Bret Weinstein on free will and moral responsibility

Bret Weinstein posted this short video on free will, and then, as often seems to be the case, he added on Twitter that it doesn’t really encapsulate his ideas.

At any rate, in the video Bret says that he accepts free will (without defining it—a necessary first step in any such discussion), and adds that evolution proves that “there’s a basis for free will to exist”.  (Do chipmunks and amoebas, then, have free will?) He notes that there are relatively trivial experiments one can run that demonstrate that we must have free will. Really? What are those experiments?

Bret further argues that when Sam Harris says that we don’t have free will, “he’s really talking about something else—it’s a misdefinition of free will.” Misdefinition? Sam (who does define his terms) is talking about libertarian free will: the mistaken feeling we have that we have agency and could have decided other than how we did.

The rest, about whether free will absolves us of moral responsibility, seems to have no connection with the issue of free will, except that Weinstein says that our “free will”, whatever he means by that, comes with “a hefty dose of moral responsibility.” I, of course, accept neither free will in the way Sam construes it, nor the idea that we are “morally responsible” (rather than just “responsible”) for our actions. The word “morally” adds nothing save the misconception that we could have made a choice that was either more or less moral, and that’s not true.

Weinstein’s semi-retraction and then call for a discussion is below. I’m on Sam’s side here, at least as far as I understand what he’s saying. I’m not quite sure what Weinstein is saying, but I think he really needs to write a book and explicate his ideas at length. This would fix his claims that neither his videos nor his statements (like here and here) don’t fully explain what he thinks.

There are just too many podcasts these days, and not enough books. I know people can listen when gardening or driving, but to me there’s nothing like a book for getting your teeth into ideas.

Curiously, the discussion above appears to be on “Christian Radio.”

98 Comments

  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted October 19, 2019 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Sub

    • James Allan
      Posted October 27, 2019 at 12:21 am | Permalink

      How do I make a post on this website? I have a question about free will. I see no link that will allow me to post.

      Seems I can post a comment to an existing post which I am doing now, but if I wanted to start a new thread re. the question I have, how do I do this?

      Thank you.

  2. rickflick
    Posted October 19, 2019 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Sound like Bret hasn’t really thought about the issue much.

  3. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted October 19, 2019 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    From discussion on the other post, I’m getting the sense that it might be possible to call something free will, but, that thing is incredibly unimportant next to the chain of causation.

    Choosing strawberry ice cream, a blade of grass, a number on the roulette wheel – so what? Free will – if it is there – isn’t doing anything consequential- the chain of causation is what explains the outcomes : getting sick from a bad batch of ice cream, insects getting found by birds (in the grass), going bankrupt.

  4. Historian
    Posted October 19, 2019 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    “…in the video Bret says that he accepts free will (without defining it—a necessary first step in any such discussion)…”

    The failure to define terms seems to be rampant in other areas of popular and intellectual discussion. In politics, terms such as liberal, conservative, socialist and fascist are bandied about without definition, meaning that the reader or hearer is not at all sure what the utterer means. Even academics disagree among themselves regarding what these terms mean. I’ve noticed that the word fascist can mean very different things to different people. As a result, serious intellectual discussion is stunted because of this confusion. In an ideal world, speakers or writers would have to define their terms before beginning their expositions.

    • Posted October 19, 2019 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      Yes, and Bret Weinstein would agree with you based on what he says here. He suggests that he and Sam Harris are working with different definitions of “free will”. He doesn’t define it here but he’s obviously aware of the issue.

  5. GBJames
    Posted October 19, 2019 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    sub

  6. Posted October 19, 2019 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    If Weinstein has simple experiments that can demonstrate we must have free will, then he will be famous for settling a millennia old question. I somehow doubt that.

  7. Posted October 19, 2019 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    … nor the idea that we are “morally responsible” (rather than just “responsible”) for our actions. The word “morally” adds nothing …

    We hold someone “morally” responsible if they do something deliberately — say stealing something — when they know that other people don’t want them to do it and would disapprove or punish them if they found out, and yet they decide to do it anyway.

    All of those concepts hold in a deterministic world. Even if everyone rejected “free will”, we would still need those concepts in order for society to function (though we could re-label them if we really wanted to).

    Thus being “morally” responsible is different from merely being “responsible”. The latter can include accidents where the person did not intend any wrong. We react differently to the latter, and again, that is necessary and would still be the case if everyone rejected “free will”.

    We would still need to deter wrongdoing, and we’d need to do that through threats of punishment. And therefore we need to distinguish between acts that we want to punish and acts that we don’t want to punish (even if someone is “responsible”, by, say, doing something accidently).

    So we do need the concept of “moral” responsibility, distinguished from mere “responsibility”, though again we can choose to call it something else if we really want to.

    • Chris G
      Posted October 19, 2019 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      I’m not sure your insistence on ‘morally responsible’ (rather than just ‘responsible’) sheds any light on the issue of free-will.
      But your reference to someone ‘deciding’ to ‘do something deliberately’ (e.g. steal) is at the centre of the debate i.e. what does it mean ‘to deliberate and decide’ and could they have decided otherwise.
      I’m pretty sure I’ve heard Sam talk about the continued need for a criminal justice system, as this is part of the environment that influences our behaviour, incentives and sanctions etc.
      I think that’s part of what Sam refers to as “important ethical changes downstream” in his tweet reply to Brett.
      I hope Sam and Brett get to publish a discussion on this soon, and they address the real-world impact/changes that Sam’s take on free-will would/could have.

      • Posted October 19, 2019 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

        “what does it mean ‘to deliberate and decide’”

        It means “compute”, it means to consider all the inputs and arrive at an output, just as a chess-playing computer “decides” on a move.

        “… and could they have decided otherwise.”

        In absolutely identical circumstances, no the outcome would be exactly the same.

        But circumstances never repeat identically down to every molecule. So the common human concept “could have decided otherwise” doesn’t refer to that, it refers to “in similar circumstances, as I might one-day be in again”, and yes, the outcome could then indeed be different — one difference being the effect of deliberating on the “could I have done otherwise?”.

        • Chris G
          Posted October 19, 2019 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

          Hi Coel. It’s déjà vu …. again!
          Been a couple of years since I’ve commented here – I hesitated.
          Now I’m reminded we’ve discussed this before; how chess-playing computers have free-will etc. etc.
          But but but … the lay-folk definition of free-will is founded on contra-causal *conscious* controlled decision-making.
          And then I end-up quoting Sam: “Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control”.

          • Posted October 19, 2019 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

            “But but but … the lay-folk definition of free-will is founded on contra-causal *conscious* controlled decision-making.”

            That’s the commonest lay-folk definition, yes, particularly if you ask people the question in the abstract. It’s not the only definition (compatibilist conceptions also have a long history), and if you ask people about practical situations then it’s less clear that a contra-causal meaning is being taken.

          • Vaal
            Posted October 19, 2019 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

            Hi Chris!

            “But but but … the lay-folk definition of free-will is founded on contra-causal *conscious* controlled decision-making.”

            Alternatively: The lay-folk (or some portion) have what they think is an EXPLANATION for how they make free-willed choices, but it’s their explanation that is incorrect, that that they don’t have free will. We shouldn’t mix up the explanation with the thing being explained.

            People have a phenomenological experience of deliberating between actions, believing they could take either/or action, and upon reflection continuing to believe they “could have taken” either action. This is the “experience” they are trying to explain. When they think badly about it, the figure “well, the only way my thoughts could have been true about my deliberations is if my deliberations are excepted from the chain of causation.” Because they haven’t figured out how their experience of “having a choice” and “everything has a cause” goes together.

            So they come up with mistaken theories. But what they are trying to explain with “magic” is, just like religious theories of morality, still there, it’s “true” they “could have done otherwise” in a way that is not incompatible with the other intuition “everything has a cause.” This can be shown by shedding light on what conceptual schemes work given determinism and what schemes people are actually using during deliberations, in which their choices make sense in a way not threatened by determinism.

            “And then I end-up quoting Sam: “Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making.

            That just assumes some contentious claim about Free Will. The main thing people are concerned about is “Am I free to do what I want (will) to do?”

            As to the concern about “being able to will what we will” that can translate to the practical concern of “could I actually will to do something else?”

            And even there in a great many cases the answer is “yes.” (After all, we take different actions because our will to do things can change. And the ‘test’ for whether one can “will something different” is the same as that for testing if they can “take a different action.” E.g. I just willed to pull out the milk from the fridge. Can I will to do something different? Yup, I can will to take out the orange juice, which I demonstrate by taking out the orange juice.

            “Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control”.

            That’s just not true. Or at least, not in a way that threatens our agency or free will. It’s not true of many of our thoughts.

            If you ask me “what is your favorite restaurant in your city” I will have an answer, and I’ll have access to the reasons that explain why I gave that answer. It’s not “mysterious” why that restaurant is the one that comes to mind.

            Sam makes some dubious leaps from his experience of meditation, in which one is not deliberating but simply “observing” thoughts pop in to consciousness, and then extrapolating from that to all circumstances that “we can’t account for the reasons/thoughts we find in our consciousness.” That’s one heck of a dubious leap, and can’t hope to account for the ways in which the conscious reasons we can give for our actions can explain our actions so well, and also predict future actions.

            • Chris G
              Posted October 20, 2019 at 5:23 am | Permalink

              Hi Vaal,
              As Sam says: the illusion of free-will is itself an illusion.
              Your response to being asked your favourite restaurant is a good example: you state one, then give a long detailed explanation as to why that particular eatery, and then a friend says “I thought you really liked restaurant XYZ?” … “Oh, yeah” you reply “I’d forgotten about that place, it is the best”.
              Did you choose to forget?
              I ask you to name a capital-city, you say “Paris, France”. I ask: “Why didn’t you choose Bishkek?” you reply: “Never heard of it” (it’s the capital of Kyrgyzstan”, maybe you’ve never heard of that country either).
              You were not free to choose a city you’ve never heard of (but now you know).

              Coel suggests that the absence of free-will means we can’t use words like ‘choose’ or ‘options’ but that misses the main-point: we do choose from a discrete set of options, but ultimately we are not in conscious control of this process, nor are we free to choose the set of options.

              Does a person with Tourette syndrome have the choice/control about swearing loudly in public? No: they have a condition.
              Ultimately, at philosophical-bedrock, we all have a condition, and that undermines the feeling of free-will.
              I think that’s what Sam refers to when he says in his tweet to Brett: “There are important psychological insights upstream” which have important consequences for “ethical changes downstream. This isn’t just semantics.”
              I really hope Sam gets a chance to explain what practical & ethical changes his position suggests we should make e.g. to our criminal justice systems – I’ve felt for some time that he (and maybe Jerry too) haven’t fully outlined their thinking on this important practical aspect.

              • Posted October 20, 2019 at 11:11 am | Permalink

                Maybe I’m missing something here but I don’t see unknown or forgotten options as playing any role whatsoever in a discussion of free will. It is well known that the human brain is a complex, and somewhat unreliable, device. Free will involves making conscious choices among alternatives but doesn’t guarantee any particular set of alternatives will be considered or that all choices be considered equally. No one that I know of is claiming that unconscious processes, cosmic rays, and everything between, don’t contribute to the set of options that get considered in a decision or the making of the decision itself.

              • ThyroidPlanet
                Posted October 20, 2019 at 11:39 am | Permalink

                Can free will be turned off?

                If not, what is so free about it?

              • Posted October 20, 2019 at 11:44 am | Permalink

                Sure it can. Just go to sleep.

                But seriously, “free” in “free will” doesn’t refer to whether we have free will or not but the decisions we make.

              • ThyroidPlanet
                Posted October 20, 2019 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

                What comes first – free will or the decision?

                I’m serious about “turning off” free will. If sleep turns it off, if making decisions is merely associated with it, but we can’t do anything about it, it sounds more like a fancy word for consciousness.

              • Posted October 20, 2019 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

                “What comes first – free will or the decision?”

                The question makes no sense to me. Free will is a quality that may be applied to a decision or, more generally, to someone who makes decisions without coercion, brain damage, or other mitigation.

                No, free will is not synonymous with consciousness. I am sure you are just being flippant.

              • ThyroidPlanet
                Posted October 20, 2019 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

                ““What comes first – free will or the decision?”

                The question makes no sense to me. Free will is a quality that may be applied to a decision”

                That would mean free will exists before the decision- free will came first. Then it is applied to a decision.

                “or, more generally, to someone who makes decisions without coercion, brain damage, or other mitigation.”

                And that is all straightforward?

                “No, free will is not synonymous with consciousness. “

                Ah – I wrote “a fancy word”, and that is true, a fancy word is a synonym, and that’s my error. No – am claiming that this thing called free will is easier to explain as consciousness. Calling free will “a fancy word” was used in a figurative sense, but also possibly to convey a derisive view.

                “I am sure you are just being flippant.”

                Because I used “fancy word” in a figurative sense? Or because I don’t understand how free will is different from consciousness- which you are suggesting, by saying free will goes away during sleep.

              • Posted October 20, 2019 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

                As I’ve said, free will is a quality used to describe a decision. One can ask if a decision was made of your own free will. It can also be applied more generally, as in “Do people have free will?”

                I don’t think I have to define consciousness here. There are many controversial areas in its definition but my guess is that none of them matter in a discussion of free will. When we say we make a “decision”, we assume that the person is conscious. Some may say “Bob made an unconscious decision” but I don’t think they mean that Bob was asleep or under anaesthesia. Just that he made a decision while conscious but without thinking about it very much.

                Now what are you trying to say?

              • ThyroidPlanet
                Posted October 20, 2019 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

                “As I’ve said, free will is a quality used to describe a decision. ”

                I never thought of that before – or that decisions need to be described, but I can see how in the court of law it would be necessary.

                “Now what are you trying to say?”

                Asking questions about this thing I don’t understand called free will.

            • Vaal
              Posted October 20, 2019 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

              Chris,

              I chose a specific example to make the point.
              Replying by ignoring my example and changing it isn’t helpful.

              I CAN tell you why a certain restaurant is my favorite in the city.

              Instead of dealing with that real world fact, you have made up a scenario where I am wrong and have forgotten another restaurant I like better. Certainly there are situations in which we don’t know why we had a particular thought, but there are many occasions where we DD have a good idea why we think what we think and conclude what we conclude.

              Again, if you say simply “think of a capitol city” that is changing the situation in exactly the way I critiqued when Sam does it.
              That isn’t asking one to think through some level of reasoning, but simply eliciting the “watch what pops in to your head” type of thinking. And, sure, you MAY have an accurate account for why one city pops up (e.g. you were just looking up a possible vacation to that city) or you may not. There are edge cases.

              But if you ask me what my favorite restaurant in my city is, I KNOW what restaurant will come to mind, and it is not mysterious: I can tell you why.

              Note also there is a tension in Sam’s own case for our “not having access to why we think/do things.” It’s only when he’s talking about Free Will that he makes that claim. Meanwhile, what has he been saying for years about religious-born violence? He has been admonishing liberals for trying to find some other reason, instead of religious beliefs (e.g. Muslim terrorists), to account for things like terrorist attacks. Sam keeps saying “Look, the terrorists are TELLING US WHY they are doing what they do! If we actually want to understand why they do it, we need to listen to them, not make up some other reason! And it will predict what they will do in the future better than any other explanation we can find!”

              But of course that admonition from Sam depends on the assumption the terrorists actually have ACCURATE ACCESS to their thinking, their reasoning, their reasons for actions.

              If he’s going to say terrorists have access to what is going on in their mind, and can give us accurate accounts of the reasons for doing things, he can’t have it both ways and call it all a mystery when denying free will. The type of access to our reasons that he wants to accept for terrorists is essentially the type I would be offering for why I chose to do A or B today. It both explains why I did so, and can often predict why and how I would choose in the future. Suggesting it’s an accurate account, not a “mystery.”

              “Coel suggests that the absence of free-will means we can’t use words like ‘choose’ or ‘options’ but that misses the main-point: we do choose from a discrete set of options,”

              Which is an important, central point to the whole free will debate, not something we can skip over lightly to the next point.

              What would you mean by “options?” Does it make sense to say “I could do A or I could do B” or not? If not, how would “choosing between options” actually work or make sense?

              But if you DO admit that we can make sense of having actual options, a true sense in which it is “possible” to do either A or B (given determinism), then the logic of that reflects back to past choices. “I COULD choose A or B right now” just as readily validates saying “I COULD HAVE chosen A or B just then.” And that goes right back to the crux of the free will debate. Once you admit it can make sense to say “I could have done A or B” then this starts building the foundation for free willed choices (non-magical, of course).

              “but ultimately we are not in conscious control of this process,”

              Only from, it seems to me, a too limited concept of agency and control, that really doesn’t make sense.

              First, putting aside the dubious inferences that have been made from certain Libet-type experiments….

              Why in the world would we not consider our reasoning to be “our reasoning?” Even if it turned out that our reasoning enters a conscious state with some minute time-shift?
              In terms of the value of consciousness: What really matters is whether our reasoning is *sufficiently* represented in our consciousness. In other words, to the degree the reasoning we are conscious of is accurate enough picture of what’s going on so we know what “we” are doing. And clearly, despite that there are always cases in which we don’t have this access…we DO have an accurate conscious representation of our reasoning.
              We know this because untold number of actions would be inexplicable if the conscious accounts we have for them were false.
              (E.g. try asking how NASA scientists got a probe to Mars, and if you think the conscious reasons they give you are inaccurate, how in the world would it account so tightly for the success of the missions, and what other possible non-rational non-in-control explanation could you give?)

              nor are we free to choose the set of options.”

              Which begs the question and turns right back to the problem of throwing out the idea of having true options. You become incoherent in doing so.

              It is simply adopting a strange, needlessly unworkable demand on the term “free” and “options.”

              I desired to go outside and visit the country today, so I did so.

              Someone in prison may have the same desire, but he could not act to fulfill that desire.

              I am “free” to take the action that fulfills my desire in a way the prisoner is not.

              This is a standard use of the term “free” and “having a choice.”

              If you think we have to throw out such use of the term “free to choose between options” how exactly would you replace that language?
              You will fail, because you’ll have to replace it with terms that end up meaning the same thing. Because they are actually useful descriptions that identify facts in the world.

              Cheers.

              • Chris G
                Posted October 21, 2019 at 4:45 am | Permalink

                Morning Vaal,
                I didn’t ignore your restaurant example; but yes, I did offer an alternative/changed version. Which I appreciate you didn’t find helpful, as it undermines the point you were making.
                In discussing free-will, it’s clearly important to acknowledge ways in which we are constrained and/or compelled to think/act in any specific/chosen way. I offered three examples: forgetting, never knowing, and having a condition (e.g. Tourettes).

                We’re agreed it’s often the case we can rationalise choices we make, with detailed coherent post-hoc explanation. I have no doubt you “CAN tell you why a certain restaurant is my favorite in the city.” But one COULD have failed to recall restaurant XYZ, and when reminded, the explanation collapses immediately – and you can’t explain why you forgot about that eatery.
                We all do this many many times: even when we’re kind of aware we just blurted something out in a meeting, we still attempt to justify/explain/defend it post-hoc. But sometimes we hold-up our hand, retract what we said, and offer: “Sorry, no idea where that came from, please ignore!”
                Yes I’ve no doubt you can easily explain your desire to go outside and visit the country today, but that’s true of whatever you chose to do today, whether you stayed in bed, or sat around in your underwear eating popcorn watching kids cartoons. Any and every option available to you can be explained post-hoc. But ultimately, you can’t account for the specific choice you made, nor for the options that didn’t occur to you (“Damn, I meant to go see one of my friends this weekend, but I forgot!”)

                With regard to religious-terrorism, I think you’re conflating free-will and belief: people act on their beliefs whether they have ‘accurate access’ to their thinking or not.
                As Sam says in his book ‘Free Will’:
                “Take a moment to think about the context in which your next decision will occur: You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime – by your genes, your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have had with other people, events, and ideas. Where is the freedom in this? Yes, you are free to do what you want even now. But where did your desires come from?”
                The issue isn’t whether we can explain why someone acted the way they did: it’s whether they had ultimate conscious-control over what they thought and did.
                Some people can do evil things – but they didn’t choose to be evil.
                It’s interesting you didn’t reply to my Tourettes example, and the claim that ultimately we all have a similar ‘condition’.

                I’m comfortable talking about how I make choices moment to moment, day by day. But the ‘I’ referred to, is not the conscious me.
                Sam again:
                “How can we be “free” as conscious agents if everything that we consciously intend is caused by events in our brain that we do not intend and of which we are entirely unaware?”
                Chris G.

              • Vaal
                Posted October 21, 2019 at 10:31 am | Permalink

                Morning back to you, Chris!

                ”I have no doubt you “CAN tell you why a certain restaurant is my favorite in the city.”

                Right. So that is an example you have to account for, not ignore.
                And speaking to other examples where we may be “wrong” doesn’t speak to the situations in which we seem to be “right.”

                Yet your post seems to continue to imply that ANYthing I tell you of my conscious representation of my reason will be some “post hoc” story, and not the truth of the matter. That’s a hypothesis that needs to do a heck of a lot more work before being taken seriously.

                It’s like the fact our senses (and the part of the brain that makes sense from them) are generally reliable, but you can point to instances in which our senses “fail” or interpret things incorrectly. So you can bring forth things like optical illusions. But pointing to the cases in which the senses are misled does nothing to account for all the cases in which they seem reliable.

                I manage to find the doorway and exit my house successfully every single day. Without any problem. How would the hypothesis “our senses are unreliable” account for that? If it doesn’t – and doesn’t even bother to – it’s not a hypothesis to be taken seriously.

                I’m pointing out that our conscious representation of our reasoning and deliberations, even if *in some cases* inaccurate, seem to be *in many cases* accurate – in fact sufficiently accurate for us to apprehend and convey our reasoning, to successfully navigate the world (together).

                If you ask my which is my favourite restaurant in my city, I can tell you (Alo, in Toronto, I’ve just made another reservation). I can tell you the various reasons, citing examples, for why it became my favourite restaurant and why I’m willing to pay so much to eat there (e.g. all sorts of instances of service and dishes that reliably rose above anything I’ve experienced in the city). It is not some mystery where I can not consciously account for why I’m spending big bucks at that restaurant. If the hypothesis is that, no, the reasons I think I have and would give are mere “ad hoc” stories and there is some OTHER reasons, or causal chain that both explains my choice better, and which has as much predictive power as the reasons I give you, then you’d need to produce that alternative. Otherwise, it’s just sheer speculation I don’t need to take seriously.

                Again: like the case with optical illusions, that we can induce experimentally instances of conscious ad hoc reasoning that is ‘inaccurate’ does not entail that all cases of conscious apprehensions of our reasons are inaccurate . That type of leap would have to have incredible explanatory power that it does not currently have.

                I also gave the example of asking the scientists at NASA about their reasoning in designing the probes and missions to mars. They will take you through their conscious understanding of the reasoning – from learning from past experience, setting up experiments to test hypotheses leading to X conclusions, to understanding which math to use to figure out a problem, and showing how each step of the math leads to the next step of the conclusions etc. The accounts they give you, the reasons they are “conscious of having” for their designs and choices, will converge to explain the nature of the probe, and it’s success, with amazing accuracy.

                If you have the hypothesis that human consciousness does not accurately reflect and describe the reasons we have for doing things – then you’d have to explain how the consciously given reasons map so well to actions and evidence, and provide such predictive power, and how our conscious representations of reasoning to one another allows us such successful navigation of the real world.

                Until then, it’s more reasonable to conclude that while our consciousness may be in error and unaware of various influences in some cases, were we “really are mistaken as to how we reached a conclusion,” in the main, we can and do have accurate-enough representations of our reasoning in our conscious life.

                Cheers.

              • Chris G
                Posted October 21, 2019 at 11:23 am | Permalink

                Hi Vaal.
                Alo in Toronto sounds great, I’ll give it a go if/when I next get to your city (only visited once way back in 2002. Was minus-15 degrees, I was terrified to walk 5 mins from the hotel to the steak-bar! I’ve never been good with the cold.)

                I think you may be confusing reasoning with supposed free-will, but they’re not the same thing, and one is not dependent on the other. (Also: how would we explain having free-will to behave irrationally?)
                Comparison of free-will and rationality is something Sam addresses in a couple of discussions with Ben Shapiro (e.g. the time Sam was on Ben’s show).
                It’s not free-will that compels us to recognise 2 plus 2 equals 4. Once we’ve learnt basic-arithmetic, we’re not free to will the answer to be anything but 4.
                And your ability to find the doorway and exit your house successfully every single day without any problem is not due to free-will either: it’s based on underlying sub-conscious cognitive and mechanical functions that don’t require any conscious action i.e. you can be lost deep in thought (or sleep-walking) and find yourself safely outside your house with no recollection whatsoever as to how you got there, a bit like the cliche of driving home and not recalling anything of the journey, no idea if/when you stopped at red-lights etc.

                Unlike explaining reasoning-logically, when it comes to explaining decisions/choices, we often rely on post-hoc justification to convince ourselves we were ‘in control’. As I said before, you can explain choosing to go out to the country as easily as anything else you may have chosen to do with your Sunday.
                What’s more, despite our being convinced we understand, and were fully in control of, past decisions/actions we took, we need to account for the fact that for most of us (I’d guess virtually everyone), there’s a long and growing list of painful regrets about past-decisions, recognition of mistakes we made, why-oh-why-oh-why did I do that! If only I could turn back time, if I had the chance to rethink and change my mind, why didn’t I think it through more fully, how come that other thing I could have done/decided never came to mind??
                If you’re suggesting conscious free-will allows us to fully consider each decision and always act rationally, there’s a hell of a lot of fuck-ups and regret that needs explaining.

              • Vaal
                Posted October 21, 2019 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

                Chris,

                I was isolating the concerns that Sam has, and that I took you to be echoing, about how consciousness works. As you know, one of the pillars of Sam’s argument against free will is that consciousness doesn’t work like people assume, and that the conscious self is not “in control” of our decisions, but rather it’s more like a helpless witness to thoughts that “we” did not “choose” to think. And in favor of these claims he adduces “evidence” from meditation and similar invocations demonstrating that “thoughts simply occur without our willing them” and that THEREFORE while we can make up a story for why any thoughts or decisions arise in our consciousness we can’t REALLY account for why we have them.

                I find it all a very dubious line of evidence and reasoning for the reasons I’ve given. We can indeed sufficiently know our own thought processes, and why we reach various ideas, conclusions etc.

                When I talked of the math a NASA engineer would explain to you upon asking his reasons for a design, it was not as “evidence of free will” but instead an argument against the type of “we don’t have conscious account for our actual reasons for things” argument you seem to be repeating. That hypothesis can not explain how tightly a NASA engineer’s explanation of his reasoning maps to and explains the outcome of his actions.

                Yes I’ve no doubt you can easily explain your desire to go outside and visit the country today, but that’s true of whatever you chose to do today, whether you stayed in bed, or sat around in your underwear eating popcorn watching kids cartoons.

                Right.

                And some of the reasons we are consciously aware of for our actions will be accurate, even if some are not. THAT is what you have to grapple with IF you are going to claim that “we don’t really know why we do what we do.” Remember, I’m not claiming our conscious reasons are always accurate, only that they are very often and sufficiently accurate to explain and predict our behaviors, and therefore you can not appeal to an argument that dismisses this.

                Any and every option available to you can be explained post-hoc.

                Again, that is simply restating that mere assertion, without evidence or showing it has much explanatory power at all.

                I keep giving examples against that claim.

                Back to talking to a NASA engineer: If she explains how they built a probe and got it to mars, are you going to say that her explanation is merely “ad hoc” and that she doesn’t “really” know why they made the choices they made, can’t account for the design of the probe and it’s successful landing? If that’s the case, what else possibly COULD explain the probe? And how could you explain how tightly the conscious reasons given seem to explain the probe design, and how those conscious reasons help predict steps the engineers will take when designing the next probe?

                To say that the NASA engineers really have no conscious access to the “real” reasons they came to any conclusions is an absolutely wild claim that requires far more evidence and explanatory power than you’ve been able to provide.

                I often have this conversation and when I pose specific questions that get to the heart of the problem, I always get back generalities that don’t actually help explain specifics, or diversions to other examples that lead away from the point at hand.

                Anyway, that will wrap this one up for me.

                Cheers, and thanks for the conversation!

              • Chris G
                Posted October 22, 2019 at 6:50 am | Permalink

                Hi Vaal.
                Thanks to you too for the civil conversation, I’ve enjoyed it.

                You say at the end: “I often have this conversation and when I pose specific questions that get to the heart of the problem, I always get back generalities that don’t actually help explain specifics, or diversions to other examples that lead away from the point at hand.”
                Sorry if you feel I’ve missed key points, but I don’t think I have. If you’re referring to the NASA example as a specific question you think is at the heart of the problem, I don’t think it is: I can’t see the issue of free-will there at all.

                But likewise, I feel you haven’t fully addressed key points I’ve made:

                1 – We know we’re constrained & compelled when choosing: e.g. forgetting, never knowing, having a condition. These are almost always at play in decision processes.

                2 – Confusing belief with free-will, re. religious-terrorism.

                3 – Example of blurting out a thought, instantly recognising we didn’t really choose to do/think that, realise we were not in control, please ignore.

                4 – Post-hoc reasoning: on Sunday you were convinced a walk in the country was the right choice, but that would be true whatever you’d decided to do. Imagine today you regret it and wish you’d chosen to go to see your friend as you’d promised but forgot. How would you account for making the wrong choice at the time?

                5 – Confusing reasoning with free-will. NASA designing missions to Mars is about reasoning (science and maths) it has logically provable right and wrong answers, we can test what works. I can’t see where free-will comes into play. You are not free to will that 2 plus 2 is anything other than 4 etc.

                6 – My reply to your claim that leaving your house each day is proof of free-will: it’s not, you could do it sleep-walking, never conscious. If you did sleep-walk, would that be a free-will choice? If not, what is it?

                7 – My observation that virtually all of us have many regrets about choices we made in the past, how we’re often pained & dumbfounded as to why we chose to do/say what we did, can’t believe we’d be so stupid etc.

                I was thinking about your favourite restaurant which you’ve made a big thing of. The problem is there’s no wrong answer, any restaurant you choose to name and explain is ok.
                What’s far more interesting is how we explain your underlying preferences and predispositions e.g. why you like a particular food-culture, why you prefer busy rather than quiet, price doesn’t bother you, large place rather than small, location in bustling city rather than out in the sticks etc. etc.
                And of course, whether you have any control over your preferences: are you in any way free to choose these underlying influences?
                Take another example, the (often drunk in the pub) game ‘Name your top-celeb hotty!’, the celebrity you find most attractive.
                Well, we didn’t choose our sexual-orientation, so unless bi, male or female not a free-will choice. And although I can (post-hoc) explain why I find XYZ the sexiest person on the planet (looks, shape, height, smile, humour, intellect, fashion choice, hair etc. etc.) I did not choose the preferences that do it for me, I cannot account for the long chain of prior-causes that landed me with those preferences.
                And this has serious real-world consequences: to what extent (if at all) can we ‘blame’ paedophiles for their condition/preferences, whilst fully recognising we need to do something about it?

                Vaal, I think you’ve focused too much on post-hoc reasoning, and not enough on the process/act of preferring/choosing/deciding/acting.
                Even when you’ve addressed the clear and obvious insight that thoughts really do just arise in consciousness unbidden and somewhat mysteriously (i.e. we are not the authors of our own thoughts and intentions), you then dismiss that as a “very dubious line of evidence”.

                You write: “We can indeed sufficiently know our own thought processes, and why we reach various ideas, conclusions etc.”
                This is the crux of the matter: I really don’t think we can,
                Chris G.

    • Posted October 19, 2019 at 11:57 am | Permalink

      I agree. In a debate, William Lane Craig objected that without god, there can be no morality, and so we can’t, for instance, say Jeffrey Dahmer’s actions are any more wrong than the actions of a lion hunting for food. Shelly Kagan replied that our larger brains and superior cognitive capabilities allow us to experience empathy to a much greater degree, and to understand the concepts of right and wrong. So some of our actions have a moral component, even if we can see that morality is a concept lacking in smaller-brained actors’ cognitive landscapes.

      I am a neuro-typical person. I understand that lying to my wife, or losing my temper with my young children are wrong. I’ve done these things anyway. I am “morally” responsible for those actions when contrasted with a morally inert action like deciding to wear black socks rather than gray.

      • Posted October 19, 2019 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

        I suspect that Sam disagrees with Jerry regarding moral responsibility.

      • GBJames
        Posted October 19, 2019 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

        As for me, black socks are morally offensive symbols of oppression.

        One can attach moral trimmings to anything. It adds little to the concept of “responsibility”.

        • Posted October 19, 2019 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

          Not in the real world. If we actually had to take seriously the idea that your choice of sock color, in and of itself, could harm someone, our legal systems would be completely choked and ineffective. Some actions are morally inert in the real world.

          • GBJames
            Posted October 20, 2019 at 10:19 am | Permalink

            Are you unaware of how morality gets attached to clothing? Hijabs? Skirts too short?

            This happens in the real world. We can morally burden anything we like.

            • Posted October 20, 2019 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

              You deny there are *any* actions that people wouldn’t care about one way or the other? And what about Coel’s examples? There’s no difference between accidentally injuring someone because you were unaware they were behind you and actually making a decision to punch someone in the face?

    • Timothy Reichert
      Posted October 19, 2019 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

      When you use the word “deliberate” as the qualifier for “morally” you are begging the question. “Deliberate” implies contra-causal free will. If we are to look at the situation sans the idea of “deliberate” the distinguishing factor you are trying to describe is really just the likelihood or unlikelihood of the actor repeating the behaviour.

      So we can hold people responsible for their actions. And instead of adding the word “morally” we add the observation that they are likely to repeat the behaviour, precisely because they do not have free will, whereas someone who did something by accident is less likely to repeat.

      You said “And therefore we need to distinguish between acts that we want to punish and acts that we don’t want to punish”

      And we can do so based on the likelihood of the act being repeated, without the need for the problematic concept of free will or “moral responsibility.”

      • Posted October 19, 2019 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

        ““Deliberate” implies contra-causal free will.”

        Does it? Have you thought through the vast swathes of the language that you want to over-turn along with “free will”?

        Isn’t it more sensible to interpret the language in terms of how things actually are?

        A chess grandmaster surely makes a move “deliberately” (= after deliberation and contemplation and with intent). So does a chess-playing computer (though that is presumably lacking in conscious self-awareness).

        “the distinguishing factor you are trying to describe is really just the likelihood or unlikelihood of the actor repeating the behaviour.”

        I think the distinguishing factor is whether the action can be deterred by threats of consequences. A “deliberate” one can be (since the deliberation will take into account the consequences). A thoughtless accident can not (since it wasn’t the product of contemplation).

        • Posted October 19, 2019 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

          I agree. “Deliberate” just says that the gears in our heads moved substantially in order to reach the decision. We thought about it relatively long and hard.

          I find it an irritating mode of argument where, if you say certain magic words like “free will” and “deliberate”, then you are automatically a dualist or you are denying determinism and the laws of physics. These very same people will use these words in conversation on other subjects moments later and without a second thought.

          • Posted October 19, 2019 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

            Exactly. A challenge for everyone who agrees with Jerry in rejecting compatibilism:

            Try to go through the next week without using any words you consider to require contra-causal free will. So, for the next week, don’t use any words such as “choice, “deliberate”, “moral”, “free”, “plan”, “consider”, “decide”, “control”, “attempt”, “option”, “threaten”, “test”, “compel”, “consider”, “coerce”, and a vast many others.

            Easy enough? Afterall, you don’t think any of these have any validity in a deterministic universe, do you?

            If, on the other hand, you find yourself finding these words useful, ask yourself why, and at that point consider the attractions of compatiblism!

            • GBJames
              Posted October 19, 2019 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

              Why? This challenge informs us of nothing helpful here. It is not a test of the existence (or not) of free will. It is a confirmation of human psychological bias.

              I don’t think anyone here takes the position that people don’t hold an inherent assumption of free will. Some of us, however, argue that it is illusory and that the assumption is false.

              • Posted October 19, 2019 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

                The point is that you either have to interpret language in a compatibilist way, or replace about half of it, or spend the rest of your life being inconsistent and using language that you regard as invalid. Which of those are you opting for?

              • GBJames
                Posted October 19, 2019 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

                It is an entirely false choice when answering the question “does free will exist?”.

                Do I need to go through life worrying about the fact that I refer to the sunrise in the morning, too?

              • Posted October 19, 2019 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

                It’s not a false choice when considering whether to use concepts such as “choose” or “decide” or “deliberate” or “free speech” or being “free” to decide how to dress.

              • GBJames
                Posted October 19, 2019 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

                Coel, it is completely irrelevant to the question. A diversion.

              • Vaal
                Posted October 19, 2019 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

                GBJames,

                It is an entirely false choice when answering the question “does free will exist?”.

                Only because you are begging the question against a compatibilist account.

                What Coel is suggesting is deeply relevant to what Compatibilists argue, and to the arguments of hard incompatibilists. It shows that the free will skeptic doesn’t have a fully consistent, coherent take on the notion of “choice/possibilities” etc that arise from the incompatibilist argument.

                So, for instance, if it’s part of your argument to deny that we “really” have a choice, by saying that *any* version of “choice” that allows for “possible to do A or B” or that denies a previous choice as having been about possible actions, then you quickly become incoherent.

                It becomes like a scientist saying “I’ve done experiments on human reasoning, and it turns out that human reasoning is an illusion, it’s ENTIRELY unreliable!”

                Well, er, that scientist would apparently need it to be pointed out that his conclusion can’t be accepted – it leads to incoherence and is self-refuting. If human reason were wholly unreliable, then his conclusion for which he used reason is unreliable. So human reason *must in some ways/situations* be reliable if we are to accept the conclusion.

                Similarly, once you start saying “choice is an illusion” on the basis “it’s never true to say we can take alternative actions” then you face a similar type of incoherence down the line. Because science itself relies on the very notions of “possibilities” and empirical inference that you would have denied.

                No one can force you to follow the logic if you don’t want to do so, of course. And without actually following the argument, of course you won’t notice the relevance.

                “Do I need to go through life worrying about the fact that I refer to the sunrise in the morning, too?”

                Actually I’d suggest that it is worth giving thought to that issue, and for similar reasons.

                Presumably you would want to say “The sun doesn’t REALLY rise – that’s an illusion, a false-hood – instead the earth rotates to change the angle of the sun relative to the earth.”

                But does it follow from this that it to say “The Sun Rises in the east?” is pure fiction?
                That would be naive, because what people mean to indicate with such language, what it describes, isn’t *just* the idea of the sun moving that that it DOES “rise” relative to the horizon (in the east). It’s like looking at a cartoon of the sun on on film, with the sun rising out of the horizon. You can say “it’s not REALLY moving/rising – it’s just a bunch of still pictures one after the other giving that illusion.” Yes, that’s what is causing the appearance of the sun rising, but it IS true and relevant to describe it as “rising” relative to the horizon line.

                Same with concepts like “solid.” It would be naive to think “now that we know solid materials aren’t made of contiguous matter, but atoms and forces, solid things don’t exist.” No, the properties that people referred to as “solid” (compared to say liquid) are still there. We just understand how it happens.

                It would be equally rash to throw out the notion of “choice” “could do either” “could have done otherwise” thinking that they ONLY refer to metaphysical claims, when in fact the work they actually do tends to refer to normal empirical claims compatible with determinism.

              • GBJames
                Posted October 20, 2019 at 10:29 am | Permalink

                “But does it follow from this that it to say “The Sun Rises in the east?” is pure fiction?”

                Of course it depends on what one means by “pure fiction”. If one means “literary construct purposefully created”, then obviously the answer is “no” and nobody makes the claim. If one means “illusion resulting from evolved sense receptors”, then yes it follows.

                From time to time PCC[E] posts optical illusions that Matthew sends him. We all look at them and mutter “wow, that’s cool” (or something similar). Few of us would argue that the lines are really moving or the colors are really all different. We agree these are illusions resulting from the failure of our sense organs to represent the universe with high accuracy within the limits of the image. Similarly, we can acknowledge that we all have sense of choice all the time, which or languages reflect. We can also acknowledge that illusions exists and free will is one of them.

            • Posted October 19, 2019 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

              Yes, though perhaps we should start calling it “Non-dualist Compatibilism” to differentiate it from the other, disreputable kind.

            • Roo
              Posted October 20, 2019 at 5:20 am | Permalink

              These are words that one could use about electronics, with no implication of free will:

              – Let’s let the algorithm decide what we do next

              – Siri is planning our route

              – I’m going to let this app make the choice

              – (Video game) is fun, but it’s not a particularly moral game

              – In this game the character has the option of ____, they’re free to ____ (I don’t play video games if you can’t tell!)

              Etc.

              They speak to a level of agency or perceived agency, to my mind, not freedom from causality.

          • Vaal
            Posted October 19, 2019 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

            “These very same people will use these words in conversation on other subjects moments later and without a second thought.”

            Exactly!

            And words like “options” “choice” and “should” and “ought to” etc.

            It seems they just haven’t thought through what it would truly mean to treat all those as “illusion” – that is “never as factual statements.”

            What I usually see are just half-hearted moments of attention on the problem like “Well, so what if our lack of free will entails all those things are illusions. Human beings believe many wrong things and we just have to be grown up and accept we are prone to talking in illusions.”

            This is really just a way of avoiding thinking through the problem.

            If they actually tried to replace notions of “options, choice, deliberate, control, could have done otherwise” etc they will actually find it IMPOSSIBLE because people use those notions to apprehend and convey actual facts about real things in the world. Not just “illusory” thoughts. You’d only end up substituting words that have to mean essentially the same thing.

            • Timothy Reichert
              Posted October 19, 2019 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

              This is pretty easy to sort. I can use the language “I chose to put this shirt on today” without evoking free will. I chose it but I didn’t control the choice. I didn’t choose it with my free will I chose it by compulsion.

              When I say “I chose it” it only means someone else didn’t choose it. The entity that is me, that acts by the laws of nature, chose it.

              This language is coherent and does not evoke free will or moral responsibility.

              • Vaal
                Posted October 19, 2019 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

                Timothy,

                “This is pretty easy to sort.”

                Glad to hear it 😉

                But there is more left to sort out.

                “I chose to put this shirt on today”

                So doesn’t that mean you “had a choice?” The usual application of that word concerns actually “being able to choose from among possible alternative actions.”

                Are you using “choice” in that way? Or in some non-standard way? And if in a non-standard way, it’s unclear.

                That is: did you have a choice between alternative actions in the sense that the alternative choices were all “possible?” (e.g. putting on “this” shirt instead of “that” shirt)?

              • Posted October 19, 2019 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

                Devoid of other context, I interpret “I chose to put this shirt on today” to be clearly invocation of free will. If someone said that to me, I would assume they had a choice of shirts to put on and chose this particular one. Alternatively, they could have had only one shirt available in which case, the choice was between that shirt and going shirtless. Still free will.

              • Timothy Reichert
                Posted October 19, 2019 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

                The choice I had refers to the fact that I have more than one shirt. I looked at them all and then grabbed this one. So it’s hard not to characterize that as a choice. It’s also hard to characterize it as a choice made with my “free will” because my will is anything but free. So it was a choice made by me, but not with my “free will” because that concept is incoherent.

              • Vaal
                Posted October 19, 2019 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

                Timothy, you aren’t getting to the crux of the matter.

                “The choice I had refers to the fact that I have more than one shirt. I looked at them all and then grabbed this one. So it’s hard not to characterize that as a choice. “

                You aren’t answering the question of whether you HAD A CHOICE and what that actually means. We are talking about instances of deliberating between alternative actions.

                Again: did you have a choice in the sense alternative actions being “possible” for you?
                In other words, where you thinking “I could wear shirt A or I could wear shirt B today?”

                I presume the answer is “yes” as this is how we normally deliberate when choosing.

                And if so: was it “true” that you could have worn shirt A or B? Or not?

                Think about the consequences if you say that it was not in fact true that both action were “possible” for you.

                How would your deliberation and choice even be rational if your deliberations included contemplating an impossible action?

                If you are deciding how to get to a local restaurant you may engage in rational deliberation between possible courses of action – e.g. “I COULD drive or I COULD take public transportation to avoid problems parking.”

                That makes sense right?

                It wouldn’t make sense to deliberate between “choosing to drive or choosing to teleport to the restaurant.” Why not? Because teleportation isn’t POSSIBLE. Our deliberations about which actions are open to us can ONLY make sense in the context of their being POSSIBLE actions for us. In some true sense of “possible.”

                So if you actually deliberated when choosing between shirts, it could only have been a rational way of thinking IF you accept that either action was “possible” for you to take.

                The problem is that, I infer from your replies, when you start thinking about the free will debate you start entangling “possible actions” only with the notion of some magic contra-causal idea. When in fact that’s totally unnecessary, and in fact isn’t actually the underlying concepts motivating our deliberations.

            • Timothy Reichert
              Posted October 19, 2019 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

              Vaal, here is the definition of “choose.”

              “pick out or select (someone or something) as being the best or most appropriate of two or more alternatives.”

              This is what my body and brain did in my closet based on a will that I have no control over.

              Using the word “choice” is not the problem. Believing that choice was made with your free will is the problem. Keep the language. Dump the idea that you are really in charge. ie “morally responsible.”

              • Vaal
                Posted October 19, 2019 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

                Timothy,

                Again…you are avoiding the problem posed to you.

                What do you THINK that dictionary definition means by “alternatives?” The dictionary reflects common usage, right?

                So what do you THINK people mean when they say “I had a choice between alternatives?”

                Making choices are typically about choosing between “possible actions.”

                Apply the concept of “alternatives” to your choosing which shirt to wear. The “alternatives” open to you, and about which you would have deliberated weren’t merely “I own more than one shirt.” It was about ALTERNATIVE ACTIONS you could take. That is, whether to act to put on shirt A or act to put on shirt B, right? Therefore your deliberation was about what ACTIONS YOU can take.

                So back to your shirt deliberation.

                If it was a deliberate choice, that would have normally involved looking at two or more shirts, and the only reason you would deliberate “whether to wear one or the other” is if you assumed it was *possible* for you to wear either one if you want to.

                Right?

                After all, how could it be rational to deliberate or consider doing what you hold to be impossible?

                You can’t get at this merely by citing that you had more than one shirt and that your brain “did” make a choice. The point is going in to the very assumptions you would have had, in order to make sense of your reasoning about what to wear.

              • Timothy Reichert
                Posted October 20, 2019 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

                Vaal,

                “Making choices are typically about choosing between “possible actions.”

                That’s not what the dictionary says. Let me know when my use of “choose” is at odds with the dictionary definition. Until then, you’re just invoking ideas that are not in the definition.

                Also, this reminds me of Christians telling me I can not use phrases like “God dammit!” or “God only knows” if I don’t believe that God actually exists. They are wrong. I most definitely can use the phrase “God only knows” without believing that God actually exists and without being incoherent. Nobody would find what I said unintelligible if they found out I don’t actually believe in God. They would still know what I meant. No compatibilist ideas or language necessary.

                PS. Spellcheck still does not recognize “compatibilism” as a legitimate word. Spellcheck knows what time it is. 😉

              • Vaal
                Posted October 20, 2019 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

                Timothy,

                “That’s not what the dictionary says. Let me know when my use of “choose” is at odds with the dictionary definition. Until then, you’re just invoking ideas that are not in the definition.”

                Oh for goodness sake.

                If you simply won’t cop to the obvious fact that your choice involved taking actions – “which shirt DO I WANT TO WEAR TODAY?” – then you just aren’t interacting seriously here.

                So I guess further conversion is fruitless.

              • Timothy Reichert
                Posted October 21, 2019 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

                Imagine describing the scene from a third person perspective watching a video of yourself act and remembering your thoughts.

                I went into my closet. I looked at all of the shirts. I thought about which one would go best with my outfit for the day. And then I chose this one and put it on. Those are the things the entity that is me did. But I just watched it go down and went for the ride. I wasn’t driving the vehicle. Deliberating happened but I did not control it. Thoughts occurred but I did not control them.

                This is all coherent language. The only language that would make it incoherent is if I claimed that I made this choice with my “free will.” I didn’t make the choice with my free will because I have no such thing. I made the choice with my extremely not free compulsive instincts. You say that makes it not a choice. But you don’t have the dictionary on your side with this claim. So it’s an empty claim.

                Only the term “free will” is incoherent. The word “choose” still works fine by the dictionary definition. It does not require “free will” to be coherent.

              • Vaal
                Posted October 22, 2019 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

                Timothy,

                Your replies continue to avoid the crux of the problem.

                “Imagine describing the scene from a third person perspective watching a video of yourself act and remembering your thoughts.”

                And then note that this is an impossible manner of reasoning for actually making rational “choices.”

                You aren’t being asked to give some third-person description of what you did but rather address the actual reasoning you used WHILE making the decision, in order for that decision to have made any sense.

                In other words, what are you thinking WHEN making a choice and what makes the process a rational, coherent process?

                You will necessarily be assuming it to be “possible” to select from among one or more actions, in order to make your choice-making coherent.

                The concept of “choice” that you are trying out here isn’t remotely workable.

                Try this:

                Imagine you are an interior designer discussing with a client the “choices” they have for which wall color to use in the living room.

                Now, try to cast a conversation you COULD ACTUALLY HAVE that would make sense AS A WAY OF DELIBERATING in the terms you just used, speaking only in third person about “what they did.”

                Won’t work, will it?

                No, you’ll have to use the standard language that presumes the possibility of taking the action of “either painting the wall blue, or beige” or whatever. You will not be able to make sense of any deliberation, of any “choice” without the underlying assumption that what you are talking about is “possible” and hence that multiple options for actions are “possible.”

                And once you realize the necessity, you can start to realize that we have a manner of conceiving “possibilities” that is built-in to the deterministic system because it actually works and doesn’t conflict with determinism. We just don’t need the contortions that you are going through to try to avoid normal notions of “choice” and “could do otherwise” that just lead to dead ends.

          • Timothy Reichert
            Posted October 19, 2019 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

            Yes but “deliberate” in this sense applies to all actions. Even people who make mistakes were being deliberate in this sense. They thought. They acted. They fucked up. They thought wrong. But they surely thought.

            So to say someone did something “deliberately” does not exclude people who make mistakes.

            • Posted October 19, 2019 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

              A rugby player is pushed from behind — stumbling, his foot accidently connects with the head of an opponent. He had no intention of kicking the opponent.

              Another rugby player is angry. He quite deliberately kicks the head of an opponent.

              Are you saying you see no difference? That the referee should treat them both the same?

              • Timothy Reichert
                Posted October 19, 2019 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

                No, they should obviously not be treated the same. One is a rule violation. The other is not. But in neither case is the concept of “moral responsibility” necessary or helpful.

              • Posted October 19, 2019 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

                One is only a rule violation because it is a “deliberate” act whereas the other is an “accidental” one.

                And that right there is the difference between a morally salient act and an act that is not morally salient.

              • Timothy Reichert
                Posted October 19, 2019 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

                Intentionally kicking someone in the head is seldom something one does after some “deliberation.” It’s a reflex like everything else. You can be pushed by another player or you can be pushed by your anger reflex genes. They are both pushes you had no control over. However, One kind of push makes you far more likely to do it again, and so we should deter you accordingly. The other kind of push requires no deterrence. And neither situation requires or is helped by the concept of “moral responsibility.”

            • Posted October 19, 2019 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

              That’s certainly true. You can think about something a long time and still be wrong.

        • Timothy Reichert
          Posted October 19, 2019 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

          There are no “thoughtless” acts. A person who makes a mistake also deliberated before acting but they were mistaken in their thought. “Deliberate” describes both a successful action and an unsuccessful action. Both actions were deliberate. One missed it’s mark.

          “I think the distinguishing factor is whether the action can be deterred by threats of consequences.”

          Agreed. And there’s no need of the concept of “moral responsibility” to sort this out.

          • Posted October 19, 2019 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

            “There are no “thoughtless” acts.”

            Not even stepping backwards, and accidently knocking a pint of milk of the floor?

            Or stepping backwards and accidently standing on someone’s foot? Which is surely different from deliberately standing on their foot with intention to do so?

            “there’s no need of the concept of “moral responsibility” to sort this out.”

            Wouldn’t you distinguish between the two foot-stepping acts? One is morally salient, the other not, surely?

            • Timothy Reichert
              Posted October 19, 2019 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

              You deliberately stepped backwards. You did indeed intend to step backwards. You did not “know” you would land on someone’s foot. Your stepping action was deliberate. Just as deliberate as the person who knew they were going to land on someone’s foot. The difference is that you are not likely to do it again and so no deterrence need be applied to you. For the person who knew they would land on your foot, deterrence of future acts may be necessary. We have no need to think of them as “morally” responsible only that they are likely to do that again, precisely because they do not have free will. They did not choose to be a foot stepper. But they are and you need to deter that behaviour if you like your feet.

              • Posted October 19, 2019 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

                Do you think “moral” is a meaningless word in a deterministic godless universe? Just asking, no argument intended.

              • Timothy Reichert
                Posted October 19, 2019 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

                Depends on your definition of “moral” and the definitions of all the words you use in your definition of “moral.”

                It is a word that mostly causes confusion the way it is currently used.

              • Posted October 19, 2019 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

                Okay. My beef is with atheists who accept that there are moral principles but object to using the word “morally” to modify “responsibility” in describing persons who violate those principles. That seems inconsistent to me.

              • Timothy Reichert
                Posted October 19, 2019 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

                Okay well I am an atheist who believes all human actions are done in self-interest. What you would call “moral,” helping, cooperating, being compassionate etc. I call “wise self-interest.” And what you call immoral acts such as murder, stealing, hoarding, etc. I call “unwise self-interest.”

                So I see no usefulness for the word “moral” unless it is referring to wise self-interest. And by “wise” I do not necessarily mean cognitively wise. You are wise to breath. But you do not cognitively breath. Similarly you are wise to act pro-socially, and you do so mostly non-cognitively.

              • Vaal
                Posted October 19, 2019 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

                Okay well I am an atheist who believes all human actions are done in self-interest. What you would call “moral,” helping, cooperating, being compassionate etc. I call “wise self-interest.”

                Is that a descriptive or a prescriptive theory?

                If you mean it as descriptive – that is an account of *why* people take the actions they do, it doesn’t seem like it comports fully with people’s actions and motivations.

                Many people have sacrificed their own well-being for causes or other people’s well being. There have been atheists (e.g. in war situations and others) who either risk their lives, or give up their lives, for the well-being of others. How would it make sense to explain those as “actions of self-interest” when they seem to actually put the interest/well-being of others ahead of one’s own?

                Or, do you mean it as a prescriptive theory – that the only rational motivation is of “wise self interest?”

                In that case, again…do you consider people risking their lives for the well-being of other people “wise” or “unwise” self-interest? My sister has a child who does not share her DNA, and I can tell you she is as interested in her child’s well-being as any other parent, and would like many parents put her child’s well-being above her own, even die for her child’s well-being.

                Is such altruism “unwise” in your view?

                And what you call immoral acts such as murder, stealing, hoarding, etc. I call “unwise self-interest.”

                Why? If you have a desire for those things and are in the position to get away with them, what would be “unwise” about following that self-interest? It is after all “self-interest” that you seem to recommend as a guiding principle. If in fact someone would gain what he wants by stealing something and get away with it, why shouldn’t he?

              • Vaal
                Posted October 19, 2019 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

                ^^^ format error fail. The first paragraph was supposed to be in bold – a quote from Timothy Reichert:

                “Okay well I am an atheist who believes all human actions are done in self-interest. What you would call “moral,” helping, cooperating, being compassionate etc. I call “wise self-interest.”

              • Posted October 19, 2019 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

                I am increasingly of the view that “morality” should have meaning only to theists who believe it comes from God. A society of atheists can do without it altogether. But any society needs codes of conduct (not moral codes of conduct) to prevent those who practice “unwise self-interest” (as you call it) from harming others. Why? Because the majority does not want to live in a society where people can harm others willy-nilly by intentionally stomping on their feet, etc. Ideally, the social code would control acts that harm others, nothing more. Violations of the social code are “transgressions” and the transgressors are treated in ways to prevent them transgressing again and to set an example for those who may consider transgressing. The word “morally” would not be needed because a transgression is simply a transgression. It stands on its own. Also, the code of conduct could contain rewards for those who do acts of “wise self-interest” (as you call it) to encourage those acts which benefit others. Such acts are not “moral” acts, they are simply society-benefiting acts.

                The only problem is getting there. The notion of morality is far too ingrained.

              • Timothy Reichert
                Posted October 19, 2019 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

                Too deep to get into it here in these skinny paragraphs. Another time perhaps.

          • Posted October 19, 2019 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

            Ok, “thoughtless” is a word that doesn’t really mean literally “without thought”. As with all words, it depends a lot on context. Isn’t manslaughter when one thoughtlessly kills another? It means roughly “without the kind of thoughts that matter in the given context”.

    • Posted October 20, 2019 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      Coel, you seem to concede that someone could not have done otherwise, or computed (deliberated) otherwise. The universe could not have otherwise barring indeterminant quantum fluctuations. Fair enough.

      So, it would appear we are ‘destined’ to have this semantic to and fro around the real meaning of free will. Such is life.

      But all the time, we are missing an interesting worldview of the implication of the universe not being able to be otherwise, barring the quantum fluctuations that shape the universe.

  8. Randall Schenck
    Posted October 19, 2019 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    He seems to not really know what he is talking about. Land on it please and then write it down so we can read it later. Going directly from free will to moral responsibility tells us he is lost. Most likely lost in religion.

  9. Jon Gallant
    Posted October 19, 2019 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    “(Do chipmunks and amoebas, then, have free will?)” Maybe not amoebas, but why shouldn’t chipmunks have free will? I used to enjoy almost daily stopovers from Sarge, a visiting cat, who gave every indication of free will. Sarge was friendly but independent, and his official sponsors lived a block and a half away; he had simply adopted my place as his second home. He used the hidden cat-door (which no other neighborhood cat could figure out) and came and went as he pleased, once in a while staying overnight, but more often just dropping in for a visit.

  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 19, 2019 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    There are just too many podcasts these days, and not enough books. I know people can listen when gardening or driving, but to me there’s nothing like a book for getting your teeth into ideas.

    I agree, and, if it’s a heavy topic, I need a dead-tree book, with a pencil for marginalia, a highlighter, and legal pad for taking notes, as though I’m studying for an old law-school exam again.

    I always read a book in bed right before falling asleep, but sometimes, when my eyes get tired, I’ll put down the book and put on a podcast to listen to. I almost always fall asleep soon after — so I guess in a sense the last 15 years or so of my life have been a longitudinal study in the efficacy of hypnopedia. 🙂

    The other morning I woke up having the weirdest, most outré dreams ever. I realized I’d fallen asleep listening to a podcast on YouTube and for some reason the YouTube algorithms had then put me onto Will Durant’s series of philosophy lectures. Playing in the background as I was dreaming was his discussion of Nietzsche, in particular of Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Ecce Homo.

    I’ll never take a chance on THAT ever happening again. 🙂

  11. Posted October 19, 2019 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    I’d like to see you and Bret Weinstein have a healthy face to face discussion.

  12. yazikus
    Posted October 19, 2019 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    I’m not quite sure what Weinstein is saying, but I think he really needs to write a book and explicate his ideas at length. This would fix his claims that neither his videos nor his statements (like here and here) don’t fully explain what he thinks.

    There are just too many podcasts these days, and not enough books. I know people can listen when gardening or driving, but to me there’s nothing like a book for getting your teeth into ideas.

    Curiously, the discussion above appears to be on “Christian Radio.”

    It is a less weighty intellectual endeavor to talk/podcast than it is to write a book I think. And Bret here is a great talker – he can go on and on at length (and might leave you wondering what exactly he’s said at the end of those hours), but committing it to paper is something I suspect he’s not keen on doing. I’ve talked to a few of his former students – and of those who loved him and his lecture style, even they were at a loss to describe what exactly they came out of his course having learned.

  13. Posted October 19, 2019 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    As he suggests, it would be nice to hear a debate on free will with Bret Weinstein and Sam Harris as participants. This under 3-minute speech is obviously not long enough to tell much about what Weinstein believes on the subject. Still, he starts at the right place: the definition of “free will”. I’m guessing that the kind of free will he is talking about is different than the one Sam Harris (and our host) use. If so, that would have to be settled first before any useful debate on the question could happen.

  14. Posted October 19, 2019 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    The stance that we don’t have free will basks in the light of evidence, and what we understand about the human mind and physics.
    Meanwhile, arguments for free will always requires special pleading, appeals to ignorance, and the motivated reasoning is pretty obvious.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted October 19, 2019 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      And when free will was conceived, how was it know it was free, and not simply the will? Why not just “will”?

    • Posted October 19, 2019 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

      “Meanwhile, arguments for free will always requires special pleading, appeals to ignorance, and the motivated reasoning is pretty obvious.”

      If the vast majority(up of 70%)believes that what appears to be true is true—namely, that we have free will—and a small minority argues that what appears to be true is an illusion, that doesn’t mean the majority is right, but it does mean that the minority is the group in more need of “special pleading.”

      Also, given that determinism is a logical requirement of scientific materialism, I’d say that there’s plenty of “motivated reasoning” to go around on both sides.

      Not sure what to say about “appeals to ignorance” except perhaps that it begs the question.

      • Posted October 19, 2019 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

        The “illusionists” need more than special pleading. They assert, without any proof, that phenomena they do not understand, like free will, consciousness, self, etc. are illusions, but they provide NO proof. A true illusion, like the Muller-Lyer illusion, can be PROVEN to be an illusion. I can take out a ruler and measure the lines. What proof do the illusionists provide? None. By Hitchens’s razor, we can simply dismiss their assertions.

    • Posted October 20, 2019 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

      The stance that we don’t have free will basks in the light of intuitive ideas about time and causality, which fail to stand up to modern science. Click on my username for a series of blog posts on my website (which is mine) for more details.

  15. Posted October 19, 2019 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    With respect to the podcasts versus books point PCC(E) makes, if people want to listen to things while gardening or driving, there are oodles of audio books available, and they are often wonderful, and can even be a great way to get to get another take on a book you’ve read the usual way

    • Posted October 20, 2019 at 8:44 am | Permalink

      I wasn’t making a general statement about what people should prefer: I was only indicating my own preference for books over audio stuff.

  16. Vaal
    Posted October 19, 2019 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Bret Weinstein didn’t lay out all his terms to make his view clear. But I’m sure he knew that and was trying to give a simple “nutshell” view of where he ends up on the question.

    It seemed to me he was running along the same lines of Dennett’s “free will evolves” and if that’s the case, I would agree with Weinstein’s take.

    Though, that particular podcast did have Weinstein saying some things I thought were pretty dodgy, so I don’t know if I’d find myself fully agreeing if he explicated his own take on free will in detail.

    • Posted October 20, 2019 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

      I’m not at all optimistic about what Weinstein might contribute on the topic, for similar reasons.

  17. Roo
    Posted October 20, 2019 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    If Weinstein thinks free will is incredibly obvious and proven by evolution, my guess is that what he means by free will is some form of basic agency, not freedom in the most ultimate sense.

    I continue to think that free will is an illusion much like the self, whose persistence can be explained in part by the fact that we are so programmed to see ourselves as future projections of ourselves in time (I think this is why there is so much contemplative emphasis on being truly ‘in the moment’, and why it is so difficult.) I am the kind of person who still visibly cringes and gets upset when I recall mistakes that I made years or even decades ago – the sense of “But why did I do / say that, I could / should have done / said _____” is so strong. But of course that is me, now, envisioning myself at some other point in time, not whatever the situation was as it unfolded in that exact moment. I have also had very occasional moments of feeling as if life and the self really do “just happen”, that I am not the captain of the ship in charge of it all and that in some very real sense the goings on of the universe unfold naturally, on their own – but those are rare and I understand why it’s difficult to see things from that perspective, at a really visceral level, for more than a few moments at a time. The moment you start to talk about or describe such a sense you’re generally yanked back out of it.

  18. PaulS
    Posted November 10, 2019 at 12:58 am | Permalink

    Mr. Coyne,

    Do you think you could write a blog post refuting the “Information Philosopher” Bob Doyle’s “Cogito Model” of free will? You did a post on an article written about him several years ago on this blog but you never addressed the detailed version of his two-step model. In it he basically claims that quantum events in the brain allow for alternate possibilities. I don’t agree with him at all, but I would love to see you break down and destroy his model on this blog because his website seems to come up relatively high in search results for free will.


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