Shermer on consciousness, free will, and God

The latest Scentific American has a short column by Michael Shermer on why he thinks consciousness, free will, and God are “insoluble mysteries”. Click on the screenshot to read the piece.


When I read it, I jotted down some thoughts that took issue with Shermer’s notion that all three are “insoluble”, and sent a few questions to Michael, whose answers I’ve put below the fold. I think he’s gone amiss with free will and God, but does have a point about consciousness. Excerpts from Michael’s article are indented, and he’s given me permission to quote his emails to me.

Here’s Shermer’s thesis from the Sci Am piece:

Are these “hard” problems, as philosopher David Chalmers characterized consciousness, or are they truly insoluble “mysterian” problems, as philosopher Owen Flanagan designated them (inspired by the 1960s rock group Question Mark and the Mysterians)? The “old mysterians” were dualists who believed in nonmaterial properties, such as the soul, that cannot be explained by natural processes. The “new mysterians,” Flanagan says, contend that consciousness can never be explained because of the limitations of human cognition. I contend that not only consciousness but also free will and God are mysterian problems—not because we are not yet smart enough to solve them but because they can never be solved, not even in principle, relating to how the concepts are conceived in language. Call those of us in this camp the “final mysterians.”

Well, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, this depends on what the meaning of “solved” is. I would contend that consciousness can in principle be “solved”, but not perhaps in the sense of how Shermer conceives of a “solution.” On the other hand, I think free will and God can indeed be “solved” scientifically: that is, we can get provisional answers about their existence or non-existence. And I think those answers are in. Let’s take the three areas in order:

Consciousness. Michael conceives of a solution as solving the “hard problem” of consciousness: what is it really like to be in someone else’s shoes, or the shoes of another species (most famously Thomas Nagel’s bat? And I agree with Shermer when he says this:

It is not possible to know what it is like to be a bat (in philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous thought experiment), because if you altered your brain and body from humanoid to batoid, you would just be a bat, not a human knowing what it feels like to be a bat.

. . . By definition, only I can know my first-person experience of being me, and the same is true for you, bats and bugs.

That much is true, but if you conceive of the problem of consciousness, as I initially did, as “what are the neurological correlates that make somebody or something conscious?”, then that is in principle soluble. I asked Michael if he thought I, Jerry Coyne, was conscious, and if he did, didn’t that make the neurological solution possible in principle? (That is, just see what neurology goes with thinking that something else is conscious, or produce it using AI and using the same criteria we use when deciding that other people are conscious.) Michael responded by email:

I misunderstood your question: how do I know anyone else, much less a bat, is conscious. I don’t, and I can’t, through introspection or any other subjective form of experience. It is an inference to the best explanation that since I know I’m conscious, it is much more likely that the people around me with whom I interact are also conscious than that they’re not, and ergo by extension that everyone alive is conscious (with, of course exceptions for the truly brain dead), and by further extension across the phylogenetic tree other mammals are conscious, etc. I would even extend this to AI robots, when that day comes, if they exhibit similar characteristics to humans and other sentient animals: self-awareness, emotion, perceptive sensitive, responsive, thinking, and able to feel and suffer.

He then sent an excerpt about this from his book “The Moral Arc” which  I’ve put below the fold. I agree with him that I see no scientific way to experience the consciousness of another being, but disagree that the question he didn’t ask is also insoluble: whether we can find out what it takes to be conscious.

Free Will.  I think the answer is already in here. We do not have free will in the sense that most people conceive of it: as a libertarian, dualistic form of “I-could-have-done-otherwise” agency. Physics and determinism have solved this already, and neuroscience is buttressing the negation of this form of free will. One can, of course, define free will in a form that makes it compatible with determinism, but that’s a semantic solution, not a scientific one.  Michael’s contention in his article, below, is a bit confusing, and I’ve put the confusing points in bold:

Few scientists dispute that we live in a deterministic universe in which all effects have causes (except in quantum mechanics, although this just adds an element of randomness to the system, not freedom). And yet we all act as if we have free will—that we make choices among options and retain certain degrees of freedom within constraining systems. Either we are all delusional, or else the problem is framed to be conceptually impenetrable. We are not inert blobs of matter bandied about the pinball machine of life by the paddles of nature’s laws; we are active agents within the causal net of the universe, both determined by it and helping to determine it through our choices. That is the compatibilist position from whence volition and culpability emerge.

Yes, we act as if we have free will, but so what? The solvable question, which is an empirical and not a semantic one, has been solved. We may think we could have done otherwise, but we couldn’t have.  Michael’s claims that we are not inert blobs of matter but are “active agents” and “help to determine [the causal net of the universe] through our own choices” are claims that verge on dualism.

I know that Shermer is not a dualist, but this kind of language is deeply confusing. And what, pray tell, are the “certain degrees of freedom within constraining systems”? If that is not a nod to dualism—to I-could-have-done-otherwise-ism—I don’t know what is! “Degrees of freedom” certainly implies freedom of agency, which implies that we could have done other than what we did.

God. Michael makes a mistake, I think, when he thinks that the Sophisticated Theologians’™ idea of God has removed god from the realm of testability. His article says this:

If the creator of the universe is supernatural—outside of space and time and nature’s laws—then by definition, no natural science can discover God through any measurements made by natural instruments. By definition, this God is an unsolvable mystery. If God is part of the natural world or somehow reaches into our universe from outside of it to stir the particles (to, say, perform miracles like healing the sick), we should be able to quantify such providential acts. This God is scientifically soluble, but so far all claims of such measurements have yet to exceed statistical chance. In any case, God as a natural being who is just a whole lot smarter and more powerful than us is not what most people conceive of as deific.

I think that while Shermer is right that a theistic god is a testable god, he mistakenly conflates “supernatural” with “outside of space and time and nature’s laws”. To most people, God may be outside of space and time, and supernatural, and even be outside of nature’s laws, but still can interact with people and the universe. And if that’s the case, then one can make inferences about God’s existence. For example, God could be outside of space and time, and beyond our known laws of nature, but supernaturally answer prayers. He could, for example, answer the prayers of Catholics but not Baptists or Jews, which would give us evidence for God—evidence that Shermer says cannot exist. In Faith versus Fact I give more such evidence that could testify to the nature of even a removed and rarefied God so long as he interacts with the universe. Carl Sagan gave more possible evidence in his great book The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God (read it!).

We have no such evidence, despite the fact that we could in principle. This all suggests that if a god really does exist, it does not interact with the cosmos, regardless of whether it’s outside space or time, supernatural, violates physical law, and so on. The only kind of god that’s truly a mystery and must remain so is a god that does not manifest itself in any empirically verifiable way. Michael’s email response to me (below the fold) does not clarify the issue.

Have at it!


Shermer on consciousness (from The Moral Arc):

According to the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness—a statement issued by an international group of prominent cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists—there is a convergence of evidence to show the continuity between humans and non-human animals, and that sentience is the common characteristic across species.

            The neural pathways of emotions, for example, are not confined to higher-level cortical structures in the brain, but are found in evolutionarily older subcortical regions. Artificially stimulating the same regions in human and non-human animals produces the same emotional reactions in both.[i] Further, attentiveness, sleep, and decision-making are found across the branches of the evolutionary tree of life, including mammals, birds, and even some invertebrates, such as octopodes. In assessing all the evidence for sentience, these scientists declared: “Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.”[ii] Whether non-human animals are “conscious” depends on how one defines consciousness, but for my purposes the more narrowly restricted emotional capacity tofeel and suffer is what brings many non-human animals into our moral sphere.

         Given these reasons and this evidence, the survival and flourishing of sentient beings is my starting point and the fundamental principle of this system of morality. It is a system that is based on science and reason, and is grounded in principles that are themselves based on nature’s laws and on human nature—principles that can be tested in both the laboratory and in the real world. Thus, I take moral progress to mean the improvement in the survival and flourishing of sentient beings.

[i] Damasio, Antonio R. 1994. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Putnam.

[ii] Low, Philip, Jaak Panksepp, Diana Reiss, David Edelman, Bruno Van Swinderen, Philip Low, and Christof Koch. 2012. “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness.” Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and non-Human Animals. Churchill College, University of Cambridge.

Michael then added this with a video link:

Yes, I think bats are conscious. I think most mammals are conscious, albeit in degrees on a continuum. There is not place where “the lights come on.” It’s not a light switch, but a rheostat continuum: in part, more neurons means more consciousness, although this is too simple. It appears to be related to how those neurons are arranged and connected. But as I understand it, that’s not the hard problem of consciousness; that’s the so-called “easy” problem that people like Christof Koch work on—figuring out how neural nets produce mental activity. The hard problem—again, as I understand it—is the qualitative experience (qualia) of what if feels like to be me, you, a bat, or a cat. You’re a cat lover so you probably have intuitions about what it’s like to be a cat more than I do as a dog lover. But no matter how well you project yourself into your cat’s mind you will never actually know what it’s like to be a cat. 
Note: Dan Dennett disagrees with this. In this conversation with Robert Wright he actually argues that it IS possible for someone to know what it’s like to be Dan Dennett, maybe even more than Dan himself. Seriously!:
Michael’s email on God:
If I had more space, in the God section I would back off a bit from the final mysterian position and concede that if we’re talking about the Christian God then the arguments Vic Stenger and you make that if such a God exists then the world should have certain characteristics, which it doesn’t, ergo no God. That’s a pretty good argument, but most believers claim that god is supernatural—outside of space and time—and if so then he would be unknowable by science.

h/t: Julian, Evgeny


  1. ian Clark
    Posted July 13, 2018 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Is there such a thing as a “sophisticated theologian” who wasn’t brainwashed into religion as a child? I expect not.

  2. Ken Kukec
    Posted July 13, 2018 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    How’d “96 Tears” make it to No. 1 on the charts? That’s the real “mysterian problem.”

    • Liz
      Posted July 13, 2018 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      “Too many teardrops.”

      • Posted July 13, 2018 at 11:08 am | Permalink

        It was a great song! Too bad they didn’t have any other hits but there are lots of such “one hit wonders”. Even more “no hit wonders”.

    • Robert
      Posted July 13, 2018 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      Great video. That is the way I danced until my wife made me stop.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted July 14, 2018 at 8:17 am | Permalink

        Spazzy James Brown, would be my description. 🙂

    • ChrisS
      Posted July 13, 2018 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

      There must be a personal god for every pop singer who couldn’t actually sing.

      • Richard
        Posted July 14, 2018 at 4:40 am | Permalink

        Yes, and his divine name is Auto-Tune!

  3. Posted July 13, 2018 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    As to the “What is it like to be a bat?” question…

    …it’s ultimately meaningless.

    One can equally well ask not only, “What is it like to be a child?” but also, “What was it like to be me when I was a child?” and run into the exact same brick wall. Similarly, “What will it be like to be me if I live long enough to have dementia?”

    And you don’t even need to go to such extremes! How often do we casually say things like, “I can’t even imagine what it would be like to live without my significant other”? And yet divorce and death makes such reality regularly. Few parents can fully appreciate their lives before children, and all parents agree that their pre-parent selves had no comprehension of what parenthood would really be like.

    With such a perspective, one realizes that the fundamental source of the problem is that we all have an ingrained implicit assumption of Platonic Idealism and that we ourselves are godlike — omniscient and omnipresent, at least in theory, even if the reception is at times fuzzy. For the first, we assume that there is a fundamental “bat-ness” that it is to be like if you are one; for the latter, we act as if our current selves are a complete representation of our own souls, from which we can extrapolate all our past and future as well as everybody else’s.

    I’ve yet to encounter anybody who is perturbed by the “hard problem” who can satisfactorily answer, even to themselves, what it is to be “like” themselves at that very moment. It’s simply taken as a given that it’s always “like something” to be yourself, and in a way that’s so self-explanitorily obvious that even asking the question is absurd. And yet it takes very little reflection to realize that what it’s like to be you right now is radically different from what it was like to be you fast asleep last night, and what it was like to be you moments after the alarm went off this morning was again significantly different from either…and what it’s like to be you when you’re at the opera with your sweetheart is again unlike what it’s like to be you when you’re having a passionate argument with a cow-orker, is unlike what it’s like to be you when….

    “What it’s like to be a bat,” of course, is also similarly infinitely variable. No two bats are the same, and no two moments in any bat’s life are the same. There is no Platonic Ideal bat nor bat-ness; simply a condition of low enough entropy such that one can create a model bat that can be used as a placemarker on one’s mental maps. Assuming the question has an answer is to mistrake the map for the territory, to assume that what matters is the bat label on the map and to ignore the actual bat in the actual cave.

    …and, once you have that perspective firmly in mind, you can similarly realize that the notion of an eternal soul is just as incoherent.

    Enjoy this moment, right now. It’s all your self actually has. In the next moment, your self will be gone, replaced by a similar-but-different self. It, too, will only have that moment. Each self only has its own moment, so whichever self you are right now, you might as well make the best of this, the one-and-only moment you actually have.



    P.S. That feeling of self-recognition we all experience? You know how you remember it as being the same even when you were a child? It’s not the self that’s the constant; it’s the act of self-examination. It’s the mirror-in-a-mirror effect. Your “sense of self” is the same now as when a child because that’s what the sense of self is, not because you’re the same person as the child. Your self feels the same to you as every other self feels to every other self, even though all these selves are at least as different from each other as you are from your childhood self. b&

    • sang1ee
      Posted July 13, 2018 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      So do I not have any idea of what it’s like to be me 15 minutes ago, sitting similarly in this chair looking at my computer screen? 5 minutes ago? 5 seconds ago? Is it all inscrutable or can I tease out something that persists, and which can be extrapolated somewhat accurately throughout my life? I’m very sceptical whether a study of inner experience can ever be established as a science but what you propose seems like a sceptical stance that forbids any discussion of any commonalities of conscious human experience at all, which to me seems to be obviously wrong.

      • Posted July 13, 2018 at 11:27 am | Permalink

        Of course you have an idea of what it was like to be you a few moments ago.

        But the first point is that you were different then. You’re no longer the same “you.”

        And the second point is that, the more distant the person whose self you’re trying to imagine is, the fuzzier your idea of what it’s like to be that person. Your moment-ago self is barely indistinguishable from your current self, so your idea of that self as a carbon copy of your current self is pretty accurate. But your child self is radically different, and your idea of that self, honestly, has damned little bearing on reality.

        So if you can’t even fully appreciate what it was like to be yourself when you were a child, why all the agonizing over our inability to fully appreciate what it’s like for a bat to be itself? Yes, we can have an idea of what it might be like to be a bat, but why is it at all remarkable that our ideas of bat-ness should be so different from the reality of bat-ness?

        Let’s even wave a magic wand and say that we’ve developed a method by which you can fully understand what it’s like to be a bat. Even then, you still haven’t succeeded, because now you understand what it’s like to be an human who understands what it’s like to be a bat — and human understanding of bat-ness is decidedly not a part of a bat’s self. That contradiction can’t be resolved, meaning the initial premise (that it’s possible for an human to fully understand what it’s like to be a bat) is disproved.



        • sang1ee
          Posted July 13, 2018 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

          I have a much fuller appreciation of what it was like to be my child self than of a bat’s inner world, and a better understanding of other human conscious experiences than those of any other creature. That’s a real difference. I will never understand what it’s like to be a bat or any other person, no one can argue that, but I can confidently well say that we have common inner experiences. This understanding gets incrementally more mysterious as you walk down the spectrum of conscious beings away from ourselves. Yes the contradiction can never be resolved and we’ll never understand what it’s like to be anything else than ourselves, and I doubt we can even describe our own inner experience very accurately, but I think we can push our understanding much further in this domain than we think. We’ll see in due time.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted July 13, 2018 at 11:35 am | Permalink

        What Ben says doesn’t prevent the exploration of “commonalities of conscious human experience” between people or the changes in broad perception for one individual over time. BUT [as Ben says] we can only ever interpret/rationalise a particular past state of ‘selfhood’ through the mirror of ones current self.

        You can’t escape the framework of the current self.

        • sang1ee
          Posted July 13, 2018 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

          I don’t know. If I have a good idea of myself a second ago, I have a pretty good idea of myself ten years ago, which is to say no real idea at all in either case. No escaping the self whatever the case may be I guess.

    • Steve Gerrard
      Posted July 13, 2018 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      “when you’re having a passionate argument with a cow-orker,”

      Those cow orkers can be a real pain when they are orking their cows, especially when they do it at work!

    • Posted July 13, 2018 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      I think what most thinkers-about-this-problem mean by “what it is like to be X” is actually “what is it like to experience consciousness as X? How do the sense data get processed and what is the picture they paint for the X like? How is this experience/picture different for Y, or Z, or etc?”

      It may well be that we can’t meaningfully conceive of any other way of being conscious than we ourselves are, but I think there’s a question there that’s worth thinking about. For instance, what would the picture of the world be like for a brain that is used to receiving primarily auditory data rather than visual? Etc.

      • Posted July 13, 2018 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

        There’re lots of interesting questions about different visual systems, but “looks like” isn’t really one of them. At absolute best, you’re asking for a map (your interpretation) of a map (an high-level description of a foreign visual system) of a map (the foreign visual system) of a map (whatever’s being perceived), and further complicating it by comparing that map of a map of a map of a map with your own map….

        This is, of course, very similar to the common question of if your “blue” is the same as my “blue.” The letdown of an answer is that they’re quite similar — but all perception varies, including your own. There’re all sorts of really mind-bending optical illusions that can show you that something you perceive as blue in one context you perceive as yellow (or whatever) in another — and that context can even be each eye looking at the same object at the same time! So your “blue” isn’t some sort of Platonic Ideal that somebody else’s “blue” could be compared with…but we can be equally confident from color science that your “blue” and mine differ from each other no more than your various “blues” do from themselves.

        Again, it’s an entropy thing. In reality, there’s just all those quarks and electrons interacting via electromagnetism and gravity (with footnotes). There’s enough repetitions in that reality that large-scale computational devices (like brains) can make useful maps by recognizing patterns and using labels to represent many different phenomena that’re “close enough” for the purposes of the map. Whether or not the pattern you usually associate with the label, “blue” is sufficiently similar to the pattern that exists in a bat’s brain and / or mind when looking at the sky is ultimately just a question of how you want to define the term — and that mostly depends on the sort of map you’re trying to make.




        • Posted July 13, 2018 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

          I take your point but we consume representations of the “real thing” all the time and gain a lot from them. A movie taken by astronauts on the moon is undoubtedly unlike the real experience yet we all find it very interesting and gain a lot from the experience. Until we know how minds work, I am not giving up on the possibility we may one day experience a little of what it is to be an astronaut or a bat.

          • Posted July 13, 2018 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

            If it’s only a little bit of the experience…we’ve had that for forever. Certainly since the invention of storytelling.

            The imagination is a powerful tool, even if it’s very fuzzy. Everybody who’s ever seen (or read) Hamlet knows at least a little bit of what it’s like to stare insanity in its face and to seriously contemplate suicide — even those who’re perfectly sane and who wouldn’t seriously entertain the thought of suicide for an instant.

            And we have every reason to expect that explanations of almost everything will continue to get fuller with time — and that, accordingly, our ability to understand various phenomena and imagine ourselves directly experiencing them will improve. I’m not at all arguing against that.

            I’m just pointing out the fundamental incoherence of the Platonic concept that there’s an intrinsic “something” that it means to be “like” this-or-that. You don’t need to be a vampire to be able to appreciate a bat’s echolocation — and, indeed, we all already have a fuzzy ability to draw a mental map of our surroundings just by listening. You’ll never be a bat, but you also don’t need to twist yourself into knots to figure out that it’s not anything so radically different from what you’d imagine as to be fundamentally mysterious and alien.




        • Posted July 13, 2018 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

          Sure. But wondering how all those maps differ is not “meaningless”.

    • nicky
      Posted July 14, 2018 at 5:26 am | Permalink

      Thanks for that thoughtful post, and welcome back, you’ve been scarce lately.
      However, I have a pretty good idea of what it felt like when I was say, 6 or 10. Yes, I’ve changed, but I can remember pretty well (unless my memory deceives me, which is not far-fetched either)
      I think the closer related the animal, and the closer the senses of the animal, the better idea we can have of what it would more or less feel to be that animal. We can have a pretty good idea of how it would feel to be a chimp, or a cat, a bat* would be more difficult, and an octopus (despite having good eyesight) even less, and so forth.
      We should not forget that we evolved from a common ancestor, so we may surmise there are quite some commonalities.
      *As a youngster I did some experiment spending a day blindfolded, and sounds became much more important for, say, location. It helped me to imagine to be able to ‘hear’ shapes like a bat would. But of course, our imagination is limited.

  4. Posted July 13, 2018 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    There is certainly no way currently to experience what another person or another creature experiences but I don’t see it as impossible in principle. Someday we’ll understand in detail how the brain works. This may enable us to rewire our brains temporarily to allow us to experience at least part of what another person or creature experiences. For example, perhaps we can wire into a bat’s sonar processing unit and transmit it into our visual cortex and “see” what the bat sees for a little while.

    It won’t be a 100% bat experience but we wouldn’t want that for all the reasons others have stated. I don’t want to become a bat unless I can remember the experience as my human self during and/or afterwards. I submit that such an experience will be as close to being a bat as we want to get. Of course, someone will undoubtedly take such technology too far.

  5. Posted July 13, 2018 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    I still do not find the determinist’s arguments compelling … yet (Yes, we *act* as if we have free will, but so what? The solvable question, which is an empirical and not a semantic one, has been solved. We may think we could have done otherwise, but we couldn’t have.)

    Currently the World Series of Poker is running. Consider a poker player sitting at a table. Decisions are being made as well as mistakes. A member of the Poker Hall of Fame last year discarded a flush that would have won that hand. What determined that decision? What are the causes, the physical causes of the decisions to call, raise, fold, etc. I think identifying causes may prove to be very probabilistic for determinism. Everybody, gets cards, the odds are the same for everybody, so why are hands played so differently by different players and by the same players. Some players develop strategy down to assuming an aggressive posture for the first two hours of the session, then a conservative posture for the next two hours. Some lit the second hands of a watch determine coin flip odds decisions. Some do not. I do not see perfect physical stimulus–physical response determinism operating perfectly here.

    I think along any long chain of causality, error accumulates and a sufficiently long chain of causes and effects may have a different outcome due to accumulate error. This may still be deterministic but doesn’t make things predictable.

    On Fri, Jul 13, 2018 at 10:01 AM, Why Evolution Is True wrote:

    > whyevolutionistrue posted: “The latest Scentific American has a short > column by Michael Shermer on why he thinks consciousness, free will, and > God are “insoluble mysteries”. Click on the screenshot to read the piece. > When I read it, I jotted down some thoughts tha” >

    • Posted July 13, 2018 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      Causality is understood rather differently by physicists than by philosophers and other non-experts.

      Ever since Laplace, it has been accepted that, given a system that operates by a certain set of rules and a complete formulation of its elements at any point in time, the entire past and future of that system can, in principle, be known. That is what is understood as determinism, and causality is subsumed by that definition.

      To be sure, there are literally insurmountable practical barriers to calculating such an extrapolation for systems of even trivial scale and complexity — not the least of which that you need more resources for the simulation than for the reality.

      Yet everything we know about physics is consistent with the fact that this is how reality works. There has been not one credible claim of evidence to the contrary — though, to be sure, there are plenty of incredible such claims, from monsters in Loch Ness to Jesus on toast.

      What this means for your poker players is that they, like you, are examples of complicated clockwork. The “choices” they make are different in scale but not in kind from the “choice” a thermostat makes to turn the furnace on and off. To an observer as much more sophisticated than an human as we are to thermostats, the notion that humans have more “choice” than a thermostat is as absurd as a suggestion that a smartphone has more “choice” than a programmable calculator from the ‘80s.



      P.S. Quantum (etc.) “weirdness,” including indeterminacy, is fully consistent with Laplacian determinism. That you can’t predict if the electron in the classic double-slit experiment will be observed on the left or the right just means it’s unpredictable, not that it’s nondeterministic. This is obviously so in the Many-Worlds interpretation, and less-obviously but still mathematically so in other interpretations. b&


      • Posted July 13, 2018 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

        “That you can’t predict if the electron in the classic double-slit experiment will be observed on the left or the right just means it’s unpredictable, not that it’s nondeterministic.’

        Physicists would disagree with that statement, Ben. Bell’s theorem proves that it is not determined.

        Nevertheless I am sure we both agree that this indeterminacy does not provide a route to free will.

        • Liz
          Posted July 13, 2018 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

          “Nevertheless I am sure we both agree that this indeterminacy does not provide a route to free will.”

          Wouldn’t it, though? It would provide a route to “could have done otherwise” I believe.

          • Posted July 13, 2018 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

            First and foremost, there is no mechanism to control quantum indeterminate outcomes. Your brain has no mechanism to choose to make the electron go through the desired slit and thereby do otherwise.

            In practice, nothing is as reliably unpredictable as quantum indeterminacy. You could come up with a binary choice (say, vanilla ice cream or chocolate), and then run the double-slit experiment and make the decision indicated by the observation…but where’s the choice, the will in that? Might as well flip a coin. Or the freedom, for that matter; all you’ve done is outsource your decision-making to an external random-number generator.



            • Liz
              Posted July 13, 2018 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

              The Stuff of Which We Are Made: Lecture 2 Prof. Sean Carroll,The Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology

              Here is a shortened link to the above mentioned video which can also be found by Googling some of the words in the title.


              20:46 in is about where the whole explanation of the slide begins.

              25:35 in for one of the images of this slide.

              “1. Many-Worlds. Every option becomes real in a different world. Overall evolution is deterministic.
              2. Hidden variables. Unknown quantities fix future measurement outcomes. Evolution is deterministic.
              3. Dynamical collapse. The universe observes itself, regularly but unpredictably. Truly stochastic, indeterministic.”

              25:46 in for the following referring to the dynamical collapse interpretation of quantum mechanics:

              “It’s experimentally distinguishable. The experiments are going on to test this idea right now. But in this theory the world would truly be indeterministic rather than deterministic.”

              Is it correct that the indeterminism here does not leave room for a choice somewhere in our electrons or neurons? It seems to me like it does. If there are experiments going on right now, eventually, this could be researched in our brains also.

            • BethClarkson
              Posted July 13, 2018 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

              Outsourcing a decision to a random-number generator is itself a decision made by the will. A conscious decision to diet could result in resetting the choice to decline to eat ice cream at 80%, vanilla at 10% and chocolate at 10%. Why wouldn’t resetting the probability parameters for that decision constitute ‘free will’ even if the final outcome is chosen via quantum randomness?

              • BobTerrace
                Posted July 13, 2018 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

                Because that decision is made at that moment with the currently available information from the past. It’s a decision made now with the information from now, not a resetting of a past decision. The information now may include a doctor telling you you’re too fat, or you didn’t like what you saw in the mirror, etc. No ‘choice’ was made.

        • Posted July 14, 2018 at 1:28 am | Permalink

          Physicists would disagree with that statement, Ben. Bell’s theorem proves that it is not determined.

          Not really. Bell’s theorem disproves locally real interpretations. Interpretations can be non-local, have no hidden variables, or both. If it is non-local but has hidden variables, e.g. the pilot wave interpretation, it’s classically deterministic, but unpredictable.

          • Posted July 14, 2018 at 10:51 am | Permalink

            Yes, that’s right, but non-local hidden variables have their own theoretical problems.

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted July 13, 2018 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

        “… given a system that operates by a certain set of rules and a complete formulation of its elements at any point in time, the entire past and future of that system can, in principle, be known. That is what is understood as determinism, and causality is subsumed by that definition.”

        Except that is backwards.

        Einstein discovered that causality is lightcone propagation in special relativity. (With entropy defining the directionality.)

        Determinism would be subsumed only in the sense that it is the block universe that general relativity describes. But arguably spacetime obeys special relativity rather than vice versa.

    • Posted July 13, 2018 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      I agree. Even if it is all determined, we don’t have access to it, it can’t be predicted or examined in any way. We are free to make choices as we see fit.

  6. Posted July 13, 2018 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    I think I agree with Shermer on free will but admit that his description is fuzzy. It’s that we can accept determinism and all that it implies but still act as agents with the ability to make choices and “do otherwise”. It is a matter of levels of description. I think of determinism acting at a very low level as a substrate on which everything else is implemented. Our agency is at a higher level running on top of that lower substrate.

    The best analogy I can come up with is with a computer. It can in theory be described at the lowest, deterministic level but that’s not practical and wouldn’t be very useful. It can be described at the chip design level which is obviously practical. Another level up we have the operating system. And on top of that we have application programs.

    An application program generally does not have to worry about the details of the operating system it runs on. It enables the program to run but it knows nothing about the details of what else is running, how much time is allocated to run the application, how the logical file system is mapped onto physical hard drives and such.

    Our agency operates at a higher level. Ultimately what we do is determined by the lower levels but we don’t have access to the details of those levels. They are just the substrate on which we act.

    • Posted July 13, 2018 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      Our agency operates at a higher level. Ultimately what we do is determined by the lower levels but we don’t have access to the details of those levels. They are just the substrate on which we act.

      What you describe is a condition of low entropy: there are multiple microscopic states that are all present as indistinguishable macroscopic states.

      If you are unable to observe the microscopic states, you can still create useful maps of the macroscopic states by pretending that the granularity of the system stops at the macroscopic level. But this is a limited-resolution map, one full of ignorance, and a map that will inevitably fail to present a full accounting.

      To be sure, as macroscopic entities ourselves, we typically do just fine with such maps. You really don’t care about the individual locations of all the air molecules in the room around you, and the incredibly low resolution of the Ideal Gas Law is already itself overkill to most applications you need.

      But to an entity that can directly observe all the microscopic states, ignorance-based claims of “freedom” such as you have made are incoherent. Might as well claim that the chess novice has more “freedom” than the grand master, because the novice will readily make moves that wouldn’t even occur to the master because of how bad they are.




      • Posted July 13, 2018 at 11:22 am | Permalink

        Certainly if we were capable of observing all the microscopic states and had the processing power to determine how the system will behave, and do it fast enough to be useful, then our whole world would change. People who think they are free agents would be laughed at because we could simply compute what choices they will make faster than they can make them and, perhaps, as far into the future as we desire. However, such a power is not very likely to ever be possible because it would have to “run” on the same substrate it was invented to predict.

        Your chess scenario is not at all compelling. First, the chess master and novice operate at the same level. One is simply better at the task than the other. Second, the chess novice does have more freedom than the grand master for the reasons you state, at least as you seem to be defining “freedom”.

        • Posted July 13, 2018 at 11:32 am | Permalink

          That we will never be able to fully predict our own selves does not mean that our selves are unpredictable; it just means we’re ignorant of our futures.

          Imagine you’re on a roller coaster. You will travel a certain path along with the train, at a certain speed, and so on. You can see where you’re going, and the lack of choice is obvious.

          Sitting next to you in the same car is a blind friend. As you, Dennett, and other compatibilists use the term, “Free Will,” the blind friend somehow has more choice than you do as to where the roller coaster is going to go.




  7. CAS
    Posted July 13, 2018 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    If the “sophisticated” version of God does not interact with the universe in any way that can be detected other than thru corrupted ancient stories then there is no basis for believing in its existence. Oh right! he created the world, but it’s still a flight of wish fulfilling fantasy that’s all in the stories!

  8. Hal
    Posted July 13, 2018 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Re Free Will and Determinism:

    Accepting the Position that no one can choose otherwise when making a decision, can anyone state a scientific theory that explains decision making?

    Can anyone even state what sort of terms such a theory would be expressed in?

    • Posted July 13, 2018 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      Sure. I can imagine it. When we understand how the brain works in detail, we will undoubtedly have a theory of decision making. It will be described in terms of how brain states change during the process of making decisions. There are likely many kinds of decisions so I expect the science to be long and complicated. There will also be some uncertainty because each person has their own brain state and probably processes those states differently.

      • Hal
        Posted July 13, 2018 at 11:38 am | Permalink

        OK….so the terms of the theory will pertain to the physical state of the brain that correlates with the decision being made?

        Will that explain why the choice was made, in the way that scientific theories explain phenomena in physics, chemistry, etc.?

        • Posted July 13, 2018 at 11:59 am | Permalink

          Science is basically in the business of taking very complicated and messy sets of data and coming up with less-complicated and less-messy ways of recreating the same big picture.

          We already know that reality itself is basically a very complicated clockwork mechanism that operates according to some pretty simple rules. Humans and the Earth are made of quarks and electrons (with some footnotes here about nucleic particles), and those quarks and electrons interact with each other overwhelmingly via electromagnetism with a bit of gravity (and again some footnotes about nuclear forces).

          The beauty of things like Newtonian physics is that you don’t have to know everything about, say, every subatomic particle in the Solar System to know what will happen when an apple falls from a tree. You just have to know that the apple is so far above the ground, and Newton will tell you how long it’ll take before it hits.

          …but that’s not what’s actually going on. In reality, there really are all the subatomic particles in the Solar System (and beyond) contributing to the dynamics of the apple, and it’s only because we humans ourselves are so very simple that we don’t bother to distinguish between the falling apple and the falling orange.

          We already fully understand all the physics of everything that has ever happened on the Earth and quite a ways beyond. There’s some exiting stuff we don’t understand, especially with respect to dark energy and the Big Bang and black holes and so on — but dark energy is far too diffuse to affect humans, the Big Bang was a baker’s dozen billion years ago, there aren’t any black holes anywhere within I-don’t-know-how-many light years, and so on. The physics of the everyday world is completely understood.

          Of course, even though we fully understand that physics, it’s still much too complicated and messy for our puny minds to do anything with it. Newton simplifies it to the point that we can understand it — but only by throwing out 99.9999999999%+ of the details.

          We might or might not be able to throw away 99.99999999%+ of Newton to come up with an explanation of human cognition that humans themselves can understand. Whether or not that will satisfy you is up to you. But it would be wise to keep in mind that such a scientific theory would be very low resolution, and to refrain from extrapolating from it in ways that we already know certainly aren’t how reality works.

          Such as by making claims that, because we can’t fully comprehend complex systems, those systems therefore have “freedom” to make “freely-willed choices.” That’s true only if you believe that a thermostat has the “freedom” to make the “freely-willed choice” to turn on the furnace….




        • Posted July 13, 2018 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

          There’s a paper from 1997 “Willed Action and its Impairments” which does address some of this.

        • Posted July 13, 2018 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

          In principle, yes. However, the state transition is bound to be a very complex one and separate for each decision and each individual. From a practical point of view, we will probably have a general understanding of how decisions get made but not be able to capture a specific decision made by a specific individual at a specific time. (Perhaps we’ll be able to record the state transitions and examine what happened afterwards.) This is somewhat like the current state of weather prediction. We know how it all works, more or less, but there’s still some uncertainty.

  9. BobTerrace
    Posted July 13, 2018 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    To know me, my synapses need to be revealed.

    I won’t do that on a first date. At least not all of them. 🤪

  10. WDB
    Posted July 13, 2018 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    I for one find some comfort in the knowledge that free will as I once imagined it was a delusion. I can look back on things that I had thought and a few things that I did and I can realize that given the fundie upbringing and the religious environment I was surrounded by that there was no other choice that I would have made at that time.

  11. KD33
    Posted July 13, 2018 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Just IMO: to me the epistemological problem of “how do I know someone else is conscious” is not that interesting. Much more important to me is to have an explanation of how a being or mind can be self-aware, i.e., how the “executive decision maker” in your head operates. I doubt this is a philosophical problem at all, and amounts to a technical problem that will eventually yield to an explanation based on the hierarchical structure of the brain, and ultimately traceable to underlying physical processes (though perhaps requiring “different levels of explanation” to paraphrase Sean Carroll). This is what I am waiting for, and there is progress from what I can tell. Whether various animals are “conscious” in a similar self-aware manner, perhaps to differing degrees, is interesting. Also on the less-interesting end of the spectrum for me is whether the perception of free will is an illusion, given deterministic physical law (or perhaps more precisely stated, a perception that emerges as we move up from an atomistic to cellular to brain structure hierarchy). Although, the Prof has convinced me that not having true free will does have implications for ethics, punishment, and law.

    • Posted July 13, 2018 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      Look within yourself for the “executive decision maker,” for example by using the techniques of midfunless meditation, and you will fail to find it. That is one of the key insights of Buddhism (and I should hasten to add that there’s much bullshit in Buddhism, even as it got this one particular bit right).

      The self truly is an illusion, and the illusory nature of the self is readily apparent to those who go to look for it.

      That’s not to claim that people are illusions, or that desires and thoughts and the rest are illusions. Just the “executive decision maker” self is an illusion.

      Imagine Harry Potter’s magic dictation pen writing, “I am the pen that writes itself.” What’s really happened? What would be the difference with a computer program that output those words? Or a voice recognition program hooked up to a voice synthesizer that repeated similar words to itself?

      Think to yourself, “I am reading this post to Jerry’s Web site.” Can you hear that voice in your head? Who’s speaking? Who’s listening? Can you control that voice? Can you make it say something different? Can you take control of that which is controlling the voice? Where is the “you” in all of this?

      When a thought pops into your head — as thoughts constantly do — where are they popping in from? Who or what is inserting them into your mind?




      • lkr
        Posted July 13, 2018 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

        Great contributions today Ben,

        Not the least your reference here to “midfunless meditation” Which I take to be not quite as nice as lowfunful meditation.

        And of course that typo is in principle predictable, knowing the state of the universe at any point from the Big Bang to Cold Death!

  12. Don
    Posted July 13, 2018 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    I guess I’m a little confused as to the definition of “supernatural” if not outside space, time and nature’s laws.

    • Posted July 13, 2018 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      I think “supernatural” is a blanket term that serves to distract and has no real meaning. If something ACTUALLY exists, then it’s not supernatural…it’s part of reality, even if it’s outside of any part of reality to which we have access or which we will ever understand. Even “magic” or the “divine” would have to follow some set of internal laws…otherwise, they are merely chaos, and can’t be said to do or be anything at all.

  13. Ken Pidcock
    Posted July 13, 2018 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    You gave an awful lot more time to the piece than Shermer did!

  14. Randall Schenck
    Posted July 13, 2018 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    I cannot speak on the issue of conscious but on the other two, science seams to continue with evidence that we have neither.

    Rosenstein announced indictments on 12 more Russians along with details on their criminal activity to mess in our elections. So I guess the witch hunt will continue.

    • Posted July 13, 2018 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      So what exactly qualifies it as a witch hunt then? The phrase comes with acknowledgement that witches aren’t real or at least they are not people with the evil powers that are claimed for them. These 12 indictees, and the ones before them, are considered real criminals, right? Of course, we owe them a fair trial but, if the process evolves as expected by most, they would be convicted. (Of course, they won’t set foot in the US so they are likely to remain free.) So what is it going to take to make it not a witch hunt?

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted July 13, 2018 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

        You understand that my reference to a witch hunt is simply what Trump calls this investigation by Mueller and company and has said so from day one? I would never qualify it as a witch hunt myself. He calls it a witch hunt on a daily bases and even said so yesterday after having been given the information we were given today by Rosenstein.

        • Posted July 13, 2018 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

          My apologies. A “witch hunt” rather than a witch hunt. 😉

          • Randall Schenck
            Posted July 13, 2018 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

            Quite alright. The information included in these indictments today specifically names a day, a date in 2016 when the Russians first hit the DNC and hacked in. It just happened to be the same day that Trump publicly asked the Russians to release the 30,000 Hillary emails. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

          • mikeyc
            Posted July 13, 2018 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

            Well, if you look at the names of those indicted, it definitively looks like a “-vitch hunt”.


  15. Posted July 13, 2018 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Jerry writes:

    “Michael’s claims that we are not inert blobs of matter but are ‘active agents’ and ‘help to determine [the causal net of the universe] through our own choices’ are claims that verge on dualism.

    “I know that Shermer is not a dualist, but this kind of language is deeply confusing. And what, pray tell, are the ‘certain degrees of freedom within constraining systems’? If that is not a nod to dualism — to I-could-have-done-otherwise-ism — I don’t know what is! ‘Degrees of freedom’ certainly implies freedom of agency, which implies that we could have done other than what we did.”

    Since we have many degrees of freedom of action (a point Dennett often brings up), we are behaviorally flexible such that in many cases we have the capacity to behave otherwise in future situations compared to past situations. But such flexibility doesn’t mean or imply that we could have done otherwise in past situations, given determinism (and as we agree any randomness wouldn’t add to our control or responsibility). Nor does the fact that we couldn’t have done otherwise abrogate the fact that we as identifiable persons did it by dint of *our* causal powers – what I’ve come to call agent determinism. So I don’t see that Shermer’s claims about our being active agents with degrees of freedom of action contradicts determinism or smacks of dualism.

    • Posted July 13, 2018 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      The distinction between past and present has nothing to do with the ability to alter the one or the other. The future is as immutable as the past; that’s what “determinism” means. Given a system that operates by a certain set of rules and a complete description of its state at any point in time, all other states at all other times are determined by the rules of the system.

      Of course, we can remember the past but we can’t remember the future. This is not because we can control the future, but because of the entropic arrow of time.

      Just as there is no arrow of space in physics to differentiate between “up” and “down,” there’s no arrow of time, either, to point one towards “past” and “future.” Yet, here on Earth, there clearly is an “up” and “down,” and that’s because we are in close proximity to an overwhelming gravitational field, one produced by the Earth. “Down” points to the center of gravity of the Earth-you system.

      Similarly, we are in close temporal proximity (relatively speaking) to the Big Bang, an event of extraordinarily low entropy. States with lower entropy are therefore identified as the past. The mechanism by which memories get encoded in your brain is overwhelmingly governed by entropy, which is why you can only remember that which has been entropically recorded in your neural configuration.




      • BobTerrace
        Posted July 13, 2018 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

        I wear an entropic recorder on my hip and once in a while I take it out and play a few tunes.

      • Posted July 13, 2018 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

        Yes, determinism has it that there’s a single unique future, but of course as you point out we don’t know what it holds, so we tend to act in ways to bring about the future we want. All of this completely a matter of cause and effect, plus any randomness that might play a role in behavior. Still, since we have the capacity for flexible behavior we might well do otherwise in the future compared to what we did in the past in relevantly similar situations. That is, we can and do learn from our mistakes. But it doesn’t mean that we can do otherwise than what we actually end up doing in the future.

      • Posted July 14, 2018 at 7:35 am | Permalink

        Mutation happens only over time, not at a single time. Instead of asking the nonsense question “is the future [/past] immutable” let’s ask, can a person’s decision now determine or statistically influence a future event? A past one? The answers are both yes. Although obviously, we have a lot more useful practical influence over future events due to thermodynamics.

      • FB
        Posted July 15, 2018 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

        What if real randomness exist?

        Wouldn’t that give us the possibility to change the future randomly?

        For instance: Trump uses a generator of real random numbers to initiate a nuclear war (if he gets a 0) or resign (if he gets a 1).

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted July 15, 2018 at 6:49 pm | Permalink


          What if real randomness exist?

          That paper doesn’t prove that “real randomness” exists – that is already believed to be true when we speak of “quantum randomness” – the paper merely describes a physically achievable setup that GUARANTEES truly random photon measurements. [That is if one accepts John Stewart Bell’s proof that showed either we’ve got it terribly wrong on quantum physics, or Bohr is right & there is indeed no rule on a local level.] – which may** be a first


          Wouldn’t that give us the possibility to change the future randomly? For instance: Trump uses a generator of real random numbers to initiate a nuclear war (if he gets a 0) or resign (if he gets a 1)

          To make it simpler to think about, let us say we fit this perfect RNG to the trigger of a nuclear device & we set it to run once a day. Each time it runs it produces a long & truly random number – if the lowest two digits are 00 it explodes [a 1 in a 100 chance per day].

          The ‘decision’ to link a bomb to an RNG was set back at around the time of the Big Bang [speaking loosely] wasn’t it? The current state of the observable universe & all that’s in, including us apes, was entirely determined by quantum fluctuations back then. How does your argument involving a marginally sentient golfing ape change anything? Is there something special about sentience that allows us to change the dance card in the future?

          ** I say “may” because the cutting edge of cryptography isn’t open source science – it’s at GCHQ, NSA, FSB etc

          • FB
            Posted July 15, 2018 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

            It’s not us that would change the future (you said correctly that the decision to use the RNG was determined in the Big Bang). It’s just that something truly random (random generated digits) would. Isn’t that the case?

            • Michael Fisher
              Posted July 16, 2018 at 12:06 am | Permalink

              I don’t see why it should. What difference would it make if ‘reality’ has always been a perfect RNG? Is there some change in quantum probabilities by introducing a perfect RNG [nuclear trigger] into a subsystem of a perfect RNG [observable universe]?

              I don’t like the many/infinite quantum worlds nor the block universe so I’m prone to exploding brain when I think about this stuff!

              • FB
                Posted July 16, 2018 at 8:24 am | Permalink

                A radical difference, in my opinion. If you generate a truly random chain (nobody has done that in the past of the universe, and, I don’t think there is unanimous consensus about “God plays dice”) the future is no unchangeable any longer: I use that chain for instance to choose strawberry/chocolate depending on if I get more 0s than 1s. Strawberry or chocolate is random, not determined at the Big Bang.

  16. rgsherr
    Posted July 13, 2018 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating comments by Ben Goren. Hope he posts more.

    • Posted July 13, 2018 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, Ben was a regular around here, and then he fell in love. . . .

      I understand, of course, but I’d still urge him to visit us from time to time.

      • BobTerrace
        Posted July 13, 2018 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

        Its the hormones. He had no choice.

        • Posted July 13, 2018 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

          Does anybody?



        • Randall Schenck
          Posted July 13, 2018 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

          After some time, he’ll be back more.

    • Steve Gerrard
      Posted July 13, 2018 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      That was the Ben Goren of an hour ago. He has a different self now, which may not be thinking the same way.

      • Posted July 13, 2018 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

        Good one but “may not” is too weak. I think we can be 100% sure he’s changed.

    • Mark R.
      Posted July 13, 2018 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

      Waiting for his first novel myself…thinking sci-fi-orwellian-cyber-punk. 🙂

  17. Rosmarie Maran
    Posted July 13, 2018 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    If a l l our choices are fully determined, be it that between two flavors of ice cream or that between two professional futures – how comes that there are such huge differences between the amount of “decision energy” needed to make one or the other decision? What is the physical basis for such differences? How do we conceive of choices in the first place when there really are not any?

  18. AC Harper
    Posted July 13, 2018 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    If only people made the effort required to define what they meant by god, free will and consciousness then 90% of the to and fro of debate could be avoided. People spend more time defending their (often weakly defined) hidden meanings than trying to debate the issue.

    For instance if someone said upfront that god/free will/consciousness was a useful fiction you could debate it in those terms (or choose not to). If someone argues that god/free will/consciousness is a concrete ‘thing’ then you can debate how you could prove or disprove that.

    There again Sturgeon’s Law comes to mind:
    “ninety percent of everything is crap”.

  19. Posted July 13, 2018 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    Even if the vanishingly small probability of the existence a dualistic ‘god’ or any other mystical agency was correct then Core Theory allows no way for it to communicate or interact with the physical world. End of story = we just couldn’t know about it. But we could still imagine it…

    And I’m content to consider myself to be a happy meat puppet, feeling that I’m fully conscious.


  20. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted July 13, 2018 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    I agree, but would express it differently.

    This is merely awake experience, a shared trait, similar to dreams. There is no “hard” problem, or “qualia”, that is a philosophic deceit.

    Free will:
    I drag out physicist Brian Cox on the floor as I did yesterday. He agrees with me in an episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage. Cox claims that the LHC experiment shows that there is no soul interactions, or ghost (or presumably afterlife) entities, at everyday temperatures. Presumably he would also agree that this supports the intercessory prayer result of no interaction “listening in”, or that it does away with free will dualism.

    Of course you can always choose of your own free will to model your actions as free will.

    Similarly I drag out the Planck experiment. It shows the universe as a system of all there is. Not only because it is closed for sure, or likely an eternal and infinite multiverse. But because there are no feasible – even less testable – alternatives to its space and time.

    And the new cosmology makes the proportion of putative magic agency of everything – including work – as less than the 1/1000 parts uncertainty it has.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted July 13, 2018 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

      So maybe I meant “a philosophic conceit”.

      Or did I? 😀

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted July 13, 2018 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

      I also think I meant that the cosmological model is complete (rather than suggest it is geometrically “closed”).

  21. Posted July 13, 2018 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    I recently read Schermer’s article in Scientific American and was not perspicacious enough to perceive most of the nuances expressed here. I do so appreciate the knowledge and thought processes of all of you (and, especially, Ben). This current iteration of “self” greatly appreciates the input. I think I’ll take it to the freezer to console it with some Haaggen Dazs

    • Posted July 13, 2018 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

      Don’t you know there’s only one ‘g’ in Haagen? The Dasz are a touchy people, especially when it comes to their national dish.

      • Posted July 13, 2018 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

        Dammit, I misspelled “Dazs”! Now we are both in trouble!

        • Posted July 17, 2018 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

          Wow! And I looked the spelling of the name up before keying it in. So much for the dependability of my brain!

          I’m all for consciousness, assuming it to be a waking state, otherwise I’d be having weird dreams all the time, which I’m prone to whenever I sleep. Not that my mind doesn’t
          mess around with me chronically by interpreting the world for me in unusual ways when I’m supposedly conscious and awake.

          From what I’ve read about the mental processes of human beings, we tend to construct “story lines” from bits and pieces of perceptions and memories that may have little to do with reality and truth. It is,
          however, better than the contrary. At least, we can construct story lines. And, we do so admire individuals with higher than normal intelligence that are superior story catchers and tellers.

          I am still unsettled on the topic of “free will” vs. “determinism”. Of course, “determinism” exists. But, I would still like to believe that individual human beings and groups can choose behaviors and actions based on the perceived “good” for the greater number of us. I would like to think that I
          routinely concern myself with the well being of my fellows and try to add to the “good”.

          In re: God. There’s no concept of God I am aware of that I accept or ascribe to. I will use my faulty brain with its’ faulty consciousness to navigate my being in this world. And, I don’t expect one for “souls” hereafter.

  22. Posted July 13, 2018 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    All that determinism and nowhere to go but where it goes, all the while feeling as if i chose and to know i didn’t. We i think have human domain choices and that is real for our purpose and the illusion of.

  23. Posted July 13, 2018 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    My two cents. Science will, eventually, explain consciousness and free will, or the lack thereof. God, as defined by fables in holy books, is already disproved. As for God defined so vaguely as to be beyond science, who cares?

    • nicky
      Posted July 14, 2018 at 5:05 am | Permalink

      I agree, the God problem is imminently ‘solvable’ if we consider it for what it is: a construct within our brains. With further knowledge of how our brains work, it should be ‘Kinderspiel’.

  24. FB
    Posted July 13, 2018 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    “Degrees of freedom” certainly implies freedom of agency.

    That depends on what we mean by “freedom”. Freedom doesn’t exist in a deterministic universe. Only intelligence exists, but they’re the same thing. More intelligence gives you more options and the capacity to choose the best option: that is more “freedom”.

    A superintelligence will know all the possible options and will know which option to choose every time: that’s absolute “freedom”, indistinguishable from real absolute freedom (that doesn’t exist, like God, or a perfectly circular square).

    Then, you can have a deterministic universe — where freedom doesn’t exist — and a being that’s absolutely “free”.

    • FB
      Posted July 13, 2018 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

      Absolute freedom can exist only in a deterministic universe —-where freedom can not exist at all.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted July 13, 2018 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

      You are using “freedom” in two different ways & it’s confusing. I blame Dennett for this!

      There’s the traditional use of the term “Degrees of Freedom” which simply sketches out the landscape [or phase space or number of dimensions] of states available to a mechanical or chemical or mathematical system – such as a robot [or organic] arm with a mixture of joints that can individually & independently bend or rotate. Then there’s a statistical sense of the phrase where we are enumerating the values that can vary independently.

      If we changed “degrees of freedom” to “degrees of movement” or the “manifold of all possible states” [avoiding the use of “free” as a word] then your comment above begins to make more sense. At the moment it’s fairly incomprehensible!

      For example what the devil does this mean?:-

      Then, you can have a deterministic universe — where freedom doesn’t exist — and a being that’s absolutely “free”

      ” It’s cobblers.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted July 13, 2018 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

        Upon rereading what I wrote – that’s harsh! I am sorry for my bad manners.

      • FB
        Posted July 14, 2018 at 8:44 am | Permalink

        Imagine two scenarios:

        Free will is real: we create AI that programs itself to have free will and to be the most intelligent agent in the universe. This AI will be the freest agent in the universe: it will know all the options and all the consequences at every moment.

        Free will is nonsense: we create AI that programs itself to be the most intelligent agent in the universe. This AI will be the freest agent in the universe: it will know all the options and all the consequences at every moment.

        They’re identical. Only intelligence counts.

        No freedom at all and maximum freedom at the same time.

        Freedom outside the universe makes no sense. Or freedom in the region between universes in the multiverse. Or in a non-deterministic universe.

        But I’m probably wrong.

        • Posted July 14, 2018 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

          No, you are right! The freedom we and the super AI experience operates at a different level.

      • Posted July 14, 2018 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

        Degrees of freedom = dimensionality of a space.

  25. Evgeny Brud
    Posted July 14, 2018 at 1:26 am | Permalink

    I can’t really make out how “final mysterianism” differs in any respect to what was called “new mysterianism”. Both of these -isms claim that there are limits to human cognition and speculate that some major philosophical problems demand more than our mental capacities could ever produce. Is there some additional claim that marks a mystery as final?

    Perhaps Shermer is distinguishing between mysteries that are species-specific, and those that would bedevil organisms of any genetic constitution. I bet free will and consciousness are in the “species-specific” category, while a question like “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is in the category of universal mystery.

    There is at least a hopeful future for the solution of species-specific mysteries. After all, cognitive abilities are subject to mutation and evolutionary processes just like other traits. It is anyone’s guess how many mutations away the human species is to producing a member with the right neural wiring to understand free will in a satisfying way. Let’s hope random drift will give that lineage a break!

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted July 14, 2018 at 1:35 am | Permalink

      Can’t consciousness & free will be bad questions/ poor concepts rather than a ‘mystery’ beyond our ken?

      • Evgeny Brud
        Posted July 14, 2018 at 1:42 am | Permalink

        Is free will really that bad of a question? The basic aspects are: (1) Does there exist any type of process in the world fundamentally different from determinism or randomness? and (2) Is that type of novel physical process instantiated in the brain?

        To charge that the first question is incoherent, which may seem like a tempting move, would only amount to begging the question.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted July 14, 2018 at 2:16 am | Permalink

          YOU suggested in your initial comment that there may be a shortfall of cognition in us humanz that puts a full understanding of ‘free will’ beyond our grasp. I think that is not worth considering until YOU [or someone] defines “free will” in a meaningful manner. It is not defined enough to investigate: We have no way of re-running the universe to see if the conscious agent Marc Bolan could have missed that tree at a second attempt! It’s as fluffy & useless as philosophic rambling about a multiverse.

          The same applies to “consciousness” it’s such a woolly concept that we don’t have a detector, a meter nor a scale with which to measure it. The so-called “hard problem” of consciousness is NOT explaining it – it’s defining it.

          PS look up “begging the question”. Please. 🙂

          • Evgeny Brud
            Posted July 14, 2018 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

            I agree about the impossibility of investigating free will and consciousness. I bet it’s not gonna happen until thousands of generations in the future. I realize there is no good positive contribution to working out what free will is exactly, or even sketching some non-trivial framework. But I think the negative approach works well enough to suggest the problem, if not point to a solution: whatever free will is, it ain’t determinism or stochasticity. It’s that feeling you get of selecting your actions, coupled with the strong feeling that you really could have acted otherwise (even if all the atoms were to be arranged identically prior to the action).

            By begging the question, I meant that one might argue the following:

            (1) If free will were to exist, it would something in addition to determinism and indeterminism.
            (2) Determinism and indeterminism exhaust the possibilities, so that there could be no additional kind of physical process.

            Conclusion: Free will does not exist.

            Doesn’t the validity of this argument depend on the conclusion being true? #2 is problematic. It’s no different from the conclusion, really.

      • Posted July 14, 2018 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

        This is certainly the case with consciousness. It is hard to see what form an acceptable answer might take to those who see it as a “hard problem”. I think this is what has caused others to focus instead on the neural correlates of consciousness. If we knew more about consciousness’s lower level mechanisms, we would see where to go next. Perhaps we would see that the “hard problem” is a sort of non-problem because one can never have the perspective that would provide a satisfactory answer.

  26. Dale Franzwa
    Posted July 14, 2018 at 3:34 am | Permalink

    I live in a society. I don’t live as a cog in a machine. If I were a cog in a machine, I couldn’t make a decision, cogs don’t have choices, cogs don’t make decisions.

    I live in a society which presumes I can make decisions. If I make a bad decision, I can be blamed for it. If I make a good decision, I can be praised for it. Most of my decisions elicit neither praise nor blame.

    Machines and societies are different models. I object to taking one model(the machine)and imposing it on the other model (society) in order to conclude that I can’t be held responsible for the choices I make in a society model. Not a useful path to go down.

    I’ll make some exceptions to the above: an insane person is more like a cog in a machine, a child under a certain age is excused from some responsibility for its decisions under the law, etc.

    • peepuk
      Posted July 14, 2018 at 7:35 am | Permalink

      I feel I have A then I have A?

      Likewise, if all humans feel they have A then all humans have A?

      “in order to conclude that I can’t be held responsible for the choices I make”

      That’s a misunderstanding. If you have the flu you are still responsible for giving others the flu. It’s perfectly permissible to stop you from infecting others, whether you believe in Free Will or not.

    • Posted July 14, 2018 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      I like this point of view. The ability to make choices that matter to society is important even if we’re all running on top of an underlying machine. The justification for reducing the punishment of children or the mentally ill must be found elsewhere, probably base on a lack of control but not at the machine level where we all lack control.

      • Posted July 14, 2018 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

        You don’t punish those people. I rather say you take them out of society to protect themselves and other people. But that is my view in dealing with all criminals. Behavior can’t be ignored just because there was no choice. You have to provide other choices and other options and hope those become the inevitable decisions made. Exposure is everything.

  27. nicky
    Posted July 14, 2018 at 5:13 am | Permalink

    I don’t see the problem of ‘free will’ as unsolvable either. There is no such thing. However, there are so many levels between molecules and our bodies and minds, that it appears virtually impossible to -at least with our present knowledge- actually determine the actual pathway of a particular action. Nearly an ’emergent’ property, as it were.
    So we use ‘free will’ freely in daily life, although we have to keep in the backs of our minds it actually is an illusion.

  28. Posted July 14, 2018 at 5:50 am | Permalink

    Shermer writes “the [determinism and free will] problem is framed to be conceptually impenetrable.”

    Yes, but that makes it solvable, not mysterian. For the frame is demonstrably wrong: it uses ideas of determinism, causality, and time that predate Einsteinian physics. Predate even Newtonian physics, when it comes to causality, as Sean Carroll points out. Causal laws don’t “make” things behave; they simply describe events. Determinism isn’t a problem – for free will or anything else – as long as you don’t use the wrong physics.

    • peepuk
      Posted July 14, 2018 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      Above we came to the opposite conclusion; there is nothing at the fundamental physical level that gives us Free Will, are they wrong?

      Sean Carrol more or less agrees with hard-determinist’s on the physics side (see Big Picture page 383).

      On the free will side Sean Carroll writes the same disappointing unjustified stuff as others, but at least he is a bit less ambiguous than most; he is a very good explainer.

      Two examples from the Bug Picture:

      “There is also no question that other decisions are essentially conscious ones”

      There is (heavily debated) evidence that our conscious mind isn’t the decider but more like the PR-agent. This is an important question, and an important debate in neuroscience and psychology.

      “How can we assign credit or blame if people don’t choose their own actions? Poetic naturalists and other compatibilists don’t need to face up to these questions, since they accept the reality of human volition and therefore have no difficulty in attributing responsibility or blame”

      Punishing and blaming people is justified because we want it, and because we are good at it? It doesn’t matter that people don’t choose their own actions?

      In my opinion we need to face up to these matters, because it justifies a lot of unnecessary suffering (incarceration, death penalty).

      Weaseling out of our responsibility like Sean Carrol does, doesn’t make the world a better place.

      • peepuk
        Posted July 14, 2018 at 10:18 am | Permalink

        Freudian typo: The Big Picture

      • Posted July 14, 2018 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

        Many concepts in society can’t be ultimately traced to the underlying physics in any meaningful way. Punishing and blame can be justified as necessary to an orderly society given human biology and nature. I find the determinism-means-no-free-will argument as unnecessary and immaterial to justify making our punishment and blame practices more humane. The argument that we need determinism-means-no-free-will in order to avoid unnecessary suffering is a lot like the argument that we need God as a basis for our morality. Respectfully, I think both are hogwash.

      • Posted July 14, 2018 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

        Sean Carroll knows more than he’s telling about causality and free will, which is unfortunate, because if anyone can explain the physics, he can. But you’re misreading his statement in the second quote – the emphasis should be on “they [including SC] accept the reality of human volition”.

    • Evgeny Brud
      Posted July 14, 2018 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      Yep, the incompatibility between physics and free will goes poof once the Cartesian conception of matter is thrown out and nothing else definite is put in its place. And that’s exactly what happened. Physicists long ago dropped “contact mechanics” (Chomsky’s phrase) and in doing finalized the split between intuition and reality. Math filled the hole that was left. The best we can hope for is the evolution of the human brain along lines that can grasp the right kind of physics needed to understand something non-trivial about free will and consciousness.

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