A philosopher tries to rescue free will by claiming that individuals exercise “choice” according to their “beliefs, desires,and intentions”

Although I’m suffering from jet lag, I’ll treat you today to a post on free will and “compatibilism”. Yes, I can hear the groans of distress as I write this, but my advice to you is the same as my advice to those who complain about Milo Yiannopoulos lecturing at Berkeley: if you don’t want to hear this, just skip the post. But of course philosophical rumination is far less offensive than are the lucubrations of Milo.

The post at issue was written on the Naturalism website by Tom Clark, who reads this site and will undoubtedly reply below, taking me to task. Such is my fate, but I must say what I think. Tom is a good writer and a clear thinker, but we have disagreements about his views on compatibilism, the idea that while determinism reigns in human behavior—absent truly stochastic quantum phenomena, we can behave in only one way at one time, and that behavior is the deterministic result of our genes and our environments)—nevertheless we can define a form of free will that can harmonize determinism and some concept of “freedom”. That also allows people to believe—a belief that they’re said to need—that they are in some sense autonomous beings who can make choices. Without that belief, some philosophers (Dan Dennett is one) think that society would fall apart, for our feeling that we have free will is essential to keep us up and at it. (He doesn’t add that most people think of free will in the “libertarian, ghost-in-the-machine” sense that virtually all secular philosophers have rejected.

I agree that we are autonomous beings (by that I mean we can distinguish different people), and that we appear to make choices that look as if we could have chosen otherwise. But that’s an illusion. And I’m not a big fan of philosophers spending their time trying to tell us what kind of “free will” we really have—especially because in global surveys, most people think of free will in the libertarian sense that Clark, Dennett, and other compatibilists reject: the “you-could-have-done-otherwise” form of behavior.

Further, as I’ve said before, I fail to understand why philosophers spend their time trying to harmonize free will and determinism when the really useful thing they could be doing—the kind of philosophy that really makes a difference in society—is to work out the consequences of determinism, especially with respect to the judicial system. If you think people are wholly products of their genes and environments, and had no choice about doing crimes (or doing good stuff), then that mandates a big rethink in our judicial system: one geared not toward retribution, but toward rehabilitation, deterrence, and keeping people out of society until we deem them no longer harmful. In other words, a judicial system like the one Norway has.

Now I know some readers say that compatibilism implies identica changes in the judicial system, and they may be right. It’s just that compatibilists tend to spend reams of paper and gazillions of electrons telling us what “free will” really is, and never seem to get around to talking about judicial reform. Frankly, I don’t care whether you redefine the libertarian form of “free will” accepted by most people; what’s important to me are the social consequences of determinism.

But let’s look at Tom’s 2015 piece, “What should we tell people about free will?” First, he mentions a video by Dan Dennett that explicitly claims that it’s “mischievous” for neuroscientists to tell people they don’t have free will, because such information could have inimical social effects. This is, in other words, the “little people’s argument” (TLPA)—the same kind of argument used to justify promoting religion even if it isn’t true.  I reject TLPA, just as I reject the claim that we should tell people there’s an imaginary God even if we reject that, for atheism supposedly makes people behave badly. The “experiment” that Dennett mentions about students’ disbelief in free will making them behave badly has not been replicated, so you can ignore his “evidence.”

I find it ironic that Dennett, who would never urge us to redefine “God” so philosophers could tell people there is a god—because society needs a concept of “god” to function well—nevertheless does the same thing with “free will.”

To his credit, Clark accepts determinism, but offers a new concept of free will (my emphasis):

We can thus see that the free will wars – disputes about whether or not we should go around denying free will, and what free will really is – are a function of differing definitions. If you’re referring to our capacity for voluntary choice-making that gives us rational control over our behavior, and that makes us responsible, then it would be wrong to deny that. If, on the other hand, you’re referring to a contra-causal capacity that supposedly makes us more responsible than what deterministic voluntary action affords, then it would be wrong not to deny that, at least on the assumption that we want a well-informed public. So the first order of business when discussing free will is to make clear what you’re talking about, then make your point.

He expands on this in the quote below:

If you tell people they couldn’t have done otherwise in an actual situation, this might strike them as saying they don’t have control, that we are victims of determinism. If we can have done only what we did, given the circumstances as they were, how can we be free? The answer is that, should determinism be the case, we are still free in the sense that what we do, most of the time, is a function of our beliefs, desires, and intentions, so is up to us, not someone else. Even though things couldn’t have turned out otherwise, most of the time we are in control of our behavior, free from coercion or manipulation by others.

But what does it mean to say “most of the time we are in control of our behavior, free from coercion or manipulation by others”? First, we certainly reflect, in our behavior, the “coercion and manipulation by others” that has, over the history of our life, rewired our brains. Our backgrounds, moral instruction from parents and peers, and so on, have imposed a coercion on our behavior that is just as “coercive” as somebody making you give up your wallet by holding a gun to your head. After all, you didn’t have to give up that wallet! And if you start talking about people being coerced into doing things they wouldn’t do were the coercive agent not present, you get mired in the philosophical hinterlands of issues like “well, Fred sacrificed for his kids when he really would rather have been traveling on his own”.  Is that coercion? Who knows? Who cares? The important thing is that determinism has wired our brains in a way that, given one or a series of inputs, only one output—the “choice”—can be made.

Our brains are like immensely complex computers, wired up by our heredity and experiences, but they still behave like complex computers—the kind of computers that play chess. Such computers have been programmed by humans to achieve certain ends, like beating a grand maters, and they react to the chess moves of humans based on their wiring. They’re been programmed to respond to environmental inputs (their opponents’ moves) and they have an “adaptive” goal: to beat their human opponents.

In that sense, computers, like us, also have “beliefs,  desires and intentions”: they “believe” that their opponent wants to win and will make moves toward that end, their “desire” is for the computer to win, and their “intention” is to beat the opponent. Do computers, then, wired adaptively as humans were wired by evolution and experience, have free will? If not, why not? How do they differ in a substantive way from the definition given above?

I don’t see why, according to Clark’s definition, we have free will but computers don’t. Just because humans may have subjective feelings—”qualia”—and computers don’t is no reason to bestow us with a free will that machines don’t have. After all, you can program computers to have “beliefs, desire, and intentions,” and they’ll behave in a consistent way, just like humans behave in a consistent way based on their heredity and environment. And the juman consistency is called our “personality”

None of our personality is “up to us”. Yes, it is true that a being called “Jerry Coyne” can be identified as a behaving segment of humanity that can be singled out and subject to incarceration and rehabilitation if he does something bad.  But that bad stuff is programmed in me just as it could be programmed into a robot. In the end, while it sounds profound to say “our ‘choices’ are up to us”, it’s trivial. Of course they are, for each of us is an organism that has its own wiring that determines our outputs.  Only in that trivial sense can one say “we are in control of our behavior.” Admitting that is to admit only that a Macintosh computer is in control of its own output, and not the output of another Mac that was programmed separately and differently.

Now we normally don’t impute beliefs, desires, and intentions to computers, but insofar as they’re programmed to respond in different ways to different circumstances, there is no substantive difference between saying that humans are “free” because of our neuronal evolutionary/behavioral programming and saying that different computers are “free” because they may be programmed differently and give diverse outputs according to how they’ve been programmed. How does our “freedom” differ from that of a computer? And where is the “freedom” in this form of free will. What, exactly, is free?

It’s time for philosophers to stop wasting time on compatibilism, to start emphasizing determinism more, and then work out the consequences of that determinism. That’s what Peter Singer tried to do in his engagingly thoughtful book Practical Ethics. One of the great boons of philosophy is to use rational thought, combined with an assessment of human preference, to work out how we should live. That, after all, is how philosophy began, but somehow it got sidetracked by arcane academic arguments.

h/t: Julian

143 Comments

  1. Marou
    Posted September 17, 2017 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Even though it can do certain things of its own accord, in what way is a computer in control of its own output? ,

    • Posted September 17, 2017 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      In the way that, were the computer in a different state, the output would be different.

      • Posted September 17, 2017 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

        Yes, and that’s exactly what’s true of humans.

        • Posted September 17, 2017 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

          Agreed. That’s what we mean by “choosing”, computing an option in the same way that a chess-playing computer computes/chooses a move.

          • Marou
            Posted September 17, 2017 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

            What do you mean by ‘a different state’? Isn’t a computer dependent on a higher intelligence without which it can’t function? Are you suggesting the same is true of humans?

            • Posted September 17, 2017 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

              By “a different state” I mean various logic gates in different positions 1 versus position 0.

              And yes, the deterministic past has caused the computer to be in the state it is, just as the deterministic past has caused a human to be in the state that it is.

              • Marou
                Posted September 17, 2017 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

                Which doesnt really answer my question apart from saying things could not be other than they are.

              • Posted September 17, 2017 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

                Sorry, what was the question?

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted September 17, 2017 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

                Other than cosmic rays which can flip a bit.

                cr

  2. BobTerrace
    Posted September 17, 2017 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    I love this comparison with computers. (I have my doubts about Windows OS which doesn’t seem deterministic 😊)

    • Posted September 17, 2017 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      It is deterministic. Derministic evil.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted September 17, 2017 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

        🙂

        I do so agree.

        But it is deterministic. Just that when a system gets sufficiently complex, its output may be absolutely deterministic but not totally predictable.

        cr

  3. Posted September 17, 2017 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jerry,

    But what does it mean to say “most of the time we are in control of our behavior, free from coercion or manipulation by others”?

    It’s notable that in many of your posts, all except the ones explicitly about “free will”, you use the compatibilist concepts of “freedom” and “choice” routinely. That demonstrates why they are useful and needed for social discourse.

    In America a woman has a free choice whether to wear a hijab in public; in Saudi Arabia or Iran she does not. Those social constraints are what the compatibilist concepts are about, and are why they are useful. Similarly, the concept of “free speech” is about legal and social constraints.

    I’d be interested, by the way, in whether the current judicial system in Norway came about as a consequence of philosophers making a big effort to work out the implications of determinism — I suspect not. (Though it does likely have a lot to do with the much lower religiosity of Scandinavia.)

    Do computers, then, wired adaptively as humans were wired by evolution and experience, have free will?

    Yes. Though to a much lesser degree that we do, since the range of behaviours they are capable of is much more limited.

    • Posted September 17, 2017 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      I of course agree that I use the language of choice, just as I use the language that implies there’s an “I” inside my brain that makes decisions. Given the notion that “choice” can also mean “picking one among a panoply of alternatives,” I don’t have a strong objection to using the word SO LONG AS one remains conscious that the idea of “free choice” is an illusion, something I try to be conscious of. I don’t think that language is harmful, but it certainly doesn’t make me reject determinism, which is the big issue. Is it really a substantive criticism of my position to say that I speak of “choice” in the sense above while really accepting determinism? As I said, I have no big objection to using the words so long as you realize what they really mean.

      And you know, of course, that some day computers will get close to human behavior in their complexity and range of outputs.

      • Posted September 17, 2017 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

        Is it really a substantive criticism of my position to say that I speak of “choice” in the sense above while really accepting determinism.

        I’m just trying to explain why compatibilists think as they do.

        You adopt one usage of “choice” and “freedom” when discussing hijabs and free speech, and then adopt a different notion of “choice” when discussing “free will”.

        Compatibilists agree with how you interpret the words when discussing hijabs and free speech, and then conclude that it makes sense to adopt that position as the *primary* meaning of concepts such as “choice”. After all, it’s the only sort of “choosing” that actually exists!

        • Posted September 17, 2017 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

          I rarely use the word “free will”. The words compatibilists are fixated on is “free will” not “choice”. You don’t see them redefining “choice”; it’s the phrase “free will” that they’re concentrating on.

        • Ralph
          Posted September 17, 2017 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

          “Choice” is simply computation, and it corresponds to an objective, observed phenomenon. I see no difficulty with keeping the word – in fact, we NEED a word for this phenomenon. When we see an individual faced with alternatives, both alternatives APPEAR possible, and (not knowing the configuration of that persons brain) the outcome is uncertain to us, even if it is fully deterministic. In my experience it can lead to confusion if we make the claim that “we do not choose”.

          “Freedom”, in the sense of could-have-done otherwise free will, does not correspond to any observed phenomenon.

      • Emma
        Posted September 17, 2017 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

        Probably a silly question as I have no knowledge whatsoever in philosophy : my understanding is that “I have free will” is roughly equivalent to “I can make choices”. It is not obvious to me that “I can make choices” is false in a perfectly determinist universe. For example if I have a strong dna-coded preference for vanilla ice-cream, and I therefore choose it every time I have a chance, it seems to me that this is “my” choice. Because it comes from ‘my’ brain structure, which originated from ‘my’ DNA. I do feel that my DNA preference is part of me, and that my DNA constrained choice is ‘my’ choice. May be my question could be reformulated as “what is the definition of ‘I’ in the free will question?”

        • Posted September 18, 2017 at 11:57 am | Permalink

          Not a silly question at all, but a profoundly insightful one, and the beginnings of a smart answer.

      • Vaal
        Posted September 17, 2017 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

        Given the notion that “choice” can also mean “picking one among a panoply of alternatives,” I don’t have a strong objection to using the word SO LONG AS one remains conscious that the idea of “free choice” is an illusion,

        As we annoying compatibilists point out: people normally associate the word “choice” with the assumption “one could do/have done otherwise.” If you aren’t using choice with that meaning, it seems you end up sewing confusion in the same way you accuse compatibilists of using the term “free will.”

        If on the other hand you are going to be clear that you are re-defining “choice” to be compatible with determinism, then how is it illegitimate if compatibilists did this with “free will” which depends on understanding choice within a deterministic frame work?
        (I reject that compatibilists are re-defining things, but I’m saying IF you make the re-definition/confusion charge, I don’t see how you avoid it when as an incompatibilist you still want to use the word “choice.”)

        All of this turns in the assumptions within “picking one among a panoply of alternatives.”

        When the waiter at a restaurant presents you with the day’s specials, and makes any recommendation, it seems we need a truly robust sense of “could choose otherwise” to even make coherent sense of this scenario.
        Simply appealing to a description of the causal involved – “the waiter’s words have an effect on my brain, part of the causal chain that leads to some inevitable choice on my part” – doesn’t answer the question. One can give a causal description both of someone making a silly, incoherent argument, OR a valid, sound, coherent argument, so we have to look at the logic involved in what you and the waiter MEAN by your terms – “choosing” “options” “alternatives” etc, in order to know whether you are engaged in a logically coherent discussion – and if you can make it coherent within the incompatibilist position.

        Anyway…I’m going to Sam Harris’ talk in Toronto tonight. If there are questions from the audience, perhaps I’ll be brave enough to raise such questions about his stance on Free Will.

        • Feri
          Posted September 17, 2017 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

          My brain concludes that your argument is completely logical and free will is an illusion. But, my brain also cannot fathom whether what you have stated is the real truth about “free will” or it is simply a deterministic conclusion determined by your genes, background, and environment!

          • Posted September 17, 2017 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

            Fair enough, but ask yourself this: do the laws of physics obtain not just for me, but for others. Do they allow us to predict things accurately. If so, then naturalism is true regardless of what determined me to promote it, and if naturalism be true, then “free will” be false.

        • Posted September 17, 2017 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

          Good comment. I’d be interested in a short report on Sam’s talk and whether you asked a question.

          • Vaal
            Posted September 17, 2017 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

            Sigh.

            Undone by the fear of public speaking.

            I wanted so much to ask Sam one of the many questions I’d have for him about free will.
            Specifically how he as an incompatibilist makes sense of prescriptive language.

            They even set up the audience microphone right by my row! I could have been first in line but I chickened out. It wasn’t just that it was speaking in front of the very large crowd, but that it was also being streamed, and then no doubt preserved forever on youtube. That’s just too much pressure for someone like myself who (rightly) worries about brain-freeze trying to formulate a complex question in front of a large audience.

            Of course, my butt is now black and blue from kicking myself all the way home.

            • Posted September 17, 2017 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

              Lol.

              Speedy recovery.

              • Vaal
                Posted September 17, 2017 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

                It won’t be speedy. I’ll be kicking myself for a long time to come, given how I’ve always wanted to have that opportunity. Nothing stays like regret…

            • Diane G.
              Posted September 17, 2017 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

              A fear I share and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few others here do as well, even in this elite commentariat. 😉

              • darrelle
                Posted September 18, 2017 at 7:30 am | Permalink

                I ain’t elite, but I do share the same fear!

              • Diane G.
                Posted September 19, 2017 at 2:12 am | Permalink

                (@ darrelle)

                We now share two sub-groups…

    • Posted September 17, 2017 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

      A calm and sane comment.

      JC, quite correctly, defined “compatibilism” as “the idea that while determinism reigns in human behavior—absent truly stochastic quantum phenomena, we can behave in only one way at one time, and that behavior is the deterministic result of our genes and our environments)—nevertheless we can define a form of free will that can harmonize determinism and some concept of “freedom”.”

      In this sense, I am a compatibilist. There is the fact that I’ve lived in Finland all my life and the Nordic judicial systems are all alike.

      The annual homicide rate in Finland is about 1.5 per 100 000 inhabitants. The population size is about 5.5 million and only 3 000 of us are behind bars.

      I suppose this means we’ve already had the sort of justice reforms progressive Americans dream of.

      I’m pretty sure they’ve come about by more or less the kind of thinking Dennett represents.

      • Posted September 17, 2017 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

        Umm. . . I take issue with your claim that the salubrious parts of the Finnish justice system come from compatibilism. Those who constructed that system may BE compatibilists, but in fact the system reflects the view that people have been determined to do a crime by their circumstances. How is some “redefinition of free will” responsible for any part of reforms of Finnish justice.

        It’s like saying that because most Finns eat fish, piscivory is responsible for the decent Finnish justice system. And how do you know that most Finns are compatibilist determinists anyway?

        • Posted September 18, 2017 at 5:07 am | Permalink

          Actually I’m with Pat Churchland in thinking that a logical action theory determinist would reject the idea of courts of law altogether. Que sera sera. Inshallah.

          Therefore the question of scientific, physical determinism has no relation to the justice system debate.

          The last paragraph of my previous comment was a bit of a joke. I simply meant that civilised people have built a civilised system without having to struggle with religious retribution fantasies.

          I remain a compatibilist. I also wish you success in using whatever propaganda tricks it takes to make your justice system more European. It takes a lot of determined action, pun intended.

      • rickflick
        Posted September 17, 2017 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

        The annual homicide rate in Finland is about 1.5 per 100 000.

        The US rate is 7.6 intentional homicides per 100,000 inhabitants for 2004. A global average intentional homicide rate of 6.2 per 100,000 population.

        Finland is doing well and what ever it is you are doing, it should be emulated by others.

  4. mfdempsey1946
    Posted September 17, 2017 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    You suggest that yet another post about free might distress many of your readers. As if the entire subject is closed except to the benighted. Whereas the enlightened long ago became comfortable with not having free will.

    I, for one, haven’t become comfortable in this way, though I seem to be moving in that direction and and am doing my limited best to gain a more sophisticated grasp of the issues involved.

    So I hope you will keep your free will commentaries coming. Others who have never even heard of the debates around free will (a large majority, I believe) might find them as challenging and helpful as I do if they are ever exposed to these debates.

    For example, using a 2014 Edge piece, I recently introduced your basic ideas to some Rio de Janeiro students as part of an English reading, writing, and speaking class.

    The students were not at all aware of the notion or the controversies around it that traditional free will is an illusion. And they were certainly not comfortable right off the bat with this idea.

    But the article and our discussions about it did intrigue them and stimulate them — besides improving their English fluency.

  5. rickflick
    Posted September 17, 2017 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me the confusion over free will boils down to levels of meaning. We certainly are determined by prior events in the way we imagine a billiard shot to be absolutely determined as long as you take into account all aspects of the physics down to the atomic level.
    But any talk of freedom in the compatibilist sense really is talking about activity at the psychological and sociological level. The idea of free will might be “useful” at this level of discussion. I think Sean Carroll talks about this idea of levels of language and thought that use terms and ideas usefully in different contexts. So free will can be said to “exist” for discussions of how people think and behave, while free will can be said not to exist in discussions at the level of physics or where psychology is not a factor. It seems to me that this equivocation is at work under the covers whenever I see the topic discussed.

    • Phil
      Posted September 17, 2017 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      Agreed.

    • Kosmos
      Posted September 17, 2017 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      Sean Carroll’s explanation of how we can describe the same phenomenon in various degrees of coarseness is excellent.

    • Liz
      Posted September 17, 2017 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      I actually don’t think it’s “useful” to use this language at this level. Because we don’t have free will, this language is only confusing. I love Sean Carroll’s use of vocabulary at different levels. On the usefulness of free will, though, I disagree.

    • Diane G.
      Posted September 17, 2017 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

      Yes!

    • Posted September 18, 2017 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think it’s right to say free will doesn’t exist at the micro-level, it’s just that it falls outside the discussion if we’re talking about the micro-level. Importantly, Sean also notes that at the level of fundamental particles, the difference between cause and effect vanishes – so the common sense idea of “causal determination” *also* falls outside that discussion.

      • rickflick
        Posted September 18, 2017 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

        The basic idea about determinism is that we have no capacity to change it. Even if cause and effect are equivocal, you still can’t intervene in the course of the universe. The only sense in which free will makes sense is to say that we have a feeling of being autonomous and act as though we are. The problem is, WE are the compilation of material and forces. Thus, WE are the billiard ball and not available to independently change the angle of inflection. Do you want to go out for ice cream? Quick, don’t think about it. 😎

  6. Posted September 17, 2017 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    People seem to have missed my main point, which is that yes, we can talk about “free will” in some sense that can be useful, but it’s far more important to come to grips with determinism and its consequences. THAT is what I am trying to say. To me it’s more important to deal with the truth about our behavior—and then to improve society based on that truth—than to engage in semantic games, for I don’t see such games as advancing humanity nearly as much as embracing determinism of behavior. There’s no evidence for the claims that it’s harmful to undercut the claims of neuroscience, or to disabuse people about their ideas of free will. Yet I think most of us would see the U.S. justice system, with much of its precepts depending on the idea of libertarian “choice”, as dysfunctional.

    I’m surprised that people aren’t all warm and fuzzy with people redefining “God” as “love” or “the universe”, which is really an equivalent strategy.

    • Kosmos
      Posted September 17, 2017 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      I agree with you in that I want to reserve the non-specified term “free will” for the libertarian kind. But I have no trouble saying that we have “compatibilistic free will”, although I philosophically would call myself a hard incompatibilist.

      I think it’s good to raise awareness of the fact that we are determined. But while doing that it is prudent and beneficial to also highlight our compatibilistic freedom.

    • rom
      Posted September 17, 2017 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      The free will debate frequently devolves into a free choice debate and confounds freedom of action and freedom of will.

      My “will” for the most part appears in my consciousness … it’s just there. OK I can imagine higher order wills … I wished I had the will to exercise more etc. But the higher order wills just pop into my mind too.

      I am surprised by Tom’s position as Naturalism.org has and excellent collection of essays against free will. A good one I found was The Buck Stops Where by Galen Strawson.
      http://www.naturalism.org/philosophy/free-will/the-buck-stops-where

      I can’t help thinking explain our “shoulds” in terms of morality is just a more insidious form of compatibilism.

      • Posted September 17, 2017 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

        Tom used to comment here regularly on free will threads espousing compatibilism (6-8 years ago). His comments were among those that persuaded me.

    • YF
      Posted September 17, 2017 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      It is possible to accept that the brain (along with human psychology) operates according to the laws of physics and also to recognize the useful (and very real) distinction between choosing freely (that is, acting voluntarily) and choosing under coercion.

      Choosing ‘freely’ simply means choosing in accordance with one’s desires. The distinction is between giving money voluntarily (e.g., to charity) and handing over money at gunpoint.

      • Posted September 17, 2017 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

        Indeed.

        But it’s also important to recognize degrees of freedom that one enjoys simply by virtue of the kind of thing one is. Humans enjoy more degrees of freedom than do rocks. “Free will” is the distinction between conscious agents and rocks.

    • Ken
      Posted September 18, 2017 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      +100

  7. Posted September 17, 2017 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    I am not sure accepting determinism would necessarily lead to a more humane justice system. If one had a computer which did “bad things” like destroy documents, one would want to “reprogram” the computer or, failing that, discard it. Applied to humans who do “bad things” to society, that might mean a gruesome ludovico technique as in A Clockwork Orange or, failing that, incarceration or capital punishment.

    • Posted September 17, 2017 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

      You reprogram first, right. One thing you don’t do is punish the computer. If you car breaks down, you don’t beat it or put it in jail because it “did the wrong thing”. No determinist I know of has suggested that you torture people. What would be the point of that?

      If you think that humans are simply products of their genes and environments, and there is the possibility of reprogramming them, why not try? Why torture them? Or you can do what Norway does: 20 years max, psychiatric evaluation, if no rehabilitation another five years, and so on.

      Would you torture a dog who behaved badly because his previous owners bused him?

      • Posted September 17, 2017 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

        The fictional Ludovic technique isn’t meant to be torture. It is “aversion therapy” designed to change the antisocial behavior of the miscreant.

      • Posted September 17, 2017 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

        No, you don’t beat a car that stops functioning well, but you also don’t invest much in trying to resurrect (reprogram) it. Thinking of everything in purely mechanistic terms is no path to humane policy, imo.

        • darrelle
          Posted September 18, 2017 at 7:43 am | Permalink

          “Thinking of everything in purely mechanistic terms is no path to humane policy, imo.”

          I couldn’t agree more. But I don’t think that is an accurate characterization of the incompatibilist’s position or Jerry’s specifically. Though of course that may not be what you are saying. My take away from Jerry’s past several years writing about free will is that his contention that people could not have done otherwise and therefore retributive punishment should not be used is driven by compassion.

  8. Rosmarie Maran
    Posted September 17, 2017 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    I always wonder how evolution would be possible in a truly and fully deterministic world.

    • rom
      Posted September 17, 2017 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      Take a look outside through the window.

      The chaotic evolution we see is a result (determined by) quantum phenomena, classical phenomena or some combination thereof.

      • Rosmarie Maran
        Posted September 17, 2017 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

        So nothing could have happened otherwise in evolution? Determined mutations then?

        • rom
          Posted September 17, 2017 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

          Possibly. It depends on the properties of the universe … in particular the properties of quantum phenomena.

          Whether we have a cosmic quantum dice shaker or not.

          If we subscribe to the many worlds interpretation then there even less room for free will and there infinite variations of evolution occurring.

          I am not sure I subscribe to this view.

        • Posted September 17, 2017 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

          I’d read the section of Faith vs. Fact on your question. To the extent that mutations are truly indeterministic quantum phenomena, evolution could have happened differently. But we don’t know if they are. If mutations are determined, then a rerun of life would produce exactly the same products.

          • Posted September 17, 2017 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

            I’m not sure if this is relevant but this paper tries to demonstrate that evolution is chaotic (in a chaos theory sense of the word): http://www.worldscientific.com/doi/abs/10.1142/S0218127410027829

            I am not a trained scientist by any means but here’s what I think about the effects of quantum phenomena on mutations. Since interactions between individual mutagen molecules (or UV/gamma ray photons) and DNA are probabilistic, the same interactions may not happen even if the initial conditions are identical. Because of the chaotic nature of evolution, I doubt things will be the same if we rewound and replayed the history of life on Earth.

  9. YF
    Posted September 17, 2017 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    I think the important point to consider is whether our criminal justice system should include retributive punishment or not.

    I see this as orthogonal to the ‘free will’ debate. Even if we are just meat machines (which we are), some may see justice served only if the ‘meat machine’ is made to suffer for its crimes.

    I believe that in enlightened Scandinavia criminality is viewed more as a societal mental health issue, whereas in the primitive USA it is viewed as a moral issue, with quasi-religious undertones.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted September 17, 2017 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      Plus seeing people who have harmed you and yours receive punishment by a formal system will discourage you from exacting personal revenge and vendetta.

      An ‘eye for an eye’ seems harsh justice, but ‘no more than one eye for an eye’ seeks to limit the vicious spiral of revenge.

      Which may be why ‘restorative justice’ might have to go hand in hand with rehabilitation.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted September 17, 2017 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

        “An ‘eye for an eye’ seems harsh justice”

        It’s only justice if the first ‘eye’ was deliberate, since the second one certainly is.

        If the first one was accidental, then retaliation in kind is grossly excessive.

        cr

    • Posted September 17, 2017 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

      Orthogonal. Agree.

    • Posted September 18, 2017 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

      By the same token, even if people had “libertarian free will”, meaning they were subject to “decisions” that literally came out of nowhere, that wouldn’t make it OK to condemn anyone to endless torture (think: hell, the ultimate retribution). Anyone who thinks it does has a big moral problem, never mind the metaphysics.

  10. Randy schenck
    Posted September 17, 2017 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    I would certainly agree that coming to grips with determinism and then doing something about it’s consequences is key. However, this is not possible until or unless the majority who do not believe in determinism are convinced of it, allowing the other to take place. Here we have Dennett who does not even want the idea of no free will spoken or we will have chaos.

  11. mirandaga
    Posted September 17, 2017 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    So some people are progammed to believe scientific evidence and others are programmed to trust their “qualia.” If that’s the case, on what grounds can we say that one approach to reality is more objectively valid than the other? Just askin’.

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted September 17, 2017 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      Plus we all have only a limited conscious grasp of our own genetics and environment (other than blindingly obvious prior conditions) hiding personal determinism from us.

      • Posted September 17, 2017 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

        I ask you this, so what? I never said the results are 100% predictable; all I said is that there’s no evidence against determinism save quantum indeterminacy (see Sean Carroll’s latest book if you don’t agree).

        Or are you a libertarian of the “ghost in the machine variety”.

        Either you are a naturalist or you think there’s some fundamental non-quantum supernaturalism that rules our behavior. Which is it? If you’re a determinist, what is the point of saying that we’ll never know enough to predict everything? We can still act on our naturalism.

        • DiscoveredJoys
          Posted September 18, 2017 at 10:02 am | Permalink

          Nope, it’s naturalism all the way down. We just can’t see that far in ourselves or others, so we lack deep insight.

          I agree that Free Will is not compatible with determinism, but argue that agency (in the sense of our actions being judged by others)
          is compatible with determinism.

          • Posted September 18, 2017 at 10:39 am | Permalink

            Free Will with capital letters reminds me of belief in miracles or supernatural CEO’s of the Universe.

            No grown-up believes in that.

            But compatibilists are absolutely correct in assuming this has nothing to do with judicial considerations of responsibility.

            Among adults those considerations relate to rehabilitation and security. Crimes exist and have to be dealt with, but they are not crimes against God.

    • Posted September 17, 2017 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

      Because one approach yields results and predictable outcomes. The people who believe in science can cure disease; those who believe in “feels” can’t. Scientists can land space probes on comets, New Agers can’t. To the extent that predictability and achieving desired empirical results are produced by scientific evidence, that’s all the “objective validity” I need.

      Do you send your kids to shamans or faith healers when they get sick? If not, why not? And observing those results reprograms people toward scientific evidence. No determinist claims that “minds cannot be changed.”

  12. Joseph F. Shine
    Posted September 17, 2017 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    Free Will is religious bullshit. It’s an attempt to exonerate a perfect God for the problems in real life

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 17, 2017 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

      Well that version certainly is.

      Funnily enough, though, when a religioso does something good, it wasn’t his free will at all, it was because G*d told him to.

      cr

  13. Posted September 17, 2017 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    I think one needn’t go any further than a dictionary to understand that free will exists.

    will: (noun) the faculty by which a person decides on and initiates action.

    free: (adjective) not under the control or in the power of another; able to act or be done as one wishes.

  14. Posted September 17, 2017 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jerry, thanks for wading yet again into the free will wars, just a few comments:

    You say: “I fail to understand why philosophers spend their time trying to harmonize free will and determinism when the really useful thing they could be doing—the kind of philosophy that really makes a difference in society—is to work out the consequences of determinism, especially with respect to the judicial system.”

    Actually, a good deal of what I’ve written about free will (since 1998 when Naturalism.Org got going) is centered on these issues, see for instance the criminal justice page at Naturalism.org, http://www.naturalism.org/applied-naturalism/criminal-justice Like you, I’m dead set against desert-entailing moral responsibility and retributive punishment.

    I’ve also applied naturalistic determinism (lack of libertarian free will) to behavioral disorders and addiction, climate change, and social justice and social policy, see http://www.naturalism.org/applied-naturalism

    I’m totally *not* a compatibilist, even though there’s a real sense in which we make choices that’s compatible with determinism, as many have pointed out in this thread. My case against compatibilists is “The scandal of compatibilism,” http://www.naturalism.org/resources/book-reviews/the-scandal-of-compatibilism

    You say: “But what does it mean to say ‘most of the time we are in control of our behavior, free from coercion or manipulation by others’?”

    As a person living in a largely open society, most of the time I’m on my own recognizance, free from coercion, which is an important kind of freedom. You think determinism is coercive, so we’re never in control: “Our backgrounds, moral instruction from parents and peers, and so on, have imposed a coercion on our behavior that is just as “coercive” as somebody making you give up your wallet by holding a gun to your head.” But this ignores the crucial distinction *within determinism* between making choices based on what I want versus doing what someone else forces me to do. In the latter case I’m not in control in the way I am in the former case. This is a straightforward and very much *non-trivial* sense of being in control, of freedom, of autonomy, but nothing that justifies retributive punishment in the way most compatibilists somehow suppose. (Dennett has thankfully come out against retribution, just wish he’d write an op-ed about it sometime.)

    Although I’m not a compatibilist, I point out there are different definitions of free will. Libertarian (contra-causal) freedom is pretty clearly a naturalistic non-starter, as I say in the article you linked to, and what compatibilists call “free will” (I don’t call it that) exists but doesn’t have the moral implications, e.g., re punishment, they claim.

    Near the end you say “It’s time for philosophers to stop wasting time on compatibilism, to start emphasizing determinism more, and then work out the consequences of that determinism.”

    If you come across a website or other resource that does as much or more than Naturalism.Org to emphasize the personal, social, practical, ethical, and existential implications of worldview naturalism as well as determinism (indeterminism doesn’t add to control or responsibility), please let me know.

    I’ll close by saying how much I appreciate what you do here on all sorts of topics, much of which I tend to agree with, and usually learn from. Plus you write real good. Keep up the great work!

    • Posted September 17, 2017 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for your comment. I certainly wasn’t trying to accuse you or Naturalism.org of wasting its time on arcane speculations, as I’m aware of the practical philosophy that appears on that site. I was talking more about people like Dan Dennett and Eddy Nahmias who write many articles and books explicitly devoted to working out new forms of compatibilism, or arguing repeatedly that rejecting free will is bad for society.

      As for your not being a compatibilist, your article certainly seemed to be compatibilist to me, and that’s the basis on which I wrote. But if you reject that label, I’ll take your word for it. And I’ll reciprocate by saying that Naturalism.org is a great resource, one that I’ve benefited from repeatedly.

      • Posted September 18, 2017 at 6:15 am | Permalink

        Thanks Jerry. I think what might have misled folks was that I said that what compatibilists define and refer to as “free will” exists and is an important kind of freedom. However, I don’t think we should go around calling that “free will,” given the multiple meanings of the term and the fact that compatibilists generally try to leverage the claim that we have free will into the claim we have desert-entailing moral responsibility that justifies retributive punishment. What they refer to as “free will” doesn’t have those implications, I’ve argued.

    • Posted September 17, 2017 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

      Oh, wow. Your comments here in the past helped persuade me that compatibilism was not just straw-grasping. But you don’t consider yourself a compatibilism?

      • Posted September 17, 2017 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

        Compatibilist.

      • Posted September 18, 2017 at 7:12 am | Permalink

        Nope, see “The Scandal of Compatibilism” over at Naturalism.org

    • Posted September 18, 2017 at 5:22 am | Permalink

      #14. Tom Clark: “…there’s a real sense in which we make choices that’s compatible with determinism”

      Now, this is compatibilism, quite simply.

      • Posted September 18, 2017 at 6:04 am | Permalink

        Compatibilism is the thesis that *free will* is compatible with determinism, so unless you equate making choices with having free will (and why do that?), what you quote isn’t compatibilism.

        • Posted September 18, 2017 at 6:08 am | Permalink

          “Why do that?” Because several readers, as well as other people, have made that equation!

          • Posted September 18, 2017 at 6:21 am | Permalink

            But *why* do they do that?

            • Posted September 18, 2017 at 6:38 am | Permalink

              Ask them! They read and comment here.

              • Posted September 18, 2017 at 9:47 am | Permalink

                This is obviously people taking the word “choice” differently (in ambiguous ways).

                I’d suggest what is really happening is the distinction between “making a choice” and “being able to have chosen otherwise”. In fact, I’d say that as soon as you say that one could not have chosen otherwise, you are automatically suggesting that they made a choice. The word “choice” does not necessarily require an “otherwise’ possibility for it (even though one might interpret it that way).

                I’d suggest it is the distinction between a choice and a “free choice”. Same with other words such as deliberation: one can say we deliberated between epistemic options and opted one based on the deliberation – without suggesting that they could have deliberated or opted differently. One can say a deliberation process happened with the deliberation process being “free”.

                One does not have to reject the word “choice” or “deliberation” to be a free will skeptic (rather than compatibilist). Someone like Tom can reject that the term “free will” should be attached to the term “choice” in a deterministic universe (which he does)…and he can also reject that someone “could have done otherwise” and say that free will should point to this ability (for various reasons).

                Later.

              • Posted September 18, 2017 at 9:49 am | Permalink

                Fix: “One can say a deliberation process happened WITHOUT the deliberation process being “free”.

              • helenahankart
                Posted September 18, 2017 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

                Why do that? In brief because unless our choices are made by (determined by) the right bits of us (usually involving functioning frontal lobes) then they either arent ours, or arent choices.

      • stephnlawrnce
        Posted September 18, 2017 at 7:29 am | Permalink

        There is making choices and there is having a special way of being able to make different choices, which could make us deserving of the consequences of which choice we make. These two concepts need separating out. Simply making choices isn’t enough to have free will. Even a compatibilist accepts that. So although a slave makes a choice, of sorts, to work, preferring that to the consequences of not doing so, the slave does not work of his own free will.

    • Posted September 19, 2017 at 2:20 am | Permalink

      The quotations cited in the original post read like compatibilism. But it is no surprise that there might be somebody who thinks like a compatibilist but does not accept that label given that the difference between compatibilists and incompatibilists is entirely semantic.

      What I am not sure of is where there are any compatibilists who favour retributive punishment. Such a position would not seem internally consistent with the acceptance of determinism, which is a necessary condition for being a compatibilist. Could you specify one compatibilist who has argued for a revenge-based justice system?

      • Posted September 19, 2017 at 8:13 am | Permalink

        Yes, there are several compatibilists I’ve written about on the Criminal Justice and Retribution pages at Naturalism.org who are retributivists, including law scholars Stephen Morse and Michael Moore, plus see “The Scandal of Compatibilism” and “Heading Off the Revolution” about Dennett (who has since reformed) and a few others.

        • Posted September 19, 2017 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

          Tom,

          In the meantime I have read your Scandal of Compatibilism, and I wonder if you are not perhaps conflating a few things under retribution. To me that word means revenge, i.e. the point of the justice system would be to satisfy the emotions of a victim as opposed to deter people from committing crimes, reforming criminals, or sequestering the dangerous. I would argue that there is no justice system or even significant school of thought that is purely based on retribution anyway, at least in any contemporary country that isn’t in anarchy. Even in a system like you have in the USA, where the death penalty is promoted by many under that logic, that is not the whole story; and really the USA are an outlier, an aberration in what we sometimes call the West. I have lived in three countries so far, and retribution is just not part of the official thinking in justice, even as individual people understandably have those emotions. (In that context it also reads as if you appear to conclude that everybody who does not explicitly reject ‘retribution’ is building their entire view of justice on it, whereas I would assume that everybody who does not explicitly argue for it rejects it as their foundation, because that seems like a safe assumption among civilised people.)

          If then indeed you do have an extremely wide definition of ‘retribution’ that includes any consideration of deservedness of a punishment, I can only say, “what Gregory Kusnick said”. A small thought experiment might put the finger on the problem. Imagine a society A where the rulers decided that the best way to reduce crime is to execute anybody who ever commits any rule-breaking whatsoever, no matter how small the offense (littering). And imagine a society B where the rulers found that locking perps up for three months is entirely sufficient to deter the sane and rational from committing any crime, no matter which one, so that is the punishment for everything from shoplifting to mass murder. As you at least appear to say that we should only consider outcomes, this might (?) appear to be very consistent with your stance. Yet I cannot help but think that it would offend the vast majority of people to see the same punishment meted out for minor offenses and for terrible atrocities. My point here is that there is a sense of ‘deservedness’ of a punishment that includes ‘he deserves more than just a slap on the wrist for what he did’ without being in any way about retribution in the sense of revenge, in the sense of ‘I want to see him suffer so that I feel happy again’. But as GK suggests, it just seems unrealistic to construct a system of justice for humans from first principles without taking the nature of those humans into account.

          Which brings me to my last point. You appear to suggest that this is a case of the naturalist fallacy. I believe that if we take the naturalist fallacy seriously we will find that there is no way of jumping from is to ought, full stop. Then whence your own ought, when you argue for your favoured system of justice? Well, from the same place in both cases. Every time we argue towards conclusions about what humans should do we have to base them on what humans desire, and it seems inconsistent to allow the human desire for good outcomes but disallow the human desire for punishments that are proportional to the magnitude of the crime even if disproportional punishment would already lead to good outcomes.

          • Posted September 20, 2017 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

            “I believe that if we take the naturalist fallacy seriously we will find that there is no way of jumping from is to ought, full stop. Then whence your own ought, when you argue for your favoured system of justice?”

            On the naturalistic fallacy, and how to get from is to ought without committing either it or the supernaturalistic fallacy, see “Naturalism and normativity” over at the naturalism website under Philosophy/Morality.

            I agree that we have to take sides on what should be our governing values without there being a controlling superordinate stance independent of those values. One way to get at this is to ask: what kind of culture do we want? One that indulges and ratifies our retributive appetites or one that seeks to minimize suffering? Unlike Jared Diamond, I opt for the latter, see “Repressing revenge” under Applied Naturalism/Criminal Justice.

            • Posted September 20, 2017 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

              I could also point you towards various posts I have written on my blog, but that does not seem like an efficient way of having a conversation, nor a polite way of addressing arguments.

              So perhaps I will leave it at this: You still over-simplify at best or deliberately conflate at worst. Your language – here and in your essays – takes “argues that the word free will has a meaning compatible with determinism”, “argues that there are varying levels of responsibility even under determinism, e.g. between a toddler and an adult, or between a drunk and a sober person”, “argues that there are varying degrees of deservedness of punishment, e.g. disproportionate retribution is unfair”, “takes human nature into account when considering what kind of justice system would be workable”, “ratifies our retributive appetites”, “makes retribution their guiding value”, and “is in favour of the death penalty”, and piles them all into one big strawman that is so much easier to set fire to.

              I would have thought it obvious that somebody who agrees with, say, the first three of those does not automatically agree with the last three. And I assume you would also be frustrated if some libertarian pretended to have a discussion with you by consistently claiming that your position is that we should just let criminals commit crimes, because you say that things are predetermined, and that’s what that means.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted September 19, 2017 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      Tom, I’m puzzled by your insistence, in “The Scandal of Compatibilism”, that “retribution is premised on a non-functional notion of blame” and that “the definition of retribution” is “punishing the guilty, irrespective of social or personal benefits”.

      Given that “retribution comes so naturally to us” and is indeed universal among human cultures, shouldn’t we take a moment to ask why we have these retributive impulses? One obvious answer is that they had adaptive value to our ancestors. On this view, retribution is the opposite of non-functional, and punishing the guilty isn’t “an intrinsic good in itself”; it’s a proxy for the downstream social good, just as sexual pleasure is a proxy for reproductive success.

      Note that I’m not claiming that because it evolved, it must therefore be an unalloyed good. But I find it hard to fathom how it’s possible to have a sensible discussion of retribution without acknowledging its evolutionary history as a form of hardwired consequentialism.

      • helenahankart
        Posted September 19, 2017 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think there’s any question that revenge was adaptive in the past and is adaptive now in lawless environments (where your reputation as a crazy revenge taker is your only protection). But we don’t live in those environments and it’s an impulse thatvjs now harmful (like Nepotism)

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted September 19, 2017 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

          Whether retributive impulses are currently helpful or harmful is an empirical question, and I’m taking no position on that. My issue is with Tom’s claim that such impulses are by definition unmotivated by consequences, since in fact they’ve been shaped by natural selection for their consequences.

          • helenahankart
            Posted September 20, 2017 at 1:24 am | Permalink

            I think you may be imparting teleogy to natural selection here? Natural selection has no foresight. It can create critters with foresight (e.g. you and me) but it itself can have none

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted September 20, 2017 at 2:17 am | Permalink

              It takes no foresight to select traits based on their consequences. Consequences are what natural selection is all about.

              • Posted September 20, 2017 at 2:26 am | Permalink

                Just to make some sense of this conversation: Is phenotype “a trait” or “a consequence”?

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted September 20, 2017 at 11:41 am | Permalink

                Well, if we’re being careful we should say that ultimately it’s genes that are selected, and phenotypes are part of the chain of consequences by which fitness is measured. But I don’t think that matters much to the point about foresight.

              • helenahankart
                Posted September 20, 2017 at 3:09 am | Permalink

                Yes. But reasons aren’t causes. To confuse the two is to impart teleology to natural selection. This is a mistake that a lot of people (e.g. recently Jerry Fodor) make because evolution by natural selection is deceptively simple. We can have foresight (e.g. “encouraging retribituon will brutalise society”) but natural selection can’t do that (neither can it care about things like “brutalise”, unless this has fitness consequences)

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted September 20, 2017 at 11:32 am | Permalink

                I’m not responsible for Jerry Fodor’s errors, nor do I see how what I said can reasonably be construed as implying foresight or teleology. Our retributive impulses have been shaped by natural selection in the same sense as river canyons are shaped by erosion, and to say that something is selected for just means that it’s selected because of its fitness consequences.

              • helenahankart
                Posted September 20, 2017 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

                In that case, it appears we are agreeing with each other….but possibly at cross purposes!

          • helenahankart
            Posted September 20, 2017 at 1:36 am | Permalink

            I don’t think it’s hard to show that retributive impulses are currently harmful. This is at least one of the things that seems to be motivating JC, and I think he’s almost certainly right. Lots of things that increases fitness can be harmful, and at lots of levels (a sweet tooth, Nepotism, a tendency to think that tall bloviating psychopaths with preposterous hair are actually ‘confident leaders’ etc etc). Retribution sends out various messages, in much the same way anger does. The usual intuition pump is the “irrationality potion”, which makes me love pain, enjoy watching my loved ones suffer etc. You come to rob me and want my safe combination. I visibly drink the potion. Now, theres nothing you can do to me to make me give it over (I enjoy your attempts at interrogation etc). Anger has a similar hard to fake irrationality about it. Well, so does retribution-and for similar reasons (it sends the signal out to others that you will sacrifice rationality just to get someone even though it will never bring back what’s lost). This is very different from detterents, and for obvious reasons. While anger (irrationally) makes you not to be messed with now revenge makes you not to be messed with in the future. But both these belong to a previous age before institutional involvement in personal issues.

      • Posted September 19, 2017 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

        Yes, we’re certainly hard-wired to be retributivists due to the natural function of retaliation, but as you and Helena say, that doesn’t justify retribution. Some compatibilists try to justify punishment on various deontological, non-consequentialist grounds, e.g., because the offender deserves it, which is what we ordinarily think of as retribution (as opposed to punishment for deterrence, public safety, etc.).

        Here’s a bit from “Are we obligated to our instincts?” over at the naturalism website which addresses your point:

        “We can see that there’s an evolutionary functional logic for having intuitions of justice that target free riders and aggressors for punishment. We can thus explain at least some of our punitive tendencies toward others as more or less hard-wired, ready to be triggered by certain of their behaviors. What’s important to recognize, however, is that this explanation doesn’t in any sense justify acting on such tendencies. Simply because we find ourselves built to retaliate or punish cheaters doesn’t mean that to do so is right in a particular situation, even though such tendencies have an evolutionary rationale. To justify punishment, we have to look beyond our instincts, and consider, in the context of other values we might have, what the consequences of punishment will be, and whether, all things considered, this particular punishment (or any punishment) best serves the purpose of bringing about the sort of society we want. To draw any direct conclusion from the fact of our punitive inclinations to their normative claim on us would be an example of the naturalistic fallacy, the illicit move from is to ought.”

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted September 19, 2017 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

          I’m aware of the naturalistic fallacy and am not particularly advocating for retribution. But I might take issue with the claim that “this explanation doesn’t in any sense justify acting on such tendencies” (my emphasis). If we accept that these tendencies embody some form of hard-won “functional logic”, then why shouldn’t we allocate them some weight in our consequentialist calculus, particularly in cases where our ability to rationally foresee consequences is limited? If natural selection has already done some of the calculation for us, why is it wrong to take advantage of that?

          More broadly, Dennett has pointed out that if we consider respect for the rule of law to be a social good, then it behooves us to make laws that people can respect, i.e. that are at least roughly congruent with their innate sense of justice. This would seem to be another sense in which retribution can’t be cleanly divorced from consequentialism.

          • Posted September 19, 2017 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

            “Why shouldn’t we allocate them some weight in our consequentialist calculus?” In my book, the consequentialism/deontology divide is oversimplified at best. To justify moral goals, rules, and virtues, we have to appeal to reasons that the participants in the moral conversation can appreciate (“at least roughly congruent with their innate sense of justice”). There is no need to set up a hierarchy between goals, rules, and virtues – such as goals on top and the other two strictly derivative – and I don’t see any convincing reason to do so.

            Rules can be reasonably rejected if they generally lead to terrible consequences, even if the rule on its face is intuitively appealing. On the other hand, if a given rule is justified, we can be justified in following it even if *in this particular case* it leads to undesirable consequences. This includes rules about punishment.

            Does that make me a “retributivist”? On many definitions, no, on others, yes. Now that’s a semantic dispute I feel no need to settle.

          • Posted September 20, 2017 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

            I agree that our retributive inclinations often point us in the right consequentialist direction, but retributivism per se is exactly that which discounts consequences as necessary justifications for punishment, and thus is demarcated from consequentialism. It’s keeping retributive inclinations in check that I think is the main thing, and appreciating the fact that there’s no causally exempt, libertarian agent (which is what Jerry rightly focuses on) can help with this. Were libertarian intuitions undermined, I think that would help a lot in criminal justice reform, given what might be called the “mitigation response.” See http://www.naturalism.org/resources/talks/on-forgiveness and my review of retributivist Michael Moore’s book Placing Blame at http://www.naturalism.org/resources/book-reviews/against-retribution

        • helenahankart
          Posted September 20, 2017 at 3:22 am | Permalink

          I’m pretty sure that almost nothing behavioral is “hard wired” and an awful lot of what is (baby reflexes for instance) gets “unwired” within a few months. What we have are canalised developmental pathways with large but finite potentials. The trouble with “hard wired” is that it implies things like “fixed at birth” or “not subject to revision or learning” and none of these things are true of what we are talking about. Indeed, we couldn’t talk about them if they were.
          We certainly have retribituon impulses, and a quick look at history and mythology suggests a cross cultural representation of same. But we also have (and as far as I can make out for a similar time) Better Angels (every culture has concepts like mercy, burying the hatchet etc).
          The standard rules of law (which used to be called the Mnaughten rules after the rule of thumb for the guy who thought he shot Robert Peel, and wasn’t deterred by the policeman standing there) are that you can’t have men’s rea if you don’t know what you are doing is wrong. Well, I submit that “knowledge of potential punishment” is how we impart a sense of “wrong” to those edgy cases (the psychopath, the angry almost to the point of incoherence etc). They can have a sense that consequences could occur even if they don’t feel its wrong (as we hope most people do most of the time or the whole thing falls apart…we can’t go running to law for every infraction…and those who do…the Trumps of the world…will wreck it if we copy them).
          So this gives some substance to Dennetts “freewill as moral competence” insight. Free choices include those where foresight of (possibly negative) consiewnces factor into current decision. Those who can’t ever achieve that are less free. And we treat them (children, the criminally insane etc) as less free. And we are right to do so

  15. Posted September 17, 2017 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    Another free will post? You really can’t help yourself, can you?

    • rickflick
      Posted September 17, 2017 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

      Was that comment absolutely necessary? 😎

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted September 17, 2017 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

        He couldn’t help but make it.

        It’s all PCC’s fault 😉

        cr

      • Posted September 18, 2017 at 6:16 am | Permalink

        Yeah, was it?

  16. Posted September 18, 2017 at 5:18 am | Permalink

    “is to work out the consequences of determinism, especially with respect to the judicial system”

    That’s like riding a rollercoaster, and urging it to follow the tracks. Incompatibilist need to be more consistent with their position.

  17. Posted September 18, 2017 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I think the arguments for human determinism are at best premature and worst, specious. I find arguments about free will tedious because most people limit the discussion to conscious free will and we make very, very few decisions consciously.

    When I first read of the experiments in which subjects muscles showed action potentials building in muscles a fraction of a second before a decision was made to move the finger the muscle was attached to, this seemed both fascinating and ordinary. Our conscious minds are the General William Westmorelands of our mental structures: they like to think they are in charge but they aren’t. Most decisions are made either emotionally or subconsciously and since we are just beginning to understand the brains’s structures in creating a subconscious mind, we are in no place to discuss whether “free will” is deterministic or not. If you limit FW to conscious free will, then yes, but that is a very small piece of the picture and certainly not the primary part of the picture.

    • Kosmos
      Posted September 19, 2017 at 5:05 am | Permalink

      If it’s not deterministic then it’s part random which doesn’t give you anymore control. And how can we possibly be in control of our unconscious decisions?

  18. Alex
    Posted September 18, 2017 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    Hello Jerry. I want to say that although some of your readers may be tired of your free will posts I am not! I still find them very interesting indeed. I haven’t heard you comment much on the “self” that we all feel we are/have. This is something that Sam Harris has talked a lot about. But I’d love to hear your thoughts too, if you have time. Thank you.

  19. Posted September 18, 2017 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    Jerry says that people don’t have free will, but they do make choices and are autonomous beings: in short they have some of the features that people intuitively associated with “free will”. Compatibilists says that people do have free will, but it doesn’t operate in the (contra-causal) way lots of people think it operates. Either way, a “but” is required to explain fully. I don’t see how Jerry can claim the high ground there. The question seems to boil down to whether choice, or contra-causal metaphysics, is more central to the concept. Perhaps we should ask how people respond when asked to explain what it means to have free will.

    A reason not “to work out the consequences of determinism … with respect to the judicial system,” is that to a first approximation, there aren’t any – barring nasty vindictive moral views that we should reject regardless of determinism or lack thereof.

    Subjective feelings of desire don’t make us “free” in a sense that a computer isn’t, but they arguably do make us “willful” in a sense that something without subjective feelings is not.

    Jerry says Dennett rejects the idea that “you-could-have-done-otherwise”. I doubt it. Dennett holds that “evitability” is a key feature of intelligent behavior. But never mind Dennett; the idea that determinism implies you couldn’t do otherwise is a mistake. It comes from holding the past to be “fixed” – which in turn comes from the intuitive ideas of time and causality, not from the scientific understanding of causality. Because we are macroscopic beings interested in large-scale properties and systems where entropy has meaning and importance, we think of “the past” as being invariant to human action. And at large scales, it basically is. But this doesn’t extend all the way down. At the fundamental level, the laws of physics are CPT-symmetric (charge, parity, and time). The fine details of the past are logically dependent (in accord with the laws of nature) on what we do now. There is no master and no slave in the lawlike relations between past and future micro events – that idea is wrongly extrapolated from our experiences of choice and action, however intuitive it might be.

    So when Jerry says that there’s a conflict between people’s intuitive ideas about free will and determinism, he’s absolutely right. Something’s gotta give. And what should give, is people’s intuitive ideas about determinism.

    • Posted September 18, 2017 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

      “The fine details of the past are logically dependent (in accord with the laws of nature) on what we do now.”

      What is what we do now dependent on? There isn’t any uncaused vantage point from which we act, is there?

      “Because we are macroscopic beings interested in large-scale properties and systems where entropy has meaning and importance, we think of “the past” as being invariant to human action. And at large scales, it basically is.”

      I think this answers my question. What we do now depends on what has transpired in the past, and the fine details of the past that you say depend on what we do now (if indeed they do) wash out at the macroscopic level. But please correct me if this isn’t right, citations welcome.

      • Posted September 19, 2017 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

        The fine details of the past only wash out at the macroscopic level of the past. At the macroscopic level of the present and future, they’re generally important. That’s why the Consequence Argument fails.

        There aren’t any uncaused vantage points at all, as far as I can tell, QM included. But as long as a past or future fact varies in a 1-to-1 fashion with your action, that justifies taking a pragmatic attitude – “what should I choose?” – rather than an epistemic attitude – “what is the fact that is there anyway, whether I accept it or not?”

        • Posted September 20, 2017 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

          “The fine details of the past only wash out at the macroscopic level of the past. At the macroscopic level of the present and future, they’re generally important. That’s why the Consequence Argument fails.”

          Any references to support these claims you’d care to share?

          • Posted September 20, 2017 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

            On symmetry of logical determination, physicists provide support for retrocausal quantum theory. I disprefer the word “retrocausal”, but it’s not crucial. On symmetries plus entropy and time’s arrow, Sean Carroll and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. SEP also suggests (section 3.2) why macroscopic back-going influences are improbable. On the sensitivity of the macroscopic present to microscopic past differences, any chaos theory intro will do.

            I have lots more! I’ll try to compile a list with similarly brief annotations at my website (the link’s at my name) soon.

            • Posted September 20, 2017 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

              I presume the name you give is your real one, for as per The Roolz you cannot refer readers to your website unless there’s an identifiable human being who gives a real name as the site’s author.

              • Posted September 20, 2017 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

                Thanks. I added an official “About” page of my website just to be clear.

            • Posted September 20, 2017 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

              Thanks Paul, will check out. In your opinion, or others that you know of, does any of this confer more control or responsibility on an agent beyond what would be the case were the past not influenced by our present actions?

              I’m trying to figure out whether any of this has real world implications for our responsibility practices including our criminal justice system.

              • Posted September 20, 2017 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

                More control, yes. Carl Hoefer is another like minded. More responsibility, I dunno what happens with less control; what to make of Frankfurt cases?

              • Posted September 21, 2017 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

                The longer list is now available at my website.

            • Posted September 23, 2017 at 9:33 am | Permalink

              Paul, can you supply a link to that longer list, I couldn’t find it at No Ghost, No Machine. Thanks!

            • Posted September 23, 2017 at 11:27 am | Permalink

              Cool, many thanks! Nice to have all this in one place…

    • helenahankart
      Posted September 19, 2017 at 4:58 am | Permalink

      Dennett rejects the “could have done otherwise” if that means “given an identical state of the universe a nanosecond before it could have turned out differently”. Most of his arguments boil down to showing that this desire is incoherent and irrational (but understandable). I agree partly, the impact on our judicial system could be considerable in some cases. The death penalty (proven not to be a deterrent) should go. The “conveyor belt ” system of plea bargaining those whom we know are likely to be innocent should go. But these things should go anyway because they are monstrous injustices and self evidently do not work as detterents on the perpetrators (although looking at an unjust judicial system may work to make a rational actor never risk going near it. For instance, I’d never go near the United States or Saudi Arabia for connected reasons).

      • Posted September 19, 2017 at 11:39 am | Permalink

        OK, sure. I also reject the “could have done otherwise” if that means “given an identical state of the universe a nanosecond before, it could have turned out differently”. But that’s not what it means, outside of some theological or philosophical assumptions that aren’t justified.

        • helenahankart
          Posted September 19, 2017 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

          I find it trivially easy to be “in control of my unconscious processes”! Well, some of them at least. Using training, habit forming and other techniques I (consciously) try (sometimes it works) to turn cosncious into unconscious. Examples abound: elite tennis players read the serve not the ball (which is coming too fast to consciously work out) yet this never strikes anyone as not free. Yet they have spent many hours making it “not free” (assuming free requires consciousness). This should give those who (think) they need freewill in its strongest sense at least a little pause

        • Posted September 20, 2017 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

          Dennett carries out a detailed critique of Robert Kane’s advanced brand of libertarianism in chapter 4 of Freedom Evolves. In this critique, Dennett points out that there are two conceptions of “could have done otherwise” (CHDO). In one, the “narrow” conception (CHDOn), we think of the agent acting in the exact same situation as the original, and see that on a deterministic, causal view, the agent could not have done otherwise, since her motives and external determinants would have been precisely the same. On the “wide” conception of CHDO (CHDOw), we imagine the agent in somewhat different circumstances from the actual situation (that is, in a counterfactual situation), and see that for most agents of normal rationality and flexibility (see Freedom Evolves), the agent may well have done otherwise or at least had the capacity to have done otherwise had they been in the changed scenario.

    • Kosmos
      Posted September 19, 2017 at 5:20 am | Permalink

      The way I understand it cause and effect are not present at the fundamental level but patterns are. “We” can never influence those patterns more than in a compatibilistic way because we can’t step outside of them.

    • Posted September 19, 2017 at 5:43 am | Permalink

      Although I’m not at all sure the laws of nature will turn out to be time symmetric, I fully agree with your idea that “what should give, is people’s intuitive ideas about determinism”.

      Which is why I really don’t see a meaningful difference between compatibilism and (scientifically modern) determinism.

  20. Bill
    Posted September 19, 2017 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    “Further, as I’ve said before, I fail to understand why philosophers spend their time trying to harmonize free will and determinism when the really useful thing they could be doing—the kind of philosophy that really makes a difference in society—is to work out the consequences of determinism, especially with respect to the judicial system. If you think people are wholly products of their genes and environments and had no choice about doing crimes (or doing good stuff), then that mandates a big rethink in our judicial system: one geared not toward retribution, but toward rehabilitation, deterrence, and keeping people out of society until we deem them no longer harmful. In other words, a judicial system like the one Norway has.”

    The answer to this is easy: if you believe in hard determinism, not only do you believe human actions are determined(i.e. Crimes, good stuff) the human actions that create our judicial systems are also determined. A lot of philosophers believe that hard determinism leads to moral nihilism because whatever happens was already determined to happen(or happens due to random stochastic quantum processes) and there wasn’t free will to make a moral choice anywhere in the process. If hard determinism implies moral nihilism, worrying about the justice system isn’t on the list of priorities.

  21. Posted September 19, 2017 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    For other purposes I’ve reread recently the 1997 article “Willed Action and Its Impairments” – does anyone know off hand if the “willed” vs “external” dichotomy the authors set up still holds up under neuroscientific scrutiny?

  22. helenahankart
    Posted September 20, 2017 at 3:27 am | Permalink

    Oops. Read “mens rea” for “men’s rea” throughout…

  23. TIM HANRAHAN
    Posted October 15, 2017 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    “It’s time for philosophers to stop wasting time on compatibilism, to start emphasizing determinism more, and then work out the consequences of that determinism. That’s what Peter Singer tried to do in his engagingly thoughtful book Practical Ethics. One of the great boons of philosophy is to use rational thought, combined with an assessment of human preference, to work out how we should live.”

    I agree with you that (unless there’s something wrong/missing in science and logic) determinism is true, “free will” is impossible, and “compatibilism” is a flawed concept. I disagree with you in your attempt to advise philosophers what they “should” do, and (via their mediation) your advising people how they “should” live.

    What does “should” even mean in a strictly deterministic universe?

    The feeling of free will is so fundamental to the human psyche that even you – the most ardent advocate for proclaiming its non-existence – cannot avoid ascribing agency to philosophers.

    The truth is that, fundamentally, humans cannot avoid believing in free will. The alternative – that the universe is simply playing out as it must, and that concepts like decision, self, ethics, morality etc. are illusory, is anathema to the human psyche. When viewed in this context, the project of compatibilists is understandable.


%d bloggers like this: