negative connotations for a lot of people.

          Like accommodationism, compatibilism is an open invitation for confusion.

          • Vaal
            Posted June 8, 2017 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

            Like accommodationism, compatibilism is an open invitation for confusion.

            Like telling people they have “no real choice?”

            And “can’t really do otherwise?”

            But still going on to talk to people as if we have choice and can do otherwise?

            That type of confusion 😉

    • eric
      Posted June 8, 2017 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

      What does the ‘theory of compatibilism’ add? You seem to be arguing that research into how the brain produces mind is worthwhile. I totally agree. But I don’t think compatibilism per se adds a reason to do it.

      And your idea of will as an emergent phenomena is also reasonable…but also not anything we need compatibilism per se to investigate. ‘Compatibilist free will’ seems almost to be a concept without a referent at this point. There is nothing extra or different that it adds to the incompatibilist view of mind emerging from neurons.

      • Danny Kodicek
        Posted June 9, 2017 at 7:46 am | Permalink

        Well, I might be overstating the need for a ‘theory of compatibilism’, all I mean is that the experience of free will is one of the facts that a successful theory of consciousness has to explain, and compatibilism attempts to do so without discarding the fundamental principles of materialist science.

      • Posted June 10, 2017 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

        It’s a little more specific than researching how the brain produces mind. It’s about how the brain produces agency.

  8. reasonshark
    Posted June 8, 2017 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    “Closest living descendants”? Shouldn’t it be either “closest living relatives” or “living descendants”? I think the comic-writer is confused.

    • Danny Kodicek
      Posted June 8, 2017 at 9:11 am | Permalink

      I guess if you were talking about number of generations, you could be a ‘closest living descendant’ – but I don’t imagine that’s true of pigeons, more likely albatrosses or some other long-lived bird.

  9. Posted June 8, 2017 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    That’s the canard that we compatibilists were engaging in mere wordplay. I put to you that it is rather the other way around: the incompatibilists still talk about “choice”, decisions, and wanting something over something else, and they still see a difference between force at gunpoint and “voluntary” action. But if we took incompatibilism seriously, there would be none of this: only patterns remain that wash though reality, and through your neural networks.

    There is a subtle difference to another argument, that incompatibilsm meant we could abandon laws and everything else — but this is false, for all of this is part of the patterns and chain reactions. I am not making that argument.

    However, the flipside is that those become “necessary illusions” along with concepts of choice, decisions, consent, force and suchlike — a incompatibilist cannot complain about the redefinition or wordplays when it is inevietable in any scenario. The fact of the matter is that human faculties did not evolve to deal with watching passively a giant (in the original sense) awesome machine of nature computing. We will at all times view ourselves as active participants and for that, no matter what, we will have language and conceptions that are essentially illusions and tricks to make sense of it all — the incompatibilists included.

    Assuming a “free will” — all things considered — is the most parsimonous and elegant of solutions. I suspect, that incompatibilists exactly don’t want that: they prefer a shiny, counterintuitive take, which is politically perhaps more effective. It’s an act, a political stance the incompatibilists assumes for the duration of their discourse. Then they go out for lunch and “choose” something from the menu.

    And this is my argument for compatibilism.

    • Sastra
      Posted June 8, 2017 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      Someone once said something like “If something is an “illusion” that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not real; it just means it’s not necessarily what it appears to be on the surface.”

    • darrelle
      Posted June 8, 2017 at 10:31 am | Permalink

      Well, that isn’t anything like what the incompatibilist’s around here say. What they say is pretty clear. They are incompatiblists specifically with respect to contra-causal, magical conceptions of freewill and they think that the word “freewill” is sufficiently associated with those types of conceptions of freewill that it is better to scrap the word along with those magical conceptions of freewill rather than redefine, reform or clarify what the word means.

      Though I’m sure there is plenty of variation among ICs.

      • Posted June 8, 2017 at 11:15 am | Permalink

        Axing the “free” of free will, but continue to use terms like “choice”, “decisions”, “force”, “consent” and the likes is inconsistent and essentially flips the roles around: I can then annoy you guys with what you exactly mean by “choice” etcetera and insist that this term must be axed, too, copying your own reasons.

        Rather, one can acknowledge that we are forever trapped in this reality, or even “worse” in our conception of it, and there is never a wind-back-time-doing-things otherwise scenario.

        My take is embedded in a form of model-dependent realism — it’s a realism (I stress) — but one that keeps a keen eye on our cognition and language, which release tiny and complex models of reality, and keeps them in sync with the “stuff out there” — but only to a degree that evolved in our species. It will always be models, tiny and complex ones, always active maps, rather than a territory.

        Embedded in this discussion, incompatibilism looks like Naive Realism to me. If you really want to leave your body, and assume the view of an objective observer floating outide of reality, then there is not only no free will, but not even a “tree”, “book” or anything you can name and describe. The incompatbilists, worse, mix and match, partly want to go to the bottom of physical reality, no window dressing, but want to deep dive into the abyss with their cognitive snorkel — of course, they cannot get very deep and the endeavour looks rather silly.

        • darrelle
          Posted June 8, 2017 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

          So, ICs accuse you of arguing over semantics and you accuse ICs of arguing over semantics. Yes, I’d say that is pretty accurate.

          This incessant arguing between Cs and ICs starts with an argument over semantics, one word really, and proponents on each side then spin much more elaborate, long chain polymers of rationalizations of what the other sides position on that starting point must lead to and include. Often with much tilt-nosed denigration along the way. And yet both sides almost entirely agree on the actual physical phenomena involved.

          It certainly does seem rather silly at times.

          • reasonshark
            Posted June 8, 2017 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

            I don’t think it is a semantic argument. If the stakes for the word “free will” were so feeble, there certainly wouldn’t be this much argumentation over it. Thus, either C’s are, despite their arguments, really closet libertarians trying to make a square circle, or IC’s are, despite their arguments, really muddled and paranoid fatalists denying the patently obvious. That’s no trivial dispute.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted June 8, 2017 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

              There’s also the possibility that ICs are closet dualists: Something controls my body, but it isn’t me!

              • reasonshark
                Posted June 8, 2017 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

                Assuming the concept of selfhood even makes sense outside of distinguishing this brain from that brain, and assuming “controls” means “causes”, then it’s true that non-me’s caused me to come into being and to exhibit the qualities I do, up to and including the internal feedback mechanisms that “control” or “cause” my later behaviour. Feedback loops, as far as causality is concerned, aren’t special. There isn’t even, theoretically, a need for a history of causality: a random event that prodded the brain into new directions would still be “not-me”.

                The comic you linked to below is – rather tellingly – only really funny if you interpret his determinism as a way to duck responsibility for bad behaviour. Trouble is that the “everyone else is culpable” line is a symptom of the incoherence of self-contradictory free will belief anyway, and this assumes there’s any concept of responsibility to duck (as opposed to more straightforward causation).

        • Zach
          Posted June 8, 2017 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

          I’m tired (from lack of sleep, not from tiresome free will debates), so I’ll admit I had some trouble following all that.

          Thus, I won’t try to address it. I’ll just go ahead and contradict something you said in your initial comment.

          Assuming a “free will” — all things considered — is the most parsimonous and elegant of solutions.

          On the contrary, I believe my view is the most parsimonious and elegant. I’ll take as proof the fact that I can summarize it in two sentences: The entire history of the universe, including everything we do and experience, was written in the initial conditions of the Big Bang. It has unfolded—and will continue to unfold—according to physical laws, in the one and only way it can.

          I guess I’m what most people would call a “determinist.” And, as far as I can tell, the reason more people don’t embrace this view is not because it doesn’t make sense, but because they really, really don’t like it.


          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted June 8, 2017 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

            “…in the one and only way it can.”

            People shouldn’t embrace that view because it’s probably wrong. See my reply to reasonshark here.

            • Zach
              Posted June 8, 2017 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

              <em<This is far from established even at the level of pure physics…

              This is where I think (some) hard determinists do themselves no favors by making an a priori ideological commitment with regard to what is ultimately an empirical question.

              That’s a fair criticism.

              But is it, ultimately, an empirical question? Saying so seems to suppose that it will eventually be settled by empirical investigation. Is quantum physics actually headed in that direction though? Because from my (very limited) understanding of the field as it stands, it seems that the “deeper” we get into it, the less sure we can be about its macro-level significance.

              I read some blog a few months back wherein one of the commenters took an impromptu survey of his physicist colleagues in regards to their favored interpretation, and about half effectively replied, “I’m just doing research. Go away.” Essentially, they were agnostic about it.

              So if there’s room for agnosticism about it, I think there’s room for an “a priori ideological commitment” in one of the possible directions.

              Not that it really matters either way. Whether the future is set or not, it is fundamentally unknowable. I just find the idea that it is set parsimonious and elegant, unlike the idea of infinitely branching universes.

              But again, I’m not a physicist.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted June 9, 2017 at 1:41 am | Permalink

                Is a universe with only one galaxy more parsimonious than a universe with billions of galaxies? No it isn’t, because then you’d have to explain why there’s only one when the laws of physics as we understand them permit billions.

                In the same way, a universe with only one future is not more parsimonious than a universe with many futures if the laws of physics permit many futures and you have to add extra theoretical baggage to prune away all but one of them.

                Note also that the branching structure of the quantum multiverse is just as determined as the single future of the classical Laplacean universe.

                So you can have your parsimony, and your elegance, and your “set” universe, all without committing to a single predetermined future.

                For a thorough treatment, I highly recommend David Wallace’s The Emergent Multiverse.

              • Zach
                Posted June 10, 2017 at 1:48 am | Permalink

                Is a universe with only one galaxy more parsimonious than a universe with billions of galaxies? No it isn’t, because then you’d have to explain why there’s only one when the laws of physics as we understand them permit billions.

                The laws of physics certainly permit billions of galaxies. I would contend that they do not permit an infinite number of galaxies. Was there not a finite number of sub-atomic particles at the inception of the Big Bang?

                Note also that the branching structure of the quantum multiverse is just as determined as the single future of the classical Laplacean universe.

                So you can have your parsimony, and your elegance, and your “set” universe, all without committing to a single predetermined future.

                Yeah… “Infinite number of determined universes” strikes me as an oxymoron.

                But again, I’m not a physicist.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted June 10, 2017 at 2:21 am | Permalink

                “Was there not a finite number of sub-atomic particles at the inception of the Big Bang?”

                Short answer: nobody knows. There are a finite number of particles in our past light cone, but that’s not the whole universe, and we don’t know how big the rest of it is. For all we know it could be infinitely large, and cosmologists often model it that way.

          • Posted June 8, 2017 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

            The entire history of the universe, including everything we do and experience, was written in the initial conditions of the Big Bang. It has unfolded—and will continue to unfold—according to physical laws, in the one and only way it can.

            Ever since Laplace’s reformulation of Newton, the operating fundamental principle in all of physics has been that, given the rules of a system and its state at a given moment in time, its entire past and future of the system can be determined. Physicists now refer to this concept as “information.” It is not yet known if information is conserved at the event horizon of a black hole, but that and the Big Bang are the only yet known instances where information might not be conserved. Neither case is even remotely applicable to human cognition, save in the very distantly-related sense that physicists and others have thoughts about such things.

            That being the case, there’s no more sense to pretending that humans are “outside” the causal flow of nature than there is to pretending that we can levitate or bend spoons with our mind.




    • Zach
      Posted June 8, 2017 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      Disclaimer: I personally find free-will debates tiresome, and to this day think Hitchens had the best answer to the question: “Yeah, I think we have free will. We have no choice.”

      I just wanted to note something funny. What I would have wrote to rebut your claim that incompatiblists are engaging in wordplay when they talk about “choices” and “decisions”… you actually wrote (and probably better than I would have) further down:

      The fact of the matter is that human faculties did not evolve to deal with watching passively a giant (in the original sense) awesome machine of nature computing. We will at all times view ourselves as active participants and for that, no matter what, we will have language and conceptions that are essentially illusions and tricks to make sense of it all — the incompatibilists included.

      So… you agree with us, that our notions of free will and agency are actually illusions?

      • Posted June 8, 2017 at 11:28 am | Permalink

        See one above: if “illusion” refers to the map that tries to make sense of a territory (“reality out there”). Compatibilists are determinists.

  10. Posted June 8, 2017 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    Unlike Daniel Dennett, I don’t argue that we need to do any reforming of the term ‘free will’. I argue that the way we use the term in ordinary discourse is metaphysically neutral. You can read my full defence of a character-based version of compatibilism and my 4C theory of what makes an action free in my ‘Free Will and Compatibilism’ at Enjoy the anti-hard-determinist comic in Section 3.

  11. Posted June 8, 2017 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    Number 14

    Free-will is a measure of autonomy in an agent. At one extreme the action of an agent is “combinational” as it applies to digital logic e.g. it is totally dependent only on the active external variables at the time of performing an action. Alternatively we have systems that are “state machines” where the output results from the inputs at time t AND the developed STATE – a function of all previous inputs and outputs. The human mind is a incredibly advanced state machine. If we analyse the percentage of the output determined by external conditions versus those of the “state function” it is very small (except for reflex actions). The human state machine’s function encompasses very abstract processing constructs “fairness, empathy, guilt etc etc) and very sophisticated computational capabilities e.g. associative memory.. Although a fully deterministic machine, if we consider the continuum of capabilities in agency we can draw a line – a line where processing capabilities allow us to reach the level of what as a human construct we call moral responsibility. We call that point free will – by definition.

  12. mikeyc
    Posted June 8, 2017 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    Some time ago -I think shortly after reading a piece on free will here at WEIT- I got into a conversation about it with an acquaintance. At the time I hadn’t given the subject much thought. Really, none. So I was confused and ignorant of the thinking that goes into it. Probably like most people who aren’t religious and hadn’t thought much about free will I had a vague idea that it was more complicated than I supposed – but I did suppose I had some form of it.

    I got exactly the same kind of nasty, superior “your notion of free will was stupid to the point of vacuity” response from my acquaintance. I was simply unaware of the thinking and was genuinely interested in understanding. But my unfamiliarity with the subject meant I was stupid and vacuous.

    Since and because of that conversation I have used my “free will” to ignore arguments about free will. I haven’t chosen this course of action, you understand. Not really. I ignore these arguments now because my genes and environment – specifically that discussion- have determined that I usually pass right over them.

  13. darrelle
    Posted June 8, 2017 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    Funny coincidence. I haven’t had a freewill discussion in ages and just the day before yesterday I volunteered an answer to a Quora question about freewill, and then this post. Therefore God.

  14. Posted June 8, 2017 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    Compatibilists like law professors Stephen Morse and Michael Moore are often in the business of defending just deserts and retributive punishment, given that free will is ordinarily thought to be required for these. They want to claim that there’s no sense in which determinism diminishes moral desert, and to do that they have to claim that agents act freely – of their own free will – even if determinism is the case. Of course agents generally *do* act freely in the (important) sense of acting voluntarily, sanely, in light of reasons, etc., and compatibilists argue that’s all that’s necessary to have free will and therefore to really deserve punishment. But, given folk libertarian intuitions that free will *isn’t* compatible with determinism, that’s a tough sell to make in the public square. Has anyone seen an op-ed in a major newspaper arguing for compatibilism and thus for retaining retribution?

    • Posted June 8, 2017 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      Thats an interesting point. But you dont have to be a retributivist to be a compatibilist. If Deennett’s argument is right then the degree of moral responsiblity required to factor in the possibility of future punishment into current behavior is all that is required.

    • Sastra
      Posted June 8, 2017 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      I think it’s unlikely there’d be such an op-ed just because the philosophical debate is too far removed from the ground, the area of application. It would be like arguing for or against diplomatic relations between countries by citing the laws of physics, I think.

      imagine two people, a determinist and a libertarian free will advocate, who are both against retributive punishment. The first supports their position by engaging with the larger argument against Free Will. The second considers only the circumstances of a criminal’s genes, upbringing, neurology, education, poverty, and other mitigating factors, saying “there but for the grace of God go you and I.”

      Both are activists against the death penalty, and both do all they can to argue against punishment for its own sake. The first says “we make no choices.” The second says “we make choices, but not in a vacuum.”

      Is this conceivable? If so, then why is the question of Free Will more critical to the social/legal issue than the influence of nature and nurture? Would we be able to tell the behavior of the Determinist apart from the behavior of the supernaturalist who shows due appreciation for what goes on in the world?

      • Posted June 8, 2017 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

        I would argue that the incompatibilist position can lead to policies which are far more morally repugnant than the libertarians viewpoint. Why? If we are nothing more than deterministic robots, a criminal is nothing more than a robot with a faulty program. How do we fix that program? Seeking rehabilitation by making the miscreant robot “see the light” is both hard to achieve and quite unlikely. And this very process assumes the criminal actually HAS a will that needs to be taken into consideration when making this change. But if we take a more robust “Clockwork Orange” approach we can use methods which reengineer the faulty computer -brainwashing comes to mind. After all, we are only dealing with a mechanism – why worry about how a toaster “feels” when we replace a faulty heating element?

        • Posted June 8, 2017 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

          Once one gets to this point in the discussion, the only thing that makes sense is to ponder not what might be the most effective strategy, but to analyze empirical observations — to do science.

          When you do so, you see that recidivism is positively correlated with punishment and negatively correlated with education and mental health services and an humane environment for the incarcerated.

          There’s also the game-theory approach, which suggests that it’s in your best interests to structure the criminal justice system the way you’d want it to be were you caught up in its gears, rightly or worngly. And there being zero downside and significant dividends to society to improve the mental health and employability of anybody and everybody, it’s a wonder anybody thinks “tough on crime” even pretends to make sense.




          • Posted June 8, 2017 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

            I suggest it’s time you read up a bit on game theory Ben. In all Evolutionary Game Theory the relevant measurement ration that establishes DEFECTION (which in this case is the population of reoffenders) is related to V/C where V is the gain of defecting and C is the cost penalty of losing. If the penalty is increased defection population will go DOWN – reoffending will decrease.
            Empirical evidence – crime rates and reoffending rates in high penalty countries (say the middle east) versus low penalty countries. I am happy to supply the figures if you wish Ben.
            But my main point is the level of moral motivation to NOT resort to Clockwork Orange solutions – which would not only work from a game theoretic perspective but would work from a practical perspective.

            • Posted June 8, 2017 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

              Empirical evidence – crime rates and reoffending rates in high penalty countries (say the middle east) versus low penalty countries. I am happy to supply the figures if you wish Ben.


              Last I checked, crime was virtually nonexistent in Scandinavia, and comparatively rampant in the US where “tough on crime” is the mantra. I’ll admit I’m not familiar with official crime statistics in Saudi Arabia, but I’d consider them highly suspect regardless. How much do you want to bet, for example, that far more women are raped than government figures report?




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

            Now that we have established the facts Ben rather than your “alternative reality”, can we now address the question -“why exactly is it immoral to severely punish a robot to easily and successfully correct it’s program?”

            • Posted June 10, 2017 at 10:42 am | Permalink

              Howie, you’ve established exactly diddly-squat. If you think that Saudi Arabia has virtually non-existent rates of women being raped, I’ve got an entire pantheon of Middle Eastern war gods to sell you.

              I mean, really. You’re citing UN statistics? The same UN that has Saudi Arabia heading human rights committees and the like?

              Offering Saudi Fucking Arabia up as a bastion of civilization is so far beyond the pale that I can’t keep up this discussion without some serious Da Roolz violations — which is just as well, because I don’t have time to post the rest of the weekend.




              • Posted June 11, 2017 at 5:40 am | Permalink

                You cover your defeated retreat from the battlefield with great aplomb Ben. Have you recently been studying Sun Tzu?

                My parting artillery shell as you withdraw –
                As a compatibilist I am not endorsing Saudi Arabian justice standards as being appropriate – one needs to be an incompatibilist to produce a logically framed argument that can endorse that assertion

  15. Posted June 8, 2017 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Snap. I just sent it on to Dennett himself. Given that Scott Adams appears to have run mad, Dennett might be looking for a new cartoonists when he wants to illustrate freewill issues in lectures. I didn’t read this cartoon as anti-compatibilist but as (ruefully) acknowledging the force of Dennett’s deflationary programme. Do other disagree?

  16. Ken Elliott
    Posted June 8, 2017 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    I don’t suppose that Julien Musolino’s talks on free will and on the concept of a soul will be made available online somehow, will they? I would love to hear them.

    • Ken Elliott
      Posted June 8, 2017 at 9:44 am | Permalink

      My apologies, I have found a youtube video of Mr. Musolino discussing the soul.

  17. Posted June 8, 2017 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    We don’t really have anything “as most people think of it.” Compatibilisys aren’t out to show us free will, their goal is to explain why the free will debate should not have a big impact on other philosophical topics, especially moral thinking. Think of a different parable, where a kid won’t leave the house because he’s terrified of dinosaurs (pigeons), and the grown-up explains why the pigeon isn’t an existential threat.

  18. Phil
    Posted June 8, 2017 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Dennett’s position is misunderstood and misrepresented my people who call themselves determinists. Dennett is a determinist too. He has said so again and again. But the question comes down to whether the conscious mind plays a causal role in making choices. The hard determinist takes an incoherent position in saying that mental activity (which is, after all physical) plays no causal role in subsequent choices that one makes. Dennett’s compatibilism is simply a recognition that mental activity DOES have a causal effect.

    • Posted June 8, 2017 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      I do not misrepresent Dennett’s position; I’ve read both his books and talked with him at length. Under your characterization, every animal has free will. Therefore it becomes meaningless.

      • Phil
        Posted June 8, 2017 at 10:02 am | Permalink

        I am a determinist, and I believe that physical phenomena (including thoughts) have a physical effectss.

        • Ralph
          Posted June 8, 2017 at 11:48 am | Permalink

          The question does not come down to what you think it does. Your description of incompatibilism is wrong, it a straw man. No incompatibilist thinks that mental activity plays no causal role in choice. The incompatibilist position is that mental activity is nothing more than computation.

          This is Dennett’s position too, of course. The difference between Dennett’s position and incompatibilism is the definition of free will.

          The kind of free will that does not exist (that everyone here agrees about) is the idea that mental computation can produce different ouputs from the same inputs. Incompatibilists just stop there – free will doesn’t exist, let’s move on. Compatibilists (indlucing Dennett) take the approach of choosing to redefine free will to mean something else.

          • Phil
            Posted June 8, 2017 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

            You are conflating libertarian free will and a compatibilist view. That’s why I choose to avoid using the term “free will” altogether. Compatibilists like Dennett do not believe in libertarian free will, but incompatibilists seem to think that they do. That’s the reason I claim that they are misunderstood. When you say they are redefining free will, you mean redefining libertarian free will (I think), but that’s not the case.

      • Sastra
        Posted June 8, 2017 at 10:19 am | Permalink

        As I understand Dennett, he’d probably agree that every animal has degrees of free will in the same way that they have degrees of everything else associated with mentality. Freedom evolves.

        • Posted June 8, 2017 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

          I agree with that interpretation as well.

          Now the question is: what degree is necessary to support institutions like punishment, etc.? And then the answers (depending on the person in the debate) vary from “nothing support them” to “none” to “contra-causal”.

      • Hugo
        Posted June 8, 2017 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

        “… compatibilism is the view that complete determinism of our acts by our genes and environments is still compatible with a view of humans having “free will (FW).” ”
        I see that as a misrepresentation (and the cartoon certainly is), but I don’t think you are aware of it. Incompatibilists just can’t accept definitions of FW compatible with determinism (points for the incompatibilist position here:). I think a proper representation would be: compatibilism is the view that the there are generally accepted meanings of FW (and worth keeping) fully compatible with determinism, including when applied to human behavior.” (far from suggesting this is the best way to put it, but I hope I’m getting the point across)
        Many people here is writing interesting things so I’ll resist the temptation of extending this (thanks to FW :)).

    • Danny Kodicek
      Posted June 8, 2017 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      Personally I have the same problem with ‘causal’ as I do with ‘free will’ – I think causation is as much of a user illusion as free will is. It’s a concept that only really has any meaning at the level of large conceptual assemblages of matter that interact rarely over long periods of time. At a non-human level it’s pretty hard to describe what it means to say that one event ’causes’ another one.

      • Phil
        Posted June 8, 2017 at 10:44 am | Permalink

        I agree that there is no such thing as a “causal chain” where one thing causes another, but let’s just say there is a matrix of causality where everything interacts with everything else to some degree.

        I have heard some determinists describe mental activity as purely epiphenomenal – as if it never enters the matrix interaction with other physical phenomena. That implies that they see mental phenomena as some kind of ghostly immaterial thing, even though they would never admit that. I think their position is incoherent.

      • Posted June 8, 2017 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

        Hard, but not impossible, I think. I’ve become a fan of what are misleadingly called “manipulationist” accounts, for example. (Though I am not convinced that the use of “probabilistic causality” in question is correct, however.)

      • Posted June 10, 2017 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

        That’s interesting, given that “causality” is the usual reason why some people consider free will an illusion. I take it you have some other reason to consider free will an illusion?

  19. YF
    Posted June 8, 2017 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    The universe is fundamentally indeterministic, as its foundation is quantum. But that’s actually irrelevant.

    According to incompatibilists, we don’t have ‘free will’; according to compatibilists we do. But this is just an interminable argument over the meaning of words.

    The key point that both sides can agree on is that the mind/brain operates according to the laws of physics (quantum or otherwise), and that there is no immaterial soul that makes decisions. That’s what the debate with supernaturalists should be about- not ‘free will’, which is an ill-defined concept.

    • Ralph
      Posted June 8, 2017 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      Sure, but then it comes down to context and the level of discourse.

      The problem with compatibilism is that it can be like the “sophisticated believer” argument against The God Delusion. In the second strip above – the compatibilist says OF COURSE spooky free will doesn’t exist, it’s “stupid to the point of vacuity”; so now we have this term free will that we can make use of for something more sensible.

      The problem with this is that the vast majority of humanity DOES believe that spooky free will exists, and most people do NOT grasp that it’s “stupid to the point of vacuity”.

      My beef with compatibilists is that they simply muddy the waters of the debate. In Dennett’s case perhaps deliberately so, because he has said that he worries that society cannot handle the truth of the matter.

      • YF
        Posted June 8, 2017 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

        But there is still a meaningful difference between handing over your money at gunpoint (against your will) and giving to charity (willingly). The latter is what most people think of when they say they gave ‘freely’- and this is the meaning of ‘free will’ that most compatibilists subscribe to. No spooky stuff involved…

        • Posted June 8, 2017 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

          The gunpoint / charity distinction is better understood as conflicting alignments between what is true and what a person prefers should be true.




        • Ralph
          Posted June 8, 2017 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

          Sure, but so what? Nobody other than philosopher-compatibilists thinks “free will” means “freedom from coercion”.

          • Posted June 8, 2017 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

            I disagree. I think it’s the incompatibilists that subscribe to the woo woo. Hard determinists have come under the spell of the theologians and metaphysicians when they ascribe “free will” as contra-causal will. In my paper (Secs 2 to 5), I review the historical origins of the term “free will”, some paradigm cases in ordinary usage and many other ordinary language uses, and how the term is actually used in jurisprudence. All of these point to a compatibilist usage in ordinary discourse and in law. I encourage you to read Secs 2 to 5 of my ‘Free Will and Compatibilism’ at

  20. Posted June 8, 2017 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Hi Jerry,

    I’m sure that’s fine with the compatibilist readers who think my take on the issue is, as the Brits say, “badly wrong.”

    I don’t think you’re badly wrong, I think you’re right to take the line you do when talking to religious, dualistic free willers.

    But, let’s suppose that argument were at some point completely won. Then we’d need to explain why we use concepts such as “choice” about actions and human interactions. (E.g. “In Saudi Arabia, wearing a hijab is not a choice”)

    At that point you’d become a compatibilist, developing a coherent concept of what we mean by “choice” and “will”, and indeed “freedom” (e.g. “free speech”), in a deterministic world.

    In all of your posts *except* those about “free will” you already do this.

    • Posted June 8, 2017 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      I’d agree.

      Most people are pragmatic compatibilists. Deny them their rights to choose and they soon start demanding it back.

      Saying ‘I have no choice but to exercise my choice’ is special pleading.

      • reasonshark
        Posted June 8, 2017 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

        Since I take the Bentham line of seeing rights as “nonsense on stilts”, I don’t find that counter particularly compelling. Besides, most people say they want “choice” when really they want to do or say what they want without being hassled for it. Since conflicts of interest would inevitably ensue were that actually, fully taken seriously, what usually happens in practice is that laws distinguish between harmful and harmless acts (e.g. letting homosexuals be homosexuals but capturing thiefs and killers). All that talk about “rights” is simply a diversion from this central point.

        Whether they do it competently is another matter.

        • Posted June 8, 2017 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

          What’s the difference between freedom to chose and doing what you want? They are both an expression of your will.

          • reasonshark
            Posted June 8, 2017 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

            Well, for starters, you can’t have a freedom to choose anymore than you can have a freedom to spaksameltzenbergendorfl. The concept of “choice” is contracausal and a nonsense from the get-go. And quite frankly, I’ve never encountered an “expression of the will” but I’ve encountered people who have desires and want things.

            More obviously with an example, nobody “chooses” to be homosexual, so the freedom to “choose” homosexuality is meaningless. Nobody even “chooses” to do homosexual things; if they’re not homosexuals (or bisexuals or pansexuals or whatever), then they’re not going to tally the activity the same way to begin with. So basically they don’t want to do it.

            Even if we restrict the term to a specific point in space and time (e.g. an otherwise heterosexual person wants to experiment with homosexuality briefly), the point isn’t that they “choose” it. The point is that they, given what they’re made of at that point, want to do it. It’s the difference between talking about nonexistent, obscuring, and abstract “rights” and actually getting down to the nitty-gritty of real people doing things, and whether that’s harmful or not (in this case, not).

    • Posted June 8, 2017 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

      Not true. I defined what I meant by saying that hijab was a “choice” in at least one post, so your last sentence is not correct.

      • Posted June 10, 2017 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

        Hi Jerry,
        But what you mean by “choice” in your hijab posts is exactly what compatibilists mean by “choice”. That *is* compatibilism.

        The problem is always that the incompatibilists interpret compatibilists as asking for far more than they actually are asking for.

  21. Vaal
    Posted June 8, 2017 at 10:32 am | Permalink


    I would echo Coel in saying I also don’t think of you as being “badly wrong” on compatibilism and free will. You provide difficult and valuable critique of the concept of free will.

  22. Charles Sawicki
    Posted June 8, 2017 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Dennett’s arguments for compatibilism always seemed to me to be twisted, incoherent, philosophical wishful thinking. I can understand why a lack of free will might be disturbing to philosophers. Not a good feeling having your thinking bounded by your genes and experience.

    • Vaal
      Posted June 8, 2017 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      Nah. It’s just looking at concepts that will continue to make sense even if determinism is true.

      Or…can I take it that the next time you are at a restaurant and are asked for your order, you will object to your waiter’s philosophical incoherence: “What’s the point of your asking me that question? Don’t you know we don’t have any choice?”

      • reasonshark
        Posted June 8, 2017 at 11:42 am | Permalink

        The waiter only wants to know what you want, given that he’ll get it for you (or tell you they’re out of it) regardless of which of the food items it is. Often, even you don’t know what you want until you see, say, “lasagne” on the card, or wait until that and “spaghetti bolognese” have finished their boxing match in your head.

        In any case, I’m certainly not impressed by a “tu quoque” argument, however jokingly delivered. It’s never a good argument for or against an idea. For one thing, there are pragmatic reasons for not correcting every instance of philosophical illiteracy you encounter, none of which necessarily translates into a secret confession that they’re not really illiterate.

        • Vaal
          Posted June 8, 2017 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

          But mine was a philosophical point:

          It’s an invitation to accept or reject the
          incompatibilist position described in the restaurant scene. If he accepts it, then it’s a valid response…and yet surely he or anyone else would think it a silly reaction to being asked to make a choice.

          Therefore it invites Charles to make sense of how to understand “having a choice” within a determinist context. We compatiblists argue, that he will have a hard time doing so without going down the road to compatibilism.

          • reasonshark
            Posted June 8, 2017 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

            Hence the first paragraph in my reply. There are perfectly cogent ways of describing what’s going on without invoking the feel-good myths of choice or free will. You don’t have a choice for the same reason you don’t have a soul or karma or just desserts or an afterlife. Yet I’d bet a lot of people would take offence if I said as much.

            Telling people “God doesn’t exist” sounds strange, hostile, even ridiculous in many contexts. Is that a knock against atheism? Of course not. It’s a non-sequitur to suggest any such thing, and yet your appeal to “silly reactions” is exactly the same kind of argument.

            • Vaal
              Posted June 8, 2017 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

              But your “first paragraph” did nothing to explain the coherency of choice making in the restaurant scenario.

              You wrote “The waiter only wants to know what you want”

              But the only reason a waiter would NEED or WANT to uncover what you want, is if there are multiple different POSSIBILITIES for what you want. The kitchen doesn’t stock just one item on the menu because it is POSSIBLE people will choose any of the items on the menu. Not “possible because everyone is a contra-causal being” but possible in the sense “people are capable of choosing the fish or the meat or the pasta and we understand these possibilities by extrapolating from SIMILAR situations in the past NOT THE SINGLE EXACT SAME situation.”

              So, no, you haven’t shown how your account of “choice” makes sense given determinism.

              • reasonshark
                Posted June 8, 2017 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

                “But the only reason a waiter would NEED or WANT to uncover what you want, is if there are multiple different POSSIBILITIES for what you want.”

                Hm, that’s… actually a fascinating point that inspired some reconsideration on my part (though it could be multiple arguments I’ve seen on this page that have factored into it). Bear with me a moment.

                In the case of possibilities, there seems to be a problem: what’s possible? We have an intuitive sense that it’s possible I’ll order ice cream rather than, say, burning hot coals. In that sense, my ordering ice cream is closer to reality than my ordering burning hot coals.

                Then I order neither, order chocolate cake, and leave.

                Now, I don’t deny the one hypothetical requires less tweaking of my reasonable expectations than the latter. Ice cream is the more plausible of the two. It’s still the case that neither proved to be true. While there are broad commonalities (what I really ate was still a sweet and delicious pudding, just like ice cream is and just like burning hot coals aren’t), the fact is that the case of my eating ice cream is equal with the case of my eating burning hot coals. That is, the cases do not exist.

                So… were they always real, unequal possibilities out there? That runs counter to the fact that both cases are demonstrably nonexistent. Or were they untrue, equally false predictions that don’t exist? That runs counter to the sense that the case of eating ice cream seems more plausible than the case of eating burning hot coals. How do we resolve this paradox?

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted June 8, 2017 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

                Ordering ice cream is possible in the sense that (a) it’s compatible with my desires (unlike burning hot coals); (b) it’s within my immediate behavioral competence (i.e. it’s actually on the menu, and I know how to say the words “I’d like an ice cream please”); and (c) I have the wherewithal (money in my pocket) to do it should I so choose. I claim that this is what most people mean, most of the time, when they say “I could do X.”

                When they say “I could have done X”, they’re (usually) not making a claim of contracausal powers; they’re just saying the same as the above in the past tense.

              • Vaal
                Posted June 8, 2017 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

                “When they say “I could have done X”, they’re (usually) not making a claim of contracausal powers; they’re just saying the same as the above in the past tense.”


                And this should be obvious if someone just takes a moment to think about anything in his life he is deliberating. Whether it’s what to make for dinner tonight, or what exercise program to start, or where to vacation etc.

                The thoughts about your possible courses of action are not based on being contr-causal: they are derived from thinking through ‘possibilities’ in the way you and I describe.

              • reasonshark
                Posted June 12, 2017 at 11:54 am | Permalink

                I’ve given it a bit more thought, and taken on board your points about compatibility, competence, and wherewithal. The trouble I’m finding is that these keep coming back to those “hypothetical fantasies” I mentioned before.

                I think what’s goingon is twofold. Firstly, the compatibility issues does note features of the world – say, the existence of sweet-food desires inside my head versus the non-existence of coal-eating – which themselves do exist. They also note equivalencies: for instance, the point I made earlier about ice cream and chocolate cake belonging to the class of “sweet foods” and to the history of items I or others have happily eaten. That I agree with: that people are making an analysis based on these inputs and on pre-existing knowledge, and that is something I have to acknowledge. Scientific methodology is essentially the same thing writ large, after all.

                But there are effectively two things going on here: desire and belief. The desire that is acted out is simply the inner mechanism that, at any given point in time, trumps rival mechanisms. The process can be described wholly mechanistically. The belief that one comes to can either be correct or incorrect*, in which case its correctness depends utterly on its adherence to rationality. To the extent that it deviates from that, it is simply incorrect, though whether in any particular circumstance that’s harmless or not is another matter entirely.

                *I suppose for clarity’s sake we could talk about complex beliefs which could be partially correct and partially incorrect, but the argument works out the same, and this is simpler to state.

                The trouble I have with this assessment is that on the desire side, it’s a question of brute physics – in which case it has as much chance of an alternative route as any other specific physical event – and on the belief side, it’s a question of rationality, in which case alternatives are a bug to be minimized, not a feature.

                I suppose what I’m saying is that, since hypothetical reasoning is all in the mind (and mostly incorrect until it hits upon the right answer), it seems to make more sense to me to describe choice-making as a mistaken – or at best, potentially distracting – way of describing these phenomena. If nothing else, it would be very hard to describe anything on either side of the process – desires and rational beliefs – as “free”.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted June 12, 2017 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

                “alternatives are a bug to be minimized, not a feature.”

                I disagree. Having a wide range of alternatives — i.e. of competences and capabilities — at the input to the decision process is indeed a feature; it’s what Dennett means when he describes us a “evitability machines”. We have more such competences and capabilities than other organisms because it’s advantageous to have them.

                The exercise of rationality, as you point out, is the process of winnowing these alternatives down to a single optimum choice. If we fail to do that, that would indeed be a bug, but it’s a bug in the winnowing process, not in the availability of alternatives.

  23. Posted June 8, 2017 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    “Free Will” has always been understood as one or more of three aspects.

    At its heart: alone control our destinies, free at least in part from external forces — be they the Fates or forces of nature, or even some other mortal.

    Closely coupled is the second aspect: we are somehow separate from nature, agents distinct from the rest of the world yet interacting with it. Nature is the stage, and we the actors that enter it, say our lines, and depart.

    Last and more distant is that humans are special, that this property of “free will” is what sets us apart from other self-motivating agents, be they animals or computers or thermostats or sunflowers.

    And, yet, not one of those aspects has any bearing on reality whatsoever.



  24. reasonshark
    Posted June 8, 2017 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Quite frankly, I do not trust a compatibilist position any more than I trust an accommodationist one, claiming to be on “my” side and yet espousing suspicious concepts similar to those from crazy town opposite. Even the guy above who equates “free will” with “autonomy” didn’t resist introducing the suspicious concept of “continuum of capabilities”, or basically what a human-like entity (as opposed to a rock) “could” do. Quite frankly, it’s far less hassle to see where determinism fits the computational picture than where “free will” does.

    Let’s take the supposedly innocent concepts of “choice” and “capability”, for example, which are supposed to be respectable secular concepts for an everyday human activity. Allegedly, they exist because we “could choose differently” in a given scenario; a person who “chooses” ice cream from a menu “could” have “chosen” chocolate cake. “Choice” and “capability” are often also in our feel-good morals of many a fictional morality tale, but that’s more a symptom of the problem rather than the cause.

    The problem? This notion of choice is transparently, awkwardly, and often secretly contracausal. It relies on being contracausal to make any sense. That means the compatibilist is really using the nonsensical free will that, moments ago, they were avowing wasn’t theirs, secular or not.

    On the one hand, if it is contracausal, then it’s transparently false. There’s no sense in which that person is having chocolate cake at that time and place – except, rather tellingly, in our or his imaginations alone – so there’s no sense in which it qualifies as a choice at all. The alternative outcome of chocolate cake simply does not exist. In all such cases, the “alternative” predictions were flat-out false, wrong, and incorrect. As was once said on the topic of alternative medicine: “There are no alternative medicines. There are medicines that work, and medicines that don’t.”

    On the other hand, if it isn’t contracausal then there’s no real sense in which a person could have chosen differently because there isn’t even a coherent sense in which they “do differently”. Differently from what? Reality? Our false imaginations? If it really happens, then it doesn’t defy reality; it is reality, and we’re right back where we started. If it “happens” only in our false imaginations… then we’re back to the same problem above. And if, somehow, any outcome is non-caused, then it’s a random event, and we’re no closer to “choice” there either.

    Therefore, the very concepts of “choice” and “capability” are either false or self-contradictory.

    • Vaal
      Posted June 8, 2017 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

      It’s like these conversations have never happened….

      The problem? This notion of choice is transparently, awkwardly, and often secretly contracausal. It relies on being contracausal to make any sense. That means the compatibilist is really using the nonsensical free will that, moments ago, they were avowing wasn’t theirs, secular or not.

      No. I reject your assertion that choice making and possibilities rely on being contracausal to make any sense. It’s just the opposite: it couldn’t be, and isn’t, the basis of normal reasoning when we are deliberating between choices. This should be obvious via a million and one examples.

      See my example to Ben above, regarding the marathon runner.

      If you ask John, the marathon runner, why he was in a position to choose to run a 20K marathon, what kind of answers will you expect? Surely they will be descriptions of his capabilities combined with IF/Then reasoning. e.g. “I’ve run 20K marathons before” “If I missed this one there isn’t another one coming for months” “If I didn’t I wouldn’t be keeping in shape” etc etc. NONE of the answers are likely to be “Because I am a contra-causal agent” or “Because I can do alternate things given precisely the same state and time of the universe.” THOSE would not figure in to his answers because number one, they don’t even ANSWER the question: to even assume one is contra-causal doesn’t explain what you think you are capable of doing. And two: since this contra-causality doesn’t answer such questions, it isn’t, and can’t, be the basis for anyone’s reasoning for why they did A or B, or what they think they “Could or Could Not” do.

      So I find your claims to be incoherent in making sense of how we deliberate about our choices, and the basis on which we conclude “I COULD do X or Y…”

    • Posted June 8, 2017 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

      A major problem here, as always, is that many people get the origin of terms wrong.

      The incompatibilist assumption here seems to be that some philosopher creates a term ex nihilo and then tries to force reality into it; or else, that somebody creates a term ex nihilo with the nefarious intention of getting people to use it so that they become religious. Or something.

      In reality, humans have created terms like choice (or free will) because they needed terms to describe things, processes and differences that they observed, that demonstrably exist. And then they may have assumed the wrong reason behind them, or conceptually confused two things for which the same term was used, etc.

      When that happens, that is a problem. But it does not change the fact that humans do something that it was useful to give the label “make a choice”, and that is why that label exists, and it is still useful.

      We should go “there is a term that our ancestors created for a reason, but it seems we need to hash it out to clear up some misconceptions” instead of “let’s get rid of that term (because surely it could only have been created for evil or stupid reasons)”. The latter may have happened in some cases (Neoplatonic philosophy comes to mind), but the former is much more frequent, and certainly for everyday terms like choice.

  25. Posted June 8, 2017 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    The meaning I get from the strip is that free will evolved. I don’t think that Dennett would disagree. In fact I think that’s his whole point.

    The incompatibility argument would be more like: Hey, kid! Do you want to see a dinosaur?
    Kid: But that’s a spoon!
    Beardy: There is no spoon!

  26. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted June 8, 2017 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    I’ve already said elsewhere why I think panel four gets compatibilism wrong.

    But for me the parable really breaks down in panel five. It’s clear enough what the kid was expecting in Scene 1: he thought he was going to see a live velociraptor or something. But what are we supposed to imagine that Philosophy Fan was expecting in Scene 2? To have his dualist intuitions confirmed by actual physics? Even he admits that’s nonsensical. By saying “Let’s discourse!” he was volunteering to have flaws in his thinking exposed, and that’s exactly what he got.

    Also, I wouldn’t take this comic as Weinersmith’s endorsement of incompatibilism. He’s an equal-opportunity satirist; here’s his take on the alleged nonexistence of choice and moral responsibility.

  27. Hugh Haskell
    Posted June 8, 2017 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    The concept of ‘free will’ is a really sticky wicket. It seems to me that it pretty much hinges upon the existence of a deterministic universe. Those who argue for free will assume a deterministic universe, but I see little evidence of that. Too many aspects of the world appear to be non-deterministic. A prime example is radioactivity, which appears to be totally probabilistic. Although we can predict with great accuracy how many atoms will decay in a given time period (if there are enough of them to assure randomness), we are totally unable to predict when any given atom will decay. And yet whether I get cancer or not depends precisely upon the decay of a single atom. Hence the universe is not deterministic, except in some rather squishy large-scale way. If this is correct, then the deterministic universe is out the window, and we must, it seems, have free will.

    On the other hand, if someday, we learn how to describe the work in a completely deterministic way, it would appear that free will in any individual sense would be out the window. But if if that would occur, there still remain so many possibilities for any action, that it is likely impossible to drill down to the single determining factor that caused any given event, or decision, to occur, in which case, we have, for all practical purposes, free will, even though on a sufficiently small scale, we do not.

    I’m not sure I understand the compatabilisit’s arguments here, but if this is what they are arguing, then I think their definition of free will is something of a hoax. (I discussed this briefly with Dennett at a conference several years ago. We ended up not agreeing.) I’m willing to accept that we sort of have free will in a sufficiently large deterministic universe—for all practical purposes—but I don’t think we have a deterministic universe, so, either way we have some degree of free will.

    So why are we arguing about it?

    • Posted June 8, 2017 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      Its actually the non-compatabilists who are arguing for determinism. That’s why they call themselves determinists.

      I think non-determinancy in the quantum sense doesn’t prove anything one way of the other. On the one hand, if your choices are dictated by non-deterministic quantum events they are still determined; on the other hand the determinist argument that if you rewound time and played it again you would make the same choices also falls apart.

  28. Alric
    Posted June 8, 2017 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    The problem as always with the premise that brains are deterministic. Brains are computational. Free will is the output of the myriad algorithms that continuously self-adjust in the brain.

    Free will exists just like any other perception of our brain states, sadness, happiness, depression, etc, exists.

  29. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted June 8, 2017 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    You either believe causality is real or there is magic. You can’t have it both ways.

    • Posted June 8, 2017 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      You do realise that the general consensus is that causality has no meaning at the finest grain of (quatum mechanical) reality that we are aware of? Now I know the Deepak Chopras of this world want quantum mechanics to be magic, but even so….

      • Posted June 9, 2017 at 11:50 am | Permalink

        Or there can be *lawfulness* but not *causation*, suitably understood. See Bunge, _Causality and Modern Science_, which tries to show that objective patterns come in many kinds, and causation only applies to some – the “productive” with a few other characteristics. His vocabulary is non-standard, which makes other philosophers hard to appreciate what he’s on about, but in my view the matter is not fully appreciated even now – 60 years later, almost.

    • Alric
      Posted June 8, 2017 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      This is the fallacy. Causality can be so complex with computation that predicting an output can be impossible. Just think of the RAND command.

  30. Posted June 8, 2017 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Below is a poem of mine that speaks to the issue of free will and determinism from the pov of a “goddie” (not a Christian, a pantheist). It’s the only poem of mine that ever made it into The New Yorker, which I mention only because it tends to impress people. As with all of my posts on this site, I’m aware that my views go against the grain. So I want to thank Jerry and the rest of you for tolerating my presence. I’m not a troll; I’m just genuinely curious about, and respectful of, people who think differently than I do. Thanks for returning the favor.


    by Gary Miranda

    Spirit, your answers lie
    lost somewhere—no, not lost,
    misplaced—or placed, rather,
    where they belong but where
    we have yet to look, like notes
    we find between pages of books
    years later and half remember, half

    The place we are not does not
    exist, we think—and then, going,
    find that the world thrives
    without us: incredible.
    Whole families on the klongs of
    Bangkok, brushing their teeth
    in the fetid water, flagging
    down vegetable boats, existing,

    Who knows what spiked image
    you plan to drive into our
    hearts today? What happy
    things wait like familiar coats
    on the backs of so many chairs?
    It is as if, on our one day off,
    we had called in sick, this choosing,
    these lives that wait for us—here,
    there. Yours, though we call them

    • Posted June 8, 2017 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

      Most excellent poem! Thanks for sharing it with us.

      The return to this topic always brings up more for me to think about than I had previously.

      I find it most interesting that there’s evidence brains make decisions before the “person” is conscious of it and that, after the fact, the “person” tries to make sense of the decision using language, a most imprecise tool. My impression of “red” may be quite different from yours, but we tacitly agree that we’re referring to the same thing when we “communicate”.

      Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem “The Windhover” uses the word “buckle”. The dictionary points out seventeen different meanings/uses of the word, all of which are applicable in his poem. Such nuances of language make it possible to tell jokes and construct poems to the great enjoyment of those “who get it”. The conflict between precision in language (1 = 1 as in science) vs. nuance in language (1 = 17 as in humanities) will not be resolved as we are using the same tool to achieve different goals. Both are worthy.

      • Posted June 8, 2017 at 7:32 pm | Permalink


        Thanks much for your kinds words about my poem. I detect from your punctuation (periods outside the quotation marks) that you might be British. Any relation to the incomparable Michael Kitchen?

        “I find it most interesting that there’s evidence brains make decisions before the ‘person’ is conscious of it.”

        Yes, and certainly every poet is aware of this, as in any true artist in whatever medium. I could no more have written that poem making conscious decisions than I could free-solo climb El Capitan. This is one reason that I balk at conflating “creation” with “intelligent design.” But that’s fodder for a different day. Thanks again.


        • Posted June 9, 2017 at 1:11 am | Permalink


          You’re welcome.

          Since I can’t remember consistently the rules about punctuation going inside or outside the quotation marks, and being too lazy to look it up whenever needed, I tend to do whatever I want at the time I write.

          I’m a mixture of about seven European nationalities, most of whom migrated to America hundreds of years ago. If I could trace back far enough, I’m sure I’d have had family all over the world.

          My husband’s father’s family were British, but I have no genealogical proof of relationship to Michael Kitchen (it would be a great honor, if it were so).

          I think the best poems are of the the sort that arrive as gifts rather than being laboriously constructed. Most of our best poets have both kinds of poems. I do not include myself among them but, even I, once in a great while have written poems that seem to arrive already formed. I sure can tell the difference.

  31. Posted June 8, 2017 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    The comic strip is very funny and on-point!

  32. Posted June 8, 2017 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    If I were stick figure Dennett, I would reply in the last panel that I did NOT know what the child would think free will means. That it means magic is not at all obvious to me, quite the opposite. (Does free fall mean magic? Does freedom of expression?)

    Also, of course I am not in the business of walking up to random people to tell them that they should believe in free will. I may, however, be in the business of being miffed when somebody tells me I should stop using a perfectly normal term because it might make the Little People believe in magic.

  33. Benjay
    Posted June 8, 2017 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    Soul, as most people……think, of it?

    People who exude soul, think less about metaboogaloo, and just dance their arses off?

    Soul is music now Bro. Get with the programmed. (Sorry, i got to where you projected onto most people, hope of a soul)

  34. Ken
    Posted June 10, 2017 at 12:35 am | Permalink

    Thanks for keeping the discussion going, Jerry. I was encouraged in another post by compatibilists to read past threads on free will here to better understand their position, so have read this one closely. Doing so has only made me agree more strongly with the incompatibilist position, however. Yet, while those compatibalists commenting here still seem to me to be obfuscating at times, they also seem perfectly intelligent and sincere, which makes me frustrated that I can’t understand what they’re struggling to make me see. I can’t help feel that I’m missing something important, or even that I somehow lack the ability to make the connection. It seems I’m in good company at least, so I take something from that.

    • Vaal
      Posted June 10, 2017 at 7:16 pm | Permalink


      It does feel extremely odd – on both sides of this free will debate. It seems to me this is what happens when we starting hitting bottom with battling intuitions. Intuitions tend to make a position feel obvious, and it’s also hard to budge those intuitions.

      It’s similar to the debates over consciousness. For instance, I don’t seem to share the intuition that seems to underlie the side who talk about the “hard problem” of consciousness. The people who argue for the hard problem of consciousness strike me as forever stuck in a mysterian position, where no evidence could actually could count against their intuition that the sense “it is to be like something” is forever mysterious. To me, it doesn’t seem mysterious at all.

      • Ken
        Posted June 10, 2017 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I’m sure the frustration goes both ways. I can readily see your analogy between the free will debate and that of the hard problem, and, FWIW, though I haven’t spent nearly as much time on it, I haven’t at all the same bafflement with your position on the hard problem as I do that regarding free will.

Post a Comment

Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: