Bill Nye screws up when tackling a question about free will

The wheels fell off the Science Guy juggernaut a long time ago, but Bill Nye still tries to heave the ungainly cart forward, desperately trying to remain relevant. As you know, I haven’t been a fan of his “comeback,” for his attempts to sell science have been ham-handed and embarrassing. (See some of my criticism here.)

Here, in a video made in 2016,  he goes way out of his depth to answer a reader’s question on The Big Stink. I came across this while watching videos about free will by genuinely smart people, and then cringed while I watched this one.

In this video an inquisitive man named Thomas asks Nye whether he, Thomas, has free will, which the inquisitor interprets as libertarian free will: “neural causation”, with an independent ego in control of one’s thoughts and actions. He’s clearly asking about libertarian free will because he sets his notion in free will in contrast to physical determinism. Thomas also asks whether the “uncertainty principle” may allow us to have some free will.

Listen to Nye’s answer. Here’s how he screws up—virtually every sentence is irrelevant or dumb:

  • Nye says we have “free will up to a point”, but doesn’t say what that point is.
  • He talks about the evolutionary drives to mate and eat have something to do with free will, but that’s completely irrelevant.
  • He says that there is heritability of behavior: “Members of the same family tend to do the same things.” Well, that may be some evidence against free will if there’s genetic determination to “decisions”, but Nye doesn’t make that connection; he seems befuddled.
  • Nye says, “I know I have made decisions based on things that happened around me that I wouldn’t have made without being informed by history or what I’d noticed. I know I have. Now if that turns out not to be true, I’d be very surprised.” How is this relevant? Under either libertarian free will (which I and nearly all scientists reject), compatibilism (a concept of “free will” that accepts determinism) or pure “hard determinism”, your actions will be influenced by your environment, including your interactions with others. Environmental influence of actions is irrelevant to the question of determinism.
  •  Nye starts riffing on the uncertainty principle, but never mentions the important caveat that even if our behaviors are in part purely indeterministic because of quantum indeterminacy, that doesn’t give us any agency or free will.  What does the random position of an electron have to do with “will”?
  • Nye continues by saying, correctly, that “our brains are chemical reactions, and chemical reactions, at some level depend on quantum mechanics.” But then he adds, “At some level, there is randomness in what we think, because we’re made of chemicals that have randomness.” But there is no evidence that our thoughts and behaviors are influenced at all by quantum phenomena.
  • Nye then says that “Human behavior is generally predictable”. So what? That would be true under either pure determinism or libertarianism.
  • He winds up by saying that we may very soon understand the nature of consciousness via the construction of complicated computers. “As long as they’re plugged in—the computers—carry on.” How embarrassing! Nye never tries to connect consciousness with free will. His random emissions of thought remind me of George W. Bush, or worse.

One gets the impression here that Nye doesn’t have a clue how to answer Thomas’s question, which I could answer without all this irrelevant piffle. (Of course, readers who are either libertarians or compatibilists would disagree with me.) But Nye doesn’t even have a viewpoint here: he doesn’t even say whether or not he thinks we have free will. I think inquisitor Thomas is far more aware of the issue than is Nye.

Nye also says he’s a scientist, which is debatable since he was an engineer and hasn’t done any science since at least 1986. I’m not a big credential critic, but Nye keeps saying he’s a scientist as a way of gaining credibility. I don’t even say I’m a scientist any more because I no longer do science. Nye is a science popularizer, and no longer a good one.

This guy really needs to hang it up. As far as I can see, the Science Guy is no longer promoting science, but only himself.

57 Comments

  1. Roo
    Posted June 11, 2019 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    It sounds like he’s not familiar with the free will discussion as a philosophical debate and instead answers the question from an “average Joe on the street”, colloquial point of view, where the term “free will” tends to mean:

    – Volitional action

    – Conscious deliberation

    – Agency

    – Egoic preferences

    – The general intuition that it would be a bad idea to say “Well, whatever, you couldn’t help it because you’re a robot, what happens happens” (which I think people tend to picture when you say ‘no free will’) in response to bad behavior

    None of these are free will, of course, but I think they are so heavily tied to people’s idea of what ‘free will’ is that it would be better to come up with new vocabulary entirely (‘uncaused agency’ vs. ‘deterministic agency’, for example.)

    As for the video – I wonder if he vetted the questions beforehand or if he was trying to make do with an unfamiliar topic (Regarding his introduction – I think he was saying that our urge to eat and drink and genetic predispositions go against the idea of free will on the one hand, and then contrasting that with higher level decision making as representative of free will on the other – saying “Well, I can see how people look at these things – primal urges and inborn tendencies, and think we lack free will, but on the other hand…” His ‘on the other hand’ still doesn’t speak to free will, but I do think that was the distinction he was trying to make in bringing up the first two points.)

    • Posted June 12, 2019 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      I agree- unless one has paid attention to the philosophical debate (like any other area of academic study) the discussion in the vernacular is one likely outcome.

      And this, narrow bean counters, is why general education and “unuseful subjects” exist!

  2. Randall Schenck
    Posted June 11, 2019 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    The question might be, why does the person take on a question that he really does not know about, especially if he were a scientist? Maybe it is that no free will thing. What would be wrong with – I am really not qualified to answer that.

  3. KD
    Posted June 11, 2019 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    It is a mistake to view indeterminacy in nature as limited to the Quantum level.

    In terms of Newtonian physics, if you slam two balls of the same mass and velocity at each other from opposite directions, the outcome will obey conservation laws, but is not predictable.

    The balls could crash together and stop, or bounce off each other at different (but equal) velocities, or veer off at different angles.

    Further, only the two body problem has an analytic solution, three or more bodies and you are left making physical approximations, which entails inherent indeterminacy in the calculation, not just a limit on our ability to measure the world. And obviously, the world has more than two bodies.

    In terms of free will, if we look at the game of chess, chess pieces follow a deterministic “physics” that explains how they move (why did the Knight go there? Because a Knight always hops a square and then takes a diagonal). At the same time, a chess game is not deterministic, moves are made for specific reasons and teleological explanations can also be made. There is no inherent incompatibility between a physical system that follows deterministic laws of motion and “higher order” laws based on teleological considerations, provided there is indeterminacy in the deterministic laws (they tell us how the Knight has to move, but not the direction it moves in).

    Is this “proof” of free will? Of course not, its speculative, and even if it was correct, our scientific understanding of nature remains to primitive for a sound explanation. But I don’t know that we can rule out intentional behavior strictly on the existence of Newtonian physics.

    After all, if the Neo-Darwinian synthesis is correct, then all novelty in organic nature is the result of random (e.g. unpredictable and indeterminant) chance.

    • Matt Young
      Posted June 11, 2019 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      Are you conflating predictable with deterministic?

      • KD
        Posted June 11, 2019 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

        I am saying a truly random event is unpredictable and indeterminant, so no. No hidden variables that if we knew, would allow us to predict the random outcome.

        Of course, you have to distinguish between a metaphysical indeterminacy versus an epistemic indeterminacy. The universe may be completely deterministic (Poincare’s view, give me the equations and the initial conditions and I can tell you what happened) but due to measurement limitations, we can never measure it sufficiently to predict it on a large enough scale.

        On the other hand, if you can’t predict something, it becomes more of an ontological question about whether you want to say it is “determined” or not. I tend to be more of a positivist, not seeing much practicality in claiming something is determined but beyond human ability to ever determine it in fact. I guess I come out more of a “free will” guy (although I hate the term, too theological) because it is more practical (unless you are defending serial killers) not because I have some great metaphysical argument.

        BTW I used the example of ball example, but if you look at the ocean, you have a bunch of molecular compounds sloshing around and bouncing into each other and responding in random ways, so there is a lot of indeterminate physical exchanges on a daily basis.

        If you have an open system, you have a variety of possible outcomes. If you then select between goals and employ a maximization/minimization strategy, you end up with intentional behavior (e.g. a plan to checkmate the King). As there are a number of goals that can be pursued–you have choice–and the ability to incentivize the choices of others. Of course, the point of making a decision is eliminate freedom, to insure there is only one possible way to go (voting to post a street one-way for example). Nothing spectacular or theological here, I imagine beavers and bee hives do it in some fashion.

        I think such a course of behavior would only be possible (and only necessary) if the system was open in the first place. If it was closed, there would be no point, you wouldn’t need to think about what to do, you’d just do it.

        • Posted June 12, 2019 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

          Being a positivist has the side effect that it makes it hard to look for changes that would push one direction of the metaphysics being ignored. Bohm, for example (before the Bell-Aspect stuff) points out we should *look* for subquantum effects and not prejudge the question. If we were to just ast positivist (“shut up and calculate”) we would have no/less motivation to do this.

          This is what is often called “motivational realism” and is in my view the best stepping stone to the correct view (IMO), scientific critical realism, but that’s another story.

          • KD
            Posted June 12, 2019 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

            I fall somewhere in the critical realist school, but I find with this free will/determinism stuff, some people seem to have a real psychological compulsion to insist on free will, and some people really need to believe in determinism.

            It seems obvious to me that we have choice, and more importantly, we have imagination, reason and volition, and they would seem to have no point if everything in nature ran like a clock mechanism or a rail car on a rail line. Animals make choices to nest here or there, and choices in mates, and choices in prey, so it strikes me that the whole point of these “higher order” processes is to winnow down the choices. . . so I find it hard believe that there are no “real” choices and everything is a rail car stuck on a rail line, and ratiocination is a huge waste of investment. [But if we really are just rail cars on a rail line constructing post-hoc rationalizations for why we go the way we go, so be it.]

            Further, its is clear precisely because of the indeterminacy in Newtonian physics that physicists use techniques such as statistical mechanics for investigating and explaining the physics of large scale systems like liquids and gases and sand piles. Very few physical systems actually function like clocks or railway lines.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted June 11, 2019 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      In terms of Newtonian physics, if you slam two balls of the same mass and velocity at each other from opposite directions, the outcome will obey conservation laws, but is not predictable.

      Hell, one needn’t have a degree in physics to apprehend that; one need only to have hit a break shot while shooting 8-ball pool. 🙂

      • freiner
        Posted June 11, 2019 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

        In my case this is pretty predictable. I scratch.

    • Michael Waterhouse
      Posted June 11, 2019 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

      Is a billiard ball aimed at striking the red ball to impact the other white ball with the intent to make said white ball go into a pocket, an example of the 3 body problem?

  4. Posted June 11, 2019 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Sometimes, people should be willing to say “I don’t know.”

    • yazikus
      Posted June 11, 2019 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      He just couldn’t seem to help himself.
      /ducks&runs

  5. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted June 11, 2019 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    I find him faintly terrifying. Like if the child-catcher had tried the low-key approach.

  6. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted June 11, 2019 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Despite all his limelight seeking and his dismal performance here, and his obvious limited knowledge of biology, I still consider Mr Nye an ally. I do not particularly like the guy, I mean “The Science Guy”, that is sinking pretty low. But still, I think he ‘converts’ quite a few. And that is a positive,

  7. Posted June 11, 2019 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    “…there is no evidence that our thoughts and behaviors are influenced at all by quantum phenomena.”

    Our thoughts and behaviors are strongly influenced by quantum phenomena. This can happen directly (as when a person listens to a Geiger counter, or en eye senses a photon, or possibly a molecule excites a nerve in our noses). My memory of a certain set of geiger counter clicks that I experienced forty years ago is still in my head and may influence my behavior today.

    Apart from that, even the basic physical processes that determine our very existence are quantum-mechanically indeterminate. The existence of this earth and solar system, and the fact that humans evolved here, are due to quantum fluctuations that happened near the Big Bang. If we “rewind the tape” far enough, and hit “play”, we get completely different histories, due to quantum mechanics.

    On a shorter timescale, our thoughts may also be influenced by QM. In a sufficiently complex neural net with a low triggering threshold in each neuron, tiny uncertainties in the time delays across synapses are magnified exponentially when trying to predict the output. A few decades ago I calculated this and the uncertainty in the final output was quite large if the net was deep enough.

    Physicists have shown that even the trajectories of billiard balls are macroscopically quantum indeterminate after a certain number of bounces.

    Like Jerry says, none of this has anything to do with free will. I just want to emphasize that everything we experience, and indeed our very existence, is or has been influenced by QM randomness.

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted June 11, 2019 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      Do speculations such as this have anything to do with the discussion? Revisiting the Quantum Brain Hypothesis: Toward Quantum (Neuro)biology?https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5681944/.

      I am completely lost but find such discussions interesting. Some years ago, I read that at the level of the synapse,the electrical action potential did not exhibit quantum properties but the chemical reaction did. I probably didn’t have a good understanding of any of this but I’ve been looking for a definitive explanation (one that’s intelligible to a lay person).

      • Posted June 11, 2019 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

        That’s an interesting article you linked to. But it seems to mix quantum randomness with quantum coherence. Brain effects that depend on quantum coherence would be very interesting, but are as yet unproven. On the other hand, quantum randomness of the kind I mentioned in my comment is a necessary consequence of QM.

        • Jenny Haniver
          Posted June 11, 2019 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

          Thank you. Alas, I realize that I’m at the lowest state of the Rumsfeldian triad of awareness; i.e., I’m at the “unknown unknowns.” state.

  8. Mike Anderson
    Posted June 11, 2019 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    It would have been much more impressive if Bill Nye had just said, “The issue of free will is outside my wheelhouse.”

  9. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted June 11, 2019 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    I think convincing people to give up belief in god is an absolute doddle compared with convincing them that free-will doesn’t exist.

    Even very clever people get muddled when talking about this, because they’re only prepared to take the logic of physical determinism so far and no further.
    They think that unmedicated schizophrenics have less free-will than unmedicated epileptics, who have less free will than medicated epileptics, who have less free-will than non-epileptics, etc.

    But it’s only our ignorance of the exact details underlying everyday behaviour that makes us think that free-will comes in degrees like this, and that some people have more of it while other have less.

    We can describe what happens during a seizure because the correlations are tight and the relationship between cause and effect is(relatively) simple. And because we can describe it we can see that it’s necessarily deterministic. No element of choice in having a seizure.

    The only reason we don’t extend this argument to every human action is because in almost all other areas the underlying cause and effect relationships are so much more complicated.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted June 11, 2019 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      ….It’s like there’s a huge cloud of fog covering our knowledge of human behaviour. In certain areas the fog lifts, and we can see how, say, seizures work. Or we can see that the behaviour of someone with a brain tumour is affected in a very particular direction, and they have no control over their actions as a result. The fog has lifted and we can see the nuts and bolts, the cogs turning inside and outside the brain. And when we do, we can see that nature is necessarily deterministic.

      Anybody reasonable would subsequently conclude that the presence of the fog is irrelevant: we can extrapolate from what _has_ been revealed that _everything_ is similarly deterministic. But we’re not reasonable, so we don’t. And we continue to think of free-will as something that comes in degrees.

  10. Christopher
    Posted June 11, 2019 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Bill Nye is certainly no Julius Sumner Miller, nor is he Mr. Wizard. He is and always has been more flash and gimmick than science.

  11. Posted June 11, 2019 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    The whole idea of being “the” Science “Guy” is utterly fatuous from the start. I know some people like him, having been exposed to him as children, but it is built squarely on the foundations of a bunch of popular misconceptions about science.

    No surprise then, that this galoot thinks he’s an authority on free will, clearly without having studied the basic ideas or even reflecting on it before hitting ‘record’.

    And as a general point on human psychology — has there ever been anyone since maybe about 1950 who wore a bow tie and *didn’t* have a ridiculously inflated opinion of himself?

    • Filippo
      Posted June 12, 2019 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

      ” . . . has there ever been anyone since maybe about 1950 who wore a bow tie and *didn’t* have a ridiculously inflated opinion of himself?”

      Off the top of my head – maybe Richard Hofstadter (“Anti-Intellectualism in American Life”)? (Not that I possibly knew him, though he came across in a recorded lecture at UCLA online as possessed of a certain epistemic humility.) Senator Paul Simon? Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens?

      Does that include anyone who occasionally dons a tuxedo?

      I suppose there are those whose opinions of themselves are slightly/moderately inflated on account of knowing how to tie a bow tie. Since I learned how to tie one for my high school prom, as the AA’s say, I guess I need to do a “fierce” moral inventory of myself.

  12. Posted June 11, 2019 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  13. ploubere
    Posted June 11, 2019 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I’m not a fan of Nye either. He has at times done more harm than good, especially in debating Ken Hamm.
    If he just stuck with teaching science to kids, he would be okay.

  14. Posted June 11, 2019 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    It actually is ok to just say ‘I don’t know’. In fact, it can feel pretty good.

    • Steve Gerrard
      Posted June 11, 2019 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

      I love it when I can say “I don’t know” at work. There are more than enough things I do know about, and the last thing I need is more stuff to do. Plus people are more likely to believe me when I do have an answer.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted June 13, 2019 at 6:47 am | Permalink

      I’d rather he said ‘I haven’t actually thought about it’ rather than ‘I don’t know’.

      The latter leaves open the possibility that he’s given the topic some thought and subsequently come to the conclusion that it’s intractable – whereas in reality he’s clearly not spent more than fifteen seconds pondering it and isn’t particularly interested either way.

  15. Mike Raaymakers
    Posted June 11, 2019 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    Hey.
    The “Here” link seems to be right back to this article. Unless my phone is being goofy.

  16. ellmersg
    Posted June 12, 2019 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Can someone help me understand the strict mechanistic determinism position regarding mental constructs like ideas, symbols, arguments, etc.? These clearly have causal effects on our behavior.

    I agree that neurons innervate muscles in a mechanistic way. But I don’t understand how mechanicalism accounts for the _meaning_ in symbols — which seems hard to explain in terms of the standard (admittedly simplistic) model of one billiard ball striking other.

    A red light causes me to stop at an intersection not because redness per se has a “stopping effect” on my neurons, but because of it’s symbolic meaning. How does one account for that?

    • KD
      Posted June 12, 2019 at 9:45 am | Permalink

      This reminds me of a remark in Patricia Churchland’s philosophy of mind intro text regarding ontological dualism (Cartesian Mind/Body dualism). Basically, she stated that if psychic powers existed, like telekinesis, we would have evidence of the mind acting causally on the physical world. She went on to say that there is no evidence of psychic powers existing (a point in which I am in agreement), ergo no dualism.

      While I am no fan of Cartesianism, I am aware of the placebo/nocebo effect, it seems well documented scientifically (drug companies have to establish new medicines work better than placebo for example), and it is evidence of the mind (a mental belief) operating on the physical, just as telekinesis might.

      Now I am not sure that it can’t be broken down into a naturalistic explanation, but the point is that you have two different kinds of physical systems (one with mental beliefs and one incapable of such beliefs) that respond differently to stimuli. Which is why I cling to the view that it is more complicated than the brain simply being some complex clock mechanism.

      • Posted June 12, 2019 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

        Beliefs are presumably one family of systems of neurons absent in some organisms (including us when very young) – assuming there are such things.

    • KD
      Posted June 12, 2019 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      It is an interesting feature that you could put together on paper a unique and complex elaboration of ideas (for example, a discussion of troop movements on a front in war time). You could then, using some kind of system, reduce the complex ideas to a short mnemonic phrase, and then burn the paper, eliminating the information from the physical universe. If intercepted, there would be no evidence that you had intelligence on the enemy. Someone else would be unable to decode the mnemonic. Using the mnemonic, you could then recreate the original information in a safer environment, like magic.

      I think the key is in knowing how to do something, and the mnemonic is the trigger for some behavioral capacity of an organism. Its not that there is some kind of mystical substance attendant when a phrase has meaning that is absent when it lacks meaning. Its that something with meaning can trigger a certain kind of response in the right context.

      • ellmersg
        Posted June 12, 2019 at 10:08 am | Permalink

        Thanks. Your example seems more contrived than necessary. It seems that as soon as we acknowledge symbolic meaning, mechanical determinism has a problem.

        We could have easily decided, way back when, to make a blue x the signal for stop at traffic lights (and, e.g., a grey circle for go, a blinking orange square for “left turn only”). An alien with infinite computing power would not be able to predict my behavior when approaching the traffic light (stop, go, turn left, etc.) unless the alien knew what the various symbols meant.

        That seems to be good evidence that even perfect knowledge of material states is not enough; mental constructs have causative power.

        • Mike Anderson
          Posted June 12, 2019 at 11:16 am | Permalink

          It seems that as soon as we acknowledge symbolic meaning, mechanical determinism has a problem.

          I don’t get this. Computers (fully mechanically deterministic) are based on symbolic meaning at the lowest levels.

          • ellmersg
            Posted June 12, 2019 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

            Really?

            A computer program is written by someone outside the computer who sets the rules and inputs the values and meaning of the symbols. How is that comparable to my question? (Unless you want to posit God to solve the information problem.)

            Your comments are a form of “cheating,” I think. If the system has to be “told” from the outside what the symbols mean, then I don’t see how determinism can support its claims.

            Mechanical determinism claims that knowing the boundary conditions of the universe, and the _physical/material_ state of every atom, an infinitely powerful computer could predict everything. But the meaning of human symbols are mental constructs that this computer program would have no way of knowing.

            You could claim that the computer program would learn the meaning of every symbolic input in the world simply through observation — except that humans don’t always respond in rational, consistent ways to symbols. Symbols mean different things in different cultures, and even in different contexts in the same culture. But if humans are just machines governed by the same neurochemical laws, how can there be such a variety of responses to the same inputs?

            If I move out of my apartment because I had a fight with my boyfriend, that fight will be shaped by an almost infinite number of “inputs” — including our past relationship, my current emotional state, and even subtle cues like body language; as well as my memories, expectations, etc. My behavior is even influenced by deeper, long-term factors like my relationship with my mother!

            So every fight, by every couple, is slightly different, since every person has a unique personal, emotional, intellectual background that influences his or her behavior.

            The computer would have to have learned, beforehand, how to read and _quantify_ all these factors — for every human being — in order to provide an accurate prediction of how each fight turns out and how each person responds.

            Even with infinite computing power, I deny that the _subjectivity_ we are talking about here can be quantified mathematically in order to make deterministic predictions.

            • Mike Anderson
              Posted June 12, 2019 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

              A computer program is written by someone outside the computer who sets the rules and inputs the values and meaning of the symbols.

              While a programmer might set a base set of rules and symbolic meanings, new rules and meanings (often unforeseen by the programmer) can emerge in the system. This emergence of new meaning all happens within a mechanically deterministic framework.

              But if humans are just machines governed by the same neurochemical laws, how can there be such a variety of responses to the same inputs?

              The physical laws are the same, but the knowledge bases (brains) – built and behaving according to said physical laws – vary between individuals and vary across time within any individual. And the inputs are never exactly the same.

              —-

              Sorry I can’t address all your points right now, and we may be talking past one another, but my point is that meaning and determinism are entirely compatible.

              • ellmersg
                Posted June 12, 2019 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

                I appreciate the response. Forgive me if your assertion, “meaning and determinism are entirely compatible” isn’t enough for me. lol

                This is exactly what I’m questioning.

                Say one day a quirky little New England town votes to make red lights mean “go” and green lights to mean “stop.” It passes unanimously and all drivers were at the meaning and agree to the new rule.

                How does a computer that only tracks matter in motion, and cannot in principle accept mental constructs as having causal power, predict that all of sudden one day people suddenly stop at green and go at red?

              • Mike Anderson
                Posted June 12, 2019 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

                How does a computer that only tracks matter in motion, and cannot in principle accept mental constructs as having causal power, predict that all of sudden one day people suddenly stop at green and go at red?

                Why can’t a computer accept mental constructs as having causal power? A mental construct is a physical thing.

              • ellmersg
                Posted June 12, 2019 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

                Oh! Maybe I misunderstand what materialism, matter, and mechanical mean.

                If mechanical determinism acknowledges that ideas, words, and arguments have causal power, then there’s no problem. I thought people like Jerry didn’t accept mental “ghosts” as having the power to affect matter.

              • Mike Anderson
                Posted June 12, 2019 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

                If mechanical determinism acknowledges that ideas, words, and arguments have causal power, then there’s no problem.

                Then I don’t think there’s a problem.

              • ellmersg
                Posted June 12, 2019 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

                Um, I don’t think that’s correct. Isn’t the idea of _materialistic_ determinism that matter is strictly quantifiable and therefore can be mathematized? Otherwise, how would one use a computer? Unless there’s a way to measure an idea and quantify an argument.

              • Mike Anderson
                Posted June 12, 2019 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

                Ideas and arguments are forms of information and (theoretically) can be measured and quantified.

          • KD
            Posted June 12, 2019 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

            There is a lot of philosophical discussions of Wittgenstein’s writings on “following a rule” and the Private Language argument in the Philosophical Investigations.

            Part of it hinges on the contention that the concept of “following a rule” entails the capacity to “not follow a rule” as well as “thinking-you-are-following-a-rule when you are not following a rule”.

            The connection to computers is that a computer algorithms, while they can be metaphorically compared to a human following a rule, are not really “following a rule”, because they can’t disobey, and more importantly, they can be mistaken. Calculators don’t really add, computers don’t really compute (at least the way humans do).

            This means human computations are different from Boolean engines. [It may be the neural networks exhibit more similar behavioral patterns to humans.]

            But I think the important point is that language and mathematics are fundamentally social activities, and the criterion of usage are socially defined. Computers, not being social animals, can only be viewed as tools.

            I don’t know this means that you have to jump into dualism, but it does entail some kind of metaphysical holism in order to make sense of mathematics and language. Further, you have to look at not just what things are, but what things do.

            • Mike Anderson
              Posted June 12, 2019 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

              This means human computations are different from Boolean engines.

              Personally, I don’t buy that. On the micro level, computers do relatively simple things – but so do neurons. When these simple operations are scaled up massively, “magic” happens (emergence, if you will) in both animal behavior and in AI systems (see Alpha Go).

              “It’s computation all the way down,” I say.

              • KD
                Posted June 12, 2019 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

                Sure, however, I can take you into any 4th grade class and I can show you an example of a 4th grader who *thinks* they know how to do long division and *thinks* they are doing long division. . . and you will never be able to show me an example of a computer that *thinks* it is following a Boolean algorithm but is not. . . which suggests to a person of common sense that they are apples and oranges.

              • Mike Anderson
                Posted June 12, 2019 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

                you will never be able to show me an example of a computer that *thinks* it is following a Boolean algorithm but is not

                Again, I disagree. Currently computers do accurate arithmetic (because that is very useful), and they currently don’t introspect much when doing arithmetic (because that’s not very useful), but I can envision a super complex AI system that somehow ends up doing simple operations (like division) in a convoluted roundabout and failure prone manner, while simultaneously reflecting upon the operation and erroneously concluding the operation produced correct results.

        • Posted June 13, 2019 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

          “That seems to be good evidence that even perfect knowledge of material states is not enough; mental constructs have causative power.”

          You are neglecting the fact that the learning of the meaning of the signal was a physical process. Perfect computing includes history, and such a computer would indeed be able to predict the typical reaction of a person seeing that signal.

          • ellmersg
            Posted June 14, 2019 at 7:19 am | Permalink

            Thanks for responding.

            That is just a dogmatic assertion. It might predict the “typical” behavior, although I’m dubious of that. But what if I’m rushing my injured wife to the hospital and there are no other cars on the road? What if the light is broken and stuck on Stop, but a police officer is directing traffic? Does the computer “know” that a police officer overrules the traffic light? What if some weirdo is in the intersection waving his hands, but is obviously not a police officer? People would have to make prudential judgements based on the specific circumstances, and this happens all the time. Yet this is only a very simple scenario with slight outward complexity.

            What about the inward complexity in the example I raised elsewhere in this thread, about having a fight with my boyfriend? The computer would have to know our whole past relationship history, as well as my inner mental state, to even begin understanding the fight, let alone predict each of our behaviors. If that’s hard, how about predicting the outcome of World War II, which involved the actions of millions of individuals, each with his or her unique personality and mental state, including hopes, fears, desires, and motivations. How would a computer understand all that only on the basis of observable mechanical causation? What algorithm could quantify the psychological effect of Winston Churchill being sent to boarding school when he was a child, and how that affected his conduct as Prime Minister, which clearly influenced the outcome of the war?

            I appreciate all the responses, but they have actually made me MORE persuaded that mechanical determinism is just a naive and dogmatic faith.

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted June 12, 2019 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      Knowledge (ideas, symbols, arguments, meaning, behavior, etc.) is encoded in neural networks. Although we understand the basic mechanism of neural networks; and create, train, and use artificial neural networks; I don’t think we’ve mapped out how red means stop in our brains.

      We can train an NN to recognize *red* and associate it with a goal of *stop*, and train behavior patterns to achieve goals of *stop* in varying conditions – so we can mimic some of our behavior patterns in fully deterministic ways, and AFAIK we haven’t identified any roadblock (other than complexity) that prevents us from mimicking any of our behavior patterns in fully deterministic ways.

    • Posted June 12, 2019 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      Dennett’s slogan is something like “sufficiently complex syntax is semantics”.

  17. Posted June 13, 2019 at 2:15 am | Permalink

    “Nye also says he’s a scientist … Nye keeps saying he’s a scientist“

    When has Nye ever claimed to be a scientist? I’ve heard many conservatives say things like “he isn’t even a scientist,” but I’ve never heard him claim to be a scientist, though I may be wrong, because I haven’t seen most of his work, at least not recently.

    • Posted June 13, 2019 at 2:20 am | Permalink

      Haha, should have watched the video first. Now I feel embarrassed. He calls himself an “engineering scientist”

  18. Michael Ventura
    Posted June 14, 2019 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    the most recent episode of his new podcast (Science Rules – What’s on Your Mind in That Brain of Yours?) tackled consciousness and freewill and did a pretty good job of it by talking with an actual neuroscientist. bringing in experts and linking them up with questions from laypeople is the format of the show.

    i think jerry’s perhaps being a little too harsh on bill in general. his heart is in the right place and he’s got loads of enthusiasm. i’m not familiar with him from the Science Guy days as I think I’m a bit too old for that. but it seems to me there’s definitely room for him in the science and skepticism tent.


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