Robert Sapolsky takes on free will in “Behave”

I wasn’t able to finish Robert Sapolsky’s relatively new book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, for two reasons. First, I found the opening several hundred pages pretty boring. Despite Sapolsky’s valiant attempt to write engagingly—and he can do so in places—the material was a tedious disquisition on hormones, neurons, and other material that seemed too textbook-ish. His attempts to jazz up the text by using popular argot didn’t work for me. But because the book was very popular, I was surprised that I found these parts boring, as others clearly didn’t. I wound up skipping a lot of pages to get to parts that interested me, and I almost never do that. Further, yesterday (second reason) the library recalled the book, so I have to give it back within a few days. I wouldn’t have read it all anyway.

But one part I enjoyed, not only because it seemed better written than the other chapters but also because its ideas were congenial, was chapter 16: “Biology, the criminal justice system, and (oh, why not?) free will?”. Sapolsky is a hard determinist, and in fact his long disquisition on hormones and the nervous system that opens the book was part of his strategy for convincing the reader of the prescriptive and more “macro” conclusions at the end. It’s just that it took him a long time to build up to that!

Sapolsky’s conclusions about free will are largely the same as mine: determinism rules; there’s no such thing as “could have done otherwise” free will; and that compatibilism (the view that we can confect a kind of free will that is compatible with determinism and quantum indeterminacy) is not useful.  He also agrees that accepting determinism has enormous ramifications for the legal system and penal system, mandating that criminals should (and one day will) be judged like broken cars: things to be fixed and taken off the streets if they’re dangerous or unfixable, rather than being deemed “evil” and destroyed. He mandates a huge reform of the judicial and penal system. And, like me, he recognizes that we can’t not feel that we have free will, but that—at least in judging people for good or ill—we should act in light of a rationally considered determinism.  The last paragraph of the chapter is this (p. 613):

I can’t really imagine how to live your life as if there is no free will. It may never be possible to view ourselves as the sum of our biology. Perhaps we’ll have to settle for making sure our homuncular myths [libertarian free will] are benign, and save the heavy lifting of truly thinking rationally for where it matters—when we judge others harshly.

And I’ll give one more excerpt from this chapter on determinism and punishment (he also discusses reward). This comes after a section in which he looks back at medieval courts burning women as “witches” for having epileptic fits (it did happen), and realizes how barbaric that seems in light of our modern understanding of the disease. So on pp. 607-608 he writes this (to avoid having to transcribe, I’ve done a search and taken screenshots from Google image of the pages, which explains the yellow):

I like the snark about compatibilism! I’ve written about Sapolsky’s views of free will before, and presented podcasts and lectures in which he explains them (see here, here, and here), and this chapter is a lucid and well written distillation of his views—and of the case against both libertarian free will and compatibilism. As for the rest of the book, in light of its huge popularity and big sales, I’d recommend that you start it; if you like the opening chapters, well, keep on reading to the end! I count it as a flaw in my attention span that I couldn’t get through the whole thing.

I know many readers disagree with me (and ergo with Sapolsky) on compatibilism or what we call free will, and so be it. But from now on, given that Sapolsky is a lot smarter than I am, when someone tries to argue with me about this, I’m gonna say, “Go take it up with Sapolsky!”

If you want to hear Sam Harris’s discussion with Sapolsky on the “Waking Up” podcast—and here we have two hard determinists—I’ll put the video version below, which I’ve posted before. The discussion of free will begins at 40:40 (Sapolsky explains why he rejects free will at 42:40) and ends at 1:14:50—about 35 minutes.


  1. Jake Sevins
    Posted December 7, 2017 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    When the book arrived in the mail I immediately knew I wouldn’t get through it all. It’s huge. But I, like you Jerry, did skip around and find some entertaining sections I enjoyed reading.

    And now it sits on my shelf announcing to all my friends what an intellectually discerning reader I am. It’ll be our secret that I read less than 1/3 of it. 🙂

  2. Jorge Rojas
    Posted December 7, 2017 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    I´m just reading it and love it. I think is detailed enough for a lay person to understand it and he can be funny.
    While reading the chapter about testosterone’s effects I was wondering what would you said about it (having in mind your critic to Cordelia Fine´s book). At least, I though testosterone has a lot to do with agression, but Sapolsky says that´s not quite right (it is not a predictor of agression, it can make males prosocial under some circunstances, etc.).
    I can´t wait to reach the chapter you comment.

  3. Austin Johnson
    Posted December 7, 2017 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    I bought Behave in August and also haven’t finished it. I pick at it little by little but there’s so much to take in that I don’t like reading a lot of it at once, and the writing is pretty dry in the beginning.

  4. Posted December 7, 2017 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Looks like a good one – and a big read.

  5. David Hammer
    Posted December 7, 2017 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    The first 150 pages or so, about the structure of the brain and the role of dopamine etc, is dense and, for a layman, very hard to digest. Five minutes after reading, I’ve forgotten what I’ve read. After that it improves. I can’t imagine why Sapolsky’s editor let him start this way.

    Later the book gets considerably better, and I may even finish it. But so far, its been a disappointment.

  6. busterggi
    Posted December 7, 2017 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    I’m still sitting on the fence regarding free will. Maybe I’m afraid to jump off but maybe I only rationalize that and have no choice.

    • Posted December 7, 2017 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

      You have no choice but not to choose.

  7. sgo
    Posted December 7, 2017 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    I thought about getting it from the library but because it is so huge I decided to buy it anyway. It’ll be a Christmas present. Not sure when I’ll get to reading it. Too bad to hear now though that especially the first part is tedious to get through.

  8. Posted December 7, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    As I think I have mentioned before, all of these discussions are limited by the insistence that free will be “conscious free will” when the bulk of our lives is lived subconsciously.

    I also suspect that when we experienced our brain size explosion (2.5m years ago?) we ended up with a new capacity, that of imagination. We now use imagination to create a virtual reality in our “minds” that we map actual reality onto. This allows us a great deal of evolutionary good stuff: we can do experiments in our heads to see what the outcomes would be were we to try them, e.g. I would like to fly so I will jump off of this cliff and flat my arms very vigorously. Do this in reality and … splat! Do this in imagination and you generally decide not to do it in reality.

    Since we got the ability to simulate the real world in our minds, we also got the ability to simulate unreal worlds in our minds, which explains a lot, especially religiously.

    I am not a determinist. Why create all of the mental processing power to include imagination and then simply act upon whatever reality we impinge? This is a vast decision making apparatus that would serve no purpose in a determinist universe.

    • Posted December 7, 2017 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      I agree. There’s no point to our big brains and the huge energy cost of consciousness if we aren’t using the processing power to affect our survival by making better choices.

      Further, while things are not always as they seem, the fact that we seem to have the ability to make choices should not be dismissed as illusion without an explanation regarding the cause and purpose of the illusion. We don’t have that.

      It’s a form of faith to assume determinism in opposition to our universal sense of making choices. Reducing it to unimportant choices like boxers versus briefs ignores the fact that humans make important choices with long-term ramifications for the future like choice of major in college and accepting or rejecting a job offer that entails a move across the country. We often spend a large amount of time and effort thinking through those choices. Why should we assume that the thinking process has no impact on the outcome of the choice?

      • Posted December 7, 2017 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

        “We often spend a large amount of time and effort thinking through those choices. Why should we assume that the thinking process has no impact on the outcome of the choice?”

        Of course, all thought processes eventually lead to a result.
        Only: the work of thinking is done by the unconscious and a minimal section of this work kindly sends the subconscious to consciousness.
        Neither do you know of the thought work that has been done before, nor do you have any way to influence the outcome of this unconscious thinking.

        • Posted December 7, 2017 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

          Why do you assume that because the subconscious does a lot of thinking and sends signals to the conscious mind that the conscious mind cannot direct the efforts of or overrule the signals sent by the subconscious?

          BTW, I’m familiar with Libet and no, I don’t consider those results relevant to this question.

          • Posted December 7, 2017 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

            Because consciousness arises solely through neural activity, which in turn is governed by the laws of physics.

            Any thought that you become aware of is ultimately due to what happens on an atomic level in your brain. There is no way to rule about this atomic level through conscious thinking because the latter depends on atoms by itself.

            • Vaal
              Posted December 7, 2017 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

              No one here argues the conscious thinking isn’t governed by the laws of physics, so that would be a red herring.

              Rather, we are asking about what role conscious thinking has in our decision making. And whether the way our brains work entails “we” are not doing any controlling.

              That both unconscious and conscious thinking is governed by physics is consistent with Beth’s suggestion that conscious thinking may “direct the efforts of or overrule the signals sent by the subconscious.”

              So your appeal to physics seems beside the point of the question asked.

              • Posted December 8, 2017 at 7:14 am | Permalink

                “Rather, we are asking about what role conscious thinking has in our decision making. And whether the way our brains work entails „we“ are not doing any controlling.”

                If one accepts that conscious thinking is as determined as unconscious thinking, then the inference is that there is no way to influence or control decision-making processes, all of which are produced at a neural level. “We” are just spectators.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted December 7, 2017 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

              Do you think it’s an error to ascribe causal power to natural selection (which is after all the result of biological processes ultimately governed by the laws of physics)?

              If it’s OK to say that natural selection affects gene frequencies, why would it not be OK to say that conscious thought affects behavior? Why be pedantically reductive in the latter case but not the former?

              If your claim is that as a matter of brain architecture, there’s a strictly one-way flow of information from the unconscious mind into consciousness, then you have two additional problems to address.

              First, there’s Beth’s question of why natural selection would build and maintain a brain subsystem that consumes metabolic resources but has no effect whatever on behavior.

              Second, the one-way model predicts that we should behave as if we’re completely unaware of our own conscious experience (since by hypothesis, no information can flow back from it into the brain centers that govern behavior). But that’s clearly not what we observe.

              • Posted December 8, 2017 at 7:46 am | Permalink

                “If it’s OK to say that natural selection affects gene frequencies, why would it not be OK to say that conscious thought affects behavior?”

                What is consciousness? A catchy formulation comes from the neuroscientist Giulio Tononi:

                  “Everyone knows what consciousness is: it’s what disappears every night, as soon as we fall into a dreamless sleep, and comes back as soon as we wake up or dream. Seen in this way, the term consciousness is synonymous with experiencing. ”

                According to this theory, consciousness arises when there is sufficient “integrated” information.

                ” why would it not be OK to say that conscious thought affects behavior?””

                Of course, consciousness (that is, everything you experience) affects behavior, just as every process in your body affects it. Only there is no “we”, no actor who could influence the outcome of these processes.

              • Posted December 8, 2017 at 7:52 am | Permalink


                “Using computer simulations, it can be shown that highly integrated information requires a network that combines functional specialization with functional integration, which is precisely what characterizes the thalamocortical system in mammals: different parts of the cerebral cortex specialize in different functions: from the level of the brain lobes to the areas, the neuron groups, and maybe even down to the individual neurons, there is also a broad network of connections that allows these parts to interact with each othe.
                This is in line with the observation that the thalamocortical system is precisely that part of the central nervous system whose severe damage entails a loss of consciousness, and conversely, the value of ‘integrated information’ is low in systems built on small, quasi-independent modules Why the cerebellum, despite its immense number of neurons hardly contributes anything to the emergence of consciousness.”

            • Beth Clarkson
              Posted December 8, 2017 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

              Thanks for your response. I see in a lower reply that you think there is “no actor who could influence the outcome of these processes”. While I disagree with this perspective, it is a consistent perspective. I agree that in order for ‘free will’ by any definition to exist, the individual actor must exist to exercise it.

  9. Posted December 7, 2017 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Jerry, I still don’t understand your stance. Let me try to point you to the problem. I try with this metaphor which should give you an intuition:

    Reality is a pool billiard table. You are one ball. There’s friction, and all sorts of other influences that make you move and bump into other balls. It’s irrelevant how we name these causes or laws, call them hormones, neuron-patterns, genes, whatever you like. Language, too, is part of the bumping of balls into one another. What matters is that — all things considered — you do what is determined by a previous state on the billiard table and the laws of nature.

    Now you very often leap into normative language, what we “should” do, or legal “ramifications”. But such demands are utterly pointless — all things considered. It’s like giving the ball a theory of mind about the other balls, and let it reason that it “should” bump properly into the blue ball, to launch it into a desired direction. But there is not, and cannot be, a desired direction in principle.

    Now saying or writing something is itself part of the bumping of balls into one another. You can’t help but do it as determined. Now this means that you know on the one hand that any act, speech or writing included, is “just” going through the motions. And simultaneously in the other hand, that writing something is itself the bump that sends off other balls. This cannot be resolved. We go one step meta. As you realize this, you know that shoulds and oughts are pointless, but that you have to write something anyway, because writing is part of the bumping of pool billiard balls and you could not do otherwise. This moves us a step up meta, for now you know that your shoulds and loughts are at once…

    Now, a human mind can see that this goes on forever. We can escape this strange loop, through abstraction, or “jootsing” as Dennett/Hofstadter called it. However, we never really escape that reality. The conundrum is this: what exactly are you doing when you write about the legal system and how it “should” be? Does some part of your mind realize that normative language is inappropriate given a hard determinist stance? Incompatibilisism looks like it requires some strange doublethink.

    • Liz
      Posted December 7, 2017 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      Interesting point in paragraphs two and three. I am having trouble understanding how condemning a “witch” is like firing Matt Lauer.

    • Posted December 7, 2017 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

      What about the pool cue?

    • Posted December 7, 2017 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

      Thumbs up.

      • Posted December 7, 2017 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

        For those Aneris paragraphs two and three, that is.

    • Posted December 8, 2017 at 7:21 am | Permalink

      I’m sorry, but you’re going on about a semantic problem that has a simple answer. I presume that underneath this all you’re accusing me of hypocrisy because I use normative language even though I can’t help using it. And yes, it’s an infinite regress, but why do we HAVE to escape it.

      Normative language:

      1. Our brains have evolved to compute how to get what we want, or to tell other people whose gratitude we want how to get what they want. If I want food, I can computer to either hunt or have learned to go to the grocery store.

      2. Someone who I like says, “I’m hungry.”

      3. My brain computes how to help them: “There’s a restaurant around the block.”

      4. My deterministic (and largely evolved) response affects their brain, and so they go to the store

      The “normative” language is simply of this form: “If you want result X, the best way to get it is to do action Y.

      So WHAT if I was determined to say that? I’m not sure what your point is, but I presume you’re a determinist and are simply criticizing my use of normative language, which really is just a brain computation telling me (or others) how to get what I (or they) want.

      I have a feeling that you haven’t really understood what I said. And what, exactly, is your issue? That i say somebody SHOULD do something? I’ve just explained that above, and it’s completely compatible with determinism.

      • Posted December 8, 2017 at 8:28 am | Permalink

        Exactly. Also, Steven Pinker pointed out in How The Mind Works that the best theory of the mind can be narrowed down to two aspects: desire and belief. Belief is what we know about the universe and its components (including other people and society at large). Desire is, largely, what we want to achieve (or prevent from being achieved).

        It’s amazing how much clarity is let in once you reduce the normative down to that formulation. Belief. Desire. It even parallels the basic sensory and motor nature of the various nervous systems (crudely put: belief comes from sensory data, desire goes out as motor action).

      • Posted December 8, 2017 at 8:54 am | Permalink

        Jerry, I’m not accusing you. I merely find odd the insistence to expunge free will (the name given to decision-making-computation), yet hold onto similar illusions (with words and concepts) that are themselves merely other parts of the same compution. You occasionally make this a point, when you introduce determinism into everyday situations.

        It seems you carve up “wanting” into a process that suggests, and the “choosing” as a different process. That way you can want society to be in a certain way, without also believing any choice is involved. Some wanting process simply gets through more than others. But just as we call some parts of the process wanting, we call another choosing.

        We already agree that free will in an ultimate sense does not exist. I take the model dependent realist (or experientialist) view that little we describe makes any sense once we leave our body and imagine ourself as a free floating entity looking over time-space, as if it where a tiny animated model, which we can play forwards and backwards and see from any angle.

        Our concepts are rooted in our human perspective, and everything we think is “contaminated” by the fact that we have a certain number of eyes and other sense organs. Our cognition evolved to help us survive. We have an orientation in space and perceive time in a certain way. Our idea of time-space reality as a model or container that can be viewed from outside is itself a metaphor built out of kinaesthetic image schemas (from our bodies, as evolved), and several other metaphors, like “time-is-space”. They are “contaminated” in the same way.

        I take the view that we naturally operate with models all the time, built into our mind, into our concepts, language and so forth. It’s built into science too, as physics, chemistry, biology, psychology and sociology. We simulataneously accept that things like love, branches, waves, peninsula, melody, and other such things exist — yet if we change perspective, conceptually, such gestalts cease to exist. The underlying reality is still there, but what we “see” of it, and how we conceptualize it, can be very different (e.g. wave-particle interpretations).

        In that view, I can accept that reality is deterministic (or quasi-deterministic, we don’t know if true randomness is a law of nature), but I can also accept that we can’t help but think in concepts and ideas that are meaningful from our (mammalian/human) perspective, which includes volition, wanting, loving, craving, hoping, and which features melodies, islands, branches and cats on mats.

        If we want to jump out of the box, and imagine reality from an outsider perspective, we have to go the whole way and also dispense with the illusion of free floating minds altogether. I know you’re motivated also by anti-religion, and this does the job well: for a god-like mind without a body (situated in some material) cannot exist.

      • Vaal
        Posted December 8, 2017 at 9:43 am | Permalink

        Jerry Wrote: The “normative” language is simply of this form: “If you want result X, the best way to get it is to do action Y.

        But this only makes sense as a motivation to take an action insofar as it appeals to possible actions. And that notion of possibility is the whole crux of the matter.

        Take a recommendation of the form you just wrote: If you want to avoid getting cancer, the best way to get it is to become indestructible.”

        Well, if “becoming indestructible” is an impossibility, what relevance can such a recommendation have? It can not actually give a *reason* for me to take an action, if the action can not be taken.

        That’s why “ought implies can” – only recommendations for *possible* actions can make sense as giving good reasons for an action.

        So you could recommend to me “IF you want to be healthier, the best way to get that is to go outside for a walk at lunchtime instead of sitting at your computer.” This is essentially the form of saying “you ought to…”

        And this can only give me a reason to act insofar as it is possible I could either remain sitting at my computer, OR go for a walk.

        Because if either half of that equation is impossible, the recommendation can’t give me a reason to act. If I’m a paraplegic and it’s impossible for me to “go for a walk” then telling me what a walk would achieve can’t give me a reason to take that action.

        If on the other hand it was impossible for me to “not go for a walk” – that is if I could no more stop going for a walk than I could stop “obeying the laws of physics,” then
        I am not walking *for the reasons you would give me to walk* but I’m just helplessly walking. Making any recommendation to walk gratuitous and beside the point.

        So even as you have expressed “ought” (and I agree with how you’ve expressed it), it’s still the case that such statement can only actually give good reasons for actions insofar as one acknowledged the “possibilities of doing otherwise.”

        And since you deny that we “can do otherwise” recommendations of the form you have given still seems to lead to contradiction.

        (And compatibilism simply acknowledges that we can do otherwise, though not with contra-causal implications, which makes recommendations coherent on compatibilism).

        • Vaal
          Posted December 8, 2017 at 9:45 am | Permalink

          I’m sorry, let me fix a confusing sentence I wrote at the start of the above post:

          Take a recommendation of the form you just wrote: If you want to avoid getting cancer, the best way to get a cancer-free outcome is to become indestructible.”

      • Liz
        Posted December 8, 2017 at 10:17 am | Permalink

        I took a Freedom and Responsibility class in college. I have paid attention to Sean Carroll’s views on this in The Big Picture and what I observed watching the Moving Naturalism Forward videos. I’m not that well read on the subject but I do remember contemplating it all the time in college. I would internalize determinism as I practiced spontaneity on purpose. It was determinism over indeterminism and I didn’t *actually* have free will. Many years went by and I came across Sean Carroll. It all came back but with more detail and more input from different people in the Moving Naturalism Forward videos. I went back and read some of the book from college, Agency and Responsibility.

        I’d say I’m an incompatibilist and we don’t have free will. It’s a very interesting subject to think about and discuss. To apply a view that we couldn’t have acted differently to the legal system is questionable to me. If determinism is based on the laws of physics and that’s the basis for how we punish people, we better make darn sure we know everything there is to know about physics. I don’t think anyone other than a physicist should be able to say with confidence how we should be applying determinism and the inability to have acted otherwise to the legal system if at all.

        How would anyone go about implementing it? Imagine explaining compatibilism, the laws of physics, determinism etc. to an inmate who can barely read. Maybe someone can read him all of these comments to help him better understand. Or even the lawyers. It’s a discussion and an interesting one. I think there are gaps, though, and things we don’t understand yet that stand in the way of even thinking about changing the legal system.

        I am not extremely familiar with the argument but I’m in favor of better treatment of inmates and improved rehabilitation programs. I don’t think it should have anything to do with what I, personally, think is the correct view of determinism and incompatibilism.

        Thanks so much for letting me share.

  10. Posted December 7, 2017 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Sapolsky “…also agrees that accepting determinism has enormous ramifications for the legal system and penal system, mandating that criminals should (and one day will) be judged like broken cars: things to be fixed and taken off the streets if they’re dangerous or unfixable, rather than being deemed ‘evil’ and destroyed.”

    Right on! Back in 2006, Dawkins reached the same conclusion at the Edge (link below), coming out against retribution on grounds of determinism. He cites the scene in Fawlty Towers in which Basil Fawlty beats up his car for not starting as being like our treatment of criminals. However, Dawkins goes off the rails when he says

    “But doesn’t a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused’s physiology, heredity and environment. Don’t judicial hearings to decide questions of blame or diminished responsibility make as little sense for a faulty man as for a Fawlty car?”

    Even under determinism, we have to hold each other responsible, and we have to distinguish between agents that are appropriate targets of our responsibility practices and those who, because of diminished capacity, are not. But of course none of this lends any support to retributivism.

    • Posted December 9, 2017 at 6:52 am | Permalink

      “Don’t judicial hearings to decide questions of blame or diminished responsibility make as little sense for a faulty man as for a Fawlty car?”

      Not really. I’ve never seen a car say, “Hmm, if I do X, I might get punished for it.” But I’ve definitely seen people say that.

  11. Posted December 7, 2017 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    All these self-contradictory attempts by the Compatibilists to rescue the free will with their constructs remind me of the theologians who try to save the faith by only symbolically understanding the texts of the Bible in a “figurative” sense. Like them the compatibilists want to save with their theories something that can not be saved. In a certain way, they are cowardly and, not to forget, it is especially for the many philosophers to defend benefices and interpretation sovereignty.

    • Vaal
      Posted December 7, 2017 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      That’s a rather uncharitable characterization of compatibliism (not that compatibilists aren’t used to this).

      You critizice compatibilism for containing self contradictions. How about incompatibilist self contradictions?

      As the compatibilists here have been pointing out until blue in the face, Incompatibilists like our beloved Prof CC start with the premise “We could not do otherwise” and then move to “therefore we OUGHT to do otherwise”
      (e.g. advises that we do otherwise than we are doing in our approach to criminal justice).

      Since you do not care for internal contradictions, could you please make sense of the *internal contradiction* described above?

      (Please note, it’s an *internal contradiction.* That mean simple appeals like “well the argument is part of a causal chain and can affect other people” or “so what, we are determined to make the arguments we make” are non-answers. Because the question concerns an internal contradiction, which renders the incompatibilist’s position incoherent and therefore it can not be persuasive).

      • Posted December 7, 2017 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

        “We could not do otherwise” “always refers to a moment in the past, even if it was only milliseconds ago.
        We “ought” always refers to the future, which is unknown to anyone. We counter this ignorance by approaching the truth as closely as possible and this is done by “we should or we ought do otherwise.”

        • Vaal
          Posted December 7, 2017 at 3:37 pm | Permalink


          Your reply actually ignores the implications of determinism. Hence you have simply re-stated the very contradiction I’d asked you to unravel.

          On determinism, any future choice is as determined as our past choice. The choice I’m about to make is as fixed by deterministic processes as the one I just made.

          Therefore whatever logic you point toward a past choice must apply to your next choice.
          In other words, it’s just as accurate to say of my next choice “I could not do otherwise” as it was of the choice I just made.

          This premise does not just go away by pleading ignorance of what your next choice will be.

          Therefore, it’s JUST as illogical to say “you OUGHT to do X instead of Y” for a choice I’m about to make, as for the choice I just made.
          If last night I chose steak on the restaurant menu, it makes no sense for you to tell me today “you OUGHT to choose the pasta.” Why? Because my choice is already fixed in the past – I have no real option to change it.
          If for some reason I thought “I could choose otherwise” for a past decision, I’d be wrong.

          And on determinism, my next choice is JUST as fixed: when faced today with the same choice, if I think I ACTUALLY DO have those alternative actions available to me, that “I could choose otherwise,” I would be wrong.

          That’s the logic of determinism, especially on incompatibilism, and so it’s JUST as incoherent to say “you OUGHT to choose X instead of Y” as it is to say that of a past choice. Because “ought” implies being able to do otherwise (or it doesn’t make sense as a recommendation).

          So I don’t see what you would mean by “approaching the truth” by using “should” or “ought.”

          Now, as a compatibilist who has tried to think through the implications of our choices being determined, I think I DO have a coherent response to this problem. That is, our normal concept of “I could choose otherwise” actually don’t depend on assumptions that conflict with determinism.
          (Hence: “I could do otherwise” is compatible with determinism).

          But you as in incompatilist still seem left dangling contradictions in your answers.

          • Posted December 7, 2017 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

            The problem with your steak analogy is that neither party knows how the future will play out. Even if we know it is determined, we still have to play it out. Determinism is not a justification for living your life differently. Except, of course, in philosophical discussions like this one. Knowing that the atoms that make up a wall have a lot of space between them DOES affect our future behavior but only in areas where that knowledge matters. Walking into a wall is not one of them.

            • Vaal
              Posted December 7, 2017 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

              Hi Paul,

              That response does not address the *internal contradiction* I keep pointing out. It’s the exact response I already showed to be beside the point.

              The contradiction comes from the incompatibilist making arguments that amount to recommendations: “should” or “ought.”
              As Jerry has for penal reform.

              Let’s say we agree we don’t want to break eggs. I claim “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” In the next moment I say “we ought to make an omelette!”

              You will rightly point out I’ve just contradicted myself. If we don’t want to break eggs, and my premise is omelettes break eggs, then it makes no internal sense to say “we ought to make an omelette.”

              What if you point out this internal contradiction in my argument to me, and my reply is “Well, under determinism, we don’t really KNOW if we are going to make an omelette and besides we are determined to make the arguments we make.”

              Have I responded to the problem of the internal contradiction? Of course not. Knowing what our next action is, determined or otherwise, has nothing to do with whether I have just presented a contradictory argument.

              And this is where we stand with the incompatibilist who starts with the premise “We can not do otherwise” and then advises that we “do otherwise.” Saying “I don’t know which choice will be made” is no more to the point than saying “I don’t know if we’ll make an omelette” when the problem is the contradictions inherent in what I said about not breaking eggs but suggesting we make omelettes.

              • Posted December 7, 2017 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

                All the talk and decisions behind “ought”, “do otherwise”, and the contradictions are at a level above the processes that determine them. We can go either way on the contradiction and, regardless, it is all determined. IMHO, the big fallacy is concluding that we don’t have decisions to make because, hey, it is all determined. The decisions are part of determinism too. It’s turtles all the way down!

              • Posted December 7, 2017 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

                Interesting discussion. I will admit to being a bit befuddled by the topic so look forward to this being played out.

              • Posted December 7, 2017 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

                Yes, it is an interesting discussion.

                I will admit that I don’t really understand the “compatibilist” position. I may well be one since I am a determinist but I still believe that we make decisions the old-fashioned way and that “should” and “ought” are still valid.

                The name “compatibilist” sounds like it represents a class of possible positions on this subject. Perhaps I believe in one of them.

              • Vaal
                Posted December 7, 2017 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

                Well, ok paul, that’s still the same non-answer I’ve been speaking about.

                The issue isn’t only contained to the types of examples of “should/ought” that I brought up. It’s far more fundamental. The very science that incompatibilists point to in building their case for incompatibilism is rife with “should” and “can do otherwise” concepts – that is, describing and understanding phenomena, and describing experiments, based on the presumption of “alternative possibilities” or “could be otherwise.”

                So if all that talk is at bottom illusory and false, then this undermines the very “facts” that incompatibilists are building their case upon. This makes the very case for incompatibilism incoherent.

                UNLESS you have some robust way of understanding “could be otherwise” as a truth claim of some sort. THEN you don’t get contradictions down the road. But once you do start to understand our concepts of “could do otherwise” in a way that doesn’t contradict determinism, then as you make sense of this you are on the road to compatibilism.

                I’ve yet to see this problem properly addressed here, so I’m not surprised we ended up this way.

                (And as usual I have to point out that the compatibilist isn’t suddenly inserting magic; she is simply noting that our normal conceptions of “alternative possibilities” is NOT based on magic contra-causality, but instead on if/then reasoning that is completely compatible with our being in a determined system).


              • Posted December 7, 2017 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

                I’m a bit lost on this argument. I really don’t see the “contradiction”. I am not sure what the compatibilists’ position is so I am only answering for myself. I see no problem talking about would/should/ought while accepting determinism. Much as I accept that a wall is solid even though I believe it is made of atoms with lots of empty space between them. There’s no contradiction.

                That said, I can imagine particular kinds of discussion where there is a contradiction. If I am discussing the wall at the atomic level, “solid” takes on a different meaning. Similarly, if we are talking about causal chains at the level at which determinism acts, it would be inappropriate to talk about how a quark should/ought behave.

              • Vaal
                Posted December 7, 2017 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

                Hi Paul,

                I think you bringing up the example of the Wall and solidity can be helpful, because I’ve used that very example before to explain the difference between iconpatibilists and compatiblilists.

                But first, I’m baffled at how you can’t see the contradiction. If you say you OUGHT to do X instead of Y, then that only makes sense if both options are possible. If for instance I’d said something that hurt someone’s feelings it makes sense to say “you OUGHT to apologize.” That presumes apologizing is possible, but if I were unable to resist apologizing, then it makes no sense to say “you ought to apologize” anymore than it would make sense to say “you OUGHT to be attracted to the earth via your relative mass.” We don’t waste time recommending actions that are impossible NOT to do.

                So to say “you ought to apologize” implies both that it’s *possible* for me to not apologize and *possible* for me to apologize.
                Take away either of those two possibilities, and “ought” makes no sense. Like saying “you OUGHT to go back in time and not make that hurtful remark.” We only use “ought” with the assumption that one or more alternatives are *possible*.

                Therefore, IF an incompatibilist STARTS with the philosophical premise “We could not/can not do otherwise” then to say “we OUGHT to do X” is a contradiction. Because “ought” REQUIRES that we could “do otherwise” in order to make sense.

                Does that not spell out the contradiction clearly enough?

                To your Wall example:

                We’ve been calling things like ice, tables, walls, cars etc “solid.” But what if we look into the sub atomic level and then find that the matter is not purely contiguous, but full of “empty space.”

                Do we then say “We THOUGHT things were solid, but science has shown us this is wrong. In fact nothing is “solid.” Solidity doesn’t exist.”

                Obviously not, right?

                But why not? Because the term “solid” doesn’t normally REFER to objects at the sub atomic level. We don’t “live” at that level of observation. Rather, our normal notion of “solid” applies to how we experience the physical world at the macro level. “Solidity” is still a real thing: a difference to be notice between things in a certain state (solid) vs another state (gaseous, liquid, etc). Those states are REAL differences in the world we live. That’s why if you look at the dictionary definitions of common usage, they don’t imply claims about the atomic level. And it’s why “solidity” remains a scientifically useful concept.

                Even if there is *some* illusion involved in solidity, e.g. it looks to us that matter i contiguous, our normal notions of “solidity” are not ONLY comprised of that aspect: the most important aspects of “solidity” are all maintained once we have a better explanation for how solidity occurs.

                But go back to finding out what things look like at the atomic level. If from that you declared SOLIDITY IS AN ILLUSION IT DOES NOT EXIST and then told me “We ought to build a solid wall to keep the weather out…”
                you’d be in direct contradiction of yourself.
                That’s where you are, and most incompatibilists are, with freedom and “could do otherwise.”

                So what do you need to make sense of saying “We need to build a solid wall….”?

                You need to acknowledge that “solidity” in this use does not have the SAME implications as the term “solidity” you are calling an illusion on the atomic level. If solidity only meant “perfectly contiguous atoms” then, yes, “solidity” is false and we’d need to find some other way of understanding the world.

                But if you recognize that in our normal concepts, solidity DOES NOT require any claim that matter is perfectly contiguous atoms, but instead is about DIFFERENT CLAIMS at the level of our normal experience, then it’s perfectly TRUE to say “The wall is SOLID – e.g. firm, stable, we can not pass through it, and it’s a mistake to throw out the idea as mere illusion and falsehood. It’s that middle step you have to make, recognizing whether you are carelessly entangling one sense of “solid” with another, that we have to be careful about.

                And this is the case with “freedom” and “could do otherwise” and “ought” and “should.”

                Compatiblists argue that basing the claim “We could not do otherwise” on the fact we can’t jump out of the chain of physical causation, and then saying it is “false,” is like claiming the term “solidity” is rendered false ONLY based on reference to ONE feature of it’s atomic structure (e.g. there’s space between atoms).

                It turns out, we argue, that we need to recognize, like solidity, that thinking “I can choose between X and Y” doesn’t presume or depend on magic or contra-causal powers. They are just standard ways of talking and thinking about our powers in this world. That is, we infer from relatively similar instances of our powers in the past – e.g. “I was able to run marathons” – to questions of a new choice – e.g. “should I run this marathon or not?” to understand the types of things we are capable of, and hence make decisions with predictable outcomes.

                So to speak of alternatives being “possible” I can say “I could either stay in and work this weekend OR IF I want to I could run the marathon.” And that’s just a true statement using If/then reasoning to understand things we can do. Even if I didn’t run the marathon, and that was a determined outcome, it’s STILL true to say IF I had wanted to run the marathon I COULD have run the marathon.
                That’s because we necessarily use abstractions – “you” and “I” are identities through time, not at a fixed time – and we our thinking applies to ourselves moving through time in similar but not precisely the same situations. If sitting at my desk I do not raise my right hand but say “I could have raised my right hand” I don’t demonstrate this by going back in time to the same causal state, because that’s not what I mean. Rather, I would just raise my right hand to demonstrate “this is the type of power I have – I had the capability of raising my hand in a situation like the previous one.”

                If we did not, in fact, think this way we could NOT even get through a physically determined world successfully.

                So, when you think that determinism means it’s untrue to think we have “real choice” makes claims about “could do otherwise” or “I was free to do X but not Y,” you have to be careful that, like solidity, you aren’t throwing out the actual normal conceptions that matter, with the version that doesn’t matter as much.

              • darrelle
                Posted December 8, 2017 at 7:16 am | Permalink


                Let me pick out just one of your examples to focus on, otherwise I’d likely get lost.

                “If for instance I’d said something that hurt someone’s feelings it makes sense to say “you OUGHT to apologize.” That presumes apologizing is possible, but if I were unable to resist apologizing, then it makes no sense to say “you ought to apologize” anymore than it would make sense to say “you OUGHT to be attracted to the earth via your relative mass.” We don’t waste time recommending actions that are impossible NOT to do.”

                This example seems to be fitted to support your claim, but I don’t find it convincing. A few things, not necessarily in order.

                1) Yes, saying “you OUGHT to apologize” implies a presumption that it is possible to do so, or to NOT do so, at that point in time. Hearing that prescription is an additional input has the potential to affect the output of the person who should apologize. Depending on all the other myriad inputs, and the states of the hardware & software that comprise the person, that additional input may or may not be sufficient to result in an output of “you’re right, I’ll apologize.”

                2) I’m guessing you might say, “That’s a decision.” And I agree, it is. Your position seems to be that incompatibilists claim that we don’t really make decisions. And I’ll grant that they, for example Jerry, often say just those words. But I think your interpretation of those words is too literal. It seems to me that given further context (for one, notice that they are almost always bracketed by quotation marks) that they often provide that what they mean is that decision making isn’t what “you” (many people) think it is. That it is actually quite different than what many people think it is. They aren’t saying that there isn’t a process at all, they are saying that the process doesn’t work like the common “old school” conception of it.

                3) Regarding the last sentence of that quote, I don’t see that it is applicable or accurate. It certainly makes sense logically, but people are rarely logical. Anecdotally, I’ve seen plenty examples of people apparently doing just that. Nearly every day.

              • Vaal
                Posted December 8, 2017 at 9:14 am | Permalink


                Your point number 1 is the “but our recommendations/arguments form part of the input that can change other people’s behavior” reply I get every time and every time I point out how it’s a non-answer.

                The question isn’t whether our recommendations can influence the outcome of someone’s decision. Of course they can. But that doesn’t answer the question of whether we are being given a bad argument. Because after all, bad arguments – e.g. shoddy reasoning, or containing contradictions etc – influence people’s decisions all the time.
                See: Christianity, etc.

                For every bad Christian argument we could add exactly what you wrote: “they were determined to give the arguments, and they can influence others.” But the question is: Are they BAD arguments? And we can still say yes or no based on analyzing the arguments.

                So when someone starts with the premise “We can not do otherwise” and then tells me we “ought” to do something, which as you agree implies being able to do otherwise, then they have made an incoherent recommendation.
                We should not accept an incoherent argument for incompatibilism any more than we should accept one for the earth being 6,000 years old, or “The Bible is true because it says it is true!”

                (And as I’ve said, the very scientific understandings of physics, biology, causality etc that undergird the incompatibilist argument is rife with “possibility” talk that can not be removed without making nonsense of the claims. So the denial of “could be otherwise” removes the very foundation of the incompatibilist argument, making it incoherent)

              • darrelle
                Posted December 8, 2017 at 10:28 am | Permalink


                Thanks for responding. I understand what you have written but it doesn’t make sense to me. You write emphatically as if each step of your reasoning necessarily follows from the preceding step, but that doesn’t appear to be the case to me.

                You’ve added something, that consideration of whether or not arguments are bad is a (the) key to why the incompatibilist account is incoherent. Perhaps you’ve mentioned it before but I’m only going by this conversation. In any case, I disagree. That seems to be making a distinction between types of decision making that there doesn’t seem to be any good reason to make.

                Regarding not being able to talk sensibly about science without using certain words, I don’t see that as a problem for the incompatibilist account either. That could very well be simply a problem with language and human experience. In fact it often looks very much like that as scientists struggle not to use terms that by long convention suggest agency when what they are trying to convey definitely does not include agency.

                There is also the issue of using language, concepts, models, etc. that are suitable for the “level” that is being considered. Talking about evolutionary biology using the language, concepts, etc. suitable for talking about QFT doesn’t work. But both evolutionary biology and QFT are very reliable and powerful tools for modeling certain aspects of reality, but at different “levels.”

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


                You’ve added something, that consideration of whether or not arguments are bad is a (the) key to why the incompatibilist account is incoherent…[snip]….That seems to be making a distinction between types of decision making that there doesn’t seem to be any good reason to make.

                This thoroughly confuses me.

                Do you really not accept the distinction between good and bad arguments, and good and bad reasons to do things? That’s the distinction I’m making, and you seem to suggest it’s not one worth making. (In that case, what is the point of a conversation like this?).

                Regarding not being able to talk sensibly about science without using certain words, I don’t see that as a problem for the incompatibilist account either. That could very well be simply a problem with language and human experience.

                But you can’t just leave it at this “problem” because until you’ve solved it, you have destroyed much of what we hold to be “knowledge.”

                Scientists, like everyone else, use If/Then reasoning and alternative possibilities to both infer truths and convey truths. For instance “If you apply penicillin to this bacteria it will keep the bacterium from building a cell wall, and kill off the bacteria. And IF you do not apply the penicillin, the bacteria will be able to build the cell wall and continue to infect the host in X,Y manner….”

                This type of reasoning is contained in simple language like “If you want to combat the bacteria in your body, instead of using useless homeopathy, you COULD use penicillin!”

                All this presumes and discusses alternate possibilities. If you say talk of alternative possibilities is false because “determinism means nothing could ever be otherwise” then you have destroyed this way of inferring and conveying knowledge. Yet this knowledge WORKS so this manner of speaking MUST be conveying truth somehow.

                So I’d ask you to explain either how it is, if “alternative possibility” talk is only illusion, how thinking and talking this way nonetheless seems to convey reliable truth.

                I think it’s easy to explain this, but I’m not the one stuck declaring “We could never do otherwise/things could not be otherwise.”

                So if you think scientists are stuck using folk ideas and words to convey knowledge, you either have to say they aren’t really convening knowledge (how could that be?), or you have to explain how it is that they are using this language to convey knowledge. How is it actually working?

                You can’t just leave some generalization dangling “scientists are just helping themselves to some illusory talk” because that leaves everything to be explained.

                And once you dig into the details – you will find that if you attempt to “replace” the “illusory talk” of “could be otherwise” with something else, that something else will necessarily be assuming the same thing “could do otherwise” was assuming, in order to make sense. (As we see when Jerry above wished to produce normative language without appeal to “could do otherwise.” It doesn’t work unless it assumes “could do otherwise.”)

                Fortunately, it turns out our normal notions- scientific and otherwise – of “could do otherwise” don’t even conflict with determinism. So there was never any need for incompatibilists to go down this road to incoherence in the first place.

      • danstarfish
        Posted December 7, 2017 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

        You expressed one of my criticisms in a better way than I have managed before. It is clearer and more pointed.

        Once they banish moral decision-making, I have never figured out what mechanism they are using to bring back moral judgements. I’m glad they do, I just can’t understand how they are doing it. It seems like a non sequitur to me.

      • Posted December 8, 2017 at 8:51 am | Permalink

        Your argument basically boils down to the idea that a universe set up deterministically leaves no room for hypotheticals, including normatives. There is no contradiction between how the world is and how it ought to be, any more than there’s a contradiction between an ideal size and shape for a bridge, and whether or not any particular bridge fulfils that ideal.

        I am gamely trying to understand what the actual contradiction is beyond your own “by fiat” non-sequitur. A mechanism for correcting the system would itself be deterministic and therefore choiceless, whether or not it succeeded in its function. Conditionals, at best, are no more remarkable than having tools in a toolbox, some of which get used often, most of which won’t see much action, and a few of which won’t be seen at all. It amounts to strategic if blind insurance.

        Hypotheticals, possibilities, probabilities, etc. are mental tools; barring fundamental probabilism and uncertainty, they don’t actually exist outside our heads, or else we’d be claiming a multiverse apropos of nothing. If they have any true/false distinction, then it’s no more remarkable than that of a virtual reality or computer modelling device.

        So it doesn’t contradict the determinism side of the leger. As for the choice side, well, take a step back and objectively, there IS only going to be one outcome, which is the one scheduled for the future, soon to be the present, soon to be the past. There’s no guarantee a hypothetical will translate into reality: in fact, it’s guaranteed by sheer numbers and details that the vast majority of them won’t.

        Reasoning mechanisms are information devices for mining and extracting truth out of real-world data (beliefs), for the sake of internal measures (desires). So basically: sure you can choose what to do next, so long as it follows the script. So it doesn’t contradict the “no choice” side of the leger either.

        • Posted December 8, 2017 at 9:04 am | Permalink

          “So basically: sure you can choose what to do next, so long as it follows the script.”

          In case it wasn’t clear, I was being sarcastic for this line. A choice of one is not conventionally regarded as a choice at all.

          Also, apologies for misspelling “ledger” as “leger”.

        • Vaal
          Posted December 8, 2017 at 10:38 am | Permalink


          It’s hard to tell, due to the length of the thread of replies, if you are responding to me. But in case you are:

          Your argument basically boils down to the idea that a universe set up deterministically leaves no room for hypotheticals, including normatives.

          No, just the opposite: I have continually argued that a determined universe DOES leave room for hypothetical, counterfactual, normative language. In fact, that would seem to be the only way we even could evolve some method of understanding and predicting such a universe.

          If I tell you I walked to work, but I could have driven my car – a “could have done otherwise” claim – that actually conveys information to you. It tells you, for instance, that I’m both capable of walking and capable of driving. It knowledge given by such statements help you predict what I’m capable of: you can for instance make plan with me on the basis that I’ll be able to drive a car.

          Given we use this method of communicating knowledge all the time “This COULD have been the case or I COULD do this OR COULD do that…” then it can not be the case that these claims are mere illusion, that they are falsehoods. Otherwise…we couldn’t actually communicate knowledge this way, but we do.

          IF by saying “I COULD have done X instead” or “I could do either A or B” we actually meant “GIVEN precisely the same causal state of the universe at the time of the action” then of course we could not do those things. Those claims would be false – every time! But if such claims were actually referencing only falsehoods, they could never be useful for conveying truths, information, predictability, which our normal use of “could be otherwise” do all the time!

          So the idea that when people say “X could be otherwise” is based on some magic contra-causal claim “Given precisely the same circumstances” simply can not be the case.
          Our advanced brains would be useless if our thinking was that fundamentally in error.

          That’s why it’ silly to conclude that if determinism is true, then it’s FALSE to talk of “could do otherwise” especially the normal every day talk of this sort.

          People base ideas of “can do otherwise” on themselves (and other empirical entities in this world) as an acquired set of traits and abilities through time. To say “I could have driven to work instead” is me saying “I have been able to do that in relevantly similar situations in the past and so have that ability in the situation I’m citing. IF you place me in a similar situation – not EXACTLY THE SAME – but similar enough – then I COULD have or CAN take that action.”

          There is no other way of thinking about these things that would have made sense in a deterministic world.

          But the incompatibilist wants to claim that determinism DOES negate the idea “X could be otherwise” and DOES negate our everyday inferences along those lines. And that can not make sense. The reason incompatibilists continually find themselves in contradiction is because they claim “It is NOT TRUE to say we could do otherwise” but then they HAVE to go right back to speaking like we “could do otherwise.” That’s a contradiction given incompatibilism, but not on compatibilism, because compatibilism recognizes our normal inferences of “could do otherwise” are not the ones incompatibilists rail against. It’s a necessary way of thinking about truth, so incompatibilists can’t avoid thinking in If/Then modes of reasoning.

    • danstarfish
      Posted December 7, 2017 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

      If the constructs that determinists use to rescue morality made sense to compatibilists then I think they would be able to persuade more people.

      If you see free will and personal responsibility as integral parts of a moral system, you can’t persuade someone who cares about morality to abandon them without providing a credible replacement. If the replacement appears less coherent than compatibilism then the compatibilist is more likely to stay put.

      Determinism and compatibilism both reject moral nihilism. It just appears that they reject it in ways that don’t make sense to each other.

      I haven’t figured out why determinist moral systems appear contrived to compatibilists and compatibilist systems appear contrived to determinists. All I can observe is that it seems to reliably work this way even when I know the compatibilist and the determinist are honest, sincere, and intelligent.

      • darrelle
        Posted December 8, 2017 at 7:43 am | Permalink

        Just FYI, to further confuse you on a very confusing topic. Compatibilists are determinists. Both compatibilism and incompatibilism are based on the assumption that determinism is true. Indeed, the very names of these schools of thought are derived from the fact that they assume determinism to be true.

        Compatibilism is the view that freewill is compatible with determinism.

        Incompatiblism is the view that freewill is not compatible with determinism.

        Both views agree on the physics (determinism). Though it has been my experience that the people self identifying as holding these views don’t always agree on the physics!

        Where they disagree is on what the term “free will” should mean. When Compatibilists say free will is compatible with determinism they are not using the same meaning of free will as Incompatibilists do. They are saying that a concept of freewill is compatible with determinism but they agree that not all concepts of free will are.

        When Incompatibilists say free will is not compatible with determinism they mean a certain concept of free will. Namely, old school, traditional concepts of free will common in many religious traditions that are contra-causal or dualistic. Or shorter, that are not compatible with determinism.

        Now, both sides know this. Well, mostly. The main disagreement is over the term free will. Compatibilists think it is important to retain the term but clarify that only free will concepts that are compatible with determinism are valid.

        Incompatibilists think that the term free will is too contaminated with baggage from older dualistic concepts of free will, and that many people still believe in that type of free will, so that it would be better to discard the term altogether.

        But they agree completely on the physics, that determinism is true. If you hear (or read) someone saying that they reject determinism then they are not a Compatibilist, though obviously they may erroneously think they are.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted December 8, 2017 at 11:01 am | Permalink

          “But they agree completely on the physics, that determinism is true.”

          No, this doesn’t follow. Compatibilists think that Laplacean determinism is not fatal to some concepts of agency, but they don’t require it to be true. Incompatibilists think determinism is fatal to any concept of agency.

          And in fact there’s considerable disagreement on the physics, even among physicists. Which makes it all the odder, in my view, for anyone to swear allegiance to a 19th-century notion of determinism that’s very likely to be wrong.

          What we do hopefully all agree on is naturalism and materialism, i.e. the idea that minds are made of matter and there are no supernatural forces animating them. But that doesn’t require a commitment to deterministic physics.

          • darrelle
            Posted December 8, 2017 at 11:31 am | Permalink

            I agree with your last but nevertheless Compatibilism and Incompatibilism, are defined with respect to whether or not Free Will is compatible with determinism. I’m not stating that as an opinion on my part, or an assessment, I’m simply relating a definition devised by others. Like Dan Dennett and others that debate these issues.

            Sure, even among physicists there is not complete agreement on every detail regarding determinism or on whether or not reality is ultimately deterministic. Because we don’t know enough yet to reasonably hold a definitive position. I don’t think that is an issue for the definitions of Compatibilism and Incompatibilism. What exactly determinism means, what the implications are, with respect to cognition (?), I’ll grant that those are areas that Incompatibilists and Compatibilists argue incessantly.

            I realize views can change for various reasons. But I see several people in these free will discussions refer to themselves as compatibilists yet expressing serious doubts or even outright denying determinism. That isn’t compatible with Compatibilism. Compatibilism assumes determinism, whatever it may be in its finest details, which can certainly be part of the arguments, is true. Just like Incompatibilism does. That’s the point I wanted to make clear.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted December 8, 2017 at 11:46 am | Permalink

              Again, the fact that compatibilism is compatible with determinism doesn’t mean that it assumes determinism as a prerequisite. Is just means that compatibilists needn’t worry if determinism turns out to be true, because determinism doesn’t undermine the compatibilist position.

              It’s undoubtedly true that most if not all compatibilists are naturalists and materialists. But they can afford to be agnostic about determinism until the physics is settled, because that’s what “compatible” means.

        • danstarfish
          Posted December 8, 2017 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

          I was a little sloppy with the terminology, the incompatibilists very often go by the name “hard determinists”. I already knew that compatibilists and hard determinists both agree on determinism.

          I also am familiar with the typical discussions on free will where the hard determinists and the compatibilists talk past each other. I was trying to explain some of the sticking points for many compatibilists on why they are not persuaded by the hard determinists. For some compatibilists, moral agents are an integral part of their moral system. When a hard determinist argues that moral agents do not exist, it can come across as an arguments for moral nihilism even though though that is not what the hard determinists are arguing for. When hard determinists suddenly start talking in moral terms again it just seems confusing. I think if hard determinists spent a little more time explaining the constructs they use to bring back morality rather than focusing on attacking free will they might have a chance at persuading more people.

          Vaal stated one of these issues very well in another comment:

          …start with the premise “We could not do otherwise” and then move to “therefore we OUGHT to do otherwise”

          • Vaal
            Posted December 8, 2017 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

            I think if hard determinists spent a little more time explaining the constructs they use to bring back morality rather than focusing on attacking free will they might have a chance at persuading more people.


            Incompatibilists/hard determinists seem to feel that the resistance they get from the average person to the claim “you could not do otherwise/you have no free will” can be put down to clinging to an illusion they don’t want to let go.

            But in my experience watching people react to the incompatibilist claims, the major sticking point is that people immediately recognize the contradictions we are talking about. They note that they’ve just been told “You had no choice, you couldn’t do otherwise” and that this seems to make nonsense of all that follows, “so now you are still going to tell me what we OUGHT to do? Why should I think we have reasons to do something if we can’t do otherwise???”

            But quite a few incompatilists, at least in places like WEIT, don’t seem all that concerned with working out these details.
            Instead, well, accepting determinism and the science against free will means our language is merely littered with illusory talk of having a “choice.” But, well, that’s just the type of collateral damage a grown up has to accept when accepting the truth of determinism.

            Except that it isn’t remotely trivial stuff that we can accept as illusion while accepting the case against Free Will.
            So much of how we think revolves around “could be otherwise” that, unless this is resolved in it’s details, the incompatibilist case is just incoherent.

      • Posted December 8, 2017 at 8:58 am | Permalink

        “If you see free will and personal responsibility as integral parts of a moral system,”

        I don’t, as it happens. My own view is that ethics is ultimately a social science with the usual theoretical and applied sides, like physics and engineering. I’m glad there are at least attempts to get criminal psychological profiles and various therapy techniques, as well as the forensic science and investigative measures to establish cause-and-effect. I see no problem with the idea of strategic policy, such as deterrence and rehabilitation, and comparing them on how effectively they reduce the crime rate.

        Free will and personal responsibility, at best, are invitations to sloppy thinking.

        • danstarfish
          Posted December 8, 2017 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

          Calling ethics a social science comes across as sloppy thinking to me. It ignores Hume’s is-ought problem.

          It is still illuminating. Perhaps the reason I haven’t been able to figure out the hard determinist position is because of a disagreement on the is-ought problem.

  12. Posted December 7, 2017 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    I read Sapolsky’s work on Toxoplasma gondii. Since I don’t own a cat I’m less worried about their brain parasites making me do stuff I shouldn’t.

  13. Posted December 7, 2017 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    I’m a hard determinist but I have a hard time seeing how this should change my behavior. Acting as if I had free will, consciously making decisions, is me playing the role determinism has given me. It is hard to imagine acting otherwise. This leads me to wonder if there’s any way to tell the difference between someone who is acting deterministically from someone who has free will. Of course, this is a thought experiment in the “zombie” tradition. What are some situations where the determinists will act differently?

    Here’s one such situation. It is often claimed that if society accepts determinism, we will treat criminals as beings in need of repair and will not punish them or take revenge on them. After all, they were only doing what they had to do. I have to differ with this point of view. Let’s use the “broken car” analogy, which I love. If we can’t fix the car but it isn’t completely broken, can’t we decide to use it only in circumstances in which its limitations are not detrimental? If a car lacks certain safety mechanisms that would allow it to travel on the freeway, and they can’t be added, can’t we still use it on surface streets?

    I believe similar reasoning can be applied to all situations in which the determinist and free-willist are imagined to act differently. While the determinist knows that her actions are mandated by the laws of physics and the state of the universe, she still acts as if she didn’t.

    Of course, there is one way to tell a determinist from a free-willer. Ask them about determinism and free-will and they will give different answers.

    • Posted December 7, 2017 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      ” This leads me to wonder if there’s any way to tell the difference between someone who is acting deterministically from someone who has free will. ”

      There is one significant difference: If you know that all human beings can only act as they have done, then you can not blame anyone and say:
      how could you cheat on your wife,
      how could you drive drunk,
      how could you spend all the money that was destined for a new car
      how could you yell at the kids,
      how could you forget our wedding day?

      Realizing that there is no free will means that you can no longer blame others for behaving the way they did, which means thinking they could have done differently if they had wanted to.
      It does not mean that you have to accept any misbehavior.

      And now it gets interesting: So if I know that the other person could not do otherwise and reproaches are superfluous – then that leads to what? Then the question arises: what is the probability that someone will make the same mistakes again?
      Is his personality vulnerable to unwanted behavior or were it exceptional circumstances that caused the behavior?

      Who blames other people, assumes that a voluntary self-influencing is possible. But these are the wrong assumptions about human behavior.
      The knowledge of a lack of free will thus leads closer to the truth of human behavior and ultimately to more effective decisions.

      • Posted December 7, 2017 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

        I totally disagree. My point is that blaming others is also a deterministic behavior. If all thoughts are determined but not known in advance, that knowledge doesn’t give you license to change your behavior with respect to others’ crimes as that behavior is also deterministic.

        • Posted December 7, 2017 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

          I don’t think it is about a ” license” to change behavior.

          But any new information about causal relations will change you and your future decisions, even if you do not know what the result will be.
          Did you hear that animals were brought to justice in the Middle Ages because they were accused of having maliciously injured or put to death someone?
          They were mostly sentenced to death.
          Nobody ever accuses animals in court today, because everyone knows that animals can only act as they did.
          Someday, in the distant future, this knowledge of determinism will also have prevailed in relation to human behavior.

          • Posted December 7, 2017 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

            We don’t accuse animals today because we can’t communicate with them, not because they lack consciousness. Our criminal justice system fails completely if the criminal can’t understand the process. This is why certain people aren’t put on trial.

            • Posted December 7, 2017 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

              We can’t communicate with animals? I disagree totally

              Have you never had a pet?
              You come home and the dog greets you with a wagging tail, or the cat roams along your legs and directs you, looking toward you, towards the kitchen?
              This is not communication? This is communication without end.

              In the past, animals were considered to have free will.
              We know today that animals are subject to their genetics, their biology.
              The same applies to us humans.
              Only the acceptance of this knowledge is still in its infancy.

              • Posted December 7, 2017 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

                Yes, I have pets: two cats. You are stretching my words into absurdity. I should have said that we can’t communicate the complex thoughts that they would need to understand in order to be a part of our criminal justice system. We don’t try humans that can’t understand the proceedings and participate in their defense, at least in the US.

              • Posted December 7, 2017 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

                It’s not that animals can’t communicate. Of course they can to greater or lesser degree. It’s like the lawyers on the TeeVee say; they cannot assist in their own defense.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted December 7, 2017 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

        “you can no longer blame others for behaving the way they did, which means thinking they could have done differently if they had wanted to.”

        It’s not an error to think that people could have done differently if they had wanted to. The whole point of blaming people for behaving badly is to make them want to behave differently in the future.

        • Posted December 8, 2017 at 8:47 am | Permalink

          “The whole point of blaming people for behaving badly is to make them want to behave differently in the future.”

          That’s not quite true. Just look back in the history of mankind.
          Blaming others for behaving badly mostly resulted in torture or death penalty.
          People wanted to get rid of those, which caused damage to others or the community. Even children were sentenced to death.

          In former times there were no ressources for providing rehab efforts like there are nowadays.

          There is another important point: blaming others always means getting one position above another, that is, getting a position of power only through the act of accusation.

  14. Robert
    Posted December 7, 2017 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    My analogy for the perplexed determinist is that free will is like breathing. Our breathing behaviour is “caused” but we can step in on occasion and adjust it.

  15. Posted December 7, 2017 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    I am glad to hear you had difficulty reading it. I suffered a lot, though finished it just because I am cannot leave a book just like that.

  16. Posted December 7, 2017 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    I read the whole book and loved it, in spite of some longueurs. I had already read other books by Sapolsky which I liked very much.

    I had not realized, Professor, that you agree that “we can’t not feel that we have free will”. I must have been reading your posts too quickly. Sorry.

    This goes along with Ted Honderich’s notion of Attitudinism, which he explains in “How free are you?”, which I found to be excellent, the best book I’ve found so far on the subject.

  17. Posted December 7, 2017 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    The broken car analogy doesn’t work. I can tell you exactly how a car should work and exactly what is wrong with it if it doesn’t.

    Until someone can tell me exactly how a human brain should work I’m not letting anyone mess about with it, especially since those who will be passing judgement are clattering around in old bangers.

    Anyone who isn’t terrified by the thought of being ‘fixed’ by those in law enforcement hasn’t thought about what being ‘fixed’ actually means.

    • Posted December 7, 2017 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      “Fixed” doesn’t necessarily mean getting into a criminal’s head and messing with the wiring directly. That would be taking the analogy too far. The proper techniques for rehabilitating criminals is a discussion that doesn’t cross the analogy, IMHO.

      • Posted December 7, 2017 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

        Why does rehabilitation depend upon determinism as an underpinning?

        I’ve said it before on this site, I’ve worked with ex-offenders. The ones you can’t rehabilitate are those who project responsibility for their actions onto some other agency; the ones who have any chance of rehabilitation at all are those who accept their choices led them to where they are now and only making different choices will keep them out of prison in the future.

        If you have any evidence that this is not the case I am happy to look at it.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted December 7, 2017 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

          For me this has long been a problem with the determinist program for penal reform: how do you change offenders’ behavior by arguing that self-control is impossible? Nobody seems to have a good answer for that.

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

            Er, self-control absolutely is a deterministic mechanism. It wouldn’t work otherwise, because there’d be no way to cause an offender to change. In fact, the very notion of causality would make no sense. Whether or not self-control signals from the prefrontal cortex are activated, this is utterly contingent on prior causes, including what other people say and do (or are perceived to say and do).

            Anyway, I thought compatibilists were determinists?

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted December 8, 2017 at 11:34 am | Permalink

              You don’t have to convince me that self-control is a real phenomenon; I’m not the one denying it.

              And by “determinist” in this context I meant Jerry’s brand of incompatibilist determinism, which (as I understand it) does explicitly deny that we control anything.

      • busterggi
        Posted December 7, 2017 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

        “Sometimes I despair. Sometimes I think old Doc
        Savage had the right idea.” The Doc Savage to whom he referred was a
        fictional hero popular among adolescent readers of pulp magazines a
        generation ago. “If you boys remember, Doc Savage was a kind of superman.
        He’d made himself proficient in every field – medicine, science,
        philosophy, art. There wasn’t much old Doc didn’t know or couldn’t do. One
        of his projects was, he decided to rid the world of criminals. First he
        bought a big island out in the ocean. Then he and his assistants – he had
        an army of trained assistants – kidnapped all the world’s criminals and
        brought them to the island. And Doc Savage operated on their brains. He
        removed the part that holds wicked thoughts. And when they recovered they
        were all decent citizens. They couldn’t commit crimes because that part of
        their brain was out. Now it strikes me that surgery of this nature might
        really be the answer to – ”

        Truman Capote from In Cold Blood

        • Posted December 7, 2017 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

          People need to define what a non-criminal mind is before they start creating them surgically. Minds that don’t kill? Maybe. What about mind’s that don’t steal. Steal what, from whom? Is theft always wrong? Could we have ‘cured’ homosexuality when that was still a crime? Can theocracies cure blasphemy, atheism or immodesty? Would capitalism be more efficient if you could cure socialist tendencies or even promote entrepreneurship by feeding children the right probiotics?

          As I said above, we know what a car is supposed to do. We don’t know what a brain is supposed to do because it isn’t designed. Who’s brain should we take as the ideal template for designed brains? Trumps? An SJW’s?

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

            I’m tempted to agree – and sometimes I do, but do you accept that we know what (say) the heart or the skin do?

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted December 7, 2017 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      Another way the analogy fails is that in fact we do destroy cars that are deemed irreparable. That would seem to make capital punishment acceptable under determinism, which I’m sure is not where Jerry wants that line of argument to go.

      • Posted December 7, 2017 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

        Another thing Jerry might not like is following the logic of how we should deal with risk-taking behaviour associated with T gondii infection.

        If parasites from cats really are implicated in car accidents as then maybe we need to tackle the problem at the source, not by being more or less lenient towards infected drivers.

        We reduced accidents caused by driuk driving by prosecuting those who drink and drive whether they have accidents or not. We also prosecute those who sell alcohol to drivers and run ad campaigns to discourage drunk driving.

        Why not tackle those who put themselves or others at risk by keeping cats or allowing them to defecate in other people’s gardens? We don’t allow dogs to run wild.

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

        The decision to allow capital punishment is neither supported or negated by determinism. Deterministic humans make decisions about such things based on other considerations. Can the person be fixed? Is it moral to kill another person? These are just thought processes. The fact that they are determined is neither here nor there as we have no advance knowledge of how the arguments play out. It only makes sense to simply let them play out. In other words, such decision-making can proceed regardless of determinism vs free will.

      • Posted December 8, 2017 at 9:41 am | Permalink

        The analogy is about cause-and-effect, which is required for detecting a problem and then reasonably reducing its incidence in the future. That’s in opposition to the traditional gut response of punishing criminals in the name of “justice” or because they’re “evil”, which is little more than letting unexamined (and in this case, suspect) gut feelings trump rational understanding and strategy.

        Invoking the fact that cars aren’t moral subjects – but humans are – doesn’t follow from that premisse and is a non-sequitur; the morality of capital punishment has to be independently argued for.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted December 8, 2017 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

          That was more or less my point. We’re often told on this site that determinism — treating criminals as broken machines — leads automatically to greater compassion. I don’t think it does; the compassion has to be argued for independently.

    • Liz
      Posted December 7, 2017 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      It doesn’t work. At what point is the determinist determining the car is not able to be fixed? How does that process work? I would say my view is determinism, but this application of determinism to the legal system is flawed. For one thing, the way that we perceive this deterministic world is not how a person would if he hypothetically knew everything that has already and will happen. We don’t have enough knowledge about that perception to know why it feels like we make choices when we actually don’t. What about a kid who is throwing toys around the house. His parents ask him to stop. He keeps throwing them. His parents take his toys away for a week. After he gets his toys back, he doesn’t throw them around the house anymore. That’s called discipline and while the whole process followed deterministic laws, that kid isn’t throwing toys anymore.

      • Posted December 7, 2017 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

        “We don’t have enough knowledge about that perception to know why it feels like we make choices when we actually don’t.

        I would not agree with that. The illusion that you influence everything at will and that others act freely also is a useful illusion.
        It reduces the complexity of the work of our brain. Our brain is designed for survival rather than objective knowledge of the world. If we punish others for harming us, it is beneficial (for deterrence and satisfaction). We do not need to know the real reasons of others. We can believe that they are guilty and treat them according to this belief. From an evolutionary perspective, this approach (via the illusion of a free will) is sufficient.

        • Liz
          Posted December 7, 2017 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

          I was thinking of something more along the lines of the laws of physics of cognitive processes of perception and choice and cognitive processes of perception and choice.
          Not exactly the following but maybe similar. Except also how these processes relate to the laws of physics. I wasn’t thinking along the lines of illusion.

          Cognitive processes underlying human mate choice: The relationship between self-perception and mate preference in Western society
          “This study tested two hypotheses concerning the cognitive processes underlying human mate choice in Western society…”

          The time course of perceptual choice: The leaky, competing accumulator model.
          “A new paradigm that controls the time of arrival of information supporting different choice alternatives provides further support. The model captures choice behavior regardless of the number of alternatives, accounting for the log-linear relation between reaction time and number of alternatives (Hick’s law) and explains a complex pattern of visual and contextual priming in visual word identification. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)”

          Perceived Self-Efficacy in Cognitive Development and Functioning
          “In this article, I review the diverse ways in which perceived self-efficacy contributes to cognitive development and functioning. Perceived self-efficacy exerts its influence through four major processes.”

    • Posted December 8, 2017 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      There actually are MRI scans that distinguish those with antisocial behaviour disorder and psychopathy from those who don’t have it. Even if the knowledge is lacking now, the way technology moves on, it’s only a matter of time.

      Anyway, why would anyone mess about with your brain? You haven’t committed a crime, have you? 🙂

      Besides, all this moral posturing looks frankly primitivist and ridiculous when compared with the slapdash alternative. Sure, we demand competence from our engineers, and bioethical consideration from our doctors, but not to the point where we righteously protest against their being deployed in the first place. After all, we trust doctors with our bodies all the time, and trust engineers to build things that could, if they went wrong, kill us. We have measures in place. We rightly become suspicious of people who demonize doctors and advocate more “natural” or “traditional” alternatives. We work out standards and protocol.

      However squeamish might be the thought of having a neurosurgeon re-engineer someone’s personality, it should answer to reason, not to outdated gut reactions.

  18. Thanny
    Posted December 7, 2017 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    I read the book a couple months back.

    My biggest criticism would be his tendency to too readily accept the results of sociological studies of dubious validity. He fully endorses the implicit association test, for example, which I find deeply misleading and of no actual utility.

    He even had a footnote endorsing a farcical study (in result, not intent) that claimed more people die from hurricanes with female names than male names, because people don’t take storms with female names seriously. That study fell apart immediately upon publication, and both its premise and conclusions are invalid.

    • Carey Haug
      Posted December 7, 2017 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      I am reading the book now and had the same reaction. I had a Twitter conversation with Kevin Lai who basically said it is primarily a research tool, so it doesn’t really need to explain its reliability and validity as a diagnostic test would.

      At the rate I am going, I may not get to free will chapter for a while.

      • Carey Haug
        Posted December 7, 2017 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

        I was referring to the implicit association test.

  19. Phil
    Posted December 7, 2017 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    The problem with your definition of compatibilism is that you don’t distinguish it from “free will”. I am a compatibilist and a determinist. Leave free will out of it. I don’t believe in that, and I resent people claiming that I’m just trying to “rescue the free will”. That’s not true. But the passage you cited (from page 613) is significant, because we still make conscious choices (at least sometimes), and this seems to be a dilemma for the hard determinist. I’m not saying that conscious decisions are non-deterministic. I am saying that deliberation is part of the process that determines our actions, and it is clearly not purely epiphenomenal. In other words, what we think consciously at one moment can enter the causal chain in a subsequent moment, and thereby affect the decision we make. All in a deterministic way, of course.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted December 7, 2017 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      I’m with you on this. I recall being unimpressed with Sapolsky’s performance in the Harris podcast for precisely this reason: he wants to reduce everything to neurology and biochemistry, leaving the actual information content of our thoughts completely out of the causal loop. At one point he even went so far as to say that consciousness is completely epiphenomenal, with no causal power whatever. He quickly amended that to say that the only utility of consciousness is for having conversations about it, which shows that at some level he recognizes the untenability of his reductionist position but is unwilling to let go of it.

      • Phil
        Posted December 7, 2017 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

        I made the point before that to deny that conscious thought (which is a physical phenomenon) can have any effect on subsequent behavior is equivalent to saying that mind is immaterial. That is exactly the kind of woo that religionists preach.

      • Vaal
        Posted December 7, 2017 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

        Yep, thought the same about Sapolsky’s dialogue with Sam.

        The problem is that incompatibilist theories don’t have enough explanatory power to make sense of so much in our language and our thinking, so it leaves too many threads hanging, swerving this way or that way, but never resolving internal contradictions.

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

          Isn’t this just the problem with revisionary metaphysics in general? I say that having written some, after a fashion. Of course there are also problems with descriptive accounts, too: my reaction when reading Strawson’s _Individuals_ was “*whose* conceptual scheme, kemosabe?” (And I’m not a big cognitive relativist, either!)

          • Vaal
            Posted December 8, 2017 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

            But surely some accounts, be it for the subject of human choice making or other subjects, have more explanatory power than others.

            If incompatibilism leaves contradictions, or important features of human experience unexplained, and compatibilism resolves the contradictions and explains what incompatibilism can not…then compatibilism would be favored.

            Of course, that’s a big “if.”

    • Posted December 7, 2017 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

      “In other words, what we think consciously at one moment can enter the causal chain in a subsequent moment, and thereby affect the decision we make. ”

      That’s wrong. There is no conscious thinking that has not been produced and determined by unconscious processes. This is the great illusion that there is “conscious” thinking that affects the unconscious.

      • Phil
        Posted December 7, 2017 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

        I think you’re wrong. Note that I agree thought is produced by unconscious processes and I never said otherwise. But one a thought is produced, it has a physical impact on the brain. It becomes part of our memory, and it can be recalled. It plays a role in what later happens in the brain. This is demonstrable.

        • Posted December 7, 2017 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

          I agree with that.
          Maybe I misunderstood your previous post.

      • Posted December 7, 2017 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

        This can’t be right. Conscious thought affects unconscious thought all the time. What I consciously think about during the day affects my dreams that night. My conscious understanding of the unfoundedness of some unconscious fear reduces that fear in the future.

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

          “My conscious understanding of the unfoundedness of an unconscious anxiety reduces this fear in the future.”

          Yes, but what you perceive as “conscious understanding” is fully produced and the result of unconscious neural activity.

          • Posted December 7, 2017 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

            I agree with this last statement but I’m not sure how it makes your original argument.

            My guess is that consciousness is a subsystem that aids decision-making and, therefore, it is favored by evolution. Without conscious thought, our behavior is determined by immediate reactions which are initialized by heredity and modified by experience. Conscious thought is an additional behavior modifier which operates without our having to actually experience success or failure. As failure often leads to death, this is a big win.

            • Posted December 7, 2017 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

              Conscious thought is an additional behavior modifier which operates without our having to actually experience success or failure.

              Agree, but we are never in the position to influence which outcome our conscious thoughts will have.
              And even animals show “consciousness” thinking, in the way that they consider different options and choose one of them at last.

              Did you see the amazing video JC published a few days ago, showing a group of ibex jumping over a precipice? One animal followed the other with a jump to the other side. But some animals hesitated, stopped, looked to the other side, while others without hesitating immediately jumped after their conspecifics.

              Consciousness exists in many gradations, it may be completely absent, (narcosis) restricted (through use of drugs) or completely clear.
              The neurologist G. Tononi defined consciousness as follows:

              “Everyone knows what consciousness is: it is what disappears every night, as soon as we fall into a dreamless sleep, and comes back as soon as we wake up or dream. Seen in this way, the term consciousness is synonymous with experiencing. “

              • Posted December 7, 2017 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

                Our consciousness certainly experiences things but why assume that our unconscious does not? Perhaps we can’t report such experiences but certainly they modify our behavior.

              • Posted December 7, 2017 at 4:46 pm | Permalink


      • Vaal
        Posted December 7, 2017 at 3:21 pm | Permalink


        I wonder what you believe we are supposed to take from your claim.

        You would have much more to explain before your assertion would suggest we downplay the role of consciousness.

        For instance, we must recognize the role of conscious thoughts given, for instance, we would not think it valid to enter into any contract without being conscious of the contract.

        An example: If you are unconscious, e.g. asleep or under anesthetic. I’m a contractor and I show up to say I’ll renovate your kitchen for X amount of dollars. I say “Say “no” if you object, stay silent if you agree.” You being unconscious remain silent and I take that as agreement with this contract.

        Surely the problem here is you being unconscious during this process. In other words, what you are CONSCIOUS of really matters. And we see just this all over human experience. If my wife tells me to bring home items from the grocery store, I will only bring home items that I was conscious of hearing her list. Consciousness is clearly DOING WORK in our world that unconsciousness isn’t doing.

        Many incompstibilists seem to make rather incautious leaps from experiments on consciousness. For instance, we have the experiments were it’s shown that people confect a conscious explanation for a choice
        while the experiment has identified the actual unconscious (and differing) reason for the person’s choice.

        Aha! (say some people) See, all our choice making is done for unconscious reasons; at best consciousness is just the brain’s attempt to tell a story to itself as to why it did something, whether accurate or not.

        But this is a wild leap from the limitations of experiments done in very limited context.
        If someone wants to make THAT kind of leap they have far more to explain than they seem to realize. Because the fact is that our conscious reasons, and the reasons people give for their actions, have far more predictive and explanatory power than any purely unconscious account I’ve ever seen.
        In other words, you can’t just base the theory by counting the “misses” (e.g. in this experiment, the conscious explanation for a choice was incorrect). You have to count all the “hits” as well: all those times – which happens all day long – where we explain our actions to ourselves and to one another based on conscious trains of thought. E.g. if you ask me why I made all the decisions concerning a recent trip booked to Jamaica, all the planning, decisions, etc, I will recount a conscious story of these reasons that will actually MAKE SENSE of and account for those decisions. Very often what a person reports as their conscious thoughts predict their actions. If you think my conscious train of thought is only an illusion, some inaccurate story to explain those decisions, then you owe an “unconscious” theory that is just as detailed, explanatory and predictive of behavior as the conscious one. Otherwise, the conscious account wins.

        Now, it certainly can be the case that our thoughts arise from brain processes that we can not be conscious of – the underlying machinery. So in that sense our processing is done “first” and consciousness amounts to becoming aware of the results. But then, even taking that to be the case, consciousness still would amount to “us” doing the processing, and consciousness would still be important and explanatory in the ways stated above.

        • Posted December 8, 2017 at 8:06 am | Permalink

          ” But then, even taking that to be the case, consciousness still would amount to „us“ doing the processing, and consciousness would still be important and explanatory in the ways stated above.”

          Of course, consciousness is important to us. It defines us, it gives us our identity and so on.
          It is as if we are watching a theatrical performance, and the play (that is, the consciousness) tells us who we are and gives us meaning.

    • darrelle
      Posted December 8, 2017 at 7:56 am | Permalink

      Jerry is using the “formal” definition of Compatibilism. Which is the view that Free Will is Compatible with Determinism. Both Compatibilism and Incompatibilism are all about Free Will.

  20. qp83
    Posted December 7, 2017 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    To me it seems kinda of a weird jump from, ph shit we dont have free will, to we must change the judicial system.

    Imo, we should go, oh shit we dont have free will to whats wrong with our society that creates so many criminals and how do we fix it?

    • Carey Haug
      Posted December 7, 2017 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

      I question the assumption that our society creates so many criminals. Given human nature, I suspect there would be criminals even in an ideal society-if there is such a thing.

      • Posted December 7, 2017 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

        While I agree that some level of criminality is inevitable, I’m also sure that society can affect that level. There are huge differences in the level of crime in various countries, even if we only look at so-called rich world countries. If not due to the behavior of society in those countries, then what? We know it isn’t genetic.

  21. Posted December 7, 2017 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Glad to see I’m not the only one having trouble getting thru the early part of the book. Finally finished the second chapter, and it was textbook-ish as you say, but worthwhile. If I was in his class I’d have flunked out long ago, but I can take as long as I want to read the book and get out of it as much as I can and at least come away with an appreciation for how scientists are thinking about the biochemistry of the brain, even if the details elude me.

    The excerpts you posted are good motivation to continue reading!

    Wading in over my head here, but with regard to free will v. determinism, it seems to look different depending on how “up close” you view it; kind of like how a wall seems solid if you look at it from the scale of our senses, but if you look close up at the atomic level there’s a lot of space between the electrons and it’s not so solid. For most purposes you can speak of the wall as solid, but when you look at it’s ultimate structure you change the frame of reference.

    I suspect that determinism is right that when you look at “free will” up close the homunculus vanishes or at least “will be jammed into ever tinier places”. Sapolsky also says, “I can’t really imagine how to live your life as if there is no free will.” I don’t think there’s a contradiction there; I think living your life as if there is free will is like treating the wall as if it’s solid, even though we can see the space between the electrons when we look up close. It doesn’t seem difficult to speak of moment-to-moment and day-to-day, or even long-term forks in the road as “decisions” or “choices” one makes yet still know that when looked at on a fine tuned level they are just the playing out of the laws of nature.

    “Free will”, like the word “theory” has a different meaning in different contexts. I don’t think there’s a place for unfettered libertarian free will, so I think that when people use the phrase in everyday life they need to understand it’s limitations, but I also think that trying to replace it with a lexicon faithful to a determinist outlook won’t work because it would keep running up against the near ubiquitous experience of seeming to have free will. (“This bank vault is made of six inches of solid steel—well, it’s not REALLY solid, but the electron bonding of the molecules is structured in such a way as to make it impenetrable to burglars even though the electrons themselves take up far less space than the spaces between them!”)

    Regardless of language choices (…or are they choices?!?), I like Sopolsky’s conclusion that we should focus our thinking about free will “where it matters—when we judge others harshly”.

  22. YF
    Posted December 7, 2017 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    “determinism rules; there’s no such thing as “could have done otherwise” free will; and that compatibilism (the view that we can confect a kind of free will that is compatible with determinism and quantum indeterminacy) is not useful.”

    What if (presumably indeterministic) quantum effects did operate in the brain (which may be amplified due to chaos)? Suppose we could indeed have done otherwise if we ‘replayed’ the tape of the universe’s evolution. Would that give us ‘free will’ or substantially change anything in the debate?

    I think the important point, as far as the legal system is concerned, is that the mind/brain is physical (deterministic or otherwise). There are no souls that ‘deserve’ praise or punishment.

    • Posted December 7, 2017 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      ” There are no souls that ‚deserve‘ praise or punishment.”

      That’s true if it is referring to the meaning of ” deserve”.
      But praise is considered to be very efficient in the education of animals for example.
      And the most good trainers know, that punishment fails often to get good results to change unwanted behaviour.

    • Posted December 8, 2017 at 1:14 am | Permalink

      Do we really need determinism in order to justify updating the legal (punishment) system? I think not.

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

      “Would that give us ‘free will’ or substantially change anything in the debate?”

      No, because it makes us roulette wheels rather than billiard balls.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted December 8, 2017 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      It wouldn’t give us (libertarian) free will, but I hope it would change the debate at least to the extent of exposing “couldn’t have done otherwise” for the non-sequitur it is.

  23. Posted December 7, 2017 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    “First, I found the opening several hundred pages pretty boring. Despite Sapolsky’s valiant attempt to write engagingly—and he can do so in places—the material was a tedious disquisition”

    I’m with you.

    I’ve tried to read Sapolsky before — and I have failed. I am not engaged by his writing style.

    I have not tried this book. For the reason stated above.

  24. Steve Pollard
    Posted December 7, 2017 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    An interesting precis of an even more interesting paper:

    The simple (maybe too simple) answer to the crime-and-punishment question is that the potential consequences of our actions are, or should be, wired into our brains – or, if they aren’t, then “ignorance of the law is no excuse”. If we do something of which society disapproves, the fact that “we could not have done otherwise” is not a get-out.

  25. mfdempsey1946
    Posted December 7, 2017 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Is it possible that the current state of scientific knowledge, though wondrously advanced, is not yet advanced enough for once-and-for all assertions “free will” cannot possibly exist in any form?

    Are determinists absolutely ruling out the possibility that future discoveries might allow for some degree or form of “free will” that would not violate the laws of physics?

    These are not rhetorical questions, for this entire subject continue to perplex me (perhaps because of my scientific inadequacy — can’t rule this out).

    In other words, each human being is a “meat puppet”? No problem with the “meat” part. The “puppet” part — that’s another story.

    And yes, I realize that if the deterministic view of “free will” is irrefutable, I will just have to accept it, like it or not.

    • darrelle
      Posted December 8, 2017 at 8:03 am | Permalink

      Of course. The findings of science are always provisional. That’s a defining characteristic of science. Compared to cognition the determinism part of this is fairly well supported. But I don’t think any physicist would claim that it is definitive. If they did they’d be wrong. It is pretty clear we don’t know for sure. But it is fairly well supported for the regimes at which humans exist.

      But the cognitive science part of it? Lonnnng way to go yet. We’ve only just recently started making any real progress at all.

      • Posted December 8, 2017 at 11:50 am | Permalink

        What *is* pretty definitive in my mind is the fork: roulette wheel or billiard ball. There’s no room for Kane’s “self forming actions”.

  26. Posted December 7, 2017 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    I’m a compatibilist, which by definition means I’m a determinist. A court of law, like everything else in the universe, will do what it’s determined to do.

    Only compatibilists can discuss what it “should” do.

    • Posted December 7, 2017 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

      “Only compatibilists” among determinists and naturalists, that is.

      Of course all sorts of believers in various divine texts will discuss these things endlessly.

  27. patrick
    Posted December 7, 2017 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    I am about halfway through Behave and have found the book dense yet fascinating, especially to a layman like myself. The amount of detail is one of the book’s strengths IMO, although it really slows down the reading process. Highlights such as the environment’s effects on Transcription Factors or hormonal effects on both the amount of neurotransmitters as well as the number and shape of receptors are only as interesting as they are because the underlying science is presented in detail.

    I recommend this book if one is not trying to meet a books-per-year quota. It would also be great simply as a reference.

    Excited to get to the chapter PCC(E) is extolling here. I feel that widespread public acknowledgement of determinism is one of the most significant and important milestones ahead of us as a species.

  28. Steve Gerrard
    Posted December 7, 2017 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

    I read the book several months ago, and quite enjoyed it. The textbook aspect seemed necessary for the subject matter, and didn’t bother me that much.

    I particularly liked the account of testosterone effects on the fetal brain. Estrogen in the fetus is modified, so it doesn’t interact with the brain estrogen receptors. Testosterone gets to the brain, where it is converted to estrogen which does interact with brain estrogen receptors, resulting in “masculinizing” of the brain. Biology can be so messy.

    For anyone serious about improving our prison system, you don’t really need arguments about free will to justify more humane treatment and programs to rehabilitate. Sweden is doing better in that regard, without mentioning free will as far as I know.

  29. Posted December 9, 2017 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    There is no snark about compatibilism in the quoted text from Sapolsky. There’s some snark about Daniel Dennett, and a lot of talk about homunculus theories. But compatibilists aren’t homuncular theorists, and Dennett in particular isn’t.

    Swing and a miss.

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