Raoul Martinez on free will and the implications of determinism

I’ve published related talks by polymath Raoul Martinez before (see here), but not this one: a 17.5-minute talk delivered in 2013 and called “Creating freedom.” It has only a bit more than 36,000 views, and given the importance of its message, it deserves more. I suppose it’s because it’s delivered in a very low key manner, and the topic doesn’t stir many people. Indeed, Martinez could have been a bit clearer in his exposition. But it’s still a good talk.

If you’ve read my posts on free will, you’ll see that I’m in pretty full agreement with Martinez. He draws the now-familiar analogy between a man who commits a crime (collecting child pornography) because of a brain tumor—a true story—and a tumorless criminal who has no more control over his behavior than does the pornography guy. The law and nearly everyone else see them as different in terms of “moral responsibility,” but they’re not.  (One problem with Martinez’s talk is that he uses “responsibility” to mean “moral responsibility”, and not just “this person did it”.)

Martinez says, correctly, I think, that you’re morally responsible only if you can choose your own identity, and since you can’t, you’re not morally responsible for the actions that come from your identity, which itself devolves solely form your genes and your environment.  And because our legal system is based largely on the presumption that you can choose your identity and actions—for what else makes a tumor a “mitigating factor”?—this has immense implications for how miscreants are treated. As Martinez says, “A prisoner is no more deserving of his sentence than the judge who passes it.” “Deserving” is the key word here: to Martinez it means not that a criminal shouldn’t be locked up, but that he shouldn’t be locked up under the presumption that he made the wrong choice.

I won’t go on, as I’ve said these things before, except to emphasize Martinez’s claim that all of science comes down on the side of determinism of behavior, while no scientific finding supports any notion of libertarian free choice. And, at the end, he outlines the salubrious effects of accepting determinism. These involve not just judicial reform, but awakening an increasing compassion for those who have lost, through no fault of their own, life’s lottery of wealth, power, and inequality.

Indeed, this is one difference between Democrats and Republicans. The latter, by and large, think that the poor are poor because they made the wrong choices, while Democrats, at least implicitly, recognize that we’re all the victims of circumstance. (I’d like to know whether Democrats are more likely to be determinists than are Republicans!)

I agree with Martinez’s last sentence: “It’s through understanding and questioning, not ignorance, that we empower ourselves to create a fairer, happier, more compassionate world.”

Would that philosophers would help create that world rather than confecting or explaining useless definitions of free will that, while compatible with determinism, do nothing to reform society. Surely the recognition and promulgation of determinism is a worthier endeavor than semantic tomfoolery. And philosophers are eminently qualified to participate in that reform—it’s not that they’re better places to explain compatibilism than determinism!

The YouTube notes says this:

Raoul is an artist, writer, and award-winning documentarian. His portraits (www.raoulmartinez.com) have been selected for exhibition in London’s National Portrait Gallery, and he has painted leading figures in the arts and academia as well as a series of symbolic works. He is currently working on his first documentary series, entitled Creating Freedom with filmmaker Joshua van Praag. In developing the series as writer, director, and producer, he has travelled extensively, interviewing leading intellectuals, journalists and activists, including Noam Chomsky, Tony Benn, Howard Zinn, Vandana Shiva, Amy Goodman, Steven Pinker, Bill Mckibben, and Christopher Hedges. Creating Freedom (www.creatingfreedom.info) explores the subjects of freedom, control and power in modern society. To accompany the series, and based on his many interviews and years of research, Raoul is currently writing a book of the same name. Raoul lives and works in his London studio.

His book came out in 2017 (click on screenshot to buy it), but I haven’t yet seen a documentary series. Maybe that’s because public intellectuals either get muddled when they discuss free will (e.g., Chomsky) or flee from the topic like a gazelle from a lion.


  1. Pliny the in Between
    Posted January 16, 2018 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    A Deterministic position should lead us to completely re-engineer our criminal justice system. Assessing moral responsibility gives way to determining victim/societal impact or risk. Punishment gives way to mitigation of risk. Incarceration becomes geared toward behavioral modification and re-entry to society.

    • Eric
      Posted January 16, 2018 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      Maybe, or maybe not. I fully agree the two cases are equally deterministic. However that doesn’t mean the same empirical response is effective in maintaining order in society and preventing the same act in the future in both cases. And while I personally agree with you that our justice system focuses too much on punitive measures and not enough on rehabilitative ones, I don’t think you or I or other liberals have done a good job of demonstrating that this is the case. “Deterministic…ergo less punishment” is not a sensible argument. It’s missing a crucial middle step of showing that human organisms don’t respond to punishment by altering their behavior…and I think to some extent, they certainly do.

      THe case for prison reform is entirely separate from the issue of free will. We could be automatons that ‘best’ respond to punitive measures, after all. Or we could be free willed beings that best respond to positive reinforcement. Or vice versa on either of those things. The status of our free will and what measures empirically works to make us more civil/cooperative are two separate and orthogonal issues.

      • Posted January 16, 2018 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

        “THe case for prison reform is entirely separate from the issue of free will”

        There is a link to my mind but it is back to front, for want of a better expression.
        If there is no free will then no moral responsibility. In recognising this from the judicial POV, the pressure should bare down on the environment to change (the ultimate aim) reform and hence drag prisons kicking and screaming if need be, in on the act.

      • Pliny
        Posted January 16, 2018 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

        I don’t disagree with your points but would add that shifting from punishment (revenge) to behavioral mitigation (re-entry to society for some, sequestration for others) doesn’t inherently imply that adversity is not part of the equation. Loss of autonomy, for example is hugely adverse to the average person. Other forms of mitigation such as restitution, social service, etc. are adverse as well. Punishment alone is not particularly goal directed especially if the goal is a fair judicial system.

        Determinism isn’t the only factor we should include in any re-engineering. Addressing socioeconomic influences would seem prudent as well.

      • Posted January 17, 2018 at 11:39 am | Permalink

        The argument sketch (if done Socratically) I present starts with asking people to think about and feel about what their views on the *justification of punishment* is. Many people will get lost otherwise, and getting to know someone is frankly out of for revenge is a good thing. 🙂

  2. Liz
    Posted January 16, 2018 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much for this post. Accepting determinism should not be applied to judicial reform because it does still feel like we have a choice. Why do we have that perception even if it’s an error? That matters.

  3. Posted January 16, 2018 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    The law and nearly everyone else see them as different in terms of “moral responsibility,” but they’re not.

    Sorry Jerry, but I think they are different. They are different in that one is susceptible to social opprobrium, susceptible to deterrence, and the other is not. Thus “moral” responsibility means “susceptible to social opprobrium” responsibility.

    Martinez says, correctly, I think, that you’re morally responsible only if you can choose your own identity, …

    I beg to differ. Morality is largely a pragmatic concept. It evolved to facilitate and police human social interactions, and it evolved in a deterministic universe! That means it does not depend on freedom to “choose your own identity”, it is a pragmatic concept about encouraging or deterring behaviours in others.

    And because our legal system is based largely on the presumption that you can choose your identity and actions …

    Again, I don’t think so. That is a *commentary* about the legal system (a false one, invented by the religious), but it’s not the *basis* of the legal system, which is pragmatic.

    … for what else makes a tumor a “mitigating factor”?

    The fact that no amount of social opprobrium and deterrence would have made a difference. Fuller argument here.

    • Posted January 16, 2018 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, Coel, but lots of “regular” criminals aren’t susceptible to social opprobrium because of their background. And even people with brain tumors might overcome the influence of the tumor if social pressure is strong enough or they could be deterrred.

      I beg to differ. “Mitigating” factors are “mitigating”, not 100% dispositive.

      p.s. The tone of your comment is rather patronizing, but perhaps you don’t see that.

      • Liz
        Posted January 16, 2018 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

        If people with brain tumors could possibly overcome the influence of the tumor with social pressure, doesn’t that negate the analogy between the criminal with the brain tumor (crime committed because of the brain tumor) and the criminal affected by nothing other than determinism with no tumor? My main concern is that it seems so abstract to talk about the legal system when it really does feel like we have a choice or could have done otherwise. I still have a few questions about quantum indeterminacy also. It seems like a very good, healthy debate and discussion. I enjoy this topic and especially this view. It’s engaging to me.

    • Posted January 16, 2018 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

      Well said Coel. The “principle” that you can be morally responsible only if you first choose your own identity is bogus. It belongs on the dust heap of philosophy along with other regress-inducing “principles”, like the idea that you can know a fact by method M only if you first conclusively establish that method M is trustworthy.

  4. Posted January 16, 2018 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Do the punishers have any greater ability to choose otherwise than the perpetrators? Using determinism to guide our choices leads to madness.

    • Posted January 16, 2018 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      No they don’t, but both punishers and perpetrators can respond to stimuli. The stimulus Jerry is pushing is to recognize that punishment is a very blunt and obviously ineffective instrument, if our goal to live in a harmonious society. If it worked, we wouldn’t have millions of people in prison in the U.S., would we? So instead, let’s try to find something that does work.

      Now doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result, that’s madness. Like, “if you hurt society, society will hurt you back”. It doesn’t do any good. It only multiplies hurt.

      • Posted January 16, 2018 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

        I too believe we should reform how our society deals with crime. My point is that we should do so without reference to determinism.

        I believe that even if determinism is true, our lack of knowledge as to what outcome is determined means that it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) impact our decision-making responsibility.

        • Posted January 17, 2018 at 7:03 am | Permalink

          Your argument holds paul, only if we actually DO HAVE “decision-making responsibility”… which I cannot believe we do, from the incompatibilist position.

          In any case I never feel comfortable with any supposedly fact-based argument (whether that free will exists or does not exist) when the argument position is always followed with an agenda as to how we should change something in society.

  5. Posted January 16, 2018 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    I find such comparisons (“He draws the now-familiar analogy between a man who commits a crime (collecting child pornography) because of a brain tumor—a true story—and a tumorless criminal who has no more control over his behavior than does the pornography guy.”) specious at best.

    This is like comparing someone who commits a crime because a criminal is holding his family at gun point with someone who thought the same crime would be fun because he is a psychopath. How about a sensible scenario?
    And, can a brain tumor cause a proclivity for a specific crime or are we just guessing that it might? Is this any better than Flip Wilson’s “The Devil made me do it.”

    • Posted January 16, 2018 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      The comparison is whether they could have done otherwise, not whether they merit the same treatment. And yes, brain tumors can cause people to become aggressive.

      Do you think the guy who holds a family at gunpoint could have chosen to do otherwise? If so, you’re a libertarian. If not, then you’re a determinist.

      • YF
        Posted January 16, 2018 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

        Just wanted to point out that the opposite of determinist is an indeterminist. Suppose the brain were fundamentally quantum mechanical such that our actions were indeterministic. Would that then make us ‘libertarians’?

        The lottery of birth could just as well be indeterministic.

        • darrelle
          Posted January 16, 2018 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

          The book is still open on whether QFT is deterministic (bound by causality) or not. It isn’t a given.

          by John Earman

          “Less well known is the fact that in some cases QM turns out to be more deterministic than its classical counterpart. Quantum field theory (QFT) assumes determinism, at least at the classical level, in order to construct the field algebra of quantum observables.”

          Sean Carroll, the official website physicist, has written some interesting articles on determinism and freewill as well. His view, to paraphrase, is that determinism certainly reigns locally. And keep in mind that he means “locally” in the context of cosmology. He also thinks it is possible that QM is fully deterministic, even at the quantum rather than merely the macro scale, though with the caveat that to observers in any single given “world” individual QM events would appear indeterministic.

          • ppnl
            Posted January 16, 2018 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

            There are several ways to rescue determinism from quantum mechanics.

            1) Superdeterminism. The derivation of Bell’s theorem implicitly assumes the scientists on both ends of the experiment have freedom to choose which measurement to make. But if the universe is deterministic then the choices of what measurement to make is preordained. It may be that they are just preordained to make the measurements that happen to violate Bell’s inequality. You might in principle construct such a theory. But it is profoundly ugly. It is essentially a theory that every small detail of the universe was set and carefully controlled to tell us a lie. That is an ugly and stupid way to achieve determinism.

            2) Piolet wave theory. Basically this is a nonlocal hidden variable theory. Every particle has exact position and momentum at all points in time but its future path is controlled by a piolet wave. Its position in the future may appear to be random but you could predict it if you new the state of the piolet wave. The problem is in order to recreate things like Bell’s inequality the wave must travel faster than light. That means it can send messages back in time. If you could detect and control the state of the piolet wave then you could send and receive messages from the future. If you cannot then piolet waves become an irrelevant and unnecessary addition to QM. The motivation is philosophical with no experimental consequence.

            3)Many worlds. Technically this is deterministic but since everything possible happens anyway that fact is moot. The fact remains that from the point of view of any stream of consciousness the world does not look deterministic. You may not have a choice but then you traverse all possible choices in every combination. Free will isn’t so much made impossible as it is made irrelevant.

            Unless someone can come up with a reason other than philosophical angst to believe in any of these I think they should just shut up and calculate.

            • darrelle
              Posted January 17, 2018 at 7:51 am | Permalink

              Determinism doesn’t need saving. I can’t agree that physicists should just shut up and calculate. Speculation and devising hypotheses, is a crucial part of science. That is how knowledge is expanded.

              People seem to want reality to be either purely deterministic or purely indeterministic. It’s probably a bit messier than that, which is certainly what the evidence suggests so far. Macro-scale events appear to be bound by causality, for the most part. Quantum scale events appear not to be, for the most part.

              • Posted January 17, 2018 at 11:44 am | Permalink

                “Shut up and calculate” as Bunge has said since the 1950s, has led to a stifling of innovation on what might be the successor theory to fundamental QM. We are only (last 15 or 20 years) beginning to see clearly where to look for the next one. Non-locality (Smolin) might be useful as an option. (Note: this has nothing to do with “realism”, which is still merrily confused.)

              • ppnl
                Posted January 17, 2018 at 1:33 pm | Permalink


                ” Determinism doesn’t need saving. ”

                And I have no particular interest in saving it. My point is that if for philosophical reasons someone wants to save it they must jump through some logical hoops in order to do so. This serves as a warning to those who would seek to impose their philosophical priors on the universe. Instead I think it best to shut up and listen to what the universe is saying. We do this by calculating the consequence of a theory and taking it seriously until experiments prove it false. Purely philosophical objections to a theory are of little value.

                ” People seem to want reality to be either purely deterministic or purely indeterministic ”

                I cannot make any sense of this. A purely indeterministic universe makes no sense and has no proponents. Such a universe couldn’t even support life.

                The choices before us is absolute determinism and mostly determinism with some exceptions for very small objects like atoms. Einstein for example rejected even small exceptions to determinism.

            • ppnl
              Posted January 17, 2018 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

              Keith Douglas,

              The problem with Mario Bunge is he is mostly a philosopher. I think it dangerous to try to impose philosophical priors on scientific theories. Determinism is fine. Non-determinism is fine. But to reject one of the other on purely philosophical grounds is not ok. Shut up and listen to the universe. Do the calculations and take them seriously until the universe tells you differently.

              ” “Shut up and calculate” as Bunge has said since the 1950s, has led to a stifling of innovation on what might be the successor theory to fundamental QM. ”

              I would say just the opposite. Taking the predictions of QM seriously gave us superposition, entanglement, Bell’s inequality, quantum computers and the entire field of quantum information. And it gave us decoherence to explain the transition from weird quantum world to the large scale classical world.

              There is no reason to add nonlocality to quantum mechanics. What does it do except resolve some philosophical angst? Show me an experiment that requires it and I will listen.

              • Posted January 18, 2018 at 11:36 am | Permalink

                Bunge was trained as a physicist, but that aside …

                I don’t think anyone rejects either “determinism” or the dual on philosophical grounds, just that the case cannot be foreclosed forever, for the reasons in David Bohm’s book on causality. The interesting thing is now we know that the trade off is really with locality and a few other things. Certainly not, as Bunge reminds us, with ‘realism’, which was the real (ahem) concern.

                As for “show an experiment that needs it” -why? Do theoretical physicists come only come in *after*? Darwin in the biological context pointed out that doesn’t work very well; I think this has been Lee Smolin’s point, too and all those who have bemoaned the separation between GR and QM.

  6. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 16, 2018 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    (I’d like to know whether Democrats are more likely to be determinists than are Republicans!)

    I think it’s still a minuscule proportion of the public, of any political persuasion, that accepts (or that is prepared to accept) the full implications of determinism.

    • Posted January 16, 2018 at 4:52 pm | Permalink


    • Posted January 16, 2018 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

      I didn’t even know this debate existed until a few months ago. I think we could do a better job of talking about this stuff.

      • ppnl
        Posted January 16, 2018 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

        Or maybe we can’t. Depends on inital conditions.

        Determinism. You gotta love it… because there is no choice.

  7. Janet
    Posted January 16, 2018 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    I went to Amazon and bought his book.

  8. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted January 16, 2018 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Compatibilist or not, the fellow with the tumor is arguably more “sphexish” in Douglas Hofstadter’s sense of the word than one just being malignant.

    A conscious entity is less “sphexish” the more its internal sense of “self” is capable of self-modifying behavior than otherwise.
    (This is just a bit like a game-playing computer program that can modify itself by examining games that it loses.) This, to me, is a sufficient basis for attributing a greater degree of “agency” to certain crimes.

    Furthermore, the victim of circumstance trope can be overused as a way of evading ethical responsibility, as illustrated in this famous song from “West Side Story”.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted January 16, 2018 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      A much much shorter video comment for good measure.

  9. Posted January 16, 2018 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    ” „It’s through understanding and questioning, not ignorance, that we empower ourselves to create a fairer, happier, more compassionate world.“

    I don’t think Martinez is right here, A happier, more compassionate world – this is not what will derive from the acceptance of the nonexistent free will, this is just wishful thinking. Just consider the outcomes of experiments, in which probands were less compassionate with people, if they were told the mental disorder of those resulted from a biological disorder and not from a harmful environment in childhood.

    “Biological explanations might actually decrease empathy. Indeed, we find that biological explanations significantly reduce clinicians’ empathy. ”

    Matthew S. Lebowitz and Woo-kyoung Ahn: Effects of biological explanations for mental disorders on clinicians’ empathy

    What we can expect from a widely accepted non existing free will might be a more fairer judicial system and less moral condemnation within society, but it will probably also mean that people as a whole are less emotionally involved, therefore adopting an even more indifferent attitude toward their fellow human beings.

  10. ppnl
    Posted January 16, 2018 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    I’m reminded of the different attitude toward free will by old style Protestants and Catholics. Catholics seemed to be ok with free will while Protestants rejected it. For a Protestant you were destined to either go to heaven or hell and nothing you could do would change that. A weird kind of spiritual determinism. I do not think it plays a big part of modern Protestant religions but I don’t know.

    In a deterministic world a person is no more or less responsible for a murder than a tornado is responsible for the deaths it causes. Both are responsible in a mechanical sense and in a deterministic sense that is the only kind of responsibility that exists.

    The difference is that we can hold a person responsible by punishing them while we cannot punish a tornado. But again we cannot choose to punish or not punish. We will or we will not depending on initial conditions. It may be useful to society to punish the guilty but in a deterministic world we still do not have a choice.

    The person with the brain tumor is a little like the tornado in that attempting to punish him may serve no purpose. But there is no choice whether to punish him or not. We will do what is required by the state of the initial conditions.

    It is weird how close to Calvinism this view of free will is. And it is driven by the same logic of determinism as Calvinism.

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted January 16, 2018 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

      “It is weird how close to Calvinism this view of free will is. And it is driven by the same logic of determinism as Calvinism.”

      The same thought has occurred to me. A fine irony.

    • darrelle
      Posted January 17, 2018 at 8:12 am | Permalink

      There are significant differences between a tornado and a person. Punishing a tornado won’t change its behavior, but punishing a person may change their behavior because people are computing machines and any input will become a part of the computations.

      Do you think that you are not bound by causality? There is quite a bit of evidence to support that you are and very little to support that you are not.

      • ppnl
        Posted January 17, 2018 at 2:33 pm | Permalink


        ” There are significant differences between a tornado and a person. ”

        Well yes. That is what I said. It does no good to attempt to punish a tornado. And I said it may make sense to punish a person. My point is that that does not make one any more or less deterministic than the other.

        My point was also that you do not have a choice over whether to punish or not punish. In a deterministic world that was decided by the initial conditions set at the big bang.

        ” Do you think that you are not bound by causality? ”

        I try not to impose philosophical priors on the universe. The macroscopic world appears largely deterministic. The subatomic realm seems to have nondeterministic elements. So it seems that I’m not absolutely bound by causality. Can that buy anything like free will? Not that I can see. But then I don’t see how it buys consciousness either.

        Oh, and a tornado can be seen as a computer as well. It is running a much simpler program but anything that causally transforms from state to state can be seen as a running program.

  11. Posted January 16, 2018 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    I accept determinism, but I am agnostic on these issues. I do not think the propositions are defined clearly enough (exactly what is “free will” or “moral responsibility”) nor do I see what experiment or observation can decide which position is right.

    That said, determinism does not lead me to want to “reform society.” The univese (and society) will go the way it will, And I am an insignificant part of it. The lesson I take is to watch and learn.

    • ppnl
      Posted January 17, 2018 at 2:19 am | Permalink

      If determinism is true then it cannot matter if you want to reform society or not. Whether or not society gets reformed was decided by the initial conditions at the big bang. The entire history and future of the universe will play out like a movie. You can no more change anything than the image of an actor on a movie film can decide to change the ending of the movie. Apparently you can cheer and jeer every second of the movie but you are a helpless witness to events in the movie that you cannot control.

      Now you have to be careful about this conclusion because quantum mechanics does not appear to be deterministic. You can get around this with some mental gymnastics and motivated reasoning but the simplest view is quantum mechanics is not deterministic.

      But adding randomness does not appear to buy us anything like free will. The ending of the movie may not be predictable even in principle but that does not mean you have any control.

      And yet again there is reason to be cautious about our conclusion. Quantum mechanics does much more than introduce randomness. It introduces a whole new mechanism that seems to be acausal. A quantum computer seems to work by a process that is indistinguishable from magic. That is not to say it is all powerful as there are very strict limits to what it can do. But you cannot reduce it to a causal chain like classical computers. A quantum universe is a very different kind of movie.

      And yet still it is hard to see how quantum mechanics can buy anything like free will. And even if it could it is hard to see how it could be enacted in a warm wet brain where quantum effects are squeezed out in like 10^-50 seconds or worse.

      I don’t think the free will question is ripe to even be asked let alone answered. But the final cutting irony is that we seem to have no choice but to behave as if we have free will.

      • Posted January 17, 2018 at 7:16 am | Permalink

        I agree to the first part of your post, but not to the last statement: “I don’t think the free will question is ripe to even be asked let alone answered.”

        Of course the question is ripe to be asked because there are good arguments for it to state that there is no free will.
        You might be right if would live 800 years ago, in the middle ages when there was no scientific understanding about the physical laws, which determine all living and non-living things in the universe.

        Did you know that Albert Einstein has stated in several statements that he does not see the possibility that there may be any free will?

        For example he said the following:

        “I honestly do not know what people mean when they talk about the freedom of the human will. For example, I feel like I want something; but what that has to do with freedom, I can not understand at all. I feel that I want to light my pipe and I do that too; but how can I combine that with the idea of ​​freedom? What lies behind the act of will, that I want to light my pipe? Another act of will? Schopenhauer once said: ‘Man can do what he wants; but he can not want what he wants. “

        • ppnl
          Posted January 17, 2018 at 3:04 pm | Permalink


          ” I agree to the first part of your post, but not to the last statement: “I don’t think the free will question is ripe to even be asked let alone answered. ”

          I might agree if not for the mystery of consciousness.

          And yes Einstein was a determinist which is why he could not accept quantum mechanics. Turns out he was wrong. One of the great tragedies is that Einstein did not live to see the derivation of Bell’s inequality. That would have pitted his determinism against his belief in locality. How would he have responded?

      • Vaal
        Posted January 17, 2018 at 10:33 am | Permalink

        If determinism is true then it cannot matter if you want to reform society or not.

        Of course it matters: Wanting things – e.g. to reform society – are the reasons people do things. Things get done, because we want to do them. So our wanting has to matter.

        The track you are on is the one that makes us invisible in the process by simply ignoring our part, and only appealing to non-human factors.

        You can hardly explain the vast amount of human history and decision-making…by ignoring it.

        Whether or not society gets reformed was decided by the initial conditions at the big bang.

        But that’s just a misapplication of the concept “decided.” The Big Bang can’t “decide” anything. As far as we know, nothing capable of “deciding” anything existed then, or for billions of years.

        If we want to know what kinds of things get decided, we have to look to being like us, where such a word makes sense.

        I know generally what you *mean* to be saying. But I’m pointing out that the method you are using, often used by incompatibilists, is highly misleading because it so easily ignores all the important things about humans by just ignoring them in the explanation.

        Everything we would care about in terms of a difference between a singularity and a conscious human lies in our consciousness, agency, feelings, ability to have desires, goals, ways of reasoning towards actions to fulfill those goals, etc. It then forces us to tackle the reasons we would have to discern our actions from things like rocks or bacteria, and why we use concepts like “A rock doesn’t have a choice whether to be sitting in the hot sun or not, but I do have a choice as I could do otherwise…”

        If you fall into the camp that says, since it’s all dominoes falling set by the Big Bang (something that, btw, a compatibilist could agree with), and that this renders our normal appeals to having a “choice” or thinking “we can do otherwise” to be simply illusions – error – then you have much more left to explain by this hypothesis!

        For instance, I can tell you this:

        You can kick that rock on the ground. And you can kick it a second, third, fourth time….as many as you want. And you will be in control because that rock can’t do otherwise than land where you kick it, ready for you to kick it again. It has no choice.

        But if you kick that big, tattooed, mean-looking guy standing over there with the Hells Angels jacket, he won’t be stuck unable to stop your follow up kicks like the rock. He can do otherwise. And he will very likely choose to react with anger and violence toward you when you kick him.

        Now, this normal appeal to humans being able to “do otherwise” and “choose” has just conveyed to you actual information. It’s useful information you now have to help predict likely outcomes. If the language of “choice” and “can do otherwise” I’ve used is only “illusion” then by definition I can’t be saying something true with that language. But clearly, since we use this language to convey truth and impart information all the time – information that helps us predict our world – it HAS to be conveying some truth.
        And the “choice is an illusion” conclusion must be getting something wrong about *what we normally convey* when talking of choices and “can do otherwise.”

        If you would still take the position talk of choice and doing otherwise is rendered an illusion/false once we recognize the inevitability from the Big Bang, you are left still having to explain how we convey information by speaking in such terms, and/or how you would replace the terms with ones that manage to convey the same information.

        • ppnl
          Posted January 17, 2018 at 4:01 pm | Permalink


          The problem is I find compatibilists to be totally incoherent. They want to have their cake and eat it as well.

          ” But that’s just a misapplication of the concept “decided.” The Big Bang can’t “decide” anything. As far as we know, nothing capable of “deciding” anything existed then, or for billions of years. ”

          And here is where the incoherence is the most clear. In a deterministic world there is no such thing as “decide” as it is usually intended because There. Is. No. Such. Thing. As. Free. Will. Most people use “decide” as if it implies free will. Remove the free will implication and the big bang is as good a decider as anything else.

          Dennett gave three levels of abstraction: The physical stance, the design stance and the intentional stance. You are using the intentional stance for “decide” while I’m using the physical stance.

          But it is important to remember that these are just stances. It is always valid to use any of them on anything. The only difference is how much detail you lose.

          The intentional stance loses almost all of the underlying mechanism. That’s why it is so easy to slip free will thinking in here. The advantage is that the specifics of the underlying mechanism is usually irrelevant. Thus you can speak of a chess program “wanting to protect its queen” while in reality it is just calculating a complex Boolean function. The intentional “want” is useful when watching the game, the design “want” is useful when writing the program and the physical “want” is useful when designing the processor.

          The intentional stance loses the most detail but makes it far easier to say the kind of things you most often want to say. The physical stance includes all details but may make it cumbersome to use. You would not describe a bridge with quark theory for example even if it would be valid to do so.

          The problem is Dennett slips free will thinking in at the intentional stance and even calls it free will. But there is still the physical stance saying “uh, no”.

          • Posted January 17, 2018 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

            No, you can’t apply the intentional stance to just everything. It’s useless to apply it to a rock.

            I think you’re falling into the trap of greedy reductionism:

            Using the terminology of “cranes” (legitimate, mechanistic explanations) and “skyhooks” (essentially, fake—e.g. supernaturalistic—explanations) built up earlier in the chapter, Dennett recapitulates his initial definition of the term in the chapter summary on p. 83: “Good reductionists suppose that all Design can be explained without skyhooks; greedy reductionists suppose it can all be explained without cranes.”

          • Vaal
            Posted January 17, 2018 at 9:08 pm | Permalink


            Your reply suffers from the very problem I highlighted: it seems like an insight…but it actually is very poor for explaining much of what needs to be explained.

            Note that you did not answer the challenge I carefully laid out: how do you explain the uitility of our language of “choice” and “could do otherwise” – our normal use of those concepts – IF you think they really “are’t true.”

            If you actually try to answer this problem, you will run smack dab into the way your argument is too superficial (I don’t mean it in the insulting way, but in the descriptive way) to make sense of the problem.

            Whether the world is deterministic or not, we have the same set of facts to explain and understand. Of course it’s all physics, but we need to identify that there are different physical entities and we need to identify the different characteristics, and talk about it, so we can navigate the world.

            That’s why you don’t try to fill your gas tank with a banana. Yes, gas and bananas SHARE the fact they are both “matter in motion” but they also DO NOT SHARE traits.
            It’s appropriate to use one for running your car, and eating the other.

            Same with putting entities in the category of “things that can decide” and “things that can’t decide.” Where decision represents the process of having a desire/goal in mind, and reasoning about which action will likely fulfill the goal, leading to that action.

            We can do that.

            Rocks can’t.

            The difference matters.

            That’s why we have language to describe it.

            And we use these different descriptions to understand and predict things. Will a rock “decide” to get out of the sun if it’s a heatwave today? No. It can’t. Will my wife? Yes, she will.

            When I tripped over my son’s hockey bag did I “decide” to trip over it? No. That would convey that it suited a goal I had, that I deliberated and purposely chose to trip. Since that process did not go on, we distinguish the action as “an accident.”

            To say “decisions” don’t exist given determinism is truly absurd. Again, the challenge for you is to try to explain differences between a rock and the actions of people WITHOUT the information/descriptions we encode in words like “decide, choose” etc.

            When you find out how impossible that is…it *should* be a red flag that you’ve got something wrong, IMO.

            The intentional stance isn’t an illusion: it describes real things happening in human brains. Just as describing wood catching on fire is describing something real (it doesn’t “go away” when you understand it’s all physics).

            You keep saying words like “want” etc are “useful.” Yes they are useful; they would only be useful if they conveyed truth in some form.

            And that, again, is the challenge for you.
            If you want to hire an employee and she tells you “I have X and Y skills so I COULD do X for you or I COULD do Y…” then that person is conveying useful information. Information that allows you to predict (insofar as she has those skills) the jobs in which it makes sense to place her.

            If you want to say that “could” is false, an illusion…you should be able to tell us how that word conveys information. Something totally false can’t convey information. And give us other language to replace it, that works as well or better, but doesn’t end up presuming the same things.

            You’d also have to explain how we can give reasons to one another to do X or Y, without the concept of “could do otherwise.” If you can’t do that, then it means we can not give actual reasons to one another, including giving reasons to ourselves, to do anything.
            Including…take anything you are writing seriously.

            The reason I favor compatibilism is that incompatibilists always strike me as plugging a hole in a sinking ship “there, determinism is true so it means we can consider choice and free will to be illusion! Done!” Then they wander off not noticing the several new leaks their logic has just sprung. Compatibilism, for me, fixes the leaks and maintains coherency in explaining the world.
            (And not via fantasy: fantasy couldn’t explain real world facts. It does it by analyzing what we actually mean and care about in our normal concepts of “choice” and discovering they aren’t actually threatened by determinism. Only superficial, untenable “greedy reduction” threatens the concepts).

      • Posted January 17, 2018 at 11:01 am | Permalink

        Your last line is the kicker. If we have no access to how everything is supposed to play out, we have little choice but to do what we think is right. I am less sure whether doing what we think is right deserves the “free will” label but see that as a relatively unimportant issue.

        A similar argument can be made with respect to the theory that our universe is a computer program. An interesting question for sure, but if we can’t know the answer or understand the program at all, we must continue on as we were.

        • ppnl
          Posted January 17, 2018 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

          Depends on what you mean by computer program. If you mean logic operations on formal variables implemented on some physical substrate then any physical object can be seen as a running program. Physical stance.

          • Posted January 17, 2018 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

            To define computer program, I defer to Turing. Your use of “logic” and “formal variables” imply human understanding or interpretation of the “universe” program. At this time, physics has no idea whether the universe is a program and, even if it is, what logic and formal variables might be relevant.

  12. Rupinder
    Posted January 17, 2018 at 12:08 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the pointer, Jerry; I would also recommend you to write a book on free-will, as the topic has huge implications for society, and there is a large unfulfilled paucity of good books on the subject.

    I’m looking forward to reading Raoul Martinez’s book.

  13. Posted January 17, 2018 at 4:01 am | Permalink

    It’s more than curious to me that incompatibilist arguments on the subject of free will always seem to be end in a demand for lessened criminal penalties as a byproduct of the stance, based on arguments of diminished “personal responsibility” in criminal action. Firstly, I find this demand to be totally incoherent. If we are nothing but robots it seems to me that how we treat a robot (from the robots point of view) is totally irrelevant- what makes much more sense is efficiency in the smooth functioning of society as a whole. Indeed… what compassion do we owe to a faulty vacuum cleaner? This endorses the correctness of taking ANY measures to deter crime, as it is a significantly disruptive social effect. From an Evolutionary Game theoretic view this demands GREATER penalties as a deterrence to defection (defection presence in any population being proportional to benefit of defection divided by cost of penalty). The correctness of this approach is proven in the low crime statistics of countries with severe criminal penalties. Secondly. incompatibilism also negates any moral basis for having lower penalties. As we all have no moral responsibility for anything how can we even MAKE such moral arguments? The logical incompatibilist argument is for a Clockwork Orange world. This, for the incompatibilist, is the world that then makes perfect sense.

    • darrelle
      Posted January 17, 2018 at 8:20 am | Permalink

      This is exactly the same reasoning social darwinists have used. It’s not even wrong. I doubt you intend this as serious argument. I’d guess your intent is simply to denigrate.

      • Posted January 17, 2018 at 9:15 am | Permalink

        I don’t honestly mean to denigrate anything or be deliberately provocative, I only am trying to take the incompatibilist position to its most logical conclusion. Now you may say that incompatibilists do not normally argue for greater criminal penalties to exist, but quite the opposite. I say in response that this is only a manifestation of the total incoherence of their own position. As Martinez would himself point out, our views are only the byproduct of our own Western Civilization’s traditions and zeitgeist,… merely a matter of chance and indoctrination. Moral considerations derived from these traditions must be questioned, particularly when it comes to any criminals individual sensitivities when dealing with nothing but automatons. Western thought does not treat ourselves as automatons, but instead as moral animals. Not relevant if moral responsibility does not exist!

        What other criteria should apply then? As an engineer I say it should be the efficiency of the overall social machine – which means that all social engineering should be targeted at deterring the disruptive effects of crime. Game Theory dictates this as well as data on criminality in high penalty societies. Rehabilitation is not as important then as deterrence. And as for rehabilitation – the use of Clockwork Orange mental progragramming is perfectly appropriate, after all we are only dealing with a broken robot.

        • darrelle
          Posted January 19, 2018 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

          I may have misinterpreted you. My apologies.

    • ppnl
      Posted January 17, 2018 at 4:45 pm | Permalink


      ” If we are nothing but robots it seems to me that how we treat a robot (from the robots point of view) is totally irrelevant… ”

      It depends on how the robot is programed. If a robot is programed to avoid death then threatening the death penalty for a crime is useful. OTOH if the robot is programed to avoid seeing red flags then threatening them with red flags is a better option. Design stance. Humans were designed by evolution so our response is more complex than either of these.

      And yes this is a Clockwork Orange world. It is also an inevitable consequence of determinism. If you don’t like it your only option is to reexamine your commitment to determinism. I have no clue what the answer is but I’m committed to ruthlessly working out the logical consequences of any position. And the Clockwork Orange world is the logical consequence of determinism. It just is.

      • Vaal
        Posted January 18, 2018 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

        “I have no clue what the answer is but I’m committed to ruthlessly working out the logical consequences of any position. And the Clockwork Orange world is the logical consequence of determinism. It just is.”

        ^^^^^ I would say that’s a pretty good example of how philosophical mistakes can lead to some pretty sinister conclusions.

        Hence, why it’s worth the debate.

        • Posted January 19, 2018 at 5:45 am | Permalink

          Indeed. And we definitely should consider that if the totally logical conclusion from the philosophical stance that we are positing has a truly sinister implication we need to be aware of it. Others who adopt our philosophical position are quite likely to reach the necessary logical conclusion that our own more wishful thinking avoids. I am not making this an argument from consequences, I am only suggesting that anyone making an incompatibilist argument better believe that he/she is bloody right and be willing to face all its logical implications.

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