Dawkins and Krauss on free will

One thing that’s distressed me a bit is the unwillingness of my Big Name Atheist Friends to speak frankly about free will. When asked, as Richard Dawkins was below, what they think of it, they often mumble or deflect the question. Richard’s answer here is the same one he gave when I asked him the identical question about two months ago in Washington, D. C.  He’s right in quoting Hitchens’s witticism that “I have no choice” to make the point that we feel as if we have free will, but while that may describe our illusions, a flat “no” would be more to the point. And I’m dubious about Richard’s assertion that he “doesn’t have a very well thought-out view about it”, even though he finally admits that yes, our behaviors are determined.  (I wish he’d talked a bit about why we feel we have agency when we really don’t, again something he admits. It’s a fascinating evolutionary question.)

In the end Richard recommends reading Dan Dennett, who of course thinks that we do have free will: but a kind that’s different from what we think it is (many compatibilists are fuzzy, and certainly contradict each other, about “the kind of free will we do have”).

Lawrence Krauss adds that because we act as if we have free will—and here both men are construing “free will” as “libertarian I-could-have-chosen-otherwise free will”—then it doesn’t make any difference whether we do or not. (He also seems to confuse predictability of behavior with determinism of behavior, a common conflation.) He concludes that it’s a question for philosophers rather than scientists.

But it isn’t, and it really does make a difference whether we only think we can choose freely or whether we really do choose freely. It’s an enormously important issue, for if all our behaviors are determined, then we can’t hold people like Jeffrey Dahmer or Harvey Weinstein responsible for having “made the wrong choice”, and vilifying them for not having chosen otherwise. The fact is that these predators—and ourselves—are, as Richard admits, determined by antecedent causes that we don’t fully understand. (I hasten to add that there are good determinist reasons to punish people like Dahmer and Weinstein, and I’ve discussed those at length.)

If you don’t believe in libertarian free will, then the concept of moral responsibility becomes problematic, though the problem of responsibility itself is not problematic. What changes is how we reward and, especially, punish people. Think about it: if people really couldn’t have chosen otherwise, and had to behave as they did, then doesn’t that have any implications for how we deal with bad behavior? After all, the law already takes this into account, somewhat exculpating people if they’re deemed mentally incapacitated or unable to tell the difference between right and wrong.  But all of us are like that, and even if we do know the difference between “right” and “wrong”, we can still act in only one way at a given moment, so that knowledge is irrelevant when determining punishment.

I’ve already discussed what reforms should be made to the penal system under determinism (see here, for instance), and that is not just “something to be discussed by philosophers”. It involves real effects on the lives of men and women, and on society at large. And it leads to more humane treatment of prisoners, treatment that can be based on science (e.g., “What forms of ‘punishment’ are best for deterring others, keeping people away from others until they’re reformed, and how can we best reform them?”)

Further, it can make a difference in your own behavior. In my case, I no longer beat myself up over decisions in my past that, I once felt, I could have made differently.  I couldn’t. Such recriminations are not only mentally sapping, but scientifically untenable.

I don’t know why people like Richard and Lawrence seem loath to discuss the moral and penal implications of determinism, but rather fob people off on philosophers like Dan. As I’ve said repeatedly, working out and putting into effect the implications of determinism—which happens to be true—is far, far more important than trying to find a form of free will that simultaneously admits of determinism (that part is usually buried) but still reassures people that they have some form of free will. That endeavor is fine as far as it goes, but in the end it’s a purely semantic and academic exercise, and beyond the interests of the public. (Be aware that surveys show most people construe free will as being “I-could-have-done otherwise” form.)

Fixing the horrible prison systems around the world in which people are tortured or mistreated because it’s thought they made the wrong choice is a far more important problem than confecting semantic compatibilism. Why don’t atheists deal with something that is, in the end, a scientific question, and one that’s palpably true (read Sean Carroll if you doubt its scientific truth)? And of course philosophers can play an important role in that discussion. It’s just that most of them don’t.

It could be, as Dan has said, that it’s dangerous for society to embrace pure determinism without being given a semantic alternative to the term “free will”. But I don’t believe that, for determinists like me haven’t wrecked our world, and won’t. Moreover, such a statement is a condescending “little people” argument like the one used for God: “we can’t tell people that there is no God without giving them a substitute God (a ‘ground of being’?), for society cannot live without religion.” We all know that’s bogus, and I’m sure neither Richard nor Lawrence accepts that. So why do atheists act like theologians when it comes to free will? (It goes without saying that libertarian free will—the free ability to choose Jesus as a saviour, or do good rather than ill—is a bedrock for many religions.)

I challenge my atheist colleagues like Richard and Lawrence to go beyond the statements they make below, and come to grips with what accepting determinism really means for how we treat others. That’s not a philosophical question but a psychological and societal one. To me, getting people to accept determinism and then act on that acceptance is at least as important as getting them to accept that there’s no evidence for gods.

h/t: Julian

170 Comments

  1. A.L.S
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    I can’t accept determinism to be real, it is a part of my nature to deny its validity. Seriously though, Dr. Coyne could you point me to some post of yours or some articles that clearly explain the determinist position (I’m not even sure I am describing it accurately here!). This is one of those profound ideas that seems to invoke much push back from folks. Thanks

    • Posted October 18, 2017 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      The best answer I can give (besides reading Sean Carroll’s “The Big Picture”) is to say that our brain is made of matter, and matter follows the laws of physics. Insofar as our neurons could behave fundamentally unpredictably, if affected by quantum mechanics in their firing, that doesn’t give us a basis for agency either.

      Since our behaviors all come from our material bodies and brains, which obey the laws of physics, which by and large are deterministic on a macro scale, then our behaviors at any one instant are determined as well by the configuration of molecules in the Universe.

      All you have to do is accept that our bodies and brains are made of stuff, and stuff on the macro scale is deterministic in its behavior. Even compatibilists accept these points as well the fundamental determinism (though often unpredictability) of our behavior.

      • Charles Sawicki
        Posted October 18, 2017 at 9:58 am | Permalink

        See the book Free Will by Sam Harris which simply explains why we have no basis, in the form of data, to conclude the we can freely make decisions. Of course there is, as pointed out the final argument that our brains are physical.

        • Posted October 18, 2017 at 10:04 am | Permalink

          Oh, yes, how could I forget that one?

          • Marc Zender
            Posted October 18, 2017 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

            Well, Jerry, you had no choice in the matter… 🙂

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted October 18, 2017 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

            It was determined in the Big Bang that you would forget Sam’s book.

            • Daniel Engblom
              Posted October 19, 2017 at 1:34 am | Permalink

              When people say that stuff was determined by the big bang, what does that mean? Because to a layperson, it sounds like religion, a Deepak Chopra way of saying we need in the beginning all the intellect and everything from which we see today expressed in the universe, it was fate all along.
              I think people haven’t thought clearly enough about the nature of determinism and complicated systems with parts having no relation and connection coming together to interact in novel ways.
              Take Natural Selection and genetic mutations, mutations happen, irrespective of Natural Selection and other forces, but once they happen, they can change the direction of many forces in nature.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 19, 2017 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

                It’s a bit of joke here to say that. Theoretically, if you accept cause and effect, you should be able to trace back all the causes and effects all the way back through space and time to the Big Bang. Since knowing all variables is impossible (at least for now) we can’t practically do that. Also, chaos could change how things play out and perhaps we can never predict chaos.

                I really have thought about free will and determinism so I’m going to ignore your suggestion that I haven’t. As evidence, search the many posts on this site where I’ve participated when it comes to free will. This site helped me conclude that hard determinism is the right model.

      • YF
        Posted October 18, 2017 at 10:04 am | Permalink

        This is why I think ‘determinism’ is irrelevant when it comes to the free-will debate.

        If determinism/predictability is true, then we have no free will. But if quantum indeterminism/unpredictability is true, then we also don’t have free will (as you describe it above).

        It does not matter whether the mind/brain operates deterministically or indeterministically. What matters, both philosophically and for social policy, is that the mind/brain obeys the laws of physics- that there is no ghost in the machine.

        • Laurance
          Posted October 18, 2017 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

          Why either-or? Why not a mixture of determined stuff as well as some randomness?

          • YF
            Posted October 19, 2017 at 10:36 am | Permalink

            Sure, you can have a mixture, but it still doesn’t give you ‘free will’, according to popular interpretations of the term.

            So the issue of determinism/indeterminism is a red herring when it comes to the free will debate.

      • rom
        Posted October 18, 2017 at 10:38 am | Permalink

        My understanding of Sean’s “Big Picture” he was a compatibilist.
        😦

        • Posted October 18, 2017 at 11:34 am | Permalink

          Mine too.

        • Kosmos
          Posted October 18, 2017 at 11:45 am | Permalink

          compatibilist = determinist

          It is determinism that a compatibilist consider is compatible with the notion of free will. 🙂

          • rom
            Posted October 18, 2017 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

            And I think this is Jerry’s point.

            Determinists who can’t bring themselves to say there is no free will.

  2. Posted October 18, 2017 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    If you believe in a free will, then I challenge you to explain the physics of how the universe was in state A at time T, and in some sense waiting for your decision as to whether proceed to state B or state C at time t + DT. The differential equation of the universe sort of sits and waits for you to change its current state, not through dynamics, but by a non-deterministic decision-making process. Explain the physics without imposing woo like “decision generators.” I don’t think anyone can.

  3. GBJames
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    sub

  4. Charles Sawicki
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Determinism is a very uncomfortable position for many intellectuals since their lives revolve around thinking and ideas. I like the simple discussion by Sam Harris in his book Free Will of the origin of so called conscious decisions. These come into our awareness by unconscious processes of which we are not and cannot be aware. Therefore any inference of the existence of free will involving some sort of free choice is purely faith based and untenable given the physical nature of the brain.

  5. Frank Bath
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    I imagine Richard Dawkins has enough on his plate with his evolution and atheism without needing to publicly deny free will as well. The howls!
    As for Lawrence Kraus, maybe similar, maybe.

  6. HAL
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    we aren’t billiard balls JAC: NAME ADDRESS AND PHONE NUMBER REDACTED SINCE THEY WERE APPARENTLY INCLUDED BY MISTAKE.

    • Posted October 18, 2017 at 10:03 am | Permalink

      Yes we are, but we’re billiard balls made of meat.

      • Mark Reaume
        Posted October 18, 2017 at 10:11 am | Permalink

        Making bank shots that much harder to pull off.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted October 18, 2017 at 10:55 am | Permalink

          Makes a big 8-ball break shot sound painful.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted October 18, 2017 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

          Only until an AI finds a way to calculate every possible variable.

      • Posted October 18, 2017 at 10:27 am | Permalink

        Then I’m snookered!

        • Jenny Haniver
          Posted October 18, 2017 at 10:45 am | Permalink

          And I’m behind the 8 ball.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted October 18, 2017 at 11:03 am | Permalink

            Mama warned me life could be harder than a three-ball, two-rail combination shot.

      • Daniel Engblom
        Posted October 19, 2017 at 1:42 am | Permalink

        That completely leaves out the kind of computation that consciousness is made of, dynamically computing information based on so many factors, internal, external, real-time, historical, accidental, systems where the laws of physics didn’t dictate that these computing entities should necessarily come together from the moment of the big bang, put other processes working on those physics. Determinism is more complicated than the initial billiard ball model allows for.

        • Posted October 19, 2017 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

          Not really, and, as I say in my book, quantum mechanical phenomena followed the Big Bang so if we started at that same moment again, the Universe would be different. But in the here and now, at the moment of decision, the billiard ball model does follow save for quantum mechanics, which doesn’t give us any “freedom.”

          Would you be so kind as to describe phenomena for us where the laws of physics DON’T apply right now? What are those “other processes working on these physics” that don’t obey the laws of physics.

  7. Posted October 18, 2017 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    While I’m a compatibilist myself, I have to say I’m increasingly skeptical that there are any “true” libertarians out there. Everybody appeals to cause/effect sometimes, even if they are libertarian in the abstract. Conservative christians are some of the most ardent libertarians, yet claim extraordinary knowledge of behavioral determinism when it comes to raising children. Then there’s the whole premise of gay conversion therapy, where they can wax on and on about what causes people to “choose” a “gay lifestyle” and how they can be induced to change. They talk for hours about their deterministic beliefs and then suddenly say everyone has cosmic agency.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 18, 2017 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      I think they feel they can cause people to change because they are influencing the ghost in the machine vs. providing inputs that may have different outputs. Thinking you can change a person who is gay to not being gay, is an example of thinking you can will something one way and become a new person. Determinism knows that’s not possible.

      • Posted October 18, 2017 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

        I’m sure there’s a spread of different theories and methods used by the gay-conversion industry, but the ones with which I’m familiar use a simplistic application of behavioral conditioning to try and “reprogram” the person. Even if it’s a wrong theory and unethical in practice, it’s still 100% determinism. “Thinking you can change a person who is gay to not being gay” is to claim that you can predictably control some aspect of another person’s mind — it’s determinism. If a determinist doctor knows exactly what causes X to be gay instead of not-gay, it’s possible (in principle) that the determinist could modify those causes to alter X’s orientation. A libertarian can make no claim like this.

  8. John Hamill
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Couldn’t agree more with this. There’s no other scientific fact that so corrodes religious ideas of the soul, which is ignored by atheists.

    • Posted October 18, 2017 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      I agree too. Apart from aliens visiting us and telling everyone all the organized religions are false, determinism is the best advantage that atheists have to provide a reasonable argument for people not to be deluded by organized religion.

      Determinism does not preclude a Deist (non-interacting) God, but it removes the need for prayer, miracles, or ethical constraints furnished by organized religions.

  9. rgsherr
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Yes, that’s a puzzling question. I wish they would face it. Hard to think that it’s just too uncomfortable for them to consider. Hard determinism is the only reasonable position to take.

  10. rgsherr
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Yes, that’s a puzzling question. I wish they would face it. Hard to think that it’s just too uncomfortable for them to consider. Hard determinism is the only reasonable position to take.

  11. Jay Baldwin
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    So why do atheists act like theologians when it comes to free will?

    They have no choice. Now that’s an interesting evolutionary question.

  12. Mike Anderson
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    OH! OH! OH! (raising hand begging for teacher’s attention):

    Jerry, would you agree there’s a very persuasive illusion of free will? There must be an evolutionary reason for this, right?

    My amateur musings on this have led me to think it enables a stronger societal “glue” (which, presumably, is a fitness characteristic).

    What say you?

    • rom
      Posted October 18, 2017 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      Interesting question.

      Perhaps the metabolic cost of tracking all the influences is too high, so it is not so much an illusion to maintain at a cost; but a lowering of the cost to keep track of just a few strings?

      Just wondering.

      • Mike Anderson
        Posted October 18, 2017 at 11:49 am | Permalink

        There’s an argument against determinism (by a respected person, scientist or philosopher, I don’t remember who – John Searle maybe?) that says an illusion of free will would be too expensive (wasted brain power), therefore is not an illusion.

        (Of course I disagree.)

        • rom
          Posted October 18, 2017 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

          Perhaps this respected person got it wrong … it’s happened before. Keeping track of what may or may not influence you has to be expensive in that there is so much of it and it would end up being recursive to some extent. Other than some academic understanding I am completely unaware of my internal brain function.

          Similarly what might be classed as external influences is not much better. There are books like Subliminal (Leonard Mlodinow) who catalogues the studies on subliminal influences.

          Incidentally Hawking and Mlodinow [big names?](in The Grand Design) came out as “No Free Willers”.

    • rom
      Posted October 18, 2017 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

      But to comment on your theory … coming up with a post hoc explanation may well have some societal or even survival benefit and be worth the metabolic cost. And convincing others may be improved by convincing oneself?

      According to wiki we have had language up to 200,000 years so that should be time enough for evolution to have a noticeable effect. The lower estimate of 60,000 years might be less clear.

      • Mike Anderson
        Posted October 18, 2017 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

        My theory in a nutshell: the free will illusion (guilt, shame, blame, etc.) tends to enable law and order, military hierarchies, etc.

        The tribe with the stronger free will illusion is better at the mastodon hunt and war fighting – shame on you if you’re not 100% committed to the cause.

        • rom
          Posted October 18, 2017 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

          I agree guilt shame etc are linked to free will but, I can feel guilty over things I know I had no control over.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 18, 2017 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

      I suspect it’s linked with the illusion of the self as well. Perhaps a way for the brain to keep track of things.

      • rom
        Posted October 18, 2017 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

        Agree with you wholeheartedly.

        Though I might preface it with intrinsic or independent self. If we are not careful we could end up saying trees are illusions. Certainly trees are not independent of their environment … and there are not bits of tree that are intrinsically tree.

    • josh
      Posted October 18, 2017 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      I think it’s fairly simple, and not directly dependent on evolution.

      1) Our brains “predict” the future by generating a range of plausible scenarios. This is just a function of our limited information, processing power, and knowledge of the underlying physics. This gives us the impression of multiple possibilities even though the real universe only has one. (Putting aside quantum mechanics for now.)

      2) Our conscious minds aren’t aware of the underlying processes which generate and determine our conscious experiences. It seems unlikely that they even could be in principle, as the complexity (of the actual brain) would exceed the models capacity (our impression of what is going on.) To the extent that greater self-awareness is possible, it would be a great additional cost evolutionarily to develop it and it’s not clear what the selective benefit would be.

      Basically, our free-willish experience is exactly what one would expect from a machine that can only crudely anticipate the future and has no need or no mechanism to model it’s own function.

      • Kosmos
        Posted October 18, 2017 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

        I was going to post something similar myself. And as Mike said above, emotions such as guilt and shame make us dwell on our past decisions and regret that we didn’t act otherwise. It is easy to see why such emotions developed in small and cohesive units. Our qualia is still a mystery but given our conscious experience I also find our sensations when making a decision to be what you would expect.

      • Mike Anderson
        Posted October 18, 2017 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

        Very interesting.

  13. Curt Nelson
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    “It’s a question for philosophers rather than scientists”?

    Maybe global warming is a question for climate scientists rather than politicians and ordinary citizens.

    • Posted October 19, 2017 at 5:58 am | Permalink

      Bingo. Perhaps Dawkins and Krauss noticed that intelligent people disagree about the alleged implications of determinism. So they defer to those who are supposed to be experts on tracing the logical implications of complex ideas, i.e. philosophers.

  14. Posted October 18, 2017 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    While Dawkins and Krauss appear to punt on the free will question, it also seems clear that they believe we do not have free will but recognize that we all operate under the illusion that we do. I hear their referral to philosophers as “If you want to know more than that, talk to a philosopher.”

    As far as punishing criminals go, the following scenario plays out in my head. Suppose a criminal claims that they have no free will so could not have done otherwise than commit the crime. Shouldn’t the judge and jury also be able to make a similar claim in passing judgement. “I have no free will so I am just going to do what I think is right. In other words, what physics is causing me to think and say. I have no other choice.” Perhaps the crime and punishment dilemma goes away if everyone has free will or not. The problem only rears its ugly head if one party has free will and the other doesn’t, a situation that makes little sense.

  15. Jorge Rojas
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    If I have no free will, how can I choose freely to believe or not in free will? Isn’t the “disbelieve in free will” determined by something else more than arguments?

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 18, 2017 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      You can’t “choose freely”. That is an illusion.

    • Kosmos
      Posted October 18, 2017 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

      There’s nothing wrong with saying that it is arguments that determine your position on intellectual matters. But at a fundamental level this process can be described by the laws of physics. They are two different ways of describing the same phenomenon.

    • Wunold
      Posted October 18, 2017 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

      Try to freely choose to like something you don’t or vice versa. I bet you can’t, like you can’t choose to believe or disbelieve something. You just do.

  16. Bruce Gorton
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    I’m not entirely sure that I know what free will is supposed to be.

    That said, for the definitions I’ve encountered – it neither exists nor particularly matters.

    I mean at the end of the day in every issue into which free will intrudes, well assuming it tends to be to the detriment of actually solving the issue, and the issue itself could be discussed very well without mentioning free will at all.

    Criminal justice for example – in a free will based system or a deterministic one, we’re still stuck with a debate over what approach is best suited to reducing crime because even with free will a system based on retribution is largely just sadism.

    I mean in all honest the aim isn’t to make people who do awful things suffer socially sanctioned awful consequences, its to stop those awful things happening again.

    Throw a little ghost into the machine, don’t, it doesn’t really matter. Schadenfreude, though fun, isn’t justice.

    • darrelle
      Posted October 18, 2017 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      I somewhat agree except that I think there is one way in which it does matter.

      The 1st hurdle in creating a better system is convincing people to stop relying on ancient, emotion based beliefs such as retribution to base their ideas about how our criminal justice systems should work. A way to do that is to convince them of physical determinism.

      I wouldn’t care to guess how effective that would be. Except I’ll bet it would be easier to convince people to accept the TOE. I rather suspect that an acceptance of determinism and its implications for human behavior will happen gradually and indirectly.

      It has already been happening. I think its likely that our criminal justice systems will continue to become more enlightened in the ways that Jerry would like to see, but that it will be a gradual process and that the average citizen will never have been involved in a serious free will discussion such as Jerry has hosted several times here. But people like Jerry (and others, perhaps even us commentors here) will have had an affect on the shifting of the Overton Window that gets us there.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 18, 2017 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

        It also makes a difference in how people with mental health issues are treated. If you are your brain and your brain a physical thing that obeys the laws of physics, then you if your brain is ill, you cannot help but to display the characteristics of a sick brain. You are not a coherent, never changing being perched behind your eyes, but an organism that is influenced by tumors, chemical processes, lesions, etc.

        • darrelle
          Posted October 19, 2017 at 7:09 am | Permalink

          Absolutely, good point.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted October 19, 2017 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

            Thanks – I’m glad you could read through my ridiculous typos (I wrote that on my iPad).

            • darrelle
              Posted October 20, 2017 at 7:43 am | Permalink

              🙂 I have lots of practice reading my own writing so yours is a piece of cake.

    • Posted October 18, 2017 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      I agree. There are plenty of reasons for reforming the justice system without invoking free will. I am grudgingly starting to accept determinism albeit of an existentialist sort), so I understand why John Doe might not cotton to the idea at all. I think this might be what Dawkins, Krauss and others (including Ted Honecker) mean.

  17. Don
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Someone please help me out. I accept that we don’t have free will. What I don’t understand is why we say things like, “therefore we should change the prison system”. Doesn’t that imply that we have a choice whether or not to do so?

    • rom
      Posted October 18, 2017 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      Be suspicious of people who use the word “should”.

    • Posted October 18, 2017 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      We have no choice, but there are alternatives. So advocating the merits of an alternative can bring about making it “the choice” even in a deterministic world. Of course, advocacy too is an alternative, and so on down the turtle tower.

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted October 18, 2017 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      Yes it implies that. There is an illusion of free will that is hard to escape and permeates our language.

      “we should do X” is poetic license for “doing X would be advantageous to us”

      • Craw
        Posted October 18, 2017 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

        No it isn’t. Killing my neighbours and living in their house would be advantageous to me. I shouldn’t do it. Paying taxes to support incarcerated criminals rather than letting them starve is not advantageous to me. I should do it.

        • Mike Anderson
          Posted October 18, 2017 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

          Killing my neighbours and living in their house would be advantageous to me.

          Then you are an unusual case. In most human societies, in most cases, killing one’s neighbor isn’t advantageous.

    • Don
      Posted October 18, 2017 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      I’m tempted to believe that knowing we don’t have free will has absolutely no practical implications.

      • Craw
        Posted October 18, 2017 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

        And you would be correct. Dr Coyne is conflating different meanings of the phrase “free will”. If you mean by the phrase an exemption from physical causality then we don’t have it. If you mean by the phrase a characterization and classification of some of the causally determined phenomena of life then we have it.
        Dr Coyne took umbrage at the suggestion that evolutionists do not believe in mind. He noted, correctly, that ‘mind’ is a reification of (and I here quote myself above) “some of the causally determined phenomena of life” and that there certainly is mind. Mind is a concept we seem unable to dispense with. It is an idea appropriate to a certain level of discourse, and pretty much independent of any underlying levels, such as the quantum wave equation. I think we are all mind compatibilists.

  18. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    However, one can draw similar conclusions about the penal system simply from the point of view that some people suffer from “diminished capacity” or “reduced agency” compared to some others.

  19. Randy schenck
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    I would just say that Sam Harris, as well as PCC would be very disappointed with the answers given by Dawkins and Krauss. We seem to have scientists here who don’t believe the science. Very strange….

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted October 18, 2017 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      I was particularly disappointed in Krauss’s answer. He seemed to be saying it didn’t matter. But it does matter a great deal. Check out YouTube documentaries on the prison system in Norway for an example of what we all could be aspiring to, and the sort of thing that would be happening everywhere if there was widespread acceptance of determinism.

      This discussion has to be led by atheists because the religious are invested in retaining a belief in free will. In Christianity, for example, it’s all about how God gave us free will and choosing Jesus as your saviour. Accepting we don’t have free will is the removal of another of the fundamentals required for religion. It’s akin to DNA proving there was no Adam and Eve that we’re all descended from, so therefore no inheritance of original sin.

      • Randy schenck
        Posted October 18, 2017 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

        Yes, maybe it is something a high end physicist just can’t be bothered with. Dawkins is the disappointing one to me. This really comes from biology for crying out loud. How does he treat this so lame and say see Dennett.

        • windy
          Posted October 20, 2017 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

          If he couldn’t have done otherwise, why is it disappointing?

      • Steve Gerrard
        Posted October 18, 2017 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

        Is the prison system in Norway based on an agreed understanding of determinism? My impression is that it is not.

        It seems perfectly possible to me to reform prison systems or adopt Norway’s system without ever mentioning the word determinism.

        It also seems to me that trying to argue for prison reform purely on determinism is not likely to go well, based on the lack of success so far convincing others to take that view, including some notable scientists.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted October 19, 2017 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

          That’s true, and I agree. However, determinism is the reason their prison system is successful.

          • windy
            Posted October 19, 2017 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

            That depends on how you define success. Part of Norway’s low recidivism rates can be explained by Norwegians being more likely to imprison groups with low reoffending rates. Comparing like measures, the difference in recidivism rates between Norway and, for example, the US, is not very large.

            “…in 2005, Norway was putting people in prison for traffic offenses like speeding, something that few other countries do. Speeders are at low risk for reoffending and receiving another prison sentence for that crime or any other. Excluding traffic offenders, Norway’s recidivism rate would, per that survey, be around 25 percent after two years.”

            “The numbers most commonly cited in news reports about recidivism, like the 20 percent celebrated by Norway or the 68 percent lamented by the United States, begin to fall apart on closer inspection. That 68 percent, for example, is a three-­year number, but digging into the report shows the more comparable two-­year rate to be 60 percent. And that number reflects not reincarceration (the basis for the Norwegian statistic) but rearrest, a much wider net. Fifteen pages into the Bureau of Justice Statistics report, I found a two-­year reincarceration rate, probably the best available comparison to Norway’s measures. Kristoffersen’s caveat in mind, that translated to a much less drastic contrast: Norway, 25 percent; the United States, 28.8 percent.”

          • Beth Clarkson
            Posted October 20, 2017 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

            What makes you say that? Would their system not work if free will exists?

            • Heather Hastie
              Posted October 20, 2017 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

              To tell the truth, I can’t remember what I meant when I wrote that. I did have something in mind. Although I’ve never even known anyone who’s been to prison let alone been there myself, the reform of the system is something I feel quite strongly about. I think the way prisons are now is really stupid and it’s so obvious the system doesn’t work. It really annoys me that the system isn’t changed as it’s just so obvious that the Norway system is better overall.

              • Beth Clarkson
                Posted October 21, 2017 at 11:26 am | Permalink

                Thanks for the response. Yes, our current penal system has serious problems and Norway has a much better one. But I don’t think it provides near the opportunity for the 1% to rake in profits.

              • Mike Anderson
                Posted October 21, 2017 at 11:47 am | Permalink

                A major problem with our justice system is private prisons + money in politics. There’s an unavoidable feedback loop there that wants to increase incarceration.

              • Heather Hastie
                Posted October 21, 2017 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

                Yes, as you both say, private prisons are a big part of the problem. We’ve got two in NZ. The government tried to ameliorate the issues by putting lots of stuff about rehab and other more positive targets in the contract. In one prison that seems to be working, but the other it didn’t. There were even fight club videos shot in prison cells appearing on the internet. I wrote about it a couple of years ago ( http://www.heatherhastie.com/bouquets-and-brickbats-26-july-2015/ ). The video in the story is no longer available because the Corrections Department has managed to get all the videos off the internet, Anyway, the government had to take back control of the prison from the contractor. There were no more attempts to introduce private prisons here because of that disaster, so it had an up side I suppose.

    • Vaal
      Posted October 18, 2017 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

      “The science” doesn’t tell you if we have free will or not, because you need to have a conception of free will to start off with. And the whole debate revolves around that question.

      There’s a heck of a lot of begging the question in the responses here.

  20. Rosmarie Maran
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Does “having no choice” in alleged pure determinism mean there is actually no physical possibility of a choice which a person could make or just that the person is determined what he will choose?
    “Having no choice” seems to be an oxymoronic statement in itself.

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted October 18, 2017 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      I think it means no physical possibility of a choice.

      But since we feel like we have a choice and some choices are more difficult than others, why would it not be understandable to just give up on all productive action and call it determined?

      This is what I don’t understand about embracing the fact that there is no free will, because it doesn’t just affect how we view crime and punishment but how we view giving a damn.

    • darrelle
      Posted October 18, 2017 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      It means that the phenomenon we call choosing, which is a real thing, isn’t exactly what most people think it is. It means that the choices we make are determined. They are determined by your genetics, your development and every single bit of environmental input “you” have experienced since the moment your egg was fertilized up to the instant you made a given decision. Everything from background sounds to being yelled at for letting your room get messy to reading WEIT. Including previous decisions you have made. Given all of that as input, in that instant that you make a given decision there is only one output that can occur.

      Determined as in “determinism,” as used in physics. This doesn’t mean predeterminism, as in there was a script written at the beginning and we are all following it step by step. It simply means that all events occur as per physical laws, that all events are bound by causality.

      Once you think about it for a moment I don’t see how it is so controversial, but it is. It basically just means that there is no magic. And realizing the implications for human consciousness seems to make many people uncomfortable.

      • Beth Clarkson
        Posted October 20, 2017 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

        “Given all of that as input, in that instant that you make a given decision there is only one output that can occur.”

        How do we know that is only one output that can occur? We don’t, it’s an assumption about how our universe operates. There is no evidence that the assumption is true and given what we know about quantum effects, it’s actually contrary to current physics. So why believe it?

        • darrelle
          Posted October 20, 2017 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

          I was answering a specific question, not stating personal beliefs. But I’ll try to respond relevantly.

          “How do we know that is only one output that can occur? We don’t, it’s an assumption about how our universe operates. There is no evidence that the assumption is true . . . “

          It isn’t a mere assumption and there is plenty of evidence that it (determinism) is true. It’s true that we don’t have definitive evidence demonstrating that determinism, or anything else, is true and that it would be premature for anyone to close their mind to other possibilities. But that is very different from having no evidence. The evidence we have from modern science makes determinism very plausible, but it also makes it very evident that we don’t know enough to close the book.

          “. . . it’s actually contrary to current physics.”

          Whether or not QM is deterministic is one of the ongoing contentious and unanswered quandries in modern science. That question is central to the arguments between the Copenhagen Interpretation and the Many Worlds Interpretation. It may be contrary, it may not be, we don’t know. We have evidence that supports determinism (a lot of it) and evidence that does not, and we know that we are missing pieces to the puzzle. And we haven’t even talked about Global determinism vs Local determinism.

          One thing that seems quite a bit clearer than whether determinism is true is that in the context of human free will quantum mechanics is of no help. Neither randomness or indeterminism is of any help in aquiring a cognitive ability that defies the laws of nature. It wouldn’t give a person more control, all it would add is a measure of randomness.

          • Beth Clarkson
            Posted October 21, 2017 at 11:29 am | Permalink

            I disagree that randomness doesn’t help. In a strict deterministic system, there is no room for more than one possible outcome. In a system with randomness, different outcomes are possible, which allows room for choice to exist.

        • Chukar
          Posted October 20, 2017 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

          If one were a cueball, subject to 10,000 simultaneous force vector inputs, you could sum up the vectors and accurately determine the outcome. But all those inputs come from the outside environment.

          I have read that in the neocortex, the number of inputs to a neuron coming from elsewhere in the neocortex vastly outnumber the inputs from the outside environment.

          The neocortex contains enormous numbers of feedback loops and nested feedback loops. It may even be that all this recursive ‘brain watching brain’ activity is what gives rise to the sense of an inner observer (a homunculus) and the feeling of a single unified self.

          Thus, any choice may have 1000’s of inputs, most of them generated within the brain, and relatively few of them coming from the external environment.

          I supposed that the determined determinist could claim that the output of all those nested feedback loops is still determined, but such a statement seems far from supported by evidence, considering the complexity of neural structure and our still-at-the-beginning stage of understanding it. Thus, it’s more an article of faith.

          Or, perhaps, most of the determinists aren’t aware of this aspect of brain architecture.

          • Kosmos
            Posted October 21, 2017 at 11:13 am | Permalink

            If the output is not determined it has an element of quantum randomness and I don’t see how a system of feedback loops could control the random outcome. Can that even be made intelligible? I would rather call that self-determination than randomness. But self-determination in any strong sense means that one is causa sui, which is logically impossible.

            • Beth Clarkson
              Posted October 21, 2017 at 11:34 am | Permalink

              Consider a computer program that bases it’s output on a random input. Now, allow the computer program the ability to modify the output algorithm – i.e. alter the probability with which outcomes is selected based on that random input.

              Consider a human being ‘choosing’ as a goal to lose weight. By altering their thought patterns (setting a goal) they alter the probability distribution of any individual choice (lower prob. of selecting ice cream and increase prob. of selecting low cal low fat yogurt). Voila – we have human beings altering their behavior based on their own internal deliberate thought processes, otherwise known as ‘free will’.

              • Kosmos
                Posted October 21, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

                On what basis does the computer or human decide which probability distribution to use? Whatever the basis that would be another input to the decision process. Then we can discuss from where that basis came. We end up in an infinite regress where we always can ask one more question.

              • Chukar
                Posted October 23, 2017 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

                Additional questions need not create a regress, infinite or otherwise.

                Nested feedback loops are not necessarily regressive. They may take a long time to come up with a solution (action, etc.) – consider when you might have taken months to make a tough decision, examining and reexamining and seeking additional inputs – but there was not necessarily any “regression.”

                Nested feedback loops is also a useful model for addressing the “homunculus” (Hm) problem in human consciousness. Rather than Hm.1 within our brain watching everything, necessitating a Hm.2 within it watching Hm.1, ad infinitum, millions of feedback loops in the brain simultaneously watching different aspects of brain activity, acting upon and reacting to what they “observe” can provide the sensation of a single Self observing itself. The Self in this model would be more of a energetic cloud than a single point of observation. But because significant portions of the “cloud” will always be in operation,(not necessarily the same portions), the sense of a continual “Self” arises.

              • Mike Anderson
                Posted October 21, 2017 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

                If the physical processes that determine behavior are indeterminate, then human behavior will be indeterminate.

                I don’t think anyone denies that.

                But, to the best of my knowledge, we’ve never seen an information processing system that was indeterminate, and an indeterminate system (e.g. random number generator) would be very valuable so immense resources have been applied to the problem. We haven’t yet found a way to tap into quantum physics magic to get true randomness (I think).

                Should we find an indeterminate system, I’m sure a lot of hard core determinists will be rethinking their position.

              • Posted October 21, 2017 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

                Sure, but “we have human beings altering their behavior based on their own internal deliberate thought processes” even without any indeterminism. All you need are intelligence, deliberation, and appropriate feedback loops. I agree with you that this feature is extremely relevant to free will, but you don’t need indeterminism to get it.

  21. timrogers2016
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    An excellent post. This topic is often airily waved away as mere metaphysics, but in fact is being tested on a daily basis in the courts and prisons. This may yet lead to considerable tensions within the criminal justice system.

  22. Posted October 18, 2017 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    In my view figuring out “responsibility and control” (to use the title of one book on FW) is one of the most important tasks of our time. In my view it is now in the hands of the neuroscientists and social scientists to figure out where various “intervention points can be”, and then their technological counterparts to propose systems to use them to us all to decide how we want to implement them. The role of the intellectual generalist (philosopher) is to ensure that this division of labour is recognized, IMO, and to help reunify differing perspectives.

    I don’t think there’s a role per se for a physicist anymore, or even a general biologist. (They are welcome to contribute in the technology phase like any other citizen, of course.) That might be a reason to punt.

  23. danstarfish
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    I am a compatibilist and I can try to explain why determinist moral systems are not that compelling or persuasive for me even though I accept that the physics of the universe is probably deterministic.

    I think all moral systems have some murkiness or muddiness somewhere. I admit free will is not the completely clear concept when you examine it closely and in detail. From far away most people will agree on what free will is, but when you get into the details they won’t. However, the determinist moral systems have their murky muddy parts too. When you ask the question where are moral decisions made, a compatibilist can answer fairly clearly that it happens at two levels. On the individual level and at the level of groups that have a shared set of norms. If you ask the same question of moral determinist, you will get some of their murk. You might get that moral decisions are never made or that they are made at a society level. I don’t know if I can do justice to how they would answer because they don’t give answers that I can make sense of. When answering a question of what “should” be done, where does the “should” come from. I would argue that there is some murk on this matter in all moral systems.

    The free will is an illusion isn’t particularly compelling. I have heard that the self is an illusion. The same sorts of criteria that can be used to dismiss free will as an illusion could also dismiss love as an illusion or beauty as illusion. Essentially any high-level abstract concept describing human experience could be dismissed this way. What criteria do you use to keep beauty real and free will illusory.

    Moral determinist don’t always seem to speak or talk in a way that reflects that they have fully accepted that no form of free will or choice exists. Sam Harris has a strong personal ethical code. He spends a lot of time trying to persuade people. If people don’t make choices why try to persuade them. Maybe if I understood the murkier parts moral determinism I would get this.

    The argument that there is no “choosing otherwise” ignores denies the everyday experience of choice. I often imagine other possible choices I could make before I make a choice. If I were Pascal’s demon and had supernatural cognitive powers that allowed me to determine what the future will be from the current state of the universe then I would reject this point of view. However, I am human and accept my human point of view. I think moral systems are part of the human point of view, I don’t think they exist at all once you exit.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 18, 2017 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      Compatibilists accept determinism – you seem to be saying the don’t?

      • danstarfish
        Posted October 18, 2017 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

        Compatibilists accept the physics concept of determinism, but they disagree with moral determinists in its significance to moral systems. By moral determinists, I intended to talk about people who believe that determinism has a massive impact on morality that requires throwing out concepts like personal moral responsibility.

    • Laurance
      Posted October 18, 2017 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      Ho Chi Hahn said, “You can pick, but you cannot choose.”

      Then he said, “The statement, ‘you choose’, contains two errors.”

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted October 18, 2017 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      Sam Harris has a strong personal ethical code. He spends a lot of time trying to persuade people. If people don’t make choices why try to persuade them.

      I see no inconsistency there. Persuasion doesn’t need free will. I’d argue persuasion often reveals that free will is an illusion.

      • danstarfish
        Posted October 18, 2017 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

        Though this is part of the disconnect between compatibilists and moral determinists. Whether you agree with free will or personal moral responsibility, it is much easier to figure out what they are talking about.

        I don’t follow where moral agency is located in a moral determinist system. Maybe not the best analogy, but here goes. Suppose you are discussing strategy for chess games with someone and then they say something like. “The chess players are an illusion”. I sometimes feel like moral determinists are discussing a game that doesn’t have any players in it. If I felt the moral determinists were presenting a more coherent moral system I would switch. But to me, it feels like a slight of hand trick. Move the murky parts somewhere else and then get people to focus their attention on free will while ignoring that their system has inconsistencies elsewhere.

        I’ve been part of discussions before where the compatibilists and moral determinists talk past one another because they are framing things so differently. But I honestly don’t understand where the disconnect is.

      • darrelle
        Posted October 18, 2017 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

        Yes. I often see people being confused by, or being confusing about, the meaning of the word choice in these freewill discussions. Or so it seems to me, though admittedly I could be confused as well.

        I often hear incompatibilists say there is no choice. I think what they actually mean is that while what we call choice is a real phenomenon it isn’t what many people think it is. This is like the way they talk about the term freewill itself. They agree, with compatibilists for example, that there really is a phenomenon that humans experience and that many people call freewill, but that it isn’t what many of them think it is and it would be best to just drop the term rather than redefine it.

        On the flip side I often hear compatibilists say something like “If people don’t make choices why try to persuade them.” They are taking the incompatibilist “there is no choice” quite literally and don’t seem to understand determinism. That “trying to persuade someone” is an environmental input that will be a factor in the persuadee’s wholly determined “choice.”

        • Craw
          Posted October 18, 2017 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

          If there are alternate outcomes, and the outcome that eventuates does so because of the results of a computation in a computational system then we may say that system made a choice.

          Computation is serious stumbling block for determinism. The reason is that the result of a computation, if causally effective on future states, can hide the past. For example. If there are n paths that lead to the computation resulting in a value x, and if the future depends on x and not on those n paths (with sufficiently high probability) then determinism has a problem. But if we deny computation that ability we have other problems.

        • Posted October 19, 2017 at 6:17 am | Permalink

          “They are taking the incompatibilist “there is no choice” quite literally ”

          Which is only fair. If you are involved in a debate about the best way tho describe something, and which words to use, the fact that something would be literally true or false seems pretty important.

          • darrelle
            Posted October 19, 2017 at 7:22 am | Permalink

            I think understanding is the most important thing. If you actually misinterpret what the author’s intended meaning is that’s one thing. If you know what the author’s intended meaning is but pretend that you don’t so that you can then make arguments against what you are pretending the author meant, that’s something quite different. Depending on how it’s done it might be fair, or it might not be. I’ve seen plenty of examples of both.

    • Posted October 18, 2017 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      “What criteria do you use to keep beauty real and free will illusory.”

      In a sense, beauty is even an illusion. But there are no special consequences of this illusion; You like a picture of Michelangelo but not of Kandinsky – who cares?
      But if you assume that someone in a situation could also have acted differently then that has considerable consistencies for that concerned individual.

      • Posted October 18, 2017 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

        corr: consequences

      • danstarfish
        Posted October 18, 2017 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

        Arguing from consequences could be used to support both compatibilists and moral determinists.

        I think part of morality is about creating norms that create the kind of society you would want to live in. So I could argue that personal moral responsibility is useful in creating the type of society I want to live in.

        • Posted October 18, 2017 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

          Of course, personal moral responsibility is a useful illusion, but it serves more the interests of society and is often detrimental to the life of the person who must serve a punishment under unworthy conditions, for a deed he has committed, although he didn’t had the choice not to commit this act.

          • danstarfish
            Posted October 18, 2017 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

            There is a tradeoff being made. If taking personal responsible is a strategy or heuristic that leads to many more good outcomes than bad outcomes, your society could be further behind by rejecting it, rather than patching it.

            There could also a tradeoff made with regards to comprehensibility. If a heuristic that is supposed to guide day to day behavior is so non-intuitive and complicated that only a few cognitive elites can make use of it. You could be worse off than a simpler heuristic which can be used to good effect by many more people.

            I have known people who don’t accept responsibility for their actions and people who do. I would argue that the latter tend to behave more ethically. I think people’s beliefs one way or another can affect the decisions they make even in a deterministic world.

            I don’t have the one true ethical system that optimizes everything. Nobody does. I could be persuaded by good empirical evidence that the concept of personal responsibility causes more harm than it prevents. Though I do admit this would be a difficult set of data to collect to make a convincing case. Completely theoretical arguments about free will do have some persuasive power for me, but society is extremely complicated and I’m not convinced we know enough to make those kinds of theoretical predictions with great accuracy. Personal responsibility seems to work in practice. I know it can sometimes lead to bad outcomes, but I think it is much more lopsided to good outcomes than bad.

  24. Posted October 18, 2017 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    ” So why do atheists act like theologians when it comes to free will?”

    I think that it depends fundamentally on the self-image.
    If this self-understanding is based on the fact that I can act on my own responsibility, it means at the same time to have the faith to be good. Also the people you like are really good. And the people you detest are actually disgusting, since they could “somehow” but also could have done differently. Even if one knows in theory that the world and thus the human being works deterministically. If this need for self – perception and perception is fundamentally strong, then even atheists will not bear the consequences of some truths, because they would destroy their faith which they themselves would have.

    The God- illusion was an invention of evolution and it helped man to find his way around the world as long as he had no better knowledge. The same is true of the illusion of free will.

  25. TJR
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    My position:

    Determinism is false (as far as we know).

    We do have free will.

    I don’t disagree with Jerry about the state of the universe, I just use different definitions of those terms to him.

    • rom
      Posted October 18, 2017 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      Here’s a quote from Hawking and Mlodinow

      Quantum physics might seem to undermine the idea that nature is governed by laws, but that is not the case. Instead it leads us to accept a new form of determinism: Given the state of a system at some time, the laws of nature determine the probabilities of various futures and pasts rather than determining the future and past with certainty.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 18, 2017 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      So you believe in libertarian free will? We are ghosts in the machine? There is a homunculus behind our eyes?

  26. Steve Pollard
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    I have no problem with agreeing that our actions or decisions are completely determined at the point of decision. What I have difficulty with is the idea that such determinism can be traced back to the Big Bang. I even find it hard to accept, for instance, that if you could completely know a brain’s state at time T, you could predict what it would be at a future time T1 – let alone that both those states have been determined since the beginning of time.

    But, as regards the penal question, we should surely assume that one of the many influences that go to make up a given brain-state is an understanding of the consequences of a given action. (“Ignorance of the law is no excuse”). If, nevertheless, we “choose” to commit a criminal action, society is justified in “punishing” us: to show that it means what it says, to demonstrate its disapproval, to protect the public, and above all to try to make sure that we “decide” differently in future – ie to rehabilitate us.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 18, 2017 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      There is probably enough chaos thrown in that you couldn’t trace everything back to the Big Bang though chaos is also deterministic I suspect.

      • Steve Pollard
        Posted October 18, 2017 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

        I think Sean Carroll has made the point that even if the universe is completely determined, we would need a computer at least as complex as the universe in order to do the sums needed to predict what’s going to happen next. So in practice we can’t!

        I also think that we (or anyway I) don’t know nearly enough about the brain to be sure how much of its workings are, even in principle, foreseeable. Where, for instance, do truly original ideas – scientific, artistic, cultural, what have you – come from? I do find it difficult to conceive that they are somehow “out there”, waiting to be discovered.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted October 18, 2017 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

          Sure, we can’t predict all the variables but that doesn’t mean they weren’t determined.

          • Craw
            Posted October 18, 2017 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

            This sounds like dogma. Can you give falsifiable definition of what you mean by determined?

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted October 18, 2017 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

              Dogma, how does it sound like dogma? Predictability ≠ deterministic. I’m using the same definition as almost every scientist does and the one Jerry is using in this post.

              Read Jerry’s earlier post to see more about what is and isn’t determinism.

          • Steve Pollard
            Posted October 18, 2017 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

            Really? You think that somehow Beethoven’s 9th, Joyce’s Ulysses, Einstein’s predictions of gravitational waves (spectacularly confirmed this week, hooray!) were in effect determined millennia ago? I suspect there is more to human inventiveness than this, and that it depends on something in the working of our brains (and I repeat that we/I don’t understand the latter well enough to say what or how).

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted October 18, 2017 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

              You’re confusing determinism with fatalism.

              • Steve Pollard
                Posted October 18, 2017 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

                Well, many of our host’s posts suggest that he believes his decisions and actions are completely determined, and that this goes right back to the original state of the universe. Is that not what you call “fatalism”?

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 18, 2017 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

                No your seeing determinism, the simple idea that causes have effects (over simplified), with the idea that things were ordained (fatalism). It’s the difference between understanding that if you knew all the variables of caused and effects you could trace all those causes and effects back to the beginning of space time vs. things were fated to unfold in a certain way.

              • Posted October 19, 2017 at 12:59 am | Permalink

                Would you explain the difference, please.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 19, 2017 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

                This infographic does it better than I

              • Beth Clarkson
                Posted October 20, 2017 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

                Can you explain how determinism is consistent with the statement in your infographic that “We have an effect on outcomes”?

    • Posted October 19, 2017 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      Determinism is a metaphysical concept – it applies to what is. Predictability is an epistemic concept – it applies to what we can *know* (or other similar notions).

  27. Liz
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    “But all of us are like that, and even if we do know the difference between “right” and “wrong”, we can still act in only one way at a given moment, so that knowledge is irrelevant when determining punishment.”

    I’m not so sure that the knowledge is completely irrelevant.

  28. mirandaga
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    “In my case, I no longer beat myself up over decisions in my past that, I once felt, I could have made differently. I couldn’t.”

    I agree. But accepting the principle that I couldn’t have done otherwise doesn’t prevent me from distinguishing, in retrospect, between what was a “good” decision and a “bad” one. If I make a choice that inadvertently results in harm to others, I’m not going to beat myself up for it, but I am going to do whatever I can to mitigate or atone for the harm. What I decide to do may, of course, result in further unintended harm, and so it goes ad infinitum. Bottom line? All one can do is make decisions in the moment based on one’s best insights, and one’s best insights are determined by the whole complex personal and environmental influences that make me who I am in the moment. I do believe that we are all programmed to choose the good—i.e., what in the moment appears to be in our immediate or long-term self-interest. In that sense, no one chooses evil.

    • Posted October 18, 2017 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      ” I do believe that we are all programmed to choose the good—i.e., what in the moment appears to be in our immediate or long-term self-interest. In that sense, no one chooses evil.”

      I think you’re wrong here. Because self interest is always “good” for the individual. But personal interest will rarely match up to the interests of others.

      Where there is no free will, there is no longer evil and good

  29. christiandelrosso
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    As Sapolskly has written in his latest book Behave, it’s complicated. In the book he has an entire chapter on this specific topic. Very well written.

  30. Chukar
    Posted October 18, 2017 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    I’m confused. If humans – including Dawkins and Krauss – have no free well, why criticize them for not saying that humans have no free will? Aren’t they behaving as they must? If we have no free will, even when presented with a clear choice aren’t we thereby unable to freely choose, even when we feel certain that we are choosing freely?

    I suppose that you have no choice in the matter except to take them to task for their shortcoming, just as I have no choice but to express my confusion concerning your apparent choice.

    Doesn’t one have to presume the existence of free will when you try to get “…people to accept determinism and then act on that acceptance…”?

    • darrelle
      Posted October 18, 2017 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      No. Not at all.

    • Posted October 18, 2017 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      “Doesn’t one have to presume the existence of free will when you try to get „…people to accept determinism and then act on that acceptance…“?”

      No, because the future is unpredictable and can therefore be influenced in principle.

      I think that is what JC meant when he talked about common conflation of predictability of behavior with determinism of behavior,

      When you hear a hurricane arrives in an area where friends are staying, you warn them, especially if they are of a different opinion and believe that it will not be so bad. You know the others are mistaken, yet you will try to change their mind.

  31. Posted October 18, 2017 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    “I challenge my atheist colleagues like Richard and Lawrence to go beyond the statements they make below, and come to grips with what accepting determinism really means for how we treat others. That’s not a philosophical question but a psychological and societal one. To me, getting people to accept determinism and then act on that acceptance is at least as important as getting them to accept that there’s no evidence for gods.”

    Hear hear! For instance, it would be great if Penn and Teller did a take down of libertarian free will: that you could have done otherwise in an actual situation in a way that makes you more responsible than under determinism. They could have huge fun with the absurdity of it, but no, their audiences would be revulsed since the implications are too at odds with common (supernatural) conceptions of human agency. Same goes with Dawkins and Krauss I suspect, but not with Sam Harris, so kudos to him and to you.

  32. Posted October 18, 2017 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    Unlike Jerry, I’m not so quick to dismiss the notion of ‘free will’. In my early days, like Jerry, I was a hard determinist. Lately, I’ve looked more closely at how ordinary folk use ‘free will’ language. I now think that determinism is wholly compatible with free will. In my essay, Free Will and Compatibilism – http://www.RationalRealm.com/philosophy/metaphysics/freewill-compatibilism.html – I argue that in common speech, people don’t take ‘free will’ to refer to ‘contra-causal free will’. In fact, I question the hard determinist’s notion that we have just an ‘illusion’ of free will’. I argue that acting contra-causally is not something we can even have an ‘illusion’ about.

    Using an ordinary-language analysis, I attempt to show that a ‘free will’ is an unencumbered will and that free will is restricted in four types of situations: coercion, manipulation, addiction and mental illness. Examining these situations, I distil four requirements that must be met for an act to be considered as resulting from a free will. These constitute my 4C theory of free will and are: 1. absence of Compulsion; 2. absence of Control by third party; 3. consonant with agent’s Character; and 4. Cognitive capacity to reason. I argue that, in fact, these four criteria underpin jurisprudence, forensic psychology and our ordinary moral intuitions and our practice of praise and blame.

    When we look at how we actually use ‘free will’ talk, I think it becomes apparent that it is the hard determinists who have blindly followed the theologians and metaphysicians in thinking that free will is about acting contra-causally.

    • Vaal
      Posted October 19, 2017 at 12:00 am | Permalink

      Essentially, I agree. For the most part, when we are cogitating on possible choices, we are not making decisions on the basis of some supernatural, contra-causal, libertarian free will. We are simply thinking counterfactuals in terms of our own nature, capabilities, and what actions will likely accomplish our goals – exactly the thoughts any creature using intelligence would likely have, even in a deterministic system.

    • Posted October 19, 2017 at 2:33 am | Permalink

      I have yet to read your essay (which I will do), but this summary sounds extremely reasonable.

  33. Vaal
    Posted October 19, 2017 at 12:26 am | Permalink

    Further, it can make a difference in your own behavior. In my case, I no longer beat myself up over decisions in my past that, I once felt, I could have made differently. I couldn’t. Such recriminations are not only mentally sapping, but scientifically untenable.

    I would raise the same questions about this that I have before:

    This logic seems to me inconsistent.

    How far does this go?

    We have to remember that the logic of determinism goes both forward and backward – that is the future is as determined as the past. I am no more “free” to choose my next choice than I was the one that just occurred.

    So ANY logic you use in applying determinism to the past must also project to the future.
    So, if you should feel bad or recriminate yourself over a choice you just made “because you couldn’t have done otherwise” the same goes for the choice you are about to make, which you “can’t do otherwise” either.

    So say you were in a relationship and did something very selfish that most conscientious people would regret. But on determinist logic you let yourself off the mental hook because “I couldn’t have done otherwise.”

    Why won’t this apply to a choice you are about to make. You have a choice between doing something you want that is clearly selfish in a relationship. Or you could refrain. You can use the same deterministic logic to say “whatever I choose, I could not have chosen otherwise, therefore I have no reason to feel bad, or self-recriminatory, in choosing to do this selfish thing.”

    So why doesn’t the logic grease the wheels for choosing selfish acts as easily as it does in removing guilt for previous selfish acts?

    One response might be “but for the choice you are about to make, there are good reasons – moral reasons for instance – not to do the selfish thing.”

    This amounts to saying although you may feel like making this upcoming selfish choice you SHOULD NOT make that choice. Isn’t the fact you SHOULD NOT DO X really important?

    But then, again, the logic of determinism goes backwards as well. If you can say of your fixed, determined choice ahead of you “should not” then it applies to the fixed, determined choice in the past “I should not have done that…”

    It’s just as important that you should not have done that selfish act than you should not do a future selfish act.

    That means dwelling on the reasons why you shouldn’t have done something is just as meaningful and instructive. (In fact, past experience is generally how we build the model of what we should and shouldn’t do in the future). And why shouldn’t this engender any emotions, shame, self-reprimanding…all the things that get people to change their behavior when they’ve made past mistakes?

    Again, deterministically you can just as well say “I’m choosing to do this selfish act because I can’t do otherwise, and therefore shouldn’t feel bad about it.” But surely the only way to NOT choose the selfish act is to acknowledge you CAN choose otherwise, and that there are good reasons to do so.

    But then…that applies to your past (determined) choice as well. IT means in the same sense ‘I COULD HAVE chosen otherwise and should have.”

    But then, this “I couldn’t have done otherwise” logic seems to go out the window.

    I just don’t yet see the coherence of this line of thinking.

    Help? 🙂

    • Posted October 19, 2017 at 7:13 am | Permalink

      “But surely the only way to NOT choose the selfish act is to acknowledge you CAN choose otherwise, and that there are good reasons to do so.”

      If I don’t choose the selfish act, that will be for the reasons and other causes that determine the choice, so the choice couldn’t have been otherwise give those causes. To do the right thing, I don’t have to have the capacity to choose independently of those causes, nor do I have such a capacity. To say I could have done otherwise is simply to say (counterfactually) that had relevant conditions, including my reasons, been different, I had the capacity to have done otherwise and might have done so. It doesn’t mean that given a set of reasons and other determining causes, I could have done otherwise in an actual situation. Unless of course one introduces indeterminism, which doesn’t add to my authorship or responsibility.

      But that I couldn’t have done otherwise in an actual situation doesn’t obviate the judgment that I *should* have done otherwise if I behaved badly. So as you say, regret as a motive to do better next time is perfectly in order. Determinism doesn’t let us off the hook morally, but it does mitigate the sort of emotional overkill that can result from thinking we could have done otherwise.

      • Beth Clarkson
        Posted October 20, 2017 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

        Introducing indeterminism allows us eliminate the ‘only one outcome possible’ required by determinism. It has already been established that living entities (plants and geckos)can make use of quantum effects. There is no reason why the neural processes in our brain could not include making use of quantum effects and thus allow authorship and responsibility to the internal decision making process.

        • Posted October 20, 2017 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

          Some folks — and not just anybody — claim that quantum effects are important in the brain, but most scientists disagree. How do plants and geckos make use of quantum effects?

        • Posted October 20, 2017 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

          As Jerry and others often point out, it isn’t clear how indeterminism could add to an agent’s control and responsibility since after all it subverts the reliable causal connection between, say, intention and action, or between desire and intention. It might mean more than one action was possible in a given situation, but it wouldn’t make that action any more *your* doing than if determinism were the case. It would simply mean you couldn’t rely on a particular effect (e.g., an action) following on from a particular cause (your intention). The control you rationally want is for your actions to reflect – to be reliably caused by – *you*, and you already have that control under determinism. More about this in “What should we tell people about free will?”, in particular endnote 3, at http://www.naturalism.org/philosophy/free-will/what-should-we-tell-people-about-free-will

          • Beth Clarkson
            Posted October 21, 2017 at 11:44 am | Permalink

            Think about how computers use random numbers to choose from a set of possible outcomes. Now consider that human minds could use quantum effects similarly combined with an ability to consciously alter the probabilities with which different outcomes will be chosen based on that random output. Like deciding to lose weight and altering the probability of saying yes to dessert.

  34. Vaal
    Posted October 19, 2017 at 12:28 am | Permalink

    Ugh, among the typos, this should have been:

    So, if you shouldn’t feel bad or recriminate yourself over a choice you just made “because you couldn’t have done otherwise” the same goes for the choice you are about to make, which you “can’t do otherwise” either.

  35. kelskye
    Posted October 19, 2017 at 12:45 am | Permalink

    For at least 250 years, free will in philosophical circles has included compatiblism, and the discussion of moral responsibility in light of determinism good back at east as far as Augustine. Why must libertarianism be equated with free will still?

    • Posted October 19, 2017 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      Because people claim to still want it. Kane, for example, argues he would like to have “genuine self origination”.

      • kelskye
        Posted October 20, 2017 at 5:58 am | Permalink

        Only some do. For myself (and there’s much philosophical precedent for this), compatibilism is a variety of free will worth wanting (to borrow from Dan Dennett). Why should we repeatedly talk about the incoherence of a view that doesn’t capture all of what is meant by the term in its everyday (and philosophical) usage?

  36. Vaal
    Posted October 19, 2017 at 1:28 am | Permalink

    Just to speak a bit more to this idea of determinism helping one to not feel negative emotions about a past choice:

    It seems to me insofar as you follow the logic, it seems to have unrealistic or even sinister implications. But to the degree it becomes more reasonable logic, it doesn’t add any advantage over compatibilism or even libertarian free will.

    So about negative emotions associated with choices:

    Surely, we aren’t, can’t be, and likely ought not be, bereft of emotions. Humans are not Vulcans. To feel sad or alarmed at seeing our child harmed “makes sense” to the degree any emotion makes sense.
    It’s an appropriate emotional response. And it helps drive action – e.g. to stop the child’s suffering. That extends to all manner of scenarios in which we experience “appropriate” emotions of sadness, alarm, happiness, etc.

    So let’s say Fred took an action that was selfish, and that harmed his wife – had an affair. She was a wonderful wife, Fred knew it, but he had the opportunity to be selfish and have an affair. It crushed his wife emotionally when she found out.

    Now, let’s look to see if we can find any emotions that are actually inappropriate here.

    Why wouldn’t Fred (in his non-selfish state of mind) find his distraught wife’s plight to be terribly saddening and upsetting? Wouldn’t that be an appropriate emotion to have seeing someone you love hurting so much?

    Now, what caused the suffering. Fred’s choice. When Fred thinks about the choice he made and the consequences he finds so egregious, why WOULDN’T a very negative emotional response to having made that choice make sense? Surely it does. We would hope that a good person would think this way about any future choice. If Fred had been contemplating an affair, wouldn’t we WANT him, in imagining his wife’s devastation, to have a negative feeling about this? To feel BAD about hurting his wife? (Which would help dissuade him from having an affair).

    Surely that seems to make sense. Either projected forward in dissuading him from choosing an affair, or backwards in evaluating the harm his choice caused.

    I don’t see how negative emotions attached to the anguish of someone you love don’t make sense. And therefore how anguish, or shame or any such negative emotion doesn’t make sense when evaluating YOUR ACTION as having been the cause. These are just the type of emotions that get people to change their ways. It’s people who DON’T feel this way, who don’t feel negative emotions about harming others, or self-recrimination, that we ought to feel very uneasy about.

    I can’t imagine that a determinist like Jerry actually is saying it’s unreasonable to feel bad about having made a selfish choice that harmed someone else. So surely SOME period of self-reflection and negative emotions associated with a bad choice are reasonable.

    But no one thinks it a good idea to be stuck in that mode, determinist, compatibilist or libertarian.

    Even the libertarian free-willist will say “Yes, we make bad choices, but we can’t change the past, so we should find ways to move on instead of dwelling.”

    So the idea of moving on and not wasting excessive time beating yourself up seems just as available to the compatibilist, or libertarian free willer. Determinism doesn’t seem to offer anything more.

    EXCEPT the idea that one shouldn’t feel bad “because I couldn’t have chosen otherwise.” And, as I’ve written above, the logic of this can apply to a choice you are about to make, an action you are taking right now, and when it is in your past. It’s logic that says you don’t have to feel bad about doing something bad because you can’t do otherwise. This seems rather sinister. Unless you mitigate it with reasons to feel bad to some degree…and then you aren’t really getting more than what you can get with “we can’t change the past” that any Libertarian could say.

    • Posted October 19, 2017 at 4:28 am | Permalink

      Vaal, once again, you make a good case against the hard determinist on regret and guilt.

    • Posted October 19, 2017 at 8:18 am | Permalink

      “So the idea of moving on and not wasting excessive time beating yourself up seems just as available to the compatibilist, or libertarian free willer. Determinism doesn’t seem to offer anything more.”

      Seeing that you couldn’t have done otherwise in actual situations (any indeterminism aside) helps to mitigate excessive self-blame, but without letting yourself off the moral hook. Such mitigation isn’t available to libertarians. Compatibilists tend to downplay the mitigation of reactive attitudes stemming from determinism since they are often in the business of upholding retributive desert as a justification for punishment.

      • Vaal
        Posted October 19, 2017 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

        Seeing that you couldn’t have done otherwise in actual situations (any indeterminism aside) helps to mitigate excessive self-blame, but without letting yourself off the moral hook. Such mitigation isn’t available to libertarians.

        Yes it is, in the way that I explained.
        (And obviously I’m not a libertarian).

        As I said, people with every free will view have necessary and pragmatic ways of moving on from constant self-flagellation over a bad choice.

        Again, that’s where “no use dwelling, we can’t change past choices. You did something wrong but learn from that mistake, move on and make better future choices” comes from, and it’s available to any version of free will or incompatibilism.

        I just don’t see any substantial contribution by incompatibilism here.

        • Posted October 19, 2017 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

          Seems to me libertarians are saddled with the possible source of self-recrimination of supposing they could have done otherwise, where as determinists aren’t. But I agree there are other grounds for letting bygones be bygones available to everyone.

        • Posted October 22, 2017 at 4:00 am | Permalink

          I’m with Vaal here (and pretty much everywhere). Saying “you couldn’t have done otherwise” sounds mitigating, until we explain how little that means on an incompatibilist reading. It only means that “something outside your desires, beliefs and reasons didn’t and couldn’t have come out of nowhere, resulting in you doing something different.” But the fact that my action did come out of my desires, beliefs, and reasons, is exactly why I feel guilty about it.

  37. Posted October 19, 2017 at 4:48 am | Permalink

    In defence of all the athiests that hold the view that will is a fallacy of bias just as choice is a figment of belief may I ask you share your intention to facilitate futher deliberation on the matter of will and the will of choice.

  38. Carl S Weisbecker
    Posted October 19, 2017 at 5:51 am | Permalink

    I think that Karl Popper wrote that clouds are not clocks, that we need not accept this notion that the universe is strictly deterministic. If you allow that there could be even just a little imprecision in an otherwise clockwork universe, then his indeterminate stance is legitimate. You keep saying “determinism is true”, but I don’t think we know that.

  39. Posted October 19, 2017 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    Moral responsibility doesn’t require *libertarian* free will, in fact too much libertarian free will would be a severe problem for moral responsibility. There would be no point in criticizing anyone for a bad act, including yourself, if this could have no influence on future actions. But if all our actions came literally out of nowhere, not caused by any previous thought or feeling of the agent’s, then moral criticism would have no effect.

    Most libertarian philosophers get around this by admitting significant causal influences in human life, but insisting on a few uncaused events peppering the scene. But this doesn’t add to moral responsibility, it detracts from it. Insofar as my act didn’t come from my earlier thoughts, feelings, and character, it didn’t come from what makes me *me*. So to that extent I can’t really own it.

    Compatibilist determinism gives the maximum possible sense to moral responsibility. Libertarianism just gets in the way.

  40. Mann Jackson
    Posted October 19, 2017 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    This is a discussion that will never have a universal answer.

  41. Adepterik
    Posted October 21, 2017 at 3:28 am | Permalink

    People best watch the blade runner movies if they want a down to earth thought provoking way to think about the issue. Puts what we are really arguing here on the table in a way that most lay people can relate. Replicants are android humans designed by humans but are made with biological correctness, not the typical metal version. Are their lives worth less sing owing to that humans came first?

  42. Tim Hanrahan
    Posted October 24, 2017 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Your frustration about Richard Dawkins’ position on Free Will (or anyone’s position on any subject)is puzzling. The absence of Free Will makes it inevitable, doesn’t it?


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