“This American Life” on NPR covers (and denies the existence of) free will

NPR aired a two-part segment, “Where there is a will”, but the second part is about free will, and is hosted by producer David Kestenbaum, who rejects the idea of free will. He interviews two scientists (see below), both of whom also reject free will: Robert Sapolsky and Melissa Franklin.

Note that none of the participants embrace a “compatibilist” version of free will. As with most people, everyone conceives of free will as libertarian “you-could-have-done-otherwise” free will. As Sam Harris noted, this is because we really feel that we have that kind of dualistic agency, and that’s the only reason that libertarian free will is worth talking about. Compatibilist free will is seen as “free will” almost exclusively by philosophers.

Have a listen to this 14-minute segment (click on screenshot) and hear Sapolsky finally come clean as a hard determinist.

Reader David called my attention to this segment, and rather than summarize the piece, let me just append David’s take (indented):

The episode is up now. I listened to it live on Saturday, but free will was discussed only in the last 15 minutes (the rest is on Newt Gingrich, giving him credit/blame for today’s political discourse). Fortunately, they have it broken out into acts 1 and 2 so you can just listen to the free will segment. I thought it was very well done and it’s great to see this discussed in a mainstream forum. [JAC: Agreed!]

Here are my brief notes…

David Kestenbaum did the segment (I didn’t realize he has a Harvard physics PhD)

  • David has been thinking about (lack of) free will for a while but finally got the courage to discuss it on the show
  • Explains 4 forces of physical universe that control everything
  • They leave no room for “free will”

Interviews Robert Sapolsky, Stanford neuroscientist

  • Goal of book “Behave” was to gently lead people to conclude there’s no free will
  • Implications: don’t be so proud, don’t hate people for doing bad things, rethink our criminal justice system
  • Sapolsky says this is all he thinks about these days

Interviews Melissa Franklin, Harvard physics professor

  • No evidence for free will, it’s very unlikely
  • People hoping for magic or God

71 Comments

  1. Posted November 20, 2018 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Regarding the gentleman’s statement that “Explains 4 forces of physical universe that control everything.” If they do (and I think they do) and one’s thinking stops at some point, there is no room for free will or consciousness or love and much of anything outside of physical phenomena. I believe the jury is still out on free will because we do not yet know how we make decisions, so how can we conclude that “we could have decided otherwise”? I prefer Sean Carroll’s (another physicist)take on free will (and much else) in his book “The Big Picture.”

    • Posted November 20, 2018 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      Unless you don’t accept the laws of physics, the only kind of free will we can have is one compatible with the laws of physics, which denies us dualistic agency. Carroll is in fact a strict determinist, and his version of free will is compatibilist: “the free will that we use as shorthand for feeling like agents although we really obey the laws of physics.”

      • Posted November 21, 2018 at 5:18 am | Permalink

        I dont know why Sapolsky would want to “gently lead” us there. Presumably he has picked the most efficient path to the inevitbale acceptance or non-acceptance of the thesis?

    • David Aylesworth
      Posted November 20, 2018 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

      There’s still room for consciousness and love, which appear to be emergent by-products of complex neural networks and are consistent with the laws of physics. Dualistic free will implies causality that violates the laws of physics.

    • Posted November 20, 2018 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

      But the most likely guess would be that we couldn’t. Saying there could be free will because we don’t understand every single detail of the decision making process is like a god of the gaps fallacy.

      -Ryan

  2. Posted November 20, 2018 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    I agree that we should not hate peoples who do bad things. But they still have to be taken out of society. Mainly to protect people in society.
    Rethinking our criminal justice system does not mean not dealing with people who break the law. We will still have to have trials to determine the facts of what happened. The difference will be in our attitude toward the people found by a jury to have broken the law. That means to stop using the word punishment and uses terms like protection of society. We will not impose sentences to punish but for other reasons.

    • Posted November 21, 2018 at 5:07 am | Permalink

      No, you still have to do the punishment thing. Even if people’s decisions are completely deterministic on the physical level, the emergent behaviour is far too complex for us to be able to predict it.

      People’s decisions are determined by their environment and experience and other factors like genetics, but their environment and experience include such things as knowing what the consequences will be for breaking the law. If the laws says “you will go to prison for stealing stuff” this fact will inform a person’s decision about whether they are going to steal stuff. So would not keeping the promise to punish them when they are caught.

      • Posted November 21, 2018 at 7:52 am | Permalink

        I agree that people who break the law should be put in prison. Never meant to imply anything else.

        • Posted November 21, 2018 at 9:29 am | Permalink

          You seemed to be claiming that the only focus or the main focus will be to protect society. This is a legitimate reason for incarcerating miscreants, but deterrence – both of the offender and other potential offenders – should be considered and so should rehabilitation.

          • Posted November 21, 2018 at 9:54 am | Permalink

            No, my last sentence said we would put people in jail
            “for other reasons”
            That was plural.
            My third sentence said “mainly”, not only.

            I never implied that taking people out of society was the only reason people should be put on prison.

            You are misreading my comment.

            I chose not to fully discuss my theory and opinion of the criminal justice system in full. If I do that it will be on my own blog, not on someone else’s where the topic is free will. Sorry if that sounded snarky or blunt but that is the only way I know to say it.

      • Posted November 21, 2018 at 11:30 am | Permalink

        Assuming consequentialism, the above is only true if specifically punishment meets the goals. It is conceivable that there are other ways. In my view, in the limit one prevents more and more likely causes of antisocial behaviour before it happens. This can include focusing of some of the “energy of the would be criminal” somewhere constructive.

  3. mikeb
    Posted November 20, 2018 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    I have come to adore R. Sapolsky. I wish they had talked to him more during the interview.

    On the issue of the “scariness” of lack of free will:

    The knowledge of there not being free will; the knowledge of how our “choices” are the outcomes of mechanical effects. . . . that should only serve to enhance our existence–and our “choices”–as it feeds back into our thinking/being apparatus.

    • rickflick
      Posted November 20, 2018 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

      Yes, the human mind is a curious thing, feeding back on itself, reflecting on past experience and projecting into the future. “Choices” become complex but all the many thought loops are also determined – so we are in the same deterministic position as a simple flatworm “deciding” to go left instead of right.

  4. David W.
    Posted November 20, 2018 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    If someone has the capacity to learn and modify their previously criminal behavior, that’s enough for me as far as justice is concerned.

  5. Blue
    Posted November 20, 2018 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Oooo, I concur with all three / Dr Coyne’s
    notes on ’em all. Save for one. I, without
    free will o’course, am gonna … … hate.

    For the most part, I cannot ‘help’ it; and,
    as Dr Coyne has pointed out some several times before, folks can be influenced.
    Can be influenced by others’ counsel
    to possibly do differently than
    they would ‘ve otherwise.

    But, for now and for certain persons
    ( not all, just certain ones ) who ‘ve done bad things, I am gonna continue, until
    that ‘influencing’ onto me includes the only kind of apology that there actually .is.,
    a genuine one which has to it the caveat of
    amends with never ever a continuation of
    the wrong, then I have no course but
    to continue on with the loathing that
    I happen, now, to within contain.

    Good post.

    Blue

  6. mfdempsey1946
    Posted November 20, 2018 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    For quite a while, mainly because of discussions on this website, I have been grappling with the non-existence of free will, a concept that totally undermines everything I was raised to believe from birth.

    Maybe what I want to offer in this post will be No Free Will 101 to people whose understanding of what this entails is far more sophisticated than mine is or will ever be. But, for whatever it is worth, this has been my path to date:

    When I was growing up Catholic from 1946 throughout the 1960s (including all four years of high school and the first two of college studying for the Catholic priesthood), priests or whoever else who tried to explain God to kids would say that God is “All” [insert good quality]. As in All-Loving, All-Just…and the big one: All-Knowing.

    What can All-Knowing possibly mean?

    That God has known absolutely everything about the entire lives of every single human who ever has been and ever will be born since…always…

    Which means that all humans receive a script at birth — could be anything from “Hamlet” or “Citizen Kane”, “My Mother, The Car” or “Plan 9 From Outer Space”, or anything in between. We have no say. Superhero or tragic prince, captain of industry or utter doofus, we must follow our assigned script word for word, letter for letter, detail for detail — no improvisation whatsoever allowed.

    This Catholic dogma annihilates the concept of free will as surely as scientific discoveries have.

    Yet Catholicism continues to preach that free will is a reality that makes us entirely responsible for, among other things, any mortal sins for which we have not repented before death, sins that will consign us to hell for eternity. These sins and this fate are entirely our fault because we freely chose them

    This set of beliefs contradicts the concept of an All-Knowing God as surely as belief in free will contradicts the findings of science.

    The difference is that science accepts the reality of the contradiction and acts accordingly. Catholicism and religion in general pretend that the contradiction does not exist.

    The outcome is the same for both groups, except that one lives in delusion and the other does not. But, either way, free will cannot survive — regardless of what anybody feels.

    This is as far as my thinking takes me. Anything that can help me better chop my way further through this jungle, like this surprising NPR broadcast, is always welcome.

    • Posted November 20, 2018 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

      I much appreciate your thought process here. Wish I had something useful to ad. I am still in the quagmire trying to find solid ground.

    • rickflick
      Posted November 20, 2018 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

      I agree, the notion of an all [*] God does rule out free will. Though the priests will not admit that. It would make controlling people through the threat of damnation difficult.
      One point you did not mention, though you may have considered this, that religion posits the soul as a byproduct of free will. Your “self” is separate from the brain, a ghost in the machine. Religion makes a weapon of the soul and uses it to manage people. The realization that your self is a software process running on a physical brain-as-computer dissolves all the abuse.

    • Kosmos
      Posted November 21, 2018 at 4:14 am | Permalink

      I don’t know if an all-knowing God necessarily makes free will impossible. Unlike Laplace’s demon who knows the future based on the current state of the universe one could say that God knows the future because God can see the future. God sees you make certain decisions in the future but you made them by free will.

      That being said I find both God and free will in the libertarian sense to be incoherent concepts.

  7. Expedition into the Unknown
    Posted November 20, 2018 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    I believe in free will but I also believe that an unknown unseeable force that guides us and pushes in places that might not be where we want to be but rather to where you need to be. In these confusing times were almost everything around us is designed to get our attention and persuade us to follow someone or something just for profit or power, It is everyone’s responsibility to question authority and ask the hard question’s of is this what I want and is this the right thing that is in itself free will

  8. dd
    Posted November 20, 2018 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand the free will debate. So, to make it concrete:

    Did Mao and Hitler have to murder millions? Should punishment follow?

    Or let’s say free will exists, or does not exist, So what in the face of that Mao/Hitler question?

    • Posted November 20, 2018 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

      It was inevitable that Mao and Hitler murdered millions given their genes and environments and the laws of physics. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be punished. Punishment is absolutely compatible with hard determinism because it deters people, sequesters bad people, and can help reform bad people. I have written about this many times on this site.

      • mikeb
        Posted November 20, 2018 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

        I believe Sapolsky uses the analogy of a car with a dysfunction, bad brakes or something, and how it must be removed from the road to prevent harm to other drivers. Similarly, dangerous people–no matter how “programmed” by genes they are–should be removed from society.

        • David Aylesworth
          Posted November 20, 2018 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

          I really like Sapolsky’s broken car analogy and, by extension, that when we don’t we don’t understand a car’s dysfunction, we never attribute it to “evil”, as some do with humans.

      • Posted November 21, 2018 at 5:20 am | Permalink

        It only deters some people. And denying freewill blurs the distinction between those people.Its unclear what is gained by blurring this distinction

      • GregWW
        Posted November 21, 2018 at 9:53 am | Permalink

        Amazing that these topics should come up on NPR! It led me to your site also—good.
        One of the implications of Kestenbaum’s physics based position is that BIOLOGY is also nonsense, a waste of time because all there is is physics. So its not just Free Will that’s in trouble.
        But Biology and Evolutionary Theory are the Science of the Complex! Living things are complex in that they forestall the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

        Biologist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel Dennett have written extensively on this. Dennett is a compatibilist and argues:
        Yes, from a physics POINT OF VIEW, there is no Freedom; but from a Person Point of View (and scientists are persons!) we must Take Ourselves To Be Free.
        What makes These Dual P.O.V. possible is that neither are complete or can become complete. So the Best Possible Approach is just to see how the two domains fit together, divide up the world as both free and necessary, make sense of what we know now in the modern world as scientists and persons who Act. Once, it made sense to think God existed (“God” is a remnant of the Personal Domain), now it doesn’t. (or at least this is what I think Dennett is saying!?!)

        P

        • Posted November 21, 2018 at 10:33 am | Permalink

          If you want to add your real name to your website, I’ll publicize it, but as per the Roolz I don’t publicize other people’s websites if they write without using their entire name.

        • Posted November 21, 2018 at 11:33 am | Permalink

          Living things do not “forestall” the 2LoT. They are “just” a variety of *open* systems (or perhaps, at least on earth, one such system as a whole).

    • Posted November 20, 2018 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

      Punishment should have preceded, not followed. Hitler, at least, left no doubt about what he planned to do. A well-placed assassin’s bullet would have saved the world a lot of misery.

      • Richard benton
        Posted November 20, 2018 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

        It’s very important to remember none of these men acted alone it was a collective effort that’s scary it’s easy to say kill Hitler others would have taken his place let’s please get it right we can’t improve things if we don’t see the whole enchilada

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted November 20, 2018 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

          “it’s easy to say kill Hitler, others would have taken his place”

          Not necessarily. Admittedly Hitler could not have brought about the war and the persecution of communists, gypsies, jews and others, single-handed out of nothing. In less desperate times he would just have been an idiot ranting on the far Right.

          BUT, even in post-WW1 Germany, if Hitler was gone, would any of the others have had the charisma, the single-mindedness, the ruthlessness, to achieve what Hitler did? Very possibly not.

          cr

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted November 20, 2018 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

            Oh, and, in respect of Hitler, the messianic vision. That was essential. Mustn’t forget that.

            cr

          • Posted November 20, 2018 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

            I agree. I don’t believe the extreme persecution of minority groups would have occurred without Hitler. He had extreme views resulting from his u inquest experiences. There was a nationalist party not yet with the Nazi name. They recruited Hitler because of his speaking ability as a recruitment tool. They thought they could control him. They were wrong.

            • Posted November 20, 2018 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

              unique experiences . . .

          • Richard benton
            Posted November 20, 2018 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

            I think on that you are dangerously wrong please reconsider the uniqueness of Hitler I was told by a German electrician Wally at school district 21 in wheeling that Hitler did a lot of good for the German people Why did he believe Hitler did it?It is a mystery to me how such social constructs arise but they do and have done so throughout history The eugenic racial theories originated here in the us read the war against the weak that only broadens the sorrow of collective quilt many in the us admired Hitler no you are wrong I submit

            • Richard benton
              Posted November 20, 2018 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

              Der sturmer not Hitler speeches

              • Richard benton
                Posted November 20, 2018 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

                There was a period when he was reduced to a right nut and then the depression worsened

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted November 21, 2018 at 5:34 am | Permalink

              From all accounts Hitler had very considerable charisma, and certainly in his early years he appeared to be a ray of hope for German revival from the social chaos and misery that followed their defeat in World War 1.

              I don’t think I’m wrong but if I am, I don’t see how my view is ‘dangerous’.

              (Hitler’s abilities, though, made him even more dangerous and it’s a pity he didn’t get run over by a truck in the mid-30’s).

              cr

              • Richard benton
                Posted November 21, 2018 at 6:29 am | Permalink

                That is s good reply my use of the word dangerous was wrong I apologize

              • Richard benton
                Posted November 21, 2018 at 6:39 am | Permalink

                He was seen broadly as a ray of hope as in the messianic quality you rightly alluded to he was relegated to tin foil hat area for a while and the normals in Germany almost forgot him completely and then the world economic crisis worsened I saw this recently on tv but I don’t remember where I meant dangerous in the sense of not learning from our mistakes which I am quite sure you are capable of probably better than I am and I need to learn from you

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted November 21, 2018 at 8:12 am | Permalink

                Hi Richard

                No need to apologise. I thought that maybe you thought I was approving of Hitler (which I certainly don’t do). But I see you meant ‘dangerous’ in a different sense.

                cr

              • Posted November 21, 2018 at 10:55 am | Permalink

                Even without first-person accounts of Hitler’s charisma I think we can safely conclude from history that he was able to convince a lot of people of his agenda (the public part anyway) and ability to “save” Germany.

  9. Posted November 20, 2018 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    Sapolsky describes a process where we take some phenomenon and describe it at lower and lower levels until we get to fundamental physics. If we apply such a process to free will, or some decision we just made, we can turn it into particle interactions, at least theoretically. We can apply this process to consciousness or translating Chinese to English (Searle’s Chinese Room). We can dissolve the beauty of a rainbow or a David Bowie song the same way. Perhaps it is an interesting thought process in its own right but it really doesn’t tell us much that is useful about the concept being dissolved. Our ability to make decisions does exist but, like everything else, we can make it disappear using this reductive process.

    We may not have the kind of free will that determinism eliminates but our common sense tells that it is still meaningful to make decisions. No one, no matter how much they believe that we lack free will, stops making decisions because of it. There is still something left that, for lack of a better term, is “free will”.

    I believe this is similar to Sean Carrol’s view on free will.

    • sang1ee
      Posted November 20, 2018 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

      I have never heard Sapolsky reduce reality to particles, although he must concede that’s where his thinking leads if pushed. He seems very bio-centric in all his reasoning about the non-existence of free will, and I think his approach is right in trying to grapple with human behavior. I personally don’t know how to judge the relevance of descriptions that seem best confined to different orders of phenomena, or what it really means to say one is more right or true than another.

    • Posted November 20, 2018 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

      But it isn’t free. Why not use the term “will” instead?

      -Ryan

  10. richard Benton
    Posted November 20, 2018 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    I have concluded that all claims to liberty and freedom are delusional. We are not free from the law of gravity, the need to breath, to eat. We don’t control consciously most of our life support functions. In our lives everything we do involves moving from one point on the face of the earth to another. It seems the equality for all is structurally impossible. We need to think about basic common realities about our everyday life

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted November 20, 2018 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

      But “Freedom” does make a great slogan, doesn’t it?

      I agree that ‘freedom’ carries an almost infinite number of shades of meaning. A bit like ‘truth’ in that regard. Highly relative and subject to context.

      But “We are fighting for a modest improvement in the choices available to us” doesn’t really have that ring to it, even though that modest improvement may be all that is needed to make our lives more pleasant.

      “In our lives everything we do involves moving from one point on the face of the earth to another.”
      – agreed, unless one wants to be a vegetable. And in order to move in comfort and at an interesting speed, one is dependent on thousands of other people – to manufacture the car, make the roads and staff the gas stations and shops.

      In the words of the Eagles –
      And freedom, ah freedom, that’s just some people talkin’
      Your prison is walkin’ through the world all alone

      cr

      • Posted November 21, 2018 at 11:36 am | Permalink

        Personally, as I have become more and more a denier of metaphysical free will (including compatibilism) I have become *more* of a libertarian (sense of Europe, *not* US) politically.

  11. Dionigi
    Posted November 20, 2018 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    I really wanted to listen to the talk but in the end decided not to.

  12. Otternaut
    Posted November 20, 2018 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    Read “The Dice Man” by Luke Rhinehart. If you can choose to roll the dice I believe you can exercise free will.

  13. Kosmos
    Posted November 21, 2018 at 5:02 am | Permalink

    I used to consider myself a hard incompatibilist but I think I can hereby announce my conversion to compatibilism. Now where’s my silly hat?

    I nowadays find it too eliminative to say that we don’t really make decisions, like they did in the NPR segment. I have at times had feelings of fatalism but I have now internalized that we have almost all the capacities that we always thought we had. I want to view the cup as half-full and promote our agency. In the words of Daniel Dennett, who I used to criticize on this subject; we have the free will worth having.

    I still find some tension when it comes to certain emotional responses, like anxiety. But emotions are evolved heuristics that have utility and if we want the positive ones I guess we have to accept the “bad” ones as well. But I can dampen feelings of anxiety by reminding myself that we are part of the physical evolution of the universe and fundamentally don’t even exist.

  14. Posted November 21, 2018 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    Because spacetime is complete and the past present and future are places along the time dimension – they all exist in eternity – there is no free will. But physicists surely DO observe that events are linked by causality. The broken cup on the floor is caused by the dropping of the cup. If you want to explore more elaborate cause-and-effect scenarios like the pursuit of Hitler, the same logic applies. So the KOAN of human existence is how the future can be fixed and causality can rule: the answer, determinism, is that we are doing what we must in a physical sense, but that our actions have consequences and our anticipation of these consequences shapes our actions. Just because the future is inevitable, this does not change how we live our present.

    • rickflick
      Posted November 21, 2018 at 9:10 am | Permalink

      If our ability to see the future was perfect, it would spoil the fun.

    • Cicely Berglund
      Posted November 21, 2018 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      Have you encountered Nagarjuna’s writings? A first century Indian Buddhist pundit and superb logician. There are extensive mind twisting arguments about causality, self, emptiness etc. Root Stanzas on the Middle Way. Mulamadhyamaka-karikas. Good translations and commentaries thru the Tibetan tradition.
      And of course easily available thru Amazon.

    • Posted November 21, 2018 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      Even if we still find a place in our thinking for causation, determinism does change what causation means. I think the same kind of transformation applies to free will. We still have a place for free will but for those with knowledge of fundamental physics it changes how we view it.

  15. Posted November 21, 2018 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    I don’t have a problem with the idea that we have no free will. It seems reasonable to me that what we do is determined by the laws of physics which have dictated the outcomes of gazillions of interactions between particles going back to the dawn of time. What I struggle with however, is how this is deemed to be particularly relevant to criminal justice.

    I understand that a criminal who has committed what we may describe as a heinous crime could not in fact have operated differently and so it makes no sense (in the context of a discussion of free-will/no free will) to consider his act as a voluntary act of evil but when it comes to using this insight to guide our decision as to how to treat the criminal, the government, judge, jury, prosecuting lawyer, defence etc, etc are all just as much compelled by the laws of physics as the criminal. If they decide to go for retribution (or whatever other sentencing strategy) the argument must surely be that they could have done nothing other than that?

    The no free will argument as applied to criminal justice is usually used to argue against a retributional aspect to sentencing in favour of an approach that seeks instead to use incarceration simply as a tool to (a) protect the public from dangerous people and (b) provide a disincentive to criminal behaviour and an approach that seeks to rehabilitate criminals where possible. It is likely also coupled with implementing social policies aimed at preventing crime (e.g. alleviation of poverty and alienation, rehab programmes for drug addicts, education and so on). These are all things that I would agree are desirable but I think that they can all be supported without resort to consideration of whether or not we have free will.

    If we just stay within our day-to-day (illusory) sense that we have free will we can still conclude – for example – that capital punishment is undesirable (e.g. evidence that it is a poor disincentive given that murders and other serious crimes still occur in states where the death penalty exists; evidence of a significant number of miscarriages of justice coming to light after an execution has already been carried out, etc) and we can still recognise that aspects of a person’s background, upbringing and life experience may make him (or her) likely to fall into crime and take steps to try and eliminate such factors from society as much as possible. I would also suggest that many of the elements of the ‘no-free will’ approach to justice can only be effective given the fact that we do have the illusion of a sense of free will – the disincentive, for example, only makes sense if the criminal has the (illusory)belief that he can choose whether or not to hold up a gas station and if his decision is influencable by the criminal justice policies of the country.

    Am I missing something?

    • Posted November 21, 2018 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      There are, as far as I can tell, a large number of people who do seem to want *revenge* out of the justice system, “because he deserves it”, etc.

    • Posted November 21, 2018 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      I agree 100%. As you say, the arguments for criminal justice reform work regardless of any consideration of our lack of free will as defined by the incompatibilists.

      If the incompatibilists’ thesis is to be believed, there are no voluntary acts by anyone, not just the criminals. If there are no voluntary acts, then there are no arguments and no one can really be convinced of anything. We may think we are making decisions but it only seems that way to us. If we view all the implications of this thesis, life as we know it ceases to exist. If we accept determinism, we are going to need a more practical point of view with respect to decision-making, free will, and causation in order to live our lives normally.

      It should be noted that the incompatibilists should reach the same conclusion even if the universe is not deterministic. If fundamental physics introduces a random or statistical element to how the universe unfolds, it still means we don’t have free will. We still don’t have the one thing that would give us their kind of free will: a personal ability to determine our future.

      My view as a compatibilist, though I don’t like the term, is that free will, decision-making, consciousness, etc. are just how we experience the evolution of the universe, whether deterministic or not.

      • Posted November 23, 2018 at 11:28 am | Permalink

        Why are there no arguments?

        • Posted November 23, 2018 at 11:34 am | Permalink

          My point was that if all our decisions are preordained, then nothing we do is our fault. The free will deniers (aka incompatibilists) seem to be applying their conclusions only to decisions that criminals make. Based on their thinking, if I argue with someone in order to change their mind, it is a hopeless activity because that person’s thoughts are already determined.

    • Simon Cranshaw
      Posted December 1, 2018 at 7:14 am | Permalink

      I don’t understand this line of reasoning at all.. if there is no free will then there is no “should” regarding the criminal justice system, is there? The criminals inevitably do what they do and the justice system as inevitably does whatever it does. If there’s no free will then no one can change anything..

      • Posted December 1, 2018 at 7:16 am | Permalink

        This exemplifies one of the great misconceptions about determinism: that nobody can ever change anything. But that’s bogus. If you have a friendly dog, try kicking it when it comes to you and see what happens. Your actions will change its behavior. Likewise, telling people to reform the criminal justice system might lead them to make efforts in that direction.

        Now of course our urging people to kick dogs or reform the justice system is not something we can freely choose to do, and could have done otherwise, but saying that “no efforts can change anything” is just wrong.

        • Simon Cranshaw
          Posted December 1, 2018 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

          Thank you for your reply but I don’t understand.. When you say, “try kicking”, isn’t that only possible with free will?

          • Posted December 2, 2018 at 4:18 am | Permalink

            Nope. It’s a suggestion that might change people’s brains so they will kick a dog and see that the dog, which was friendly, becomes afraid. You don’t have free will to make the suggestion, but if you do make that suggestion, and it determines a change in behavior in another person with the result I mentioned, then behavior is changed by an environmental stimulus (your suggestion). I am not sure that you understand determinism.

            • Simon Cranshaw
              Posted December 3, 2018 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

              Thank you again for the reply. I think I don’t understand determinism. I don’t see how criminals don’t have a choice in their crimes but we do have a choice in how we treat them. I’d like to learn about this.. can you recommend a book or site I can look at?

              • Posted December 3, 2018 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

                We don’t have a choice in how we treat anybody; my claim is that different environmental factors (which are determined) can alter behaviors, a claim that is undisputed. If you do X (and you don’t have a choice about that), it will make person Y tend to do Z. You don’t put up an umbrella when it doesn’t rain, but you do when it does, and that rain is determined by the laws of physics. Behavior is altered by environmental input, and your actions on another are like rain.

  16. Posted November 21, 2018 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Their is a kind of ‘free will’! Some one said earlier, “We are not free from gravity, we need to breath, need to eat…” of course we do, but that doesn’t stop us from FLYING, and doesn’t stop us from Swimming Under Water or WALKING ON THE MOON! It’s not the laws of physics or physiology that totally rule our behavior, it’s how we adapt to them! “Freedom Evolves” contends Dennett, and even though in the end the ricochet and attraction of particles tells the final story, Our Sense of ‘Freedom’ as a guiding light — a user image — just may be RIGHT! Who knows? The Universe may be Far More Disposed to Our Benefit than most pessimists realize!!! We haven’t done badly so far!
    Amazing this conversation is occurring! See my Blog: naturereligionconnection.org , I have a Series on “Freedom”.

  17. Posted November 21, 2018 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    sorry, “There is a kind of Free Will.”

  18. Doug Riddle
    Posted November 23, 2018 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    In response to David Kestenbaum’s piece on NPR https://www.thisamericanlife.org/662/where-there-is-a-will/act-two-2

    I’m troubled by the reliance in the piece on a reductionist assumption that one can go down level by level to the most elemental operations, and base a human philosophy on the fact that there are nothing but elemental particles and dynamics in the quantum world.

    There are several problems, but the most fundamental if we are to stay in the worldview of physics is with the quantum world itself. Heisenberg certainly contributed to the challenge with the recognition that the location and movement of quanta can be estimated but never simultaneously known. The introduction of probability into this world calls for a measure of randomness that is at odds with strictly deterministic descriptions. If, at the most basic level we can imagine, there is some measure of randomness, it is reasonable to assume that at higher levels of complexity, the randomness is actually amplified.

    Our attachment to the idea of free will is not merely an illusion that brings us some kind of comfort about our autonomy or importance, but likely a recognition that even the simplest kinds of prediction from subatomic to macro-economic in the particular case are faulty. The needed humility is not about the absence of free will, but the ‘religious’ belief that everything is in some measure determined. Some things are highly likely and many others are highly unlikely, but there is no clear evidence for determinism except as a kind of metaphysical belief system.


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